The Artful Dickens: the Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist, by John Mullan, Bloomsbury Publishing, 448 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1408866838
Near the beginning of his sixth chapter, John Mullan feels obliged to acknowledge the ambiguous nature of the critical response to Dickens: “Few great novelists,” he observes, “provoke such a mixture of admiration and condescension.” It began with his contemporaries. George Henry Lewes is described by Mullan as “a critical partisan for Dickens’s writing”; yet within two years of Dickens’s death Lewes’s essay on “Dickens in Relation to Criticism” had appeared in the Fortnightly Review, and even here the “condescension” is all too evident. This is Lewes’s summary in his final paragraph: “We do not turn over the pages [of Dickens] in search of thought, delicate psychological observation, grace of style, charm of composition; but we enjoy them like children at a play, laughing and crying at the images which pass before us.”
The ambivalent response to Dickens was in a sense institutionalised in modern criticism when the profoundly influential Cambridge don FR Leavis first of all excluded Dickens from his major study The Great Tradition (1948), in which he sought to establish the central line of continuity in the English novel. Leavis disliked Dickens’s use of melodrama, and his lack of seriousness and of formal control, nevertheless conceding that he “was a great genius and is permanently among the classics …” The genius, however, “was not that of a great novelist” but of “a great entertainer”. Subsequently, however, Leavis, influenced by his wife, QD Leavis, did admit Dickens into his pantheon, when they jointly authored Dickens the Novelist, published in 1970. The “great tradition” was now extended to include the “mature” Dickens, up to and including Great Expectations.
It is against some such background as this that we might evaluate the significance of Mullan’s apparently simple opening statement: “What is so good about Dickens’s novels? This book tries to answer that question.”
In his introduction, Mullan summarises the faults attributed to Dickens as follows: his novels are “sentimental, melodramatic, sermonising”; his characters “grotesque, or monstrous, or two-dimensional”. Henry James did, however, positively acknowledge that in “all of Dickens’s work the fantastic has been his great resource”: and in the opening chapter which follows his introduction, Mullan, guided by a sure critical instinct at the outset, bypasses more contentious matters in order to extol at some length Dickens’s “Fantasising”. In doing so he introduces the reader to his preferred way of proceeding: this is to provide an abundance of substantial (but not too lengthy) quotations from across the entire range of Dickens’s fiction in order to illustrate his argument. His choice of illustrative quotation, deriving as it does from an extraordinary degree of intimacy with the corpus of Dickens’s work, is fully informed; and as a bonus, readers are granted the opportunity not only to become close up and familiar with passages from novels that they thought they already knew but are allowed to judge for themselves the appropriateness of the quotations, all the while revelling in the possibility of reading Dickens at his most humorous, inventive or meaningful.
It is part of Mullan’s argument that Dickens uses the phrase as if (or its equivalents), in a manner peculiar to himself, to launch into a flight of fancy that can generate either humour or horror or a combination of these. Where fancy and humour are involved, we are not on contentious ground; yet even here there may be room for disagreement. Mullan quotes a passage from Barnaby Rudge in which John Willett meets up again with his son Joe, who has returned from the American wars having lost an arm. John, the father, resorts to extreme measures in an attempt to resolve his doubts as to the reality he sees before him, “such as feeling the sleeve of his son’s greatcoat as deeming it possible that his arm might be there; looking at his own arms and those of everybody else, as if to assure himself that two and not one was the usual allowance”; and lost in contemplation, “as if he were endeavouring to recall Joe’s image in his younger days, and to remember whether he really had in those times one arm or a pair …” This is inventive, but perhaps the humour, or rather whimsy, is indulged at the expense of realism, eclipsing the harsh reality of a young man who has been crippled.
Far more effective is the passage from Great Expectations, introduced by Mullan as an instance of “horror … tinged by absurdity”: Magwitch (known to the child Pip at this stage simply as “the man”) limps off after their first encounter into the gathering darkness, under a sky of “long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed”. Among the objects Pip can faintly make out is “a gibbet with some chains hanging to it which had once held a pirate. The man was limping on towards this latter, as if he were the pirate come to life, and come down, and going back to hook himself up again.”
