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Dickens, Sexuality and Gender


Edited by Lillian Nayder


Farnham: Ashgate, 2012

Cloth. xxviii+634 p. ISBN 978-1409430957. £150.00


Reviewed by Ben Winyard

University of Buckingham



This superb, thoughtfully compiled and thoroughly absorbing collection considers the multiple ways in which gender and sexuality are represented, and overlap and interrelate, in Dickens’s fiction. For me, the volume is a much-welcome antidote to this year of Dickensian hagiography, reminding me, in contradistinction to the barrage of anodyne celebratory verbiage, of the extraordinary richness, complexity, expansiveness and effervescence of both Dickens – the man and his work – and Dickensian studies. The popular representation of Dickens as a sort of literary Father Christmas, dispensing universal warmth and wisdom and purveying snug domestic truths and cosy norms, was prominent during the bicentenary and it was certainly something Dickens himself cultivated and encouraged during his lifetime. However, this popular approbation of Dickens sometimes neglects or underplays his tremendous vitality, mutability and contradictoriness. There is often something radical, excessive and transgressive contained within Dickens – even during his most normative moments and pronouncements – and many of the pieces collected here convincingly, artfully and playfully explore this.

This assembled volume is one of six, covering a dizzying array of disciplinary areas, critical concerns and theoretical approaches: Dickens Adapted; Global Dickens; Dickens and Victorian Print Culture; Dickens and Childhood; and Dickens and the City. The existence of such a monumental work of scholarship bears testament to both the apparent exhaustlessness of Dickens’s life and work as sources of critical analysis, and to the tremendous flowering of Dickens studies over the past sixty years or so, in sharp contrast to the literary-critical sniffiness and class-bound snobbishness of previous generations. Especial thanks must go to Catherine Waters for undertaking the general editorship of such a massive and important contribution to Dickensian, literary and nineteenth-century studies. Her own insightful piece on A Tale of Two Cities, which is included here, stands as one of the definitive readings of that novel’s sexual and domestic politics and exemplifies the collection’s engagement with Dickens’s paradoxical fascination with excess and transgression.

This volume bristles with energy, bespeaking the ever-astonishing vitality of Dickens himself, as well as the extraordinary, urgent effusion of second-wave feminist and lesbian/gay and queer scholarship. It is divided into five parts: ‘Ideals and Transgressions’; ‘Intersectionalities’; ‘Mind, Body, Language, Voice’; ‘Queer Dickens’; and ‘Gender and the Law’. What is particularly impressive is how these headings resonate across the collection. ‘Ideals and Transgressions’ is one of the volume’s defining themes and many of the pieces consider how this opposition runs through Dickens’s representations of gender and sexuality.

Dickens may be regarded as an arch conservative and anti-feminist, the exemplar and exponent of the stifling norms and constraints of bourgeois domesticity, espousing separate spheres ideology and representing domesticity as a woman’s highest duty and achievement. He was also publicly hostile towards feminism, blusteringly mocking it in Bleak House and Household Words (‘Sucking Pigs’, 8 November 1851). We might regard his representations of women as limited, simplistic and unhelpful, at best; at worst, they are aggressive, misogynistic and potentially detrimental to the real lives of women. Yet, while Dickens idealised and prescribed, he was also willing, consciously or otherwise, to question and exceed the limits, restrictions and inadequacies of his archetypes. Indeed, the sheer abundance, exuberance and multiplicity of Dickens’s work means that he often exceeds his own ideological limits and this collection reminds us of the extraordinary complexity and reflexiveness of Dickens’s oeuvre. Dickens depicts women as angels, china dolls and helpless children, and his narratives almost always end with the triumph of heteronormative matrimony and domesticity; yet his work also abounds with strong, determined women, the queer short-circuiting of heteronormative plots, the erotics of power, family and death, and extended considerations of gender in relation to capitalism, law, empire and race, property and work, politics, childhood and education, and high and popular culture.

Lillian Nayder observes in her excellent introduction that Dickens’s contradictory attitudes to gender and sexuality inject his novels with an enthralling vigour that we are still enjoying and exploring. Dickens’s contradictions, inconsistencies and lapses of reason, judgement and representation appear less as the crowning failures of his literary art, as some Victorian and Modernist critics complained, but rather as sources of liveliness, delight and investigation. In Dickens’s work, the pendulum movement between ideal/transgression perhaps represents less a traversable boundary than a perpetual spiral, akin to the spirals of power/pleasure evoked by Foucault in his History of Sexuality. Indeed, in a lively piece on erotics in Barnaby Rudge, Natalie McKnight invokes Foucault’s spirals to frame her consideration of the erotics of power and family.

