- Some Keywords in Dickens ed. by Michael Hollington, Francesca Orestano and Nathalie Vanfasse
Words are surely the best place to begin with Dickens. Few writers have been as fertile of words and as precise and intentional in their choice. What makes him challenging for our students is what we love: the exuberance and vitality of the language in his densely packed paragraphs, its manic energy and intensity, the way the words sound in the ear, read on the page, and resonate in the imagination. It is fortunate, then, that we have a new collection of essays that returns to what might be thought of as the basics: the words themselves.
Most of the fifteen pieces in this collection were first presented in a seminar hosted in 2018 by the European Society for the Study of English (ESSE) and held in the Czech Republic. The title is, of course, a nod to Raymond Williams’s classic work, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976; rev. 1983). But whereas Williams mostly discussed abstract words, in Some Keywords it is more common for the “the lexical items … [to] belong to the empirical, phenomenal world” (12).1 It does seem odd, though, that “recent techniques of distant reading, such as data mining or word clouds,” have not been included because their “heuristic power was not considered as fruitful for this project as tried and trusted methods of close reading” (14). As to why they are not fruitful for a study of keywords or why such approaches are apparently inferior to “tried and trusted methods of close [End Page 100] reading” is never made clear. It is an odd omission because otherwise this volume is expansive in what it considers a keyword – perhaps to a fault – and entertains a variety of different approaches and treatments. With this variety in mind, the editors are helpfully explicit in their overall intention, which is to show “how highly conscious Dickens was of words – of their meanings … and of the ideas they conjure up, but also of their very substance, texture, plasticity, visuality, aural and semantic resonance, as well as their interactions with other words and their cultural environment” (11).
While it is impossible in a brief review to consider individually all fifteen contributions, I do want to draw attention to several highlights. As a general proposition, the most successful pieces in this collection are often the most idiosyncratic in their choice of keywords, and therefore the most focused. I doubt anyone would find prison or debt to be surprising. But sideways? or hoorroar? or luller-li-e-te? It is frequently the case that the ingeniousness of word selection matches the shrewdness of the interpretation. There is a relaxed and exploratory quality to these pieces that is occasionally absent in the broader and less focused surveys. Take Lillian Nayder’s exploration of Dickens’s use of the word sideways, for instance. Sideways characters in Dickens, she explains, exist at an angle to society or inhabit the margins. Although the significance of the word varies from context to context, Nayder distinguishes between sideways movement which “dramatises the exercise of power and attempts to subvert it” and sideways posture which “conveys powerlessness, neglect and decrepitude among characters and things” (200). As for sideways looks, they commonly “signify confederacy, understanding, and approval, on the one hand, and suspicion, distrust, and animosity, on the other,” though they might also connote curiosity, appraisal, or admiration (200). Sideways-looking characters in Dickens – Nayder particularly cites Uriah Heep, Mademoiselle Hortense, and Abel Magwitch – often inhabit the periphery of society and “embody class resentment and otherness” (201). They both look from the side and come from the side, “[T]heir manner of looking [mirroring] the ways in which others perceive them” (201). As Nayder remarks, this looking and moving sideways to life is also an attribute of Dickens the writer and of his work and “reflects his lateral thinking – his non-hierarchical vision of things” (203). This is a stimulating piece that is original in its...