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The Dickens Dictionary: An A-Z of Britain's Greatest Novelist

The Dickens Dictionary: An A-Z of Britain's Greatest Novelist

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The Dickens Dictionary: An A-Z of Britain's Greatest Novelist

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266 pages
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Feb 1, 2012


For fans new and old, an enjoyable tour through the world of Dickens in the hands of a master critic. Charles Dickens, the 'Great Inimitable', created a riotous fictional world that still lives and breathes for thousands of readers today. But how much do we really know about the dazzling imagination that brought all this into being?
For the bicentenary of Dickens' birth, Victorian literature expert John Sutherland has created a gloriously wide-ranging alphabetical companion to Dickens' work, excavating the hidden links between his characters, themes, and preoccupations, and the minutiae of his endlessly inventive wordplay.
Covering America, Bastards, Childhood, Christmas, Empire, Fog, Larks, London, Madness, Murder, Orphans, Pubs, Punishment, Smells, Spontaneous Combustion and Zoo to name but a few - John Sutherland gives us a uniquely personal guide to the great man's work.
Excerpt: HANDS; Every Dickens novel has a master image. In Our Mutual Friend it is the river. In Bleak House it is the fog. In Little Dorrit, it is the prison. In Great Expectations it is the hand. We often know much more about the principals' hands in that novel than their faces. Who, when the name Magwitch is mentioned, does not think of those murderous 'large brown veinous hands'? Jaggers? One's nose twitches---scented soap (the lawyer, like Pontius Pilate, is forever washing his hands). Miss Havisham? Withered claws. So it goes on...
Feb 1, 2012

Despre autor

John Sutherland is a British academic, newspaper columnist and author. Currently he is an Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. He has published eighteen books, including Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in Nineteenth-century Fiction, The Boy Who Loved Books: A Memoir, Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives and The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction.

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The Dickens Dictionary - John Sutherland

Previously published in the UK in 2012 by

Icon Books Ltd, Omnibus Business Centre,

39–41 North Road, London N7 9DP

email: info@iconbooks.co.uk


This electronic edition published in the UK in 2012 by Icon Books Ltd

ISBN: 978-1-84831-392-7 (ePub format)

ISBN: 978-1-84831-393-4 (Adobe ebook format)

Printed edition (ISBN: 978-184831-391-0)

Sold in the UK, Europe, South Africa and Asia

by Faber & Faber Ltd, Bloomsbury House,

74–77 Great Russell Street,

London WC1B 3DA or their agents

Printed edition distributed in the UK, Europe, South Africa and Asia

by TBS Ltd, TBS Distribution Centre, Colchester Road,

Frating Green, Colchester CO7 7DW

Printed edition published in Australia in 2012

by Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd,

PO Box 8500, 83 Alexander Street,

Crows Nest, NSW 2065

Text copyright © 2012 Icon Books Ltd

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.

Typeset in Minion by Marie Doherty

About the author

John Sutherland is the recently retired Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at University College London: a title that one feels Dickens might have had some fun with. He has taught and published widely, particularly­ on Victorian fiction. His most recent relevant books are The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (Longman, 2009) and Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives (Profile, 2011). He and Stephen Fender published Love, Sex, Death and Words: Surprising Tales from a Year in Literature with Icon Books in 2010.

In Memoriam

K.J. Fielding


Title page


About the author

In Memoriam





Baby Farming




Blade or Rope?

Blind Spots


Blue Death

Blue Plaques


Book Reading

Bookshop or Bookstall?


Busted Boiler









Cheap Dickens


Child Abuse




Compeyson’s Hat

Courvoisier (1.)

Courvoisier (2.)


Dead Babies




Elastic Time

Englishman’s Castle



Fat Boy

Fishers of Men






Hanged Man

Hanged Turkey


Home for the Homeless


Hue and Cry





Itch Ward



King Charles’s Head

Madame Guillotine








Ohm’s Law


Peckham Conjectures














Spontaneous Combustion

Streaky Bacon




Thames (1. Death and Rebirth)

Thames (2. Pauper’s Graveyard)

Thames (3. Corruption)




Zoo Horrors


2012 will be a year memorable for a British diamond jubilee, a British Olympic Games, and the commemoration of the country’s greatest novelist. How best to approach Charles Dickens? There may be readers who, like the boa-constrictor and the goat, can swallow Dickens whole. I personally have known only three: Philip Collins (who taught me as an undergraduate), K.J. Fielding (who supervised my PhD) and Michael Slater (a colleague at the University of London).

I admire the work of these scholars and I have used it (gratefully). But it seems to me that there is another approach, and one that is more appropriate to that peculiarity of the Dickensian genius: its infinite variety and downright oddness. When I think of Dickens I do not see a literary monument, but an Old Curiosity Shop, stuffed with surprising things: what the Germans call a Wunderkammer – a chamber of wonders.

