Dickens and History: Dickens Day 2013 @ IES London, 12th October

This was my third Dickens Day and the first where I wasn’t presenting a paper, so it was good to sit back and enjoy what is always a stimulating day among the Dickens community. This year’s theme of Dickens and History elicited some interesting responses on a good range of Dickens’s novels, including some that tend to receive less attention – Michael Slater’s plenary paper on A Child’s History of England was one example of this, opening the day with illuminating discussion of how Dickens handles historical themes and subjects in this work. Ruth Livesey followed with a very interesting reading of place and the past in Martin Chuzzlewit, exploring how different spaces and sites are employed in the novel’s central handling of the pull between past and present.

Eden - illustration by Phiz from Martin Chuzzlewit

Papers in the panel sessions opened up various lines of enquiry into how Dickens understood history and how we situate Dickens as historical figure today. Emily Bowles explored Dickens’s handling of personal history in the later journalism which demonstrates a complex and often peculiar narrative voice that can’t easily be categorised, her reading drawing out indicative perspectives on the pursuit of self-knowledge and Dickens’s sense of his own history in these writings. Hadas Elber-Aviram’s paper on the “alternative histories” of  Little Dorrit and David Copperfield looked at how the narratives pose a series of undeveloped relationships that present an on-going sense of “what might have been” that becomes central to the idea of history and the present in these novels. The making of “Dickens and history” in the contemporary moment was the subject of Claire Wood’s paper about the archiving of Dickens 2012 activities; I was especially interested in how 2012 was positioned in relation to previous Dickens celebrations, which Claire defined as moving from “reverential” in 1912, “faithful recreation” in 1970, to “rediscovery” in 2012. It will certainly be indicative to see how the bicentenary continues to be discussed as it becomes part of recent history (I’m aware already from writing about it of the potential impulse to mythologise or over-emphasise certain aspects of that year), and the papers here on Dickens and History provided some thoughtful issues to consider in both the crafting and interpreting of histories of Dickens.

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