Dickens and Character: ‘The Economy of Apprehension’

Tamsin Evernden

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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In November 1867 a young Henry James encountered Charles Dickens at the height of his fame. James was only briefly in Dickens’s presence but noted ‘a kind of economy of apprehension’: a look in the older writer’s eye that he equated to power withheld; limiting local interaction, but also representative of the way Dickens now meted out his implicitly finite gifts, holding something in reserve. Two years previous, in 1865, James had submitted a damning review of Dickens’s last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, in which he revisited arguments that had dogged Dickens from the beginning of his career, as to how he ‘created nothing but figure’ and ‘added nothing to our understanding of human character’.

Although critical opinion has developed over the ensuing century and a half, the penumbra of superficiality remains, with a focus on Dickens’s overt stylisation: melodrama, grotesquerie; pattern and repetition forming the locus of scholarship reassessing Dickens’s prose techniques. I use James’s phrase to initiate a two-way premise; one speculative: that even in Dickens’s apparently simple characterisation there was supreme elective skill winnowing out generative components, so what is outwardly manifest belies the complexity of the founding structure. The more extensive premise, underpinning the body of my thesis, focuses on a few characters conceived as serious, so commonly held to lack the ‘power’ of Dickens’s comic creations. I posit that his characterisation herein was both founded on a more intellectual kind of mental processing than Dickens has been given credit for (whether purposed or sub-conscious); and that these characters provide route maps to thinking around a wide arena of issues; thereby delivering far more than has been appreciated. My thesis comprises a close study of three novels representing Dickens’s early, middle and late period: Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son, and Our Mutual Friend.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • John, Juliet, Supervisor
  • Gilmartin, Sophie, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Aug 2017
Publication statusUnpublished - 2017

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