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  • Charles Dickens and the Properties of Fiction: The Lodger World by Ushashi Dasgupta
  • Molly Boggs (bio)
Charles Dickens and the Properties of Fiction: The Lodger World, by Ushashi Dasgupta; pp. xv + 307. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2020, £63.00, $85.00.

In Charles Dickens and the Properties of Fiction: The Lodger World, Ushashi Dasgupta reminds us that, while Charles Dickens has become inexorably associated with images of cozy Victorian domesticity, this is the product of careful ideological work that began soon after his death. When John Forster wrote in his biography of Dickens that his genius was in his "domestic nature," or when Robert William Buss painted him imagining his characters from a snug seat in his study at Gad's Hill, they were actively creating this image of Dickens situated in the comfortable, private middle-class home (The Life of Charles Dickens [Chapman, 1899], 282). Dasgupta asks us to consider Dickens's domestic legacy alongside "an alternative, equally powerful narrative: he was a tenant for much of his life, and considered tenancy to be a reality worthy of serious exploration" (23). Throughout his career, Dasgupta argues, Dickens would remain fascinated by the question of whether "moving house, and the flexibility and transformation that mobility brings, can be healthier than attachment to place" (8). Dasgupta invites us not into Dickens's idealized homes, but rather into his drafty rented rooms, where lonely bachelors write home with tallies of complaints, the landlady pockets your tea, and strangers eavesdrop just on the other side of the wall. This is the Lodger World.

Investing tenancy with its own agency and subjectivity, Dasgupta declares that "this book revolves around an economic transaction, the spaces in which it is realized, and the people it touches" (2). In doing so she aligns herself with what has been called the new [End Page 306] economic criticism: the study of the ways in which the material conditions of financial systems shape literary form. Dasgupta pays close attention to the granular historical detail of life in lodgings: which chores a landlady was responsible for undertaking; the implied class distinction between a ground floor and a second-story room; and the particular characters of neighborhoods like Leicester Square. She also draws on the work of William Makepeace Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Henry Mayhew, George Augustus Sala, Anthony Trollope, and other mid-century writers to flesh out a canon of Victorian literature of the lodging house, which provides an exciting new context for reading Dickens.

In chapter 1, Dasgupta contextualizes Dickens's early fiction against the lodging-house farce, a popular early-nineteenth-century theatrical genre. By learning more about the day-to-day experience of life in the lodging house, where the complex individuality of lodgers necessarily becomes distilled into stereotypes and tropes, we can see the lasting influence of both lodging-house life and the farce tradition on Dickens's writing career. Dasgupta pays special attention to Dickens's continued fascination with live-in landladies. Successfully bridging the spheres of economic and domestic life, the Victorian landlady occupied "a genuinely subversive position in nineteenth-century culture." While other contemporary authors played up the grotesquerie of this position, Dickens instead aligns himself with his "irrepressible" landladies (77)—sources of constant narrative, deeply concerned with issues of character, and with the power to create "tiny worlds of their own from nothing" (85)—and subsumes them into his developing authorial voice. Dasgupta is most exciting when she reveals, as she does here, that what we think of as idiosyncratic stylistic quirks in Dickens can be connected to specific and complex material realities.

In chapter 2, Dasgupta continues her focus on genre by turning to Dickens's experiments with the Bildungsroman in David Copperfield (1849) and Great Expectations (1861). Both David and Pip experience bachelor life in London lodgings as a kind of domestic hazing on the path that, they hope, will ultimately lead to marriage and domestic peace. Yet readers must learn, as David does, that "living in lodgings is less a droll initiation ritual than a complex and prolonged state of being" (107). The lodger's independence can quickly turn into loneliness, and the motherly care of...