The Dickens Industry: Critical Perspectives, 1836-2005

August 4, 2011

Can there be anything more to say about Dickens? Probably not, J. Cuming Walters declared in 1911 - "Of what there is to say of Dickens little has by now been left unsaid" - yet here we are, a century later, limbering up for the 2012 "Dickens Olympics", as we might call the bicentenary celebrations of his birth, apparently with plenty more readings in our arsenal.

Laurence Mazzeno's thorough overview of Dickens critics and criticism since the advent of Mr Pickwick takes us on what feels like a train journey through terrain where at first there are few landmarks. But as the train picks up speed and nears its destination, there are too many, and we begin to flag at the sight of another mountain peak or skyscraper glistening in the sunlight.

At the start of the journey we have Dickens' friend and biographer John Forster; then a clutch of novelists - George Gissing, Henry James, George Orwell, the other Forster (E.M.); and finally, the professional critics - the Leavises, Edmund Wilson, Humphry House, Terry Eagleton and hosts of others, probably including someone in an English department near you. Everyone, it seems, takes a tilt at Dickens at some point in their career. Yet what fascinates about this book is, first, the persistence of certain unresolved issues and problems in Dickens criticism and, second, the continuing challenge of verbalising what it is exactly that bothers critics about one of our best-loved Victorian novelists, whose very greatness flies in the face of what we regard as good taste.

For critics are bothered by Dickens. How can he be so good, they say, if tragedy eludes him, along with plots, and indeed "ideas"? And then there's the problem of his supposed "vulgarity". It was not just Lord David Cecil in 1934 who saw him as "an average nineteenth-century Cockney", albeit with "genius" (reminding us perhaps of Keats' detractors, sneering at his "Cockney" origins); A.O.J. Cockshut reiterated in 1957, "How did a man with such a coarse mind become a master of his art?" For decades, people preferred his earlier novels, up to David Copperfield, until the darkening and spreading tangled plots of Bleak House and its successors gained ground. Of course, the advent of literary theory (something about which Mazzeno has reservations) has largely put paid to the more frivolous prejudices of modern commentators.

Mazzeno helpfully divides his summaries of the "Dickens industry" into meaningful chronological phases, each with its own bibliography. The 1970s have their own chapter, given the fillip of the centenary milestone, while the book as a whole ends prophetically with "The Future of Dickens Studies: Trends in the Twenty- First Century". This picks up the developments of feminism, post-colonialism and post-structuralism, which are pitted against what Mazzeno calls "the persistence of traditional criticism".

The problem with the man who styled himself "the Inimitable", though, is his flamboyant personality, which single-handedly confutes the celebrated theory of the "death of the author": hence the persistence of interest in Dickens the man, his marriage and his mistress, Ellen Ternan.

Mazzeno, who must have been reading Dickens for a lifetime, handles the sheer bulk of his task with equanimity and fairness, emitting only the occasional fizz of annoyance at critics who are out of touch or incomprehensible. As John Carey puts it, "Dickens is infinitely greater than his critics", although this book implies that we still like to watch how he slips through our fingers.

The Dickens Industry: Critical Perspectives, 1836-2005

By Laurence W. Mazzeno. Camden House. 325pp, £40.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9781571133178 and 5154. Published 1 July 2011

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