Dickens: Upholder of Victorian Values?

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.


3 thoughts on “Dickens: Upholder of Victorian Values?

  1. staying within fair use:
    “Isaiah Berlin once called Verdi the last naive artist, and in a sense the same could be said of Dickens and Balzac: none of them ever had any doubts about the nature of his vocation or his own ability. […] The naivete of Dickens, Balzac and Verdi is of a quite different kind. They were, after all, amongst the canniest operators ever known in their pursuit of popularity and success. I think Juhn Bayley puts his finger on it in a brilliant essay on Oliver Twist. ‘No novelist has profited more richly than Dickens from not examining what went on in his own mind,’ Bayley remarks.
    “Not having doubts is a blessed state, but it is not the same thing as having genuine authority. There is something hollow about Balzac, Dickens and Verdi compared with Dante or Shakespeare, but even compared with their older contemporaries, Beethoven and Wordsworth. It doesn’t rest on their frequent clumsiness, for that is to be found in Beethoven and Wordsworth. It rests more on the very thing that is the root of their strength as artists and their enormous success as entrepeneurs: their inability to question what they are doing. In that sense they are the first modern best-sellers and in their work one can see the beginnings of that split between popularity and artistic depth which is to become the hallmark of modern culture.” (pp66-7)

  2. (Hi nnyhav, sorry about the overzealous moderation (if you can have “overzealous moderation”). It shouldn’t happen again)

    So, if I’m to tie all these strands together, I come up with the following maxim:: the only way to have genuine authority is to doubt one’s own authority.

    While Dickens in particular sets himself up for the idiot savant argument, I find myself questioning if it’s at all possible to write a book without any sort of reflection upon or questioning of what you are doing. Merely because a man doesn’t state these things in the text or make his doubts abundantly clear, is no reason to suppose he doesn’t have them.

    ‘No novelist has profited more richly than Dickens from not examining what went on in his own mind,’ – it sounds nice, I’ll grant you. Take, say, Dickens’ endlessly repeated motif of the child forced into an adult world before his time. Am I supposed to believe that Dickens wrote all these passages (which in some cases – Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Little Dorritt – take up entire books) without any sort of introspection or reflection on how he himself had to go out to work at 13 after his father was thrown in prison, or drawing any conclusions or deriving any particular viewpoint about the society he lived in from these experiences? – That, while writing these passages, it never once occurred to him what he was actually doing as an artists, or reflected on the nature of writing, its relation to reality etc.

    I don’t really buy this whole notion of authorial authority anyway – it’s something, it seems to me, built on a false analogy with (a now absent) God or a (now thankfully past) patriarchal society. How a writer constructs his over-arching narrative has very little to do with the particular political structure of the society he lives and the religious views of its inhabitants, nor should it necessarily. (After all, if it were true that it did, why would so many of our writers today write – so it is said – in a Victorian (or at least Edwardian) style? Surely they should all write 1st-person, self-obsessed narratives). – We all know the author is a faker: that’s the nature of fiction; if we didn’t understand this, we wouldn’t comprehend novels at all; – it is not something the author needs, in my opinion, constantly to point out. I see no particular cleverness in it myself.

    Having started (for the second time) Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Tale, I find I can’t any longer agree with the notion that Balzac didn’t know what he was about, was a thoughtless writer, was “hollow” in the way that Dickens still strikes one.

    Anyhow, some disordered thoughts.

  3. No prob w/ moderation, can’t spell modernization w/o it … heck, for a while I was top google hit for “excesses of the Great Moderation” …

    Lifting from a thread over at thefictionalwoods[1], my overall take of Josipovici’s book was “it’s a personal perspective, I share many of his touchstones but differently organized, and some of my touchstones don’t fit into his scheme. His Modernism starts with Rabelais and Cervantes (and Dürer), and the problem of loss of authorial authority, and extends through the usual suspects, but also counterintuitively through Wordsworth. Music and painting complement the argument, as one might expect. All in all, I’d compare Josie’s modernism to James Wood’s realism: informative and engaging but with certain limitations and blindspots.”

    [1] modernism question came up starting about 5 msgs down in
    also, on the controversy on dissing the current crop
    (includes links to Tom McCarthy and Michael Sayeau reviews as well)

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