Even as the blatant reality of the monosyllabic word “hook” ensures that we keep in touch with reality, the passage remains both unsettling and surreal. Part of the disturbing impact derives from the otherwise unimaginable blurring of the distinction between the living and the dead, a blurring appropriately enacted in a dim twilight which is neither day nor night. Pip’s response is predictable (and possibly recalls the response of the child Wordsworth to an abandoned gibbet, as recounted in one of the later books of The Prelude). “I was,” says Pip simply, “frightened again, and ran home without stopping.”
Mullan is singularly successful in demonstrating Dickens’s comic genius, particularly in those chapters with the titles “Naming” and “Enjoying clichés”. Dickens is frankly notorious for “delight in absurd names” (Mullan describes Dickens as “the English novel’s greatest name-monger”). David Copperfield alone contains not just the ghastly hypocrite, Uriah Heep, but David’s stepfather Mr Murdstone, where the first syllable is clearly an abbreviation of “murder” and the second an indication of his hard-heartedness. Murdstone’s name may be described as “cratylic”, which means that it reveals the dominant characteristics of the character in question. Something similar might be said of the name of the schoolmaster in Hard Times, M’Choakumchild. But Mullan suggests that cratylic names “are relatively rare in Dickens”. So it is that, again in David Copperfield, we find lesser characters with names like Quinion and Passnidge: these might be described as “comic doodles” and are part of a long tradition. The invention of absurd names lived on in the immensely popular Goon Show on British radio, which included the central character Hercules Grytpype-Thynne (possibly a bridge too far even for the inventive Dickens) and a number of lesser characters, such as Fred Nurke, William Cobblers, Spriggs, and the immortal Henry Crun, none of whom would seem out of place in the Dickens world.
“Enjoying clichés” offers one of the most interesting and entertaining sequences in the book. Mullan notes first of all not only Dickens’s assertion of the author’s right to use clichés, but his ability to bring them back to life. One of the most vividly inventive examples is found in Dombey and Son, and concerns Miss Blimber, who enthusiastically teaches Latin and Greek, which, in Mullan’s summary, “even the Victorians were used to calling ‘dead languages’”. She is described as “dry and sandy with working in the graves of deceased languages. None of your live languages for Miss Blimber. They must be dead – stone dead – and then Miss Blimber dug them up like a Ghoul.” Mullan’s comment is worth quoting: “Helped by another cliché – the description of scholarly individuals as ‘dry’ – Dickens makes a comic graverobber of poor Miss Blimber …”
Sometimes though, the use of cliché – in the ensuing example incongruously conjoined with a quotation from King Lear – needs no further comment. Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend tries to describe her alcoholic father, and comes up with: “He’d be sharper than a serpent’s tooth, if he wasn’t as dull as ditch water.” All the reader is required to do is laugh.
Mullan’s most significant contribution to his vindication of Dickens’s reputation as one of the major novelists in English will be found in his chapter on “Changing tenses”. Lamenting at the outset that most contemporary readers and critics have failed to note “his trick” of dividing the narrative between past and present tenses, he subsequently sees this as a technical “method” for achieving effects not otherwise available. It was first used in Bleak House, in which just over half of the chapters are narrated in the present tense, the rest – Esther Summerson’s first person narrative – in the past tense. Mullan’s analysis of the implications is richly informative, deriving as it does from his habit of close reading. In such an “intrinsic” engagement, as it might be termed, the critic is not committed to an “extrinsic” ideological predisposition which might entail a deflection of critical attention away from the immediacy of the “words on the page”. He thus bestows on the actual text, as given, an unremitting illumination which reveals what others might fail to note.
Mullan’s argument is subtle and detailed, but the central contrast between the two styles of narration is as follows. Those who, like the otherwise astute lawyer Tulkinghorn, are “confined to the present tense”, inhabit a world of becoming where we are repeatedly “plunged into tumultuous events, with no moral arbiter”. In sum, the present tense is the “tense of uncertainty”; it cannot impose, as the past tense narrative does, a retrospective order, or effect closure. Fittingly, Esther’s past tense narrative, sustained by an intrinsic moral authority which only the clarity of the past tense narrative can impart, provides the last chapter: “It is Esther’s final account, looking back in fond contentment over what is past, that concludes, we might say stabilises, the novel.”
