Finding Dickens Serious

Roger D Sell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

Abstract

AT LEAST IN ONE KEY RESPECT, DICKENS’S self-presentation was as contemporary readers would have wanted. Victorian readers were not really sure that a novelist’s profile was improved by exhibiting Victorian kinds of seriousness. Even though Dickens was labelled by Trollope as a radical, even though he might have seemed Utilitarian enough in showing the ‘captain of industry’ Mr Rouncewell facing up to the ancestrally privileged Sir Leicester Dedlock, even though he did at least as much as most other Victorian novelists to raise awareness of the condition of women, and even though he fiercely satirised several other aspects of the Victorian scheme of things, his moral and social criteria were not entirely stable. Well attuned to the ideological, cultural, and linguistic heterogeneity of the society in which he was working, he could opportunistically switch from one type of writer persona to another, and proposed correspondingly differing reader personae as well. Sometimes such variations could have struck readers as they moved from one novel to another. Although the sociocultural identity of the ‘new man’ Mr Bounderby in Hard Times is similar to that of the admirable Mr Rouncewell in Bleak House, readers were urged to enjoy Dickens’s ridicule of Bounderby, for reasons that would have been partly endorsed by Sir Leicester Dedlock. Then again, in just a single novel the various characters or caricatures could represent a whole range of contrasting viewpoints, few of which finally emerged as some sort of ‘truth’, but many of which readers were bound to try on for size. In Dombey and Son, both Dickens and his readers are positioned to judge Captain Cuttle’s simplicity by the standards of a genteel sophistication worthy of Mrs Skewton, while at the same time there is also an assessment to be made of Mrs Skewton’s artificiality against the benchmark of a ‘Wordsworthian’ naturalness such as Captain Cuttle’s.1 In short, the novels of Dickens, while pinpointing aspects of the world around him with unparalleled sharpness and engagement, showed relatively little zeal for an utter transformation of human life and society along some sustained spiritual or ethical trajectory. His work gave rise to plenty of discussion, but he did not pretend to be a Victorian sage – a Ruskin or a Carlyle.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)80-101
Number of pages22
JournalEssays in Criticism
Volume71
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2021
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

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