CHARLES DICKENS AS AN AGENT OF CHANGE by Joachim Frenk and Lena Steveker, eds., Reviewed by Robert L. Patten
 


CHARLES DICKENS AS AN AGENT OF CHANGE
Eds. Joachim Frenk and Lena Steveker
(Cornell, 2019) xx + 242 pp.
Reviewed by Robert L. Patten on 2020-06-12.

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The project of Dickens as an agent of change was initiated in an International Seminar at the bilingual Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany in 2010. Organized by Joachim Frenk and Lena Steveker, it featured Michael Slater as the keynote speaker. Papers from that seminar were published in 2015 by AMS Press. Its owner-editor, Gabriel Hornstein, died in February 2019, and the Press went into bankruptcy, owing his wife more than $500,000. Most of the assets went to Book Depository (UK), but Lena Steveker was able to persuade Cornell University Press to acquire the rights to issue this book in 2019. My review copy is hardbound ($115, ISBN 978-1-5017-3627-8), with a laminated full-color illustrated cover, although its copyright page identifies it as the separately defined paperback edition ($29.95, ISBN 978-1-5017-3628-5). Mahinder S. Kingra, the acquiring editor, has explained to me that Cornell bought all the rights and has issued hard and soft cover editions and an ebook version. Therefore, while I'm reviewing a hardcover copy, he has assured me it is textually the same as the paperback; both come from reprinting the original AMS files. The copyright page may need adjustment, but the prices are as I've indicated.

Given the international status of its contributors, many of the papers in this collection put Dickens in conversation globally, with interesting--and I mean that as a true compliment--results. And since the book provides no biographies of the authors, only the name of an institution with which they were associated in 2010, I have provided fuller and more up-to-date vitae so that the extent of their academic associations as well as the range of their contexts may be appreciated.

For instance, Mathias Bauer, of Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen, cites Isadore of Seville, Johann Joachim Quantz (Frederick the Great's flute teacher), and John Donne on the close connections between musical rhythm and human pulse in "The Chimes and the Rhythm of Life." Surely one of Dickens's less regarded Christmas books has never been in that company before. Another globalist, Michael Hollington, was educated in Britain, the US, and France, spent two decades in Australia and many years thereafter at European universities, and now counts Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, as his professional address. In "Money, Power, and Appearance in Dombey and Son," he posits an illuminating and convincing affinity between Georg Simmel's 1900 Philosophie des Geldes and Dickens's anatomization of the dehumanizing effects of money. Money, as Simmel says, not only establishes a "style of life" that confuses appearance with substance, neglects moral, spiritual, and emotional bonds, and promotes the abstract over the human (qtd.86); it also offers "an exact and flexible equivalent for every change of value" (qtd. 126). Hollington thus complements recent work by Mary Poovey, Ayse Cellikol at Bilkent University in Turkey, and Sean Grass, among others, who have devoted much thought to the commoditizations of capitalism.

A third set of globalizing contexts is provided by Herbert Foltinek, late Professor at the University of Vienna and Fellow of the Austrian Academy of Science, to whom, alongside Edgar Rosenberg, late professor at Cornell, this publication is inscribed In Memoriam. Foltinek applies to two Dickens characters a distinction between "character" and "figure": while "character" may signify a living and/or theatrical presence, "figure" (as understood narratologically by Fotis Jannides in Figur under Person. Beitrag zu einerhistorischen Narratollogie [Berlin 2004]) is an element of the story. Foltinek finds both terms exemplified at different stages by Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit and Eugene Wrayburn in Our Mutual Friend. In their indecisiveness, lack of direction, carelessness, and weakness, Foltinek argues, Clannam and Wrayburn anticipate figures within modern Western European narratives; but at the end of each novel, Dickens gives them purpose and fulfillment and thus restores them to recognizable Dickensian domesticity as "characters."

Simmel's phrase "every change of value" prompts further reflections. Though the call for papers formulated the topic as "Dickens as an Agent of Change," a number of the changes discussed in these papers do not clearly spring from him. The late UC Berkeley Professor Robert Tracy, ahead of the wave in valorizing the Irish playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry (now getting a lot of attention), analyzes Barry's play about Hans Christian Andersen's disastrously prolonged visit to Gad's Hill in June and July of 1857. Noting that the play uncovers secrets, repression, and coldness, Tracy finds in Barry's model of Dickens's household a metaphor for England's suppression, indifference, and hostility to Ireland. But Dickens's only change in this contretemps is to get out of his marriage. Evidence of Dickens's change-making is likewise hard to find in the nonetheless thought-provoking essay by Chris Louttit of Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Examining two East End dramatizations of Bleak House staged months before the serial ended, Louttit shows that dramatic adapters and producers cast Dickens himself as "a voice sympathetic to the concerns of the poor" (199). It's a valuable nuance to the claim, by Franco Moretti and the Stanford Lab (Canon/Archive [2017]), that while Dickens was the only mid-Victorian writer to pay attention to the East End, he didn't pay very much attention. On the contrary, Louttit argues, East Enders were treated to a Dickens mirroring their own concerns. Yet as Louttit explains it, Dickens came to the area not as an agent of change, but as a recipient of it. These productions of Bleak House turned his novel from its burden of protest against the law into appeals on behalf of the working classes. Individual characters such as Allen Woodcourt (for all his royal Welsh ancestry) and Esther Summerson sentimentally lament the plight of neglected figures like Nemo, and Jo eloquently attacks telescopic philanthropy.

