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Peer Reviewed

Sarah Winter. The Pleasures of Memory: Learning to Read with Charles Dickens New York: Fordham UP, 2011. 455 pp. $60.00 (c).

Maria K. Bachman, Coastal Carolina University

Sarah Winter. The Pleasures of Memory: Learning to Read with Charles Dickens. New York: Fordham UP, 2011. 455 pp. $60.00 (c).

Juliet John. Dickens and Mass Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. 321 pp. $99.00 (c).
In 1858, the novelist John Cordy Jeaffreson described the enormous magnitude of Dickens’s influence among his contemporaries:
Directly we examine our relations with him, we are positively alarmed at the sway he has held over us, —how we have been in his hands only plastic clay he has fashioned—to all the honour it was capable of. We cannot walk without his leading strings, or speak without using his texts, or look out upon the world save through his eyes. Indeed, it is not our world, but his, that we gaze upon. If an incident render a morning’s walk eventful, we refer to his books for a parallel, or explanation, or comment. The crowds that hurry past us in the public ways we classify in a manner he has taught us, and we christen them with names taken from his fiction. It is the same on the gravest occasions, and the most trivial . . . In short we have so adopted, or he has so embued us with, his visions of the outer world, that in moments of self introspection we are almost frightened lest we have been too confiding and unquestioning followers. Such in its magnitude is his influence on each one of us.
Novels and Novelists: From Elizabeth to Victoria (1858)
Though neither Sarah Winter nor Juliet John references this particular mid-Victorian “appreciation” of Dickens, their recent books are provocative investigations of the extraordinary sway that Dickens held over his Victorian readers and the sway that he continues to hold on audiences today.
In The Pleasures of Memory, Winter offers a thoroughly original and erudite delineation of Dickens’s grand political project: how he directed the reception of his serial fiction and formed a new constituency of readers with democratic, participatory potential. Winter explains in the introduction that her study is shaped by several overriding questions: What are the sources of the popular belief that reading literature helps people become better citizens by making them more socially aware, just, or humane? If they exist, how would such effects of literature be manifested? Why did Dickens take up so much of his contemporaries’ mental space? Why do we still read Dickens today?
In A New Spirit of the Age, a survey of prominent Victorian intellectuals, R. H. Horne described Dickens in 1844 as “manifestly the product of his age . . . his influence . . . is extensive – pleasurable, instructive, healthy, reformatory.” Winter uses Horne’s summation of Dickens’s influence as a starting point for considering the “epistemological, democratic, and social reform effects” of his novels (135). Winter begins by charting Dickens’s trajectory from popular to canonical author while also mapping out the development of the mass reading public. Connecting Dickens’s cultural politics to “a social epistemology of novel reading,” Winter demonstrates how Dickens’s serialized novels, from Pickwick Papers through Our Mutual Friend, explicitly thematized “the pleasures of memory.” Winter argues that Dickens’s “new media” novels were unique because they taught serial reading as an associative practice, “channeling the memories of reading they supply into a common experience as a basis for cultural politics” (17).
Following a capacious overview of popular associationism in Victorian literary, critical, psychological, and pedagogical writings, Winter begins to unfold her argument in Chapter Two by (a) charting the emergence of a new authorial phenomenon— “the celebrity writer who advocates the democratization of literature and galvanizes public concern around specific humanitarian causes” and (b) by examining the critical reception of Dickens’s first novel, Pickwick Papers (80). Key to Dickens’s influence and celebrity status, Winter persuasively argues, was the consolidation of a popular readership—readers who responded overwhelmingly to “the comedy of his characters, the idiomatic currency of his narrative style, and the specific memory and reality effects of his descriptions of everyday life” (80). Winter analyzes the contemporary reviews of Pickwick to show how Victorian critics employed associationist terminology to describe responses to Dickens’s originality and “the reality effects of his descriptions of London life, and the reader’s retention of his memorable scenes and characters” (81). Through the “associationist pleasures of memory,” Winter argues, Dickens could channel these fictive attachments into “larger group affiliations such as a reading audience, a school, a democratic constituency, or a national culture.” At the same time, Winter points out, these associations involved readers in “competing forms of inculcation” (144).
In Chapter Three Winter discusses Dickens’s “anti-sectarian, democratic project” by examining the competition between The Old Curiosity Shop, one of Dickens’s most popular serial novels, and Evangelical religious tracts (from which many Victorians learned to read). Winter notes that both religious fiction and the Dickensian serial deployed specific narrative (and associative) tactics—analogy and contrast—in order to communicate specific moral lessons or evoke particular attitudes or beliefs. In The Old Curiosity Shop, Winter argues, “curiosity” becomes the new didacticism in the novel, “affording a means to instruct the reader in an ethical investment” (148) that will ideally prompt social action.
