Dickens & His Readers:
of Novel Criticism Since 1836
by George H. Ford
The Norton Library edition
This books appears to be utterly forgotten in light of the deserted Amazon Product Page. That is a pity because I happen this book is pretty relevant for the big data era we currently happen. Specifically, it is relevant for obtaining a proper understanding of Charles Dickens and his relationship to his readers and his critics.
I agree with M.H. Abrams and his schematic regarding critical theories of art, pictured above. The thing about that scheme is that almost 100% of art criticism focuses on the relationship between one aspect to another aspect, but rarely is the Audience considered, whether they be critics or fans, or both.
But this book is unique as far as I can tell because of the detailed consideration of the RECEPTION of Charles Dickens by his different Audiences, popular and critical. Writing in the 1950s, Ford is perched on the precipice of an explosion in esteem for Charles Dickens. According to Ford, Dickens reached a critical nadir in the 1920s and 1930s when he was derided by critics (who often asserted that a popular audience no longer read Dickens, i.e. that he was unpopular.)
Charles Dickens was, above all, a popular phenomenon. He was an Artist critics came to embrace only after his popularity with the general reading Audience was perfectly clear. The popular success of the early Charles Dickens novels made everyone sit up and take notice. Dickens success was such that he helped elevate the Novel as an Art Form from something that literary critics treated with derision to the rising Art form that came to dominate the both the market for literature as well as the market for literary criticism.
|Charles Dickens Little Nell|
After the initial acceptance, Charles Dickens had one notable popular failure- Martin Chuzzlewit. Chuzzlewit was published after his most popular, least enduring work, The Old Curiosity Shop. The Old Curiosity Shop had the archetypical example of "bad" Charles Dickens- Little Nell. Little Nell would become a symbol of the saccharine sentimentality that plagued much of his early work.
Ford argues in Dickens & His Readers that the failure of Martin Chuzzlewit was based on it being such a digression in subject matter and tone from his prior success. In other words, Dickens failed to meet the expectations of his popular Audience. But again- critics mirrored rather then shaped the reception of the popular Audience. Today, of course, Martin Chuzzlewit is considered a top five Charles Dickens title and The Old Curiosity Shop is not popular.
An interesting chapter in Dickens & His Readers handles the way the English literary critical establishment handled the emergence of the Russian trio of Dovstoyevsky, Turgenev & Tolstoy, the French naturalism of Zola & Flaubert and the homegrown sophistication of George Eliot. All three of these forces were in play by the 1880s, which was also the beginning of a generation long decline in esteem for Charles Dickens by critics, if not the reading the public.
All three of these trends shared a more adult, sophisticated take on the Novel. Out were the broad comedy and emotion of Charles Dickens, in was the delicate contemplation of inner existence and human motive. Critics were anxious to argue that the Novel had "grown up" and this view required Charles Dickens as a foil.
One fact that becomes clear with the ebb and flow of the relationship between Charles Dickens and his critics: Critics liked to make the claim that the popular Audience had stopped reading Dickens at various points in time but the continued sales strength of all of his works would tend to rebut that claim. In fact, despite the rise and fall of critical esteem, the "collected works" of Charles Dickens was a household staple in countries from England, to the United States, to France, to Germany. Like, Dickens would be the only Author that people would ever read. Like, people would re-read all of his books every couple of years- these were behaviors that have persisted among his Audience for over a century and a half.
In light of Dickens' proven Audience pleasing talents, I'm inclined to favor him over the serious minded Naturalism/Realism of the late 19th/early 20th century. I'm talking, Thomas Hardy, Henry James- the really, really, boring novels that crop up during the transition from the late Victorian to the early Modern period of literature. To these people, Dickens was a kind of a clown. But you know what: People don't give a fuck about Henry James today, and Charles Dickens is an international literary saint of the highest order. I'm with Charles Dickens. Fuck Henry James.
Other Posts About Charles Dickens On This Blog
Book Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens11/20/14
Book Review: Dickens and His Readers: Aspects of Novel Criticism Since 1836 by George H. Ford. 3/25/13
Book Review: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, 3/17/13.
Book Review: Dickens Worlds by Humphrey House, 3/8/13
Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens, 9/21/12
Book Review: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, 8/23/12
Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 7/17/12.
Book Review: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby by Charles Dickens, 6/19/12.
Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, 6/7/12.