The Artful Dickens

  • By John Mullan
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 448 pp.

An entertaining, close examination of how the iconic 19th-century author plied his trade.

The Artful Dickens

A quick MLA search on contemporary critical approaches to Charles Dickens will, unsurprisingly, offer the chance to read some of his greatest novels through the lens of “erasure of the female,” “queer masculinity,” or “Victorian consumer culture.” Whether you think modern critical theory a triumph or a travesty — or, alternatingly, both — John Mullan, in The Artful Dickens, has something to offer.

An esteemed critic of 18th- and 19th-century literature at University College, London, Mullan has previously written about Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, and Romantic poetry. He has a gift for synthesizing information and presenting it in an enjoyable fashion, and he provides here a dazzlingly close examination of the Dickens oeuvre with an emphasis on style and literary technique that will strike some as old fashioned, but which I found refreshing.

Mullan does this not by a chronological, or even thematic, slog through the 21 novels and hundreds of articles and letters covered, but by examining patterns and practices in Dickens’ style and exploring how they evolved and why they were so effective. Without academic pretense, he offers a careful reading of Dickens’ work that will illuminate the joy fans already experience and assist those who struggle to find a way into these long, old-fashioned novels. 

Mullan doesn’t claim to have parsed the entire Dickens canon; indeed, this volume reads like an enthusiastic list of favorites. He also does not exhaustively study each of Dickens’ “tricks and ploys.” One of the pleasures to be gained by this book will come after reading it, when you return to Bleak House, Great Expectations, or David Copperfield and find yourself newly able to identify techniques that Mullan did not assess.

Each of the book’s 13 chapters is devoted to a single stylistic pattern evident across multiple works. These include elements of setting or plot — Dickens had a thing for odors, sex, and coincidence — imagery (in a wonderful chapter called “Smelling”), sentence structure, and narrative voice. Rather than link these elements into an overarching view of Dickens, Mullan treats the chapters, some of which end abruptly, almost as standalone essays.

Among other things, Mullan tells us Dickens, “like no other novelist…was drawn to drowning.” He points out that drowning (or the fear of it) features in The Old Curiosity Shop, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and Our Mutual Friend, and puts it in context by discussing the surge in popularity of swimming — “a manly fashion” Dickens embraced — in Victorian Britain.

Mullan adds that Dickens wasn’t alone in his interest in drowning. Other prominent 19th-century novels, including George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and The Mill on the Floss, Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, all deal with it. He further quotes statistics from the Royal Humane Society indicating that drowning, in Dickens’ era, was a leading cause of accidental death and means of suicide. For Dickens and his compatriots, it represented death but more generally stood in for the fear of being swept away, overwhelmed by London and its manifold pressures.

When I taught Great Expectations in high school, the aspect that most fascinated (and exasperated) my students was the book’s highly improbable coincidences. That device was not invented by Dickens, of course; it is a fundamental building block in countless novels, including those of Eliot, Wilkie Collins, and Henry Fielding. But Dickens leaned into it, “highlighting coincidences, rather than smuggling them into the narrative.”

Elsewhere, Mullan does a nice job of establishing the stylistic modernism of Dickens’ approach to verb tense. Like most novelists, he primarily used past tense. However, he would shift into short bursts of present tense to heighten tension and dramatize the interior monologues of his narrators. Again, Mullan lets us know that Dickens was not unique in this, parsing a shifting-tense passage of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to demonstrate his point.

Nevertheless, he maintains that Dickens went far beyond the occasional use of present tense to add drama; several of his later novels, including Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, rely on it extensively. For Dickens, employing two tenses offered “two different ways of knowing the world.” By using both, he cut readers loose from the binds of convention, allowing them to experience a novel in new, unsettling ways. So noteworthy is this tense-shifting in Dickens’ work that Mullan returns to it in “Foreseeing,” a chapter that examines Dickens’ handling of prescience in his narrators.

While the book includes minimal biographical information — its focus is squarely on writing — it does offer a quick account of Dickens’ love of vaudeville acts involving comic actors affecting multiple voices to play different characters. Mullan then uses that bit of cultural history to explore the extreme care with which Dickens crafted his characters’ distinctive voices. Often, these took the form of “idiolects” — idiomatic dialects familiar enough that they could indicate one’s social and educational status, place of origin, and even life experience.

Yet Dickens combined these idiolects with clever vocal quirks to make his characters both individuals and types. In Little Dorrit, for example, William habitually stops talking mid-sentence and then begins again, as if unhappy with his initial syntax. And Mr. Bumble, in Oliver Twist, mispronounces key words, while Wemmick returns repeatedly to the phrase “portable property” in Great Expectations. These subtly complex verbal habits remind the reader of a character’s comic potential — and the author’s good humor — even in scenes that are far from comedic.

While Mullan occasionally falls into overly broad Dickens worship — “Who but Dickens would…?” — he takes care throughout to reiterate that the author was a masterful user of certain techniques, not their inventor. In fact, he not only points out other Victorian writers who similarly used such techniques, he traces a through-line to modern-day authors — from Kate Atkinson and Margaret Atwood to Don DeLillo and Graham Swift — doing the same. Still, on page after page, The Artful Dickens shows us a singular craftsman who was of his time and, simultaneously, timeless.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]

John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various journals and anthologies, and his short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn long enough to be considered natives by anyone but his neighbors.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus