‘[T]he Dickensesque run mad’: Continuities and Ruptures in the History of the ‘Dickensian’

This blog post reflects on Dickens’s legacy as captured in the term ‘Dickensian’, from early uses of the term to what the events of 2020 might mean for study of his afterlife. It also introduces a new open access edited collection, Dickens After Dickens (White Rose UP, 2020), which explores some of the forms in which Dickens’s influence has manifested from the nineteenth century to the present, from his influence on writers including Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, William Faulkner and Donna Tartt to The Wire.

It’s fascinating to do a periodic deep dive into what the modern press has decided is deserving of the adjective ‘Dickensian’. Over the three years between the ‘After Dickens’ conference I organised at the University of York and the publication of the edited collections arising from that conference, Dickens After Dickens, I’ve performed the search many times. Simultaneously, I’ve stumbled upon new nineteenth- and twentieth-century ruminations on the same topic in the course of my research, usually serendipitously. Most recently, I came across this formulation from W. H. Auden:

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, “This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens,” but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognises as Kafkaesque, while one would never call an experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian.[1]

In Auden’s essay, Dickens is one of several tangential considerations on the path to a better understanding of the literary art of Franz Kafka, whom Auden terms the “master of the pure parable” (159). ‘Dickensian’ is thus something to be positioned against, rather than a definable quality. But is it true (was it ever)? Is the argument that we wouldn’t describe our own experience in those terms, but might use the word to describe the lives of others? It’s a broad and contentious claim to make in passing, but it’s echoed in many instances of the ‘Dickensian’ in public discourse which, in 2020, is filled with outrage at the possibility of living Dickensian lives. These pick up on the implications of Auden, rather than the argument; though many of them focus exactly on this question of Dickensian experience, they do so to highlight that this is something unimaginable, something which should not be. If we ever are living Dickensian experiences, it means there’s something wrong.

In the introduction to Dickens After Dickens, I similarly took a handful of examples of ‘Dickensian’ in order to probe its cultural cachet. Uses of the term in 2020 remain broad and vague, with contemporary examples ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again: the owners of Plymouth Albion Rugby Union Football Club derided a points deduction as ‘Dickensian authoritarian arrogance’;[2] the upcoming third instalment of Bill & Ted has a ‘Dickensian plot’ which is a ‘piss-take on Dickens of going back into your life and finding that each iteration of your life was even worse than the previous’;[3] ‘Covid existence’ during the COVID-19 pandemic is described as having ‘a Dickensian feel alright, from increasing social inequality across the globe to nefarious characters in positions of power’;[4] Australian universities face ‘Dickensian conditions’ in the future if international students aren’t able to come to the country due to ongoing lockdown restrictions and pandemic fears;[5] and the ‘60 corpses a year’ dragged from the depths of the Thames are ‘positively Dickensian’.[6]

The underlying assumption within these examples is that, in the spirit if not the letter of Auden, Dickensian experience shouldn’t exist in an ideal world. Dickens himself is trapped by his own adjective in the ‘before’ state of his calls for social reform, so we’re left with the un- or anti-Dickensian referring to a vague something of which Dickens would be more likely to approve: better conditions in prisons,[7] better schools, improved systems of fairness. There is simultaneously a feeling of potentiality and an air of risk. The Australian anti-Dickensian university is one that embraces and benefits from international students. The anti-Dickensian river doesn’t take life (though of course in Our Mutual Friend there is a focus on only one corpse, and actually there is a living to be made on the river, rather than the river of death in Boyd’s example).

What interests me now, slightly differently from when I penned the introduction, is that all of this name-calling boils down to a fear about emulation – present even in the facetious Bill & Ted example, which offers a world in which you might try to learn from your past, Scrooge-like, but ultimately make the present and the future worse, not better. None of them invoke Dickens or his works literally, though there are allusions to specific novels (A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Our Mutual Friend). We can also see in all of them that the sense is derived from his works, rather than the man himself. None of them refer, as Auden suggests they should, to characters, in specific or even general terms. Of course, ‘Scrooge’ has passed into common parlance as a term for anyone exhibiting miserly behaviour, and Dickens’s characters have had enduring and surprising afterlives,[8] but these are largely separate considerations from the weightiness of the ‘Dickensian’.

