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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: September 2012

12 - Charles Dickens (1812–1870): Englishman and European


Charles Dickens drew deeply on his European precursors. The debt was repaid in the admiration and imitation of many later authors including Ivan Turgenev, Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James (albeit more ambivalently), Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, V. S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. Yet Dickens is often seen as simply and quintessentially English. He was, it is true, saturated in English culture, and his work invited to the fictional table the people that genteel fiction had largely relegated to walk-on parts: servants, children, working men and women, poor clerks, a drunken nurse or street crossing sweeper, an unnamed but unforgettable Chancery prisoner. No comparable œuvre grants the dispossessed such fictional centrality. But critics have been wrong to see this inclusiveness as a peculiarly national quality. While, in Malcolm Andrews's words, ‘it is hard to think of any other English writer whose … books yield such an abundance of particularised national life’, the rich depiction of English – and particularly London – life is regularly tested against those of other nations and cultures in his fiction, journalism and travel books alike. This may be by a passing allusion, as when in Bleak House, Dickens recalls from his boyhood the ‘poor Spanish refugees, walking about in cloaks, smoking little paper cigars’ (ch. 43) but it also includes extended cultural comparisons and soundings of national difference, as in A Tale of Two Cities, Martin Chuzzlewit, Little Dorrit, Pictures from Italy and American Notes.

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