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High-definition brilliance of Flanders latest field
on 30 September 2014
Original, gossipy, full of colour, sounds and smells, this is one of the most all-encompassing works I've read in some time. Years of Dickens had convinced me that there were few areas of his work left to explore. Thank you, Judith Flanders for destroying that embarrassingly stupid illusion. Having studied Dickens at University in the early seventies, I recall the smug teaching stance taken by certain tutors. Essentially, Wilson's 'The Wound and the Bow' had shifted the direction of scholarship; Johnson's biography was the last required word; Hillis Miller had done the final spadework; and Leavis had jumped belatedly on the bandwagon. Certain minor critics were helpful - Philip Collins, and Harry Stone (whose great works in the following decades achieved so much) for example. But we'd probably reached the terminus of Dickens Studies.
Of course, that was nonsense. Over the years, new biographies, new psychological readings, new structuralist and post-structuralist works have been produced. Few have brought the combination of insight and pleasure of Judith Flanders. Buiding on massive research, she creates a vision of the London of Dickens, and proceeds to illuminate his concerns, ideas and knowledge of his world by taking the lid off the squalor, the villainy, the 'idealistic' 'planners, the diseases and the poverty. And she sent me back to Dickens with a far greater awareness than I'd expected. Her pace is rapid, and her prose deftly readable,but that's not the key thing. She writes with a cataloguer's memory and a journalist's edge. While history purists might condemn her method, and the Lit Crit brigade object to her raciness, the Dickens reader will respond with passion as Flanders hurtles off in her grubby mail-coach into areas which have almost been too dark to explore in the past.
And if you know nothing of London's history, and little about Dickens, you will find many treasures here.