- The Romantic Legacy of Charles Dickens by Peter Cook
Writing for The Listener in 1954, the critic and writer V. S. Pritchett notes that while Charles Dickens's most obvious literary predecessors were Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding, "Sterne and the romantic movement have taught [Dickens] the value of pathos, tears, changeableness, and the gestures against an unjust world" (28). Like other critics who have remarked upon Dickens's Romantic inheritance, Pritchett then moves on without much further clarification. These kinds of critical moves leave readers guessing at the connection between the most famous Victorian novelist and the Romantics, such as William Wordsworth, Mary and Percy Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, and John Keats. It is precisely this ongoing gap in the scholarship that Peter Cook attempts to fill in his recent monograph, The Romantic Legacy of Charles Dickens, in which Cook announces he wants "to substantiate the assertion that Dickens was indeed an important legatee of the Romantic movement" (2). Cook's monograph is an important and necessary contribution to the field that should prompt more such scholarship.
Cook's text, however, is not bibliographic detective work; rather he works to find the "parallels, echoes, [and] allusions" between Dickens and the [End Page 195] Romantics (255). As Cook summarizes in his conclusion, "Charles Dickens's debt to his Romantic Period predecessors is far more extensive and significant than has previously been recognised" (255). To show this, Cook reads eight of Dickens's novels against his Romantic predecessors in chapters structured around childhood, time, progress, and alienation. The book is most successful when Cook provides exceptional close readings of Dickens paired with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Romantics. He argues persuasively, for example, that "The Romantic roots of Dickens's exploration of progress in Bleak House are clear, and his conclusions unequivocal" (163). He then provides a convincing case that Harold Skimpole, the financially ignorant but charming painter in Bleak House generally considered to be modeled on Leigh Hunt, actually represents an older Samuel Taylor Coleridge who "never finishes his poems and sketches" (163). In such moments, Cook asks us to not only reconsider Dickens but also to rethink how the images of the Romantic poets passed from one generation to the next.
Of the four chapters, Cook's strongest argument is Dickens's inheritance of the Romantic view of childhood, itself a monumental intellectual break. Cook argues convincingly that Dickens inherited this view and expanded it beyond what the Romantics could have imagined, particularly in his two first-person novels. It is an impressive argument that forces readers to question how much of our discourse on childhood is influenced by Dickens's portrayals of David and Pip. Cook then connects both novels back to the Romantics, summarizing, "If Steerforth is the Byronic hero of David Copperfield, then it is Joe, the hard-working, steadfast countryman, who is the Wordsworthian hero of Great Expectations, descendant of the Leech-gatherer, the shepherd Michael and the Solitary Reaper" (67). Even in such astute observations, Cook reveals a limitation of his study: the Romantics were never a monolith with a single aesthetic or political heuristic, so finding the "parallels, echoes, [and] allusions" to them feels almost inevitable.
Cook is not the first to argue for such a relationship: he cites Iain Crawford's argument that Great Expectations (1860–61) is something akin to a reimagining of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). And Jeremy Tambling, in his notes for the Penguin edition of David Copperfield, observes that David has certain parallels to the Romantics. Cook's addition to Dickens scholarship is broader. He argues that in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41) Dickens begins to ask questions "around the nature of human relationships and human interaction, and the relationship between human beings and their environment, in a post-revolutionary world: the kind of questions that Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Mary Shelley had asked during the birth pangs of the political and industrial revolutions" (222). The problem with such an assertion, however, is its generality. One...