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Margaret Mendelawitz, Charles Dickens’ Australia: Selected essays from Household Words 1850-1859

June 29, 2011

It was not to be a high-brow intellectual periodical. Above all he wanted to reach and entertain the masses and, at the same time, help shape discussion and debate on the important social questions of the time. (from Introduction, by Margaret Mendelawitz)

Five covers for the Charles Dickens' Australia set

Set book covers (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

Charles Dickens‘ Australia is a set of five volumes containing essays, stories and poems relating to Australia from the magazine, Household Words, that Dickens established and editedThe magazine was published from 1850 to 1859 which, as Margaret Mendelawitz says in her introduction, was an “extraordinary decade in Australian and British history”. The discovery of gold in Australia (and California) transformed the world. Social justice was becoming a serious issue for debate and action. And it was when “the age of capital” really began.

So, it is rather fortunate that a writer of Dickens’ calibre produced a magazine in this period – and that he was sufficiently interested in Australia (as I described in a post last year) to actively seek and commission articles about life and social conditions here for his magazine. As you might expect, the magazine is available online (in gorgeous facsimile and for electronic downloading) but the value of these five volumes is that they have been carefully researched by Mendelawitz and contain the articles specifically relating to Australia. According to the Sydney University Press website, of the 3000 articles published in the magazine over its lifetime, only 100 dealt with Australia in some way. Unless you like the fun of the chase, these volumes are an excellent way to get to the Australian content without having to do the searching and sifting yourself.

This isn’t the only reason though for reading the articles via this set. It is a beautifully conceived anthology. Firstly, the articles have been thematically organised into five manageable volumes:

  1. Convict Stories
  2. Immigration
  3. Frontier Stories
  4. Mining and Gold
  5. Maritime Conditions

And there’s more. Each article  starts with a small panel containing a brief description of its content, its publication details (the volume and issue numbers, pagination, and date) and the amount paid for it! The articles are footnoted, with those original to the article clearly identified as such. Curiously, the editorial additions – the introduction, etc – are referenced differently, with the notes placed at the end of each piece rather than in footnotes. The additions are: a foreword by Geoffrey Blainey; an introduction by Mendelawitz; a list of contributors providing a brief, targeted biography and a list of their articles included in the set; and, a short but appropriate bibliography. These are all repeated in each volume, presumably so the volumes can stand alone.

I was initially perturbed that the article authors are not named in the table of contents, but then I read the introduction which tells us that “regardless of their source, all articles appeared anonymously”. Mendelawitz has followed that practice in her table of contents, but has identified the author/s on the articles themselves, providing another reason for reading this set because knowing the authors and their backgrounds adds a further dimension to the reading.

Mendelawitz covers a lot of ground in her introduction. She talks a little about Dickens himself and about the history of Household Words, she describes the era in which it was written, and she discusses the writers, the content and the “house” style. I found these last two particularly interesting. The articles, as I’ve said, were published anonymously. They were also carefully edited to meet what Elizabeth Gaskell called a “Dickensy style”. This meant they had to be bright, regardless of how dry the subject, and would characteristically start with a snappy, provocative paragraph. It also meant that those that did not accord with Dickens’ views were rewritten. I can’t help thinking that, if slavishly enforced, this adherence to a set style could result in the articles feeling formulaic. It’s something I’ll check out as I read the volumes in depth.

The final point I’d like to make in this overview concerns the issue of fact versus fiction. Mendelawitz argues that the articles are “literature, not history”. They are valuable, she says, for the insight they provide into 19th century Australia but this “does not depend on them being the literal truth”. She writes:

As a collection they demonstrate the complementary nature of storytelling between the writing of history and fiction. The stories in Household Words frequently draw a fine line between fact and fiction, giving voice to characters and events that could easily go unrecognised and unrecorded. In many ways they exemplify the fundamental problem  encountered by historians through the ages of how to separate and present fact, fiction, myth and truth.

Regular readers of this blog know that this issue interests me. I expect to come back to it when I review the first volume in the near future … from what I’ve read so far, I think I’m in for a fascinating ride.

Margaret Mendelawitz
Charles Dickens’ Australia: Selected essays from Household Words 1850-1858
5 volumes
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2011

(Review copies courtesy Sydney University Press)

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2011 2:14 am

    What a fun collection and right up your alley too! I look forward to hearing more about them as you read them.

  2. June 30, 2011 9:09 pm

    I keep forgetting that Dickens had a history/relationship with Australia! Kinda makes me a little proud inside.

    …And then I remember my probably-two speeding tickets and I feel less proud. I wish Dickens could make *that* story fictional!

    • June 30, 2011 10:17 pm

      Think positive – the government will be so happy with the revenue you are contributing. Be proud … you are doing your city a service.

  3. July 7, 2011 8:52 am

    I don’t think that I ever quite realised that Dickens merely edited and didn’t write Household Words. I’ll have to have a browse around the online version. Thanks.

    • July 7, 2011 10:00 am

      Yes do … you can also download text to your computer which may be easier to read. He did write some articles as well I believe, though none of the ones in this set. (BTW I wouldn’t use the word “merely” re his editing!! It sounds like is was very hands-on.)

  4. July 7, 2011 11:04 pm

    Merely probably was a bit harsh.

    • July 8, 2011 12:46 am

      Possibly … probably! My point was that he kept a very close eye on it — not only did he watch the style but the content had to meet his view of the world or it was rewritten. (So we are told in the intro).

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