Professor Baubles, who sent the following response to Anne Hannifin’s post on the discussion list Victoria, kindly permitted us to include it on our site. — George P. Landow
n my dotage and retirement, a few months ago I decided that it was time for me to reread (and, in a number of cases, read) my way through the entire Dickens canon. Starting with Sketches by Boz and ending with The Mystery of Edwin Drood (adding miscellaneous pieces along the way), I have in the last few months managed to get to The Old Curiosity Shop. And I am astounded by my experience!
Where is the Dickens that I thought I knew and that I often lectured about? Most frequently, I taught Bleak House, the first novel of what I thought of as the “darker” (and more “mature”) novels, Dickens having turned from a more comic sensibility between Pickwick and Copperfield to a more somber tone from Bleak House on. My (re)reading is calling in to question for me much of what I think I know (knew) about the novels and forcing me to reassess many aspects of his works.
Ms. Hanafin’s comment and question about the “viciousness” of Rosa Dartle provokes my response, for it touches upon a thread which, upon my rereading, seems woven into the Dickens’ canon from the very beginning. And that is the motif of violence. (Have I missed most of the scholarship on the issue? Have I not been paying attention?)
From the first, I have been astounded by the amount of fisticuffs, battering, and brawling (usually accompanied by drinking) that takes place in these early novels. The “comic” is often undercut by these episodes. But what is even more disturbing to me is what I sense as Dickens’s delight in describing this; I have the impression that he almost seems to revel in making the reader cringe at these moments more than he does in moving the story forward. There seems to be an almost sado-masochistic delight on the part of the narrator. (This seems particularly evident in Nicholas Nickleby which I had to struggle to finish, so creepy did I find almost everything about it.)
But to wrench this narrative back to Ms. Hanafin’s inquiry (and something I hope more germane), even in the early novels, many of the women are “vicious” or “violent.” To reference Nicholas Nickleby (which I have just recently finished), look at the behavior of Mrs. Squeers, Fanny Squeers, and Miss Knag. Much of the violence of females is directed toward other females.And Mrs. Knickleby is no slouch in this arena; she is masterful (my apology for impolitic terminology) in her passive-aggressiveness. Even some of Dickens’s “simple-minded” women have more of a mind than they might be given credit for.
All the same, the violence is there; it is different in how it is manifested by the men and by the women (and that difference might probably deserve an article in itself — if it hasn’t already been written). Men battle with their fists, women with their tongues (and, occasionally, their fists, viz, Madame Defarge and Miss Pross).
How helpful these remarks might be to Ms. Hanafin’s post is questionable. But I would like to thank her for the inquiry as it provoked yet another set of questions for me as I continue to (re)read. I am looking forward (albeit with some trepidation) to what I may find (or have found) by the time I arrive at Our Mutual Friend.
Last modified 15 June 2016