The Artful Dickens: Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist 
by John Mullan.
Bloomsbury, 428 pp., £16.99, October, 978 1 4088 6681 8
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What​ most distinguishes Dickens’s novels from those by almost any other writer, and from life, is that hardly anything in them ever recedes entirely into the background. Dickens fought long and hard against the human tendency to focus exclusively on what is of immediate pressing concern in any given situation. His often anodyne protagonists have to compete for our attention with the idiosyncratic vitality possessed by the dozens of minor characters who surround them (hundreds, if there’s a riot in progress). After a while a glazed expression seems to settle on their faces, as it dawns on them that they will never become the sort of person their creator most liked to describe. Less often acknowledged is the fact that the ‘worlds’ these minor characters inhabit, while ascertainably mythical, have almost without exception been sensed: seen and heard, in all cases, and sometimes touched, tasted or smelled. The mark of Dickens’s writing, George Orwell declared, is the ‘unnecessary detail’. Orwell had in mind the ‘baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it’ on which the company is feasting in The Pickwick Papers while Jack Hopkins tells the story of the child who swallowed a necklace. Dickens couldn’t stop sensing. ‘His imagination overwhelms everything,’ Orwell concluded, ‘like a kind of weed.’ But it isn’t enough to notice him noticing. Dickens did a great deal more than accumulate reality effects. There is a distinctive shape to each of the atmospheres and environments he assembled. Remarkably, perhaps, given the sheer copiousness of his narrative imagination, it is quite often the unfolding of an individual sentence which best reveals that shape.

Oliver Twist, whom Fagin has set to work as a pickpocket, is rescued by kindly Mr Brownlow and nursed back to health from a fever by Brownlow’s housekeeper, Mrs Bedwin. Propped up in an armchair, he fixes his eyes intently on a portrait hanging against the wall. No prizes for guessing that the portrait has mysteriously aroused in Oliver the vestigial memory of a mother who was only ever able to embrace him once, before dying. Mrs Bedwin, witnessing what looks like acute distress, turns his chair to face the opposite direction, so that he won’t see it. ‘Oliver did see it in his mind’s eye as distinctly as if he had not altered his position, but he thought it better not to worry the kind old lady; so he smiled gently when she broke bits of toasted bread into the broth with all the bustle befitting so solemn a preparation.’

What matters most, in the larger scheme of things, is that Oliver should have recovered a memory of the mother he barely knew: this is melodrama. But the memory can’t matter most right now. Oliver needs to get well. Rather than conclude untruthfully, in his mind’s eye, the sentence pauses briefly at a semi-colon; and then supplies us with a satisfying wodge of unnecessary detail. Mrs Bedwin’s bustle, which Dickens has seen, and quite possibly heard as well, possesses something of the symbolic density of ritual practice, without its forbidding separation from ordinary experience. Dickens’s exactitude can be exacting: it requires us not simply to notice but to acknowledge significance of all kinds.

The Artful Dickens is concerned with shaping on an altogether different scale. The ‘tricks’ and ‘ploys’ it catalogues are the narrative and rhetorical strategies dispatched over the dozens of monthly instalments in which many of Dickens’s novels were first published to provoke, sustain, complicate, and reward the interest of a mass readership. Direction, sometimes amounting to misdirection, is John Mullan’s topic. ‘As the title of this book suggests, Dickens’s artfulness is often an almost impudent trickery.’ To illustrate what he means by artfulness amounting to trickery, Mullan draws on a rather different scene in Oliver Twist, in which Fagin, the master thief, teaches Charley Bates and the Artful Dodger how to pick pockets. Fagin plays the part of an elderly window-shopper whom the boys are to relieve of as many of his possessions as possible. Oliver, not yet in training himself, can’t help but admire the performance. His innocence ‘allows Fagin to be seen, briefly, as a resourceful entertainer’, Mullan notes, ‘while the Artful Dodger comes alive through his sleights of hand and sleights of language’. The connection has been made before: Ali Smith’s Artful is, among other things, a tribute paid by one Dodger-like novelist to another. But Mullan wants to argue – ambitiously – that Dickens’s sleights of language amounted to a ‘formal daring’ or ‘experimental verve’ which ‘gave prose new dramatic powers’ and thus transformed the novel as a genre. ‘From one artful sentence to the next, he was, and is, the most exciting novelist writing in English.’

