This mightn’t be the best day to confess that I’m not too fussed about Dickens’s fiction. For me, he’s far too prolix, and his female characters never transcend caricature. However, I do believe that Dickens was the finest social commentator of the nineteenth century, and have long coveted the 12-volume Pilgrim Edition of his letters. I was delighted, therefore, to receive from OUP The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens, edited by Jenny Hartley (author of the superb Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women). This handsome tome includes 450 carefully-selected letters, accompanied by a thoughtful introduction and a useful index. The subjects covered include: child-exploitation, ragged schools, soup kitchens, the Great Exhibition, ravens, terrible acting, and the horror that is children’s birthday parties. This is a super collection, and it takes up much less shelf space than the full caboodle.
Fellow Victorian geeks might recall Ruth Richardson’s recent campaign to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse from demolition. While working on her book Dickens and the Workhouse, Richardson discovered that the young Dickens lived only a few doors from this terrifying institution. This unhappy contiguity had a profound effect on the author’s career, most notably in Oliver Twist, but also supplied the inspiration for many of his characters and plot-lines. Most excitingly (and also scarily), Richardson established that Bill Sikes really existed – he was a tallow chandler, operating from a shop opposite the workhouse. Not only was he a violent pimp, but he also smelled of sheep fat. Lovely! It’s another sumptuous edition from OUP, and I’m looking forward to some nineteenth-century squalor.
Oh, and Happy Birthday, Mr Dickens.
Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.