The Artful Dickens

John Mullan

Bloomsbury, £16.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

What more is there to say about Charles Dickens? His books have been dissected, abridged and adapted; his life has been scrutinised and laid bare. If there is a fresh thought or idea to be had, it surely would fill no more than a page. Yet Professor John Mullan has taken the most popular Victorian novelist and, by holding different facets of his literary technique up to the light, found new angles from which to admire the work. By the end of this teacherly but readable analysis, Dickens’s novels are sparkling as if spring-cleaned.

Initially, Mullan’s chapter headings suggest that he is a literary critic turned anatomist, interested in the individual components of the author’s genius. Subtitled The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist, The Artful Dickens takes a variety of perspectives, be it Fantasising, Smelling, Haunting, Laughing, Speaking, showing Dickens to be a consummate performer. Each of his books was a stage on which all the senses could be evoked, as he used every literary device he could imagine.

What at first feels like a primer, with an over-excited leaping from one example to the next, gradually exerts its hold. The subject of smelling, for instance, leads to a plethora of quotations. This predilection for conjuring up a scene’s olfactory presence as well as its visual impact makes some passages unforgettable. Dickens’s nose for bygone scents was as sensitive as Proust’s, and had its origin perhaps in his childhood: “For many years, when I came near to Robert Warren’s in the Strand, I crossed over to the opposite side of the way, to avoid a certain smell of the cement they put upon the blacking-corks, which reminded me of what I was once.”

Surrendering to Mullan’s guided tour, we are swept into the world of Pip and Magwitch, Scrooge, the Boffins, Lady Dedlock, and a host of other familiar and much loved, loathed or pitiable characters from his extensive portrait gallery. His is an exhibition of human nature in which even the bit players have their moment. One such is a convict who petrifies Pip: “His head was all on one side, and one of his eyes was half shut up, as if he were taking aim at something with an invisible gun.”

By examining how Dickens used supernatural occurrences to indicate a person’s state of mind, or took coincidence to preposterous lengths, or used the present tense in a manner then unheard of, Mullan with one hand tears the books limb from limb, and with the other stitches them back together. He shows how Dickens scribbled names in pursuit of the one that perfectly fitted his needs, as in a notebook in which he jotted: “Trotfield, Trotbury, Spankle, Wellbury, Copperboy, Flowerbury, Topflower, Magbury. Copperstone, Copperfield, Copperfield.”

The Artful Dickens is a fulsome tribute to a writer whose commonly perceived flaws are part of what makes him great. It creates a rich kaleidoscope, as the same faces and stories whirl repeatedly before our eyes. One scene Mullan returns to is the dinner in Great Expectations where the lawyer Jaggers shows guests how strong his housekeeper is: “If you talk of strength ... I’ll show you a wrist. Molly, let them see your wrist …” Molly is reluctant, but Jaggers persists, and in so doing shows not only that his is the greater power, but that the pair have a bond rarely acknowledged in those days, yet plain for all to see. As Mullan writes: “Sexual relationships between employers and servants must have been common, yet they are very uncommon in fiction.”

In the section devoted to Knowing about Sex, Mullan reminds the reader of Dickens’s coyness in this regard. Also his hypocrisy, in trying to maintain his own image as a respectable novelist, while ditching his Edinburgh-born wife Catherine, mother of their 10 children, and keeping the actress Ellen Ternan as his long-time mistress.

Yet as Mullan unpicks shady or veiled corners of the novels, sexual desire or obsession, guilty or tragic or joyful consummation, are all there to be found. Perhaps today’s readers, so used to explicitness, are less attentive than their Victorian counterparts, many of whom were neither puritanical nor judgemental. When Nancy, in Oliver Twist, talks of “what I am”, it is heart-rending. When, on the eve of her marriage of convenience to Dombey, Edith likens herself to a prostitute – “something in the faded likeness of my sex has wandered past outside” – the depth of her misery and self-loathing is startling.

Frequently turning to Dickens’s fellow novelists for comparison, Mullan shows the snobbish elitism of certain middle English writers, who were appalled at the upstart Dickens’s runaway success. Anthony Trollope, who satirized his rival as Mr Popular Sentiment in The Warden, advised that: “No young novelist should ever dare to imitate the style of Dickens. If such a one wants a model for his language, let him take Thackeray.”

Where Trollope criticised Dickens for his ungrammatical and “jerky” style, Mullan shows instead a pioneer of narrative fiction experimenting with atmosphere and immediacy. Few opening pages are better known than that of Bleak House, where fog smothers and chokes everything within reach. Mood is achieved by constant repetition, until it becomes mesmerising. When necessary, he jettisons verbs, as in Hard Times where Mr Gradgrind tells his daughter Louisa of a dreaded marriage proposal: “Silence between them. The deadly statistical clock very hollow. The distant smoke very black and heavy.”

Dickens’s fondness for lists and the hammering home of an oft-repeated word, is described as “an audacious poetry of repetitiousness”. This device is often twinned with his equally audacious humour. And it is Dickens’s wit and his ability to make people laugh for which he is perhaps best known, finding mirth even – or perhaps particularly – in death, disaster and the depths of despair.

Some of this can be traced back to his early life, but as this book convincingly shows, the author as a whole is greater than the sum of his parts. Dickens is indeed a dodger, not only stealing the show but defying categorisation and simplification. Writing to a friend about the alternating tragic and comic scenes in Oliver Twist, he likened them to “the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon”. He might almost have been speaking of himself.