Mullan provides from the same perspective a similarly enlightening analysis of other novels, including David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend. But the importance of these analyses is not only that the reader benefits from the insights on offer; even more important is that, in the larger context, these analyses constitute a robust rebuttal of those who, in a long critical tradition, would accuse Dickens of lacking technical skill. A similar outcome derives from the chapter on “Using coincidences”, which has much to say on Dickens’s adroit construction of plot. Mullan first deals briefly with Bleak House: remarkable for “its web of connections”, the novel is in fact employing a skilful technical handling of plot in order to make a general point of a moral and socio-political nature. This is, that in a visibly divided society rich and poor are, given these sometimes hidden connections, part of the same reality. As Mullan puts it: “Dickens’s intricate plot connects the rich and the privileged to those whom they would ignore.”
The tour de force in this chapter is its treatment of Dickens’s remarkable skill in plot construction as evidenced by Great Expectations. Mullan’s detailed treatment of the plot, and the implications of that, arise from what he calls the “world of buried connections” in the novel. No need here for a spoiler alert: any reader who has not yet had the pleasure of reading the novel will not be faced with spoilsport revelations. The salient points in Mullan’s commentary, though, can still be imparted. The unforgettable Jaggers, one of a number of remarkable lawyers in Dickens, is at the core of proceedings, acting as he does as legal representative of Miss Havisham and Magwitch. As such, he “binds”, in Mullan’s word, a number of the novel’s stories together. Yet crucially there are some matters over which this controlling figure has no control, because even he, right in the midst of what is going on, is not aware of all the buried connections. In Mullan’s neat summary: even Jaggers “has to recognise a plot larger and more elaborate than any he can control”.
In addition, Great Expectations is making the same general point, perhaps in even stronger terms, earlier made in Bleak House. As it is here expressed: “gentlemen and criminals are intimately linked by Dickens’s plotting”. It is Pip who will bear the brunt of the final revelations, as he is compelled to acknowledge “the links between worlds that [he] would keep apart”. Perhaps Dickens’s choice, at first, of a tragic ending for the novel was a more logical one than the happy ending substituted primarily at the request of Edward Bulwer Lytton.
Implicit in that final comment is the broader suggestion that Dickens was certainly capable of a tragic vision. There is assuredly a dark side to his genius, in spite of the humour richly on display throughout his works. In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham, the embodiment of decay and decline, is a ghastly type of Life-in-Death. The fire destroys her, but it is received also in the reader’s imagination as a necessary purgation; a liberation from the intolerable, tragic past.
The point at issue in the novel, however, has more to do with tragic unfulfillment, or the frustration of hopes, which, quite unmelodramatically, afflicts our race as a whole. One feels grateful to Mullan for highlighting this particular passage, which might easily escape detection. Pip has returned from his visit to Miss Havisham where the young Estella lets Pip know that she finds him “common” and “coarse”. When he goes to bed that night, Pip subjects Joe to the first betrayal when he reflects on “how common Estella would consider Joe”. As adult narrator, he looks back on “that memorable day”, and realises it was a turning-point in his life; “it made great changes in me”. Then he offers the kind of generalisation that we might be tempted to associate with George Eliot: “But, it is the same with every life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” (italics added)
The momentous day may lead to felicity or to tragedy; but there is something melancholy and potentially tragic in the recognition that our fate is in either case unalterable. Once a particular turn in events has occurred, there is no going back. “Pause you who read this” and read it empathically; and if you have experienced iron and thorns, then your case will seem tragic indeed. As Book One of the Aeneid has it: sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent (“there are tears at the heart of things, and an awareness of mortality afflicts the mind”). It is a tribute to Dickens that, in addition to his fantasy and humour, he can write a passage that brings to mind one of Virgil’s most famous tragic utterances.
Brian Cosgrove is professor emeritus of English, Maynooth University, where he was head of department from 1992 to 2006. He taught English at UCD from 1967 to 1992.