Peter Merchant and Catherine Waters (eds), Dickens and the Imagined Child

Peter Merchant and Catherine Waters (eds), Dickens and the Imagined Child (Farnham: Ashgate 2015) 226 pp. £70.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781472423818

This book contributes to an already abundant field of criticism of Dickens and his work. It is divided into three parts, with twelve essays focused on various aspects of childhood in Dickens’s life and literature. Part One examines the portrayal of the Dickensian child as a character type, using the examples of Oliver Twist (1838), Dombey and Son (1846-48), Bleak House (1852-53); Part Two considers the relation between childhood memory formation and its retrieval through storytelling; and Part Three focuses on childhood experiences of reading and writing from Dickens’s childhood reading of tales and adventures, to the fictional child readers in his works and his own children who wrote and published the Gad’s Hill Gazette (1864-1866) under his tutelage.

In the first chapter of the collection, 'Dickens and the Knowing Child', Rosemarie Bodenheimer examines how Dickensian childhood is defined by abnormal contradictions. The Dickensian child must pretend to be a child 'so as not to threaten common notions of childhood innocence and dependency' on adults who might seek to exploit him or her (13). By hiding an awareness of adult realities, the Dickensian child slips into 'pathological states of denial or masochistic collusion' (18) that delay his or her emotional and psychological growth. Instead of growing up, Dickensian children, such as Jo from Bleak House, simply move elsewhere and adjust to the demands of their situation, as Bodenheimer argues.

Galia Benziman examines the figure of the lost child as a central theme of Oliver Twist in 'Who Stole the Child?: Missing Babies and Blank Identities in Early Dickens'. She argues that Dickens vacillates between aspects of 'social realism, melodrama, and fairy tale', in Boz’s “The First of May” (1839) and Oliver Twist to portray the lost child as a signifier of unstable and situational identity. Benziman concludes that the 'recognizing gaze' of an adult might restore the child to an 'equally valuable and individuated human being' (39-40).

In her essay '"No magic dwelling-place in magic story": Time, Memory and the Enchanted Children of Dombey and Son' Carolyn W de la L Oulton examines how myth and fantasy are used to bridge polarized visions of childhood within the Romantic tradition and commercial world. She explores these antagonistic visions through motifs such as 'the changeling, the witch and the enchanted princess' (44). In so doing, she articulates how cultural myths shape and define the relationship between children and the adults that either guide or oppose them. The myths of childhood affect perceptions of time and become as Oulton suggests, the 'basis of adult memory and action' (49).

Part One of the collection concludes with '"In a state of bondage": The Children of Bleak House', in which Jennifer Gribble claims that Dickens integrates the doctrine of original sin into his novels, 'from Oliver Twist onwards' (57), to create a model for redemption through 'good works and lively faith' (71). Of particular interest is Gribble’s analysis of how the hereditary curse affects the children of Bleak House, many of whom fail to escape from bondage to an uncaring system and punitive ideology (71).

The first essay of Part Two examines the complex relationship between Dickens’s memories and three of his autobiographical novels: David Copperfield (1849-50), Great Expectations (1860-61), and Bleak House. In 'The Adult Narrator’s Memory of Childhood in David’s, Esther’s, and Pip’s Autobiographies', Maria Teresa Chialant suggests Dickens’s novels 'can be read as a repetition' of his painful experiences at Warren’s Blacking Factory (79). Through writing and storytelling Dickens, much like his characters, is able to assert 'narrative control' over the traumatic memories of his past 'while remaining open and undefined in relation to them' (81). As Chialant concludes, Dickens endures the ordeals of childhood, reimagines himself, and writes retrospective narratives to plot his progression into adulthood.

