He was the most popular novelist of the Victorian era, a convivial family man who always championed the underdog. But he also harboured dark secrets that only came out after his death. Jenny Hartley recommends the best books by and about the phenomenon that was and is Charles Dickens.
He was the most popular novelist of the Victorian era, a convivial family man who always championed the underdog. But he also harboured dark secrets that only came out after his death. Jenny Hartley recommends the best books by and about the phenomenon that was and is Charles Dickens.
Jenny Hartley is a former president of the Dickens Fellowship and Professor at the University of Roehampton.
You’ve been president of the Dickens Fellowship, you’re currently working at the Charles Dickens Museum, and your academic life has focused on Dickens. My first question has to be: How did you get so interested in Charles Dickens?
He was my first love as an author and I’ve been teaching his novels all my life. Academically, I’ve always been a 19th century person but my first research wasn’t on him. Then I worked on a project — I was very interested in the ‘fallen women,’ the outcasts he worked with. He set up a refuge for them in west London, so I researched that to see what it was like and what happened to the women when they left. His idea was that they would emigrate to Australia and start new lives. It was absolutely riveting. It’s the best thing I’ve ever worked on. Once I’d done that, I then moved myself into Dickens. I edited his selected letters for Oxford University Press, and that was just brilliant.
I remember being enthralled by an abridged version of David Copperfield as a child. But I was listening to A Tale of Two Cities recently and I guess I find the language a little bit inaccessible. I am interested in Charles Dickens, but more because of his social criticism and the historical element. Is that true for you as well?
The 19th century is my area so I don’t find the language a block, but I know people do. I found that increasingly with the students before I retired. ‘The sentences are long. The books are long.’ These days people Tweet. It’s about how you meet the written word, and it is sometimes difficult for people.
“That’s what characters in Dickens do: they step out of the novels and they roam the world.”
The great thing people say is, ‘Oh I was put off him at school!’ which is sad. You can read authors too early. Although, when George Orwell read David Copperfield as a nine-year-old, he said he thought it was written by a child because it has that immediacy, that sense of what it is like to be a child, which I think is wonderful.
It’s clearly full of jokes. I sometimes think if he were writing now, I’d find it absolutely hilarious, but because it’s set a hundred years ago, I’m missing quite a few of the references.
I don’t find the humour time-sensitive in that way. There is the social critique you mentioned earlier—he is always for the underdog, he’s a radical—and all that is, of course, terribly moving. But the first thing that always gets me is the humour. It’s pretty sharp, some of it.
So tell me your favourite bit, what makes you laugh the most?
In my book I start with a quote, that bit from Oliver Twist about asking for more. You think, ‘Oh this is going to be so moving!’ but then there’s this reference to the little boy who sleeps next to him, whose father had owned a cook shop. He says he wasn’t used to being hungry and that he’s afraid that one night he might happen to eat the boy lying next to him. And you think, ‘What?’ Suddenly you’re in the world of cannibals. Just a little thing like that. Lots of people can write social critique and they did, but he’s got that angle: you just can’t resist it. It’s a shame that gets lost because otherwise he gets a little bit earnest and worthy. He was earnest, but he was other things as well.
In your book you refer to the extraordinary phenomenon of Charles Dickens. He was the most popular novelist of the Victorian age. Why do you think he was so widely read at the time?
Dickens took great pains to be accessible because he published his books in cheap parts. It meant that you only had to have a shilling a month to read those huge novels. They’re wonderful stories as well. There were public readings, so, at a lodging house, someone would read and you would just listen. Maybe you couldn’t even read yourself, but you could join in. I think the great Dickens phenomenon is about joining in, it is about being part of that whole world of characters. It’s a sort of aura that you’re partaking of, almost.
In your book, you also put emphasis on his theatrical work.
Yes, he enjoyed being part of the group, part of the party. He loved parties. His first love was the theatre. He adored it. He wanted to be an actor. In a way, a lot of his characters are performing themselves. He starts from the outside. I think that feeling of being a live gig does energise him.
