The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award.
Dickens created some of the best-known characters in fiction. The likes of Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield are still well-remembered, 150 years after his death – and are regularly updated through new stage and screen adaptions. One of the reasons why his characters have become part of popular culture is Dickens’s ability to exaggerate and caricature but at the same time also deeply understand human character.
Behaviours that he describes in his novels still resonate today, as in a recent comment by a political editor who describes a lack of decisive action on coronavirus as a “Micawberish conviction in government that something would turn up”, in reference to Dickens’s memorable comic hero and unshakeable optimist in David Copperfield.
The striking and individualising features of his characters have received much critical and popular attention. Yet, crucial to Dickens’s authorial techniques – and hence the public’s love of his characters – is also the description of conventional ways of behaving. Common features make fictional people more like normal people. As with anything in life, we don’t quite notice what’s “normal” until it isn’t any more.
This is where digital methods come in. Treating Dickens’s novels as a dataset makes it possible to identify patterns based on formal repetitions and frequencies – the type of information we are not consciously aware of when we a read a novel.
A common stance
Analysing Dickens’s novels as one single dataset (or “corpus”) shows us that, as in normal life, a type of common behaviour is that people often have or put their hands in their pockets, as Fledgeby in Our Mutual Friend.
‘But why’, said Fledgeby, putting his hands in his pockets and counterfeiting deep meditation, ‘why Riah should have started up, when I told him that the Lammles entreated him to hold over a Bill of Sale has has on all their effects.’
When we read a novel, such a description can easily go unnoticed. Why would we pay particular attention to what people do with their hands – unless it is clearly meaningful.
It’s the same in real life – we would not normally pick up on body language, unless it strikes us as unusual and unfamiliar. But looking at several novels at the same time makes patterns of repeated and commonly occurring behaviours more clearly visible.
This can be achieved with the help of a “concordance” tool that displays all occurrences of a word or phrase with a specified amount of context to the left and right. Below is a sample from a concordance for the phrase “his hands in his pockets” in Dickens’s novels, retrieved with the free web application CLiC.
Importantly, it is not only Dickens who depicts such everyday behaviour. We find examples in other 19th-century fiction, too:
Mr. Earnshaw vouchsafed no answer. He walked up and down, with his hands in his pockets, apparently quite forgetting my presence; and his abstraction was evidently so deep, and his whole aspect so misanthropical.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
He sauntered on, with his hands in his pockets, humming the chorus of a comic song.
Wilkie Collins, Armadale
While such phrases often appear circumstantial rather than central to plot or character, they fulfil important functions in drawing the reader into the text. The description of conventional behaviour makes fictional people more like real people, subtly creating a link between what the reader knows about how people “normally” behave or how fictional people are generally depicted across novels.
What, however, is the norm that we measure fictional characters against? Behaviours and body language change over time. So it is little surprise that in the 19th century it was mainly men who were described with their hands in their pockets.
Exploiting conventions and subtleties also enabled Dickens to draw attention to exceptional behaviours. Another common pattern of body language that occurs across 19th-century fiction is men standing with their back to the fire, a pose connected to power and confidence of the man of the house.
In Dickens, we also find a woman, Mrs Pipchin (in Dombey and Son), who is depicted in a situation where she stands with her back to the fire. This is no coincidence. As a widow, Mrs Pipchin looks after herself, and the way in which she runs her boarding house for children does not show her to be a character who displays stereotypical, female qualities.
… and Mrs Pipchin, with her back to the fire, stood, reviewing the new-comers, like an old soldier.
Dombey and Son
The interplay of norms and deviations from norms also becomes apparent in the wide range of body language references that Dickens uses. References to eyes are generally common in fiction, as can be shown with frequency data retrieved by tools like CLiC. Typical patterns we find in Dickens (and elsewhere) concern the direction and duration of gaze.
‘And what’, said Mr Pecksniff, turning his eyes on Tom Pinch, even more placidly and gently than before, ‘what have YOU been doing, Thomas, humph?’
Body parts that are less frequent are teeth. So using teeth in a similar way to eyes makes these body parts a more strikingly characterising feature.
‘May I be allowed, Madam,’ said Carker, turning his white teeth on Mrs Skewton like a light – ‘a lady of your excellent sense and quick feeling will give me credit.’
Dombey and Son
With Dickens’s ability to both create individualised, memorable characters as well as subtly connect to our experience of encountering people more generally, his novels still speak to readers today.
