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It has now become professional as well as popular commonsense to say that Charles Dickens is our contemporary. In the words of the website “The Dickens Project,” Dickens’s “concern with social and environmental issues…makes him very much a writer for our own time, partly because he is so much a writer of his own time.” Eileen Gillooly and Deirdre David, the editors of Contemporary Dickens, agree. They argue that the special appeal of Dickens, that “great precursor of Modernity” in “the popular consciousness and the literary tradition,” both “English” and “international,” is due to “his having himself personally ruminated upon so many of the social problems, values, and ways of knowing that currently engross us” (1). Contemporary Dickens takes the pervasive presentism of this approach not as a problem for criticism—there is no hint that it might be—but as an opportunity for fresh thinking. Through new writing on Dickens their volume aims to “disclose the nineteenth-century origins of many of those issues which currently absorb us” (2).
As Deborah Epstein Nord reminds us in her chapter, Dickens was not always the “brilliant and prescient literary figure” he has now become. Modernists generally regarded him as the author of “sentimental, undisciplined fictions” (264). To stand up for Dickens as a great novelist in the 1920s was to put one’s aesthetic judgement on the line. No longer: today it is de rigeur to pair him with Jane Austen, as Lionel Trilling did in 1952, as one of “the two greatest novelists of England” (265). Gillooly and David want to go further. They point to Dickens’s important contributions as “novelist, reformer, activist, ethicist, psychologist, anthropologist, and biographical subject—in the critical reassessments being undertaken across the disciplines” (3). Not shy of making triumphalist claims for his own work, it would surely be one more feather in Dickens’s cap that he should be seen posthumously to anticipate our current woes, while accommodating a half-century of shifts and turns in academic fashions. The question remains as to whether the excellent assembled essays in Contemporary Dickens support this hyperbolic assessment.
The collection makes its most extended case for Dickens as a contributor to ethical debate. George Levine opens this topic with a thoughtful, broadly-based meditation on secularism and the Victorian novel. Levine distinguishes between the ways in which nineteenth-century scientific discovery put pressure on religious explanation, while the developing secular epistemology of the novel form leads it to “resist the pressures of the moral and sometimes explicitly religious energies that drive the narrative” (14). An illuminating reading of Little Dorrit (1855-57) elaborates on these tensions and paradoxes. Triggered by Levine’s alarm that the healthy scepticism of the Victorians is going out of fashion, the essay confines current debates on secularity to the footnotes. Continuing the theme of the secular and the sacred in “Dickens and the Goods,” Robert Newsom explores the competing and combining influences of Utilitarianism, its critics, and varieties of Victorian Christianity on the “ethical force” of Dickens’s judgemental style (36). This contextual material is suggestive, but a scattershot of examples only confirms Dickens’s eclecticism and inconsistency in relation to it. Newsom’s failure to comment on the ethics of his opening example, a light-hearted early sketch announcing Dickens’s detestation of the “red-headed and red-whiskered Jews” of the Holywell Street second-hand clothing trade does not auger well for an analysis that makes no distinction between “ethical and moral” judgements, and pays scant lip service to twenty-first century relevance (35). Using Bleak House (1852-53) as her central text, Nancy Yousef argues that Dickens’s fiction “exposes crucial problems within ethical theories” of sympathy and the moral sense inherited from the eighteenth century, principally from Shaftesbury and Hume (55). But her relegation to a footnote of Adam Smith, whose unsentimental discussion of sympathy and its dangers was hugely influential on later uses of the category, skews the genealogy she is constructing. John Bowen believes that Dickens is “with Proust” of the “great poets” of “not forgetting” (78). Dickens’s Christmas story The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848) with its uncanny doubles, echoes and contributes to mid-nineteenth-century psychological theories of memory while reaching forward to Sigmund Freud’s thinking on the relationship between memory and traumatic past events. Bowen’s subtle analysis of Dickensian ethics suggests that they are characterized, in The Haunted Man at least, by the way Dickens combines an exploration of personal memory with questions of our social and ethical obligation to others.
Interesting as they are in their own right, these essays do not reveal Dickens as more or less concerned with moral or ethical questions than his novelist contemporaries. Nor do they, except as an unargued assumption, make his issues, ethical or otherwise, ours in anything but the most banal sense: Karen Chase and Michael Levenson ask “Was Dickens Green?” and seek to align him by implication—through a creative reading of his fiction—with the mid-century Open Spaces campaign, but the connections are tenuous and they fail to convince us that his metaphorical “environmentalism” helped to jump-start or explain the movement today. Dickens’s fans might like to think of him as a proto-feminist, and Deirdre David is surely right to see Little Dorrit’s enraged women—Tattycoram, Miss Wade, Mrs. Clennam, Mr. F’s Aunt—and the real-life and very angry Caroline Norton inhabiting not only the same conjuncture, but also a shared discursive space; but not even the most artful critical move can make Little Dorrit’s aggressive misogyny, however enjoyable to the reader, more politically or ethically palatable. In an otherwise finely-tuned essay, this is a jarring note. Joseph Childers neatly juxtaposes Victorian and twenty-first century anxieties about Christmas, materialism and Englishness; his nuanced discussion highlights their radical disjunction as much as their connection.
Where the essays in the collection best suggest contemporary relevance, they do so by the time-honored method of using twentieth-century theory to explore aspects of Dickens’s work. Levine and Bowen do this with high seriousness and a light touch, as do Elaine Freedgood and Tatiana M. Holway. Freedgood moves skilfully between Dickens, Guy Debord and Karl Marx, suggesting that a distinction needs to be made between Victorian “thing culture” and “commodity culture”; the critique of the latter has been vulgarized and even commodified, she thinks, by the lack of nuance in twentieth-century attacks on materialism. Holway amuses and enlightens in an evocative essay on Dickens, paper money, authenticity and literary capitalism.
A whole set of acute, resonant pieces, including Nord on the shifts and changes in Dickens criticism, Gillooly on the paradoxes of Dickensian paternity in text and life, and David in “Little Dorrit’s Theatre of Rage” are unashamedly, and properly, historical or historicist, and this focus on the past is where the strength of the collection—and of Dickens criticism today, as yesterday—really lies. Yet what is all too contemporary in recent Dickens scholarship, and what is explicit in the framing of the collection (if only tacitly assumed in a few individual pieces), is the isolation of his achievement and significance from that of his fellow Victorians so that he becomes the age rather than being a player in it. The ongoing ratcheting up of his reputation through increasingly debatable claims for his omniscience about everything that matters then and now speaks to a curious underlying anxiety among critics, in part about Dickens’s status, but much more about that of English literature and those who teach and write about it.
Cora Kaplan is Honorary Professor of English at Queen Mary, University of London and Emerita Professor of English at Southampton University. Her most recent book is Victoriana-History, Fictions, Criticism (2007). She is a General Editor (with Jennie Batchelor) of a new ten volume series from Palgrave, The History of British Women’s Writing.