Further comment about Bleak House comes from Joel J. Brattin of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, our most assiduous proponent these days for attending to Dickens's manuscripts. From a single missing 't' in the manuscript and first edition of Bleak House, he infers that Dickens as well as Sir Leicester Dedlock may fear that Young Rouncewell's son Watt could change into fomenting a popular, rather than industrial, revolution: that he might evoke Wat Tyler, leader of the fourteenth-century Peasants' Revolt, rather than James Watt, whose steam engine powered the industrial revolution. Watt himself, through his love for Rosa, changes himself, his father, and Rosa. To what degree does the "t" dropped from Watt connect Christian name and surname to two kinds of powerful change, popular uprising and capitalist manufacturing? Does it also signify that Dickens himself in 1853 was subconsciously an agent of change? Undoubtedly the age teetered between these alternatives, and feared the consequences of both. In Esther Summerson Dickens offers "a gentle and personal revolution of love, social commitment, and social responsibility" (26), a third and the most desirable agent of change.

Elsewhere in this volume, "change" runs the gamut from "reversal" to "revolution." In the first essay, University of Kentucky Professor Jerome Meckier perceives "reversal, the so-called change of heart," as the dominating action of Pickwick Papers and Dickens's preferred term, in place of revolution, "as the basic recipe for improving human nature" (3). These changes dominate the narrative and its outcome. At the end, Pickwick rightly credits the changes with contributing to "the enlargement of my mind and the improvement of my understanding" (qtd. 13). Further comment on Dickens's endings comes from Bert Hornback, retired from the University of Michigan and associated in 2010 as a colleague of the editors at Saarland University. Arguing that the world changed Dickens as much as the reverse, he notes that the retirements at the end of many novels besides Pickwick close on happy notes effected by change. Citing the last scene Dickens wrote, wherein Dick Datchery is about to enjoy Mrs. Tope's breakfast in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hornbeck writes, "And Dickens retired. But not the way Mr. Pickwick does" (57). Yet who knows whether the unwritten ending would have closed on another such happy note?

Pickwick gets still more attention from Malcolm Andrews of the University of Kent at Canterbury. In a typically elegant essay, Andrews considers what the Pickwick moment constituted and why it could not be sustained. That serial of the mid-1830s, Andrews insists, passed into history along with other writers and caricaturists who inherited late Regency humor; they moderated its coarseness and substituted for "wit" something that encourages "affectionate laughter" and compassion. "The world would not take another Pickwick from me, now," Dickens in 1849 told Dudley Costello, one of the actors in Dickens's Amateur Company (Pilgrim Letters V.527, qtd. 109). Possibly. However, he inaugurated his Cheap Edition of the Collected Works in 1848 by a republication of Pickwick with a new preface apologizing for its placing before the reader "a constant succession of character and incidents." Serialization, he says of that stage of its brief life (1836 to late 1860s), seemed to prevent an "artfully interwoven or ingeniously complicated plot" such as by 1850 he was proficient in structuring. But readers took to the old story by the tens of thousands, and the novel never lost its popularity with audiences for the Readings during his lifetime. In any case, Andrews's thesis is that the world changed. It did. Thankfully, that didn't cancel out Dickens's changes to Regency satire and wit, or consumers' desire to laugh in the company of Sam Weller. (His reappearance, with his master Pickwick, in Master Humphrey's Clock was not a success. The world was already changing by 1840.)

The most sustained engagement with Dickens as agent is parsed by several essays considering Dickens's art in the troubled 1840s. At Virginia Tech, Nancy Aycock Metz has been one of the most accomplished attenders to Dickens in that decade, writing about his American experiences and providing the essential Companion to Martin Chuzzlewit. In "The Tremendous Potency of the Small," she sets Dickens's desire to bring democratic ideals to old Tory England against his struggle with the reality of the new world discovered in America and the Britain of Martin Chuzzlewit. In a world estranged from Christian advocacy, she finds, the small individual gestures of compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness "do not finally add up to a solution to 'the Condition of England'" problem (82). Nonetheless, she maintains that living consciously in time and bringing the vast scale of the universe and human population down to personal interactions affirm "the power of the socially engaged writer to 'make a mark' 'lastingly upon the time'" (83). This is a beautifully condensed and sensitively apprehended way to appreciate Dickens's struggle to find a middle path between blaming God and Mammon and performing those roles within writings and human society.

