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

Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015, 226 p. ISBN: 978-1-4724-2383-2
Nathalie Jaëck
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Peter Merchant and Catherine Waters (eds), Dickens and the Imagined Child, Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015, 226 p. ISBN: 978-1-4724-2383-2

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Dickens (Charles), enfance
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1Published in 2015 by Ashgate, this collection of academic essays on Dickens and ‘the imagined child’ is a very valuable addition to Dickensian criticism, as a new perspective on the central, often debated issue of children. Far more than yet another outlook on that pivotal theme that has endured continual critical interest, the book proves that Dickens used childhood as an operative concept—not only as a favoured picturesque content, but also as a formal literary tool to address the issue of imagination and fiction.

2The essays that range across Dickens’s fiction and journalism testify to the complexity and the variety of Dickens’s treatment of childhood, moving beyond the contemporary Manichean dichotomy between childhood as blessed ideal state and childhood as the mark of original sin. They are organized in three sections.

3In the first section, the authors collectively highlight the shifting variety of Dickens’s representation. In her paper ‘Dickens and the knowing child’, R. Bodenheimer develops two major ideas: that children uncannily know too much for their own good and above all that children do not develop or grow older in Dickens’s novels, but simply ‘move’. That second notion is quite appealing, starting with the accurate remark that there is virtually no representation of adolescence in the novels, going on with a short assessment of the temporal mix-up children are caught up in, particularly the returning typical figure of the child-woman, and ending with the proposal that children are essentially figures of movement and displacement. The whole theme would certainly need further development, and the space of the article is a little cramped to prove all the points.

4‘Who Stole the child?: Missing Babies and Blank Identities in Early Dickens’ is a rather novel and convincing comparison between the topoi in ‘The First of May’ in Sketches by Boz and in Oliver Twist, through the topical context of the chimney-sweeper and the fantasy of the lost and recovered child. G. Benziman proposes that there is ‘an intrinsic connection between Dickens’s generic inconsistency and his social awareness’ (34), but that specific point is not really demonstrated (the ‘generic zigzag’ mentioned by the author is indeed an interesting notion but it is simply stated and not closely analyzed), as the author quickly moves to the role of the gaze of the adult, and particularly of the mother, in the definition of the child—a more conventional idea.

5In her paper on Dombey and Son, C. W. de la L. Oulton shows that two polarized, seemingly antagonistic visions of childhood—a romantic vision, and a commercial, mercenary one—are merged in the novel in a fusion of fairy-tale and commercial motives. The most interesting idea of the paper is that adults build myths about childhood, and that actual children have to adapt to and suffer from these myths: the article is quite clear about the fact that childhood as it is remembered and fantasized is constitutive of adulthood.

6That first section ends with a focus on Bleak House, in which J. Gribble proposes that through a re-reading of the narrative of the Fall, Dickens ‘solves the conflict between his sense of the determining effects of environment and his interest in the transformative power of goodness’ (73). Indeed that question seems crucial in Dickens: the acute awareness of heavy determinism as base for social criticism does coexist with a pattern of redemption through human goodness. The article centres on a quite thorough analysis of the complex treatment of the idea of Original Sin in the novel, and the close reading of Biblical parables leads to reassess Dickens’s ambivalence about that contemporary doctrine.

7The second section explores the relationship between childhood and memory, and develops the central idea of the permanence of childhood: it specifically deals with the multiple narrative effects produced by the gaps between the vision of the child and the retrospective outlook of his grown-up version in first-person narrations. In her piece on ‘The Adult Narrator’s Memory of Childhood in David’s, Esther’s and Pip’s Autobiographies’, M. T. Chialant develops the rather tricky idea that Dickens needed a diversion through these three fictive autobiographies to come to terms with his own childhood, and reads them as necessary fictionalization of his own struggles—while paradoxically acknowledging her own distrust of the autobiographical line of analysis. The paper rearranges already well-documented elements, revisiting the blacking factory episode, to conclude that narration is constitutive of the self, not only in these three novels, but also for Dickens himself.

8J. Avner then proposes a completely new and fascinating reading of Dickensian landscapes through the category of ‘Arrière-Pays’ as it is defined by Yves Bonnefoy. This is a very brilliant article that stresses the liminal and defining roles of childhood landscapes in mapping adult visions: landscapes travel from childhood, they ‘adhere’, and bring about a co-presence of the real and the imaginary in our perceptions. The demonstration in Great Expectations is precise, thorough, very convincing and Bonnefoy’s theoretical Arrière-Pays is very finely mobilized to illuminate some aspects of Dickens’s own landscapes.

9J. Buckmaster’s paper is equally brilliant, very well documented, and proposes a new analysis of Dickens’s childhood fascination for Pantomime through a scholarly reading of his introduction to Grimaldi’s Mémoire, a lesser-known text. This is a truly fine piece of work, which lists and analyzes the tropes of pantomime as they are mobilized and transformed in Dickens’s fiction, centring on the trope of gluttony.

10P. Merchant then throws light on a very interesting episode of literary history, as he examines the influence of Dickens on Thomas Anstey Guthrie, contributing a fine piece on how this childhood favourite of Anstey’s, particularly David Copperfield and the Salem House sequence, enduringly marked his own fiction, not only his subject matters but also his formal narrative strategies of disguise.

11The final section focuses on the issue of children as readers.

12L. Peters argues in her paper informed by post-colonial studies that Dickens’s own extensive devouring of adventure stories as a child, supplemented by unceasing adult reading of the same genre, conditioned his future writing and can explain what the author calls ‘the colonial complex’ of Dickens, part of a collective Victorian cultural site, based upon common childhood reading memories. The idea that it all shaped his ‘orientalist’ vision of the world leads the author to insist that there are racial assumptions and stereotypes in the novels that speak for Dickens’s desire for the authority and control these previous narratives staged, around the notion of stasis that he imports from them. Though Dickens’s work is obviously worth reassessing along that line of analysis, the demonstration could be more detailed, based on closer textual reading.

13W. Di then proposes a very interesting piece on Dickens’s relationship with his younger public, which leads him to analyze the comparatively neglected figure of the child-reader in Dickens’s fiction, notably in Dombey and Son, David Copperfield and Hard Times. Reading comes out as a fundamental resource for children: that collective activity creates spaces of imagination, relief and sympathy, notably between siblings.

14Finally C. Alexander returns to Dickens’s real-life children, and provides the reader with a well-documented study of Dickens’s children’s own artistic practice, in the shadow of an energetic, tender, but highly demanding father: the family adventure of the Gad’s Hill Gazette is detailed and analyzed, and constitutes a reference in this respect.

15This collection of essays is thus highly recommended: it proposes an original angle on childhood, a metatextual redefinition in fact, by highlighting its efficiency in reshaping and fictionalizing the world.

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Nathalie Jaëck, « Peter Merchant and Catherine Waters (eds), Dickens and the Imagined Child », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 82 Automne | 2015, mis en ligne le 11 avril 2016, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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Nathalie Jaëck

Université Bordeaux Montaigne

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