The Dickens Discovery and why it matters

220px-Alltheyearround_1891Over the last couple of weeks, my social media feeds have been overflowing with excitement about the ‘Dickens Discovery’. However, I realise this isn’t perhaps as important to everyone else as it is to me and my colleagues, so although I haven’t really got anything new to add, I wanted to comment on why it is so exciting.

What happened is well-described here in the Guardian. In a nutshell, Dr Jeremy Parrott, an antiquarian bookseller and Dickens scholar, bought a 20-volume set of All the Year Round, the journal which Dickens edited (or ‘conducted’, as he preferred to say) for ten years up to his death. It seemed like a particularly beautiful set, but when he opened it, there were names written in the margins by the articles. Now, the contributors were all anonymous, so although it is known who some of the contributors are, we can only guess who wrote what. But in these volumes, every article was attributed in pencil; and when one was attributed to Dickens himself, it was with his own signature. It transpires that this was Dickens’ own set, in which he noted the contributors in annotations.

If you’re not reeling with excitement by now (like me – though I did write my MA dissertation on Dickens’ editorial policy) All_the_year_roundthen here is why this is so important:

1. We know more about Dickens as editor, now – about whose writing he published, and the decisions he made, and that, for example, he published work by his family.

2. It’s enlightening about the contributors: pieces previously attributed to Wilkie Collins, for example, turn out not to be by him at all, while other pieces which are by him add to the extant works by Collins. This is huge, impacting on our perceptions of the work of a range of writers which also includes Dickens himself, Elizabeth Gaskell, Lewis Carroll, Eliza Linton (the first professional female journalist) and Fanny Trollope. This is HUGE!

3. Though Dickens has been considered something of a misogynist (perhaps partly because of his scathing comments about working with Mrs Gaskell, despite his respect for her work) but it’s estimated that around 40% of the contributions are by women. This adds to modern views on gender and writing.

4. It shows that what we know, or think we know, isn’t set in stone, and reminds us not to be smug or complacent. Literary history can still surprise us, and prove us wrong. It also – most excitingly – gives us hope that there might be other thrilling discoveries out there to be made, any day now!

5. All of the above means that there is now new work to be done on Dickens and his journals – new angles to be considered, new contributors to be researched, etc.

CDYou can read Dickens’ journals online here. The Dickens Blog also has more information. Dr Parrott will be publishing an article in the Victorian Periodicals Review about his discovery. The excitement of the discovery is captured well in an interview with Dr Parrott on Radio 4’s Front Row – the podcast is available here.

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Birmingham’s History at BMAG

Last weekend I popped in to see the new History Galleries at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I was in a bit of a hurry so I didn’t have time to do it justice, but will certainly have to go back and have another look, taking my husband and small son with me as there will be plenty to interest them both. Firstly, I must confess: I don’t much like exhibitions which focus on a local area, usually with lots of flint arrow-heads; I conceived a strong dislike for such places in childhood. So I was slightly concerned that this would be similar, and, you’ll be pleased to hear, it wasn’t. The galleries tell the story of Birmingham, from its beginnings through to the city we know now. It covers a huge range in the space, introducing the visitor to Birmingham in different periods and demonstrating what life would have been like in the city at that time. There’s a lot for children to do, and a lot of interaction, as well as information boards for those who want detailed facts.

There are some fascinating objects on display, from archaological finds to paintings and objects from the city or made in the city, and even the doors of the debtors’ prison and a display on Freeth’s Coffee House in the eighteenth century. Given my own interests I was particularly taken with the nineteenth century displays, which feature objects made in Birmingham at the height of the city’s period as a centre of industry and craftsmanship. The magpie in me loved the buttons, which were beautiful and varied, and especially the chalice, monstrance and candlesticks made during the Gothic Revival by John Hardman & Co. There were also some beautiful stained-glass panels from the Birmingham School of Art. The exhibition also shows how significant Birmingham was culturally in the nineteenth century; for example, the Town Hall not only held the premieres of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (based on a poem written by Cardinal Newman), it also saw the first ever public reading by Charles Dickens of A Christmas Carol. When BMAG itself opened, in 1885, its purpose was ‘to display examples of good design and craftsmanship from around the world to inspire local manufacturers to make high-quality products’. Some of these products which were made are on display here, and it’s fascinating to see a collection of Arts and Crafts objects with such strong local connections.

