The function of Dickens

The English literary establishment fully mobilised for the Charles Dickens bicentenary. But, wonders Harley Filben, why is it so in need of heroes?

It is, it seems, a time of anniversaries. The King James bible turned 400 a couple of months ago, to much hoo-ha; this year will also mark 60 years on the throne for Elizabeth II. For those nonplussed by either scripture or blank-faced toffs, there is the option of celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.

Dickens is one of the most enduring novelists in English literature - his bicentenary is marked by yet another middlebrow BBC costume drama, the visible excitement of book vendors up and down the country, and a blanket of coverage in the ‘quality’ press (and elsewhere). His official authorisation by the literary academy has not blunted his very real impact on popular culture, which is sustained to this day.

Partly, this has to do with his membership of a particular club within English capital-L Literature - this country’s great lineage of highly talented hacks. Like Shakespeare before him, Dickens wrote for a mass audience, and at a pretty impressive lick - 10 major novels in 20 years, almost all serialised in journals, with many instalments written to the rolling monthly deadlines themselves.

What obviously need to be unpicked here are the ways and means of constructing a literary canon which can offer that kind of official status to Dickens, Shakespeare and co. A good way into it is precisely this: how does the literary establishment deal with the fact that Dickens himself did not write, by any stretch of the imagination, for academically authorised posterity, but for a popular audience?

It does not repress this inconvenient detail; but one must note the stupidities that circulate on the subject. There is always one person to be found, in any setting of literary discussion, who will argue that if Dickens were alive today, he would be writing for Eastenders (never Coronation Street, for some reason). Someone else equally will be found who objects to that reasoning as a cringeworthy attempt to be ‘down with the kids’ - one that cheapens Dickens’s enduring literary value; and a third will argue that, whatever he would or would not have written, it would have had the ineffable mark of his genius on it.

Between these three, admittedly stereotyped, responses, the problem is laid out. There is something historical in Dickens - born in 1812 to a clerk, into a literary career that spans journalism and popular fiction; the Dickens we might transplant to the Eastenders writing team. There is also the Dickens who is part of a fundamentally ahistorical system of succession - from ‘genius’ to ‘genius’.

The interminable chatter of the quality press on his literary merits fundamentally rests on the latter dimension; and that is why the Eastenders scenario is so dishonest. The very structure of popular culture is utterly transformed since Dickens’s day; wondering what he would have done today is meaningless, because our age does not produce the likes of Dickens.

The novel itself is no longer, in the age of film and television (and even the video game), the pre-eminent form of narrative fiction. Popular fiction today is not any sort of ‘thing in itself’ - it is carved up into a limited set of genres (crime, romance, ‘chick lit’, science fiction and fantasy, primarily). In order to become a ‘publishing phenomenon’, a book - be it Harry Potter or The Da Vinci code - almost invariably has to fit into one of the allotted spaces. Genre fiction is a thoroughly 20th century phenomenon; and posterity will perhaps anoint one or another writer of crime, fantasy and so forth with the same retrospective veneration afforded Dickens.

So, if the literary and cultural landscape is so very different in 2012 from 1812, where does Dickens fit into things today? This is the question posed by Marx in 1857:

“Let us take, for example, the relation of Greek art, and that of Shakespeare, to the present time. We know that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek art, but also its basis. Is the conception of nature and of social relations which underlies Greek imagination and therefore Greek art possible when there are self-acting mules, railways, locomotives and electric telegraphs? What is a Vulcan compared with Roberts and Co, Jupiter compared with the lightning conductor, and Hermes compared with the Credit Mobilier?

“...The difficulty we are confronted with is not, however, that of understanding how Greek art and epic poetry are associated with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still give us aesthetic pleasure and are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable ideal.”[1]

The idea of an English literary canon is, like Dickens and Marx, a product of the 19th century. It hails back in some senses to Matthew Arnold, for whom the teaching of English literature as, in effect, a poor cousin of the classics would inculcate in the restive masses a sense of their place in the organic national community. The literary canon was born along with English Literature as an institution.

First of all, then, the Dickens-cult is part of a broader institutional formation which is fundamentally nationalist in character. It is an ideological means of wedding the English to England - this England, with all its peculiarities and horrors, and its definite social hierarchy.

Dickens exists today, also, as a literary reference - no end of authors and ‘high’ cultural figures, from Howard Jacobson to Simon Callow, can be found to put their oar in (Jacobson, in particular, is a scathing critic of BBC coverage he considers basically vapid)[2]. As such, while the literary academy submits new names to the canon at an infamously glacial pace, an avowed commitment to canonical literature is one of the ideological supports of so-called ‘literary fiction’. Now that the wild formal experiments of high modernism are somewhat out of vogue with jobbing literary writers, Dickens is an increasingly popular choice.

It would be wrong, however, to view literary canonicity as a vulgar transmission belt for bourgeois ideology. Ideology, among other things, has to provide imaginary solutions to problems. In this respect, it is highly analogous with the practice of narrative. Any basic screenwriting manual or undergraduate creative writing course will tell you: narrative is about conflict, about problems; a ‘good’ narrative stretches a problem as far as it will go before offering a solution. Narrative, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty said of the body, is where there is something to be done.

What problem, then, does Dickens solve? His work is famously rooted in the city, in all its energy and squalor - from the great dust-heaps of Our mutual friend to the picture of a London joyfully preparing for Yuletide in A Christmas carol; and equally famously possessed of an intense moralism. Dickens’s sympathy for the underdog is, in sophisticated leftwing opinion, slightly passé and paternalistic; nonetheless, it is his way into the life of his characters and literary worlds, and thus the source of his narrative power.

There is an instability at the heart of the literary canon. It wants to assemble a perfect lineage of English-language genius as a mirror image of an organic community of the English; but none of this work would exist if England were ‘really like that’. There is no Dickens without cholera and tenement housing, and very little Shakespeare without the political and religious tumult of the 15th and 16th centuries. Narrative solves problems; but it also internalises and preserves them. The self-destructive greed of Scrooge lives again in all its misanthropic glory every time we turn back to page one.

‘High’ literary culture may seem to be the private property of the bourgeois establishment - and to a degree, it is. But in spinning a red thread from Shakespeare, through Austen and Dickens to Joyce and Woolf, it actually does violence to the texts it tries to promote, repressing both the history that produced them and the contemporary history (in which we might certainly recognise certain Dickensian features!) that gives them continued meaning.

Two hundred years after Dickens’s birth, his work is preserved in aspic - but it remains alive, because it belongs to the masses as much as the professors.


1. www2.cddc.vt.edu/marxists/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/appx1.htm.

2. The Guardian January 6.