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Illuminated initial D

ickens is one of the most widely read English writers in history. And as Juliet John argues in this informative work, he was well aware of the size of his audience, writing "at a time when mechanical reproduction had made it increasingly possible" to reach a mass readership (2). Exploring both the origins and the after-effects of Dickens's effort to speak to "the great ocean of humanity," John complements her earlier work, Dickens's Villains: Melodrama, Character, Popular Culture (2001), by taking a broader view of Dickens's corpus over a greater time period. Splitting her book into two parts, John gives the first five chapters to "Dickens in his Day" and the last three to "Afterlives," specifically film adaptations and the heritage industry. Key to John's argument is what she calls the "portability" of Dickens, his ability "to travel across various media and national boundaries" (15). This portability is nicely demonstrated in the chapters on Dickens's trips to America, his journalism and public speeches, and his influence on the film industry.

The first part of this book takes a historical and biographical approach. Drawing on Dickens's letters and newspaper essays to gauge and compare his private and public views of mass culture, John convincingly argues that "numbers of readers were important to Dickens -- to his imagination, his self-projection, his business practices, and his cultural politics -- in a way that has not been fully appreciated" (9). The first chapter shows how Dickens "destabilized the familiar idea of a binary opposition between high and low culture" (39) by insisting that popular culture be taken seriously. His essays in Household Words suggest that popular forms of entertainment can reach a wider audience, offering templates that "can be adapted to educate and challenge the audience, not simply to appeal to the lowest common denominator" (43). This chapter argues that Dickens's vision of popular culture is simultaneously nostalgic and progressive, commercial and artistic, and that his views of class politics were consciously and strategically elastic.

Having shown how Dickens tried to reach a mass audience while maintaining his moral and aesthetic values, John follows Dickens across the Atlantic. Her second chapter investigates both his public writings and his letters home from America, arguing that in the public writings Dickens repressed his true feelings about international copyright law and the celebrity-obsessed Americans. "Everything that Dickens loathed about America," John concludes, "forced him to confront the possible reality of a mass culture he had thought he desired . . . Seeing America for the first time, Dickens realized that the future of what he saw as mass culture might be American as opposed to Dickensian" (76-7). Turning to Dickens's journalism, chapter three argues that "Dickens's journalistic method, as well as his message, reinforces the importance of the personal and communal in a complex response to the larger 'wholesale' processes of the mass media which Dickens simultaneously resisted and accelerated" (105). In his journalistic writings, we are told, Dickens strikes a personal tone even while appealing to a mass audience. His yearning for the latter is further shown by the public readings John discusses in chapter four, which highlights Dickens's two reading tours to America. His motives for these tours were not purely financial, John argues: Dickens's letters suggest that numbers of listeners were at least as important as monetary gain. Though he could have made more money by raising his prices, Dickens's desire to attract "multitudes" kept him from doing so.

In chapter five John responds to critics who "emphasize the formulaic and repetitive qualities of his fiction" and find his characters "lifeless, forced, mechanical" (157). John argues that "Dickens occupies a threshold position in popular cultural history" and that his works are "informed by both a mechanical and organicist conception of art" (158). Addressing this binary by exploring the role of the machine in Victorian culture, she draws heavily on cultural studies even though cultural critics have typically ignored Dickens as too literary, just as literary critics are discomforted by his mass cultural appeal (162). From her readings of Hard Times, Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Little Dorrit, as well as from an insightful argument about invention and the differences between intellectual property and mechanical property, John concludes that "Dickens is clearly not opposed to mechanism per se, but to the use of mechanism without a larger commitment or emotional investment in community and human relationships" (172).

