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Efraim Sicher, Rereading the City, Rereading Dickens: Representation, the Novel, and Urban Realism
(AMS Studies in the Nineteenth Century, no. 29)
Brooklyn, NY: AMS Press Inc. 2003, 427pp

Samantha Matthews

The decision to adopt the works of Dickens and representations of the city as a topic might be considered an act of hubris; Dickens, with his prodigious output of novels, journalism, letters, plays and other multitudinous performances, is indeed a type of the energy and productivity of the nineteenth-century city, and is similarly productive of an apparently infinite number of readings, texts and contexts. Efraim Sicher is aware that any Dickens scholar adding to the ‘unceasing flood of Dickens studies’ has the responsibility not only to address his subject with authority, but also to make an original and creative addition to the field. His monograph’s leading conviction of the interdependence of literal and figurative, and of the transformative power of the imagination in Dickens’s mediation of the city, is signalled in the acknowledgments. Sicher jokes self-deprecatingly about the book’s long gestation period (the project originated in the early 1980s), and draws an analogy between the fathering of his text and his children — ‘An embryo of chapter four first struggled into existence — a “fearful abortion” of chapter three’, while ‘to my children — I owe the labor of birth and of love’.

The author’s sustained emotional investment in this project deserves mention because it helps to explain both the ambition and attempted inclusiveness of its ambit, and some of the idiosyncrasies and overdetermination of Sicher’s polemical vision of Dickens as a writer engaged self-consciously with the politics of representation in his ‘urban realism’. Sicher’s deployment of the modesty topos in describing his monograph as a ‘modest contribution’ to Dickens studies is disingenuous; another stated aim ‘to push back the frontiers of the study of the city in literature’ is closer to the truth. The author’s generous, inclusive mind, his intellectual ambition and sincerity, are indicated by the volume’s 427 pages crammed with small print: there is a substantial preface as well as introduction, the volume is bursting with lengthy passages of quotation, contextual images, extensive footnotes, and a lengthy bibliography. Victorian and indeed Dickensian in its manifestation of industry and earnestness, and its ranging across different disciplines and methodologies, Sicher’s book represents twenty years’ engagement with concerns around urbanism, realism and representation in Dickens studies, and as such will be a valuable digest and browsing tool for students beginning work in this area.

Scholars with a special interest in London in literature should however note that the title Rereading the City, Rereading Dickens accurately reflects the author’s broad and generalist interests and methodology. Although on the dust jacket Murray Baumgarten of The Dickens Project claims that Sicher ‘shows us how and why London was shaped by Dickens’s imagination into the first modern city’, readers hoping for a comprehensive study of Dickens and London to update the standard works Alexander Welsh’s The City of Dickens (1971) and F. S. Schwarzbach’s Dickens and the City (1979), will have to wait longer. Sicher is concerned with the broadcast impact of urbanisation on the politics of representation, so for instance his discussion of Bleak House is largely concerned with the symbolic architecture of homes and anxieties that psychic homelessness was endemic in modern urban culture, while a consideration of the saving grace of fancy means that Hard Times has a chapter to itself.

There is relatively little sustained discussion of the particularities of topographical and architectural change in Victorian London. The index entry for ‘London’ is instructive here, indicating the general and oblique relevance of Sicher’s thesis to the matter of London (‘viii-218 passim, 267-383 passim’), but the comparative rarity of analysis of specific metropolitan landmarks, sites and territories (‘Great Fire of – xxii; growth of – 9-10, 41; as site of modernity viii; – zoo 198’). The reader is given tantalising glimpses of such topographical particulars, such as for instance in Bleak House the significance of Harold Skimpole’s residence in the Polygon, Somers Town, at mid-century ‘a decaying slum’ that ‘underscores the liminal status of a déclassé territory between the aristocratic city (the West End) and bourgeois suburbia (Hampstead)’, and which Sicher sees as denoting Dickens’s association of the feckless Skimpole with his own father, as part of a broader argument about the significance of images of fire and keys/locks in the urban framing of the home.

