- Dickens and the Imagined Child ed. by Peter Merchant and Catherine Waters
This book offers a fresh study of the figure of the child as an imaginative force in Dickens’s life and literature. Thematically, the essays explore familiar scholarly ground, covering topics such as the categorical fluidity of Dickensian children and adults, the centrality of childhood memory to the formation of the adult subject, the relationship between the Warren Blacking Factory episode and Dickens’s fictional children, and conflicting perceptions of the child as either Romantic innocent or original sinner. What sets this volume apart from similar studies is that it takes the Dickensian child not as its final object of inquiry, but as a means of elucidating the interplay between the author’s perception of the child and childhood and the development of his aesthetic sensibilities and practices.
Part 1, “The Dickensian Child,” explores the ways in which the Dickensian child was defined by both Dickens himself and his adult characters. Rosemarie Bodenheimer offers [End Page 97] a general “typology of the Dickensian Child” (7) and a compelling theory of what she calls “the knowing child”: those children such as Bleak House’s Jo who, because privy to secrets from the adult world, remain suspended or “stuck” between adulthood and childhood. In the next two essays, Galia Benziman and Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton spotlight the relationship between such categorical instability and Dickens’s generic fluidity. Benziman argues that Dickens vacillates between fairy tale and fantasy in Boz’s “The First of May” and in Oliver Twist in order to expose the impoverished child’s status as a vacillating social signifier whose meaning is externally determined. Oulton shows that myth and fantasy in Dombey and Son bridge competing versions of the child. In the final essay of this section, Jennifer Gribble turns to a very different type of source text, arguing that Dickens incorporates the discourses and doctrines of evangelical Christianity into Bleak House in order both to counter the notion of the child as original sinner and to advance a model of redemptive domesticity.
One of the strengths of this volume is the ease with which its general considerations transcend its individual sections. Part 2, “Childhood and Memory,” carries forward two concerns advanced in part 1: namely, the social and narrative malleability of the child and, relatedly, the relationship between the child and the adult. Yet whereas the first section considers the child’s formation within Dickens’s fictional worlds, the second explores the author’s own childhood experiences and the ways in which his memories of these events inform his fiction broadly and his fictional adults specifically. To connect Dickens’s writings to his childhood traumas may seem by now unlikely to yield many fresh observations, but biographical criticism, in this case, becomes the basis for unexpected insights into the development of his narrative methods. In part 2’s first essay, for example, Maria Teresa Chialant draws a connection between Dickens’s experiences in Warren’s Blacking Factory and the writerly techniques that David Copperfield, Pip, and Esther Summerson employ to manage the adult identities that they create via their first-person retrospective accounts. In an essay evocative in both its argument and its prose, Jane Avner reads Great Expectations as “a novel of return,” for Dickens as well as for Pip (99). While Avner attributes that key feature of Dickensian “fancy,” “the odd, the zany, the grotesque” (100), to his childhood experiences in the Chatham region, Jonathan Buckmaster explores the effect of the author’s childhood memories of pantomime clowns on the depictions of “grotesque consumption” that appear throughout his oeuvre (111). In a move that feels delightfully Dickensian, Buckmaster illuminates unexpected connections between the great and the small, tracing the textual and imaginative links between one of Dickens’s obscure early works—Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, a pseudo-autobiography of the famous Regency pantomime clown—and his more prominent fiction, showing how Dickens recycles elements of Grimaldi’s clownish gluttony in characters appearing in Oliver Twist, [End Page 98] Martin Chuzzlewit, and...