Saturday 7 September 2013

What the Dickens? Some thoughts about the great man’s writing

My admiration

I love Boz. I really do. The proof? As a writer, sure, I want to be as well-known as him. But I also want to write stories that people love as much as they love his. For my sixtieth birthday I asked for the complete works of Dickens. I got them – all loaded onto a Kindle. I now make a point of rereading one - it is mainly rereading – every Christmas and every summer. This summer was The Old Curiosity Shop. Even though I couldn’t completely silence the hacking critical voice of the Creative Writing teacher I actually enjoyed this more than some modern novels I read.
I once read that when Dickens was established as a writer he would spend from eight until two writing. Then he would walk along the shore for three hours. He would spend a couple of hours in a pub from five to seven, chatting to the locals. Then he would dine, often at the homes of others or at his own, with invited guests. I could live with a routine like that. But these days is it rather the gym, Facebook and Twitter, and occasional dinners or other social gatherings with writing friends.     
Apparently also, he would act out the gestures and words of his characters in front of his mirror. I used to find that odd and a sign of his eccentricity. Now, though, I do it myself.
But. And the “but” or the “buts” are quite considerable.

A narrative problem

The Old Curiosity Shop starts off with a fictionalised author meeting Little Nell who is lost. This author-character also poses a mystery which is never quite solved. He likes to walk at night. Well so does Nell’s grandfather but we soon find out why: he is trying to win a fortune for Nell by gambling. We are not so sure about the stranger. The mystery is intriguing and this creates a good introduction to the main characters. But it isn’t going to work unless the narrator is a key figure too. He clearly isn’t. If Boz were a student in my creative writing group I would have advised against this. Possibly he realises his error; he decides to allow the characters to tell their own story and switches to a third person narrative. And maybe we need to remember that word processors were not available then.  

Characters large than life

The BBC’s The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff may seem to mock but I think it laughs with Dickens not at him. Monty Python, Mr Bean and Blackadder may appear to be inventions of the 20th and the 21st centuries but actually Dickens was way ahead of them. Look at all those characters whose names suit them so much: Noddy Boffin, Sally Brass, Bumble, Louisa Chick, Chuzzlewit, Bob Cratchit, Dedlock, Fezziwig, Flintwinch, Uriah Heep, Krook, Nubbles, Quilp,  Smallweed,  Snodgrass, Squeers, Steerforth, Dick Swiveller, Polly Toodle. Their names and their behaviours match. They amuse us and may even make Bean and co. seem rather tame. Dickens is most enjoyable when we understand his irony. That he also maintains the natural and rounded characters is genius.

Dei ex machinae and other dirty tricks

But here’s another problem. Come on, Boz. There are just too many lucky coincidences. Nell and her grandfather just happen to bump into the school master who had been so kind to him. There is a job vacancy for Nell just at the time she arrives at the village with the schoolmaster and her grandfather. Swiveller inherits a huge amount of money just in time.
I won’t tolerate this sort of plotting in my students’ work, I avoid it myself and I and several other creative writing academics condemn Dan Brown for doing it.
Yet here it seems to work. Dickens almost has the pantomime in his stories and a little of the fairy-tale. Is this even where his greatness lies? And perhaps precisely so because he combines it with giving the reader a sense of real life through his detailed descriptions and having key characters who are rounded and believable?

Dickens as popular fiction

Now English Literature students in higher education study his work. However, his novels were considered to be popular fiction at the time he wrote them. Indeed, Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women admits to sneaking off to read a book that she thought wasn’t quite as good as some of the others a particular author had produced. She had to read in secret because this type of novel wasn’t quite approved of in her home. Which novel was it? Dombey and Son!
Despite all of this or maybe because of it, Dickens remains a very fine storyteller and a great creator of memorable characters.    

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