However, Sicher has persuasive reasons for redirecting his critical spotlight away from the traditional focus on textual representation of London locations, represented at one extreme by Ed Glinert’s entertaining but touristic A Literary Guide to London (Penguin, 2000), which includes ‘From Dickens House to Fagin’s Den — a walk through the heart of Dickensian London’. Sicher’s insistence on the textuality of Dickens’s London — indeed, his conviction, that place exists only as constructed through language, narrative and symbol, transformed by a visionary imagination and reconstructed by the act of reading — is a refreshing corrective to the magnetic pull of ‘the real’. Importantly, though, the purely rhetorical, textual city is not abstracted from individual experience. For Sicher, Dickens’s writing of the city originates in the complex experience of reading it, whether as the disappointed and anxious child shamefully exposed working in the plate-glass window of Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, the young writer pounding the nocturnal London streets and quizzing the crowds of faces and lives emerging from the shadows, or the mature and celebrated man of letters campaigning for social improvements. Thus while biographical criticism is one of several methodologies employed in Sicher’s refreshingly eclectic hermeneutics (together with a Bakhtinian model of the novel functioning dialogically with other discourses), the effect is of a fractured Dickensian psychogeography, where the city maps sites of creative trauma and energy, of stasis and circulation, rather than a conventional attempt to infer authorial intention from biography.

The insistence on reading, especially rereading as a means to a fresh understanding of relations between the real and rhetorical city, constitutes the book’s main claim to originality. Sicher addresses fundamental questions such as ‘How is the city being read? Who is reading?’, and how Dickens’s reading of the city relates to the contested epistemology and politics of representation during a period when writers and artists were struggling ‘to reconcile the real and the ideal’. The author’s aim of defining the often contradictory elements in Dickens’s complex ‘urban realism’ (as distinct from the notoriously flabby and flexible general term of ‘realism’), without seeking to impose a non-existent consistency on Dickens’s different ideological positions, maps the parameters of his project to study ‘transformations of the city experience into the fictional landscape of the novels’. As Sicher argues, commentaries on literature and the city, and in particular Dickens’s novels and London, ‘have all too often been locked in a descriptive referentiality that depends on a mimetic relationship to the real world’, whereas Dickens deliberately obstructs such over-literal interpretations by refusing to ‘divorce the figurative from the literal’. The city is thus not simply a backdrop that sets off the play of individual human dramas, but ‘a microcosm . . . represented structurally as well as symbolically’.

The multidisciplinary card is played strongly in Sicher’s aim to reinterpret the structuring patterns of canonical Dickens texts — notably Oliver Twist, Dombey & Son, Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend — through consideration of contemporary social discourse and cultural practice. Rereading the City, Rereading Dickens is divided into six chapters, each of which broadly contextualises a significant urban trope — streets and roads, the railway, the home, factory, prison and dustheap — before applying these complex contexts to an interpretation of one or more Dickens texts. Chapter 1, ‘Streets & Roads: Reading and Legibility in Dickens’s City’, covers a lot of ground in several senses, theorising the textuality and (il)legibility of the city through relationships between labyrinthine urban streets and narratives, styles of walking and writing, in a wide range of Dickens texts that can in itself be bewildering. Sicher interrogates recent theorising of the figure of the flâneur, reading Dickens’s walker as a more ‘purposeful spectator’, whose position is not irreconcilable with the theatrical city spectacle. The significance of conflicting perspectives is considered, such as the view from a balloon imagined drifting over the city, the touristic survey from the top of St Paul’s Cathedral, the bird’s-eye-view, and the walker. The second chapter, ‘The Railway & the Sea: The World Emporium of Dombey and Son’, debates the tension between representational discourses of urban business and humane/natural values, since ‘Time and space are visibly altered by the coming of the railway’, and the rail network gives added force to the sea’s traditional symbolic association with eternity and transcendence. Chapter 3 ‘House & Home: Bleak House’ questions how far the novelist feels ‘at home’ in the city, explores the house as a microcosm of the city, and engages briefly with the Crystal Palace as a covert influence on the novel’s construction of home and homelessness. The fourth chapter, ‘Fact & Fancy in Hard Times’, is the most tightly focussed and successful critical exercise, exploring the novel’s questioning of its own practice, and explicating persuasively how the novel ‘presents a defense of Fancy as useful work, and its representation of Fancy is performative in its imaginative labor’. Chapter 5, ‘Labyrinths & Prisons: Little Dorrit’, outlines a ‘metaphysical scheme in which the prison informs both the meaning of the city and its function in the plot’, exploring how far the modern city is determinist (that is, whether ‘fallen’ characters can be redeemed), and whether the novel polices or breaks out of its own prison-house of language; this chapter includes a twenty page excursus on Oliver Twist, interesting in itself, but its relevance to the explication of Little Dorrit is perhaps not wholly made clear. The final chapter, ‘The Waste Land: Salvage & Salvation in Our Mutual Friend’, uses Dickens’s last completed novel as a case-study for inquiring ‘How redeeming are Dickens’s urban plots?’, arguing that the novel’s sources of redeeming power lies not in conventional Christian eschatology but in its ‘artistic and moral vision’.

