The Artful Dickens by John Mullan

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Reviewed by Harriet

Professor John Mullan’s name will be familiar to many readers: he writes regularly in the Guardian and the London Review of Books, is the author of several books, including What Matters in Jane Austen (2012), and the editor of numerous others.  Now he has turned his critical eye on Dickens, in a book which, as he says in his introduction, tries to answer a question ‘oddly evaded by many who have written about him’: ‘What is so good about Dickens’ novels?’. He explains that it is a curious fact that, despite his acknowledged status as ‘England’s greatest novelist’, even his admirers spend a surprising amount of time saying how bad he was: too sentimental, too melodramatic, too grotesque. Mullan’s purpose here is to do justice to what he calls ‘Dickens’ special blend of unliterariness and formal daring’, his willingness to experiment, his exploration of new ways of writing. Through a study not only of the novels but also of the manuscripts, notebooks and letters, Dickens’ pioneering inventiveness, his trick and ploys, and his overall artfulness is fully demonstrated.

The chapter titles alone give a sense of the wide-ranging exploration of these celebrated novels. From ‘Fantasising’ and ‘Smelling’ to ‘Drowning’ and ‘Knowing About Sex’, no aspect is left uninvestigated in a superb demonstration of what is usually called close reading, a precise critical analysis of the syntax, vocabulary, structure, and techniques of the texts under consideration. For example, the first chapter, ‘Fantasising’, begins with Dickens’ introduction of a dinosaur into English literature for the first time, before homing in on a construction dear to the author’s heart: ‘as if’. This he uses whenever he creates something which sets his fancy, or his character’s fancy, on a joyous, or grotesque, or terrifying diversion. It first appears in Sketches by Boz, when an ill-used hackney horse lifts its mouth to his companion’s ear, ‘as if he were saying, in a whisper, that he should like to assassinate the coachman’, and pops up frequently in the novels. Great Expectations contains no fewer than 266 examples, as Pip, the narrator, recalls his younger self’s reactions to the strange and frightening characters he encounters, notably the convict Magwitch: ‘Something clicked in his throat, as if he had works in him like a clock, and was going to strike’. As for Merdle, in Little Dorrit, his anxiety is superbly conveyed by the way ‘he took himself by the wrists…as if he were his own Police Officer, saying to himself, “Now, none of that! Come! I’ve got you, you know, and you go quietly along with me!”’

Elsewhere, the novelist’s approach to narrative is highlighted. Chapter Four, ‘Changing Tenses’, discusses something that has been surprisingly little remarked on in Dickens criticism: his audacious introduction, in his last three novels, of chapters which alternate between the past and present tenses. When he first did this, in Bleak House, it had never before been done in the English novel. The chapters are divided between Esther Summerson’s first-person story, told in the past tense, and a third-person narrative in the present tense. Most characters appear in both, but a few (including Esther herself), intriguingly, do not. However, Dickens was experimenting with the present tense much earlier, notably in David Copperfield, in which it is used ‘not only for the sudden power of a memory, but also for the rapid passing of time’. While the use of present tense has become almost a given in much contemporary fiction, the many uses to which Dickens put it have rarely, if ever, been surpassed.

Chapter Six, ‘Laughing’, confronts the fact that while many twentieth-century novelists have disparaging things to say about Dickens’ novels, they frequently do so while admitting how much he makes them laugh. Even the supposedly serious scenes in the novels often contain an ironic twist; as Mullan puts it, ‘Dickens is the novelist who best enables us to laugh when we should not laugh’. He has sometimes been found guilty of expecting his readers to laugh at older women who try to hold on to the charms of their youth. A notable example is Flora Finching in Little Dorrit, who, old and fat, persists in flirting with her one-time admirer Arthur Clenham. But, Mullan argues, Dickens guides the reader to an appropriate response by revealing Clenham’s feelings, ‘wherein his sense of the sorrowful and his sense of the comical were curiously blended’.

Other chapters deconstruct Dickens’ invention of names, his use of coincidences and clichés, his liking for foreseeing (‘leaping ahead  of himself to tell us what is to come’), and his attraction to drowning. A further chapter addresses something that many readers and critics have remarked on; his curiously timid attitude to sex:

When it comes to the relationships between men and women, to imagining sexual passion, his fiction is, it is generally agreed, evasive, euphemistic, prim. His novels cannot face up to the truth of sexual desire and are distorted by the author’s Victorian propriety.

Has Mullan finally found an accusation against which his subject cannot be adequately defended? It’s a curious fact that in his personal life, many of his  friends had (or were) mistresses and had illegitimate children, and most biographers have now accepted that Ellen Tiernan was his own mistress for the last ten years of his life, but women in the novels who stray from the conventional definition of virtue are condemned to unhappy fates. However, Mullan points to many instances in which the exercise of sexual power by one character over another is strongly suggested, all the more compellingly delineated precisely ‘because of the characteristic Dickensian suppression of sexual knowledge’.

Finally, in ‘Breaking the Rules’, Mullan turns to Dickens’ writing style. Anthony Trollope wrote in his autobiography that ‘Of Dickens’ style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules’, a view that was universally shared by his contemporaries. His habit of writing sentences without verbs seemed to them unforgiveable – how much they must have hated the now celebrated opening page of Bleak House, in which none of the first three paragraphs contains a finite verb. Hyperbole, list-making, repetition – the novelist was guilty of them all, and was fully aware of his deliberate breaking of convention. Repetition, indeed, says Mullan, was ‘the very essence of Dickens’ style’; it creates a rhythm, particularly evident in reading aloud, which was ‘Dickens’ invention, the simplest and the best of his tricks’.

So, has Mullan succeeded in answering his initial question, ‘What is so good about Dickens’ novels?’?. For me, a resounding yes, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone could disagree. This book was a joy to read: informed, perceptive, compellingly argued and clearly expressed, it exemplifies what is best in contemporary literary criticism. It deserves to become a classic, and I have little doubt that it will.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and can’t wait to start re-reading Dickens.

John Mullan, The Artful Dickens: Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist  (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978-1408866818, 338pp., hardback.

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