Emily Bell (ed.), Dickens After Dickens.
York: White Rose University Press, 2020, 247 pp.
Open Access eBook, ISBN: 9781912482214.
Reviewed by Kathleen Beal
Recommended citation: Beal, Kathleen. 2021. Review of Emily Bell (ed.), Dickens After Dickens. Victorian Popular Fictions, 3.2: 218-220. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI: https://doi.org/10.46911/GYIK9852
Charles Dickens’s death on 9th June 1870 was the start of a whole new afterlife for his works and sparked an interest in his life that continues today. More has been written about this iconic writer since the mid-twentieth century than was ever written during his lifetime, to such an extent that many people now find the words “Dickensian” and “Victorian” interchangeable. This book is an eclectic collection confirming the continual interest in Dickens, his life, and his oeuvre.
The editor Emily Bell has brought together fascinating perspectives from a range of researchers, each piece elaborating on the diverse ways in which Dickens’s work continues to resonate with academics, students, film buffs, social historians, and general readers. With eleven chapters exploring different aspects of the afterlife of Dickens’s oeuvre, there is a great deal of information packed into two hundred and seventeen pages. The chapters offer extended versions of papers originally given at the 2016 After Dickens Conference held at York University. The remaining thirty pages contain a Foreword by Juliet John and a comprehensive seventeen-page Index. Each chapter ends with a germane bibliography. Numerous illustrations are interspersed throughout the text adding an extra level of interest to this impressive collection.
Recalling that Dickens was once ‘considered a lowbrow writer’ (3) yet is now a cultural icon, Bell’s comprehensive Introduction announces the aim of the collection as the attempt to “revise […] Dickens’s afterlives but also ideas of authenticity, adaption and nostalgia” (5). In the first chapter, Joanna Hofer-Robinson charts the changes from the rookeries described in Oliver Twist to a “Dickensian” location of cultural importance. Hofer-Robinson reminds the reader how “literary tourism continues to reinforce Jacob’s Island’s association with Dickens” (30), noting that Southwark Borough Council have erected plaques highlighting the area’s association with Oliver Twist and references to the novel along a local heritage trail. In sharp contrast to Jacob’s Island and its relevance to Oliver Twist is the neo-Victorian The Goldfinch, examined in Rob Jacklosky’s chapter. Jacklosky expertly tackles the widely held view that Donna Tartt’s novel, rather than Dickensian is “less an adaptation [..] than a neo-Victorian re-writing” (119).
The neo-Victorian theme is taken up by Claire O’Callaghan with a chapter on the many re-workings of the character of Miss Havisham. O’Callaghan’s analysis considers academic articles next to mass-media productions that explore the personality and trajectory of the ill-fated protagonist, providing a comprehensive examination of her functions and meanings. Pete Orford’s contribution deals with Rosa Budd, the “love interest” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Rosa is described by Orford as “one of Dickens’s least understood heroines” (101). He offers a captivating account on the unfinished painting of Rosa in the novel and what this tells the reader of Rosa’s character. Francesca Arnavas’s contribution “Little Nell in the Cyber Age” provides an analysis of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995). Arnavas skilfully argues that Stephenson’s complex novel is “formally constructed as a typical Dickens novel” (145). These different but compelling chapters give some idea of the scope of the articles in the collection.
Whilst the entire book is interesting for sheer entertainment value, Michael Eaton’s account of his adaptation of Great Expectations at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in March/April 2016 is hard to beat. Eaton recounts with a rumbustious tone how his play came to fruition, concluding that “another version of Dickens’s masterpiece has become a thing of memory, while the original continues to live for ever” (193). Laurena Tsudama’s thought-provoking “Dickensian Realism in The Wire” is a “precise understanding of the Dickensian, specifically in the context of Dickens as a realist writer” (160). Tsudama further comments that The Wire uses Dickensian realism by dwelling “on the romantic side of familiar things” to underscore “just how absurd reality can be” (167).
Kathy Rees’s contribution discusses how in 1870 a Norwegian journalist, Bjornstjerne Bjornson, recognised the importance of Dickens’s 1870 farewell reading. Rees concludes by remarking that “Bjornson’s engagement with Dickens’s novels would have energised those Norwegian readers who recognised the intertextual resonances” (52). Katie Bell provides an inspiring perspective in her “Dickens and Faulkner: Saving Joe Christmas.” Her chapter focuses on the views of the titular writers regarding the Christian faith. She offers particularly useful comments on how “[b]oth authors demonstrate the importance of looking below the “repellent … surface’ in their depictions of those who are spiritually entombed” (77).
“Waiting for Dickens” by John Bowen reflects on two aspects of waiting in relation to Dickens: one regarding readers of the first publications waiting for the next instalment, and another referring to Dickens’s interest in those waiting tables as a profession. The chapter provides great insights by exploring “what it means to wait, and what it means to be waited on, in Dickens’s work” (217). On her part, Emily Bell describes the numerous ways in which Dickens has been “fictionalised in diverse ways throughout the 20th and 21st centuries” (197). The range of texts she examines includes a Mills and Boon 1928 novel (Ephesian’s This Side Idolatry), Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens’s forgotten love The Invisible Woman (1991), and academic texts such as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s 2016 Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist. Bell’s account of “Cannibalising Dickens” is captivating and will be of interest to both academics and general Dickens enthusiasts.
This book is an eclectic collection about the many ways in which both the writing and the life of Dickens continue to entertain and provide a rich source for academic research. The chapters complement each other effectively and show the utter ubiquity of Dickens in both the literary canon and throughout society. It is a “must read” book for Dickens scholars and anyone interested in the afterlife of Victorian popular fiction and its impact on modern literature, screenplays, and media productions of great narratives.