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Christine Huguet and Nathalie Vanfasse, eds., Charles Dickens, Modernism, Modernity (2 Vols.)

Paris, Éditions du Sagittaire, 2014, 232 & 265 p., ISBN 978-2-917202-26-5 & 978-2-917202-27-2
Isabelle Hervouet-Farrar
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Christine Huguet & Nathalie Vanfasse, eds., Charles Dickens, Modernism, Modernity (2 Vols.), Paris, Éditions du Sagittaire, 2014, 232 & 265 p., ISBN 978-2-917202-26-5 & 978-2-917202-27-2

Texte intégral

1Charles Dickens, Modernism, Modernity is a two-volume collection of essays first presented during an international conference held in 2011 at the Centre Culturel International de Cerisy-la-Salle, in Normandy. Through a wide range of perspectives, the collection purports to assess the ‘modernity’ of Dickens’s writings and–more ambitiously–to address Dickens’s representation of a fractured modern world as precursory of literary modernism.

2The first purpose of Christine Huguet and Nathalie Vanfasse’s introduction (‘Dickens and the “wine of Life”’) is thus to offer a definition of ‘modern’—the ‘old and conveniently indeterminate adjective’ (20)—which benefits from a welcome detour via Baudelaire, this key theorist of European modernity. ‘Modernity’, Baudelaire famously declared, ‘is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable’ (25). The parallel with Dickens is easily made, since he is both very much a writer of his time and a timeless one, as the enduring appeal of his fiction testifies. Dickens perfectly corresponds to Baudelaire’s definition of the modern artist: ‘a man of the world, that is, a man of the whole world’ (26). Vanfasse and Huguet also draw stimulating parallels between Baudelaire’s aesthetic theory and Dickens’s art, between Baudelaire’s vision of the aesthetic potentialities of ‘Parisian life’ and Dickens’s depiction of London life, and finally between Baudelaire’s conception of the artist as ‘man-child’ (29) and Dickens’s idiosyncratic vision of reality, often understood as adopting a child’s perspective. Dickens’s awareness of the downside of 19th–century modernity is of course also documented in this introduction, i.e. the fact that technological progress disrupts society and alienates the individual. Dickens, Huguet and Vanfasse remind us, thought that social cohesion or community, often the object of his nostalgia, must be both rebuilt through social commitment and recreated in fiction.

3Huguet and Vanfasse finally suggest that ‘Dickens’s art . . .  is an aesthetic of disruption, incorporating and making sense of, the ugliness and incoherence of the modern world’ (35-6), which would mean that he anticipated the modernists’ concern with making sense of their own fast-changing world. Indeed it is now a generally accepted view that Dickens’s own realism makes his a richly ambivalent and polyphonic representation of reality. In this section of the introduction, Huguet and Vanfasse insist (as editors probably should) on the articles in the two volumes which deal with form, rupture and modernism, in which the assessment of Dickens as a precursor of modernism is however not always as decisive as the reader would like it to be.

4In their introduction—a truly excellent discussion of Dickens’s fiction in relation to both modernity and modernism—Christine Huguet and Nathalie Vanfasse very neatly and convincingly integrate a synthetic outline of all the articles. This review cannot hope to do the same, but will consider each of the six sections in turn. The purpose is not to mention all the articles (there are as many as twenty-two) but to present some of the most interesting ones, a subjective selection, of course.

5The first section (Vol. I) is devoted to ‘Urban Modernity’. In ‘Charles Dickens Citoyen de Paris’, Michael Hollington discusses Dickens’s appraisal of Paris, this capital of modernity, during an early visit from November 1846 to February 1847. Hollington shows how Dickens approached urban modernity through the use of all his senses: in his letters the Inimitable depicts himself busy experiencing and trying to make sense of the city by observing the sights, smells and sounds of the French capital. His vision, Hollington argues, was deeply ambivalent since he saw Paris as a multi-layered place hiding worthless objects and dire poverty beneath glittering surfaces. In ‘Longing and the Dickensian City: Place, Popularity and the Past’, Juliet John argues that Dickens’s enduring appeal is in part ascribable to his ability to combine the representation of the social dislocation of urban modernity with the creation of an imaginary organicism which maintains a deep and comforting sense of community.

6In the second section, ‘Modernity and/in Motion’, Robert L. Patten’s contribution (‘Internationalising Dickens: Little Dorrit Reconsidered’) truly stands out. Patten reappraises Little Dorrit as Dickens’s exploration of modern western European culture which he saw, the critic argues, as ‘dominated by three impulses—an Anglocentric perspective and formulation, the importance of rank in Society and the will to compete checked by red tape and prison fetters’ (133). Patten’s very stimulating analysis leads him to consider four sets of tropes chosen by Dickens to ‘write Britain all over his known Continent’ (133). Considering that ‘sun and shadow’ and ‘prison’ have already received a great deal of critical attention, Patten concentrates on a superb analysis of ‘voyaging across distances’ and ‘climbing upwards and downwards’ (134). Dickens’s awareness of language, Patten concludes, makes him a precursor of ‘modernity’ (146) by which the critic, who describes Dickens’s weave of puns as ‘almost Joycean’ (146) certainly means ‘modernism’. In ‘Dickens and Chaplin: “The Tramp”’, Gillian Piggott re-examines the affinities between Dickens and Chaplin through the images of the flâneur and the tramp. Her analysis is extremely well-documented and interesting, but perhaps not quite as innovative as a lover of Dickens and of Chaplin would like it to be. Andrew Ballantyne’s essay (‘Dingley Dell: Pickwick Papers’ Lieu de Mémoire’) shows how Dickens engages in dialogue with the past. Ballantyne situates Dickens’s awareness of the rapid changes brought about by modernity in his need to recreate ‘lieux de mémoire’, i.e. ‘places and habits to which we attach identity-defining meaning’ (212). Ballantyne’s conclusion, that ‘nostalgia is . . . a symptom of modernity’ (226) may seem a little bland, but his analysis is very subtle and absorbing.

