Sambudha Sen. London, Radical Culture, and the Making of the Dickensian Aesthetic. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1192-2. Price: US$44.95.[Record]

  • Ben Moore

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  • Ben Moore
    University of Manchester

Sambudha Sen’s goal in this book is to trace the development of what he calls the “Dickensian aesthetic,” or sometimes the “urban aesthetic,” which he sees as marking out Charles Dickens’s fundamental difference from realist writers of the mid-nineteenth century. In this respect, William Makepeace Thackeray acts as a foil to Charles Dickens throughout, his writing providing an example of the middle-class realism from which Dickens departs in favor of a radical and popular means of expression. Sen is wary of this comparison becoming a means of denigrating Thackeray, however: “I have no interest,” he says, “in constituting Thackeray as Dickens’s discredited other” (11). The distinction Sen makes between the two writers is, though, expressive both implicitly and explicitly of a basic class difference between them, with Thackeray taking the internal world of the English middle-classes as the proper and natural subject of the novel in a way Dickens does not. This is despite Thackeray’s own involvement with radical satire in the pages of Punch: evidence, Sen notes, of his “deeply divided relationship with the print market” (6). Thackeray is willing on the one hand to defend magazine writing as a necessary means of earning a living, while on the other hand maintaining a belief in the aesthetic superiority of “the sentiment of reality” (7) that he sought to capture in his novels. This is markedly different from Dickens’s novelistic technique, which provoked a snobbery that can be identified in the mid-Victorian quarterly press, and which Sen reads as a sign of anxiety among “the educated and the cultivated” (61) about Dickens’s introduction of radical forms of print and visual culture into the novel. Dickens refuses, in effect, to separate out different forms of writing; just as, according to Sen’s later chapters, he refuses to neatly separate out the different parts of the city. Sen’s argument about the development of a Dickensian aesthetic falls into two main strands. The first, which covers the opening two chapters, builds on Sally Ledger’s Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination (2007) to analyse the ways in which the radical political tropes of the early nineteenth century, as found in the satirical output of William Hone, William Cobbett, Douglas Jerrold, and George Cruikshank, find their way into Dickens’s writing of the 1840s and 1850s. The second, and more substantial part, is pursued in chapters three to six, which consider how a popular tradition of visual representations of London going back to Hogarth is of central importance to Dickens’s portrayal of the capital. Chapter One examines the “language of radicalism” in the London of the 1810s and 20s, suggesting that many satirical and caricatural attacks on the political establishment during this period—such as Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built (1819) or Cruikshank’s portraits of George IV—were articulated not as realistic depictions of individuals, but as ways of drawing distinctions between different social groups and classes, and especially of highlighting the arbitrary nature of symbols of power. In one of the most suggestive parts of the chapter, Sen teases apart two contradictory tendencies in English dissident thought: the first, dating back at least to Thomas Paine, a “suspicion that icons and emblems, metaphors and figures were vehicles of mystification” (22), and the second the use of an “allegorical mode” (23) of satire which turned such icons and emblems into tools for radical critique. Sen finds both tendencies at work simultaneously in Jerrold’s story of the “Woky Poky Indians,” an allegorical tale whose purpose is to point to the arbitrary nature of the symbols that legitimize political power (23). Chapter Two extends this discussion, looking particularly …