Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Dickens and Ternan in Polish Criticism

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Dickens and Ternan in Polish Criticism

Article excerpt

Awareness of Ellen Ternan in Polish critical literature and biographical material devoted to Dickens fluctuated together with attitudes of the critics to the writer himself. The general public was provided with several images of Dickens, depending on the historical period. Throughout the nineteenth century, his works were regarded as examples of novel writing to be followed by Polish writers, mostly because of the social issues he discussed. During this period he was also appreciated for his humor and for his humanity. Subsequently, however, he came to be treated as a popular figure but one which lacked status as a great artist. Despite providing innovative analyses of Dickens's oeuvre, modernists could not appreciate the type of works he created. His long novels did not fit the demands of new fiction, which called for concise works and greater psychological depth.

After World War II, in the socialist People's Republic of Poland, Dickens's novels served different needs. To some, they were useful as propaganda, revealing the limitations of the capitalist system; to others, they illustrated obvious ideological weaknesses. He failed to advocate the need for revolution in order to solve social problems, he showed little understanding of the class struggle, and, especially in Hard Times, he depicted workers unrealistically. Later, with the emergence of democratic Poland committed to a free-market economy, another perspective developed, one which saw his works as a commercial property of value to publishers. Literary critics, however, scrutinized the artistry of his novels, paying attention to his narrative techniques and providing evidence for his artistic genius overlooked previously.

Similarly, Dickens's marital problems and his relationship with Ellen Ternan were variously presented, often in line with the prevailing ideology and moral attitudes of a given period. Although the first records concerning Dickens as a writer of significance appeared in Poland relatively early (he was mentioned in two anonymous articles published in 1839), biographical information remained for many decades incomplete and fragmentary.

Material in the nineteenth century consisted mostly of articles published in magazines and journals, as well as introductions to his novels, with no substantial monograph devoted to him exclusively. Ellen Ternan was not mentioned in such sources in Poland. In Western criticism she was apparently first brought to the public eye as Dickens's mistress in 1909 by John Bigelow, U. S. lawyer and statesman, in his Retrospections of an Active Eye, (1) yet it was not until 1935 that she was openly treated in Thomas Wright's biography, The Life of Charles Dickens. None of these personal details were translated into Polish. The first foreign critical source devoted to Dickens and available in the Polish language was the translation in 1929 of G. K. Chesterton's Charles Dickens (1909), which did not mention the affair.

Early Polish critics remained unaware of Ellen Ternan's existence and found it difficult to discuss Dickens's marital problems with understanding. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Dickens tended to be presented as victimised by his marriage, although intimations of difficulties also appeared. In 1888 a substantial article by Henryk Biegeleisen commented that Dickens was most unhappy in his marriage, but offered no further information. This suggests that at least the news of the separation was available in Poland and that critics had access to foreign criticism. Soon afterwards, Anna Lisiecka made a similar point in a biographical sketch (1892), portraying Dickens as a victim of his marriage but without reference to Ellen Ternan. According to her, it was Dickens's wife who, for no apparent reason, left the household, whilst he made no public comment or lamented his misery. Such steadfastness and lack of complaint served to emphasize what Lisiecka saw as Dickens's high moral standards. …

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