- Unsettling Dickens: Process, Progress and Change ed. by Christine Huguet and Paul Vita
The origins of Christine Huguet's and Paul Vita's collection Unsettling Dickens: Process, Progress and Change lie in the memorable "Tale of Four Cities" travelling conference that began in Paris and then moved to London by way of Boulogne and Rochester in the Bicentenary year of 2012. With its 2016 publication date, this volume might seem a slightly belated addition to the steady flow of monographs and essay collections published since that significant Dickensian anniversary. It is true the essays in Unsettling Dickens are uneven in quality, and many offer speculative explorations rather than authoritative critical statements. Such issues, however, are hardly unique in texts such as this one. What is refreshing is how Huguet and Vita manage to bring a thematic coherence to the collection's disparate parts; in doing so, they encourage its readers to think about the ways in which the ideas in these pieces speak to each other.
Unsettling Dickens certainly gets off to a convincing start, combining a typically suggestive, ideas-driven "Foreword" by Michael Hollington with a more measured, carefully developed "Introduction" by Christine Huguet and Paul Vita. In the former, Hollington begins by arguing that, both literally and figuratively, "all Dickens's novels remain 'on the road'" through their [End Page 265] preoccupation with "the master theme of motion" (13). Hollington then stretches this focus on motion into the pertinent Dickensian tropes of "the idea of the 'progress,'" borrowed from great forebears such as John Bunyan and William Hogarth (14), and into consideration of Dickens as walker and flâneur extraordinaire. Hollington's main theme is expertly taken up in Huguet and Vita's "Introduction;" they stress that the image of Dickens presented by their contributors is a restlessly energetic rather than a staid, "monumental" one (22). Their collection is interested, more specifically, in "examining the ways in which configurations of movement and change are captured and articulated" in Dickens (28). The varied essays assembled here interpret "movement" and "change" in flexible terms, and range from the actual mobility of journeys and pilgrimages to a more abstract interpretation of literary influence as "movements across texts" (27). In exploring these themes, the volume discusses a variety of Dickens texts, but as Huguet and Vita point out, their focus on "development," "changes," and "looking backwards […] and forwards" lends itself very well to in-depth examination of Dickens's fictional autobiographies David Copperfield and Great Expectations (25-26).
While the first cluster of essays, "Dickensian Processes: Displacing Narrative Paradigms," could be more coherent, there are a number of intriguing arguments within its individual pieces. In "Charles Dickens, Mental Time-Travelling and Autobiographical Memory," Simon J. James proposes an interdisciplinary reading of Dickens "in the light of recent empirical work on the psychology of autobiographical memory" (33), which suggests that memories are not "fixed" in nature, but rather "rewritten each time" they are "needed" (35). In this essay, James's focus falls largely on the Autobiographical Fragment; his insightful close reading of this short but significant text leads to the surprising conclusion that the Fragment did not represent a "traumatic" memory for Dickens, but rather "an essential part of Dickens's personal myth" (49–50). The title of Jacqueline Fromonot's "Fluid Mechanics in David Copperfield" suggests a parallel interest in scientific approaches, but the essay in fact provides an ingenious analysis of "the rhetorical, the poetic and […] aesthetic handling of the narrative flux in David Copperfield" (79). Though the piece never clarifies exactly how its exploration of "flow" and "fluidity" connects up with the patterns and rhythms of serial fiction (79), it does include a number of impressively detailed stylistic investigations of scenes from the novel.
Part II, "Progress in Dickens: Signifying Across Space," deals more straightforwardly with various forms of fictional and journalistic travel. Ray Crosby's "'The Weakest Pilgrim Going': Pilgrimage in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations" provides an original take on a theme not usually associated with this late, great novel. As Crosby explains...