Case study

Challenging perceptions of Dickens

Professor John Bowen's research has palpably changed the conventional view of Charles Dickens and his work.

Photograph of original parts of Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit

The issue

Charles Dickens is an iconic national figure whose work holds huge popular appeal. But presenting his work to a popular audience risks representing him as a more conventional and conservative figure than the literary and historical evidence supports, allowing him to be appropriated in compromised, limited or misleading ways. 

The research

Professor John Bowen is a leading Dickens scholar. He has published a monograph, an edited collection and more than 50 articles on Dickens and his 19th-century context, along with both scholarly and popular editions.

Professor Bowen's research shines a spotlight on Dickens's subtlety, strangeness and radical ideas, employing biographical, fictional and historical evidence to understand his work in new ways. He brings popular understandings of Dickens into dialogue with academic work.

In 'Uncanny Gifts, Strange Contagion: Allegory in Dickens's The Haunted Man', Professor Bowen explored Dickens’s Christmas books, their historical context, and formal and political challenge. This work influenced the Royal Shakespeare Company's widely lauded production of A Christmas Carol. As an expert advisor to the production, Professor Bowen was formative to its creative process. The production was also informed by his biographical writings around Dickens's relationship with his lover Ellen Ternan.

Professor Bowen has also made groundbreaking archival discoveries which have garnered major national press coverage and changed public perceptions of Dickens. The discovery of archival evidence of Dickens’s attempt to have his wife consigned to an asylum received extensive media coverage.

The outcome

Professor Bowen’s writing, discoveries and collaborations with national and international institutions, as well his regular media appearances and talks, have substantially changed the perception of Dickens’s work.

His research has influenced a wide range of audiences, contributing to a more subtle, varied and strange picture of Dickens and his work, challenging the ‘popular’ and ‘heritage’ accounts.

His work has reached audiences through theatrical productions, digital platforms, and innovative educational resources. Professor Bowen was a central figure behind the launch of the British Library's influential Discovering Literature series; the articles and videos he contributed to the series are widely used by teachers and among the British Library's most viewed material. These articles even inspired the composer Claire Roberts to a create a new composition (‘Strange and Wild / Remote and Unfamiliar’), which was first performed at Leeds Minster.

Featured researcher

John Bowen

Professor Bowen researches 19th and 20th-century fiction, particularly the works of Charles Dickens and other major Victorian novelists. He has also written on modern poetry and fiction, as well as essays on literary theory.