Among all this reading I’m doing on the web about Modernism and Tom McCarthy, I came across the following quote in an article by Rhys Tranter reviewing Josipovici’s latest book:
What we discover, looking back on nineteenth century fiction, was that its expression of ‘reality’ often asserted the cultural and political values of its time. Sympathies for Oliver Twist were won not on his neglected orphan status, but his natural birthright to upper class privilege. While the cultural anxiety of ghost stories, gothic horrors and Sherlock Holmes always seemed to conclude with a return to the way things should be. Or, at least, to the way Victorians thought things should be. Truth and reality were not eternal and timeless, but culturally constructed by the political values of the era.
Now, I don’t know if these are Mr Tranter’s views, or whether they’re being imputed to Mr Josipovici (I suspect the former, since I’d hazard a guess that Mr Josipovici reads with a certain amount of discrimination, that he does not merely search in a text for the one thing that backs up his argument whilst ignoring all else); – but the claim I find here laughable is this:
Sympathies for Oliver Twist were won not on his neglected orphan status, but his natural birthright to upper class privilege.
Now, I don’t claim to have any greater insight into the minds of Victorian readers than Mr Tranter or Mr Josipovici, but I believe I can prove this statement to be untrue. I shall dramatise my proof:
Victor: I don’t know why I’m reading this shite. How does Mr Dickens seriously expect me to feel the slightest sympathy for any of these characters? – I don’t give a fuck about poor people. No one I know does. If a boy’s born in a workhouse, then he deserves a miserable life.
Victoria: Oh, do stick with it, dear. Because actually it turns out, about five pages from the end, that Oliver’s middle-class after all.
Victor: Oh, I see: well, – that’s completely different then. – But what the fuck is Mr Dickens playing at? Is this some kind of elaborate post-modernist game he’s up to, to upset my expectations?
You see that: – not mentioned until the last 5 pages, in a 400-page book. As if the notion the Victorian reader comes away with from reading it is: yes, it’s a terrible life the poor have, but it’s ok because in the end they’ll turn out to be middle-class after all.
Ok, so this is one grotesque misreading of a text: – but my concern about this argument goes a little deeper than that. There is the notion put forward here that works like those of Dickens “asserted the cultural and political values of [their] time”. Well, yes: in a sense, what work doesn’t; – it cannot do otherwise. But I’ve a feeling what it meant here is that they don’t challenge the prevailing cultural and political views of the times in which they lived; – while the Moderns do (or at least they are critical).
Well, I find this a specious argument too. It is no great literary credit to a work that it challenges prevailing cultural and political views. (Indeed, one might argue then, that it precisely wasn’t any longer representative of its time; and since being up-to-date, rather than c19th, seems so important to the moderns… etc).
And besides, I just don’t see this can be imputed to Dickens. Of course, it depends how you define Victorian values. The only Victorian value Dickens does impeccably uphold is sex: – that is, it isn’t even mentioned. (Also, there is perhaps some jingoist hatred of the French in there: – although politically we were allied to the French all this time, this is an ancient matter still healthy enough today). But otherwise, Dickens was an endless critic of Victorian society, the destruction and poverty caused by the industrial revolution, by capitalist greed. They’re not exactly the right views: – but then again, if you bother to look much at Victorian society, you’ll start to find an awful lot of people didn’t really seem to have the right views. And to choose Oliver Twist of all novels, one of the most depressing works you’re ever likely to read in its endless procession of misery and destitution.
Yes, Oliver Twist was middle-class, but he was born out of wedlock; his father was married to another women and having an affair. These weren’t necessarily applauded in Victorian England. Dickens seems to suggest we should give such people a break. – And no, wealth wasn’t his “birthright”: it should have gone to his father’s legitimate heir, Monks. Based on his background, Victorian morality would have left Oliver Twist in the workhouse.
Repeat after me: A happy ending is a literary convention; it is not the purpose of a work.
Also, I find the idea of Dickens as a realist a bit of a stretch too. But that’s another argument.