Mullan’s exploration of these ‘dramatic powers’ begins with ‘fantasising’. That Dickens liked to fantasise is scarcely news. But there has been no detailed examination until now of the specific rhetorical gesture which announces that he is about to extract some far-fetched implication out of the most mundane behaviour. ‘His fiction,’ Mullan notes, ‘is full of as ifs.’ There are apparently 266 in Great Expectations alone. Where George Eliot and Henry James used analogy to guide interpretation of what a character might be thinking or feeling, in Dickens it is always a performance on the author’s part, a conjuring of unlikely associations (he was a gifted amateur magician). Mullan, however, rightly insists that the purpose of the performance is to tell a truth that could not otherwise have been told. ‘Above all, fantastic analogy is the ploy developed by Dickens to match people’s strangeness and self-contradiction.’ In his novels, we look to ‘features of physique or habits of deportment’ to reveal character. Mr Merdle, the corrupt financier in Little Dorrit, appears to condemn himself, long before anyone else has, by the manner in which he greets his daughter-in-law, Mrs Sparkler (the erstwhile Fanny Dorrit): ‘When he put his lips to hers, besides, he took himself into custody by the wrists, and backed himself among the ottomans and chairs and tables 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!”’

‘Another kind of novelist might tell you Merdle’s thoughts,’ Mullan observes, ‘or at least the symptoms of his anxieties.’ Dickens, by contrast, insists on seeing him ‘only from the outside’, by means of fantastic analogy. Mullan finds plenty of evidence to support this contention. His argument thus reinforces the long-held assumption that Dickens, unlike Eliot, say, or James, wasn’t very good at representing the ‘inner life’. Mullan makes a virtue of a supposed vice. By breaking the rules of literary description, he concludes, Dickens’s fantastic analogies added ‘new powers to fiction’.

The topics fall roughly into two categories: elements of technique (the tricks and ploys) and what might perhaps better be thought of as recurrent preoccupations. None of Dickens’s tricks is ‘stranger or more audacious’, Mullan declares, than his increasing tendency, in novels from Dombey and Son onwards, to divide the narrative up between chapters in the past tense and chapters in the present tense. It is as if each book is composed of ‘two separate stories, providing two separate experiences for the reader’. Thirty-four of Bleak House’s 67 chapters are in the present tense; 33 are in the past. An impersonal narrator’s view of an unchanging, more or less contemporary social, political and moral condition has been folded into Esther Summerson’s retrospective account of her discovery that she is Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate daughter. ‘Events in these two narratives in their different tenses unfold alongside each other,’ as Mullan puts it, ‘matching each other chronologically.’ Most characters move from one to the other. Those who do not gain an additional significance. Esther Summerson never appears in the present-tense narrative, while both Mr Tulkinghorn, the scheming lawyer, and Mr Snagsby, a law-stationer whose connection to the main protagonists has mistakenly persuaded him that he is ‘a party to some dangerous secret’, never leave it. At the end of the 17th instalment of the novel, Inspector Bucket waits at the door of a house near Oxford Street for Esther to join him in his search for Lady Dedlock, which will bring the story to some kind of resolution. He is in the present tense. A month later, the novel’s first readers received its 18th instalment, the first chapter of which (‘Esther’s Narrative’) begins a few moments before the previous one came to an end. ‘We have crossed between two tenses,’ Mullan observes, ‘two different ways of knowing the world.’ Retrospective narration creates a certain stabilising ‘moral authority’; in the present tense, by contrast, plots develop ‘with a momentum of their own’, consuming all those involved in them. Dickens’s tense-switching is likely to have been of interest, he thinks, to modernist and postmodern writers from James Joyce to Don DeLillo, Margaret Atwood and Sarah Waters. Chapters on the delight Dickens took in names and his use of coincidence demonstrate with equal conviction that technique can be a way of knowing the world.

Mullan’s accounts of key preoccupations – ‘haunting’, ‘laughing’, ‘foreseeing’, ‘knowing about sex’, and so on – are as incident-packed as those that have to do with technique, but sometimes lack their clarity of focus. A romp through the many incidents of drowning in the novels leads to the splendid conclusion that Dickens was an ‘epicure of fear’, and that what he feared above all (and therefore with the greatest relish) was a watery death. This seems like a statement as much about the man as about his artfulness. So, we may think, is the claim that Dickens’s novels, hampered by Victorian propriety, ‘cannot face up to the truth of sexual desire’. To be sure, there is an identifiable trick or ploy in the offing. Dickens, like other Victorian novelists, made a vice out of a virtue by discovering the truth of sexual desire in the very process of its repression. Those who disavow desire thereby reveal it. And yet when Dickens wants us to know that he knows about sex, he abandons evasion and trickery. Dolly Varden, in Barnaby Rudge, a locksmith’s daughter and the most overtly sexual of his young heroines, is ogled as relentlessly by the novel’s narrator as she is by a squad of suitors of her own age and class whom we are clearly meant to regard as altogether less eligible than him. During the ‘No Popery!’ riots of June 1780, two of the suitors kidnap Dolly, along with the more genteel Emma Haredale, whose companion she is.

