History in the life and work of Dickens

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus Dr Ben Winyard. Dr Winyard is a co-organiser of Dickens Day, along with fellow alumni Dr Bethan Carney and Dr Holly Furneaux. Now in its 27th year, Dickens Day is a much-cherished Birkbeck institution, attracting a uniquely mixed audience of scholars, students, members of the Dickens Fellowship, and Dickens enthusiasts for a day to explore, discuss and celebrate all things Dickensian. Across its three decades, the Day has featured papers from most of the world’s most eminent Dickensians. The event is now hosted and administered by the Institute of English Studies at Senate House. This year’s Dickens Day was 12 October 2013.

This year we considered how history, in all its manifold forms, features in Dickens’s life and work. The Victorians were profoundly exercised by the idea of history: the historical novel remained one of the most popular and prestigious literary forms, sitting at the apex of a hierarchy of genres; history, historiography and archaeology were professionalised, theorised and institutionalised as objects of academic concern; and the period itself was shaped by epochal events of nation building, imperial rise and fall, and an increasing sense of historical progress and destiny. Dickens’s early career was marked by his intense desire to write a historical novel, emulating the success, profits and literary kudos of Sir Walter Scott. Dickens’s first effort, Barnaby Rudge (1841), was something of a failure, particularly in comparison to the astonishing, ground-breaking and career-making success of his previous works, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. Dickens was famous at this point in his career for his startlingly recognisable depictions of contemporary life, yet here was a novel set sixty years earlier, during an inglorious moment in British history – the Gordon Riots of 1780, a now fairly obscure moment when Londoners rioted for nearly a week.

Barnaby Rudge has been consequently neglected by readers and students alike; many readers find its baggy narrative, its cast of grotesque characters and its scenes of melodramatic intensity and sentimental excess difficult to stomach. The art critic and social commentator John Ruskin roundly criticised what he considered the novel’s ‘diseased extravagance’. Although the Gordon riots were ostensibly rooted in anti-Catholic feeling, Dickens interpreted the violence as more sharply motivated by socio- economic difficulties and the apathetic and corrupt rule of a self-serving aristocracy. Dickens was himself living through dark and dramatic times when he wrote Barnaby Rudge: the optimistic, reforming spirit of the 1830s had been supplanted by political pessimism and disappointment, while organised political movements, such as Chartism, raised the spectre of mass revolt or even revolution. Fuelling popular agitation was a sharp retraction in living standards that would see the decade dubbed ‘the hungry forties’. Indeed, across much of the Continent, the 1840s culminated in 1848­ with revolutions that saw monarchic and aristocratic rulers deposed by liberal, radical and socialist protestors. In other words, Barnaby Rudge, like most historical novels, tells us more about the historical moment of its composition than about the period it depicts.

At the other end of his career, nearly twenty years later, Dickens’s second historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), was an immediate success and remains one of his most celebrated, popular and read works. Set during the far more famous French Revolution of 1789, the novel follows the fortunes of assorted characters who gather around Doctor Manette, falsely imprisoned in the Bastille for twenty years, and his preternaturally virtuous daughter, Lucie. The novel ends with the dissolute lawyer Sydney Carton sacrificing his life in an act of Christian selflessness and atonement, enabling the Manette family to escape Paris – ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done’.

Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities are fascinatingly similar, thematically, structurally and narratively: both move between two geographically separate places (Essex and London in Barnaby Rudge and London and Paris in A Tale of Two Cities); both open five years before the main, riotous events; both intertwine the private and domestic with the public and political; both exhibit Dickens’s fascination with the psychology of repression, imprisonment, crime and guilt; both lambast the upper classes for their immortality and political mismanagement; both defend the rights of the poor and oppressed while criticising riot and revolution as engines of justice and change; both depict the destruction of an infamous prison (Newgate in Barnaby Rudge and the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities); and both novels end with scenes of public execution, rousing scaffold speeches, and the restoration of domestic happiness. In many ways, then, we might see A Tale of Two Cities as Dickens’s attempt to ‘redo’ Barnaby Rudge, or to work through and duplicate themes, ideas, symbols, characters and scenes that evidently fascinated him. While A Tale of Two Cities is usually seen as more restrained and focused, and less excessive and over-the-top, both novels are intense, dark, occasionally very disturbing, and gloriously melodramatic and sentimental. When Dickens took on historical fiction, then, he certainly didn’t stint from remaking the genre in his own, inimitable style.


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