“He used to drink sherry and egg white, all sorts of things to get himself hyped up.”
Later in life, he did these public readings that must have been electric. We call them readings, which makes them sound a bit flat. They were more one-man shows. He memorised them. He had the book there but he didn’t use it. They must have been absolutely extraordinary: everybody who went said they were.
And these readings were also what killed him?
Yes, his doctor used to say, ‘Oh you must stop this because of your blood pressure.’ In fact, he did die of a stroke so, obviously, his blood pressure was way up there. He overdid it. He did this tour of America in 1867-68 which was the end for him. He died a young man: he was 58.
He wanted to make money, and that was a relatively easy way of doing it—or so he thought—but he also did get energised by it. He used to drink sherry and egg white, all sorts of things to get himself hyped up, and then he had to lie down afterwards, and completely collapse. His doctor told him to stop. He had a farewell tour in London which he actually cut short because he got too ill to finish it. I wish I’d been there.
Another thing that I didn’t know until reading your book is the importance of the illustrations in his books. He paid great attention to those, didn’t he?
Yes, very much so, and he would give very minute instructions to his illustrators. He worked with a lot of illustrators, but for most of his books, the main one was Hablot Knight Browne. Pretty well all of the books had two illustrations a month — very detailed, full of character, loads of characters in them, that feeling of plenitude that you get, of a crowd—just like the novels—and absolutely brilliant.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
In a way, it links with his sense of the visual. When he started writing sketches for newspapers and magazines, he was a journalist. He is always observing, observing, observing with a very minute attention to detail.
He was based here in London, and you get that sense of what London was like. As Walter Bagehot said (in 1858), Dickens describes London “like a special correspondent for posterity.” And he is. You can walk around London with him. How it’s changed! Some of the slum areas he describes with fascination—around Leicester Square and Seven Dials—are quite posh now.
They’re no longer Dickensian…
So turning to your books, the first you’ve chosen is one by Charles Dickens. This is David Copperfield, which was first published in 19 one-shilling instalments in 1849. This is the book Dickens himself called his favourite novel and it’s sort of autobiographical, is that right?
It is, yes. David becomes a writer, and is successful. But it’s more about the opening chapters. Just before he wrote David Copperfield, he wrote what is called an ‘autobiographical fragment,’ which he gave to his friend Forster. Forster later incorporated it into his biography. That fragment is really the opening chapters of David Copperfield.
“That famous Victorian imperative: “Make ’em laugh; make ’em cry; make ’em wait.” It does all that in that spades.”
That’s how we know about his prison episode, when his father was in prison for debt. As happened in those days, the whole family would go to prison with you — all except the two oldest children, Charles and his sister. Charles is put to work in a blacking warehouse, pasting labels on bottles of shoe blacking. It was the most terrible experience for him because he thought he’d been abandoned. He felt completely abandoned. You would, wouldn’t you? He was 12 and he just thought, ‘This is it.’ That trauma comes across extremely vividly in David Copperfield.
But it’s not just about that: it’s about that whole experience of the child growing up, the idyll with your mother. Then she remarries because his father dies, and she remarries this monster, Mr Murdstone. The book has got some of the most wonderful characters in it, the nastiest villains and the most charming villains, like Steerforth, who is completely charming and yet awful.
That famous Victorian imperative: “Make ’em laugh; make ’em cry; make ’em wait.” It does all that in that spades. It’s no surprise I would choose it because it’s consistently listed among the top novels of all time. Are you enjoying it?
Yes, I’m listening to it with my children, because we spend quite a lot of time in the car. It’s 36 hours! But a friend of mine, who teaches Victorian literature at Boston University, told me the Audible narrations of Charles Dickens are really good so I thought I would give it a go. I can’t remember who the narrator for David Copperfield is, but he puts on voices and accents and makes it quite fun, so the kids are enjoying it. Do most critics see this as his best novel as well?
