Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities

June 10, 2010

With his "curious things", "odd corners" and "musty treasures", Charles Dickens makes himself and us at home with the queer. He is drawn to people who seem to be out of place, out of time and out of step. In their very names, from Heep to Quilp to Swiveller, he indicates an excess, a failing or a deviation. And, in the character of Gradgrind, he gives a name to the folly and the cruelty of standardisation. But what about queer in the sense of subjects who cannot or will not accept the norms of sex and gender?

In her thoughtful and deeply researched study, Holly Furneaux seeks to move beyond the critical focus on queerness as suggested by violence and manipulation - Miss Wade, the "predatory lesbian" of Little Dorrit; Steerforth of David Copperfield, who exploits and betrays David's intense admiration before running off with Little Em'ly. In an ambitious move, Furneaux wishes not only to reorient the reading of Dickens, but also to offer an alternative to the tendency in queer studies to explore homophobic representation, shame and the death drive.

In Queer Dickens, we get a profusion of tender, nurturing characters and interactions: "bachelor dads" such as Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist; genial but marriage-averse men such as Mr Lorry in A Tale of Two Cities; the relationship between Mr Pickwick and his "powerfully charismatic" man-servant Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers; the "homoerotic intermarriage" of suitor, brother and sister, in Smike, Nicholas and Kate in Nicholas Nickleby, and in John Westlock, Tom and Ruth Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit; and scenes of same-sex nursing in Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield and Great Expectations.

Furneaux argues in detail, and aligns her readings of Dickens with a wide range of other contemporary narratives, from nursing manuals to Walt Whitman's poetry. She insists persuasively on the recurrence and the importance of Dickens' various re-imaginings of domesticity and family. There are moments, though, at which she moves towards what are, to me, statements that are subtly anachronising or otherwise misplaced. Much that in Dickens is warm, fuzzy and approved becomes, in Furneaux, a "celebration of homoeroticism" and quite specifically about "same-sex desire". She writes of "Dickens's continued commitment to articulating the homoerotic possibilities of in-law bonds throughout his career". Did Dickens have such a precise and conscious "commitment" to something that he identified as eroticism between men? In the scenes of nursing, of "emotional and physical reliance", is there an eroticism that is separable from that "emotional and physical reliance" and to which Dickens has a "commitment"?

Furneaux's search for positive values makes sense in view of the previous focus on "the erotic dynamics of violence", and surely her book is an important and valuable contribution. She is bold and direct in claiming that "an appreciation of Dickens's fascination with queer desires, families and lives" can undermine a constraining and vindictive deployment of "Victorian values", and "make a political intervention into the way we live now". Her analysis can "provide an alternative, optimistic line of genealogy for queer parents and children".

It may seem mean-spirited and another kind of perverse, then, to note that, in the midst of the benign and sex-less erotics traced by Furneaux, I began to long for a messier and more diverse imaging of the libidinal. I wished for a greater engagement with unattractive or unamenable queernesses. I experienced a nostalgia for the kind of Dickensian figure that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick characterised as "lurking, skulking, following in the rear of other men" - for a queerness that does not fit a revised but still quite cosy and homogeneous domestic agenda.

Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities

By Holly Furneaux. Oxford University Press 304pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780199566099. Published 10 December 2009

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