Knowing Dickens

April 17, 2008

Writing at the intersections of public and private, and of biography and criticism, Rosemarie Bodenheimer's beautifully written study of Charles Dickens focuses intently on a body of writing that has too often been accused of lacking interiority and psychological depth. Carefully tracing the workings of Dickens's conscious and unconscious mind in his letters, journalism and fiction, Bodenheimer argues that the writer was engaged in a lifelong process of self-observation as keen as the observations that he brought to bear on others, and that he projected on to his fictional characters "an inward way of being that knew itself by mirroring its aspects on external screens".

The title of the book, Knowing Dickens, is nicely suggestive both of the manner in which Bodenheimer manages to get under Dickens's skin, viewing him from the inside out, and of the knowingness and self-knowledge of his works of fiction. The book is also, though, about not knowing; about Dickens's sometimes wilful-seeming inability to acknowledge his own emotional refusals and deep-seated anxieties.

Eschewing the usual chronological staging of Dickens's life, Bodenheimer instead organises her study around a series of chapters that between them embody certain recurrent clusters of thought and feeling in Dickens's writing.

A chapter called "Language on the loose" explores the keen sense of injury that was intermittently expressed in Dickens's letters, be they to ex-sweetheart Maria Beadnell or to the blameless mayor of Boston after the souring of Dickens's 1842 tour of the US. The chapter goes on to anatomise an "excoriating line of talkers", from Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, through Harold Skimpole in Bleak House, to Mr Dorrit in Little Dorrit, seeing in these figures a "blurring of the lines" between fictional characters and Dickens's father, the perennially impecunious John Dickens.

For me, the bringing together of Dickens's letters, journalism and fiction is most illuminating in the chapter on "Memory". Distinguishing between memory (for Dickens, an affirmative process) and remembering (a negative one), Bodenheimer identifies a "complex fracture between Dickens's valorised idea of memory and the unwilled, negatively inflected recollections that return again and again to shape his work".

Dickens was fascinated by early 19th-century work on hidden memories within the individual (what we now describe as the unconscious) and his own suppressed, traumatic childhood memory of working in a blacking warehouse while his family was in debtors' prison informs the structure of feeling of a substantial portion of his writings. Dickens wrote the last of his Christmas Books, The Haunted Man, in tandem with the "autobiographical fragment" in which he had confided this childhood memory to John Forster. In a powerful reading of the short fictional narrative Bodenheimer identifies an internal voice "of pained and resentful memory that finally surfaces with a version of Dickens's own story".

The homosociality of Dickens's personal and professional circles is put under the spotlight in a chapter that traces a series of triangulated romantic relationships in his fiction that are often fraught with class envy and distrust. A chapter on Dickens as "Manager of the house" that scrutinises both his home life and the domestic spaces of his fiction reveal him to be both (almost tyrannically) committed to the domestic ideal and intermittently suffocated by and resistant to it.

The final chapter, on "Streets", compellingly links Dickens's compulsion to walk (sometimes up to 20 miles a day) to his creative impulse. It seems Dickens virtually walked himself to death: a badly swollen left foot, which was probably a symptom of the degenerative heart disease diagnosed at the age of 54, was wrongly dismissed by the author as frostbite. In this chapter, as in preceding ones, Bodenheimer's most original insights emerge in her accounts of lesser-known short works of fiction, in her acute reading of the journalism, and in her breathtaking knowledge of the letters.

Knowing Dickens

By Rosemarie Bodenheimer
Cornell University Press
ISBN 9780801446146
Published December 2007

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