Dickensian delight: Our ‘serial’ fascination with the afterlife of Charles’s characters

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, digital publications officer at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Winyard has been a co-organiser of Birkbeck’s Dickens Day event since 2005, and is one of the organisers behind the current Dickens reading project at the College

BBC drama Dickensian (image copyright Premier)

BBC drama Dickensian (image copyright Premier)

Is there a word for that familiar feeling of sadness or melancholia that accompanies finishing a novel? Perhaps there is a ferociously lengthy compound noun in German, or an elegant Japanese word with multiple, elusive meanings that can’t be fully encompassed by a solitary English word. A quick, unscientific search on Google reveals fascinating discussions on sites such as reddit about this emotional state and the various words that might describe it: sadness, ennui, nostalgia, regret, catharsis, homesickness, mourning, separation anxiety, and the delightful but somewhat toxic sounding ‘book hangover’.

Another suggestion is the term ‘limerance’, used in psychoanalytic theory to describe an invasive sexual and emotional obsession with a person or object – an infatuation or crush, in more demotic idiom. This feels a little too histrionic for such a quiet, fleeting but pervasive feeling. Imagining a curiously powerful parental bond, Dickens described David Copperfield as his ‘favourite child’, which suggests the intense feelings of attachment readers (and writers) can develop for fictional creations.

Do Dickens’s books deliver more noxious ‘book hangovers’? After all, Dickens was keen throughout his writing career to evoke feeling in his readers, meaning that his forceful use of sentimentality and melodrama, to induce laughter and tears in rapid succession (what Dickens described as his ‘streaky bacon’ approach), might be regarded as a particularly heady and intoxicating form of emotional pummelling. Dickens’s work provokes powerful feelings and his readers are famous for their attachment to the author and to his works. Dickens’s sentimental mode entices, coaxes and even coerces us to be affected by its depictions; it is a form of aesthetic and imaginative self-projection. Indeed, the shared, collective experience of feeling is what often brings us together as a community of Dickens enthusiasts.

It is also worth remembering that Dickens’s original readers would have encountered multiple hiatuses, as they read the novels serially in weekly or monthly instalments, which may have provoked feelings of frustration, anticipation, excitement and longing. A novel’s plot may be thrillingly propulsive, providing a forward momentum that, when halted, generates an exasperated thirst to traverse the ‘empty’ space in-between as quickly as possible. These manifold mini or false endings – which sometimes took the form of cliffhangers, but were more often simply breaks in the narrative – are similar to the final ending of the novel, in that they represent spaces that evoke fantasy and speculation. Just as the serialised instalments represent only temporary cessations that are potentially bridged by longing-filled fantasy, the end of a Dickens novel may similarly rouse imaginative speculation and fancy about the afterlives of the characters.

A scene from BBC drama Dickensian, featuring Stephen Rea in the role of Inspector Bucket (image copyright Premier)

A scene from BBC drama Dickensian, featuring Stephen Rea in the role of Inspector Bucket (image copyright Premier)

Adaptation, reimagining, pastiche and outright bootlegging

Dickens was himself no stranger to this phenomenon. The exceptional success of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, serialised in 1836–37, stimulated a veritable industry of adaptations, pastiches, rip-offs and continuations. One of the most famous was Pickwick Abroad; or, The Tour in France (1837–38) by George W. M. Reynolds, a hugely successful radical journalist Dickens intensely disliked. In this decidedly rough and ready sequel, the Pickwick Club ventures into France, where crass national stereotypes and risqué adventures abound. In an era before copyright law – for which he campaigned vociferously – Dickens witnessed the multiple imaginative afterlives of his stories and characters on stage and in unlicensed prequels and sequels.

There was also a bustling trade in Dickensian souvenirs featuring his characters, including illustrations, porcelain figures, china plates, Toby jugs, keepsake boxes, and miscellaneous other household items and collectibles. Interestingly, in his short-lived journal Master Humphrey’s Clock, which he wrote and edited alone between 1840 and 1841, Dickens acknowledged and indulged readers’ desire for afterlives and new adventures for their favourite characters by reintroducing the hugely popular Mr Pickwick and Samuel Weller. We can also sense in Dickens himself the irresistible urge to resurrect characters he evidently longed to spend time with again – just as many of his readers did.

