Charles Dickens is one of the
most widely read English writers in history. And as Juliet John argues
in this informative work, he was well aware of the size of his
audience, writing "at a time when mechanical reproduction had made it
increasingly possible" to reach a mass readership (2). Exploring both
the origins and the after-effects of Dickens's effort to speak to "the
great ocean of humanity," John complements her earlier work, Dickens's
Villains: Melodrama, Character, Popular Culture
(2001), by taking a broader view of Dickens's corpus over a greater
time period. Splitting her book into two parts, John gives the first
five chapters to "Dickens in his Day" and the last three to
"Afterlives," specifically film adaptations and the heritage industry.
Key to John's argument is what she calls the "portability" of Dickens,
his ability "to travel across various media and national boundaries"
(15). This portability is nicely demonstrated in the chapters on
Dickens's trips to America, his journalism and public speeches, and his
influence on the film industry.
The first part of this book
takes a historical and biographical approach. Drawing on Dickens's
letters and newspaper essays to gauge and compare his private and
public views of mass culture, John convincingly argues that "numbers of
readers were important to Dickens -- to his imagination, his
self-projection, his business practices, and his cultural politics --
in a way that has not been fully appreciated" (9). The first chapter
shows how Dickens "destabilized the familiar idea of a binary
opposition between high and low culture" (39) by insisting that popular
culture be taken seriously. His essays in Household
that popular forms of entertainment
can reach a wider audience, offering templates that "can be adapted to
educate and challenge the audience, not simply to appeal to the lowest
common denominator" (43). This chapter argues that Dickens's vision of
popular culture is simultaneously nostalgic and progressive, commercial
and artistic, and that his views of class politics were consciously and
Having shown how Dickens tried
to reach a mass audience while maintaining his moral and aesthetic
values, John follows Dickens across the Atlantic. Her second chapter
investigates both his public writings and his letters home from
America, arguing that in the public writings Dickens repressed his true
feelings about international copyright law and the celebrity-obsessed
Americans. "Everything that Dickens loathed about America," John
concludes, "forced him to confront the possible reality of a mass
culture he had thought he desired . . . Seeing America for the first
time, Dickens realized that the future of what he saw as mass culture
might be American as opposed to Dickensian" (76-7). Turning to
Dickens's journalism, chapter three argues that "Dickens's journalistic
method, as well as his message, reinforces the importance of the
personal and communal in a complex response to the larger 'wholesale'
processes of the mass media which Dickens simultaneously resisted and
accelerated" (105). In his journalistic writings, we are told, Dickens
strikes a personal tone even while appealing to a mass audience. His
yearning for the latter is further shown by the public readings John
discusses in chapter four, which highlights Dickens's two reading tours
to America. His motives for these tours were not purely financial, John
argues: Dickens's letters suggest that numbers of listeners were at
least as important as monetary gain. Though he could have made more
money by raising his prices, Dickens's desire to attract "multitudes"
kept him from doing so.
In chapter five John responds
to critics who "emphasize the formulaic and repetitive qualities of his
fiction" and find his characters "lifeless, forced, mechanical" (157).
John argues that "Dickens occupies a threshold position in popular
cultural history" and that his works are "informed by both a mechanical
organicist conception of art" (158). Addressing this binary by
exploring the role of the machine in Victorian culture, she draws
heavily on cultural studies even though cultural critics have typically
ignored Dickens as too literary, just as literary critics are
discomforted by his mass cultural appeal (162). From her readings of Hard
Times, Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Little Dorrit,
as well as from an insightful argument about invention and the
differences between intellectual property and mechanical property, John
concludes that "Dickens is clearly not opposed to mechanism per se, but
to the use of mechanism without a larger commitment or emotional
investment in community and human relationships" (172).
In "Dickensian Afterlives,"
the second part of her book, John affirms that the "structures of
feeling" so central to Dickens's art "enabled it to function as a
bridge between the most popular form of his own day (stage melodrama)
and the most popular form of entertainment in the age that followed
(the screen)" (189). Combining scholarship on melodrama (including her
own earlier work, Dickens's
Villains) with film history
scholarship, John argues that Dickens captivates the film industry in
part because his melodramatic roots distinguish him from other
Victorian writers. Especially in the silent film era, when filmmakers
assumed that their viewers would be familiar with his plots, Dickens's
appeal to a mass audience made him a natural choice for translation
onto film. Exploring in particular his influence on the groundbreaking
director D. W. Griffith, John links formal features of Dickens's works
with cinematic techniques such montage and flashback.
