The problem with family albumsMay 15, 2012 About my museum job, Blogs, Exhibitions
Following on from her blogs about William Raban’s film Nightwalks and the key objects within our Dickens and London exhibition, this week PhD student, Joanna Robinson, asks if we can find out more about Dickens’ relatives through the characters in his books than by looking at photographs of them. Joanna is a PhD student working collaboratively with the Museum of London and the English department at King’s College, London.
As you walk into Dickens and London, the first artefacts to greet you, and ease you into a Dickensian state of mind, are a range of photographs of Dickens’ close family and friends. His private life, particularly his scandalous treatment of his wife during his affair with a much younger woman, has been a feature of numerous biographies in recent years. Even the jolly TV programmes on Dickens shown over Christmas 2011 saw presenters referring to this era of his life again and again, and sending the message that the public are not willing to forgive him. Such topics will inevitably be the first thing on people’s minds as they gaze upon the opening images in the exhibition, so that the wall of photographs feels almost like a line-up from a nineteenth century version of Hello magazine. And, similarly to Hello magazine, there is a real sense that these photos do not tell us the full story.
There is something eerie in this wall of ghostly faces, and I believe that this is partly because of the way they have been arranged for the exhibition. The problem with the length of Dickens’ career is that it is difficult to tie down any consistent arguments across his texts, and so his friendships can often be better traced through their influence upon his work. For instance, not only is Hard Times dedicated to Thomas Carlyle, but Carlyle’s thinking seems to have significantly shaped the novel. However, Carlyle’s voice does not pervade the whole of Dickens’ oeuvre. By having Dickens’ associates arranged in a line-up it is difficult to differentiate between the contexts in which he knew them, and their various impacts upon his writing career. This sea of faces, with their captioned biographies, is eerie because of their dislocation both from Dickens and each other. I find it helpful to imagine them on a pin board in the style of a police investigation, with different bits of string connecting the dots – but, to be fair, this would not look as nice as the way the exhibition has presented them.
Photographs are so misleading, as they can only freeze a single moment, and do not take into account changes across a person’s life. I certainly hope that none of my close friends become famous authors – I would just want the ground to open up under me if in years to come my fourteen-year-old self was preserved in an exhibition line-up! I wonder if any of Dickens’ friends would have insisted on being taken from their good side, just in case. Therefore, although I do not claim that it is uninteresting to be able to apply a face to a name, and it certainly is a nice, gentle introduction into Dickens’ world, I think that we can learn more about his friends from the novels.
Dickens shamelessly uses portraits of real people to inspire his characters, and their extreme caricature elements only highlight his sharp eye for the ridiculous in people. Moreover, we can track his changing responses to his friends far more easily in his writing than in photographs, even if our conclusions make us equally unsympathetic to Dickens himself. Poor Maria Beadnell (his first love)! How humiliating to appear first as Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield, then (after they had been reintroduced many years later and she was a middle aged widow) as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. Personally, I’d be far more offended to be cast as Dora! Although the humour endures, Flora is much more sympathetically drawn than Dora. His portrait of Flora is thus not only revealing about his changing feelings towards an ageing Maria, but also shows his perspective as an older man. We get so much of Dickens’ own story from his tales about others, and they are insights that a family album will just not provide.
You can view portraits of Dickens family within the Dickens and London exhibition at the Museum of London until 10 June 2012.