A digital Dickens afterlife

More recently, Birkbeck’s inventive and successful Twitter retelling of Our Mutual Friend, which saw dozens of people tweet as characters in this multitudinous novel, provided an outlet for Dickens readers to reengage with, and extend the afterlives of, their favourite characters. Many tweeters were unafraid to present their characters in decidedly modern, updated terms, which meant that, while the novel’s plot remained essentially the same, many characters took on new aspects, had new adventures and relationships, and occupied more imaginative space than in the original work.

At the most recent Dickens Day (October 2015), Professor Holly Furneaux, an alumna of Birkbeck who is now based at the University of Cardiff, delivered a fascinating paper on Dickensian fan fiction online, which is forging communities and providing avenues for original, and even erotic, (re)engagements with popular Dickensian characters. Furneaux demonstrated the particular popularity of the triangular relationship between Mortimer Lightwood, Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend, which many online Dickens fan fiction writers reimagined more capaciously, with space within Eugene and Lizzie’s marriage for Mortimer.

Dickensian ­– Goading the stuffy old gatekeepers

Given the powerful attachment of Dickens’s readers to his works and the long history of adaptation, reimagining, pastiche and outright bootlegging of Dickens’s work, Tony Jordan’s Dickensian feels less of an oddity or a provocation than it may first appear. In this twenty-part TV serial, we enter a fantasy Victorian world, in which many of Dickens’s characters, from several of the novels, coexist. Thus, Inspector Bucket (Bleak House, 1852–53) is investigating the demise of Jacob Marley (A Christmas Carol, 1843), with the forensic assistance of Mr Venus (Our Mutual Friend, 1864–65). Accompanying these fantastic mash-ups is Jordan’s reimagining of backstories and subplots in the novels; thus, Honoria Barbary is embarking upon a relationship with Captain James Hawdon that readers of Bleak House know is doomed. And in a delightful nod to the queer affiliations that Professor Furneaux has observed in online fan fiction and other literary and non-literary sources, Arthur Havisham is hopelessly in love with Meriwether Compeyson, the dastardly seducer he has appointed to marry and defraud his sister, Amelia (who will become the bitter, decrepit Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, 1860–61). The first episode of Dickensian thus presented a delightful, uncanny guessing game, as Dickens fan scrambled to identify all of the characters and connect them to their extant stories within the novels.

Jordan himself is keen to present his work as goading the stuffy old gatekeepers of Dickens’s legacy, irreverently insisting in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that ‘he knew the changes risked “p––ing off the Dickens community”’. In actuality, Jordan’s work taps into a rich seam of readerly fantasy about Dickens imaginative worlds that has been amply mined by authors, playwrights, filmmakers and TV executives. Furthermore, the intense relationship between Dickens and his readers, and the love and affection readers have felt, and continue to feel, for Dickens, his fictional world and the people who inhabit it, have all been objects of intense scholarly scrutiny and analysis.

Dickens Gurney head

Charles Dickens – By Jeremiah Gurney (Heritage Auction Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is a truism that all Dickens fans and scholars inevitably encounter that, ‘Were Dickens alive today, he would write for a soap opera’. Jordan, who famously wrote for Eastenders (and less famously, for the slated, 90s camp classic Eldorado), has been keen to emphasise that Dickens’s serialised fiction prefigured the episodic melodrama of the contemporary soap opera. In a recent interview with The Big Issue, Jordan observes that,

“People can be far too reverential. We mustn’t forget that Dickens was a populist writer who wrote for the masses. He wrote episodically, trying to flog magazines every month. He was sensationalist and did cliffhangers way before soap operas. He and Wilkie Collins said their secret was to make them cry, make them laugh and make them wait. That is everything I did in my EastEnders career. It is that deferment of gratification.”

The originality of Dickensian lies in its audacious bringing together of numerous characters at once, but one of the impulses that has powered this – the desire to make characters live again and to imagine them into new aspects, new stories and new worlds – accompanied Dickens’s fiction from its earliest moments. In the spaces in-between and after instalments, we find that readers’ emotional engagement births alternative and new stories, trajectories and lives that all demonstrate the enduring power of Dickens’s fiction.

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Why Remember Shoulder to Shoulder?

