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Reviewed by:
  • Knowing Dickens
  • Natalie McKnight (bio)
Rosemarie Bodenheimer. Knowing Dickens. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2007. 227 pp. ISBN 978-0-8014-4614-6, $35.00.

Rosemarie Bodenheimer’s Knowing Dickens presents what could be called a biography of Dickens’s mind. What did Dickens know? What can we know about him? How much of what he reveals in his writings was he conscious and in control of ? Bodenheimer aims to explore “the revealing and concealing intelligence that lurks somewhere—but where, exactly?—in Dickens’s writing,” and she attempts “to capture something of that knowing Dickens that eludes us” (2). Bodenheimer struggles to categorize her work, suggesting that it “makes its home in the gap between the chronological imperatives of biography and the literary imperatives of criticism, following some representative clusters of thought and feeling that link Dickens’s ways of talking in letters with his concerns in fiction and journalism” (2). While her project [End Page 768] may be difficult to categorize, it succeeds admirably in offering new insights into Dickens and his writings.

Bodenheimer includes chapters on “What Dickens Knew,” “Language on the Loose,” “Memory,” “Another Man,” “Manager of the House,” and “Streets.” “Language on the Loose” examines Dickens’s parodies of himself through his “hyperbolic talkers”; “Memory” dissects his most overtly autobiographical writings; “Another Man” looks at male rivals and doubles in Dickens’s life and fiction; “Manager of the House” explores Dickens as homemaker— a constructor of his own and fictional homes; and finally “Streets” analyzes the connections between Dickens’s perambulations and his writing process (15). In each chapter she moves seamlessly between letters, parts of novels, short fiction, and non-fiction to construct a rich sense of the workings of Dickens’s mind (14). In doing so, she hopes to illuminate the “inner dynamic” that Dickens projected outward in his writings (14). In other words, what are the patterns of thought and feeling that haunted Dickens, that he returned to repeatedly in his writings, and what are their sources and implications? These are intriguing questions, the kinds that tantalize and so often elude biographers because they require so much conjecturing about the interiority of the subject. Many writers would feel too timid to make many such conjectures, but Bodenheimer expertly and confidently mines Dickens’s own words to assess his elusive mind, and most readers will feel she substantiates her surmises through perceptive close readings.

“Memory” and “Another Man” are the best chapters. In “Memory” Bodenheimer offers intriguing insights into the autobiographical fragment that Dickens gave to his friend and first biographer John Forster. Frankly, I didn’t think it was possible to say anything new about the autobiographical fragment, but she does through a finely nuanced reading of the rhetoric of the piece in relation to Dickens’s other writings. Particularly good are her comments on Dickens’s fluctuation between pathos and parody in his fictional projections of the childhood trauma he describes in the fragment. According to the statement he gave to Forster, at the age of twelve he had to work in a blacking factory because his father was imprisoned for debt. Bodenheimer analyzes how Dickens recreated the pathos of the experience with David Copperfield’s employment in a warehouse, and parodied his own depiction of the trauma with Bounderby’s false claims about his deprived childhood in Hard Times (69). The parody does not suggest that Dickens had overcome his childhood crisis; instead it indicates that his experiences truly were traumatic, as they continually resurfaced in different guises throughout his life. Bodenheimer also productively probes the autobiographical fragment’s vacillation between confident statements of knowledge (“‘I know I do not exaggerate,’” “‘I know that, but for the mercy of [End Page 769] God’” etc.) and frustrated expressions about his inability to convey his experience, as when he writes “‘How much I suffered, it is, as I have said already, utterly beyond my power to tell’” (72). She suggests that the vacillations in the narrative indicate that Dickens was flailing around looking for closure to his traumatic story, since he had not found any at the time (his release from his warehouse work came without explanation, and the family remained silent...