Keynote Lecture: ‘Looking Back and Looking Forward: Shifting Perspectives in Dickens’s Fiction’ – Prof David Paroissien

In this illuminating 30 minute video, world-renowned Dickens scholar, Prof. David Paroissien shares his insights on Dickens’s unique writing style and the historical, social and geographical milieu in which he wrote.

1. Introduction
2. Dickens as Janus: Hanoverian England and Victorian England
3. David Copperfield
4. The 1834 Poor Law and the Fledgling USA
5. Dickens’s Relationship with Christianity
6. Concluding Thoughts

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  1. #1 by Ellen Brinks on March 7, 2012 - 3:58 pm

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your talk. I’m not a Dickens expert but I am a Dickens fan. Your thoughts on Dickens as poised between Hanoverian and Victorian England; your commentary on the Miss Mowcher character in DC; and your stress on Dicken’s understanding of our interconnectivity were especially fascinating. Thanks for a great start to my day.

    • #2 by David Paroissien on March 8, 2012 - 11:21 am

      Many thanks for your response, Ellen. If you would like to read more about Miss Mowcher and Dickens’s treatment of her in David Copperfield, let me recommend an article in the current Dickens Quarterly by Gareth Cordery, “Remaking Miss Mowcher’s Acquaintance.” My remarks about her were drawn from Gareth’s excellent essay, which you might enjoy reading in full. As for “interconnectivity,” yes! A central concern in Dickens’s fiction, something that runs through all his novels, from Oliver Twist onwards.

  2. #3 by Jo Taylor on March 7, 2012 - 5:02 pm

    Thank you very much for that. I wondered what more can be said about the ways in which Dickens edited his works in response to reader reactions? Not simply those who threatened him with legal action, but also more generally.

  3. #4 by Natasha Buckler on March 7, 2012 - 5:24 pm

    Thank you for such an enlightening lecture. The idea of Dickens as representative of both the Hanoverian and Victorian eras is fascinating, and one which I look forward to pursuing in my own studies. I am also fascinated by his relationship to Romantic writers such as Wordsworth and Byron, and I appreciated your discussion on David Copperfield very much. Also, regarding the teaching of Dickens: I teach a Dickens novel in an introductory literature course, and while the semester may begin with groans, I am always pleased to discover by the end that they are intrigued by his style and his characters. Thanks again!

    • #5 by David Paroissien on March 8, 2012 - 11:45 am

      And important question, thanks, Jo. Throughout his career, Dickens remained intensely aware of his audience. No coincidence, therefore that he spent the final ten years of his life heavily committed to reading prepared excerpts from his novels to huge live audiences throughout Britain and in the US in 1866-7. But with respect to his works, all of which were published in either weekly or monthly parts, that format gave him the opportunity to gauge reader response. The more dramatic instances occurred with Martin Chuzzlewit, when Dickens sent the hero off to the US in order to enliven a flagging readership; a good friend pleaded with him not to let Edith Dombey become Carker’s mistress–more his misreading of Edith, I think, than of CD’s actual intention with the character, and of course, most notoriously, the changed ending of Great Expectations, when CD responded to the advice of a friend and fellow novelist to revise the original final meeting between Pip and Estella, which presents her as happily remarried to another and therefore totally unavailable to Pip. In the revised ending, Estella is at least available–i.e. a widow–but whether they marry, well, readers decide!

  4. #6 by Dr.Bibhudutt Dash on March 7, 2012 - 7:21 pm

    Great lecture.

  5. #7 by Melinda Thomas on March 7, 2012 - 11:54 pm

    Thank you for such an enjoyable and interesting lecture. There was one thing that came to mind as I was listening to your comment about Dickens’ disillusionment with social reform after visiting America. Chances are that he was spending large amounts of time with the social classes wealthy enough to “properly” entertain him. If so, they would have been simply the overseers of the philanthropic acts and organizations of that age and not the workers and caregivers. Oddly enough, when I picture his dinner companions, my mind automatically switches to the “board” to whom young Oliver Twist is presented to upon entering the work house. Since Oliver Twist was published four years before his trip to America perhaps Dickens was overzealous in his belief that we (Americans) would have overcome such a basic and universal trait.

