- Charles Dickens: An Introduction by Jenny Hartley
Jenny Hartley's Charles Dickens: An Introduction serves as a compact and effective first guide to novice readers of Dickens. Hartley successfully combines biographical and period context with short stretches of literary analysis, packed efficiently into the space of 151 pages.
Starting with Oliver Twist's famous "more" scene, Hartley unpacks its various registers: from black comedy to mundane speech, to Poor Law regulation parlance, to the narrator's distanced observations. She also calls attention to the scene's "choreographed" performativity, Cruikshank's illustration, and Oliver Twist's biographical context as Dickens's "bandwagon was starting to roll" (3, 6). The sustained attention to a specific scene makes this one of the most successful chapters in the book. Hartley also underscores how Dickens, beginning with The Pickwick Papers, encourages readers to feel a personal connection to his imagined world and authorial persona, a distinguishing characteristic. This chapter also gives examples of Dickens's trademark "bifocalism" of high and low and other oppositions, Victorian stage versions of his novels, his cinematic thinking, and twentieth century film adaptations (11).
Hartley's chapter 2, "Public and Private," provides an excellent overview of Dickens's biographical hallmarks from age twelve until his death, interspersed with examples of how key experiences influenced his fiction. Hartley comments that in David Copperfield Dickens's "innovation was to double track the perspectives of the child and the adult looking back" (21); reference to Charlotte Bronte's use of this method two years earlier would have provided an important literary context. Hartley treats Dickens's servitude in the blacking warehouse; his work as a parliamentary reporter; his infatuation with Maria Beadnell; his marriage to Catherine Hogarth and the death of sister-in-law Mary; his editorial work on Master Humphrey's Clock, Household Words and All the Year Round; his frequent speeches for charitable causes; his Urania Cottage project with Angela Burdett Coutts; his separation from Catherine; his affair with Ellen Ternan; and his public readings. Hartley underscores how Dickens thrived on deadlines and experienced a persistent physical and personal restlessness. [End Page 159]
A valuable chapter follows on "Character and Plot" organized around five topics: "Names, Bodies, Clothes," "Peoples and Objects," "Externalized Psychology," "Angels and Villains" and "Improbable Plots." Hartley points out Dickens's highly connotative naming and his "never-dry well of names," as well as his propensity for "riffing on his own name" (44). She writes that "For Dickens, the body cannot help but signify," and neither can human clothing, a sort of "dress code" communicating class and identity to Dickens's readers (45, 48). Hartley's examples of boundary-breaking between human and thing, and how Dickens psychologizes character through external objects, are concise and useful. The section on "Angels and Villains" compresses the topic to a degree that suggests this section may deserve its own chapter. "Improbable Plots" offers an important literary context to narrative sprawl but does not mention the "providential aesthetic" so important to the period and its literature.
London, "the supreme modern urban space," as it influenced the realism and key tropes of Dickens's writing, is the subject of the fourth chapter, "City Laureate" (66). Dickens's "pavement-level perspective," Hartley explains, stretches from Sketches by Boz to The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens represents London with consistent geographical accuracy and uses tropes such as anonymity, coming to London, crowds, and the "Infernal Gulfs" of dens, prisons, kidnapping, and pollution (67, 81). A final section here, "Oases," takes a brief but engaging look at Dickens's "improvised bolt-holes, havens and bulwarks against […] "the sooty embrace" of the "murky fog" that wraps around the city's inhabitants when they leave their warm retreats (86; Our Mutual Friend III:1).
Chapter 5, "Radical Dickens," focuses on Dickens as a social critic, and catalogues, from Sketches to Great Expectations, Victorian social causes about which Dickens wrote or gave speeches. Although it misses an opportunity to discuss the limitations and successes of Dickens as a Victorian agent of change, "Radical Dickens" examines how Dickens simultaneously...