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XLVIIIe congrès de la S.A.E.S. à l'université d'Orléans

From Dickens’s Theatrical Performance to Contemporary post Dickensian Narrative and Artistic Performance (Acker, Ackroyd, Waters and Rushdie)

Georges Letissier
p. 299-311


Recent studies have underlined the relevance of the Victorian Age (whose temporal boundaries have been stretched to include the “long nineteenth century”) to the postmodern era. This essay narrows the topic to Dickens’s own relevance to postmodern aesthetics, through the question of theatricality. Dickens’s invention of public readings may be seen as an innovative method to advertise literary production, but it is also a tangible illustration of the type of boundary crossing valued by postmodern writers. With Dickens, who in this respect is very much in the Sternean-Shandian vein, theatrical performance is both inside the text (e.g. the parodic staging of Hamlet in Great Expectations) and outside the text, when dramatized versions of his novels are specially written to be acted out. It is the author’s versatility (implied as he was in a whole range of activities: fiction-writing, editing, journalism, publishing initiatives, amateur theatricals, speeches, public readings, business undertakings and so forth), together with the plurality within his works (the neo-baroque effect, perceptible among other things through the so-called “streaky bacon” or the “wonderful gargoyles”), which have served as a springboard for contemporary fiction-writers. Sarah Waters’s fictions, notably Fingersmith, have been almost unanimously praised for their plots, described as sheer “tour de force”. It can be claimed that Waters’s narrative ploys are borrowed from the theatrical world which held a real fascination for Dickens. With English Music, Ackroyd, for his part, illustrates what Clayton in his study: Charles Dickens in Cyberspace (2003) calls “undisciplined” creativity, by revisiting Great Expectations trans-artistically, through an odd combination of the pictorial, the musical, the cinematographic and the theatrical. This curious mixture of genres turns narration into fictionalized artistic performance, devised as a paean to the English tradition. At the other end of the spectrum, more iconoclastic literary experiments may be seen as bearing witness to Dickens’s off-the-beaten-track approach to novel-writing. Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations, by juxtaposing disjointed jump-cut sequences incorporating fantasy, personal statements and plagiarism transforms Dickensian theatrical performance into “narrative happenings”. As for Rushdie, the few pages he dedicates to Our Mutual Friend in his Satanic Verses capitalize on Dickens’s histrionic exuberance to stun the reader through verbal fireworks.

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  • 1 Joseph Bristow, “Why Victorian? A Period and its Problems,” Literature Compass 1, (January 2003-Dec (...)
  • 2 Martin Hewitt, “Why the Notion of Victorian Does Make Sense,” Victorian Studies (Spring 2006): 395– (...)
  • 3 John Glavin, After Dickens, Reading, Adaptation and Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999).

1“Resurgence,” from the Latin resurgens i.e. what has risen again, describes very well what is happening to Victorian culture today: it arouses scholarly interest and is abundantly represented, imitated, or parodied through various media (films, fictions, objects). It is currently enjoying a new lease on life. This phenomenon, which is by no means historically unprecedented, has received different names such as revisionism or afterlife—in the present case “Victorian afterlife,” or one may also speak of the neo/retro/post Victorian. On some occasions, though, the validity of the Victorian appellation has come in for criticism: Joseph Bristow wrote an article entitled “Why ‘Victorian’? A Period and its Problems,”1 when in other circumstances the notion has been adamantly upheld; “Why the Notion of Victorian Does Make Sense”2 is an essay by Martin Hewitt in which the Victorian label is vindicated as “a methodological necessity.” In the neo-Victorian camp, the term Victorian is usually given a somewhat wider and looser acceptation, encompassing a time-span from roughly Jane Austen’s novels to the Edwardian Age. In this interest for the Victorian, or for what is felt as evocative of the Victorian, Dickens is, as might be expected, a central, iconic figure. So resurgence can be given a tighter acceptation to refer to the “After-Dickens,” a phrase which incidentally is found not only in book titles, as in After Dickens, Reading, Adaptation and Performance3, but also in panels to designate a sub-category of Dickensian studies so that a Dickens conference is bound to have its “After-Dickens” workshop.

  • 4 Jay Clayton, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace. The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern C (...)

