Review of 'The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens'

April 16, 2021

By Joesph McLaughlin, Ohio University 

This article, "Review of The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens ed. by Robert L. Patten et al.," originally appeared in Victorian Studies, vol. 63 no. 1, Autumn 2020, p. 117-119. Written by Joseph McLaughlin, and available to institutional subscribers at Project MUSE,



front_cover.jpgThe esteemed editors of The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens are to be congratulated for assembling a body of work that will prove informative and provocative for both lifelong Dickensians and newcomers to his works. This prodigious effort—forty-nine essays plus an introduction, timeline, and family tree—grew out of the press’s desire to contribute to the 2012 bicentenary celebration of Charles Dickens’s birth, performing the “work of mapping the new Dickens terrain,” as Juliet John suggests in the volume’s final essay (756). The volume’s comprehensiveness is Dickensian in itself, with essays organized into five sections: “Personal and Professional Life” (four essays), “The Works” (twenty), “The Socio-Historical-Contexts” (seventeen), “The Literary and Cultural Contexts” (four), and “Dickens Re-Visioned” (four). However, the Oxford Handbook pushes well beyond the aims of a typical reference work, making good on the promise on its first page that each essay is “innovative and original” (1). While most of the essays are written by eminent scholars, none simply rehash previously published work but instead offer novel readings of texts and contexts, surveying existing criticism, often with impressive thoroughness, extending the critical conversation, and suggesting directions for future work.

Rosemarie Bodenheimer’s “Biographical Dickens,” the first essay, deliberately avoids an encyclopedic chronology, focusing instead on “the two most contested episodes in Dickens’s life, his stint as a child labourer at Warrens’s Blacking in 1824, and the breakup of his marriage to Catherine Hogarth Dickens in 1858” (10). Although she packs quite a bit of biographical information into the essay, Bodenheimer’s argument about the contest over the meaning of these two incidents in the biographical tradition, including Dickens’s communications with John Forster, is convincing about the ways in which Dickens himself worked actively to shape his own biography and control the meanings of key events in it. Offering more than a standard biography, the essay provides instead a critical apparatus with which to query biographical texts past, present, and future, something much richer than what the reference-sounding “handbook” of the volume’s title led me to expect.

Sometimes, these arguments or focused readings border on the idiosyncratic. To illustrate, Ian Duncan’s intriguing contribution on Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) uses Silas Wegg and Jenny Wren to discuss a historical moment of transition between the ballad or folk culture tradition and the emergent anthropological turn toward more comparative readings of fairy tales. In this, Duncan argues, the novel anticipates E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Cultures (1871), a work usually taken to signal this shift. I found the argument fascinating, but the line of analysis left out so much of the novel. Another example is Mary Hammond’s discussion of Great Expectations (1860–61) as an early example of multiplatform publishing, particularly in reprintings in the regional press and local newspapers, archives that increasingly can be accessed because of digitization. Entries such as these are “original and innovative,” but lack the more comprehensive scope of essays like Kate Flint’s on Bleak House (1852–53), which surveys the extensive scholarship on the novel and incorporates many of its characters and subplots, all organized around the novel’s dialectic of obscurity and interpretation, expansion and containment. This is not to say that the latter essay is more appropriate to the volume, but readers who turn to the handbook for the entries on the individual works need to be prepared to encounter some essays that attempt to provide a more comprehensive overview and others that pull on one or a few intriguing threads.

Three overlapping themes give shape to the Handbook’s multiplicity. First, the editors have selected a strong network of essays to map the existing terrain of Dickens scholarship on the individual works (including the journalism) and a full range of historical and cultural contexts. Many of the essays trace shifts in critical foci over the last generation, articulating distinctions between late-twentieth-century reading strategies and those now current. To cite one example, Allen MacDuffie’s contribution on “Dickens and the Environment” delineates how Dickens was at first largely ignored by first-generation ecocritics primarily interested in depictions of unspoiled nature; given some attention later as environmental criticism expanded to consider issues of sanitation and the urban world; and then becoming more central once “his interest in representing a complexly interdependent world” (573) aligned with analyses in which the “definition of what might count as an ecologically significant textual moment begins to broaden” (574).

A second resonant and abiding theme of the volume is Dickens as a global phenomenon, in essays that highlight Dickens’s treatment of racial others and the presence of an imperial and global commodity culture throughout the corpus of his works. Paul Young’s “Dickens’s World-System: Globalized Modernity as Combined and Uneven Development” was one of my favorites. In Young’s dialectical reading, Dickens gives “fictional, frictional form to a nation that was working variously, awkwardly but forcefully to move goods, peoples, technologies, services, finances, and ideas around the world,” opposing “the uneven capitalist modernity at home at the same time as he naturalized and energized expansionist imperatives and attitudes that underpinned Britain’s dominant position within an uneven world system” (720). The volume also provides a fascinating look at how Dickens continues to circulate and be strategically adapted globally. Regenia Gagnier reports on her work for The Global Circulation Project of Literature Compass and persuasively argues that we “abandon terms like ‘influence,’ ‘originality,’ and ‘impact’ in favour of circulation, transculturation, appropriation, use, revoicing, reaccentuation, indigenization, and (re)mediation” (723).

A final theme involves the transformative possibilities for scholarship and teaching offered by digitization. Where Hammond’s essay renders the question “What is Great Expectations?” far more complicated than analysis limited to considering the novel’s two different endings or even the difference between reading in weekly serial or volume form, Hazel Mackenzie’s “Journalism and Correspondence” highlights the new directions made possible by initiatives like Dickens Journals Online, expanding the availability and the usability of the archive beyond a relatively small number of reprinted essays. For Mackenzie, digitization gives us a portrait of “a more complex, multifarious Dickens” (325), one involved in more collaborative ventures, a finding which “challenges readers to tackle the difficulties of multi-authorship across platforms” (330–31). Multimedia Dickens is attended to as well: fine essays by John Glavin and Helen Groth explore Dickens’s theatrical and visual representation, respectively; Sharon Aronofsky Weltman considers Dickens in the new media of film, radio, and television, while the new-new media of the internet age receives careful attention from John.

As might be expected, the bibliographic resources of this ambitious volume are immense. Most of that information is contained in the footnotes of the individual essays, each of which concludes by offering a few resources for further reading; the volume contains no comprehensive bibliography. This is understandable in a volume that already runs to more than 800 pages, but may disappoint those who want to use it as a quick reference source. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the volume is its optimistic attitude about the possibilities for new scholarship generated by emerging technology, emergent critical approaches, and overdue attention to systematically ignored cultural locations. Most of the volume’s authors took up the editors’ challenge to sketch out potential paths for future work on the texts or contexts for which they were responsible. Thus, the Oxford Handbook does not simply document a robust tradition of scholarly accomplishment on the occasion of Dickens’s bicentenary, but instead testifies to a relevance that would appear to be vigorous and inexhaustible.

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