Dickens’s Forensic Realism: Truth, Bodies, Evidence (2017) by Andrew Mangham

Andrew Mangham opens Dickens’s Forensic Realism by asserting that this will be “a book about bodies in Dickens, especially the dead ones” (1). Dickens is particularly fascinated with such dead or “unstable” bodies, Mangham argues, “as forensic subjects” (2), and this medical and legal focus allows Mangham to offer a refreshing and innovative interpretation of Dickens’s own body of writing. Rather than simply rehearsing Dickens’s oft debated claims for realism, Mangham’s concept of “forensic realism” places Dickens’s work firmly within a nineteenth-century discussion about the nature of truth and evidence, and about the subjective relationship between things and narratives.

Mangham is not interested so much in Dickens’s representations of dead bodies themselves as he is in the growing nineteenth-century discourse surrounding the legal investigation and understanding of bodies, a discourse which was concerned with the subjective interpretation of objective medical evidence. Mangham argues that Dickens’s texts are able to “interrogate the basic assertions of realism” because they “emerged from, and contributed to, a cultural reevaluation of what it meant to represent and interpret any given subject as a medico-legal ‘truth’” (3). Mangham devotes his first chapter to a history of nineteenth-century medical jurisprudence. Here he identifies “a conflict between ideas of natural justice and the emergence of science as a prominent way of interpreting the relationship between bodies and truth” (44). This conflict highlighted the interpretive nature of medical evidence, and thus led to the insistence in forensic medicine “upon the importance of thinking carefully and self-distrustfully about the evidence of one’s own senses” (46-47). Dickens’s Forensic Realism thus challenges conventional dismissals of Dickens’s realism by reconfiguring both Dickens’s and our relationship to representations of reality in fictional narratives. The “self-scrutinizing strategies of medical jurisprudence” required both a close attention to physical details as well as a conscious recognition of the unstable narrative possibilities which physical evidence can be made to serve, and so Dickens was able to draw upon the idea that textual details, anatomical clues, and physical evidence alike can be “misleading as well as revealing” (18). The practice of “reading signs self-distrustfully” underpins Dickens’s attempts to create realistic narratives, and also serves as a key to understanding and contextualizing that realism.

Mangham then sets out to demonstrate this skeptical interpretation of bodies throughout Dickens’s work. In one striking example among many, Mangham considers a moment from The Mudfrog Papers to show how “forensic medicine has introduced the better practice of interpreting the world with a healthy degree of self-awareness” (170). Here Dickens makes use of comic hyperbole and satire in the mistaken phrenological interpretation of a criminal’s skull, a body part which turns out to be in reality a coconut. Mangham cleverly shows how the familiar Dickensian satire rests on the forensic principle: that is, the need for critical self-awareness in the interpretation of evidence, and the ways in which expert testimony, offered without such self-distrust, can create narratives which mislead and obfuscate the truth. Dickens was able to expand upon this idea by filling his fictional narratives with excessive details, with “things” which both “encouraged and frustrated” interpretation, offering “an assault course for the interpretive mind” (183).

One of the more fascinating aspects of Dickens’s Forensic Realism is the fresh perspective it provides on a commonplace in Dickens criticism: the representation of the city of London as body/corpse. Dickens’s “interest in the city as forensic subject” shows how he was able to “transplant” images and concepts “from medical discourses in order to represent . . . London,” making use of the “forensic recognition of the body as ‘text’” (17). Mangham persuasively argues that Dickens called upon a medical vocabulary in order to textually construct London through stylistic representations of “petrifaction, change, and decay” (139). These urban scenes, which have often been seen as cinematic in their successive arrangement of descriptive still images, also draw on forensic realism: “attempts to record and reorder stillness as a means of understanding movement and change,” Mangham explains, “is a scheme that also preoccupied medico-legal experts” (140).

Mangham’s strategy in chapters 2, 3, and 4 is to examine both early and late writings by Dickens in light of specific overarching aspects of forensic realism. In Chapter 2, he looks at the concept of forensic truth in relation to Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend.  In Chapter 3, bodies are examined in Dickens’s early journalism and in Bleak House. Chapter 4 considers the use of collateral evidence in The Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations. This approach allows Mangham to demonstrate that forensic realism is a concept applicable to the entire body of Dickens’s work. This supports Mangham’s contention that Dickens was himself a participant in the nineteenth-century dialogue about the nature of evidence which began in medical and legal circles, but which held important implications for larger questions about truth addressed in literary and popular media. We are also able to see how, rather than taking a static approach to the concept, Dickens was able over time to deepen and complicate his understanding of the forensic nature of narrative realism.

While Mangham’s examples are too numerous to address in the space of this review, he does touch on most of the familiar episodes in which Dickens’s realism has often been questioned. Dickens’s defense of the spontaneous combustion of Krook in Bleak House reveals his rejection of George Lewes’s positivism and his careful reading of expert evidence. Oliver Twist as an exemplar of goodness and truth is explained in terms of Oliver’s narrative role as self-referential observer of detailed evidence. Likewise, Esther Summerson’s first person narration proves her to be adept at forensic analysis because she lacks “the preconceptions or precedents that cripple” other observers (159). Miss Havisham’s decrepit house provides Pip with the kind of “assault course for the interpretive mind” necessary for forensic analysis (183), while Magwitch’s role in Pip’s great expectations reveals the imaginative connections between evidence and truth which forensic testimony must forge. Mr. Venus’s taxidermy work with dead bodies in Our Mutual Friend allows him to function as a “forensic examiner” by “overseeing, like medico-legal investigation, the evidentiary signals of human action” (107). In each of these cases, Mangham is able to reinvigorate discussions of Dickens’s realism by examining the issue of narrative realism not simply as a literary movement, but as an epistemological question which concerned Victorians from the realms of medicine and law. Mangham brings a new critical perspective and set of interpretive principles to what had largely been seen as a stale issue and a settled question.

Mangham’s argument is at its weakest when he tries to trace a direct line of influence from medical and forensics texts to Dickens’s own narrative techniques, and at its strongest when he demonstrates that the writers on medical jurisprudence and Dickens’s own writings share an interest in the relationship between evidentiary narratives and the role of fancy and interpretation. While one might occasionally wish for even more sustained readings of Dickens’s novels in Dickens’s Forensic Realism, Mangham makes an exciting case for reevaluating our understanding of literary realism and its relationship to scientific and legal discourses in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, he has opened up a fascinating new area for further scholarship. There is obviously more work to be done on the role of forensic realism not only in the works of Charles Dickens, but also in the works of other Victorian novelists interested in issues of truth, bodies, and evidence – Wilkie Collins obviously comes to mind.