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Dickens, Family, Authorship: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Kinship and Creativity.

Dickens, Family, Authorship: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Kinship and Creativity. By LYNN CAIN. Aldershot: Ashgate. 2008. xvii+183 pp. 50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 970-0-7546-6180-1.

Lynn Cain's book offers some suggestive and richly referenced readings of a wide range of Dickens's work. Though focused on the novels produced between 1843 and 1853, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, and Bleak House, the project reflects on the whole of Dickens's literary career, and makes a thorough and interesting use of his correspondence during this period, as well as, to a lesser extent, his journalism. Indeed, some of the strongest arguments are advanced through a cross-referential treatment of this range of materials; in the first literary chapter, on Martin Chuzzlewit, for example, I found particularly instructive Cain's identification of the affinities between this novel and Great Expectations in their shared anxieties about father/son relations (p. 22), and her illumination of the alliterative and Oedipal connection of 'Pecksniff and Pinch', emphasized in Dickens's reference to this pairing in a letter to Forster (p. 42).

The psychoanalytic perspectives certainly open up some interesting interpretations, which respond to an impressively substantial body of classic and recent Dickens criticism, which is taken seriously throughout. I particularly enjoyed the reflections upon Dickens's use of the gamut of authorial metaphors (including architecture, music, gastronomy, and biological reproduction) that this method opens up. There is, however, a persistent, uncomfortable sense that, despite the acknowledged complexity of Dickens's literary projects, Cain especially values his work for its anticipation of twentieth-century psychoanalytic theory, particularly that of Freud, Lacan, Klein, and Kristeva. Cain is characteristically delighted to identify Bleak House as 'a brilliant anticipation of Irigaray's assertion that Western culture is based upon matricide' (p. 153). The emphasis on prescience and celebration of the 'precocious[ness of] the Victorian literary imagination in anticipating' Freud and other thinkers (p. x) results in a series of (in themselves valuable and interesting) readings that tend to ignore the ways in which Victorian texts might exceed later theories, and disregard the inabilities of later psychoanalytic modes to account for the diversity of Dickens's modellings of kinship. Given that Dickens had an abhorrence of the exclusivity of what is now defined as the nuclear family unit, the range of kinship relations accounted for here is disappointingly narrow; the book is mainly concerned with the vexed inter-generational bonds of parent and child. (For Dickens's preference for the household rather than the romantic couple see Karen Chase and Michael Levenson, The Spectacle of Intimacy: A Public Life for the Victorian Family (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 94, and for a presentation of the diversity of the Dickensian domestic see Helena Michie, 'From Blood to Law: The Embarrassments of Family in Dickens', in Palgrave Advances in Charles Dickens Studies, ed. by John Bowen and Robert Pattern (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005), pp. 131-55.) Having opened with a focus upon the (quasi) patricidal desires of Martin Chuzzlewit's young men, Cain turns in the second chapter to acknowledge the abundance of more positive father/son bonds in Dombey and Son, which are mainly exhibited between non-biologically related surrogate fathers and their adopted boys. Cain's discussion resists an over-simplistic refiguring of adoptive fathers as mother figures, and offers an interesting discussion of masculine tenderness (p. 77). Her analysis does not, however, sufficiently probe the implications, in psychoanalytic terms, of this difference between biological and adoptive kin formation--which seems a pity, given the regularity with which Dickens's kinship groups are not forged by blood.

This book offers another important and vigorous riposte to the critical vision of cosy Dickensian domesticity (see especially p. 21), which has stubbornly lingered. Indeed, in the fascination with parent killing and states of abjection, Cain's project follows a venerable tradition of biographically inflected psychoanalytic readings, which tend to advance, as Robert Newsom notes, 'a significantly darker view of Dickens' (Oxford Readers Companion to Dickens, ed. by Paul Schlicke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 136). On the final page Cain even speaks of his "'dark" works' (p. 159). If you share Hippolyte Taine's nineteenth-century assessment of Dickens, 'The difference between a madman and a man of genius is not very great' (quoted by Schlicke in the Companion, p. 134), then Cain's Dickens--whose socially reformist agenda, humour, and sentiment are rarely considered but whose 'suicidal compulsion', 'depression and aphasia' (p. 10) are much in evidence--is the Dickens for you.


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Author:Forneaux, Holly
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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