2Finding one’s way in the “After Dickens” maze is no easy matter. A proof of the extent of the “After Dickens” cultural phenomenon can be found in Jay Clayton’s 2003 study titled Charles Dickens in Cyberspace, The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture.4 Clayton starts from the assumption that if Dickens had lived in this day and age he would no doubt have been some computer geek, or at the very least hooked on the internet. Indeed, the Inimitable is known to have exhibited a passion for new technology throughout his career. Not only did Dickens publish sundry articles on a number of subjects, ranging from the London Post Office, to steam engines, notably in Household Words, but he was also concerned with the ways in which he could best commercialize his writings. Clayton points out that his serials carried advertising and that the novelist was also fully aware of the marketing possibilities afforded by the public reading sessions which he pioneered. In short Dickens, notwithstanding his literary talents, grasped the potential of nascent information technology in the 19th century. To quote Clayton: “He did not discriminate between his imaginative gifts and his entrepreneurial acumen.” (199)

  • 5 The LIVE research group from the University of Paris VII.

3Seeing in Dickens not only the novelist but also a representative of larger cultural patterns—a man conversant with science, politics, law, trade, technology, economics, social reforms, to say nothing of more eccentric pursuits such as mesmerism for instance—allows one to trace more or less hidden connections between the nineteenth century and today. And pointing to the relevance of aspects of the Victorian era to the present time is precisely what the LIVE research group is concerned with.5 To the previously mentioned “After Dickens” label, could be appended “Dickens live,” as in a T.V. or radio broadcast.

  • 6 Llyod Jones, Mister Pip (London: John Murray, 2006).

4To limit the scope of this presentation to the literary field only, Dickens is constantly hitting the headlines, for example one of the shortlisted novels for the 2007 Man Booker last October, was an umpteenth rewriting of Great Expectations, entitled plainly Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones, a New Zealand writer.6 A fair guess is that right now new versions of Dickens’s novels are being typewritten in different corners of the world.

5There was a time when neo-Victorian fiction was frowned upon by academia and dismissed as second rate and derivative. Those days are fortunately a thing of the past, for example a scholarship on neo-Victorian studies was recently offered by the University of Hull. Whether it is necessary to set up a neo Victorian curriculum in its own right is of course an open question, one may alternatively consider that writing on neo-Victorian literature is another way of studying the Victorians, from another angle, as it were. Yet, the success of the neo-Victorian adventure, even within university circles can no longer be ignored. So this paper, which is only an account of a work at a tentative stage, aims ultimately at being a contribution to Dickensian research by taking on board the question of reception from an array of contemporary novels. I wish to raise methodological questions and to suggest a few samples of close readings.

  • 7 Robert Garis, The Dickens Theatre: A Reassessment of the Novels (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965).
  • 8 Malcolm Andrews, Dickens and his Performing Selves (Oxford: O.U.P. 2006).
  • 9 Anny Sadrin, Dickens ou le roman théâtre (Paris: P.U.F. 1992).

6The first step, given the sheer diversity of the “After Dickens” production consists in selecting a critical approach articulating studies on Dickens and neo-Dickensian fictions. One fairly obvious choice could be theatricality because it offers the opportunity to connect together a fairly extensive bibliography of critical studies on Dickens with neo-Victorian fictions, or with fictions evincing what I would call a Dickensian tropism. From Robert Garis’s The Dickens Theatre7, dating back to 1965, to the very recent Charles Dickens and his Performing Selves by Malcolm Andrews published in 2006,8 there is a long list of books and articles underscoring Dickens’s theatricality. In French, a special mention should of course be made of Anny Sadrin’s Dickens ou le roman théâtre.9 Now, to draw a link between critical studies on Dickens and contemporary fiction using the Dickensian hypotext with a theatrical slant, two premises could be put forward. Firstly, most of the interesting contemporary rewritings of Dickens pretend to operate a return to the Victorian novelist by using off-beaten tracks, by challenging commonly accepted values, or cultural stereotypes. It may be pretentious on the parts of their authors to do so, but what is interesting to notice is that the same stance was occasionally adopted by some scholars almost at the same time. Secondly, when a critic doubles up as fiction writer, this offers a golden opportunity to bridge the gap between criticism and creation. In this respect, Peter Ackroyd brings grist to our mill, all the more so as he makes of theatricality, of all topics, his pet subject.

