CHARLES DICKENS is bigger than his books, and both author and oeuvre are enormous. Jenny Hartley, Emeritus Professor at the University of Roehampton, has achieved a miracle of compression in this charmingly packaged book of 130 pages. As an established Dickens critic and editor, and a former president of the International Dickens Fellowship, she knows her subject inside out. The success of this pocket guide, however, lies in her clever selection of themes and emphases, and in her ability to relate all things Dickensian to the way we live now.
Chapter 1, “More”, uses Oliver Twist’s words in the workhouse as a launch pad for a review of Dickens’s plenitude. Hartley emulates Dickens imaginatively and stylistically at times. Through adaptations, she suggests, Oliver “relocates to New York, Toronto, Cape Town; he is sent to post-Soviet times in Twistov. On the page he is constantly reappearing — sixty-five new editions over the twenty years between 1984 and 2004”. A chapter on “Public and private” brings the crucial subject of serialisation to life through a judicious use of illustrations, while “Character and plot” is illustrated with a crowded scene by Hablot K. Browne — an emblem of 2000 named characters in Dickens, a master of synecdoche.
Hartley is at her best, however, in chapter 4, “City Laureate”, in which she argues that London in the mid-19th century was the “supreme modern urban space, and Dickens its chronicler”. Dickens’s London is “at the same time literal and transformed: a hyperreal London. . . It is not that the ‘romantic’ runs alongside the real, in the manner of magic realism, but rather that the real becomes invested with magic, irradiated and allegorized.”
Readers will look in vain for much on Dickens and religion, and perhaps more might have been said about his development as a writer. But this Very Short Study remains a tour de force as an introduction, buttressed as it is with a chronology and hints on further reading.
Dr Wheeler is Chairman of Gladstone’s Library and a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton.
Charles Dickens: A very short introduction
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