Keynote Lecture: Dickens’s World: Beginning the World – Prof John Bowen

Professor John Bowen (York) discusses Dickens, travel and the history of the novel in his introductory talk to the conference.

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  1. #1 by Brad Fruhauff on March 7, 2012 - 3:36 pm

    Thank you, John, for this pleasant paper highlighting Dickens’s global reach and global consciousness. I was expecting you to use the word “imperialism”, but perhaps it’s as well you didn’t, as your point seemed to be that the “world” for Dickens was grander than geopolitics, though I’m sure you’d acknowledge that the ability to think “the world” was inflected by them. I think a more interesting question arising from your paper is just why Dickens’s work had and has such broad appeal when, as Dostoevsky notes, it also seems eminently English? I suspect the answer has something to do with the paradox of the particular having more universal appeal than the general.

  2. #2 by Charlotte Mathieson (@cemathieson) on March 7, 2012 - 9:26 pm

    I was particularly interested by the discussion of Bleak House here, and the recurrence of the phrase “in the world” throughout the novel – I hadn’t noticed before just how many resonances to this phrase there are. Bowen picks up on an uncertainty in the novel as to what “the world” is, and I agree that this is one of the key questions that the novel is contending with. Indeed nowhere is this ambivalence more apparent than when we contrast the multiple references to being “in the world” with the very restricted physical “world” which Bleak House constructs: the novel is almost entirely nation-bound. Whilst entertaining the possibility of a global world, the novel simultaneously confines itself within the borders of national place. The ending seems to me to somewhat reinforce this contrast: Esther’s “beginning the world” involves a move into the northernmost location, the final “world” with which we are left in the second Bleak House firmly situated within the heart of England.

  3. #3 by Kylie Mirmohamadi on March 7, 2012 - 9:57 pm

    I too was taken with the joint ideas of the world in as well as the world of Bleak House. The idea of the world obviously had resonance in the Imperial context as well, allowing readers living in the colonies to locate themselves as English, and as agents of Englishness, in the world. These global claims were reflected in frequent references to Dickens’s preeminence in the English speaking world. To give just one example, a Tasmanian review of a performance of A Christmas Carol in 1878 mentioned ‘the hold it [the story] has always had upon English hearts in all parts of the world where the tongue is spoken in which the great master of fiction wrote it.’ [The Mercury, 4 December 1878, p. 3]

  4. #4 by Julia Chavez on March 8, 2012 - 1:34 pm

    Thank you for this marvelous keynote address, with so many provocative suggestions about seeing Dickens as a writer of “the world.” Your fascinating discussion of “the world” and “the earth” in Bleak House prompted me to reflect on Dickens’s Romantic connections–in this case a connection with William Wordsworth’s massive poem, The Prelude. As I recall, Wordsworth rewrites Milton’s famous line from Paradise Lost, “the world was all before them” as “the earth was all before me.” These are the very terms that Dickens picks up as structuring tropes in Bleak House, as you have so persuasively shown through close reading. Dickens, it seems, manages to incorporate both a Miltonic and a Wordsworthian view of the world, combining with his usual skill the view of the community (“them”) and the individual (“me”). This, in turn, is embodied in the dual narration from the point of the view of the omniscient narrator who speaks for “them” and Esther, who speaks for “me.” Your talk lets us see this more clearly.

    On a separate note, but related to Bleak House, I wonder how we are to interpret Hortense, Lady Dedlock’s French maid, in light of Dickens’s anti-chauvinism? In my reading of the novel, she’s never fully integrated into the “world” of Bleak House, and I have to admit that I’ve always seen this as relating to nationality. Your talk has made me reconsider this, however. I am eager to hear others’ sense of what to do with Hortense once we begin to focus on Bleak House as world literature.

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