A return to some of the earliest uses of ‘Dickensian’, and the initial fluctuations between ‘Dickensish’ and ‘Dickensesque’, reveal similar concerns about imitation, though directed another way. Many of these early instances are reviews of novels written by writers who either worked for Dickens at his journals, or admired him from afar: in an unsigned review of the novel London’s Heart by Benjamin Farjeon, for example, Farjeon is criticised for having characters who are ‘Dickensish oddities’ in a book that has ‘attempted too much’, in its ‘[endeavour] to use his undoubted power as a novelist to expose and castigate […] evils’.[9] George Augustus Sala’s Seven Sons of Mammon is ‘the Dickensesque run mad’ in terms of style.[10] A novel by another of Dickens’s ‘young men’ (and sub-editor), William Henry Wills, has the ‘genuine Dickensian stamp’ of ‘a due admixture of abuse of the Circumlocution Office, and sneers at the want of taste among the middle classes of his own countrymen’.[11] Even Dickens must have feared to live up to his own adjectives, with The Standard and Glasgow Herald noting in 1859, with relief, that though ‘[t]he Dickensesque has been changed in no inconsiderable degree into the style of the modern French school’,[12] his style still ‘contains bits of Dickensian humour equal to the great master’s happiest efforts’.[13] A pointed letter to the editor of 26 July 1862, ‘Literary Shoddy’, sums up these concerns, bemoaning ‘the trick of imitating here and there in the course of an article, the peculiar, and to my taste ridiculous style’ of Dickens. The complainant draws attention to ‘the essays of the Dickensian staff, and the work of the two Trollopes. To minds of this class it would seem that it was the eccentricities of a great man that made him great’.[14] ‘Dickensian’ appears to have been coined as a way of describing continuities with Dickens’s oeuvre and style, whether in reviews of the author’s later novels and short stories or in the works of younger authors influenced by him. It also seems to have taken on the characteristic of the odd, unusual, or exaggerated; a sort of pastiche of Dickens’s style and characters. Today, the elision of the Victorian with the Dickensian, and the connotations of backwardness, unfairness, squalor and poverty that have joined these words, again find us drawing a line back to Dickens’s works in a search for moments of similarity or as a way of making distinction, though the specifics of style and character are less often alluded to.

In editing Dickens After Dickens, I found myself returning again and again to these ideas of continuity and fracture. The volume is part of an ongoing conversation about the author’s legacy, and follows in the footsteps of Juliet John’s transformational Dickens and Mass Culture (OUP, 2010), building on John’s work through a series of tightly focused examples which explore Dickens’s legacy through different lenses, from urban planning,[15] to TV,[16] stage,[17] and computer screen.[18] John herself contributed the foreword, highlighting the ‘unfathomable’ conjuring trick that ‘seems to underscore not just his characters, but his cultural influence, and indeed the very idea of Dickens’ that, I argue, is so evident in the word ‘Dickensian’ and its lack of specificity.[19] The chapters are, therefore, deliberately wide-ranging, with clusters around gender, neo-Victorianism, and the idea of the ‘Dickensian’ (which I also take on in the introduction), but representing different methodologies and perspectives. Many of the chapters, which take us from the 1830s to 2018, draw parallels and lines that have not previously been drawn, but also show moments of tension and rupture, whether in public perception, or even within the relationship of one writer or one novel to Dickens. The narrative of Dickens’s legacy is thus composed of these moments of attraction and repulsion.

It’s striking that how we might think about Dickens and the Dickensian in academic circles has undergone such a radical transformation this year, and particularly in the three months since Dickens After Dickens was published. There are new pathways of connection being formed: in March, Amy Davidson Sorkin wrote a powerful piece on social distancing in Bleak House;[21] and at the #Dickens150 virtual conference held on 9 June 2020 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the author’s death, participants in a ‘Dickens and Contagion’ roundtable considered a series of passages from his works not only for what they might suggest about the experience of reading Dickens in the midst of a global pandemic, but to show the interconnected realities of social, economic, and health inequalities.[20]

In the same period, there has also been a powerful call to ‘undiscipline’ Victorian Studies from Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff and Amy R. Wong, whose ground-breaking work has the potential to cause a seismic shift in the wider field, encouraging scholars to dismantle readings and understandings of the period that perpetuate its status as a ‘fantasy of an unmarked universality’.[22] The idea that ‘literary classics […] represent a universal human experience’ and the inherent racism in that cultural idea is a defining feature of how the word ‘Dickensian’ is used today,[23] and if Auden’s quotation shows anything, it might be that this elitist view of Victorian fiction has only become more entrenched over time. If Auden wouldn’t have described an experience as Dickensian, the media today cannot seem to help themselves. The earliest examples drew smaller parallels between authors and styles, and Auden notes specific Dickensian character types, but Anglophone media today insists that the ‘Dickensian’ can be universally understood. And yet, the more pressure we put on the word, the more its meaning eludes us (how exactly can a Rugby Union points deduction be Dickensian in any meaningful sense?) ; the word thus offers itself as a prime example of how dangerously easy it is to perpetuate those myths of universality.

I’m aware that I have dealt far too briefly here with the work of Chatterjee, Christoff and Wong. As a white academic, I see my own role as continuing the process of ‘deep reading and learning and listening’;[23] this moment of rupture is not mine, and in mentioning it here I aim to draw attention to important work being done by others. To John’s questions, ‘Is the right concluding question, ultimately, how will Dickens always continue after Dickens, or will Dickens continue after Dickens?’,[24] we might also think again of potentialities and risks, and add ‘How can we ethically continue to read Dickens after Dickens?’. I look forward to the continuation of these conversations beyond 2020.