The galleries make excellent connections between what was happening in Birmingham and the rest of the country (and indeed world). It offers lessons in social history – such as the development of education, for example, or life on the homefront during the wars – as well as being rooted in local history. It is clearly also an exhibition with a social conscience, looking at aspects such as child labour and slavery, and asking visitors to consider the lives of those in poverty today, for example. There is a lot to appeal to everyone here, although I have to say that the section on twenty-first century Birmingham seemed to me rather dull by comparison with its fascinating past!

Diagnosing Sydney Carton

I am teaching a third-year module on Victorian literature and psychology this year, and while I am preparing lectures and reflecting on the course material, I am reflecting on some issues which relate to how we can ‘diagnose’ historical figures and literary characters. Edgar Allan Poe has been retrospectively ‘diagnosed’ as a manic-depressive dipsomaniac; Elizabeth Siddal is assumed to have been suffering from anorexia, and Milton’s blindness, scholars now suggest, was due to glaucoma. Very likely, though how much this adds to our understanding of these figures is debatable. However, in examining literature and psychology, much of the material examines the authors’ interests in the new science of psychology (as well as pseudo-sciences such as phrenology and mesmerism). These interests are carried over into their literary works, and it’s surprising how different the texts seem when one reads them with an eye to psychological narratives.

This leads me to A Tale of Two Cities, and the ‘problem’ of Sydney Carton. Carton’s redemption of himself, and saving of Charles Darnay, has led critics to suggest that this is Dickens’s most spiritual novel, and the theme of resurrection is prominent. This implies, though, that Carton is a cardboard figure whose purpose is the reunion of the Darnay-Manette family, whereas I read Carton as a much more complex character (and Darnay as Forster’s ‘flat’ figure). He seems to diagnose himself: he admits to being a wastrel, who fritters away time and money, takes his own life as of no account, and has no hope for his future. While he might have succeeded in his profession, a lack of confidence and interest in it has caused him to become no more than another man’s drudge. His is a genuinely pitiful tale, and one for which we see no cause, until near the end of the novel where he recalls the early death of his parents, and for a moment we glimpse a sad and abandoned little boy.

We see Carton’s heart when he opens up to Lucie, admitting his hopeless love for her (which you can see in a hammy film version here); this episode and his kindness towards the poor seamstress in the tumbril seem to indicate a ‘good’ side to the ‘bad’ man. While he may be Darnay’s near-double, the situation is more complex than that he and Darnay represent the good and bad sides of a man (unlike, for example, in Poe’s ‘William Wilson’). Carton is a man who cannot save himself, and so, instead, saves another, thus ironically proving that in fact he was a man worth saving himself.

I am writing a kind of ‘case notes’ of Sydney Carton, looking at the work of contemporary writers on psychology such as Henry Maudsley, whose words ‘The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep’ seem to have some relevance in the case of Carton, and G.H. Lewes. My questions, though, are these: can we ‘diagnose’ a literary figure as if s/he were a real person? How do we also take account of plot, of author, of literary conventions? I am hoping to answer these questions in a conference paper for the History and Philosophy of Psychology conference in 2013.

NB If you are interested in madness and literature, the Madness and Literature Network website is invaluable.

Why is nineteenth-century fiction still popular?

This is a short essay I wrote years ago which I came across recently. However, in its (brief) examination of the values and structures which have made the reading of ‘classic novels’, not to mention their televising, so popular, it seems relevant now – especially in this year of Dickens’s bicentenary – so I thought I would share it.

The nineteenth century was a period of great changes, social, political and industrial.  Britain as we know it today is closer in values and in the transient nature of its beliefs to this period than to any other period in history.  The Victorians believed that they were closest to the Elizabethans, and their aim was a second renaissance of Britain.  They understood in a way that twenty-first century citizens often forget that civilisation is a building process, each generation adding to and drawing upon the achievements of their forebears.