This book, taking as its starting point 100 words with a particular Dickensian flavour and relevance, is a tour round the curiosities, from the persistent smudged fingerprint picked up in the blacking factory in which Dickens suffered as a little boy to the nightmares he suffered from his unwise visit at feeding time to the snake-room of London Zoo.

One of the wonderful things about this wonderful author is that, like Shakespeare, there can never be any final ‘explanations’, or ‘readings’. Merely an inexhaustible fund of entertainment or, as Sleary the circus master (see the first entry) would call it, ‘amuthement’. The ‘Great Entertainer’ one Gradgrindian critic (F.R. Leavis) called him, intending belittlement. I see it as a term of the highest literary praise.

Dickens will sell more copies of his fiction in 2012 than he did in any year of his life and – I would bet – any year since his death. To pick up any of his novels, and turn any of the pages, is to understand why. He entertains. So, I hope, will what follows.

John Sutherland

January 2012


In Hard Times the lisping circus-owner Sleary repeats, like a parrot with Tourette’s syndrome (an epidemic condition in Dickens’s fiction), his rule of life: ‘People mutht be amuthed.’ Sleary, in terms of his narrative presence, is very much a peripheral figure, but on the subject of the human need for something other than pedagogic instruction he has full Dickensian authority.

Hard Times is what the Victorians called a ‘Social Problem Novel’, centred on the wholly unamusing Preston mill-workers’ strike of 1854. Dickens locates Preston’s social problem as originating in what Carlyle called ‘cash nexus’: the belief that the only bond between mill-owner and mill-hand was the money that passed between them. This hard-nosed hard-headedness (hard-heartedness?) Dickens associated with the Manchester school of economics – Utilitarianism.

Economists scorn Dickens’s amateurish grasp of their dismal science. But where ‘amuthement’ was concerned he was expert. Utilitarianism, he felt, was anti-life. It did to human existence what maps do to landscape. It’s exemplified in Bitzer’s disintegrated definition of a horse (he’s the prize-pupil in Thomas Gradgrind’s school).

Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.

The 1850s, when Dickens serialised Hard Times in his weekly paper, Household Words, saw an explosion in the travelling circus. They specialised in clever canines and trick equestrianism – the original horse and pony show. The big ones might even have elephants. Dickens alludes to the wondrous jumbo in his description of the great factory in Preston (‘Coketown’) ‘where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness’. How, one shudderingly wonders, would Bitzer describe that quadruped?

Hard Times opens in a schoolroom with Gradgrind laying down his educational theory: ‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.’ To which Dickens responds: ‘What about Fiction?’

Mr Gradgrind objects sternly to the circus.

A few months before the great strike, Manchester opened the country’s first free public library. But what to put in it? The utilitarian authorities decreed Gradgrindish ‘factuality’. No, insisted Dickens. Fiction should also feature prominently on those library shelves (he, too, was a trade-unionist of kinds: just like those mill-workers). His plea was borne out by the first statistics (Manchester loved what Cissy Jupe calls ‘stutterings’). The most popular book borrowed from the library was The Arabian Nights. Dickens refers to it frequently in his novel.

Point proved by Sinbad the Sailor and Jumbo the Pachyderm. People mutht be amuthed. But it would, alas, be some years before the Manchester Public Library stocked the work of that most amusing of writers, Boz.


Every reader of Great Expectations laughs at the above malapropism. Joe Gargery, the blacksmith with muscles of iron and a heart of gold, has come up to London – his first visit, we apprehend. He calls on Pip, now well on the way to becoming an arrant snob. ‘Have you seen anything of London, yet?’ asks Pip’s housemate, Herbert. ‘Why, yes, Sir’, replies Joe,

‘me and Wopsle went off straight to look at the Blacking Ware’us. But we didn’t find that it come up to its likeness in the red bills at the shop doors; which I meantersay,’ added Joe, in an explanatory manner, ‘as it is there drawd too architectooralooral.’

This is not Warren’s boot-blacking factory by Hungerford Stairs where the twelve-year-old Charles was put to work while his father was in debtors’ prison, but the imposing Day and Martin establishment at 97 High Holborn. It was not the first sight a tourist on his first trip to London – even one as ingenuous as Joe Gargery – would seek out. The coded reference is clear enough. Great Expectations is an autobiographical novel and this is a sliver of raw autobiography.

Hungerford Stairs, where the young Dickens suffered.