This post was written by Dr Janet McCabe, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, and Vicky Ball, De Montfort University

Helena Bonham-Carter and Carey Mulligan recently marched through the corridors of Parliament agitating for female suffrage. It made the news. Not the protest. But because it was the first time that a commercial film had been shot inside the Palace of Westminster. In recreating what women did in that constitutional space to get the vote 100 years ago Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, brings that historic campaign back into public consciousness. While the struggle for emancipation shaped the political landscape in Britain in the early 1900s and changed irrevocably the position of women in society, it is a story that hardly ever makes it on to our screens; and it has been 40 years since we saw the suffragette movement last dramatized for television.

2014 marks the fortieth anniversary of the BBC miniseries, Shoulder to Shoulder, which focused on the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia (1898-1918). It consisted of six specially written plays and it came about through the collaboration of three women, the actress Georgia Brown, filmmaker and feminist Midge Mackenzie and TV producer Verity Lambert. A sense of the public service remit pervades the series as Shoulder to Shoulder dramatizes particular events of the early suffrage movement, albeit from a decidedly socialist perspective. Its importance as a landmark BBC drama documenting the history of feminism and the emergent public voice of women is unquestioned. That said, the series seldom gets repeated and has never been released on DVD. This neglect prompts us to ask: why is such a politically important drama about women’s history still buried deep in the BBC archive?

Shoulder to Shoulder first aired on Wednesday 3 April 1974 at 9pm on BBC 2. It seemed an inauspicious start. Competing as it did with the extensively praised documentary series, The World at War, on ITV, and the popular ‘fly-on-the-wall’ series, The Family, on BBC 1. A quirk of scheduling has perhaps contributed to the amnesia, with the suffragette drama squeezed out of our collective TV memories as we recollect instead the ambition of the multi-award winning World War II series (still on television screens somewhere) and one of the first ‘reality’ shows in the history of television, which documented the everyday life of the Wilkins, a working-class family from Reading. What defined these shows at this moment in British television culture when BBC and ITV dominated was a focus on stories rarely told: ordinary people caught up in history; or those who had scarcely been given representation or a public voice on television before.

It is well known that Emmeline Pankhurst was alive to the importance of capturing the media to help shape her political message; and some of the W.S.P.U.’s preoccupations—with the media, penal reform and direct action—chimed in with Britain in the early 1970s. The IRA bombing campaign (with the Price Sisters on hunger strike in Holloway prison—and forcibly fed), industrial strife and economic crisis meant that the series carried more than a whiff of controversy.

Shoulder to shoulderBut maybe it was its feminism that lay at the heart of why Shoulder to Shoulder has been forgotten then and why we should remember it now. At the cast and crew reunion held at Birkbeck last Thursday both Siân Phillips and Angela Down, who play Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst respectively, admitted to knowing little about these women before making the series. While Phillips was politically active and involved in the trade union movement, she had no formal education about the Suffragettes.

She wasn’t alone.

Midge Mackenzie spoke often of how the project grew out of her experience of filming the Golden Jubilee of Women’s Suffrage in 1968, when she discovered the story of how women won the right to vote had been ‘almost successfully erased from the history books. The women who fought for the vote had vanished from our history,’ she wrote. ‘Their writings were long since out of print and their newspapers buried in archives’ (Shoulder to Shoulder 1988; ix). In good documentary fashion Mackenzie filled her book, which one feels was a response to the betrayal she somehow felt at having men write the TV series, with women’s voices—original experiences as expressed in the words of those taking part, from diaries, letters, memoirs, speeches, as well as newspaper reports and the Suffragettes own publications, Votes for Women and The Suffragette.

The series, like the book, focused on the militant campaign; but these Suffragettes were by no means the only campaigners demanding enfranchisement. Shoulder to Shoulder (like all history) is a product of its time and, for example, it doesn’t address the contribution of other dedicated Suffragettes like Countess Markievicz, the first woman elected to Parliament, or Charlotte Despard, an Irish-based campaigner and Sinn Féin activist, for as Irish revolutionaries it probably was not the right time for reassessment as the troubles in northern Ireland still raged. And the non-violent, but constitutionally minded, Suffragists, led by Millicent Fawcett, barely got a look in either. But then committee work and letter writing is far less televisual than the drama of arson campaigns and bruising clashes with the police. What is rescued and recovered is not random, but the fragility of remembering the complexity of our history adds to ignorance and concealment.

But this is no excuse to forget Shoulder to Shoulder. Margaretta Jolly, Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, offered a useful intervention at the symposium that followed the screening, when she spoke of using the Suffragettes to ‘measure new feminisms’ and of the importance of passing these stories onto the next generation, however difficult and contested. What the act of recovery from this entanglement of ‘official’ history and personal stories, public speeches and oral testimonies, teach us is that the fight for equality didn’t end with enfranchisement—despite what postfeminism would have us to believe.

