Photograph of Professor Michaela Mahlberg
Professor Michaela Mahlberg

Professor Peter Stockwell and Professor Michaela Mahlberg will be presenting on CLiC at the British Association for Victorian Studies conference, 22 - 24 August 2017. Below is the abstract for their talk.

What is Dickensian about Dickens? A cognitive corpus stylistics of ambience

Not all literary writers achieve adjectivisation. Shakespearean, Miltonic, Byronic, Lawrentian, Woolfian, and Kafkaesque sound well-formed and apt, while others that have occasionally been used appear, perhaps, rather peculiar or clumsy: Marlovian, Brontë-esque, Austenian, Gaskellian? One of the most commonly encountered eponymous adjectives, however, is ‘Dickensian’, a term that has extended its meaning far beyond a simple sense of pertaining to the novels of Charles Dickens. First used in 1881 in the Athenaeum, ‘Dickensian’ (and the other literary eponymous epithets) also has a qualitative aspect that goes beyond the mere material inventory of objects, encompassing tonal and atmospheric effects of literary ambience.

Ambience is a difficult stylistic feature to account for systematically. In this paper, we deploy a principled integration of cognitive poetics and corpus stylistics in order to arrive at a new understanding of ambience, specifically in Dickens’ works, but also with relevance to wider concerns of Victorian and other literatures. Cognitive poetics draws on our current best understanding of language and mind to explore the workings of readers and audiences; corpus stylistics uses computational techniques to explore large extents of literary texts in relation to the language system at large (see also Stockwell & Mahlberg 2015, Mahlberg et al. 2016). We use these approaches in an inter-validating way in order to explore what readers mean when they have the ‘Dickensian’ in mind, and what that mental schema means for their readings of Dickens’ works themselves.

The paper speaks directly to the notion of Victorian ‘unboundedness’, not only in our approach that embodies explanatory classification and systematicity, but also in our interdisciplinary, intertextual and intersectional interest. In addition to the theoretical contribution of the paper, we will illustrate corpus techniques that are applicable beyond the Dickensian examples.