    • #8 by David Paroissien on March 8, 2012 - 12:00 pm

      Melinda, thanks, a couple of things by way of a reply. In fact, Dickens did go out of his way to meet real “workers” and so extend the range of people he came across. He went specifically to Lowell, MA, where he inspected factories employing young women and drew a favourable impression of both the conditions under which they worked and their after-work hours. As for the need to correct “overzealous” preconceptions, yes, the most dramatic turn he made was on the matter of penal reform. He went out anxious to inspect the way criminals were housed and treated, especially in the big show prison, the Eastern Penitentiary just outside Philadelphia. What he saw there horrified him: clean, well-light, good cells, etc. But prisoners totally isolated, no contact at all with other human beings, might I suggest it, Guantanamo Bay in the making!

  6. #9 by Brittany Smith on March 8, 2012 - 1:32 am

    This was an amazing lecture, it makes me wonder if Dickens would have written Oliver Twist differently if he had visited America before he finished it.

    • #10 by David Paroissien on March 8, 2012 - 12:09 pm

      Brittany, I am guessing that you’re referring to the workhouse scenes in the novel. Might they have been portrayed differently, with Dickens having seen that decent and humane provision for the poor, the sick, the young and the elderly was possible, given the model treatment he witnessed and praised in Boston? Perhaps if anything, he might have been angrier with the reforms he attacked in England, the new policies introduced under the Poor Law legislation of 1834. In Dickens’s view, those reforms were powerful examples of How Not to Do it, how not to treat the poor. The reforms in his view embodied a mean, ungenerous spirit, the reverse of which he saw in operation in Boston.

  7. #11 by Pankaj Sharma on March 8, 2012 - 5:02 am

    Wonderful introduction to the Dickensonian world… but i personally feel that to understand England of Mid- Nineteenth century England we need to understand the imperial growth of Britain and the inflow of colonial booty created a necessary development which further gave impetus to Industrialization and consequently the change in society and economis

  8. #12 by David Paroissien on March 8, 2012 - 12:13 pm

    Thank you, Pankaj, I have no quarrel with your comment. The one point I would stress is that issues related to imperialism would have occupied more space in his novels had he lived longer. CD died very young (58), so had he lived through the 1870s and beyond, then we would have seen the flowering of issues that did enter his last, incomplete novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. That novel has significant and interesting traces of a mind engaging with the consequences of England’s imperial rule.

    • #13 by Pankaj Sharma on March 8, 2012 - 12:35 pm

      Thanks David. I thoroughly agree with you. Thanks a lot for your answer.

  9. #14 by Julia Chavez on March 8, 2012 - 2:23 pm

    Thank you for this thought-provoking talk on Dickens in his time (and, toward the end, ours). I was heartened by your closing comments on what Dickens still has to teach us today about the absolute necessity of seeing the world in terms of an interconnected network. As you were discussing Dickens and Christianity, I found myself thinking of another English visionary–William Blake. Both embody a profound sense of Christian values with a severe critique of organized religion, both focus significant attention on children, and both were excited by the idea (if not the reality) of America. I am wondering whether Blake is a writer Dickens would have known? Or perhas the material circumstances of pre-Victorian England produced two like-minded writers.

  10. #15 by Julia Chavez on March 8, 2012 - 2:39 pm

    One bit that I forgot to include in my prior post: You mentioned the Dickens Journals Online project at the beginning of the talk, and I just wanted to congratulate you on completing such a valuable resource! For me, the periodicals of the age are a place to go to try to recover some of the social, historial, cultural, and political contexts that you mention in the talk. I had the added pleasure of serving as a volunteer on the project and was grateful that it was open to all.

