Friday, 7 February 2014

What the Dickens?!

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens!  Born in Portsmouth in 1812 Dickens is probably one of, if not the defining novelist of the Victorian era.  Today on the mean streets of Portsmouth (where I used to live) they unveiled a wonderful full-size statue of Charlie...

I'm guessing there will be some sort of fence in place to stop me just going over and sitting on his lap.  You know I will.  Anyway, all this marvellous Dickensian revelry got me thinking about how Dickens view of life through his books defines how we see the Victorians and how that was expressed in art.

Florence Dombey in Captain Cutler's Parlour (1888) William Maw Egley
Poor Florence Dombey, neglected and struck by her erstwhile father, here she glows as a proper Victorian heroine resplendent in white.  She is the imperiled Victorian child not really abused in a fatal sense, just misused, a distraction from what is important in the world.  She is a woman in the way of men, discarded at best and blamed at worst.  This is not so far removed from other images of women contemplating their futures in domestic spaces, like this one...

A Passing Cloud Arthur Hughes
Unlike Hardy (who I love), Dickens' female protagonists often find themselves trapped in a domestic setting, symbolising their trapped status in general, thinking over and over their limited chances.  That's not to say that Dickens was a great feminist, but he seemed to understand that women didn't fair well on the whole and were dependent on men for their chances and happiness.

Little Nell and her Grandfather (1845) William Holman Hunt
Oh dear, little Nell, the 'Walter Deverell' of Dickens characters.  The Poster-Girl of worthy doomed maidenhood, Little Nell starred in many painted images...

Little Nell Leaving the Church J. Lobley
Little Nell and Her Grandfather W. Orchardson

Unstoppably good and wonderful, Nell Trent is the sort of Dickens woman who is an angel too good for this life which slowly breaks her down until she is killed by metaphoric worldliness.  Damn you world!  Look how lovely she is...

Kit's Writing Lesson Robert Braithwaite Martineau
I knew this picture but didn't realise that it was a Dickensian scene (mainly because I am none to bright at times).  This is a gorgeous rendering of the inside of the Old Curiosity Shop filled with wonder and sparkle.  Mind you, items like the apple in the front of the scene are marvellously shiny and perfect and Nell is a little Pre-Raphaelite lovely.  She reminds me of early pictures of Elizabeth Siddal in Deverell's images, her hair all shiny and flat.

Moving away from actual images from his novels, it's easy to see Dickensian narratives playing out in Victorian art.  I would argue that I find the stories told in Pre-Raphaelite art to be more Thomas Hardy than Dickens (if they touch on the contemporary) but there are no shortage of plots in traditional Victorian art that would make Charlie proud.  Take this example...

Past and Present Augustus Egg
This picture from a well-known trilogy shows a woman being discovered in disgrace, dying under a railway arch while her irreparably damaged daughters contemplate their wrecked fortunes.  Egg's prostate female is a disgraced woman, fallen quite literally.  How about this one?

Thoughts of the Past John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
She would be the childhood friend of the hero of a novel who had been forced to make her own way in the world due to some early tragedy and had fallen on hard times and been forced to sell herself so she wouldn't starve or be done in by her vicious boyfriend, but she does love him even though he'll no doubt bludgeon her to death by the end of Chapter 24.

No one does the vast theatre of Dickensian England like William Powell Frith.  Have a look at this lot...

Derby Day William Powell Frith
Possibly the worst picture to illustrate in its entirety because of its sheer scale, but all of Frith's panoramas of life are lots of little plots rolled into one scene.  Thieves, lords, acrobats, gamblers, swindlers country, city:  all are here mixing, interacting, rising and falling in their luck.  For Dickens' men, if they stay on the straight and narrow they will be alright (for the most part).  For Dickens' women, it's a bit more problematic and often they are just too good to live.  For a society where a large number of perfectly decent young women died in childbirth, that is probably a convenient belief to hold.