In subsequent chapters, Winter demonstrates how Dickens’s novels “do not simply persuade or instruct readers but rather provide new patterns of logic and emotion through which readers can form (or transform) their judgments of society” (175). Indeed, in Chapter Four Winter expands upon her claim that Dickens’s novels awaken contemporary readers to a range of ethical possibilities by considering the extent to which his novels call readers to “active duty” (182) and thus serve to instigate “good deeds” (222). Winter focuses, for example, on how Nicholas Nickleby and Little Dorrit extend the associative powers of memory beyond the narrative itself by transmuting plots about memory into memory techniques. She explains, “The associationism analogy between experience and reading reinforces the sense that fictional memories or memories of reading, take up the same kind of space in the reader’s mind as experiences recollected from the past” (182). According to Winter, popular serial fiction thus provided to readers “a more inclusive form of cultural participation through the exchange of collective memories of reading” (222). Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop, for instance, both incorporate narrative techniques “for modeling the forms of social connection that serial reading encourages” (195). In Nicholas Nickleby, Winter explains, readers are called upon “to notice and revive the humanity of certain characters who have been reduced to ‘mere creatures of habit,’” and to condemn the inhumanity of certain “classes of people [such as the Yorkshire schoolmaster Wackford Squeers] whose memories have failed in both a functional and a moral sense” (183).
In Chapter Five, Winter builds on the critique of didactic religious literature in Dickens’s earlier fiction but finds that those anti-didactic pedagogical modes of memory are limited in his critique of literacy and the Victorian school system. Describing Our Mutual Friend as “a story about the repercussions of learning to read” (226), Winter claims that the novel’s exploration of the imaginative lives of illiterate people invites readers to consider they ways in which memory might serve as “a medium for the social inclusion and cultural participation of the poor” (225). Winter concludes The Pleasures of Memory with the history of Dickens’s canonization. By examining literary histories, biographies, and British and American school readers published between 1846 and 1919, Winter demonstrates how Dickens’s “democratic project” became institutionalized in the English literature curriculum.
While Winter’s argument is authoritative, compelling, and provocative, the purported breadth of her study belies a number of disappointing gaps. Rather than examining the full scope of Dickens's literary production, Winter focuses on a handful of early novels – Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and then jumps to Our Mutual Friend. Curiously, she neglects to mention, even in passing, how some of Dickens’s “major” novels—for instance, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations—may have incorporated associationist theories of memory to shape reader reception.
On the eve of Dickens’s 100th birthday, J. Cuming Walters declared in 1911, “Of what there is to say of Dickens little has by now been left unsaid, nor are his works in need of exposition, for his message is explicit and unmistakable. But it cannot be wholly profitless to take a survey of his complete design, and to show how from the most elaborate of his novels to the shortest of his journalistic articles, he was consistently carrying out a great campaign.”@ A century later, Juliet John proves Walters completely wrong—not only is there still very much to be said about Dickens that is significant and provocative, but John also brings considerable new insights into the vast complexities of Dickens’s “great campaign.” In her fascinating study, Dickens and Mass Culture, John explores how Dickens became “the most popular author in the world.” From the outset, John explains, “Dickens combined the instincts of a media mogul with the abilities of a great writer” (50). Keenly attuned to the burgeoning mass culture of the industrial era, Dickens was “the first and perhaps the only literary celebrity to market himself so successfully and ubiquitously over a range of mass media and to understand the importance of the visible personality to both mass market success and political influence” (127). Key to Dickens’s mass cultural impact and his cultural survival, John argues, was his “portability” (the ability of his novels to travel across various media, national boundaries, historical periods and cultural industries)—and his “visibility” (“the duplication of his image in newspapers, advertisements, and on commodities”) (15).
In the first part of the book, John examines Dickens’s mass cultural presence in the Victorian period; in this second part of the book, she considers the continuation of Dickens’s mass appeal into the twenty-first century in relation to the heritage industry. The scope of John’s analysis is most impressive, although the risk of such an approach is that it inevitably leaves readers wishing for more, From the outset, however, John admits that her study of Dickens’s relations with mass culture is not intended to be either exhaustive or definitive. Rather, she offers several “arguments and patterns” in her attempt to account for Dickens’s enduring popularity and cultural influence.
