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Robert Patten

For the American Friends of the Charles Dickens Museum

13 January 2012

It's a different world over here in Britain. As Scholar in Residence for Dickens 2012, I'm having the time of my lifetime. But I'm struck by how different Dickens is in the UK from how he is perceived in the US. In general, celebrities are members of the extended family over here. They're topics of gossip, victims of indiscreet pictures and relationships, and repeatedly quoted for off-the-cuff remarks; they're the source of stories about dysfunctional families and endless retellings of seminal lifetime events; and they live in the blood stream that nourishes hearts and brains. Last evening I stopped by the tailors across the street from our flat for a brief chat about the new BBC production of Great Expectations. I mentioned that, in a rather cheeky gesture, the Museum of London has hung up, right next to the cloak check room, three versions of the wedding dress Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham wears in successive "years," each one more tattered, smudged, and burnt than the previous one. Does the placement imply that our own capes, shawls, and overcoats are similarly distressed by time? Anyway, the tailors thought that interesting, and responded that during WW2 their windows in the City shop were blacked out at night, so they made miniature displays of their garments and set them in the windows during the day. At the end of the war they gave these models to the City of London Museum. "I wonder if our garments will be stored in the same room as Miss Havisham's," one of the proprietors speculated. In such ways Dickens circulates through the very pulse of British life.

Which means that everyone gets a whack at him. There probably hasn't been a day since September that some medium—newspaper, radio, television, and I don't know what social media—hasn't carried a piece on Dickens. He's been weighed, quoted, critiqued, scolded as a bad father and husband, rehabilitated for having a mistress (but was she really? Did they go "all the way"?), praised for humor and social sympathy, mined for his politics (sometimes surprisingly angry and pukka), and "translated" in exhibits, theatrical productions, readings, lectures, films, knock-off novels, and scholarly assessments for the modern age. I find it exhilarating in the extreme to encounter all these different Dickenses, and even when the quality of that response strikes me as inadequate or wrongheaded I'm thrilled to think that real folks, readers of the tabloids as well as The Times, writers of soap operas as well as new biographies and learned critiques, want to say something about how Dickens lives in their imagination.

Dickens doesn't matter that way in America. I don't think any American writer does. Dickens is a standardized set text in high school because he's a canonical author, he's not too controversial or sexy or racist, his women are feeble but give scope for feminist critique, his plots are too long (but there are a host of "trots" on line to synopsize the narrative and epitomize the characters), and in Pip or other young men adolescent males might find something in literature worth a moment's reflection. The other Dickens is a scholarly subject: a set of proliferating texts to be parsed for grammar (lots of attention being paid right now to his syntax—verbs, pronouns, complex-compound structures, "death" sentences, openings and closings), gender politics, things and possessions, illusions of realism, and traumas. Lilian Nayder has done a thorough job in rehabilitating Catherine Dickens and bringing out Dickens's flaws as a husband, but on the whole Dickens's domestic life, his siblings and children, his travels, even his theatricals and Readings, are it seems to me more conspicuous portions of the UK CD than the US one. On the other hand, North American scholars have been recently very interested in adaptation studies that encompass Dickens's own dramas and public recensions, but also focus a great deal on all the subsequent radio, television, and film versions. It might be said that the reception of Dickens is more at the core of North American interest—and that includes his reception among his peers and comparison to other great Victorian writers—whereas the person who generated the great originals has a deeper and more varied purchase on British minds and hearts.