Jon Mee. the Cambridge Introduction to Charles Dickens

By Schlicke, Paul | Dickens Quarterly, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Jon Mee. the Cambridge Introduction to Charles Dickens


Schlicke, Paul, Dickens Quarterly


Jon Mee. The Cambridge Introduction to Charles Dickens. Cambridge: Cambridge U P. Pp. xvi + 115 45.00 [pounds sterling]; paper 11.99 [pounds sterling].

This modest 100-page introduction provides a briskly written, thoughtful meditation on Dickens for the modern reader. Although the focus is restricted largely to five novels (Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son, Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend), with no attention to Dickens's journalism, letters or public readings, nevertheless a constantly shifting range of topics, illustrated by a wide variety of examples, provides ample basis for the issues discussed. The book is divided into five chapters (entertainment, language, the city, domesticity and Dickensian adaptations), plus a chronology and select bibliography.

Mee has read the novels carefully and is conversant with contemporary Dickens criticism. His approach is lively and engaged, replete with sound interpretation throughout. Readers of Dickens Quarterly will find Mee's Dickens a reassuringly familiar figure, one who wrote novels filled with slippery ambiguity, hidden meanings, teasing incompletion and unsettling undercurrents. "Proliferating points of view," he writes, provide "the rollercoaster entertainment value of the Dickensian world of extreme effects" (9). Dickens's constantly shifting narrative strategies, he adds, create "a shimmering sea of different kinds of speech that plays across the surface" (34).

For Mee the keynote of Dickens's world is instability, often comic but equally frequently disturbing. Thus "the boundaries between what constitutes everyday life and what seems fantastic have dissolved into a Dickensian dreamland, or perhaps more accurately, a nightmare" (17). The comedy is anarchic, often threateningly so. The memorable names of characters point to insecure identities. Recurring clusters of words generate "a pervasive sense of an uncanny text haunted by itself" (30). Conventional language is shown to be inadequate; interpretation is difficult, and truth recedes as fast as it is uncovered. The dynamic city of mystery and discovery about which he wrote possessed a vitality which engulfs and imprisons its inhabitants, and the intensely visual nature of his descriptions attacks his readers with impressionistic "sensory bombardment" (55). Domesticity is offered as a surrogate religion but is repeatedly revealed as inadequate; homes are often scenes of horror; angry female characters lurk "outside the economy of circulation" (77) and, paradoxically, comfort is sometimes to be found in decidedly nondomestic places, such as Sol Gills's naval instruments store. …

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