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Emily Bell (ed). Dickens After Dickens

York: White Rose University Press, 2020. p. 260
Charlotte Wadoux
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Emily Bell (ed). Dickens After Dickens. York: White Rose University Press, 2020. p. 260. ISBN: 978-1-912482-20-7. DOI :

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  • 1 Dickens’s shadowy cultural influence resists the current sanitary crisis, as various events commemo (...)

1A hundred and fifty years after his demise, Charles Dickens still seems to be ‘here and not here: a Shadow’ (John viii).1 This anniversary marks a new threshold in Dickens studies as scholars seem more than ever interested in the significance of Dickens for contemporary society. Emily Bell’s collection of essays, Dickens After Dickens, presents us with a multifaceted exploration of this phenomenon. The book is a compound of some of the best papers that were first delivered at the ‘After Dickens’ conference held in 2016 at the University of York. Bell’s introduction to this collection sketches the evolution of the reception and formulation of Dickens’s cultural influence since his death in 1870 to the Bicentenary of his birth in 2012.

2The strength of this book relies on its carefully balanced perspective on Dickens’s influence, moving between an intertextual and a panoramic approach (John viii). Most interestingly, this study crosses various disciplines, from urban studies, material culture, stage adaptations, film studies, or philosophy amongst others. One of the leading threads of this study is the re-definition of the term ‘Dickensian’. For Bell, ‘The very idea of the Dickensian is in a constant process of adaptation and revision’ (6). Her study does not aim to settle a definition of the term but rather to ‘probe the meaning of this term in contrasting ways’ and have ‘the reader pause’ (7).

3The chapters swiftly move from one chapter to the next, forming a coherent whole. The collection opens with three spatially inscribed papers, moving from Dickens’s impact on the history and evolution of Jacob’s Island, where Sikes dies in Oliver Twist, to the reception and political use of Dickens’s works in Norway, and eventually to living-dead characters in the Faulknerian American South. Focusing on two striking female Dickens characters, Miss Havisham (Great Expectations) and Rosa Bud (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), the next two chapters both are concerned with Dickens’s relation to women as well as with the reception of female characters and the various ways in which their stories were appropriated and to what effect. The collection then proceeds to two analyses of neo-Victorian novels which attempt to qualify the ‘Dickensian’ quality of the texts under scrutiny. This is followed by two papers concerned with adaptation, one focusing on adaptation for TV and the other focusing on the 2016 stage production of Great Expectations. Interestingly, the latter is written by the author of this production, providing an innovative perspective on the adaptation process. Emily Bell not only contributed an introduction for the collection she edited but also a brilliant paper on the evolution of biofictional narratives using Dickens as protagonist. Finally, John Bowen’s reflection on waiters and waiting in Dickens’s oeuvre casts a philosophical light on the collection reflecting on the need for the reader to be active.

  • 2 This paper, drawn from Hofer-Robinson’s Dickens and Demolition: Literary Afterlives and Mid-Ninetee (...)

4Katie Bell provides a noteworthy contribution to this collection. Looking at what she calls ‘living-dead’ characters in Dickens (58), Bell both offers an interesting (re)reading of Lady Dedlock in Bleak House while drawing a parallel with Faulkner’s Joe Christmas from Light in August. This parallelism is complexified by Bell’s resort to freak studies which allows her to underscore the two authors’ ‘Christian humanism’ in their use of the grotesque. Joanna Hofer-Robinson’s retracing of the cultural processes that have informed the history of Jacob’s Island since the publication of Oliver Twist compellingly shows the dual impact of literary narratives on urban space.2 Hofer-Robinson nuances the idea that Dickens’s novel brought awareness to the poor and allowed for improvement of their conditions. Underscoring the malleability of Dickens’s narrative, she demonstrates that Dickensian narratives and their afterlives ‘appealed to and helped construct selective collective identities’ (19) thereby ‘effect[ing] acts of violence, as they can manipulate how the site’s previous residents are perceived, or erase them from cultural history’ (30). In other circumstances, Dickensian tropes are used effectively to raise awareness of one’s condition as Kathy Rees shows. Her paper focuses on Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, a nineteenth‑century Norwegian writer, and his response to Dickens, especially concerning the education of women as a means to improve democracy.

5One of the key questions Juliet John raises in her foreword is ‘will Dickens always be “known” . . . through mediation?’ (x). This both speaks to adaptations and to neo‑Victorian rewritings. Michael Eaton’s paper is of great value for studies of theatrical adaptations of Dickens. Indeed, Eaton first offers a thorough history of stage adaptations of Great Expectations from the late 19th century to the present day, a history he inscribes within that of the illustrations for the novel. The true interest of this paper, however, lies in Eaton’s reflection on his own production for the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016 which highlights the implications of stage adaptations. Laura Tsudema’s work on The Wire stands at the crossroads between TV series and neo-Victorian studies. Focusing especially on the last series of the show, Tsudema propounds a Dickensian ‘mode’ (161) which mixes romance and realism. Glossing over Dickens’s famous phrase, ‘the romantic side of familiar things’ (Dickens 6), she shows that both in Dickens’s fiction and The Wire, romance and realism work together to underscore the subjectivity of truth. The implication is that such a mode demands of viewers/readers ‘to take a critical, analytical stance to both the institutions and texts that represent the world to them’ (172).

