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July 15, 2012

Dickens's buildings and the partial perspective

What do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why?

This was the question with which Lynda Nead began her keynote at Dickens and the Visual Imagination this week, and one which I kept coming back to over the last few days, with a couple of instances prompting further reflection on Nead's talk.

The first instance was watching David Lean's Great Expectations, having realised this week that I've never seen the film in full; crucially though, I felt as though I had because its key images are so familiar - as Nead said, it's so much a part of our visual imagination of Dickens. On reaching the scene in which Pip arrives in London for the first time, I was reminded of an instance a few years ago when my memory of the text had become confused by memory of the film, which previously I'd seen fragments of in undergraduate lectures. At the time, I was writing a section of my PhD thesis on arrivals into London, and dug out Great Expectations intending to write about Pip's entrance into London and the foreboding vision of the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral that looms over his arrival. Upon re-reading the book, I was surprised to find that the episode is only a slight, brief mention in which Pip recounts "I saw the great black dome of St Paul's bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison" (chapter 20); a mere handful of words for what had become, for me, a strikingly visual image.

Pip

Image of Pip's arrival in London in Lean's Great Expectations

I was convinced that the episode was textually described in far more vivid and lengthy detail; it wasn't the text, but the image from Lean's film that I had in mind. The image had mingled into my memory of the text to create a new, composite image existing, for me, somewhere between text and film. Nead spoke this week about how the visual imagination isn't so much a process of "geological layering" but rather one of creative transformation which explodes the boundaries of both text and image and creates new imaginative forms in its wake; it's a description that seemed more than fitting for my memory of Great Expectations.

In watching Great Expectations this week I was particularly attentive to a further point of Nead's talk, in which she noted that we never see a complete vision of the exterior of Miss Havisham's house, only partial fragments - the clock tower, the gate, the steps. We might think that we have a complete vision of the house, but in fact this is largely constructed through the house's interior; so powerful are the images of Miss Havisham's rooms that they work to build a vision of the house from the inside out.

Great Expectations

The interior of Miss Havisham's house

This resonated strongly with the theme of Andrew Sanders's talk on Dickens's rooms, in which it was notable that so many of the illustrations from the novels depict interiors; rarely (at least, from what I can think), do we see exteriors of the houses. And today, as I was reading Julian Wolfreys' Writing London, these ideas came to mind again. Discussing a passage from Our Mutual Friend, he notes the resistance to the whole, complete vision in Dickens's architectural description: 'the entire architectural meaning is brought into question, deconstructed as it is into a series of ambiguously architectural details... The eye is moved from piece to piece, but the gaze is ultimately refused an overall meaning, a monumental, organized presence on which it can fix' (p. 150)

How often does Dickens give us a description of the exterior of a house? When are we given the complete perspective of the whole, or is Nead's idea of Lean's construction of Satis House from "inside-out" true also of the written descriptions in Dickens's novels? How often are buildings constructed only from within or with a view to partiality?

And, to reorient Nead's question, what do we imagine when we think of Dickens's houses, and why? That is to say, what role does film play in the visual imagination of Dickens's buildings? Where do film/tv adaptations give us the complete exterior perspective that the text denies, and how does this play into our visual idea of Dickens's houses and other architectural forms?

***

David Lean, Great Expectations (1946)

Julian Wolfreys, Writing London: The Trace of the Urban Text from Blake to Dickens (Palgrave, 1998)


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