Dickens, English Novels and the Birth of Modernity

The lull in the production of English novels between 1824 and 1836 marks the birth of modernity. Austen and Scott, whose novels are set in the countryside, give way to Dickens, a man of the city. The tissue of relationships and obligations that mark traditional society give way to the casual meetings and commercial connections that mark modern society. for me, the moment where literature enter the modern world is very particular. In Nikolai Gogol’s story The Nose,” published in St. Petersburg Stories in 1835, the protagonist searches all over St. Petersburg for his vagrant nose. He pauses in his search to look at an advertisement in a shop window for ladies’ stockings. He is struck by the picture of the women’s leg slipping into the stocking. He moves on, but he has just had a thoroughly modern moment – sex and graphics have combined to turn him into a potential customer. The other features of modernity – rapid transportation, industrial production, financial speculation, the wholesale dissemination of information, the rise of the middle class, the elevation of materialism, general education – all of these are still to come, but advertising is the singing canary, alerting us to what is in store. The power of advertising and its capacity to connect him to and enlarge his audience was something Dickens comprehended at once and completely. He was at home in his milieu.

— Jane Smiley, Charles Dickens (A Penguin Life)


About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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