In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, ‘Dickens was almost always “on”’. Writing a letter, posting a note, postponing an engagement, and apologizing for ‘not’ writing—in every text, from the least significant piece of ephemera to the most intricate of his novels, Charles Dickens was always so Dickens-like. In the view of Carolyn Oulton, the novelist was in effect performing the role of ‘Charles Dickens’ and, in the process, crafting his ‘imagined’ or ‘ideal reader’. Oulton’s fascinating new book, Dickens and the Myth of the Reader, undertakes an analysis of this dual creation—authorial persona and mythic reader—in Dickens’s fiction and correspondence. Closely reading the novelist’s work against his life, in particular the 12-volume edition of his letters, published by the Clarendon Press and known as ‘The Pilgrim Edition’, Oulton has some important predecessors, not least of which is Rosemarie Bodenheimer. In Knowing Dickens, Bodenheimer’s 2007 study, she makes a case for the Dickensian narrator’s insistence on not knowing. Oulton builds on this premise, as early as her opening sentence when she refers to Dickens’s ‘strategic but apparently genuine invitation to readers to navigate imaginatively what cannot be fully articulated by the writer himself’ (p. 1). Following this notion, Oulton later describes ‘a gap between what the reader is assumed to understand and what the characters themselves fail to notice’ (p. 48). Indicative of these gaps are characters who deceive or self-deceive, whether they fall on the benevolent or malevolent ends of the melodramatic spectrum. Oulton’s book also builds on recent investigations into Dickens’s life and work such as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (2011). Given her focus on the development of authorial identity, it might be interesting to hear Oulton’s thoughts on Robert L. Patten’s study Charles Dickens and ‘Boz’: The Birth of the Industrial-Age Author (2012). Oulton’s strongest claim is that Dickens imaginatively blurs forms of writing and even reality itself: fiction can be read as correspondence; personal letters constitute fictions; imaginative characters may be met in the street; and Dickens himself becomes the physical book on the shelf (a metonym, perhaps). When celebrating the completion of Nicholas Nickleby, published serially over 19 months, Dickens claimed that the novel ‘had been to him a diary of the last two years’ (p. 47). Further, Oulton explains that ‘a published novel can substitute for personal communication’; for instance, Dickens told Washington Irving, ‘I write to you individually and personally in my books’ (p. 105). If nothing else, this fiction-as-letter system saved the novelist time and trouble: a neglected correspondent need only pick up the latest monthly number of David Copperfield to hear from the author. Another form of blurring is what might be called characterological metalepsis: when literary characters cross the fiction/nonfiction divide. In various letters, Dickens refers to ‘my friend Mr Micawber’ and ‘my dear friend Pickwick’ (pp. 16–17); to another correspondent he says, ‘Your note finds me in Mr Pinch’s society’ (p. 71). Such instances of metalepsis imply the physical reality of fictional characters, as if Dickens’s novels are not novels but accounts of actual persons whom one may meet in London—that is to say, fiction as a form of journalism, another blurring. For an author whose works are still in print a century and a half after his death, Dickens was particularly keen to be read and understood by his contemporaries. Oulton’s view is that he tried ‘to infiltrate the lives of actual readers’, ‘to inculcate lessons’ (pp. 5–6). It was not enough merely to sell copies or find an audience, Dickens the novelist needed to change hearts and minds. In Oulton’s account, the Christmas Books, which began to appear in 1843, are clear examples of this mission. A Christmas Carol, the first such volume, is ‘the ultimate conversion narrative for both Scrooge and the reader’ (p. 55). Dickens, in his use of direct address and paratexts such as prefaces (usually written after a serial novel’s conclusion), aimed to shape the reader’s experience. As Oulton explains, ‘[T]he reader is literally taught how to read and respond to the text’ (p. 95). In the process of writing his narratives, Dickens simultaneously crafted his ideal reader and that reader’s response. Given the many local insights in Dickens and the Myth of the Reader, one wishes that it was more closely edited. Oulton refers to Bill Sikes as ‘Sykes’ (p. 43) and Betsey Trotwood as ‘Betsy’ (p. 98). Further, Oulton refers to ‘the sheer length of the three-decker novel’ without acknowledging that Dickens did not choose to work in this form: all of his novels were originally issued in monthly or weekly numbers; many of them are in fact ‘longer’ than the usual library triple-decker (p. 8). Moreover, Oulton’s book inadvertently points out some weaknesses in the MLA system of notation. She quotes John Forster and Kathryn Chittick, but neither of these writers appears in the bibliography; she quotes chapters by Nicholas Dames (‘On Not Close Reading’) and Robert L. Patten (‘Dickens as Serial Author’) but does not clearly indicate the books in which these chapters can be found. Perhaps the publisher, Routledge, finds footnotes and endnotes old fashioned, but in a work of this complexity, they would help the interested (or ideal) reader track down some sources. Nevertheless, Oulton’s book is to be recommended, not so much as an argument but as a thoughtful survey of particular tropes in Charles Dickens’s life and writing, from his journalistic beginnings to his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens referred to ‘This episodical life of mine’, that is a life composed of episodes but also a life spent composing episodes, for weekly and monthly numbers of his episodic fictions (p. 175). Within the strictures of serialized forms, Dickens created an authorial persona and its correspondent, his idealized reader. Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to Dickens and the Myth of the Reader is that it will return Dickens’s actual readers to his texts once again, to rediscover the richness and strangeness of his imaginative vision. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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