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.
The other essays, all equally enlightening, cover Dickens’s subversive laughter and radical ghosts, his employment of cliche (“Old Marley was as dead as a door nail”), preoccupation with drowning, and dependence on the anxiety caused by coincidence: “No novelist has more imaginatively exploited this uneasiness.” If Mullan put into his hat a creator of gargoyles and spinner of melodrama, he pulled out an innovator who broke all the rules. The Artful Dickens made me feel that I had been in some form of trance during my earlier reading of these novels.
Some chapters are entirely freestanding. Mullan has noticed, for example, that all of Dickens’s novels mention drowning. Why? Was Dickens afraid of drowning? Could he swim? After reading through the 12 volumes of Dickens’s letters he is able to answer that question with absolute precision. But I shall not reveal the solution. You must, and should, read Mullan’s book. Even if you know a lot about Dickens you will find revelations in it, and if you know nothing about Dickens and want to learn what makes him great it will be the perfect appetiser.
Mullan, the Lord Northcliffe chair of modern English literature at University College London, is the best of professors. If you’ve heard him sparring with Melvyn Bragg on In Our Time you’ll know him as impish, amused and slyly scholarly. His previous books include How Novels Work and What Matters in Jane Austen? The Artful Dickens is in this mould. The tone is less ivory tower, more doublestout at the Magpie & Stump. The book’s fault is a tendency to Dickensian excess. Two or three illustrative quotes become four, five, six, seven… Please, sir, I want some less.