Dickensian Afterlives through Adaptation

This post has been contributed by Maureen England.

With a topic like Dickens and Adaptation, the annual Dickens Society symposium was sure to include discussions of the myriad ways in which Dickens, his works, and his characters live outside of Dickens’s control and his own lifespan. These afterlives were such things as dramatisations, film adaptations, illustration, and popular culture to name a few.

While related, the concepts of adaptation and afterlives are not synonymous. While adaptation is the moment or act of transformation from ‘source’ to the ‘new’ or ‘adapted’ text, afterlife (or afterlives) is the collective accumulation of these new texts and the source texts using memory. Astrid Erll writes in her paper in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, “In reconstructing the ‘social life’ of a literary text, we may ask how it was– across long periods of time– received, discussed, used, canonized, forgotten, censored, and re-used.”[1] Thus, we can use cumulative adaptations in our analysis of afterlives to understand the use and interpretation of a text over time. Adaptations, one might argue, are necessary to the study of afterlives.

It is no surprise then that a conference on ‘Adapting Dickens’ included much discussion on afterlives and cultural memory, whether directly or indirectly referenced. I’d like to briefly look at a few papers which stood out amongst the diverse presentations as confronting the development of Dickensian afterlives.

Throughout the conference, there were papers which alluded to or directly presented afterlives of Dickens. Dominic Rainsford and Hannah Field both talked about Dickens’s characters in styles of artwork which altered the ‘original’ character or somehow changed the dialogue surrounding the character(s). Daniel Siegel and Lauren Ellis Holm both spoke about the changes in adaptation which alter the audience’s perceptions of the story or character, thus creating an afterlife independent from the ‘source’. My own panel, ‘Dickens and Popular Culture’ included four panels which discussed Dickens’s existence in popular culture, primarily through afterlives including fanfiction, online writing projects, crowdsourcing projects, and the very idea of the ‘Dickensian’.

The illustrations to Dickens’s novels were very important to Dickens, so much so that he exercised much editorial control over his artists; evidence of this control is clear in letters to artists and illustrators published in the Pilgrim Collected Letters of Charles Dickens. But Rainsford’s and Field’s papers both looked at artists’ work which was created and published after Dickens’s lifetime. Rainsford looked at the abstract and bold artwork of Dane artist Christian Kongstad Petersen. His faceless yet physically dominant Betsy Trotwood both changes and supports the novel’s matriarchal aunt. In the same sense, the illustrations to children’s editions of Dickens’s stories seen in Field’s paper altered the image of child characters at different periods in history as the cultural view of childhood changed. Dickens’s original children were often mini-adults, or emaciated genderless figures whereas the children of the Harold Copping prints of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were more cherubic and wore brightly coloured fabrics.

These changes in illustration allow artists to insert their own commentary (or cultural specific commentary) onto the character and thus create a new afterlife for that character outside of the original incarnation of the character in Dickens’s words.

In the same way, the dramatisation and filmic adaptation of Dickens’s works also change character importance and perception. Daniel Siegel showed clips from D. W. Griffith’s silent film The Cricket on the Hearth.

Siegel discussed how, despite the artistic possibilities afforded by the new medium of film, Griffith chose to make his Cricket more realistic, eliminating the visions of faeries in the hearth. What resulted, instead of just a straightforward film version of Dickens’s story, was Griffith’s Cricket and thus created, in its new afterlife, the possibility of new readings of the story. Lauren Ellis Holm spoke as well about the changes in adaptation but her perspective came from that of stage celebrity. In a version of A Tale of Two Cities presented on stage, the fame of actress Madame Celeste meant that the character of Madame Defarge overshadowed the story’s hero, Sydney Carton. Both papers illustrated how external influences on the source text can alter the ways in which the source text is perceived by the audience.

Erll asked the question ‘What is it that confers upon some literary works, again and again, a new lease of life in changing social contexts whereas others are forgotten and relegating to the archive?’[2] The very proliferation of conferences, collected volumes, and discussions about Dickensian afterlives show that, whatever quality it is that fosters a vivid and prosperous afterlife, Dickens has it in abundance. This was never more clearly proved than at the Dickens Society Annual Symposium in 2016 on ‘Adapting Dickens’.

W. Griffith’s Cricket on the Hearth is available to view for free at archive.org.


[1] Astrid Erll, ‘Traumatic pasts, literary afterlives, and transcultural memory: new directions of literary and media memory studies’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 3 (2011) <Doi: 10.3402/jac.v3i0.7186> [accessed 1 August 2016]

[2] Erll, p.2.

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