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Sally Ledger. Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-521-84577-9. Price: US$104 (£53.00)

  • Joseph W. Childers

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  • Joseph W. Childers
    University of California, Riverside

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Early on the morning of January 22, 2009, I sat down at my computer to begin my day in the now routine fashion of most academics—by attending to my email. At the top of my priorities list was to write to RaVoN to inform the editors that my review of Sally Ledger's new book was nearly complete and would soon be wending its electronic way to the journal well in advance of the (revised) deadline. I noticed that I had several messages waiting to be read. The very first email I opened was about a nascent research group on Dickens and Science, which mentioned Sally's name as someone who had been one of the first to sign on as member. The next in my queue was from a colleague in my own department and, as if in concert with the morning's theme, had "Sally Ledger" as its subject line. When I opened it, I learned that Sally had died, suddenly and without warning, the night before. As the news spread and messages echoing shock and sadness appeared throughout the day, the impact she had on so many people became ever more apparent. As a student, colleague, mentor, friend, Sally’s generosity of spirit, the tenacity of her will, and the breadth of her intellect set her apart. Even those who had never met Sally remarked on how much her passing would affect the Victorianist community. I did not know Sally well—we had shared a meal or two as part of a larger group, had chatted once or twice over drinks at receptions, and had been in residence at the Dickens Project together on two separate occasions. Thus, I was a bit taken aback by how deeply I was touched by her death. More than saddened by the loss of someone in her prime, someone whom I knew to be a devoted mother and partner, someone loved and respected by so many, I felt as though I had lost a close, cherished friend, someone I knew much better than I seemed to know Sally Ledger.

When I returned to the draft of my review of Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination some time later, I realized that the loss I was feeling had been fostered at least partly by the time I had spent with this book. In my own mind I had been engaging with Ledger, and imagined that I had gained some insight into her methods of analysis, her intellectual passions, and her humor. Rightly or wrongly, I felt I knew Sally Ledger better for having read her book. Direct to a fault in its prose, her study is unabashedly historicist and sets out to reclaim Dickens for popular radical culture, flying directly in the faces of a host of literary historians and critics, beginning with Humphrey House. Ledger insists on rescuing Dickens from the suffocating embrace of the middle classes and their legacy of well-meaning, if often ineffectual, critique. As she says, though she would admit the importance of such radical antecedents to Dickens as W.J. Fox, William Howitt, and Percy Bysshe Shelly, she also wants “simultaneously to propose an altogether less respectable, more truly disruptive, more popular radical genealogy” (2; original emphasis).

She begins this reclamation project by focusing on two of the terms upon which her argument rests: “popular” and “radical.” Fully aware of the vexed history of the usage of each, Ledger carefully plots out her position. For instance, she tells us that she follows “Arnold Kettle in closely allying ‘popular’ literature to a political concept of ‘the People.’” This is especially important in understanding the Dickens about which Ledger is writing, for Kettle’s conception of “popular”—particularly in relation to Dickens—connotes “a specific force in contradistinction to those who rule” (4). Thus for Ledger, as for Kettle, the notion of “popular” has the theoretical weight of hegemony without access to the fonts of legitimized power. Indeed, it establishes itself against such power, thus producing a cultural matrix that has the potential for both oppositional and subversive interaction with “those who rule.” As Ledger further points out, taking up an earlier argument by Patrick Joyce, the social vision entailed in popular radicalism in early nineteenth-century England did not center in class conflict, so much as the conceptions of “democracy” and “freedom” which informed that discourse. For Ledger, this is the tradition in which we should frame Dickens’s work, and it allows her to carry forward the theoretical work pioneered by scholars such as Patrick Joyce and Gareth Stedman Jones, who regard class as the discursive practice through which identity is formed rather than as simply the “economic category determined by one’s relationship to the means of production” (4).

Ledger’s discussion of “radical” is equally historically informed and nuanced. She recognizes the protean nature of the term in the nineteenth century, and moves quickly from Byron, who was confused by it, wondering if it means “uprooting” in the political vocabulary, to Thomas Wooler, the political satirist who in a trial parody has Lord Canning comment that “radical” means “everything that is bad,” to mid-career Dickens, who uses the term in Little Dorrit to satirize a fossilized upper class that resented any sort of challenge to its system of government or any suggestion of change. For the purpose of her study, Ledger uses “popular radical” to denote the culture, politics, and indeed the aesthetics (above all satire and melodrama) of a specific set of writers of the Regency period, writers such as Wooler, William Hone, and William Cobbett. While such an approach may seem to focus primarily on the aesthetic characteristics of the popular radical imagination, and, with its particular Joyce/Jones conception of class perhaps even to invest too heavily in the discursive, Ledger forthrightly announces that the consequences of her study necessarily have further implications, and that the “links between Dickens and the popular radical culture of the early nineteenth century are material as well as aesthetic” (9)—an assertion she fascinatingly returns to throughout her book.