The contexts in which modern readers interact with the texts have changed, and in today’s digital world we can draw on new tools to view and understand the people Dickens has given us. After 150 years, we not only remember Dickens’s fictional characters, but we can still find out more about them.
“Charles Dickens the misogynist”, ran a headline in the Mail on Sunday on May 23 2020, publicising a new book marking the 150th anniversary of his death on June 9 1870. “The novelist was cruel to his wife, hated his mother [and] had an affair”, it reported.
But this is an old story. When news broke last year that a cache of letters at Harvard University had disclosed Dickens’s attempt to place his wife, Catherine, in an asylum, it only confirmed for many that he was a stereotypically “ruthless Victorian husband”. Dickens’s affair with Ellen Ternan and cruel treatment of his wife are well known and he has long been criticised for depicting weak females in his fiction. But was what the Mail called “his need to control and manipulate members of the opposite sex” really “a defining feature of his life”?
To a large extent, Dickens’s beliefs about women were typical of the age. “God created men and women different – then let them remain each in their own position”, declared Queen Victoria in the year of Dickens’s death – and in many respects, Dickens shared this view. Women’s supposed innate purity and selflessness were held to fit her for the making of a home that would serve as a refuge for the man who must endure the rigours of public life.
Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House is probably Dickens’s best-known example of a woman betraying the home in this way, neglecting her own children in favour of raising funds for the distant natives of Borrioboola-Gha. She devotes herself to this cause and, as a result, her house is dirty, the servants unruly, and her unfortunate husband neglected. Notably, Mrs Jellyby is last heard of in the novel perversely continuing to neglect her home duties by campaigning for “the rights of women to sit in parliament”.
Dickens also set out to satirise such agitating women in Household Words, the journal he published throughout the 1850s. A polemical piece he published on Rights and Wrongs of Women lampooned those women who aspired to become an “inferior man”, and extolled instead the path of “a noble, unpretending, redeeming, domestic, usefulness” to be taken by “the loving, quiet wife, the good mother, the sweet unselfish sister”. “Give woman public functions”, the anonymous contributor wrote, “and you destroy the very springs of her influence”.
But Dickens also explored the constrictions of women’s roles in his fiction through disruptive female figures who help to expose the limitations of the Victorian feminine domestic ideal: like Rosa Dartle, Bella Wilfer or Edith Dombey, whose rage at her powerlessness, “There is no slave in a market, there is no horse in a fair, so shown and offered and paraded … as I have been”, continues to resonate.
As in his fiction, so in his journalism, Dickens’s response to demands for reform of the position of women was more complex than is often appreciated. He was prepared to support campaigns against particular legal and social injustices suffered by women and he was not unsympathetic towards the demand for extending employment opportunities for them.
Indeed, he was especially supportive of women’s efforts to reach out to a wider public sphere within his own field of expertise – literature and journalism. For the author of the Household Words essay, the Rights and Wrongs of Women, was a woman – and the first English female newspaper correspondent to draw a fixed salary: Eliza Lynn (Linton).
Dickens encouraged women writers to contribute to his journals, recruiting prominent authors such as Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Gaskell and Eliza Lynn when he founded Household Words in 1850. Lynn had worked for two years on the staff of the Morning Chronicle and published three novels before she became a Household Words contributor in 1853. She wrote for the journal up until the last year of its publication, contributing more than 60 items. Dickens came to value her work highly: “Good for anything and thoroughly reliable”, he wrote against her name when making out a list of contributors at one time.
Ironically, while Lynn shared Dickens’s conviction that women’s aspirations to participate in public life undermined their proper, natural duties within the home, she defied the stereotype herself. As a hard-working journalist within the male domain of the Victorian newspaper and periodical press, her career challenged the accepted idea of womanhood and questioned the limits placed upon the female role.
Lynn first met Dickens at a dinner party and later recalled his kindness to her: “He included me, then quite a beginner in literature, young in years and shy by temperament, and made me feel at home with him”, she writes. When her father died in 1855, she sold Gad’s Hill Place, where part of her early youth had been spent, to Dickens, and visiting some years after his death, remembered:
How bright he was! How keen and observant! His eyes seemed to penetrate through yours into your very brain, and he was one of the men to whom, had I been given that way, I could not have dared to tell a lie. He would have seen the truth written in plain characters behind the eyes, and traced in the lines about the mouth.