In Chapter One, John surveys Dickens’s political and cultural vision. Throughout his career, Dickens remained steadfast in his belief that art was integral to social well-being and improvement. Refusing to be labeled a lowbrow author, Dickens campaigned vociferously for “the cultural worth of the novel as a genre as well as of popular amusements” (39). For Dickens, popular culture “offer[ed] the best means of access for those denied political access to a cultural life and to the experience of community” (40).
In Chapter Two, John examines the dystopian model of mass culture that Dickens found in his first visit to America in 1842. “Everything that Dickens loathed about America—the press, the lack of an international copyright agreement, his lack of privacy, and bad manners”—in addition to the fact that he was turned into a vulgar commodity by celebrity-obsessed Americans, had a lasting impact on his cultural outlook and practice” (76), according to John.
In the chapters that follow in Part I, John examines Dickens’s journalism and public readings. John first examines the commercial and political motivations behind Dickens’s desire to establish through the personally conducted journal the largest positive audience--an “imagined community”—of readers. In order to realize this mass readership, Dickens worked diligently to ensure that his journals would appeal to all classes; these were magazines with a “social conscience that never sold out to sensationalists strategies” to gain readers. He sought, moreover, to “elevate the people by culture” and to “elevate the culture of the people” (118).
According to John, Dickens’s ambition “to speak to as large an audience as possible, and his business acumen, taught him that the public was attracted to the personal mode of address” (127). Indeed, Dickens sought to extend his “personal relations” with the public and capitalize on his mass appeal by embarking on a series of highly profitable and wildly popular reading tours in the 1850s and 60s. What is most evident from these reading tours, in addition to his need for amass a crowd, was Dickens’s need to amass (indeed, his obsession with amassing) money. These readings, according to John, enacted his complex and varied relationship with mass culture (155).
In the second part of the book, John analyzes the “afterlives” of Dickens, looking specifically at cinematic and television adaptations. Why Dickens? John asks. What is there about his fame and his fiction that lends itself to film? John seeks to answer these questions by delineating the unique relationship between Dickens and the new technology of the day: the moving image. According to John, not only was Dickens always “highly aware of himself as a brand” (50), but as “the most high-profile novelist of the nineteenth-century, Dickens provided early film-makers with a visible and marketable ‘brand’”(188). In her analysis of Dickens on screen, John emphasizes the stylistic qualities—particularly the combination of melodrama, realism, and narrative--that have made Dickens’s writing so translatable. She then employs Oliver Twist--Dickens’s most frequently adapted novel to the big screen—as a case study to (a) demonstrate how “culture-texts” (213) are created and circulated and (b) demonstrate the shifting relationship between literature and the mass market (213). Oliver’s “screen story,” according to John, has much to tell us about Dickens’s place in mass culture. Though Dickens’s screen “afterlife” has “aided his upward cultural mobility” (235), the “mass cultural repetitions” of his novels have ultimately diminished their “radical” and “reactionary” impact (238).
Moving beyond a discussion of filmic adaptations, John concludes her study with an examination of the heritage industry—Dickens’s transformation into an icon of Englishness and the Victorian age. The mainstay of the industry, according to John, is the way in which Dickens engineered mass market success by “will[ing] the association between the artist’s image and material things and/or places” (241). The downside, however, of Dickens’s posthumous iconic status is that his cultural pervasiveness has “blunted his symbolic ability . . . to radically test perceived cultural hierarchies and oppositions.”
On the occasion of Dickens’s 100th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1911, The New York Times reported, “Nothing new was told of the great novelist except that which is always new -- the wonder of his work.” Amidst the dizzying array of books published in anticipation of the Dickens bicentenary, Sarah Winters’s The Pleasures of Memory and Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture are particularly notable for the ways in which they pay tribute to the continued wonder of the Inimitable. Well-written, provocative, and historically informed, both books offer fertile ground for further sustained investigation of Dickens’s “grand design” particularly and Victorian cultural studies more generally.
Maria K. Bachman, Professor of English at Coastal Carolina University, is the co-editor of Fear, Loathing, and Victorian Xenophobia (Ohio State University Press, forthcoming) and the co-editor of Reality’s Dark Light: The Sensational Wilkie Collins (University of Tennessee Press, 2003). She has also published scholarly editions of Wilkie Collins’s “The Dead Hand” and Charles Dickens's “The Bride's Chamber” (University of Tampa Press, 2009), Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (Broadview Press, 2006), and Wilkie Collins’s Blind Love (Broadview Press, 2004). She is currently working on a book-length monograph on embodied consciousness and the Victorian novel.