When, forgetful for a moment of herself, as she was now, she fell on her knees beside her friend, and bent over her, and laid her cheek to hers, and put her arms about her, what mortal eyes could have avoided wandering to the delicate bodice, the streaming hair, the neglected dress, the perfect abandonment and unconsciousness of the blooming little beauty?

Not Dickens’s, evidently. Dolly Varden, however, had the last laugh. W.P. Frith painted a luminous portrait of her sashaying through some woods in an outfit – straw hat and ‘polonaise’, an overskirt looped up to form three large puffs over the hips – fashionable in the 1770s, and revived in her name a century later after Frith’s painting.

Mullan devotes a thought-provoking chapter to Dickens’s fondness for describing the sort of ‘visceral event’ staged, above all, by olfaction. Of that, too, he can be considered an epicure. ‘Dickens,’ Mullan claims, ‘was the first novelist to make smell a narrative device.’ It’s hard, for example, to forget the soapy fragrance which attaches to Mr Jaggers, the all-powerful lawyer in Great Expectations, who is forever washing his hands. The scent serves as a ‘memory trigger’ for Pip in telling his story, and for the reader. Serial publication meant that Dickens had to find ways of enabling his readers to identify characters they might not have encountered for weeks or even months. No wonder, then, that he made especially effective use of the device in novels dedicated to the ‘strange operations of memory’, including Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Mullan writes very well about those moments in the books when smell reveals the ‘presentness of what is lost’. But there are many more moments to be found in which the presentness revealed is very definitely that of the present rather than the past, since nothing has yet been lost.

I’m not sure that it helps to describe this proliferation of visceral event as artful, let alone as a trick or ploy. Orwell seems closer to the mark when he notes that Dickens’s imagination overwhelms everything like a kind of weed. There is, however, or can be, a purpose to the proliferation. Visceral event ensures that nothing will ever recede entirely into the background; even, or especially, when we would very much prefer it to do so. We go looking for good smells, but a bad smell is inside us before we know it. In that instant, we have inhaled an atmosphere, a whole environment. In his more radical moods, Dickens sought to establish the enduring presentness of groups or individuals whose existence had been ignored by society at large. In Bleak House, the hapless Mr Snagsby, obliged to accompany Inspector Bucket into the slum of Tom-All-Alone’s in search of Jo the crossing-sweeper, ‘passes along the middle of a villainous street, undrained, unventilated, deep in black mud and corrupt water – though the roads are dry elsewhere – and reeking with such smells and sights that he, who has lived in London all his life, can scarce believe his senses’. A whole hidden environment is realised by our understanding of what it feels like scarcely to believe your own senses.

Equally out of sight while remaining even more plainly in view were the hundreds of thousands of non-human animals on which Victorian London had come to depend either for its meat supply or as forced labour in transport and haulage. Dickens wants us to sense them, too. Pip, newly arrived in London, wanders into the Smithfield cattle market: ‘The shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me.’ The shameful place makes a rather more vivid impression on him than his recent reacquaintance with Mr Jaggers’s odour of soap. Dickens nosed out cruelty to non-humans as well as humans. As Mullan notes, the smell of horses and stables is ‘everywhere’ in his fiction.

Mullan’s​ account of Dickens’s ‘almost impudent trickery’ gives us many good reasons to admire the novels. I’m not completely persuaded that these are also reasons to love them, as so many of their first readers evidently did. Fandom takes different forms, of course. In my case, the hook was a sentence. The sentence occurs in the seventh instalment of Bleak House, which consists of three chapters, each in the present tense. The plot is thickening rapidly, as the various conspiracies which will combine to hound Lady Dedlock to her death begin to take shape. In the instalment’s third chapter, Bucket and Snagsby descend into Tom-All-Alone’s. The instalment begins, however, with the relentlessly self-promoting law-clerk William Guppy, who several hundred pages before had identified Esther Summerson’s true parentage, and immediately sought her hand in marriage (Esther remembers him as heavily scented on that occasion with ‘bear’s-grease, and other perfumery’). He is about to escalate his pursuit of the Dedlock family secrets. Another thing we have discovered about him by now is that he sweats a lot: during his interview with Esther, he is to be seen ‘planing his forehead with his handkerchief’. In the instalment’s first chapter, that susceptibility stands out, for an instant, as starkly as his naked ambition. We find him kicking his heels in the Lincoln’s Inn offices of Kenge and Carboy during the long summer vacation, while London swelters. ‘Mr Guppy has been lolling out of window all the morning, after trying all the stools in succession and finding none of them easy, and after several times putting his head into the iron safe with a notion of cooling it.’ When I think of Bleak House I think of Mr Guppy with his head in the safe. No one handles a heatwave quite like him: unless it’s Marilyn Monroe, in The Seven Year Itch, who has to dress in the kitchen because she keeps her underwear in the icebox.