  11. #16 by David Paroissien on March 8, 2012 - 3:55 pm

    Julia, good of you to pick up on Blake, a name linked with Dickens on occasions but not always consistently, despite some of the connections you mention: an intense and private vision, deep scepticism about organized religion and the harm perpetrated in its name, the innocent world of the child and the barred streets created by the emerging industrial, urban world. Critics more regularly place Wordsworth and Dickens together, though you might take a look at a book by Dominic Rainsford, who has written on Blake, Dickens and Joyce. Because Dickens was more widely read than condescending critics liked to concede, I’d guess that he was familiar with some of Blake’s work, though there’s no record, from what’s known about the contents of his library, of his owning editions of his poems. Not that that’s definitive proof, one way or the other. With respect to DJO, many thanks, it’s volunteers like you who have made the launch date of 2012 possible.

    • #17 by Julia Chavez on March 8, 2012 - 4:28 pm

      Thanks so much for your generous response. I will look into that book by Dominic Rainsford.

  12. #18 by Ida Carey on March 8, 2012 - 6:52 pm

    I really enjoyed listening to you speak on Charles Dickens, I am a graduate student and my focus is African American History; however I have always enjoyed reading on Charles Dickens, and you are correct he is one of the best.

    • #19 by David Paroissien on March 11, 2012 - 12:26 pm

      Hi Ida, I don’t always practice what I preach, but it’s great to see you resolving to specialize in one field also keeping your eyes on another. It’s a challenge because individual fields are constantly growing and the effort to keep up with developments takes time; but that said, spreading your attention is commendable and, well, to choose Dickens, he is as you say, ‘one of the best’! Good luck with your studies.

  13. #20 by Mary Fontenot on March 9, 2012 - 12:53 am

    Thank you for this enlightening lecture, it has given me a new appreciation for Charles Dickens and his writings. Learning about the time in which Dickens grew up, and his views not only on his own home, but on America as well, have shed new light on his novels for me.

    • #21 by David Paroissien on March 11, 2012 - 12:42 pm

      Mary, the urge to compare you describe–learning more about your own home by reading of life in another country–is exactly what Dickens experienced when he visited the US in 1842. In fact, for him the process continued. Two years later, he took his whole family off to Italy, and returned to London only to go abroad again, first to Switzerland and then to France. These years abroad, proved formative in many ways, giving him a perspective on his own country and also a timely break from constant novel writing. Not that he was idle: he wrote two Christmas books and then began Dombey and Son, an important novel. We might see this period from 1842 through to about 1846 as the foundation for the international outlook for which he’s now increasingly recognized.

  14. #22 by Eric on March 9, 2012 - 5:47 am

    This was awesome! As a student who is currently taking a Dickens class, I highly enjoy every aspect in analyzing Dickensian novels. My favorite way to tackle Dickens is to think of the text as sort of a modern day television series: complete with installments and cliffhangers, it is no wonder why he was so popular at the time.

  15. #23 by David Paroissien on March 11, 2012 - 12:58 pm

    Many thanks, Eric. Yes, the analogy is a good one though not without the need for some qualification, for there’s more to keeping readers/viewers hooked with a constant succession of cliffhangers. Dickens began writing serially, finding it suitable for himself (he was paid for an amount of text and at an agreed rate as he went along rather than having to wait for the final publication) and for his readers, who found instalments cheaper than a single 3-volume novel. He soon understood, however, the need to plan ahead, that each instalment required a double focus–it should have its own artistic integrity and simultaneously fit in with the design of the projected whole–and he worked out how to do that, growing increasingly sophisticated as he continued to write. I don’t know much about current TV series (The Wire and Treme being exceptions) and suspect they lack the overall artistry Dickens achieved in his major novels. There’s no question, however, that that method of writing cemented his popularity with readers of his own time. For a long time, intellectually condescending critics used both the method and his popularity as a stick with which to beat him. We can rejoice now that such notions have long since been buried.

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