The cultural contexts presented in the introduction, ‘Representing the City’, will not contain much of novelty to Victorian specialists, who have long known that ‘Modernist tropes of alienation and fragmentation’ originate in nineteenth-century responses to urban modernity, and will be familiar with many of the contexts invoked. While any reader expects a critical book to move from the known to the unknown, to found speculation on stable and familiar ground, the proliferation of commonplaces (‘The spiritual wasteland of the city was explored well before T. S. Eliot in Victorian poetry’; ‘Rereading Dickens today, one is often struck by Dickens’s modernity’; ‘The interiors and furnishings of the houses in . . . Dickens’s novels, reflect the ambience and personality of the inhabitants’) indicates a potential flaw in Sicher’s rereading. Once the theoretical and contextual framework is in place, the readings of particular Dickens texts are sometimes less original and interesting than we might hope. Once the reader has accepted the principle that representation is not a transparent medium, but is itself ‘thematized in the novel’s epistemology’, the ensuing explication of particular issues through the deep or symbolic structures is not always sufficiently rewarding.

Similarly, the book’s multidisciplinary approach and engagement with visual and popular culture can disappoint in practice, not least because in spite of the book’s generous proportions, the multiplication of contexts means that few can be treated in meaningful detail. For instance, in a discussion of anxieties about urban expansion into the country, George Cruikshank’s 1829 cartoon ‘London Going Out of Town’ is reproduced, showing ‘the ugly march of bricks and mortar as the monster city built into the disappearing countryside’. Cruikshank’s fantastic image of alarmed sheep and haystacks fleeing from a cannonade of bricks is the most famous example of a famous Victorian trope; alluded to merely in passing here, it appears as a cliché rather than a revisionary reading, while the reproduction is so small and indistinct that the image’s important textual content is illegible.

Sicher is to be congratulated for the inclusiveness of his reading, which allows for productive comparisons with the European and American contributions to an emerging urban realism, by means of Hugo, Dostoevsky and Poe; studies of Dickens too often perpetuate a provincial or Anglocentric critical perspective. Sicher also engages with recent developments in theorising a literary geography of London, such as Julian Wolfreys’ Writing London: The Trace of the Urban Text from Blake to Dickens (1998). This evident relish for critical dialogue makes a few oversights all the more surprising. Sicher’s book prominently features ‘The New Zealander’, an image of the colonial as man of the future sketching the ruins of Victorian London from a broken arch of London Bridge, and the final image in London: A Pilgrimage (1872), Gustave Doré’s collaboration with Blanchard Jerrold. It provides both the frontispiece and dust jacket image here, and is invoked in a discussion of the ominous architectural symbolism of Bleak House, where falling buildings warn of the possible fate of civilisation. Lynda Nead’s important and similarly multidisciplinary study Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (Yale U.P., 2000), which closes with striking ‘Reflections on the Ruins of London’ drawn from ‘The New Zealander’, is notable by its absence from Sicher. Similarly, Robert Mighall’s chapter on ‘Mapping Gothic London’ in A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping History’s Nightmares (O.U.P., 1999) would substantiate the commentary on the urban gothic and ‘Gothic Houses and Uncanny Homes’ in Bleak House.

While it may be ungenerous to pick out minor slips and inaccuracies from a long, sustained and complex argument that moves so ambitiously and easily between nineteenth-century literary, social and political contexts, and contemporary criticism and theory, a couple of examples may serve as a warning of the potential drawbacks of Sicher’s method. Thomas Hood’s popular appeal for emotional empathy with female homeworkers in the city, ‘The Song of the Shirt’ (1843), is twice mistakenly cited as ‘The Song of a Shirt’. A stray article is no great matter, but here it gives two damaging impressions: first, that it is the shirt (not the suffering woman) who sings, and second, that the author is relying on an indistinct memory of the poem. The second impression is confirmed in a discussion of Dombey & Son as inscribing ‘a radical subjectivity that resists colonization by the business and railway empire’, where Sicher celebrates Polly Todgers (Paul Dombey’s wet-nurse) as a nurturing symbol resisting deadening urban and commercial structures: ‘Polly will not, as does the seamstress in Hood’s “Song of a Shirt,” turn into a steam engine’. This is an insensitive misreading of Hood’s poem, where the painfully mimetic choruses ‘Stitch — stitch — stitch!’, ‘Work — work — work!’, express that machine-like labour is literally fatal to humanity.

The casual handling of textual evidence, and readiness to subordinate detail to the sweep of a wider thesis, might be defended by Sicher’s argument that Dickens’s realism was constituted by a broad view of society and its occluded connections, rather than ‘nitty-gritty details that can be held up to the test of verisimilitude’; however, the cumulative effect is to weaken the argument’s authority. To take another poetical instance, the reader’s confidence in a commentary on Wordsworthian echoes in The Old Curiosity Shop is inevitably undermined by reference to ‘The lines of “Now We Are Seven” and other intimations of immortality’, where memories of A. A. Milne appear to have displaced the Wordsworthian cottage-girl’s confidence in a transcendent yet quotidian spiritual community in ‘We Are Seven’.