I think a lot of people do. His critical reception has changed over the years. During his lifetime, people liked the earliest stuff like The Pickwick Papers, which is very funny. I don’t find that so funny. The later ones are the darker ones. David Copperfield is right in the middle of his career.
Freud gave it to his fiancée. It’s about the workings of memory. It has these retrospective chapters, where he looks back. To me, that’s absolutely fascinating.
I think it’s also a very moving book: about how he goes through life, the damage we do, how we grow up. The chapter, for instance, about David’s first drunken outing. He’s drunk in London and goes to the theatre. It’s so funny. Everybody goes through it, you have to drink too much at some point in your life, don’t you? — to know how much you can take. So he goes through those phases, with a great sense of good humour.
He also found it very moving himself, didn’t he? In one of his letters he says it made him cry.
Yes, he reread it before he wrote Great Expectations because he didn’t want to repeat himself. He said he found it very affecting, which I still do. I remember defrosting a freezer once and I was listening to it on the radio. Tears were dripping off my nose into the freezer. It still moves me. When his mother dies it is really sad, that sense of loss and you have to move on. It is a book about survival, but it is also about what we lose.
You mention Great Expectations (1860-1), which is your second choice. When he first talks about writing this novel, he mentions “a very fine, new, and grotesque idea.”
He also talks about making it funny, because the novel before that had been A Tale of Two Cities. Forster must have said to him something along the lines of, ‘It’s absolutely wonderful of course, but not many jokes.’ So Dickens starts this complete masterpiece.
I feel bad that I’ve chosen his two first person novels: none of the other ones were. In a way, it’s revisiting David Copperfield, but it is very different in tone: sadder, more complex. But he does say to Forster, “I have put a child and a good-natured foolish man, in relations that seem to me very funny” — about Pip and Joe, who is his stepfather. The opening of Great Expectations—with the convict, Magwitch—is striking. There have been brilliant film versions of it.
“It is all about class, which is one of the great themes of the British novel.”
It’s a shorter book because it was a weekly. Dickens was running a magazine for the last 20 years of his life and the sales were not doing very well. He had planned Great Expectations as another big novel with monthly instalments. Then he realised he would have to do something to prop up sales of his magazine, so he said, ‘Right! I’ll change it, I’ll do it like this.’ He was really thinking on his feet—he always did—and maybe the conciseness of it suits it.
It is one of the most perfect novels ever written. It’s got a wonderful plot. It’s about good and bad money, you don’t know who Pip’s benefactor is, you’re wrong-footed—as he is—all the time. It’s about terrible damage. It’s got this fantastic suspense about what happens to Magwitch. It’s sad, but also it’s got wonderful humour in it and wonderful characters. It’s got Wemmick, one of the first commuters. It’s just brilliant.
When you say damage, you’re talking about what, in particular?
I’m thinking about Miss Havisham, who’s been jilted at the altar. She is one of the most famous images we have of a damaged person, completely stuck at that moment when she was about to be married in her wedding dress. She’s completely iconic, everybody knows who she is.
That’s what characters in Dickens do: they step out of the novels and they roam the world. We can recognise quite a lot of them. There aren’t that many writers whose characters do that. I would say maybe Shakespeare is the only other one I can think of. But Dickens is the one with the most characters who can survive outside their pages.
His idea of it being a grotesque idea, is that because Pip thinks he’s being supported by Miss Havisham and then has the shock of finding out that his newfound wealth came from someone he despised?
It certainly could be. Of course class is a huge part of that novel. It is all about class, which is one of the great themes of the British novel. Great Expectations is all about working your way up, as Dickens himself did. And, then, when you get there, was it worth it? What have I done on the way up?
Pip is always checking himself and when the blacksmith, Joe, comes to visit him in London he says, “I am afraid I was ashamed of the dear good fellow.” Then he checks himself and says, “I know I was ashamed of him.” It is that honesty, that blurring of ‘I think, no, I know,’ that checking into your feelings, which I think makes the book so powerful.