David Paroissien is another contributor with a globalist perspective, derived through earning degrees from the Universities of Hull, New Mexico, and California, a career at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and now a Professional Research Fellow at Buckingham University (his affiliation in this book) as well as an Honorary Member of the Centro Universitario de Studi Vittoriani e Edoardiana at D'Annunzio University in Italy. He puts Metz's thoughts into historical perspective. Emphasizing Britain's slow emergence from postwar stasis and stale Regency policies and practices, and its equally slow moves toward renewed calls for reform, if not revolution, in social and economic governance, Paroissien revists the sometimes Swiftian satire against Tory reactionaries that Dickens channeled in his political squibs and the first two Christmas Books. Along with Michael Slater, Paroissien appreciates the influence of Douglas Jerrold in this period of Dickens's writing life, and tracks some of the ways in which Dickens aimed to be a public voice by using his experiences and writing to make a difference in the lives of the working classes. Yet when he was offered a chance in May 1842 to stand as the Liberal candidate for Reading, he thought his chances of success were minimal and declined. Instead he chose to lobby for change in other ways, through his fictions but also through his advocacy of various philanthropic ventures and the continuing possibility, over another decade, that he would change into a lawyer.

Norbert Lennartz, at the Universität Vechta in Lower Saxony, rises to defend Dickens's radicalism. In and out of Germany, he finds, Dickens came to be cast in Victorian criticism as "the representative of smug Biedermeier coziness" (129). This has not only marginalized him to all the more radical and systematic approaches to literature imposed in the twentieth century, but has also reduced attention to Dickens's own radicalism--developments that the late Sally Ledger began to address before her much-regretted early death. To explain Dickens's radicalism, Lennartz undertakes to re-discover the subversive potential of fairytale constructions of good and evil in Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, and does so convincingly although briefly, since this was originally a conference paper. Delighting in the ways Dickens conjures sentimental and bourgeois worlds and then deconstructs them, Lennerz provides a timely demonstration that the Romantic radical tradition permeates Dickensian fiction through the 1840s and thus undercuts notions of their paradigmatic Victorian domesticity.

In writing about Dickens and social change, Robert Heaman of Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania covers the novels from Copperfield to Our Mutual Friend, citing his own and selected other critics' formulations of Dickens's morphing conceptions of the artist's responsibility to change society. Like Joel Brattin, Heaman believes that by the end of his life, Dickens accounted the power of love greater than any program, connected as it is to the creation and apprehension of beauty that enable love to see the world wholly, and advocate forgiveness and renewal. Not exactly news now, nor can this be fully argued in a short paper encompassing so much writing. But welcome, especially perhaps, for students seeking a way of taking in Dickens's huge canvas.

Two other papers in this section on popular change address politics and magic. Doris Feldman, at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, brings another European perspective, and a welcome fresh one, to bear on the disjunctive metaphoricity of Hard Times. Since this novel deconstructs hard facts by comparing pistons to melancholy mad elephants, instancing imaginations that are intent on destruction, and railway journeys that institute a new space-time continuum, Feldman concludes that here Dickens offers exactly what the cultural politics of the age required: complex and dissonant imagery, "aesthetic and ideological discontinuities." Hard Times, writes Feldman, provides "a symptom of cultural complexity" within which "cultural change becomes possible" (166). Allusively, she imports into her discussion the economic, political, and social philosophies contending in British and European thinking of the time. One missing ingredient, for me, is the religious--the often-forgotten element roiling all Victorian discourse, from geology to finance and life choices. Dickens's processes of progress, regression, and renewal embed his de-contextualized faith in a salvation plan, though that faith is often tested.

Magic and wonder are also found and relished in the Dickens world, as well as at the University of Portsmouth, where Christopher Pittard writes that Dickens's representations of magicians and his insertion of Sweet William and his legerdemain into The Old Curiosity Shop instance the need for a genuine artist to keep his secrets and insist that they are his own creation: precisely the terms a writer needs to meet in order to obtain copyright. Whether writers or inventors like Daniel Doyce, creative persons wishing to enter the marketplace are caught between attempting to own their ideas and needing to display them. Dickens's engagement with conjuring thus inserts him into the very heart of the copyright controversies of the day. A fascinating idea, especially as it further problematizes art as an agency of change. Conjuring has a transformative effect on others' lives, narrative, and bodies, while Dickens conjures "things not as they are, but as they could be" (188).

I've saved the best for last. The late Cornell Professor Edward Rosenberg's autobiographical musing, "How to Read Dickens in English: A Last Retrospect," brings the Continental and the Anglophonic into a rapturous collusion, yielding one of the most endearing scholars of our time. Unable to attend the Seminar in 2010, Rosenberg provided a delightfully associative written account of his own David Copperfieldian education, ranging over many moments and other readers besides himself, to conclude his offering, and the book's: "I feel an octogenarian's debt to the bright-eyed gent, the wizard and family friend, who seventy years ago taught me to love literature and turned a jittery refugee from another language into one of his most loquacious disciples" (234). If for nothing else, this testimony of beneficial change at Dickens's hands is worth the price of admission. And thanks to Cornell, that is not beyond paying, for hardcover or paperback.

Robert L. Patten is Lynette S. Autrey Professor Emeritus in Humanities and Emeritus Professor of English at Rice University. Since 2010 he is also a Senior Research Fellow, sine die, non-resident, in the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London.


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