In some ways it is a bit difficult to actually pinpoint the role of Dickens in this study. By no means do I intend this as a pejorative comment; rather, I think it speaks to the thoroughness of the kind of cultural criticism taking place in Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination. All roads ultimately lead to Dickens in this work; but they are interesting, less well-worn routes, and the scenery along the way is often surprising. So too is Ledger’s starting point. While she does indeed fix upon satire and parody as importantly informative for Dickens, she moves considerably forward from the usual late-eighteenth-century, Smollet-infused beginnings. Her first chapter, then, focuses on two of the Regency’s most important events for the radical culture of that period: the Peterloo Massacre and the Queen Caroline affair. In her reading of William Hone and George Cruikshank’s 1819 pamphlet, The Political House that Jack Built, a work that viciously lampoons the Prince Regent along with Sidmouth, Canning, Gifford and Wellington, Ledger neatly comments on both the use of the nursery rhyme form and the authors’ deployment of melodramatic tropes, while also pointing to the overall significance of this publication. For instance, The Political House established Cruikshank, only nineteen at the time, as an important fixture on the radical literary scene. It also reached an enormous number of people, selling over 100,000 copies within a few months, despite its expensive 1 shilling price, and quickly went to fifty-four editions. Indeed, the publication became a kind of standard of popular radical literature and was widely imitated. Cheap bowdlerized versions were made available by James Catnach, even further broadening the satire’s influence. Its send up of the Prince Regent helped to formulate a stereotype of the Regency dandy that we see later in the century in Bleak House’s old Turveydrop (whose son, coincidentally, is named “Prince”).

Also revealing are Ledger’s accounts of the various broadsides and pamphlets published around the Queen Caroline Affair in 1820, and William Cobbett’s involvement in fanning the flames of discontent surrounding that scandal. At stake, finally, in this analysis is her contention that rather than the radicalism of Peterloo being overwhelmed and supplanted by a “diversionary populist romantic and sentimental aesthetic generated by the Queen Caroline Affair” (38) (as some such as Thomas Laqueur have argued), Peterloo’s radical agenda combined with the populist impulse of the Queen Caroline literature. For Ledger, this set the stage for a popular radical aesthetic that persists well into the middle of the nineteenth century and is easily identifiable in the works of writers as varied as Dickens, Douglas Jerrold, and Chartist authors like Ernest Jones.

By beginning her narrative in such a way, Ledger does nothing to dim the brightness of Dickens in the mid-nineteenth-century literary firmament. But she also helps us to see that he has a place in a number of constellations, and she traces this particular one much more clearly than any of her predecessors. As a result, while there are excellent chapters on Dickens’ early journalistic work, on Oliver Twist, and on the Christmas Books, Ledger never loses sight either of the matrix of popular political opinion that contributes to Dickens’ work at any particular place in his early career, or of those with whom Dickens shares the literary tradition she is outlining. Consequently, her analysis of the 1840s writings of Douglas Jerrold and Ernest Jones—each of whom gets considerable attention in this work—is absolutely apropos of the argument she makes about cultural work of the popular radical imagination during that decade. Rather than painting Dickens as forever fettered by his bourgeois desires, bereft of a systematic social vision, and reluctant to take any real class risks, Ledger portrays him as part of the same aesthetic and political legacy as Jones and Jerrold, and ultimately much more radical—in the sense in which she uses the term—than he is typically depicted. This, to my mind, is part of the success of this book. Its very revisionism insists upon putting aside our received conceptions of who—and perhaps more importantly how—Dickens was as a shaper and participant in the popular radical imagination of the early and mid-Victorian period.

It is because Ledger is willing to make this move that her readings of Bleak House and Little Dorrit are so refreshing. Her focus in her reading of the former on what she calls Dickens’s “dialogue with melodrama” and in the latter on the satire which is underscored by Dickens’s own despair over the possibility of political progress implicitly lays the groundwork for the darkness of Our Mutual Friend. For, as Ledger puts it, Little Dorrit heralds the “death of melodrama” for Dickens. She points out:

In a traditional melodrama the death of Rigaud would signify the restoration of moral order. In Little Dorrit, though, it is no longer able to perform such a function. Rigaud is an embodiment of pure evil and his villainy is clearly written on his body, a traditional melodramatic device in one of the most bodily of aesthetic modes. But the evil that Dickens saw all around him in the middle of the 1850s was not always so tangible nor so easily purged…


Perhaps it is at this point that Dickens’ unease with the popular radical imagination begins to manifest itself most prominently, and perhaps this is why Ledger chooses to end her own book with a reading of Little Dorrit, a novel that did not enjoy a warm critical reception. Yet true to her argument, Ledger is not eager to reach that conclusion, proclaiming instead that “the discrepancy between the critical and the public reception of Little Dorrit would seem to suggest that the intelligentsia of the 1850s was somewhat out of step with the cultural interests and political concerns of ‘the People’ whom Dickens was addressing. It is utterly characteristic of the novelist himself that he was not” (232).

Thus does Sally Ledger end her book, and say good-bye to us. In frustration, I can do no better than to wish her peace and to thank her, too late, for her gifts to us all. And as I return to the world of “the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain,” who fret and chafe, and make “their usual uproar,” I will recall with fondness and pleasure the chance I had to get to know her a little bit better by reading this book.