Dr Emily Bell (@EmilyJLB) is a postdoctoral researcher with a background in Dickens studies, digital humanities, and cultural history. Co-author of a major report which offers a guide to digitised collections of nineteenth-century newspapers around the world, The Atlas of Digitised Newspapers and Metadata, she has also published on Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, literary societies and life writing, with forthcoming publications on mapping conceptual shift across national and linguistic boundaries in the nineteenth century and on how biographers have written about the death of Dickens. Dr Bell is currently co-editing Dickens’s later short fiction for the OUP Oxford Dickens series with Michael Slater, and writing a new biography of Dickens for Reaktion Books. You can download the full edited collection, Dickens After Dickens, for free from White Rose University Press here.

Notes & references

[1] W. H. Auden, ‘The I Without the Self.’ The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1948, p. 160.

[2] Kate Rowan, ‘Plymouth Albion criticise RFU for “Dickensian authoritarian arrogance” over points deduction’, The Telegraph (28 July 2020), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/rugby-union/2020/07/28/plymouth-albion-criticise-rfu-dickensian-authoritarian-arrogance/, accessed 24 August 2020.

[3] Jax Motes, ‘SDCC: Alex Winter Discusses the Dickensian Storyline Of Bill & Ted Face The Music’, Science Fiction (26 July 2020), https://sciencefiction.com/2020/07/26/sdcc-alex-winter-discusses-the-dickensian-storyline-of-bill-ted-face-the-music/, accessed 24 August 2020.

[4] Nick Freer, ‘Crucial lessons from the best and worst of times – comment’, The Scotsman (17 August 2020), https://www.scotsman.com/business/crucial-lessons-best-and-worst-times-comment-2943247, accessed 24 August 2020.

[5] Lydia Lynch, ‘Dickensian conditions’ await future learners if international student income is lost’, Brisbane Times (27 July 2020), https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/politics/queensland/dickensian-conditions-await-future-learners-if-international-student-income-is-lost-20200727-p55fwg.html, accessed 24 August 2020.

[6] William Boyd, ‘William Boyd: how the bodies piled up in literature’s turbulent Thames’, Financial Times (21 August 2020), https://www.ft.com/content/caba2f1b-3623-4ae1-9659-3fd1221255c4, accessed 24 August 2020.

[7] ‘HMP Manchester: “Dickensian” jail “too slow” to improve, report says’, BBC News (19 July 2020), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-48937261, accessed 24 August 2020.

[8] Maureen England has conducted substantial research in this area. See, for example, ‘Collection Highlight: Paper dolls from the Uncommercial Travellers’ Club’, Dickens Museum Blog, 29 February 2016, https://dickensmuseum.com/blogs/charles-dickens-museum/95359558-collection-highlight-paper-dolls-from-the-uncommercial-travellers-club, accessed 24 August 2020.

[9] Unsigned review of London’s Heart by B. L. Farjeon, Bradford Observer 40 (13 March 1874), p. 6.

[10] Unsigned review of Seven Sons of Mammon by George August Sala, Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post (19 June 1861), p. 6.

[11] Unsigned review of Roman Candles by William Henry Wills, The Standard (21 August 1861), p. 6.

[12] Unsigned review of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, The Standarrd (27 December 1859), p. 8.

[13] Unsigned review of ‘The Haunted House’, Glasgow Herald (20 December 1859), p. 4.

[14] ‘Literary Shoddy’, Dundee Courier (26 July 1862), p. 3.

[15] Joanna Hofer-Robinson, ‘“Once upon a time would not prove to be All-time or even a long time.” From Sanitary Reform to Cultural Memory: The Case of Jacob’s Island’, Dickens After Dickens, ed. Emily Bell, York: White Rose UP, 2020, pp. 15-34.

[16] See Claire O’Callaghan, ‘“Awaiting the death blow”: Gendered Violence and Miss Havisham’s Afterlives’, Dickens After Dickens, pp. 83-100; and Laurena Tsudama, ‘Dickensian Realism in The Wire’, Dickens After Dickens, pp. 159-76.

[17] Michael Eaton, ‘Grand Aspirations: Putting Pip on the Stage. Adaptations and Absences’, Dickens After Dickens, pp. 177-96.

[18] Emily Bell, ‘Fictional Dickenses’, Dickens After Dickens, pp. 197-215.

[19] Juliet John, Foreword, Dickens After Dickens, p. vii.

[20] A recording of this discussion can be viewed on the conference website: see Emily Bell and Lydia Craig, ‘#Dickens150 Films’, #Dickens150, https://dickens150.wordpress.com/dickens150-films/, accessed 25 August 2020.

[21] Amy Davidson Sorkin, ‘The Fever Room: Epidemics and Social Distancing in Bleak House and Jane Eyre’, New Yorker (20 March 2020), https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-fever-room-epidemics-and-social-distancing-in-bleak-house-and-jane-eyre, accessed 25 August 2020.

[22] Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff and Amy R. Wong, ‘Undisciplining Victorian Studies’, LA Review of Books (10 July 2020), https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/undisciplining-victorian-studies/, accessed 25 August 2020.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Juliet John, Foreword, Dickens After Dickens, p. xi.

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