7There is in this surge, more than resurgence, of interest for Dickens amongst contemporary writers an attraction for the eccentric, the grotesque, the baroque and, similarly, it is worth noticing that the scholars who focused on Dickensian theatricality in the 1990s also claimed a form of iconoclastic posture. Thus John Glavin in his After Dickens wrote:

we have to let ourselves have the same childish experience when reading the later novels if we want to feel glad we happen to be reading them. Clearly, a great many people who make their life’s undertaking to study the Victorian novel don’t feel that way, bringing to that undertaking something like an undertaker’s frame of mind. (16)

8The impetus of the attack smacking of teen age bravado testifies, on the part of the scholar, to a kind of challenging attitude that had already found its full expression in fiction writing by then. The most extreme example of provocation in fiction would undoubtedly be Acker’s Great Expectations and the interesting question is of course to decide whether the punk American artist was doing justice to Dickens by reviving the unconventional, the excessive and the baroque in his writings, or if she was simply lashing out against a canonical novel standing for establishment values. According to Glavin the critic, the rejection of normative values is within the Dickensian text and it is academia with its so-called “undertaker’s mindset” which would have largely contributed to burying the quintessential Dickensian spirit. Commenting on Dickens’s prose, Glavin highlights the prevalence of onomatopoeia, paronomasia, the predominance of parataxis over more conventional syntax, in short, on everything which marks the speech, aural quality of the novelist’s style and turns it into what could be seen as linguistic performance. This is of course a starting point to study Dickens and Acker jointly, instead of merely seeing in the latter a plain dismissal of the former; the punk rebel versus the epitome of the established Victorian novelist, with Dickens fitting the part of Mr Popular Sentiment, as Trollope once derisively called him. Glavin comes up with yet another thought-provoking remark when he propounds that Dickens would have a tendency to use a form of writing that refuses to refer:

This inimitably rich play of Dickensian signifiers is always in riot against the constraining claims of the signified, the signs in gleeful revolt against the demands of written representation. (20)

  • 10 Charles Dickens, Great Expectations [1860–1] (New York & London: Norton Critical Edition, 1999) 136
  • 11 Dickens 157.
  • 12 Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit [1857] (London: Penguin Classics, 1985) 190.

9There is in this statement of Dickens’s plea for the freedom of written language, in his instinctive reluctance to let words be shackled by the conventions of the mimetic, something that might not be poles apart from the punk project of making a clean break from codified mass culture. Indeed, thinking back to Dickens how exactly can we picture to ourselves a “post office of a mouth,”10 and what exactly is “property and portable”11 when it’s at home, as the saying goes? And when Pancks is repeatedly described as snorting and sniffing: “like a little labouring steam-engine”12 in Little Dorrit, isn’t there in this emphasis on cartoon-like graphic images something that might appeal to the punk visual artist? Because he severs off any tight, constraining links between signified and signifier to give free rein to verbal pyrotechnics, Dickens turns writing into linguistic performance and calls up the illusion of being constantly extemporizing. Most of the time, Dickens’s prose, though couched in written words on paper, cries out to be put on stage. And this is where Kathy Acker, the punk artist, comes in again. So instead of reducing her own Great Expectations, which when all is said and done has not much to do with the original version anyway, to a trash, tawdry parody of a canonical novel, might it not be just as interesting to start off by pointing to the verbal energy that is common to both Dickens and Acker? Besides, the practice of recycling, and to a certain extent, the collapse of the boundary line between high and low cultures are also common points between the artists. And Dickens himself could also occasionally go over the top. The unforgettable reductive parody of a Hamlet performance in Great Expectations bears witness to the kind of outrageous derision which is the staple ingredient of much of Acker’s fictions. Moreover, both Dickens and Acker are involved in what Clayton calls undisciplined culture, that is a propensity to dabble in many different fields by spanning disciplinary boundaries. Dickens’s versatility, his polymath’s approach to cultural areas as diverse as literature, science and showmanship would find some sort of correspondence in Acker’s many fields of interest: music, writing and life performance to quote but a few. The question is not to assimilate Dickens with Acker, which would be totally beside the point, but merely to suggest that theatricality and performance could be one way of exploring a possible bond between the two artists. This is an aspect which has so far hardly engaged the critics’ attention. Obviously Acker’s intertextuality is anything but subterranean resurgence—it is not encrypted within a text—but, on the opposite, is flaunted as a kind of intertextual happening, with the title Great Expectations splashed across the book cover without the slightest alteration, and with chapters successively entitled 1. Plagiarism; 2. The Beginning of Romance and 3. The End. It is more a surge, or an upsurge, than a resurgence, as it spurns, on the face of it at least, any form of in-depth work of the hypotext, choosing instead disjointed jump cut sequences with jarring fragments. The theatrical bond must therefore be approached from the standpoint of performing act, pragmatics or reader response.

