- Knowing Dickens
For once, the publisher's blurbs do not exaggerate: Rosemarie Bodenheimer's Knowing Dickens is indeed a valuable addition to the many critical studies of Dickens. It is a beautifully written, intelligently argued analysis of Dickens's life and work that focuses primarily on the psychological aspects of his writing and how these relate to the events of his life. The punning title says it all: Bodenheimer claims that Dickens was a far wiser and more "knowing" author than he has often been given credit for; at the same time, her book is an attempt to allow readers to "know" Dickens and his fiction better. Bodenheimer's understanding of what knowing means includes not knowing, or denying what one knows, so her argument is built around a paradox: Dickens, claims Bodenheimer, was interested in "ways of knowing what we don't know and not knowing what we do know" (24). As this formulation suggests, the focus here is primarily on unconscious knowledge. Dickens, Bodenheimer claims, was the Victorian novelist most deeply intrigued by nineteenth-century notions of [End Page 258] the unconscious mind, a claim substantiated by the fact that Dickens's library at his death contained over thirty books on the workings of the mind.
Bodenheimer's chapters are organized around various forms of conscious and unconscious knowledge, as these are manifested in language, in memory, in relationships between men, and in the significance of houses, with a final chapter on the kind of knowledge to be gleaned from walking the streets of London. Some of these topics have been dealt with before. Memory and dream states in the novels have received much critical attention, as has Dickens's portrayal of the relationship between men. Bodenheimer's chapter "Another Man" owes much to Eve Kosovsky Sedgewick's critical study of the homosocial implications in Our Mutual Friend. But Bodenheimer invariably casts an original light even on well-worn critical paths. Dickens, she points out, lived in a world of men, so it is not surprising that he was more at home depicting male relationships in his fiction, or that these relationships are more realistic and vital than those between men and women. Bodenheimer also has interesting things to say about Dickens's relationship with his male friends, especially John Forster and Wilkie Collins, suggesting that male friendship was in many ways more important to him than relationships with women.
Bodenheimer's method in this study is to use biography to explain fiction, basing her readings of the novels on Dickens's letters, journalism, and non-fiction essays. While she is an intelligent reader of both the life and the art, and her book is consistently illuminating, it is Bodenheimer's focus on Dickens's life that makes the greatest impression. For instance, it was news to me that Dickens spent several years in the 1840s fantasizing about being a Police Magistrate who would hear cases brought by members of the force. He went so far as to lobby for the position, for which, not being a barrister, he was unqualified. Strange ambition for a successful novelist! Equally startling is the fact that Dickens—champion of the poor and the underdog, the author credited with first placing a child at the centre of a novel intended for adults—was reluctant to lend his name to campaigns that proposed to limit the hours of child labour. His resistance to joining such campaigns was lifelong despite numerous attempts to enlist his help. "Dickens," Bodenheimer asserts, "simply did not write about children who worked—as he had done—in nondomestic jobs for regular wages" (63). (The exception is one chapter in David Copperfield.)
Dickens's concern with the welfare of children has usually been connected to his several months of working at Warren's Blacking factory. This episode, for which Dickens is our only source, has become one of the formative events in discussions of both Dickens's life and his fiction. Bodenheimer provocatively suggests that the autobiographical fragment about Warren's Blacking that Dickens wrote in his thirties might be another...