”A coverless book without a title-page”: Heritage and the modern in the Dickens centenary year
Oulton, C. 2015. ”A coverless book without a title-page”: Heritage and the modern in the Dickens centenary year.
In 1898 The Academy claimed that an unnamed collector, having overpaid for a supposedly rare early Dickens text only to learn that a bookseller had obtained nearly fifty copies from the printer’s warehouse, protected his investment by buying up the entire stock and burning it. The same journal later recycled its own news item, repackaging the original story as a nostalgia piece for the 1912 centenary.
In the same year a feature in the Bookman asked a number of ‘representative authors’ for their memories and impressions of Dickens and his fiction. By far the majority of the writers represented had made their own reputations at the fin de siècle; too young to speak with authority on the mid-century literary landscape, by implication they have been chosen to speak on Dickens because they themselves represent a particular view of the Victorian past. But their challenging responses allow them to elude this unthinking relegation to the side lines of literary history.
In direct contrast to the Academy’s philistine collector, Israel Zangwill invokes the enduring appeal of quality literature through his childhood reading of ‘a coverless book without a title-page’, which he only discovered years later to have been a collected edition of Dickens’s Christmas Books. George Bernard Shaw concludes that ‘My works are all over Dickens; and nothing but the stupendous illiteracy of modern criticism could have missed this glaring feature of my methods’, while in a wonderfully suggestive phrase, Jerome K. Jerome doubts the possibility of ‘any living reader’ not having been influenced by Dickens.
By implication, readers who view Dickens’s books – and by extension, their nineteenth century audiences – purely in terms of ‘heritage’ interest, are not defined by a new cultural authority. On the contrary, their ‘stupendous illiteracy’ and lack of discernment render them less than alive.
|Publication process dates|
|Deposited||16 Jul 2015|
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