  • 13 Deborah Vlock, Dickens, Novel Reading, and the Victorian Popular Theatre (Cambridge: C.U.P. 1999) 1 (...)

10A second way of dealing with theatricality as a useful link between Dickens and “After Dickens” consists in beginning with studies on the specific role of the theatre in Victorian social and cultural life. The general confusion between the theatrical or fictive on the one hand, and the real on the other, is usually underscored. For instance, “The Seven Dials,” a poor derelict London area, is described by Dickens in Sketches by Boz through a mixture of bland realism, already announcing the way Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor would deal with the same subject a few decades later, and rumour, story and drama.13 This Victorian version of “All life’s a Stage” emphasizes more particularly the role of voices circulating freely from the streets to the stage and the other way round. Peter Ackroyd in his biography points to the influence exerted on Dickens by Charles Mathews the monopolylinguist, who had the knack of impersonating different voices in one single performance:

  • 14 Peter Ackroyd. Dickens (1990) (London: Minerva, 1991) 167.

Dickens is able to bring the light and exaggeration and animation of the theatre to the streets of London [...] he can, as it were, jump on the stage and do all the voices [...] But what his contemporaries heard were the voices, and the prevailing admiration for Dickens’s early work came from what was described as the “vivid” and “graphic” way in which he had described the speech of London.14

  • 15 Mikhaïl Bakhtin. “Heteroglossia in the Novel,” in Michael Hollington (ed.), Charles Dickens, Critic (...)
  • 16 Peter Ackroyd. Dickens, 42.
  • 17 Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (1990) (London: Minerva, 1991) 147–8.

11Interestingly, it is not just the frontier between “staged” voices and street voices that is crossed but also that between the stage and written fiction, turning the Victorian novel into an echo chamber, filled with heterogeneous voices: eccentric voices, with different pitches, and also dialect, idiolect or patter. Bakhtin has studied the subtle interlacing of voices in a few excerpts from Little Dorrit, by underscoring the conflict between two types of utterances, or speech manners, contained within a single, syntactically unified sentence. Such hybrid constructions make up a polyglossic flux which may be perceived through its theatricality.15 A link can be established between such polyvocal narration and the utterances of the monypolylogue: “one person playing all the parts of a short play [...] by means of stock phrases, comic mannerisms and the mimicry of dialect.”16 Ackroyd sees in Dickens’s interest in Charles Mathews’s versatile oral performances both the source of the novelist’s talent and a way of lifting the veil of selfhood.17 Even if it is in English Music that Ackroyd, in his capacity as novelist, draws the most blatantly from a Dickens novel, from Great Expectations to be precise, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem may be seen as quintessentially Dickensian through its exclusive reliance on theatricality in all its guises. The eponymous Dan Leno, the Whipper Snapper, Contortionist and Posturer, with his comic patter and “funny female” impersonations cannot but recall Dickens’s own Charles Mathews who may have served as a structural model for the likes of Mrs Nickleby, Mrs Lirriper and the garrulous, yet endearing Flora Finching always prone to fly off at a tangent.

  • 18 Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (2002), (London: Virago, 2003).

12Sarah Waters’s return to the Victorian culture, advertised by a first novel bearing the polysemic title Tipping the Velvet, is highly theatrical too. Having thus raised the curtain on the Victorian stage by paying a sort of homage to the vaudeville, the young novelist, with Fingersmith,18 her third novel, was to immerse herself into the London of Oliver Twist in a thespian way, both vocally and sartorially. Echoes of the scene in which Oliver is initiated into the catechism of Fagin’s trade by playing at stealing wipes (i.e. handkerchiefs) in front of a merry audience (the Dodger and Charley Bates) are scattered throughout this “After Dickens” novel. Waters’s fiction actually opens on a theatrical performance of Oliver Twist before shifting to Mrs Sucksby’s Fagin-like den. Meta-theatrical allusions are interspersed throughout the fiction: “Knock - knock - knock. Like that. Like the knocking on a door in a play, when the dead man’s ghost comes back.”(17) More interestingly, the theatre becomes the story’s mainstay when it turns out that, as a result of a baby swap, one character has been living, or acting, the life that had been destined to the other, and conversely. Maud should have been Sue, and Sue Maud, in a novel dealing more especially with the criminal activity of counterfeiting, forging:

