Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Dickens Dictionary: An A-Z of England's Greatest Novelist by John Sutherland

The Dickens Dictionary:  An A-Z of England's Greatest Novelist by John Sutherland (2012, 127 pages)

If you are at all interested in Charles Dickens, life in England in the 19th century, or the English novel then I think you will greatly enjoy and profit from reading The Dickens Dictionary by John Sutherland.   It  is in the form of a dictionary but it is really a collection of very interesting and illuminating comments on a wide variety of topics.  Along the way we learn somethings about the life of Dickens that we may not know and there are some fascinating speculative conjectures also.  

Some the many terms in the dictionary are "pubs" (Dickens liked simple down home kind of places, not fancy ones), "Rats"  (maybe Dickens had some issues with them), "Ravens" (Dickens loved them) and "Dwarfs" (Sutherland tells us about the various dwarfs in the novels, the central one being Daniel Quilp from The Old Curiosity Shop, and he tells us that dwarfs were often regarded as evil figures or for sure figures of fun).

There are just so many interesting things in this book that I will just talk about a few of them.   On cats I admit I was shocked to learn that cat skins were a marketable items in the time of Dickens, Dickens at first did not like cats but in his later years he became quite fond of them and had a special cat that often sat with him as he wrote.  I did not know (I have read over the years all of the novels of Dickens, some several times but it has been a long time since I read some of them) he was very heavily under the influence of Thomas Carlyle.

The entry on child abuse focused on the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist.   Sutherland makes a case for considering Fagin as a pedophile but he also sees that he has in fact really helped Oliver in someways.   Sutherland also deals with the issue of whether of not Fagin, described as Jewish with a stereotypical nose, is to be construed as product of 19th century anti-Jewish thinking.   Sutherland says, rightly I think, that there is no overt religious hatred in the character of Fagin and he even traces the name back to a childhood friend of Dickens.  

Sutherland also talks about canning and after reading his entries one has to see the school masters as getting sexual pleasure from canning their students.   Dickens also talks about the frequent references to hands in Great Expectations and he ties them in with masturbation, considered a great sin at the time.   I was not completely convinced by the suggestions that Pip was a frequent onanist but perhaps I just missed this.  

Sutherland also talks about the relationship of Dickens to his wife and to his mistress.   He does suggest that maybe his mistress gave birth to a child who died shortly after birth but this seems speculative to me.    He made me think when he pointed out that his wife had  children for a number of years and then just stopped.   Sutherland takes this as showing Dickens probably looked elsewhere for sex.   He also talks about the relationship of Dickens and Wilke Collins.    Collins is well known to have been a frequent customer of prostitutes and he and Dickens did make trips together.   From this Sutherland suggests maybe Dickens also dealt with prostitutes once he seemingly gave up relations with his wife (he was repulsed by her weight gain).  Dickens also, this is evidenced in his novels, had a preoccupation with angelic innocent young girls and Sutherland talks about this in a very edifying fashion.  

Sutherland helped me see that the contemporary reader of Dickens would have seen his novels in a different way than readers now will. He focuses here on Bleak House (often considered his greatest novel) explaining how the fog was seen in a different way at the time of publication.   He also talks about the smells of the city and helped me see more how important London as a sensory experience was for Dickens.  

I really enjoyed read The Dickens Dictionary:  An A-Z of England's Greatest Novelist and I learned a lot from it.

There is a good bio of John Sutherland here.

Mel u


Unknown said...

I think I'll get this book. I have another one about this era by John Sutherland, Dictionary of Victorian Literature or something like that. It's been a while since I looked at it. He is someone who has read everything, which I value greatly.

But I am going to say outright that the portrayal of Fagin is anti-semitic. The way scholars dance around this issue trying to make their guy appear more noble that he was is a pet peeve of mine. They should all just deal with it.

But disagreeing with academics is part of what makes reading them fun.

Charly said...

Sounds great and will go to my wishlist. :-)
I so hope I'll have more (or any...) time for pleasure reading soon! And Dickens' "Our Mutual Friend" will be one of the first of those pleasure books.

Mel u said...

C B James. No doubt you are right on Fagin. I would happily read more of the work of Surherland

Charly. Thanks so much for your visit. You have a very interesting blog.

Caroline said...

This sounds fatanstic, Mel. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I'll get it as well.

Mel u said...

Caroline. Thanks as always for your comments. I forgot to mention that Our Mutual Friend seems to be Sutherland's favorite Dickens novel. I might reread it based on this.