Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Dickens & His Readers: Aspects of Novel Criticism Since 1836 by George H. Ford

Dickens & His Readers:
 of Novel Criticism Since 1836
 by George H. Ford
p. 1965
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.)

Scrooge McDuck

   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.
Oliver Twist

   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.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

In A Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu

Carmilla the Vampire from Sheridan Le Fanu:  The scene depicted here is actually a direct lift from the book- the victimized heroine wakes up and see Carmilla, covered in blood, standing at the foot of her bed in a state of undress. 

In A Glass Darkly
 by Sheridan Le Fanu
p. 1872

  Sheridan Le Fanu is a good example of an interesting Author who I only read because he has two books in the 2005 edition of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die.   His obvious counter-parts are Wilkie Collins- a near contemporary, and Edgar Allan Poe- who wrote a near half-century before on a different continent.   In A Glass Darkly is actually a collection of short stories/novellas that Le Fanu collected and framed with a Doctor/investigator who presents each story as a "case study."  It's kind of narrative device that would bring delight to the heart of an earnest post-modernist, though in the case of Le Fanu he was probably just trying to make a buck rather then challenging narrative convention.

  The highlight among the collected tales is the early Vampire story at the end- the Vampire in question being a Lesbian seductress named Carmilla.  Le Fanu is clearly within the scope of the "Victorian Novel of Sensation" a group of books that laid the groundwork for the modern genres of horror and detective fiction, as well as being a precursor for horror and mystery films of all varieties.

A more modern take on Carmilla, the sexy lesbian vampire from In A Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu

  Many of the conventions that characterize detective and horror fiction derive from these books- certainly Le Fanu and Collins were in the minds of early pioneers of film, particularly the German Expressionists who created many of the early horror movies.

  Unfortunately, the potential for In A Glass Darkly to be used as unacknowledged source material is vastly diminished by the fact that everyone else has been exploiting the same material for 150 years.  It certainly does make a welcome break from other late 1860s early 1870s classics:  The Devils, by Dostoevsky,  Middlemarch by George Eliot, Spring Torrents by Turgenev, He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope and don't forget War & Peace by my man Leo Tolstoy.  Super stoked for that title!

   The late 1860s and early 1870s certainly a feel a ton of Russian authors- including the greatest hits of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky so, spoiler alert: There is a lot of Russian lit coming down the pipe-line.

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