7One undoubted strength of the third section (Vol. II), ‘The Life of Things’ is Paul Schlicke and William F. Long’s in-depth study of ‘The Topicality of Sketches by Boz’. The two authors demonstrate first what a wealth of topical details the Sketches offer, and then show how Dickens revised his text for volume publication (and posterity), carefully excising details which a later audience would find either shocking or impossible to understand. Dickens’s instinctive grasp of his readership’s expectations is thus brought to the fore, and the article truly makes compelling reading.

8All the articles of the fourth section offer close and enlightening analysis of ‘Dickens the Thinker’. In ‘The Philothophy of the Thubject: Hard Times and the Reasoning Animal’, John Bowen assesses the relation of literature to reason and rationality in Dickens’s 1854 novel; in ‘The French Gentleman’s Grin: Allusion, Intellectual History and Narratography in Our Mutual Friend’, Lawrence Frank uses the skeleton of the French gentleman—described in the novel as made of ‘human warious’—as a correlative of the impossibility of tracing all the allusions found in the novel, of identifying all the ‘voices’ (Bakhtin’s word, quoted 93) heard in the text. In ‘Dickens and the Voices of History’, David Paroissien addresses Dickens the historian, mainly through the much reviled A Child’s History of England. Paroissien forcefully shows that Dickens was a more serious and perceptive historian than he is generally taken to be.

9The fifth section, ‘Mysteries of the Self’, is packed with thought-provoking ideas. In ‘Dickens and the Exploding World: Self and Others in Great Expectations’, Dominic Rainsford re-examines Pip’s precarious sense of self and shows how the novel questions the prosperity and attention Pip receives, including on his creator’s part. Natalie McKnight’s essay (‘Dickens and the Post-Modern Self: Fragmentation, Authority and Death’) suggests that Dickens is not only modern, but also truly post-modern since he willed himself to die when he did. It is an interesting hypothesis—other writers, like Charlotte Brontë for example, have been convincingly described as having unconsciously chosen the period of their deaths. Oddly enough however, McKnight doesn’t mention that Dickens’s death coincided with the anniversary of the Staplehurst railway accident and her arguments, unfortunately, rest on two oft-quoted excerpts and well-known discussions of these excerpts (the workbench scene between Manette and Lorry in A Tale of Two Cities and the end of The Mystery of Edwin Drood as evocative of the early Pickwick Papers), as well as on the unsupported idea that Dickens had lost control over the writing of Edwin Drood. In other words her stimulating hypothesis deserves a much longer and more fully-developed analysis. Using Dickens’s correspondence with Eliza Davis, Murray Baumgarten’s paper (‘Dickens and the Jews/The Jews and Dickens: The Instability of Identity’) offers an absorbing reassessment of Dickens’s Jewish characters, Fagin and Riah. If his conclusion corresponds to what we would probably expect, i.e. that Dickens found it hard to extricate himself from stereotypes, the article is extremely well-documented and will be useful for future reference. In ‘Plotting (in) Barnaby Rudge’ Michal Peled Ginsburg convincingly argues that Barnaby Rudge is uncharacteristic of Dickens’s fiction since the novel rejects the Dickensian motifs of ‘intact innocence and just restoration’ (193).

10The final section, ‘Towards a Modernist Aesthetic?’ is perhaps a little disappointing since this promising reflection on Dickens in relation to literary modernism includes only three papers, two of which dealing with frequently-addressed topics: ambiguity in A Tale of Two Cities and organic and inorganic matter in Our Mutual Friend. John O. Jordan’s analysis of ‘Narrative Closure in David Copperfield and Bleak House’, which notably shows how Steerforth’s ghost rises at the end of David Copperfield as it does at the beginning, is however truly excellent.

11The essays in the collection are all rich, stimulating and full of insight, with one exception perhaps. ‘The Ends of Privacy: Dickens, Strange, Collins’, written by David Ellison, unconvincingly starts by focusing in detail on an unknown aspiring author of pornography, which seems largely irrelevant (to say the least). In spite of that, the two volumes of Charles Dickens, Modernism, Modernity constitute an extremely valuable addition to the bulky Dickens bibliography. The many excellent close readings of Dickens’s writings must be recommended to students and critics of Victorian fiction. They are bound to be of particular interest to all Dickens lovers.

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Isabelle Hervouet-Farrar, « Christine Huguet and Nathalie Vanfasse, eds., Charles Dickens, Modernism, Modernity (2 Vols.) »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 81 Printemps | 2015, mis en ligne le 06 septembre 2015, consulté le 02 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Hervouet-Farrar

Université de Clermont-Ferrand

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