'Partial Answers': Review of 'The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens'

June 11, 2021

By Iain Crawford, University of Delaware

This article, "Review of The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens, ed. Robert L. Patten, John O. Jordan, and Catherine Waters," originally appeared in Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, vol. 19 no. 2, June 2021, pp. 379-383. Written by Iain Crawford and available to institutional subscribers at Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/794662. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/pan.2021.0021.



project_muse_794662.jpgResembling a full-length Dickens novel in its more than 800 pages of text and wide array of rich illustrations, The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens includes some 50 essays organized into five sections: Personal and Professional Life; The Works; Socio-Historical Contexts; Literary and Cultural Contexts; and, finally, Dickens Re-visioned. In their introduction, editors Robert Patten, John Jordan, and Catherine Waters define the Handbook’s essential aim as being to “emulate the accessibility, innovativeness, and imaginative interest” (1) their subject inspires, with subordinate goals of providing “ready reference, information . . . and guidance” (2), linking recurring issues and themes among the individual essays, and thereby helping readers around the globe as they explore the connections between Dickens’s age and our own. Through the extraordinary range of its coverage of Dickens and his works, its corps of contributors, and the breadth of approaches gathered within its pages, The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens more than fulfils these ambitions: it offers both an indispensable guide to its subject and a comprehensive aggregation of the many ways in which this most fertile of authors continues to be interpreted, reinvented, and adapted a century and a half after his death.

The opening four essays explore the phenomenon that was Dickens himself. Channeling Peter Ackroyd, Rosemarie Bodenheimer builds on her groundbreaking Knowing Dickens as she examines “the troubled strangeness of the man” (13), considers the curious dynamics between what we know of his life and the various ways in which he reconstructed it through his writing, and, above all, emphasizes “the resilience with which he turned every aspect of his experience into artistic gold” (17). An early instance of the ways in which the volume’s essays seamlessly interconnect immediately follows as Leon Litvack’s essay on Dickens’s reading not only reminds us how voracious and encyclopedic he was but also demonstrates how profoundly he infused other texts into his own writing. One notable instance of this can be seen in the “thousands of allusions” (33) to the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer that are to be found throughout the fiction, and this in turn exemplifies the ways in which the Handbook so often directs our attention to a larger point about a subject that still remains under-explored in Dickens studies. In this instance, that subject is the role of religion in Dickens’s life and work. Litvack, along with other contributors, references the two major books on this topic, by Dennis Walder and Janet Larson, respectively. But both appeared back in the 1980s and, as Jennifer Gribble’s essay later in the volume demonstrates, while there have been numerous smaller projects addressing various aspects of religion in Dickens, space remains for a more comprehensive account of a subject which, if perhaps academically less fashionable, is clearly crucial to our understanding of both the author and his age. This opening section of the Handbook concludes with John Bowen’s telling appraisal of the many ways in which Dickens reshaped the literary profession through his work as both author and editor, and then Tony Williams’s complementary description of the man who became a public figure through not just his professional writing and editing but also his engagement in matters of public interest, such as the purchase of Shakespeare’s house, and his deep and enduring commitment to philanthropic work.

Part II of the Handbook is devoted to a series of essays on each of Dickens’s works, together with chapters on travel, journalism, and children’s literature. Almost uniform in their level of excellence, the individual essays each approach the text with a defined analytical focus, situate their discussion within the established critical conversation around the work, and offer insightful suggestions on potential future directions for study. Among the many fine contributions here a few stand out from the rest: Paul Schlicke’s eloquent case for overcoming the longstanding neglect of Sketches by Boz, a neglect that, as he shows, Dickens himself initiated by his own dismissive comments on these first publications; Kate Flint’s delightful capturing of the ways in which Bleak House “always seems to exceed and challenge” (220) the extraordinarily multitudinous critical readings it has generated, an insight that carries Bodenheimer’s comment on Dickensian fecundity into new directions; and Ian Duncan’s brilliant reading of “the circulation of stories” that underlies Dickens’s representation of the “contending drives — decay and regeneration, entropy, progress” (286) in Our Mutual Friend. Readers of every essay here, however, will come away with an enriched appreciation of the text under discussion and an understanding of the state of critical play around it. An especially valuable aspect of these essays is the multiple perspectives they offer on recurring major issues: in considering Oliver Twist, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Great Expectations, respectively, for example, Galia Benziman, Logan Browning, and Mary Hammond examine the ways in which Dickens explores the new and rapidly evolving phenomenon of 19th-century urban life. If one were to quibble at all with this section, it would only be to regret that Dickens’s two narratives of his time abroad are subsumed into Michael Hollington’s fine essay on travel. While there may also be a case for arguing that Pictures from Italy has been unjustly neglected, given the crucially formative impact of the 1842 visit to America on Dickens and its pivotal role in the development of both his fiction and journalism, an essay devoted to American Notes would have been a valuable addition to the volume.

