- The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens ed. by Robert L. Patten et al.
The esteemed editors of The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens are to be congratulated for assembling a body of work that will prove informative and provocative for both lifelong Dickensians and newcomers to his works. This prodigious effort—forty-nine essays plus an introduction, timeline, and family tree—grew out of the press's desire to contribute to the 2012 bicentenary celebration of Charles Dickens's birth, performing the "work of mapping the new Dickens terrain," as Juliet John suggests in the volume's final essay (756). The volume's comprehensiveness is Dickensian in itself, with essays organized into five sections: "Personal and Professional Life" (four essays), "The Works" (twenty), "The Socio-Historical-Contexts" (seventeen), "The Literary and Cultural Contexts" (four), and "Dickens Re-Visioned" (four). However, the Oxford Handbook pushes well beyond the aims of a typical reference work, making good on the promise on its first page that each essay is "innovative and original" (1). While most of the essays are written by eminent scholars, none simply rehash previously published work but instead offer novel readings of texts and contexts, surveying existing criticism, often with impressive thoroughness, extending the critical conversation, and suggesting directions for future work.
Rosemarie Bodenheimer's "Biographical Dickens," the first essay, deliberately avoids an encyclopedic chronology, focusing instead on "the two most contested episodes in Dickens's life, his stint as a child labourer at Warrens's Blacking in 1824, and the breakup of his marriage to Catherine Hogarth Dickens in 1858" (10). Although she packs quite a bit of biographical information into the essay, Bodenheimer's argument about the contest over the meaning of these two incidents in the biographical tradition, including Dickens's communications with John Forster, is convincing about the ways in which Dickens himself worked actively to shape his own biography and control the meanings of key events in it. Offering more than a standard biography, the essay provides instead a critical apparatus with which to query biographical texts past, present, and future, something much richer than what the reference-sounding "handbook" of the volume's title led me to expect.
Sometimes, these arguments or focused readings border on the idiosyncratic. To illustrate, Ian Duncan's intriguing contribution on Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) uses Silas Wegg and Jenny Wren to discuss a historical moment of transition between the ballad or folk culture tradition and the emergent anthropological turn toward more comparative readings of fairy tales. In this, Duncan argues, the novel anticipates E. B. Tylor's Primitive Cultures (1871), a work usually taken to signal this shift. I found the argument fascinating, but the line of analysis left out so much of the novel. Another example is Mary Hammond's discussion of Great Expectations (1860–61) as an early example of multiplatform publishing, particularly in reprintings in the regional press and local newspapers, archives that increasingly can be accessed because of digitization. Entries such as these are "original and innovative," but lack the more comprehensive scope of essays like Kate Flint's on Bleak House (1852–53), which surveys the extensive scholarship on the novel and incorporates many of its characters and subplots, all organized around the novel's dialectic of obscurity and interpretation, expansion and containment. This is not to say [End Page 117] that the latter essay is more appropriate to the volume, but readers who turn to the handbook for the entries on the individual works need to be prepared to encounter some essays that attempt to provide a more comprehensive overview and others that pull on one or a few intriguing threads.
Three overlapping themes give shape to the Handbook's multiplicity. First, the editors have selected a strong network of essays to map the existing terrain of Dickens scholarship on the individual works (including the journalism) and a full range of historical and cultural contexts. Many of the essays trace shifts in critical foci over the...