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  • The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens ed. Robert L. Patten, John O. Jordan, and Catherine Waters
  • Iain Crawford
The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens, ed. Robert L. Patten, John O. Jordan, and Catherine Waters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. xxxiii + 819 pp.

Resembling a full-length Dickens novel in its more than 800 pages of text and wide array of rich illustrations, The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens includes some 50 essays organized into five sections: Personal and Professional Life; The Works; Socio-Historical Contexts; Literary and Cultural Contexts; and, finally, Dickens Re-visioned. In their introduction, editors Robert Patten, John Jordan, and Catherine Waters define the Handbook's essential aim as being to "emulate the accessibility, innovativeness, and imaginative interest" (1) their subject inspires, with subordinate goals of providing "ready reference, information . . . and guidance" (2), linking recurring issues and themes among the individual essays, and thereby helping readers around the globe as they explore the connections between Dickens's age and our own. Through the extraordinary range of its coverage of Dickens and his works, its corps of contributors, and the breadth of approaches gathered within its pages, The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens more than fulfils these ambitions: it offers both an indispensable guide to its subject and a comprehensive aggregation of the many ways in which this most fertile of authors continues to be interpreted, reinvented, and adapted a century and a half after his death.

The opening four essays explore the phenomenon that was Dickens himself. Channeling Peter Ackroyd, Rosemarie Bodenheimer builds on her groundbreaking Knowing Dickens as she examines "the troubled strangeness of the man" (13), considers the curious dynamics between what we know of his life and the various ways in which he reconstructed it through his writing, and, above all, emphasizes "the resilience with which he turned every aspect of his experience [End Page 379] into artistic gold" (17). An early instance of the ways in which the volume's essays seamlessly interconnect immediately follows as Leon Litvack's essay on Dickens's reading not only reminds us how voracious and encyclopedic he was but also demonstrates how profoundly he infused other texts into his own writing. One notable instance of this can be seen in the "thousands of allusions" (33) to the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer that are to be found throughout the fiction, and this in turn exemplifies the ways in which the Handbook so often directs our attention to a larger point about a subject that still remains under-explored in Dickens studies. In this instance, that subject is the role of religion in Dickens's life and work. Litvack, along with other contributors, references the two major books on this topic, by Dennis Walder and Janet Larson, respectively. But both appeared back in the 1980s and, as Jennifer Gribble's essay later in the volume demonstrates, while there have been numerous smaller projects addressing various aspects of religion in Dickens, space remains for a more comprehensive account of a subject which, if perhaps academically less fashionable, is clearly crucial to our understanding of both the author and his age. This opening section of the Handbook concludes with John Bowen's telling appraisal of the many ways in which Dickens reshaped the literary profession through his work as both author and editor, and then Tony Williams's complementary description of the man who became a public figure through not just his professional writing and editing but also his engagement in matters of public interest, such as the purchase of Shakespeare's house, and his deep and enduring commitment to philanthropic work.

Part II of the Handbook is devoted to a series of essays on each of Dickens's works, together with chapters on travel, journalism, and children's literature. Almost uniform in their level of excellence, the individual essays each approach the text with a defined analytical focus, situate their discussion within the established critical conversation around the work, and offer insightful suggestions on potential future directions for study. Among the many fine contributions here a few stand out from the rest: Paul Schlicke's eloquent case for overcoming the longstanding neglect of Sketches by...


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pp. 379-383
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