I have always preferred the romantic fatalism of Thomas Hardy to the morals of Dickens, but no-one shows you the Victorian Dream like Charlie-boy.  It is black and white, good and bad.  There are redemptions of bad characters but they are few and far between if you expect the character to keep living.  Mostly you have to realise your mistake then die, like absolving yourself of sin by confession on the way out.  For a man (like Frith) who had a home life in multiple, this moralising is a little difficult to take, but it is archetypally Victorian in its glorious double standard.

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens, you cuddly Victorian hypocrite.  Your home-life was complex but your stories are classic.  You informed so much narrative art and filled Sunday tea-time telly and so I cannot help but love you.


  1. We all know Dicken's opinion of Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents, but do we know how he felt about any of the other Pre-Raph works, like the ones you show above?

    Also, if they don't put a fence around him, give Charlie a squeeze around the neck for me, will you? ;)

  2. George Meredith was also born in Portsmouth 186 years ago next Wednesday. I'm in a minority, I know, but I prefer his novels to Dickens'. I've got a pencil drawing that my grandfather made of his birthplace sometime in the 1920s. Is the house still standing, does anybody know? Has he got a blue plaque? And where's his statue, huh?

  3. I will try and sit on Dickens' knee (he is hardly likely to refuse me, which is a bonus), but I think in later life he mellowed to them, especially Millais, who I think he got to know (although I may be wrong about that, I'm just dredging my memory).

    Much like Conan Doyle's house, it looks like the War took Meredith's house as it is a modern place now (I find Google maps invaluable for things like this). He has no blue plaque, which is a damn shame, but I think the owners have acknowledged him in the naming of their house - have a look at 73 High Street, Portsmouth via Google...

    No statue, sadly. If someone would like to erect one to him, I will obviously sit on his knee too.

  4. Dickens of course was related to the PRB through the marriage of his daughter Kate to Charlie Collins. She later married Charles Perugini, the classical painter and was apparently a pretty decent painter herself though I don't actually recall seeing any of her works. Dickens and Millais were on friendly terms in later life and I think I am right in saying it was Millais who suggested to Hunt that he should ask Dickens' advice on how much to charge for "The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple". £5500, so pretty good advice!
    I was put off Dickens in school, partly by the ridiculous descriptive names everyone seems to have but I do keep meaning to give him another go. Any recommendations about what to start with?

  5. Surely the most interesting fact about George Meredith is that Rossetti once threw some poached eggs at him, and please don't tell me that story isn't true!

  6. Joking aside, obviously the most interesting thing about Meredith is the novels he wrote, which are wonderful. He wasn't a genius quite on the Dickens scale, but I enjoy him much more. It puts me in a minority, I know, but I find Dickens an uncongenial companion: I don't want him in my head. I doubt I shall read him again. Meredith, though, I intend to revisit from time to time. I love the flowery feel of his prose, his rather baroque sentence construction. Surely preferring Meredith ought to come naturally to us Pre-Raphaelite buffs. We have been told from childhood that the PRs are an embarrassment and an aberration and that our enjoyment of them is a lamentable lapse of taste, but we don't care. No, Peacock, Disraeli and Meredith are not 'Premiership' writers, but they suit us best.

  7. Through none of my extensive schooling did we touch on Meredith, Disraeli or Peacock (although I read the latter on my own by accident) so I blame the education system for my shocking lack of knowledge and there being no plaque. I don't mind Dickens but prefer Braddon or Wilkie Collins. I read and enjoyed Hard Times and obviously Great Expectations is almost compulsory reading because it is so well known. I do love Oliver Twist though, for Nancy.

  8. Disraeli's 'Lothair' has got a great sub-plot set in the art world and a thinly veiled portrait of Leighton. The Young England trilogy are must-reads, too. What most people don't seem to realise is how funny they are. Disraeli is incapable of consistently taking anything seriously. I think you'd enjoy him.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx