"Charles Dickens: David Copperfield, Great Expectations and the Way of the World" with Prof. Dr. Simon Edwards
In this course we are going to look closely at those two of Dickens’s novels which have most in common with the European Bildungsroman or the ’coming -of-age’ novel of the 19c. These are stories of the education of the individual, his or her entry into a wider but divided society from childhood and youth to full adulthood. In Dickens’s case these are both first-person narratives and contain elements of what we often think of, more generally, as ‘autobiographical fiction’. Dickens’s narrative focus, however, is never narrowly personal, but rather the pretext for imagining fully the lives of others and revealing the dynamics of a whole society undergoing vital but disturbing change. Thus Dickens’s takes his place among the great artists of the 19c in the sheer scope and inventiveness of the novel form.
Both novels are utterly absorbing and offer us the deep and intimate pleasure of reading itself as a formative act in our world of mass literacy, not least through their powerful rendering of the experience of childhood and our passage into a troubled maturity. They both extend and challenge the romantic idealisation of childhood. Dickens described David Copperfield as the ‘favourite child’ among his novels, while Great Expectations has always attracted praise even from those critics who have been hostile to his work. The earlier novel may be seen as the most explicitly autobiographical and Dickens was careful to re-read it before embarking on Great Expectations, not merely to avoid repetition but also to undertake a radical revision of his earlier perspectives.
Criticism of Dickens’s work is produced on an industrial scale in both Britain and the USA. Extremely popular in his time, a veritable institution, his work fell out of critical favour in the early 20c, but from the 1940s it has been consistently rehabilitated, not least by the work of American critics. It has been subjected to Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, new historicist, deconstructionist, post -colonial and queer theory. You can find examples all of these in for example in the 47 volumes of the Dickens Studies Annual, published every year since 1970 (and available on J-Stor). I hesitate to make particular recommendations of individual critics, though a couple (who shall be nameless) I would suggest you avoid!
Perhaps the most useful introductions are to be found in two relatively recent (and complementary) biographies:
Michael Slater, Charles Dickens, (2009)
Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life, (2011)
These will both provide you with a strong sense of the personal, social and economic conditions under which Dickens worked and lived in mid-Victorian Britain, as well as the amazing energy which he brought to both his life and work.