Dickens and the Social Order by Myron Magnet

I am not one to abandon a book midway through it. I am not sure why but I am usually obsessive about finishing every book I start. I must be getting older and more conscious of time, however, because I also used to insist on starting a series from the beginning. If I saw a book that was part of a series I would go to the library and check all of the book in that series and start at the beginning. Recently I find myself too time conscious to read the previous volumes in a series before I start the one in front of me.

All of this is a round about way to discuss my failure to complete Dickens and the Social Order by Myron Magnet. The good people at ISI Books were kind enough to send me their reissue of this classic work and I really thought this would be a good companion to Jane Smiley’s bio of Dickens. I am afraid, however, the Mr. Magnet’s knowledge of Dickens goes a bit deep for me. The writing is intelligent and the subject interesting, but to get something out of it would require a commitment of time and energy I simply don’t have.

Those of you who – unlike me – have read Dickens’s work and/or have a background in academia would likely find Dickens and the Social Order a worthwhile endeavor. Magnet focuses on four of Dickens’ early works Nicholas Nickelby, Barnaby Rudge, American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit while arguing that the liberal reformism for which Dickens is so well known rested on a surprisingly traditional view of society. So far so good as this is an interesting thesis. The rub lies in the 2700 plus pages these four books contain. I was originally hoping to read one of the novels and then take up Magnet’s critique, but I soon wimped out. I will admit it, I am not interested in reading 800 page books these days. Call me lazy if you will but there it is.

So instead of reading Dickens I dived into Magnet. It soon became clear that to really gain much from the work you would need at least a passing familiarity with the works in question. Magnet essential provides a close reading of Dicken’s novels and writing without much plot summary or character overivew; he simply dives right into analysis. I put up a good fight and waded in despite my ignorance. But soon I raised the white flag and gave up on a serious study of Charles Dickens.

For those who might want to pursue this further allow me to give you an idea of what the book is seeking to accomplish. Here are a few choice quotes from the introduction. After describing in broad form the foundational ideas of the above works, Magnet sums up what is to follow:

This cluster of attitudes – so many of them by no means shared by present-day Dickens enthusiasts, who find their conservative tendencies troubling – nevertheless constitutes a coherent structure of belief and feeling rather than a set of quirky, unexamined prejudices. Such views, moreover, are not extrinsic to Dickens’ novelistic achievement but instead they are imbedded in the grain of his artistic imagination, and therefore they require not merely notice, such as they have received from House or Collins, but detailed analysis. The present study aims to show that these sentiments, often expressed with disquietingly excessive zeal in the quotations I have chosen, derive from a way of seeing the world which – though its influence is marked in Dickens’s late books (and all these quotations come from the last two decades of his life) – nevertheless resolve itself into clear focus early in his novelistic career . . . What is at issue in the four books this study takes as its subject is nothing less than Dickens’s understanding of the nature and function of society itself, of civilization considered as a general condition independent of its manifestation in this or that historical polity.

So if that sort of thing interests you – and it would me minus my laziness – by all means check out Dickens and the Social Order.

I am going to return to my essay length books and novellas . . .

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).