Constructing a strong case for Dickens’s participation in a visionary tradition of representing the city, indeed as an urban visionary for whom literal and figurative, figurative and mystical cities are interdependent, is a valuable and persuasive project. Yet Sicher’s conviction can lead him into overzealous and overdetermined readings in which plausible contextual evidence is fused with more arguable sources. Probably the most notable example of this is Sicher’s handling of William Blake, the dominant figure in the emerging theorisation of London writing and with Thomas Carlyle, one of the book’s presiding influences. Blake is introduced early on in setting out urban paradigms of the opposed ‘destructive earthly city (Babel/ Babylon)’ and ‘heavenly city of the spirit’, and in Romantic poetry’s reading of London as ‘a synecdoche of the corrupt body of the nation’. Indeed, Blake’s ‘London’ (1794) appears as a ‘master-text’ for Sicher’s commitment to ‘A deviant reading of the city [which] maps it in a radical moral cartography’. However, the fact that Blake and Dickens now have unassailable authority as imaginative refashioners/ re-visioners of Romantic and Victorian London respectively, does not make the relation between them self-evident. Although it is nowhere overtly stated that Blake influenced Dickens, or that Dickens read Blake, it is everywhere implied.

The implication begins casually, in the suggestion that London had to be re-mapped ‘because Blake, and Dickens after him, were appalled by a nightmare vision of the moral as well as epidemic plague that blighted city streets in a sinful Jerusalem awaiting destruction’. Leaving aside the fact that this appalled vision fits the Romantic poet rather better than the Victorian novelist, Sicher sidesteps the crucial question of whether and how Blake’s work directly influenced Dickens. Peter Ackroyd, biographer of both authors, draws only one brief comparison with Blake in his Dickens (1990), an indication at the very least that Blake’s influence is not a commonplace of Dickens studies, and needs to be substantiated. Blake was largely forgotten after his death in 1828, a marginalized and unread figure considered insane even by rare admirers, until the publication of Gilchrist’s Life in 1863. Blake was caviare to the general, amongst whom as a reader Dickens should be classed. His taste in poetry was conservative, concentrating on the standard poets, especially Goldsmith, Cowper, Wordsworth and Byron.

How then is the reader to take Sicher’s argument that in Oliver Twist’s progression ‘from the prison-house of experience to an Arcadia of the spirit’, he ‘is almost made a chimney sweep and shares Dick’s Blakean vision of angels’? This suggests that Dickens is alluding to and re-reading Blake’s two poems on ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from The Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794). However the London sweep had become the archetype of the urban child labourer, not particular to Blake, while little Dick’s forecasting of his own happy death can be read as part of a conventional Christian discourse the very reverse of Blakean. As Rereading the City, Rereading Dickens progresses, Sicher’s Blakean reading of Dickens gathers conviction and becomes increasingly overdetermined, with both Dickens’s characters and the novelist himself pacing a textual city already indelibly inscribed by the poet. ‘The obsessive nocturnal walks of Master Humphrey’ are compared with ‘Dickens’s own exhaustive walks through Blake’s “midnight streets”‘; ‘[T]he harlot Nancy walks through Blake’s midnight streets’; Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit awakes ‘to a remarkably Blakean innocence in experience’, and so forth. Sicher’s book concludes with ‘The Blakean vision of a valley of dry bones’ in Our Mutual Friend, drawing on the poet’s fusion of ‘the literal and the figural in an allegory of real London places’ in Jerusalem to propose an imaginative and empathetic salvation not reliant on the ‘theological mystery of resurrection’. Sicher’s reading of Dickens’s ‘urban realism’ as a visionary moral and imaginative transformation of literal urban experience and topography is a valuable contribution not only to Dickens studies, but also to the ongoing project of interrogating inherited critical stereotypes about representations of Victorian London. However, for this reader the argument’s credibility is weakened by the determination to read Dickens anachronistically through Blake — the book’s final image is a detail from plate 84 of Jerusalem, illustrating the vision of ‘London blind & age-bent begging thro the Streets / Of Babylon, led by a child’, not according to his own lights.

To Cite This Article:

Samantha Matthews, ‘Review – Efraim Sicher, Rereading the City, Rereading Dickens: Representation, the Novel, and Urban Realism (AMS Studies in the Nineteenth Century, no. 29)’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 1 (March 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access].