These collected pieces often bear testament to, and explore, the complex interplay between ideal/transgression. Thus, in an impressive, richly contextualised essay on women, property and metaphors of circulation and stasis, Deborah Wynne considers Dickens’s ‘sentimental radicalism’ [600] (the phrase was Walter Bagehot’s): the ways in which he deploys the tropes of melodrama and sentimental art, including a limited and limiting ideal of femininity, to effect radical political change. Similarly, in one of the collection’s stand-out pieces, Kelly Hager explores how Dickens uses the melodramatic enactments of Edith Dombey to interrogate the functional, legal and emotional failures of Victorian marriage. ‘Dickens’, she remarks, ‘paradoxically works within the mainstream cultural climate and thus creates a form of protofeminism that looks a great deal like misogyny’ [551]. For Hager, the excessive force of melodramatic self-presentation enables Dickensian women to question, challenge and resist stultifying norms [563]. Hager’s is one of many pieces that resonate across the collection’s subdivisions: it is reproduced in the ‘Gender and the Law’ section, but it explores how Edith defies convention, suggesting it could go under ‘Ideals and Transgressions’, and how women enacted protest via melodrama, thus aligning it with the ‘Mind, Body, Language, Voice’ section. Hilary M. Schor’s earlier piece is nicely complementary here, exploring how Edith’s furious awareness of her matrimonial marketability is conveyed via the ‘melodramatic language of flowing hair, wounded bosoms, and fiery eyes’ [31].  

Similarly, we might regard Esther Summerson, with her slavish adherence to Victorian gender and sex norms, as the exemplary Dickensian domestic angel. Then again, Esther is more insightful, independent-minded, critical and satirical than her own narrative persona consciously reveals and this collection is admirably dedicated to excavating and exploring the full complexity of Dickens’s characters. Thus, Carolyn Dever deploys a psychoanalytic deconstructionism to explore how Esther’s ‘quest for identity’ [363] is structured and driven by her need to find her missing mother. Deborah Wynne considers Bleak House’s volitional all-female networks, bound by friendship and love rather than kinship or sanguinity, freely sharing knowledge and skills in distinction to an aggressive economic individualism [72]. As Michael Slater observes in Dickens and Women (which is a jumping-off point for many of the pieces here), Bleak House represents the ‘dangers, frustrations and humiliations’ women experienced mid-century. And as Jenny Hartley’s entertaining and absorbing essay on Urania Cottage shows, Dickens’s real-life experiences with this reforming institution – ‘part theatre, part Big Brother social experiment, part reform penal colony, and part data bank’ [400] – fed into his representations of women of Little Dorrit. Hartley delightfully observes that Dickens ‘relished the sometimes near-hysterical atmosphere’ of the Cottage [400], alongside, or perhaps in spite of, his concerted efforts to discipline and constrain the inmates. Bleak House also represents a thrilling moment of, in Lynn Cain’s words, ‘narrative transvestism’ on Dickens’s part [607]. As Wynne observes, Bleak House ‘is a feminist text despite feminists’ responses to Esther’ [607] – and also, perhaps, despite Dickens’s conscious intentions. 

Where the collection is most impressive and beneficial is in amalgamating, condensing and amplifying, in closing the spaces between scholarly works to bring them into closer contrast and conversation with one another. Thus, in the ‘Ideals and Transgressions’ section, Barbara Black’s opening piece uses a broadly psychoanalytic approach to consider Dickens’s fierce and violent women, primarily Rosa Dartle, Miss Wade and Madame Defarge, who contrast sharply with Dickens’s ideal of feminine virtue, rooted in self-abnegation, altruism and the moral and physical succouring of men. For Black, these unruly women are narratively disruptive, their beauty and rage fascinating and distracting both Dickens and his readers. This piece is followed by Hilary Schor’s interesting close reading of Dombey and Son, which explores Florence Dombey’s struggle to be a ‘good’ daughter. For Black, Florence is ‘[n]ascently violent’ and ‘represses the death-wishes she feels for her father’ [4], whereas Schor considers Florence and Edith as antitheses – ‘the good and dark heroine under one roof’ [19]. This is succeeded by Catherine Robson’s astute, historicist analysis of The Old Curiosity Shop, which places the angelic Little Nell within a cultural context of the idealisation of girlhood and the struggle to represent, agitate for and legally protect working children. For Robson, the Victorian girl had to ‘bear the freight of symbolic representation’ [49], acting, along with the rural past and the hearth, as a refuge from socio-economic maelstroms. Fascinatingly, Robson considers how the passive stillness of Nell, which prefigures and suggests deathliness, counterbalances Dickens’s (and Victorian culture’s) voyeurism and his insistent eroticisation of Nell’s relationships with men. The collection thus skilfully creates new critical narratives and highlights and extends dialogue between scholarly pieces.