Part III, focused on the socio-historical contexts, includes 17 essays that range from well-established topics such as gender and sexuality, industry, and social class to newer, less predictable topics, including Jonathan Smith on Dickens and astronomy, biology, and geology, Jennifer McDonnell on Dickens and animal studies, and Helena Michie on drinking in Dickens — an account of a surprisingly understudied subject and one which focuses not so much on Pickwickian tippling but upon the alcoholic forgetting that characterizes Dickensian texts in the way that they “compartmentalize the effects of drinking into particular plots and genres” (601). Whether representative of established issues or those that have become the subject of more recent scholarly attention, however, these 17 essays individually and collectively capture the unrivalled range of ways in which Dickens absorbed the key questions of his day and spoke to them throughout his work. Of particular individual interest are Allen MacDuffie’s superb melding of critical analysis and historical recapitulation in his essay on Dickens and the environment — as he tellingly notes, “Like no writer before or since, Dickens makes palpable the oppressive feel of life lived in intimate contact with various forms of toxic waste” (566) — and Jennifer McDonnell’s exploration of Dickens and animals studies and the novels’ representation of London “as an interdependent network of objects, animals, and humans responding to the exigencies of environment and the pressures of conflicting agencies” (564). Similarly fruitful overlap emerges as Tyson Stolte, Wendy Parkins, and Chip Badley and Kay Young offer different accounts of Dickensian explorations of human psychology, while James Adams and Holly Furneaux offer intriguingly complementary readings of gender and sexuality and domesticity and queer theory, respectively, in essays placed next to one another. Furneaux’s essay also evidences another of the Handbook’s strengths: its capacity to bring to the fore less studied Dickensian texts. In this case, her discussion of the ways in which the female characters of Barnaby Rudge resist “the emotional illogic of domestic ideology” (383) not only sheds new light on Dickens’s critically least popular novel but also anticipates a revival in its scholarly fortunes, predicted and facilitated by its selection as the text for consideration at the most recent iteration of the Dickens Universe conference.

With Part IV, the contextual focus shifts to literature and culture. Daniel Tyler’s discussion of the ways in which for Dickens language is “a measure of the health — or rather the disrepair — of the nation or of the world of his novels” (639) and Helen Groth’s consideration of “Dickens’s assimilation of technologies of visual mediation into his writing” (683) offer particularly rich perspectives. In describing Dickensian fiction as “a multi-medial system with seemingly infinite potential to open the eyes and minds of the readers it drew into its parallel new worlds” (698), Groth also looks forward to Part V and a group of essays that examine the re-visioning of Dickens in our times. There, Paul Young’s discussion of Dickens’s “world-system” and the ways in which he “gave 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” (720) speaks back both to earlier work in this area by James Buzard and to Buzard’s contribution to this volume in Part III. Regenia Gagnier, directly addressing the volume’s intent of serving a global audience, provides a fascinating account of the ways in which Dickens and his works have interacted with the imaginary of cultures around the world, turning up such gems as a young Bruce Lee playing Pip in a 1955 Chinese film version of Great Expectations and aspiring not to become a gentleman but to return to his village trained as its doctor. Similar transformative shifts also feature prominently in Sharon Weltman’s discussion of the entire “adaptation industry” around Dickens, from the influence of Oliver Twist on the Indian novel Q&A that was, in turn, adapted into 2008’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire to the role played by versions of A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist in the Evangelical Christian Focus on the Family Radio Theatre. Closing out the Handbook, Juliet John discusses the phenomenon of Dickens in the internet age, including online reading groups for various novels, the crowd-sourced editors of Dickens Journals Online, and the various Dickensian clubs that, as she describes, “create and celebrate their autonomous and self-defining acts of world-building” (771–72) through activities that may involve only a few but whose existence can be shared around the globe.

Writing on one topic that, he argues, has received insufficient scholarly attention, Jonathan Smith examines Dickens’s engagement with that most popular branch of science in the early Victorian years — geology. He notes that the science was not primarily focused upon issues such as whether or not Mosaic cosmogony was accurate; instead,

the bulk of it involved the details of the stratigraphic column and hence of fieldwork and mapping; the personal relationships among geologists; and the spectacles of visual and material display so popular in London in particular, with competing panoramas vying to produce the most stirring representations of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. (416)

Dickens, as the Oxford Handbook so richly lays out for its readers, was a cultural geologist extraordinaire, his life and work comprising an almost unimaginably diverse set of forays into the proliferating fields generated by 19th-century human activity, mapping for his age its personalities, spectacles, and eruptions, and rendering visible to readers ever since the stratigraphic column whose continuum connects us still to that remarkable age wherever we may be on this planet.