"Don't be so melodramatic!" Dickens and the affective mode
Sally Ledger is Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. Her most recent book is Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2007); previous studies have included The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siecle (Manchester University Press, 1997) and Henrik Ibsen (Northcote House, 1999; 2nd edition 2007). Her current project is an anthology of 45 critical essays on Dickens for Cambridge University Press, called Dickens in Context.
Beginning with Martin Meisel's account of theatrical and fictional tableaux as 'effects', this article explores Dickens's staging of sentimental affect both in his performed readings of his fiction and in the works of fiction themselves. Initially focusing on a private reading of The Chimes in 1843, captured in an illustration by Daniel Maclise, and at which a number of his friends and colleagues openly wept, the essay moves on to give an account of Dickens's instrumental manipulation of sentimental affect in scenes from Oliver Twist, 'A Christmas Carol' and Bleak House. The essay argues, firstly, that in carefully staging self-reflexive sentimental tableaux, Dickens creates a species of 'alienation effect' that reinforces the affective power of the scenes. Secondly it contends that what Dickens was aiming for was less a representational realism that a realism of affect; and thirdly that he simultaneously engaged with and interroged the melodramatic mode in his later works of fiction leading, in Bleak House, to a cross-class account of women's oppression.