This works extremely successfully in the ‘Queer Dickens’ segment. Holly Furneaux’s assured, buoyant consideration of Dickensian bachelorhood, counter-marital denouements and the queer potentialities of the serial form is in implicit, and sometimes explicit, conversation with the surrounding pieces, and this section particularly conveys a rich sense of the scholarly dialectic within the vast, ever-expanding field of Dickensian studies. Furneaux directly addresses Brian W. McCuskey’s piece on ‘The Erotics of Service’, gently interrogating his reading of homoerotic relationships in The Pickwick Papers; but, more broadly, the two pieces are in conversation about the presence and extent of phobic boundaries within Dickens’s representations of intense male-male bonds. Furneaux also extends and replicates Sharon Marcus’s assertion that intense same-sex bonds were at the heart of many normative institutions and relationships, and that, pace Eve Sedgwick, homosocial and homosexual intimacies were not always violently differentiated. Framing this section is Sedgwick’s fierce, exuberant and playful reading of anality in Our Mutual Friend, which is still a thought-provoking delight.  Violence, particularly that born from [homo]phobic resistance, is a key theme in this section, with Furneaux downplaying the violent erotics of Victorian homosociality as part of a consciously optimistic queer reading, while Marcus’s psychoanalytically-inflected reading of the erotic triangle of Miss Havisham-Estella-Pip in Great Expectations retains Sedgwick’s interest in how aggression, rage and violence operate within homosocial/sexual intimacies. This section also reaches back into the ‘Mind, Body, Language, Voice’ section preceding it, conversing with McKnight’s piece on eroticism in Barnaby Rudge, among others. Furthermore, Natalie Rose’s detailed consideration of flogging – which was eroticised as it was simultaneously anathematised as an ineffectual means of instilling willpower in unruly subjects – suggests future directions for Dickensian studies of sexuality and queerness by foregrounding intra-physic penetration and the complex interplay between sexual and physic incursion and integrity. [122]  

All of the major ‘schools’ of critical thought are represented and skilfully deployed here: psychoanalysis (Freudian, Lacanian and Object Relations); historicism (particularly Foucauldianism and cultural materialism); and deconstructionism. Suvendrini Perera’s admirable piece on race and empire in The Mystery of Edwin Drood exemplifies a postcolonial approach, but I would have liked more pieces exploring the intersections of gender, sexuality and race. Overall, the volume reflects the critical dominance of historicism, particularly Freudian-Foucauldianism, which melds a psychoanalytic interpretation of individual and collective psychology with a Foucauldian understanding of how subjects are formed in language and discourse (thus downplaying or ignoring Foucault’s scathing critique of psychoanalysis). In a rich, robust piece which reminds us of the rigour and promise of early Foucauldian studies, Mary Poovey’s exploration of how Victorian literature contributed to the formation of particular gendered subjects also deploys Freud’s account of repression and the multiple mechanisms by which the psyche defends itself against trauma. Despite Foucault’s repressive hypothesis, we perhaps still insist on foregrounding repression when discussing how power, gender and sexuality operated in the nineteenth century. The volume overall does not urge a particular approach, nor does it fetishise ‘Theory’, but it instead offers a commendable variation in the levels of theoretical sophistication and density and provides stimulating examples of different approaches at work. 

A short, introductory paragraph for each piece – outlining its critical approach and intellectual context – would have been useful, but the collection is so intelligently and thoughtfully constructed that the connections, overlaps and traversals are apparent. Those unfamiliar with the critical terrain may find the differing methodologies bewildering; an introductory summation or overview of literary theories and approaches would have been useful. The work thus stands as an intelligently constructed reader rather than a comprehensive reference work per se.

Another small omission, which is perhaps one within Dickensian studies overall, is the absence of Dickens’s voluminous journalism. A few of the pieces discuss this, but I hope future scholars will turn their attention to how gender and sexuality (and race) operate within Dickens’s Household Words and All the Year Round. With scholars’ understandable focus on Dickens’s central female figures – Little Nell Trent, Florence and Edith Dombey, Esther Summerson, Amy Dorrit and Estella Havisham – there is perhaps an under-consideration here of Dickens’s repertoire of comic, shrewish and hag-like women. I wonder if the likes of Mrs Gamp might be objects of feminist or queer recuperation.

This collection, with its self-contained chapters, will prove invaluable to teachers and students alike, not only Dickensians, but those interested in the intersections between gender and sexuality, literary theory and critical thought. Outside of Dickens studies, this volume may be of interest to scholars of many aspects of nineteenth-century life. A major complaint is the volume’s extortionate price – £150 – which will restrict the book to the classroom and library. This is a pity because this is a fantastically useful and entertaining reader and many would enjoy idly perusing and meandering through it. 

Of course, this volume will do little to convince those Dickensian traditionalists and hagiographers who bristle at the mere linking of ‘the Inimitable’ with the ‘trendy’ or ‘PC’ concerns of feminist and queer scholars. If you are adverse to such readings then you probably won’t be convinced or entertained by Sharon Marcus’s reading of Pip as Estella’s dildo, or Brian McCuskey’s account of the erotics of service between Sam and Mr Pickwick, or Holly Furneaux’s delineation of the multiple queer characters, relationships and moments in Dickens’s work. More’s the pity for the killjoys, then, as this volume makes it clear that feminist and queer interpretations of Dickens are not only enthusiastic, thought-provoking and pleasurable, but also rigorous, thoroughly researched and thoughtfully and persuasively argued. 


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