The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens
Edited by Paul Schlicke, with a foreword by Simon Callow
Oxford: University Press, 2011
Hardback. xxvii+675 pp. ISBN 978-0199640188. £25.00
Reviewed by Jeremy Tambling
University of Manchester
The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens is a re-issue, for Dickens’s bicentenary, of the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens (1999). There is no doubt that it is the best and most complete dictionary of Dickens and subjects related to him that exists or is easily available. It is certainly more useful, because more systematic, and less impressionistic, than either the Blackwell A Companion to Charles Dickens (2008) edited by David Paroissien (who is one of the advisory editors here) or the Cambridge Charles Dickens in Context (2011), edited by the late Sally Ledger (a contributor here) and Holly Furneaux. Those volumes are useful, but the reader who uses this edition side by side with the Dickens letters, now complete in twelve volumes, though there are still letters appearing, will have a comprehensive access to everything to do with Dickens. (The letters are discussed well by Angus Easson.) Nonetheless, Oxford University Press could have done more for the work, because they have barely updated the 1999 edition, so that there is no record of the decease of some of the contributors who were alive then, which seems tactless and regrettable, and it is hardly accurate for Paul Schlicke to claim that the Bibliography, which is startlingly selective, has been brought up to date. The few additions create new anomalies, where Lilian Fayder’s biography of Catherine Dickens, The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Dickens (2010) is mentioned there, but not included in Michael Slater’s entry on her in the volume of the book. The omission of any criticism post-1999 in the entry on ‘Criticism and Scholarship’ is an opportunity missed, and it would have been good if the book could have included a general index, though the cross-referencing is good.
These cavils apart, the detail and the breadth of the entries are both impressive, coming from writers who know their subject thoroughly: Schlicke, who contributes several good articles himself, especially on the actual Dickens novels, has chosen well. The book works well as a biography of Dickens, less fictional than some, but there is a certain awkwardness which comes from the sense that the entries have the imprimatur of an encyclopedia, but are actually very subjectively written. So Joel Brattin wades into the Clarendon editions, especially Great Expectations . The late Robin Gilmour seems overly prejudiced, like many, against John Forster (he gets in the idea of Forster as Podsnap three times, but does not substantiate the claim enough) and I am uncertain why Gilmour should have thought that Dickens’s instinct, from which Forster deflected him, that Walter Gay should have gone to the bad was ‘wiser’ . Michael Slater keeps his scepticism whether the relation between Dickens and Ellen Ternan was sexual, finishing his entry on Ternan with the remark that students ‘should also note a persuasive hypothesis put forward by Peter Ackroyd in his Dickens (1990)’ (a biography which Slater praises most generously in his entry on biographies) ‘which argues for a non-sexual relationship on the grounds that it "acted for Dickens as the realisation of one of his most enduring fictional fantasies ... sexless marriage to a young, idealised virgin" ’ . There are too many critical assumptions in that conclusion for an entry whose value, one would have thought, should be objectively encylopedic rather than subjective. The entry on ‘sexuality and gender’ by Ellie Westland, to which one then turns for illumination on this opinion, is similarly impressionistic on the subject in Dickens, and reads like a highly selective essay, rather than a compilation of what things can be said, and what critical controversies have been generated; while her entry on ‘women and women’s issues’ relies on cliché—‘the sweet girl or playful puss ... old hags ... nagging shrews ... who stand out in humorous relief to his saccharine young women’  which is embarrassing journalism and uncritical thinking, though to be fair Westland nowhere endorses Slater’s and Ackroyd’s extrapolation of Dickens’s views from their partial reading of his novels. Graham Smith’s entry on Dickens and film [241-244] is likewise opinion more than a sober listing of films (his entry on television versions is short and incomplete), and the volume seems weak on adaptations and theatre versions: Oliver! gets a bare mention , but this has been immensely influential and, like many of the television versions, deserves more notice, whether or not it is to be dismissed.
The novels are well discussed, though sometimes the plot details are abbreviated, as with the entry on The Cricket on the Hearth, and some entries could try harder, as with the one on the Memoirs of Grimaldi, where one would dearly like to know what Dickens took from Grimaldi (the attention given to fairs is good, but it would also be good to have had something on Mr Punch). The entries on what literature Dickens read are generally fine: this is an important and neglected area of study; but if opinion is to be allowed into the entries, why not, for example, more speculation on what Dickens took from Wordsworth, especially as Dickens half-cites the ‘Intimations’ Ode several times (not mentioned in Adam Roberts’s article on Wordsworth). Malcolm Andrews’s entry on ‘childhood’ is comprehensive, but there is much more of a critical and speculative nature to be said for Dickens’s debt to fairy tales than appears in Gillian Avery’s entry, half of which is on the Arabian Nights and Tales of the Genii both elsewhere discussed by Michael Slater; though since he has written virtually the only good full-length chapter that I know on these already, (and cites it) it would have been good to see someone else have a shot, so that material did not simply get repeated. The difficulty, in all these anthologies of work on Dickens, where information is easily available, and where everyone has an opinion already worked out, is to break out of what is usually said about them, and to challenge both writer and reader. Though this Oxford Companion is truly indispensable, and usable, it does not always succeed in challenging some rather conservatively held and stated idées reçues.
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