Holly Furneaux, Dickensian, Dickens fantasy, and hope

Holly Furneaux is Professor in English at Cardiff University and literary advisor on Dickensian. Her books include Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities (Oxford University Press, 2009), and her next book, Military Men of Feeling: Emotion, Touch and Masculinity in the Crimean War (Oxford University Press) will be out in spring 2016.

Dickensian, a new BBC drama in 20 half-hour instalments, opens with a series of character silhouettes; both familiar and unfamiliar, these uncanny shadows invite viewers to project features onto the blanked-out outlines. The sequence replicates the creative process of Dickensian for the audience, encouraging us to draw on prior acquaintance with Dickens characters – relationships established through a variety of reading, viewing and cultural practices – and on our imaginative visions of what these characters might do when freed from the plots in which they originally appeared. Dickensian is part of a long and thriving tradition of often deeply felt engagement with Dickens beyond the page, a mode of relationship Dickens fostered through serial publication, his own repurposing of characters, embodiment of his work in his public readings, and fascination with counterfactuals.[i]

Creator Tony Jordan has spoken of his personal affinity with Dickens, drawing parallels between their emotional experiences that help to establish a sense of relationship.[ii] I’ve had the pleasures of extending my own relationship with Dickens through my involvement in the series as a literary advisor, together with Robert Douglas Fairhurst. My particular remit has been faithfulness to Dickens’s characterisation, testing potential plot lines and dialogues against the criteria that Dickens could recognise his characters within them. Identifying characters has been a major reported preoccupation of audiences of the first episodes. Responses to my BBC ‘A Cheat’s Guide to Who’s Who’ blog (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/entries/5480f8cd-bdd6-4772-95ca-c2fe47311bbe) and a flurry of email enquiries show the ways in which the series, as we had hoped, is encouraging fresh interactions with Dickens, as reader viewers turn back to favourite novels, introduce friends and family to them, and discover new works.

Now that the initial who’s who puzzles have settled and the scheduling has taken up regular slots on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, Dickensian has the potential to become part of our weekly rhythm. It builds suspense and allows for the proliferation of possible plot lines in the gaps between instalments in ways that were familiar to Victorian serial readers. We may no longer be anxious about the obsessive relationality that serials can inspire; in an 1839 sermon Thomas Arnold anxiously described the possessive qualities of periodical fictions “dwelling upon the mind, and distilling themselves into it, as it were drop by drop” “possess[ing] it so largely, colouring even, in its many instances, its very language and affording frequent matter for conversation.”[ii] The potentially counter-cultural pleasures of dwelling with Dickens persist, however, in the imaginative freeplay in the gaps between instalments. Serials formally demonstrate the possible proliferation of plot lines – flagged by Dickensian especially in the wealth of characters with a motive for killing Jacob Marley – inciting provisional responses that demonstrate the arbitrariness of any plot closure. While advising on Dickensian my other Dickens activities have included completing a serial reading of Our Mutual Friend, tweeting as part of the project’s community as my own favourite character from that novel, and researching the thriving world of current Dickens fan fiction (see Dickens inspired fanworks at archiveofourown.org and fanfiction.net).[iii] Little wonder that my focus has turned to the particular pleasures and potentials of creative interaction with Dickens.


Serial reading, fan fiction and Dickensian have in common a productive disregard of narrative closure. Pleasures are generated by the embrace of the provisional, multiple, the unknowable, ambiguous and contradictory. Instead of seeking the illusory consolations of a single, resolvable, closable plot line, these practices, instead, delight in the possibilities of the spaces in between. As Ben Winyard puts it in a reflection on reading Dickens by parts, “the serialised novel gives us formal spaces or gaps between instalments that encourage the proliferation of imaginative surpluses”, “spaces that facilitate discussion, analysis, ambiguity, deviation and fantasy.”[iv] While Dickensian valuably takes us back and introduces us to Dickens’s writing, it also, for me crucially, involves viewers in a new creative relationship with Dickens’s work. Ultimately, its energies are less about a focusing-in on who’s who than about an exploration of the limits of the possible.


I’ve been mulling a body of work (sometimes called reparative criticism) that advocates non-dualistic, exploratory rather than conclusive thought, and calls for the counter-cultural politics of being, as Rebecca Solnit puts it, “producers rather than consumers of meaning, of the slow, the meandering, the digressive, the exploratory, the numinous, the uncertain.”[v] Sonit finds “grounds for hope” in recognitions “that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly”. While admitting my bias and recognising a combination of commercial and creative impetuses for the series, I feel that the unlikely has transpired in the scale, risk, ambition, and care for Dickens’s work in Dickensian. And the imaginative inventiveness of both creators and viewers of this series, taking its place alongside a long and thriving tradition of Dickens mash-ups and reinventions from Dickens’s day to ours, is a demonstration of ways in which the “unimaginable transpire[s] quite regularly.” For me, then, in an in an end-point driven cultural context (in Higher Education and more broadly) Dickensian and expansive imaginative projects like it offer forms of hope in which the exploration, and creative spaces in between are valued at least as much as the conclusion.


I’d love to know what you think. How is Dickensian shaping your impressions of Dickens, of serials, of fanworks?

[i] I expand upon the ways in which Dickens dreamed Dickensian (to adapt a phrase put to such valuable conceptual use by Grahame Smith in Dickens and the Dream of Cinema) or at least inaugurated some of its processes of character repurposing and explorations of counterfactuals in ‘5 reasons why Dickens and his Victorian fans would love Dickensian’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/44ybbTvvbRx0xjwWqq66gCx/5-reasons-why-dickens-and-his-victorian-fans-would-love-dickensian

[ii] See, for example, ‘A Dickens of a Mash Up’, The Times, 26 December 2015.

[iii] Thomas Arnold, quoted by Sarah Winter, The Pleasures of Memory: Learning to Read with Charles Dickens (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), p. 87.

[iv] See https://dickensourmutualfriend.wordpress.com for Birkbeck’s Our Mutual Friend serial reading and accompanying twitter project. Together with other participants I discuss the experience in a special issue of 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 21 (2015), www.19.bbk.ac.uk

[v] Ben Winyard, ‘“May We Meet Again”: Rereading the Dickensian Serial in the Digital Age’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 21 (2015), www.19.bbk.ac.uk

[vi] Rebecca Solnit, ‘Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable’, New Yorker, 24 April 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/woolfs-darkness-embracing-the-inexplicable. Works I’ve found particularly suggestive in thinking through reparative practices are Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003) and Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2012). For a useful description of reparative criticism as “a post-Foucauldian model of criticism based on the complexity and interdependence of power and resistance, coupled with an awareness that aesthetic expression is never monolithic and unambiguous” see Cathy Davidson and Jessamyn Hatcher, eds, No More Separate Spheres (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 14.


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