One baby becomes another. Your mother was not your mother, your uncle was not your uncle. Your life was not the life that you were meant to live, but Sue’s; and Sue lived yours... (335)
As for you, Maud: listen hard, and know at last what your life was lived for.
My life was not lived, I say in a whisper. You have told me, it was a fiction. (337)

13A fingersmith is indeed one who can pick a lock i.e. tamper with it, thanks to his/her deft fingers and manual expertise. In this context, the many allusions to cutting keys, and finding the exact likeness of the original sesame may be construed as comments on the relationship between hypertext and hypotext. Fingersmith smuggles its way into Oliver Twist and also reverses and doubles its perspective by substituting two orphan girls caught up in a twin plot, for one orphan boy. Furthermore, Sarah Waters adds to the confusion between acting and living that is so present in Dickens’s novel, by making of Oliver Twist a play:

The theatre she [Flora] took me to, on the night I am thinking of now, was the Surrey, St George’s Circus. The play was Oliver Twist. I remember it as very terrible. I remember the tilt of the gallery, and the drop of the pit. I remember a drunken woman catching at the ribbons of my dress. I remember the fares, that made the stage very lurid; and the roaring of the actors, the shrieking of the crowd. (3–4)

14and by showing that outside this embedded play, in what should be the story, the main characters are already acting a part without their being conscious of it. So the contemporary novelist uses the trope of the theatre as an intertextual bond.

  • 19 Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988) (Dover Delaware: The Consortium Inc., 1992).
  • 20 George Orwell, “Charles Dickens” in Inside the Whale (1940), Reprinted in The Collected Essays, Jou (...)
  • 21 Salman Rushdie, “Outside the Whale,” [1984] in Imaginary Homelands, Essays and Criticisms 1981–1991(...)
  • 22 Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist [1837–39] (London: Penguin Classics, 2003) 134.

15Theatrical performance can be used with a dazzling display of virtuosity to orchestrate unexpected encounters between Dickens and writers belonging to a different cultural background. This is what happens in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.19 In different interviews Rushdie has often expressed an ambivalent attitude towards Dickens. It is worth remembering that he started by writing an essay Outside the Whale in 1984 as a response to George Orwell’s famous Inside the Whale.20 According to Orwell, although Dickens was a Victorian bourgeois he had drawn a vitriolic portrait of the English society, by pointing at the rampant corruption which plagued famous institutions: the judiciary with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case in Bleak House, the administration (in the wake of the Crimean crisis) through the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit and so forth. However, Orwell asserted that despite his harsh criticism of society, Dickens did not propound any radical change, he merely advocated moral betterment, notably through the ideal of the Moral Gentleman. For Rushdie, a citizen of the Indian subcontinent, the Victorian novelist could only elicit disappointment and frustration, since the ruthless diagnosis he had made of the ailing centre of the Empire was not matched by any sense of rebellion. It entailed nothing more than quietism, procrastination. For the young impetuous Rushdie, on the opposite, the time had come to get out of the whale and to replace it with a wail: a lament but also a cry of protest. Back then, for Rushdie the ability to romance the real was no excuse for shunning what he described as the radioactivity of history. Rushdie’s attitude to Dickens was going to change though, and recently the novelist has underlined on several occasions the huge influence that the Victorian novelist has had on his own creation (Le Monde, Friday, 27th May, 2005 in an interview with Lila Zanguunch, X). Rushdie, who largely contributed to introducing magic realism in fiction written in English, and who is a great admirer of Borges and Garcia Marquez, while being of course well-versed in Indian tales and mythology could not fail to recognize in Dickens the reader of the Arabian Tales. What Rushdie values above everything else, is this unique and typically Dickensian way of blending naturalism with surrealist effects: as in the case of the previously mentioned Circumlocution Office: an entropic institution which has no other function than to generate its own destruction through the consummate art of how not to do things. This visionary, highly hyperbolic evocation of a totally nonsensical administration is nevertheless depicted by Dickens with many true-to-life, historical details. Unlike David Lean’s A Passage to India and its “zombie-like revival of the defunct Empire,”21 Dickens’s “streaky [well-cured] bacon”22 may be said to partake of the same fictional banquet as Rushdie’s chutneyfication. Dickens’s London and Rushdie’s Bombay blend in together to form a spicy, motley Babylondon. Not surprisingly, it is to London’s theatrical London, with its pantomime and comic patter, that Rushdie beckons in the second section of Chapter VII of his Satanic Verses. It is well-known by now that Rushdie is averse to monolithic absolute purity and that, as a result, he flaunts a whole gradient of intermediary colours. Cross-breeding, hybridization and, chutneyfication epitomise Rushdie’s universe. In The Satanic Verses, Gibreel Farishta is a Muslim Bollywood film star who has made a name for himself for his impersonations of Hindu Gods. He is also, through his name, the embodiment of the archangel Gabriel who belongs jointly to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. Saladin Chamcha is Farishta’s polar opposite, he is an anglophile vocalist; Chamcha in Hindi designates a cringing, obsequious, yes man. In the narrative, he is turned into a devil. Yet, Rushdie is not so much interested in the opposition between the Archangel and the devil, or their substitutes, or between East and West, as in the possibility of the one turning into the other at any point in time. Significantly, the novel opens when both Chamcha and Farishta jump off a plane that is about to crash. As they fly in mid-air before reaching the ground their two bodies make up one single two-headed form, a sort of odd, fluctuating shape with constantly moving contours. Precisely, it is through a similarly incongruous encounter that a circulation of voices is set in motion between Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend and The Satanic Verses.