6Given the explosion of the neo-Victorian literary market and studies, it is little wonder that the collection should contain different papers focusing on works belonging to the genre. Rob Jacklosky’s approach to Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, is quite surprising as it sets out to question the definition of the novel as ‘a Dickensian composite’ (118), doing so using adaptation theory rather than neo-Victorian criticism. This leads Jacklosky to disqualify The Goldfinch as a Dickensian novel, claiming that what lacks in Tartt is Dickensian humour. Francesca Arnavas offers a convincing paper, as ambitious as the dystopic cyber-punk neo‑Victorian novel she studies, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Arnavas highlights how Victorian glass culture (and its dangers) collides with nanotechnology (as reflected by the title), pointing to contradictions. Arnavas shows that whereas Dickens’s characters are stuck when facing contradictions, in Stephenson’s novel Nell, the protagonist, embraces them and thus frees herself. The metafictional quality of the rewrite leads Arnavas to tap into the issue of author‑reader relationship, underscoring Dickens’s will to ‘construct and lead’ his readers through the creation of a persona, opposing this control to ‘the alternative solutions proposed by The Diamond Age that push the reader to find power in themselves, not in the books they read’ (Arnavas 155).

7If there is one character that is as hauntingly present in our culture as its author, it is Miss Havisham. Chapter 4 therefore focuses on two prequels to Great Expectations, a neo‑Victorian novel, Robert Frome’s Miss Havisham and the BBC TV series Dickensian. If both texts can be qualified as ‘tributes’, Claire O’Callaghan is adamant to unveil how ‘these texts have merely traded on violence against women as entertainment’ (97), thereby engaging with the problematic ethics of neo‑Victorianism. Noteworthy is Peter Orford’s paper on Rosa Bud which brilliantly manages to show the multiple faces of a Dickensian heroine too often thought of as naïve and flat. Orford highlights how Rosa’s plot in the completions of Dickens’s unfinished novel are revealing as its reception, ‘reflect[ing] our own preoccupations and presumptions’ (115). Completions are divided between conventional endings, conforming to social expectations, and unusual solutions, which often offer counter-narratives, eventually turning Rosa Bud into ‘a heroine for all’ (115).

  • 3 Bell’s chapter should be read in parallel with Karen Laird’s article on theatrical commemorative ad (...)

8The volume is not only interested in Dickens’s works but in Dickens himself as a man. This appears most strikingly in his relationship with women, an aspect of the author’s life that has been vastly explored by critics and novelists alike (Slater, Tomalin, Nayder). As Emily Bell notes, Dickens’s sentimental life is one of the three central themes with which biofictions of Dickens are concerned.3 The other two are related to influence: Bell carefully shows how ‘Imaginative uses of Dickens do not credit Dickens with much imagination’ (201), focusing specifically on ‘Dickens bashing’ (202), a form of biofiction that has been around since the 1920s. Bell’s paper echoes studies on Dickens and cannibalism (Stone, Lai-Ming Ho), here understood as a means to problematise Dickens’s literary influence. Noteworthily, this chapter unearths a biofictional narrative published in Dickens’s lifetime, ‘Life of Boz’ (1840). Bell provides a nuanced view of Dickensian biofictions, as on the one hand, ‘Dickens is still being re-presented in ways that fulfil and subvert audience expectations, reflecting contemporary concerns’, while on the other hand, the radical biographical Dickens is set aside. Nonetheless, such texts show that ‘we are still finding new ways to write and remember’ (211).

9The last chapter, a brilliant paper by John Bowen, reads the figure of the waiter in Dickens’s fiction through the prism of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Using Sartre’s idea that the waiter is the archetype of modernity, Bowen goes further than an analysis of the representation of the waiter and his function in Dickens’s fiction, looking at the role of the reader as a form of active waiting.

10Overall, this study nicely fulfils its aim which was to ‘revise not only our sense of Dickens’s afterlives but also ideas of authenticity, adaptation, and nostalgia’ (E. Bell 5). Dickens After Dickens thus presents us with a wide range of approaches all asking ‘what it means to read Dickens’ today (E. Bell 8; original emphasis). As such, it is an important addition to both Dickens and neo-Victorian studies.

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1 Dickens’s shadowy cultural influence resists the current sanitary crisis, as various events commemorating this anniversary were held, amongst them the zoom-conference “The Impact of Dickens” organised by Pete Orford and John Drew (University of Birmingham). This conference set out to ‘explor[e] the legacy of Dickens’ (Drew & Orford n.p.) in various fields such as literature, digital humanities or environmental studies.

2 This paper, drawn from Hofer-Robinson’s Dickens and Demolition: Literary Afterlives and Mid-Nineteenth-Century Urban Development, offers a complementary reading to the work of Lynda Nead in Victorian Babylon People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (Yale UP, 2000).

3 Bell’s chapter should be read in parallel with Karen Laird’s article on theatrical commemorative adaptations which provides a typology of Dickens’s afterlives divided into three categories: eulogistic (and patriarchal) portrayals of Dickens, Dickens as a metonymy of English national heritage, and controversial Dickens (13).

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Charlotte Wadoux, « Emily Bell (ed). Dickens After Dickens »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 93 Printemps | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 24 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Charlotte Wadoux

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3

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