Jane Avener locates the birthplace of Dickensian fancy within novelistic landscapes in 'A Medway Childhood: The Dickensian "arrière-pays"?' Avener employs 'arrière-pays', as defined by Yves Bonnefoy, to illuminate her analysis of Dickens’s Great Expectations and essays from The Uncommercial Traveller(1860). In so doing, she convincingly establishes a 'rapprochement between two writers so manifestly different' (94) whose imaginations were both haunted and inspired by memories of originary landscapes.

In '"Ten thousand million delights": Charles Dickens and the Childhood Wonder of the Pantomime Clown,' Jonathan Buckmaster considers Dickens’s vision of the clown as a 'touchstone to childhood wonder' (113). Buckmaster describes Dickens’s childhood fascination with pantomime as well as its influence on the 'grotesque consumption' (111) depicted in his earlier works. Buckmaster examines Dickens’s Introduction to the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi (1838) and traces 'echoes and "after images"' (127) of Grimaldi’s clownish trope of gluttony in characters appearing in Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1842-44). As Buckmaster convincingly argues, in reinventing the pantomime clown Dickens makes Grimaldi’s routines more accessible to a new audience.

In the last essay of Part Two, Peter Merchant >considers Dickens’s influence on Thomas Anstey Guthrie’s narrative methods in '"A kind of odor of Salem House": David Copperfield and Thomas Anstey Guthrie'. Merchant describes Guthrie’s works, such as Vice Versâ (1882) and A Long Retrospect (1936)as derivatives of Dickens’s narrative structures and techniques. As a 'literary disciple' (146) of Dickens, Guthrie struggles to reconnect the 'experiencing self of the past and the remembering self of the present' (145). Merchant suggests, Guthrie is unable to fully differentiate his memories from the 'memories he derived from reading Dickens' (137).

Part Three of the collection begins with Laura Peters’s essay 'Savage Stories: Charles Dickens, "The Noble Savage" and the Childhood Imagination'. Peters argues that public exhibitions became sites of memory. From within these sites “scientific theories of racial hierarchies” (162) were developed to support Victorian notions of superiority, particularly as related to non-indigenous colonization. As Peters suggests, the same notions are locatable in works, such as 'The Noble Savage' (1853). She concludes that Dickens’s storytelling, itself, resembles an 'act of [colonial] conquest' through which sites of memory are used to affirm 'white, male patriarchal authority' (164). Peters offers a valuable argument that might be further enhanced through a closer textual reading.

Wu Di analyzes the figure of the child reader in Dickens's Dombey and Son, David Copperfield and Hard Times  (1854). In his essay 'Child Readers in Dickens’s Novels,' Di describes how the Dickensian child reader is immersed in an 'imaginative or dream world' of conflicting beliefs and desires (169). By 'transitioning from passive listening to active writing' (178), the child reader develops self-awareness and self-confidence that enables him or her to bridge the gaps between belief and desire. In so doing, the child reader lays the foundation for his or her maturity. Through a careful analysis of the selected novels, Di evidences Dickens’s understanding of the ways in which children learn to read and develop both aesthetic and sympathetic responses to literary texts.

The final essay of the collection considers Dickens’s use of creativity and theatricality to stimulate his children’s play at periodical publication. In 'Playful "Assumption": Dickens’s Early Performative Creativity and its Influence on His Sons’ Family Newspaper, the Gad’s Hill Gazette', Christine Alexander describes how Dickens’s children imitated their father’s performative creativity. Through the act of performative creativity, a child is able to observe and imitate adult behavior. Dickens’s sons experimented with 'print culture of the adult world' (195), but they failed to match their father’s literary prowess. Alexander efficiently mines biographical material from Henry Fielding Dickens’s recollections of his father and also from existing issues of the Gad’s Hill Gazette to  document her compelling claims historically.

Dickens and the Imagined Child is an enjoyable collection of essays that provide distinct interpretive models for analyzing representations of child and childhood in the novelist’s works, life, and culture. The collection will serve as a valuable resource for curious readers and scholars of Dickensian writing in all of its various narrative forms and stylistic functions.

John C Murray, Curry College