While chapter six explores film
history broadly, chapter seven takes a case study approach to
adaptations of Oliver Twist,
surveying versions ranging from The
Death of Nancy Sykes (1897),
which was the first screen version of any Dickens novel (209), to the
and 21st-century BBC adaptations. John explains how "a Victorian
allegory, a realist fairy-tale about an orphaned boy, has come -- via
the screen -- to permeate the collective consciousness of many nations"
(208). In particular, she shows how Fagin's character was received and
altered following the holocaust: Alec Guinness's portrayal of Fagin in
David Lean's 1948 film, for example, caused riots in Germany and
Poland. From her examination of this film, and an impressive range of
other film and television versions of Oliver
Twist, John concludes that
Dickens's tale "exists as a mythic story which boosts the general
perception of Dickens's authorial greatness yet is seemingly
independent from him, circulating freely in the cultural oxygen" (236).
In spite of this circulation, she notes, Dickens (unlike Shakespeare)
remains fixed in his historical period, and film adaptations rarely
"shed his Victorian trappings"; when they do, they tend to relocate the
story outside of England (239). This point further justifies the way in
which John organizes her own book: to understand film adaptations of
Dickens's novels, we must study him in his own period.
Leaving the movies behind,
chapter eight considers what the heritage industry has made of Dickens.
Since Dickens's conscious efforts to achieve mass-market success
distinguish him from comparable British "heritage" figures, John argues
that for Dickens mass-market success is "intrinsic rather than
antithetical to the establishment of a cultural heritage presence"
(241). To develop this point, she discusses the events surrounding
Dickens's will and estate sale, insightfully reads the visitors' book
at the Charles Dickens Museum, examines Dickensian houses (both his own
and those of his fictional characters), and peruses guidebooks to
Dickensian walking tours. Her argument is perhaps best summed up by her
reading of A Christmas Carol.
This book, she writes, "captures in miniature the story of heritage
Dickens" because it appears "to elevate morality over money whilst
simultaneously generating wealth, to rise above a historical moment
whilst remaining steeped in it" (272).
and Mass Culture is a
persuasively argued book. For the most part, whether discussing Dickens
in the nineteenth century or the twenty-first, it is well-researched
and solidly supported with textual, biographical, and historical
evidence. Occasionally, however, John oddly and uncritically relies on
electronic keyword searches. Data mining and digital text analysis are
burgeoning fields that have much to offer literary scholarship, but in
this case the "electronic surveys" add little to the argument. John
tells us just how often "class" and "the people" appear in Dickens's
letters and journalism (68-9). She specifies that she counts only
mentions of class "in the social sense" (68) and recognizes that "the
phrase 'the people' can work both politically and apolitically" (69).
These allowances are essential, but make me wonder why the numbers are
necessary at all. Word searches may have been useful in John's
research, but her interpretations of individual passages are much more
informative than the numbers themselves.
John concludes this book with a
report on Dickens World, the "multimillion-pound themed entertainment
site in Chatham, Kent" (273). Having visited the site herself and
studied the press debate surrounding its opening, John nicely defines
its polarizing effects: "to stand up for Dickens World is tantamount to
admitting one's stupidity and vulgarity" while "to oppose it risks
announcing one's elitism" (278). This conclusion, and indeed the entire
book, asks, "ultimately, whom is Dickens for?" Perhaps more than any
other author, Dickens appeals to both popular and elite culture.
Dickens World forces us "to think about Dickens and our cultural
landscape afresh" (289). And so, to its credit, does John's book. It is
a great contribution both to cultural studies and to Victorian studies,
and will no doubt open doors of inquiry in both fields.
Patrick C. Fleming is a PhD
candidate and a NINES fellow at the University of Virginia. His
dissertation, a portion of which is forthcoming in Eighteenth-Century
Studies, explores connections
between Romantic-era children's literature and its Victorian readers.