- Dickens’s Signs, Readers’ Designs: New Bearings in Dickens Criticism ed. by Francesca Orestano, Norbert Lennartz
Michael Hollington opens this varied collection of essays, one of the many produced to mark the Dickens bicentenary, with a generous foreword. His brief explanation of the “genesis” (13) of the book signals the initial influence of the late Sally Ledger. It also clarifies the work’s origins in a series of Dickens seminars at ESSE (European Society for the Study of English) gatherings. As is often the case with volumes derived from conference presentations, Dickens’s Signs, Readers’ Designs is loosely structured, with individual essays tending towards suggestive and exploratory contributions rather than fully developed ones. The thread that Francesca Orestano and Norbert Lennartz use to unify the collection is the idea of Dickens as a “modern” and “progressive” voice. As they claim in the introduction, “Dickens’s texts are resonant with the issues of modern life,” and the Inimitable himself “has the quality of the chameleon who knows how to conceal his deconstructive assaults on the Victorian age behind a veneer of literary conventionality” (28). This “modern” or “contemporary” side of Dickens has received plenty of attention recently in other collections such as Contemporary Dickens (2009), Dickens and Modernity (2012), and Charles Dickens, Modernism, Modernity (2014). Dickens’s Signs, Readers’ Designs distinguishes itself from these volumes by drawing more obviously (if not exclusively) on the work of scholars based in non-Anglophone cultures.
In a thoughtful piece in the collection’s first section, Alessandro Vescovi provides apt terms for the divergent “critical attitudes” that have defined recent Dickens scholarship (53). These are the “intra-Dickensian” and “extra-Dickensian”; the first term refers to criticism interested in trying to “elucidate” Dickens “by means of a thorough knowledge of his times,” while the second is a form of scholarship that “consists in wandering away from Dickens … [and] often relying on concepts and knowledge that have become available after the writer’s death” (53). Vescovi’s classifications of the “intra-” and “extra-Dickensian” can be applied usefully not only to the broad field of Dickens studies but also to the contents of Dickens’s Signs, Readers’ Designs. There are attempts here, unsurprisingly in a volume that [End Page 153] promises “new bearings,” to approach Dickens from a range of theoretical perspectives which include thing theory, gender studies, queer theory, animal studies, poverty studies and neo-Victorianism. The collection also contains a number of more traditional close readings that contextualize Dickens’s work in relation to biographical, historical and cultural contexts.
Some of the volume’s strongest essays, in fact, operate in the “intra-Dickensian” vein. In the section on “Dickens and Gender,” Norbert Lennartz and Angelika Zirker manage impressively to find something new to say on the women of Dickens’s fiction. Lennartz turns in fascination to the “anti-Victorian otherness” of Edith Dombey in Dombey and Son. Reading the character closely, he demonstrates how Dickens daringly “transfers the qualities of the Byronic hero and dandyish rebel onto a female character” (110). In one of the essay’s many insightful moments, Lennartz analyzes Edith’s weary response to Carker’s schemes as the behavior of “a female Childe Harold, conscious of her isolation” (119). Lennartz argues finally that Edith is one of those fascinating characters Dickens is “at a loss what to do with” (122). Zirker’s essay is also an in-depth treatment of a particular character. Beginning with the often negative critical reception of Amy Dorrit as one-dimensional and boring, her essay is an attempt to “redesign” these unappreciative readings (173). Zirker argues that if we see Amy Dorrit merely as an implausibly “good” woman, we are missing the point. Amy is defined, according to Zirker, as a character who functions apart from the real world and her own surroundings. Ultimately, Dickens deploys her as a representation of “the survival of goodness in a corrupted world” (184–85).
Energetic contextualized close readings are also central to three quite different essays by Saverio Tomaiuolo, Nathalie...