16In The Satanic Verses, Our Mutual Friend has become Friend or The Chums for the initiates, it is a comedy and a film adaptation. The embedding technique is mind-boggling. First, it is clearly stated that the original is bound to remain elusive: “the full-bloodied original being unavailable to modern men and women.” (424) The setting is meant to replicate the already theatralised decor of Dickens’s London. The characters from the Victorian novel hobnob with the contemporary ones within the narrow precinct of the film-set: the Veneerings, the Podsnaps, Boffin, Fascination Fledgler and Gaffer (an apt name in this cinematographic context) Hexam. The narrator juggles with the onomastic in this film set referred to as Stucconia. In the setting, the Dickensian hypotext pops up at odd moments through slapstick episodes which the writer of The Pickwick Papers himself would no doubt have found hilarious. Thus, at one point Saladin stands transfixed—like a mongoose before a cobra—in front of a bosomy film extra who is exposing a shapely right breast where she has drawn a map of London in civic pride. The scene takes place at a crucial moment in a place called the curiosity shop. In the total confusion that prevails, words are all agog and tipsy and Bollywood actors find themselves trotting out warped snatches from Dickens’s novel. When Jeremy Bentham, the apostle of utilitarianism, remembered for his panopticon, decides to stage a musical, everything becomes possible. And in this pandemonium things do get out of hand:

It’s a funny thing, a woman’s voice says behind him, but when we were doing the show at the C-Theatre, there was an outbreak of lust among the cast; quite unparalleled, in my experience. People started missing their cues because of the shenanigans in the wings. (423)

17In such a context of loose morals, “podsnappery,” this odd combination of prudishness and nationalist pride, is paradoxically treated as a theatrical pose amidst others. Rushdie ventriloquizes Dickens in the Bollywood studios of Babylondon and juggles with the Victorian novelist’s words as if to test their jingle: “bran-new, spick and span new people.” (422) It is no longer a text quoting another text but an orbitative movement of words using the process of compounding to call up Bombay/London, a hyphenated dream city constantly reinvented through verbal creativity. In The Satanic Verses, different characters belonging to different plots bear the same name, reversing the process whereby the single, eponymous Our Mutual Friend takes on different names in Dickens’s novel. In either case, identity is shown as fluid, like a theatrical mask. In his essay “Imaginary Homeland,” Rushdie contends that the liberty of the migrant, and by the same token, that of the reader, lies in the possibility of choosing one’s parents. Harold Bloom would probably have said one’s forerunners. Dickens’s theatricality contributes to fostering a chosen literary filiation between himself and Rushdie: “cross-pollination is everywhere; and it is perhaps one of the more pleasant freedoms of the literary migrant to be able to choose his parents” declares the author of The Satanic Verses. Given that Dickens wrote out so many parts of surrogate father figures in his novels, Rushdie’s half confession further reinforces the creative kinship between the two writers.

