[•• = link to material outside this site. Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the illuminated “T” for Vanity Fair — George P. Landow.]
he chapters of this handsomely produced volume run alphabetically from A to X, often — but not always — separated from each other by a black-and-white photograph, or by a map of a particular part of London. Some of the chapters offer no more than an extract from Dickens's work. H, for instance, entitled "Heart: St Paul's Cathedral," is a longish section on the City of London from Master Humphrey's Clock: a section that carefully, I am sure, excludes St Paul's Cathedral even though many people — including Dickens himself — consider it the heart of the City. In the Preface, Wolfreys makes a point of not ending the chapters with Z, because that would imply that London could be concluded. Also, a little disingenuously, he claims that the Preface itself is not an introduction, because there can be no standing outside the text of London — nothing outside the text. But he also says that the chapter standing alone at the end, "Dickens, our Contemporary," takes the place of an introduction: so it does, and pretty well too, though it comes at the end.
This book is one of a number of volumes that have appeared recently on the subject of Dickens and cities, or Dickens and London, some of them — like this one — partly inspired by Benjamin's Arcades Project. They include my own Going Astray: Dickens and London (Longman, 2008), which Wolfreys is pleasant about, though critical, as well as my Dickens and the City (Ashgate, 2012), an edited compendium of criticism since the 1950s, when — before Benjamin's work was known — studies of this topic sought to explain how he represented urban poverty or prisons.
Wolfreys himself first probed the urban Dickens in Writing London: The Trace of the Urban Text from Blake to Dickens (Macmillan, 1998). Like his earlier work, the present volume is deconstructive, but much more phenomenological, following Merleau-Ponty rather than Husserl, and with debts to Georges Poulet and Wolfgang Iser. It is dedicated, I deduce (since the full name is not given), to J. Hillis Miller, who drew on Poulet for his first book, Charles Dickens: The World of his Novels (Harvard, 1958). Though Miller was criticized for placing those novels in a world of their own without any reference beyond it, his book offered hugely imaginative readings, and is still very useful. Wolfreys' book too is imaginative, intelligent, well-informed, and sometimes perspicuous in its readings, but I wonder who will read it. Specialists in Dickens, I assume, will find that it lacks four things.
First, it does not confine specific novels to specific chapters. At any point it may jump from Great Expectations (1860-61) to Sketches by Boz (1833-36) with no indication of any chronological gap between these two texts, or any sense that London had changed in the interim. Nowhere does the book discuss any one novel, and the index is no help. The sequence of the chapters from A to X contributes nothing to the organization. Grouped under G, "Gothic," for instance, we find "Seven Dials, Walworth, Covent Garden, India House, Aldgate Pump, Whitechapel Church, Commercial Road, Wapping Old Stairs, St George's in the East, Snow Hill, Newgate" (67). This jumble of names reads like a concession to students who take endless courses on Gothic fiction. To classify Dickens's London as Gothic is not seriously helpful: it undervalues the quality of the everyday in Dickens's London, and also the inconsequentiality of its places and their names: features the texts make so much of, and turn to such account. But even granted the rubric "Gothic," the London sites put together in this list do not even record a Dickens journey, or the journey of any character in Dickens. They offer fragments of London, but its fragmentation is not an unfamiliar point.
Second, the book has barely a word about plot or narrative: each Dickens novel could be interchanged with any other Dickens novel, or so it seems. Wolfreys nowhere indicates how the city generates a novel form, or a novel form generates a perception of the city. This isolation of the two is exacerbated by a third lack — that of context. Wolfreys gives few if any contexts to the geographical or physical descriptions of London, the maps do not join up with each other, and there are barely any contexts for Dickens's writing: for the difference between his London and Thackeray's, for instance, or between his view of London and his views of other cities in America, France, or Italy.
Fourthly, this book resolutely rejects the idea that Dickens represents an objective London, and its rejection is technical and difficult to read, even for those who may know Derrida or Merleau-Ponty. To his credit, Wolfreys eschews the kind of trivia that would turn the book into coffee-table material, and except when citing Chesterton's comments on Dickens, which Benjamin himself cites in the Arcades Project, Wolfreys avoids cozy details of Dickens's life. But by now it must be clear that this book offers not very much on Dickens at all; its subject is what is created in the act of looking at the city. "The 'real' London is one thing," Wolfreys writes; "the London one reads on the pages of a novel by Charles Dickens is another" (221).
Wolfreys' argument is not easy to paraphrase, and I am inclined to think it repeats itself in the purism of passages such as this: "whether we speak of Boz meditating on Monmouth Street, the stranger confronted with the neighbourhood of Todgers's, or Esther Summerson in the face of a London particular, we have to confront the fact that each is involved with responding to that which particular places, or phenomena of London impose upon them. The encounter is, must be, phenomenological" (225). This implies that consciousness is never separate from the world of things (see 235), or that the novels show perception of perception at work. "[I]n drawing attention to the limits and impossibilities of full vision," Wolfreys writes, "in moving between visible and invisible, this movement replicated in the movement of the linguistic consciousness through its chiasmic folds and tropes, perception of the city is also perception of the condition of perception, and its technical extension in narrative" (198). The argument is not trivial, and it comes within a chapter that deals with X (St Mary Axe) and allows much neat wordplay on the chiasmic folding-over, a term derived from Merleau-Ponty's term for the interrelationship of body and world. But while the argument is neat and critically astute, it doesn't grapple enough with the relation between Dickens and London; it is oddly too abstract, and it rubs out interrelationships that affect the perception of a place, such as its links to the people associated with it. Also, knowledge of a city is not just experiential but literary and historical, informed by popular culture.
Pointing out the relation between concepts such as Melancholy and names such as Leadenhall (122) cleverly helps us to read the city, but since reading the city presupposes a commanding viewpoint outside the experience of living in it, Wolfreys chiefly aims to show that the city is not to be read, which makes his argument less interesting than it should be. If we say that the London Dickens describes is not the independent real one, the obvious truth of that cannot obscure the point, which Wolfreys' own maps and photographs testify to, that the city does have an independent existence, both there and not there in the gap between now and Dickens's own time, as well as between Dickens's time of writing (say in the 1850s) and the time of the London to be described. (Little Dorrit, for instance, published between 1855 and 1857, represents a London of 1825). To study the London of Dickens's fiction is to confront the split between the city he creates and the city known or reconstructed from other sources.
Though few other writers have been so anxious to ground their work in locales that seem recognizable, Dickens does not always do so. Where, for instance, is the town-house of Sir Leicester Dedlock? And why is Todgers's not precisely locatable? In oscillating between precise mapping and vague suggestion, Dickens prompts us to dig further into the relationship between novels and places, but such investigation must surely respect the prior history of places, whose stubborn resistance to a new textualisation or re-textualisation is also the point. The organization of this book respects the aleatory and accidental features of the city, which gives to the writing its doughty denial of connectedness and of narrative, but even the single-mindedness of the intention in the eidetic reduction practised throughout the book, resisting interpretation and narrative, does not quite cope with the point that these stresses on non-narrative have been noted before, including in Professor Wolfreys' own work.
Wolfreys, Julian. Dickens's London: Perception, Subjectivity, and Phenomenal Urban Multiplicity. Edinburgh UP, 2012.
Last modified 20 June 2014