Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

History Artfully Dodged? Crime, Prisons and the Legacy of "Dickens's England"

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

History Artfully Dodged? Crime, Prisons and the Legacy of "Dickens's England"

Article excerpt

There has been considerable interest recently among literary scholars in how Dickens's novels and journalism engage with the themes of crime, and particularly the prison. Building on earlier discussion of the subject, notably by Philip Collins, and fed by more recent theoretical input from new historical, Foucauldian and post-Foucauldian approaches, this impressive body of work is beginning to give us a clear understanding of the complex, multi-faceted discourse on crime and punishment contained in Dickens's work; and of the way in which those themes relate to broader debates on the subject among his contemporaries. A key focus of recent work in this field by scholars such as Jan Alber, Sean Grass, David Paroissien and Jeremy Tambling, is the way in which, as Alber puts it, fictional narratives "always transform and distort" the "experiential realities" of crime and incarceration in the nineteenth century (2). As Tambling reminds us in his chapter in Alber and Lauterbach's collection, Stones of Law, Bricks of Shame (2009), Dickens's fictional London draws inspiration from pre-existing literary tropes, as well as the author's reading in contemporary nonfiction and his own personal experience. The result is not only different from the Capital of today, it is also crucially different from the social reality of the London in which Dickens lived and worked (53). Making a similar point in Going Astray, Tambling comments:

   Dickens' descriptions of London are always narrated; the presence
   of the narrator is as vivid and subjective as what is represented;
   the realism is never neutral, so that it is not, strictly, realist
   ... The narrator's presence constructs each scene; the reader must
   note both the scene and its presentation. Seeing London doubly is
   characteristic of each Dickens novel.... (268; my emphasis)

How to unravel this double vision, how to obtain, as it were, a stereoscopic view of Dickens's treatment of crime and the prison, is the subject of this article. It will be argued that such an approach needs to be alert both to the multi-layered complexity of the author's narrative strategies and use of fictional tropes, and also to the richness of the political, cultural and socioeconomic context in which he lived and wrote. The main focus here, to adapt slightly the title of a chapter by John Gardiner from the Blackwell Companion to Charles Dickens, will be on "History and the Uses of Dickens"; that is to say how Dickens's texts on crime and the prison have been used--often misused in fact--as sources for the social history of nineteenth-century England. I shall also consider briefly how historical evidence might be used more fruitfully to throw light on the cultural impact of Dickens's work.

With few exceptions (1), historians have largely failed to contribute to an understanding of Dickens's fictional treatment of crime and the prison. This derives in part from a traditional reluctance on their part to countenance literary data at all; with many practitioners convinced, as Peter Laslett famously put it, that using such sources resembled "looking the wrong way through the telescope," (2) and as such failed to meet the requisite standards for historical evidence. In one of the earliest discussions of the subject in 1948, in an article entitled "The England of Marx and Mill as Reflected in Fiction," US historian William Aydelotte argued that "the attempt to tell the social history of a period by quotations from its novels is a kind of dilettantism which the historian would do well to avoid." Information from novels about social conditions was, he added, "highly suspect for the scholar's purposes; ... spotty, impressionistic, and inaccurate." "More conventional sources," he concluded, were "far more satisfactory" for historical research (43).

The development of the "new" social history from the late 1960s brought no challenge to this view. On the contrary, the influence of the French Annales School, historical demography and Marxism all functioned to entrench a suspicion of literature, associated in the minds of many social historians with the impressionistic "Whig" social history of the early twentieth century. …

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