Reading these epic melodramas for the individual sentence is no doubt perverse, as pastimes go. Its advantage is that it can surprise you into a better appreciation of what Dickens was capable of when not intent on buffing up his artfulness. Little Dorrit, overlaid by prison bars, is generally regarded as the darkest of his novels. In it, Dickens went to great lengths to ensure that the relationship between hero and heroine develops at glacial pace out of a tangle of conflicting expectations, loyalties and desires. Arthur Clennam, returning to London after twenty years in China, has to negotiate two major infatuations – one ancient, and briefly revived to broad comic effect, the other new, and the source of a consuming anguish – before he can even begin to imagine himself as Little Dorrit’s consort and companion. The first of these, with Flora Finching, once ‘enchanting’, now, alas, ‘diffuse and silly’, has earned a certain notoriety. Dickens based Flora on Maria Beadnell, with whom he arranged a disillusioning reunion in 1855, having courted her more than twenty years earlier. As Mullan says, Flora looks like an ‘act of vengeance’ on his part.

Clennam’s other infatuation is an altogether different matter. On his way back from China, he had spent some time in quarantine in Marseilles with Mr and Mrs Meagles, and consequently fallen in love with their daughter, Minnie, known in the family as Pet. A night spent at their home by the Thames at Twickenham confirms both his susceptibility to Minnie’s charms, and his awareness of his own deficiencies as a suitor (she is half his age). ‘Clennam went back to his room, sat down again before his fire, and made up his mind that he was glad he had resolved not to fall in love with Pet.’ It’s a beautiful sentence, getting Clennam into a chair in front of the fire (external description done), before dipping into what we might feel inclined – if this weren’t Dickens – to call his ‘inner life’. Clennam has had a thought (‘made up his mind’) about a feeling (‘he was glad’) about a thought (‘he had resolved’) about a feeling (‘fall in love’). The sentence’s simplicity is deceptive, of course. The pile-up or coil of thoughts about feelings tells us that he has not succeeded in his resolve. But the simplicity is Clennam’s as much as his author’s. It doesn’t matter that we know him to be mistaken. His failure to notice his own doubling back on himself is the authentic note of the enduring strength of will that drives him deeper and deeper into self-deception, and misery, and out the other side.

Dickens does not hold back on the self-deception and misery. What follows, for Clennam, is a series of torturing encounters with his younger rival, the saturnine and cynical Henry Gowan. Worse is to come. Minnie, strolling with Clennam beside the river, reveals that she is to marry Gowan. Is there any service or favour she would like to ask of him, as an old friend, Clennam inquires. She hesitates. They pace on, in near silence. ‘“And, now, Minnie Gowan,” at length, said Clennam, smiling; “will you ask me nothing?”’ This sentence does, in fact, incorporate a trick or ploy. Dickens has paused Clennam’s solemn inquiry long enough to impart some further information concerning the tone in which it was put: ‘said Clennam, smiling’.

The technique involved is that of ‘suspended quotation’, as Mark Lambert calls it. Nineteenth-century novelists liked sometimes to hold up utterances for an instant in order to pass comment on them. Their aim in doing so, Lambert argues, was to compete for the reader’s attention and affection with characters who are at their most appealing when licensed to speak without interruption. Dickens, ever the showman, competed more fiercely than most, in his earlier fiction in particular. He continued to do so in Little Dorrit, especially when refereeing the exchanges that take place in high society between Mrs Merdle and her various dependants and hangers-on. In this instance, however, he has suspended his own suspension: ‘at length, said Clennam, smiling’. That ‘at length’ is syntactically premature and yet in narrative terms belated, since the delay it refers to in fact took place before Clennam began to speak. An aftershock ripples through the rejoinder’s stately stoicism (‘And now, Minnie Gowan …’). Clennam has always known both that Minnie would be certain to ask of him the hardest thing she possibly could – to effect a reconciliation between her father and Gowan – and that his self-respect depends on her asking it. He badly wants to have to oblige her, at his own expense. His ability to deceive himself strikes us as at once abject and strangely uplifting. The abjectness lies in the silence before he speaks; the uplift in our only getting to hear about that silence after the point of no return, when he is already fully committed to doing what he least wants to do. The sentence has given us the shape of awkward emotional experience. Dickens could do that, too.

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