In “Areopagitica”, Milton argues for freedom from censorship for the written word, and states that books “are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are”.  This “potency” in a writer creates a bond between writer and reader that can bridge centuries, cultures and gender. Many events in the twentieth century have distanced us from the nineteenth, and yet the culture of the Victorians is still widely appreciated.  Why is this?  I think we read for enjoyment and for understanding.  There is no doubt that enjoyment is still to be had from the reading of nineteenth century authors, in the skilful plot structure of Dickens or George Eliot, for example.  The fact that so many nineteenth century novels have been turned into enjoyable TV indicates the strength of plot and characterisation employed by the authors; Trollope, Dickens and the Brontes have all fared well and reached wider audiences through this medium.  This also displays the adaptability and relevance of the stories.  A test of a novel is when it works as a modern adaptation; this has worked well with Great Expectations, a novel of social mores and personal desire that is still relevant set in the twenty-first century.   The reason that these works have enduring appeal is that they possess timeless elements; they represent facets of human nature that are always present.   The sense of recognition that we gain from discovering familiar characters is sufficient reason alone to read fiction, whenever it was written, and arguably the nineteenth century, with its social conflicts and a newly discovered self-awareness in the face of Darwin and Freud, produced characters more recognisable to the modern reader than any other period in history.

Another facet of understanding to be gained from fiction is the socio-historical aspect.   Charlotte Bronte’s Villette allows the modern reader an insight into the life of a governess, not the trite, watered down idea to which history often relegates them, but a sense of a woman appointed to educate the next generation whilst being considered a servant herself.  Mrs Gaskell’s North and South pays passionate tribute to the divisions in society, examining industrialism, wealth, poverty and gender in a challenging way that is completely accessible to the modern reader, and far more fascinating than any textbook on the industrial revolution.  The famous champion of social issues in Britain was, of course, Dickens, with his condemnation of the poorhouse, the education system and the division of wealth.  On the whole, Dickens is more concerned with the effect than the cause of social evils, but he persistently blames the misuse of power by those in authority for the wrongs of society, and he strongly believed that education was the way forward.  However, he also had many doubts about the contemporary education system, fearing that it was failing many of Britain’s young people and could not provide a sound base of educated society for future generations.  Concerns such as these have a familiar ring to them, as do Mrs Gaskell’s countryside/city debates.

Finally, there is the concept of literary heritage.  Many nineteenth-century novels have become a part of the Western canon, seen as “classics” which are important reading for students of literature.  The novel reached its heyday in the nineteenth century, and the length and complexity of the plots has seldom been surpassed in subsequent years.  The Victorians took their culture seriously, and writers were usually well-educated and passionate about their subject, and the artistry of their work remains unsurpassed.  No one can write without reading first, and the nineteenth century greats, writing before the days of modernism, deconstructionism and other textual theories, have a depth of tone and understanding rarely reached since.  Their literature in turn shaped the literature of subsequent generations; Pound’s cry of “Make it new!” in the early twentieth century was a direct response to the weighty issues of his elders, and the war literature of the last century owes a debt to the nineteenth century in its very opposition to it.  One has to know the rules to break them, and in many cases the “rules” as we now understand them were set by the writers of the nineteenth century.

Literature is an all-embracing subject, reflecting the issues of the day.  Taking literature in context is often considered unfashionable in our modern society of diffracted values and discontinuity, but the writers of the nineteenth century knew better than any other before our own time how to relate to the issues that concern us.  The immediacy of their engagement with these issues is apparent from the early days of the century, with the austerity and moral values frequently associated with Victorianism, to the decadence and “art for art’s sake” attitude of the aesthetes.  There can be no argument that these issues are still with us.  Wealth, power, education, technology and culture were prevailing issues and are still hotly debated in the press and fiction today.  Novels such as White Teeth which examine social displacement are the inheritors in the tradition of Villette; the quiet town in which Chocolat is set is reminiscent of Cranford – the comparisons are endless.  What it proves is that the years do not change human nature, and the changes to society are frequently only superficial; but literature is eternal.