Remembering Shoulder to Shoulder isn’t only about reclaiming our stories, but about who has the power to tell them. Even within the production of the series there was a feminist struggle (of sorts) between an ideal and a challenging of power from the margins—Mackenzie, and shattering the glass ceiling and able to change the script but from the inside—Lambert.

Remembering the earlier fight for emancipation happened in the early 1970s at a time when a new feminism was struggling over questions of inequality, images of woman as Other and the culturally awkward position of women within the public sphere and their right to speak. Forty years and we remain preoccupied with similar questions. Reconnecting voices and the experience of women and women’s history across time and space is crucial.

Shoulder to Shoulder thus reminds us why the struggle still matters.

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Beyond Bad Apples: Bullying at the BBC

This post was contributed by Dr Andreas Liefooghe, a Reader in the Department of Organizational Psychology.

The Respect at Work Report states that ‘uncomfortable levels’ of bullying are being reported at the BBC. Uncomfortable to whom, we might ask.  A corporation that prides itself on people being “our greatest strength” has to cope with increasing levels of criticism of the way it treats and protects its employees. Covering the period between 2005 and 2012, bullying behaviour appeared to go unchallenged by senior managers, with certain individuals “seen as being untouchable due to their perceived value to the BBC”.

BBC director general Tony Hall wants “zero tolerance of bullying”, and emphasized he wants to get rid of the culture of fear, and “get employees to speak out” about bullying. Following in the footsteps of many a Chairman before him, he will focus on changing behaviour from the top. Professor Stale Einarsen from the University of Bergen suggested in a recent lecture at Birkbeck that bullying had little to do with good or bad leadership – it was those leaders that do nothing and create a vacuum that really damage the culture in organizations. People are not huddling in corners in fear of a perpetrator out there, but they are de-spirited and humiliated by ever demanding working practices. For this reason, a policy to ‘get rid of bullies’ in organisations will only have a limited effect, and will not address these organisational issues. Bullying is arguably far more often the system and one’s role in it than individual personalities, stated Prof Einarsen.

It strikes me that Lord Hall is somewhat disingenuous. Employees have spoken out, they may perhaps not have been heard. Bectu (the media and entertainment union) reported as early as 2008 that the culture at the BBC was one of fear. Why was this not picked up then? The Savile Enquiry gave rise to this current report, but it seems that what is being reported goes way beyond some individual culprits and bad bosses. The 500 or so voices of these employees point to something far more akin to institutionalised bullying. If the link is made here with findings on racism, for instance in the MacPherson Report , it becomes clear that it is not just about a few bad apples that need to be removed from the organisation, but the very practices (from recruitment and reward to ‘how things are done around here’) that need to be scrutinised.

The BBC is not alone. My research since 1998 has consistently shown that to stop bullying it’s not personalities but the systems and policies that need to be tackled – many of these are designed to cut costs, not to preserve dignity nor foster respect. Within these systems, managers are put under pressure to increase staff performance, reduce overtime, and cut costs to meet their targets – how employees experience this process is not top of the organizational agenda. BBC employees, like many others elsewhere, feel their respect at work is eroded by being kept in the dark, being serially restructured, not being consulted in earnest, feeling that sauce for the ‘grafting’ goose is definitely not sauce for the ‘talented’ gander. Telling the author of the report that the above is bullying corresponds closely to Bectu’s findings, and indeed the NUJ comments on institutionalised bullying.  Yet BBC responses to the report’s findings seem designed to tackle only bullying of the inter- and intra-personal kind.

Part of coping with bullying is challenging the organisational systems that in an ever increasing, unrelenting fashion erode the self-esteem and self-efficacy of an entire workforce – as evidenced by this recent report. What can be done to stop this organisational bullying and change a culture of fear? Arguably, the answer would be to question all organizational policies that are in place, and evaluate these in terms of their appropriateness with a dignified working life, balancing values with costs. So not just re-writing your bullying policy as suggested, BBC, if you really want to tackle these issues.

Dr Andreas Liefooghe has recently completed an ESRC Seminar Series on bullying at work called Vulnerable Selves, Discipling Others, footage available on line. He is currently analysing data from the first pan-ASEAN research study into bullying at work.

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