During his lifetime Dickens told only his designated biographer, John Forster, about his blacking factory ordeal as a child. But it pleased him to slip in sly references in his fiction. In Nicholas Nickleby there is a passing reference to a ‘sickly bedridden hump-backed boy’, whose only pleasure is ‘some hyacinths blossoming in old blacking bottles’. The ‘Warren’ figures centrally in Barnaby Rudge. Most direct is the description of the Grinby and Quinion factory in his other autobiographical novel, David Copperfield:

It was a crazy old house with a wharf of its own, abutting on the water when the tide was in, and on the mud when the tide was out, and literally overrun with rats. Its panelled rooms, discoloured with the dirt and smoke of a hundred years, I dare say; its decaying floors and staircase; the squeaking and scuffling of the old grey rats down in the cellars; and the dirt and rottenness of the place; are things, not of many years ago, in my mind, but of the present instant. They are all before me, just as they were in the evil hour when I went among them for the first time, with my trembling hand in Mr Quinion’s.

Dickens also never forgot. Warren’s blacking is no longer available in the shops, but for those who look carefully there is a trembling black fingerprint smudging every page he wrote.


Dickens lived through a revolutionary period of art in Britain and Europe. Across the Channel, Impressionism re-imagined the visible world. The American artist, Whistler, threw his paint pot in the face of the British public – and went to court against art critic John Ruskin to justify the act. Ruskin himself fathered the most revolutionary home-grown movement, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Dickens was – viewed from one angle – an artistic impresario. Ever since ousting the luckless Robert Seymour from the Pickwick Papers (and turning down a hopeful young W.M. Thackeray as not a good enough draughtsman) he instructed a series of leading artists exactly how they should illustrate the Dickens texts. All his monthly series had two full-page etchings on steel and an illustrated wrapper. His later serials featured woodcuts and new lithographic technologies.

The roll call of artists who worked for (not with) Dickens is impressive: George Cruikshank, Hablot Knight Browne, Luke Fildes, George Cattermole, Daniel Maclise, Clarkson Stanfield, Richard Doyle, Samuel Williams, Samuel Palmer.

Dickens’s initial preference was for the light-fingered cartoon/sketch, as practised by Cruikshank. In his later career he favoured ‘dark plates’ – static and realistic. Luke Fildes’s ‘veritable photographs’ (as Dickens called them) for Edwin Drood represent the endpoint of the journey from the Cruikshankery of Oliver Twist.

Luke Fildes, from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1870.

Dickens, scholars have argued, actually and literally saw the world differently at the end of his life. Photography had made a new reality.

Dickens’s dictates to his artists (none of whom were munificently paid) were underpinned by conventional taste verging on prejudice. He wrote nothing more alarmingly prejudiced, critically, than his hysterical assault on John Millais’ early Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, ‘Christ in the House of his Parents’, as it was exhibited in the Royal Academy in summer 1850:

You behold the interior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England.

It’s a grotesque outbreak of Podsnappery in a man whose judgement, in virtually everything of any importance, was normally so sound. When it came to art, Dickens was that awful English thing – ‘the man who knew what he liked’.

Baby Farming

Few great writers have been less interested in tilling the soil than Dickens. There was, however, one kind of farming that excited his interest – baby farming. It seems on the face of it a Swiftian fantasy of the Modest Proposal kind. But baby-farming was big business in the early 1840s.

During the cholera epidemic of 1849 (see ‘Blue Death’) there was death everywhere in London, but on total extinction level at the Drouet Establishment for Pauper Children in Tooting. The institution had been set up in 1825, as a dump for the metropolis’ unowned offspring.

By law they had to be looked after by the London authorities until they were fourteen – when the workhouse opened its uncharitable doors to them unless, like Oliver Twist, they could be farmed out again as pseudo-apprentices (many of the girls went straight into prostitution). Education, or any preparation for life, in the

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  • (3/5)
    As a middle-aged American (or should I say Merrikin) who hasn't actually read any Dickens since, perhaps, high school, I found this book hard going at times. The writing style is very British, and Sutherland seems to assume that the reader is already familiar with the characters and plot lines of Dickens' works. That said, the author has gathered together many choice tidbits about Dickens, his cohorts, and the time and place they lived in--and he writes about them with a sense of humor. If and when I eventually get around to reading more of the classics, I'm sure Dickens' works will make a lot more sense to me than they would have before I read this book.I was hoping it might be a helpful resource to have in the library where I work, to help students working on term papers. However, it isn't arranged or written in a style that would make it easy to use as a reference book. Who would think to look under Onions for a description of how Dickens purportedly burned most of his personal papers, so they couldn't be used against him? In addition, there are some quite racy parts that might not be suitable for younger readers. For the true Dickens fan, however, I can see that this would be a fun book to keep on hand, for leafing through in spare moments.I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this book from Netgalley, but received no other compensation.