- Dickens and the Imagined Child ed. by Peter Merchant and Catherine Waters
There continues to be no shortage of new research exploring the relevance of “The Inimitable” and his works for Victorian studies, a testament to Dickens’s reach into and legacy within twenty-first century academia. Dickens and the Imagined Child joins a host of books by Malcolm Andrews (whose foreword opens the volume), Laura Berry, Laura Peters, and others that approach Dickens through the analytic of the child. Given the proliferation of child-characters and treatments of childhood in his works, it makes a good deal of sense that scholars remain invested in theorizing the importance of children to both Dickens and the culture in which he wrote his novels. As such, this collection expands on existing scholarship about Dickens and childhood by bringing together essays that survey the multiplicity [End Page 174] of ways the child figured in the cultural imagination of Dickens and his audience.
The volume is organized into three parts, but all seem to hinge on the first essay by Rosemarie Bodenheimer, who attempts to define the Dickensian child according to age, character, and development. While some of these observations seem somewhat narrowly construed, Bodenheimer’s most useful contribution is her articulation of what she calls the “knowing child,” one who is exposed to the realities of adulthood yet remains aware of the cultural expectations about childhood that force her or him to play the part of a gay and naïve youth. The premise that Dickens understands children through both the fairy-tale construction of their innocence and the sobering harshness of their social experiences threads together the essays in the first section, in which Galia Benziman, Carolyn Oulton, and Jennifer Gribble analyze specific examples of children and their representative natures in Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son, and Bleak House, respectively. Part two shifts tracks to address the significance of memory for Dickens, especially as it pertains to remembering childhood from the perspective of an adult. The essays in this unit are intriguing, as Maria Teresa Chialant, Jane Avner, and Peter Merchant explore the function of memory as a concern within Dickens’s fiction, as an inspiration for his writing, and as a source for subsequent writers recalling Dickens’s stories. Of certain interest is the piece by Jonathan Buckmaster, which tracks Dickens’s early detour from the mode of serial publication he adopted in The Pickwick Papers to an obscure memoir of a famous pantomime clown Joseph Grimaldi, whose antics Buckmaster connects to Dickens’s later depictions of childhood wonder and delight.
The first two parts of the collection contain insightful readings of Dickens’s fictional and nonfictional oeuvre but offer few completely fresh perspectives or methodologies that significantly revitalize Dickens studies. This is less true of part three, which focuses on acts of reading and writing and their role in the childhood imagination. While Wu Di presents a more familiar interpretation of the importance of Dickensian child readers, Laura Peters suggests that the relationship between adults and their memories of childhood reading reveal a vexed and problematic colonialist attitude. The most engaging essay of the book is Christine Alexander’s, which details the periodical conceived and generated by Dickens’s children, the Gad’s Hill Gazette. Alexander demonstrates that Dickens’s advocacy of the imagination, combined with his love for the theater, helped motivate his children’s efforts to play at periodical production, efforts which in turn promoted a sense of responsibility and ambition, traits Dickens championed as essential for successful child development. Alexander’s argument is particularly innovative as it connects a thematic literary interest in child-hood [End Page 175] to Dickens’s practical involvement with periodical production and serialization.
Dickens and the Imagined Child reads largely as advertised: it is a sprawling compendium of widely diverse approaches and readings, occasionally meandering a little left of its professed central analytic. But it is nevertheless a helpful compilation in that through its manifold definitions of the child and childhood it demonstrates the fluidity...