Such a profound capacity for truth-seeing and telling is of course just one of the qualities for which we remember Dickens on the anniversary of his death. While his reputation as an exponent of the “home goddess” stereotype is undeniable, he also imagined strong women, rebellious women, and women inwardly divided, who provide a more complex picture of his fictional treatment of the opposite sex than this reputation suggests.
And in the practical support he gave to women like Eliza Lynn, we remember above all his deep commitment to writing, to the professions of literature and journalism, and his unshakeable belief in their ability to move us so as to remedy social injustice and inequality for women and men.
Chronicling four generations of two families, Felicity Volk’s Desire Lines is set against landmarks of 20th century Australian history, encompassing a geographical span that begins in the Arctic Circle and ends in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.
Desire Lines is a richly textured celebration of Australia – its landscape, sights, sounds, seasons – while holding in close focus the inner lives of its characters. It is epic in scale, but also an unfolding love story that keeps the reader guessing until the very end.
Paddy O’Connor’s trajectory is set by the flip of his gambler father’s “lucky coin” abandoning him (rather than his infant brother) to the systematic cruelties of a London orphanage, and then the hard labour of a farm school far west of Sydney.
This spinning coin makes a recurrent trope for decision-making. The inability to decide; the urgencies and waylaying of desire.
Desire lines are the paths formed not by designers, but by human feet: the paths of dirt traced into grass as people walk the route they desire, not the route of the path laid out for them.
As Paddy, now a successful architect, reflects:
… when deciding where to put footpaths around an edifice, a pragmatic architect would plant grass and watch for where the trampled tracks appeared. A pragmatic architect would pave those.
Evie’s first meeting with Paddy at her grandparents’ market stall initiates love scenes of unusual tenderness and physical immediacy, overseen by a writer whose nuanced style moves with ease between the lyrically descriptive and the gently ironic.
Building and planting and travelling bring the parallel storylines of Paddy and Evie into convergence, setting up their rhythm of meeting and parting and meeting again.
Through the eyes of babes
Paddy and Evie’s inner lives are finely delineated from earliest childhood, to sexual awakening, to “the sweetness of rapprochement” in old age.
Volk acutely observes seven-year-old Paddy’s suffering in the face of his father’s violent abuse of his mother. In the agony of separation and loss he continues to write to Mammy, who “comes to him in dream, her face sharp and familiar”. He is always imagining their reunion. But before long, her sparse replies cease.
The bond Paddy forged with his friends from the orphanage, Rusty and Fionnoula, is shockingly broken when he discovers their dead bodies in a farm shed, covered by brown hessian:
… guttural noises spilled from his mouth. He was a stranger to his ears.
Seeing without fully understanding their grooming and sadistic punishments, he blames himself for not preventing their suicide pact:
It would walk beside him and be buried with him, preparing the way before him, so that he would fall into its abyss over and over again with every step that he took.
The reader understands Paddy’s failures of courage. Evie will find impossible to forgive him.
As a child, in the Edenic space of a lavender maze, Evie becomes aware of a man watching and grunting in an activity that threatens her:
with a dread she didn’t know but seemed to have known forever […] a truth so ugly it may as well have been a lie; best not to give words to it.
Rescued by a kindly Aboriginal gardener and presented with one of his yam daisies, she is is confirmed in her life’s work as a conservator of botanical species.
The high-point of Evie’s work as a conservationist comes in her depositing Australian seeds in the Global Seed Vault in Norway. Invested in her seeds is hope for the survival of the planet and its ecology; hopes for people and what they hold dear.
Volk’s novel asks: to what extent are our lives laid out for us by the determinations of heredity and environment? What degrees of freedom can we claim? And how can the integrity of the self be reconciled with the needs and rights of others?
“Are you still a liar?” Evie fires off in a text message to her estranged lover as the novel’s first sentence. She has learnt lying is endemic in the adult world, and the nation’s history.
Being true to her love for Paddy, she is forced to lose custody of her children. He maintains the lie of a happy and faithful marriage to Ann; his children enjoy the stability and security he was denied.
Eventually, Evie realises she has reached the end of her patience. “Are you still a liar?” she keeps sending on their anniversaries across years and miles: a question that keeps hope alive by its very constancy. Hope that by coincidence, determination and vulnerability, desire will draw them together at last.
Desire Lines is out now through Hachette
The link below is to an article that looks at the best ebook reading apps for both Android and iOS devices.
The link below is to an article that reports on the rise in sales of both ebooks and ebook readers, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic and the closure of traditional bookshops.