In "Dickensian Afterlives," the second part of her book, John affirms that the "structures of feeling" so central to Dickens's art "enabled it to function as a bridge between the most popular form of his own day (stage melodrama) and the most popular form of entertainment in the age that followed (the screen)" (189). Combining scholarship on melodrama (including her own earlier work, Dickens's Villains) with film history scholarship, John argues that Dickens captivates the film industry in part because his melodramatic roots distinguish him from other Victorian writers. Especially in the silent film era, when filmmakers assumed that their viewers would be familiar with his plots, Dickens's appeal to a mass audience made him a natural choice for translation onto film. Exploring in particular his influence on the groundbreaking director D. W. Griffith, John links formal features of Dickens's works with cinematic techniques such montage and flashback.

While chapter six explores film history broadly, chapter seven takes a case study approach to adaptations of Oliver Twist, surveying versions ranging from The Death of Nancy Sykes (1897), which was the first screen version of any Dickens novel (209), to the musical Oliver! and 21st-century BBC adaptations. John explains how "a Victorian allegory, a realist fairy-tale about an orphaned boy, has come -- via the screen -- to permeate the collective consciousness of many nations" (208). In particular, she shows how Fagin's character was received and altered following the holocaust: Alec Guinness's portrayal of Fagin in David Lean's 1948 film, for example, caused riots in Germany and Poland. From her examination of this film, and an impressive range of other film and television versions of Oliver Twist, John concludes that Dickens's tale "exists as a mythic story which boosts the general perception of Dickens's authorial greatness yet is seemingly independent from him, circulating freely in the cultural oxygen" (236). In spite of this circulation, she notes, Dickens (unlike Shakespeare) remains fixed in his historical period, and film adaptations rarely "shed his Victorian trappings"; when they do, they tend to relocate the story outside of England (239). This point further justifies the way in which John organizes her own book: to understand film adaptations of Dickens's novels, we must study him in his own period.

Leaving the movies behind, chapter eight considers what the heritage industry has made of Dickens. Since Dickens's conscious efforts to achieve mass-market success distinguish him from comparable British "heritage" figures, John argues that for Dickens mass-market success is "intrinsic rather than antithetical to the establishment of a cultural heritage presence" (241). To develop this point, she discusses the events surrounding Dickens's will and estate sale, insightfully reads the visitors' book at the Charles Dickens Museum, examines Dickensian houses (both his own and those of his fictional characters), and peruses guidebooks to Dickensian walking tours. Her argument is perhaps best summed up by her reading of A Christmas Carol. This book, she writes, "captures in miniature the story of heritage Dickens" because it appears "to elevate morality over money whilst simultaneously generating wealth, to rise above a historical moment whilst remaining steeped in it" (272).

Dickens and Mass Culture is a persuasively argued book. For the most part, whether discussing Dickens in the nineteenth century or the twenty-first, it is well-researched and solidly supported with textual, biographical, and historical evidence. Occasionally, however, John oddly and uncritically relies on electronic keyword searches. Data mining and digital text analysis are burgeoning fields that have much to offer literary scholarship, but in this case the "electronic surveys" add little to the argument. John tells us just how often "class" and "the people" appear in Dickens's letters and journalism (68-9). She specifies that she counts only mentions of class "in the social sense" (68) and recognizes that "the phrase 'the people' can work both politically and apolitically" (69). These allowances are essential, but make me wonder why the numbers are necessary at all. Word searches may have been useful in John's research, but her interpretations of individual passages are much more informative than the numbers themselves.

John concludes this book with a report on Dickens World, the "multimillion-pound themed entertainment site in Chatham, Kent" (273). Having visited the site herself and studied the press debate surrounding its opening, John nicely defines its polarizing effects: "to stand up for Dickens World is tantamount to admitting one's stupidity and vulgarity" while "to oppose it risks announcing one's elitism" (278). This conclusion, and indeed the entire book, asks, "ultimately, whom is Dickens for?" Perhaps more than any other author, Dickens appeals to both popular and elite culture. Dickens World forces us "to think about Dickens and our cultural landscape afresh" (289). And so, to its credit, does John's book. It is a great contribution both to cultural studies and to Victorian studies, and will no doubt open doors of inquiry in both fields.


John, Juliet. Dickens and Mass Culture. Oxford, 2011. xii + 321 pp.

Last modified 2 July 2014