18In conclusion, what I wish to have shown is the pertinence of reading Dickensian hypertexts by using critical tools that are especially relevant and productive with Dickens’s own novels: notably Bakhtinian polyphony, heteroglossia and anthropological studies on the Victorian theatre. The sheer diversity of the novels that have been only briefly evoked, from a punk American artist, to a contemporary British writer eager to uphold the notion of Englishness, without forgetting a major post-colonial novelist, demonstrates that a plurality of responses may be elicited from one common denominator, theatricality in the present case. Given Dickens’s versatility and his polygeneric approach to novel writing, it is hardly surprising that he should have opened so many tracks for so many different creators belonging to very different cultural contexts.

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Primary Sources

Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist [1837–39], London: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Little Dorrit [1855–57], London: Penguin Classics, 1985.

Great Expectations [1860–61], New York & London: Norton Critical Edition, 1999.

Our Mutual Friend [1864–65], London: Penguin Classics, 1971.

After Dickens

Acker Kathy, Great Expectations, New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1982.

Ackroyd Peter, Dickens [1990], London: Minerva, 1991.

Ackroyd Peter, English Music, London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Ackroyd Peter, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994), London: Minerva, 1995.

Jones Lloyd, Mister Pip, London: John Murray, 2006.

Rushdie Salman, The Satanic Verses [1988], Dover Delaware: The Consortium Inc., 1992.

Waters Sarah, Tipping the Velvet [1998], London: Virago, 2003.

Waters Sarah, Fingersmith [2002], London: Virago, 2003.

Secondary Sources

Andrews Malcolm, Dickens and his Performing Selves, Oxford: O.U.P., 2006.

Clayton Jay, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace. The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

Garis Robert, The Dickens Theatre: A Reassessment of the Novels, Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.

Glavin John, After Dickens, Reading, Adaptation and Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Vlock Deborah, Dickens, Novel Reading, and the Victorian Popular Theatre, Cambridge: C.U.P., 1999, 167.

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1 Joseph Bristow, “Why Victorian? A Period and its Problems,” Literature Compass 1, (January 2003-Dec. 2004).

2 Martin Hewitt, “Why the Notion of Victorian Does Make Sense,” Victorian Studies (Spring 2006): 395–438.Ò

3 John Glavin, After Dickens, Reading, Adaptation and Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999).

4 Jay Clayton, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace. The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003).

5 The LIVE research group from the University of Paris VII.

6 Llyod Jones, Mister Pip (London: John Murray, 2006).

7 Robert Garis, The Dickens Theatre: A Reassessment of the Novels (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965).

8 Malcolm Andrews, Dickens and his Performing Selves (Oxford: O.U.P. 2006).

9 Anny Sadrin, Dickens ou le roman théâtre (Paris: P.U.F. 1992).

10 Charles Dickens, Great Expectations [1860–1] (New York & London: Norton Critical Edition, 1999) 136.

11 Dickens 157.

12 Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit [1857] (London: Penguin Classics, 1985) 190.

13 Deborah Vlock, Dickens, Novel Reading, and the Victorian Popular Theatre (Cambridge: C.U.P. 1999) 141.

14 Peter Ackroyd. Dickens (1990) (London: Minerva, 1991) 167.

15 Mikhaïl Bakhtin. “Heteroglossia in the Novel,” in Michael Hollington (ed.), Charles Dickens, Critical Assessments, Helm Information, vol. 3, 1995, 392–401.

16 Peter Ackroyd. Dickens, 42.

17 Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (1990) (London: Minerva, 1991) 147–8.

18 Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (2002), (London: Virago, 2003).

19 Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988) (Dover Delaware: The Consortium Inc., 1992).

20 George Orwell, “Charles Dickens” in Inside the Whale (1940), Reprinted in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: Volume 1: An Age Like This 1920-1940 (Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin in Association with Martin Secker and Warburg, 1968) 454–98.

21 Salman Rushdie, “Outside the Whale,” [1984] in Imaginary Homelands, Essays and Criticisms 1981–1991(London: Granta Books, 1991) 87–101.

22 Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist [1837–39] (London: Penguin Classics, 2003) 134.

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Georges Letissier, « From Dickens’s Theatrical Performance to Contemporary post Dickensian Narrative and Artistic Performance (Acker, Ackroyd, Waters and Rushdie) »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 71 Printemps | 2010, 299-311.

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Georges Letissier, « From Dickens’s Theatrical Performance to Contemporary post Dickensian Narrative and Artistic Performance (Acker, Ackroyd, Waters and Rushdie) »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 71 Printemps | 2010, mis en ligne le 07 octobre 2016, consulté le 24 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Georges Letissier

Université de Nantes

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