Do you think it has a happy ending?
It has six different endings. Dickens wrote, originally, a not-happy ending for it, which seems, to me, right. I don’t want to give too much away, but it doesn’t read like a book written by someone who’s had all success showered upon him. It reads like a man who has made peace with his life.
But when he showed the ending to his friend Bulwer-Lytton, who was a much less good novelist than Dickens was—I don’t know why Dickens listened to him, but he did do that, he always listened to his readers—Bulwer-Lytton said, ‘It’s too sad, you must change it.’ So the ending that we have is deliberately ambiguous. You can read it how you like.
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by buying some of our most recommended books from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.
Some of the great 19th century novels do that. Villette by Charlotte Bronte does that as well. I find that interesting because people always think that they have to have happy endings. Actually some of the most interesting ones don’t fit into that box.
We’ve talked quite a lot about Charles Dickens as a person already. Your next choice is a biography: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. It’s quite long, some 500 pages. Then I looked up a Guardian review which talked of “Claire Tomalin’s unrivalled talent for telling a story and keeping a reader enthralled: long as the book is, I wanted more.” Is it a big page turner?
Yes, absolutely. She is such a good biographer. I would read anything by her. She’s so intelligent. She is sympathetic to him but she is not blind to him. She had already written a book called The Invisible Womanabout Dickens’s affair with Nelly Ternan, a young actress. In this book she writes about his whole life brilliantly, to my way of thinking. There are other biographies — I do think Michael Slater’s huge one, which is about Dickens’s writing life, is absolutely superb. But Claire’s is shorter and she opens it out more.
“People always say, ‘Oh, he was horrible to his wife.’ Well he was.”
She gets his energy, his ferocity. He could be callous. People always say, ‘Oh, he was horrible to his wife.’ Well he was. He chucked her out of the family home when the youngest child was only 6. He said she was a terrible mother, but we have no evidence of that, at all. So he did behave badly. I’m afraid that when marriages break down, people do.
She doesn’t blink that, but, at the same time, she does have this sense of a man who wants to do good, who believes that he can do good, and who, above all, is committed to his writing — which he absolutely was. She ends the book with this wonderful image of him writing late into the night. Sometimes he would ask the office boy to bring a bucket of water and he would put his hands and his head in it and then go on writing. That was his focus.
What do you think drove him?
He’d always loved stories. There’s a wonderful bit in David Copperfield about his childhood reading — all the characters who came to join him in his solitude after his mother made this horrible remarriage. He was always that bookish child. I suppose I think—and Claire Tomalin does as well—that there’s this thing called genius. You don’t really know where it comes from, but it just alights.
His desire to help the poor, that’s driven by the fact he suffered personally, isn’t it?
Definitely, that sense of, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’ If he hadn’t been yanked out of it, he could have been one of those children on the streets. He was a compulsive walker, and knew the streets of London like nobody else, he says. And he would see those children, those young people on his walks. He often walked at night. He knew that it was a very precarious thing. It’s that sense of precariousness—I could be on the streets, I could be in prison—that led him to help the women at Urania Cottage, which he helped set up. That sense of, ‘Yes, that could be me.’ And also, that you could help them, that it’s not irrevocable, they can be brought back.
So how much of on an impact did he have in terms of improving people’s lives?
His big ally in all this was Angela Burdett-Coutts. She was a philanthropist and inherited a share of Coutts bank, so she was very wealthy. They were friends. They joined forces on her causes, like the Ragged Schools, which were schools for the very poor. She was his partner in Urania Cottage. How much influence he had, you can never tell, but people said that he was one of the great influences of the time.
“He believed in the values of Christianity, of helping your neighbour and the essential goodness of people.”
If you think how popular A Christmas Carol was, and still is. That’s about helping the poor and the ‘worthy poor’ as they were known then. You should be decent.
And examine yourself at Christmas — because we all have elements of Scrooge.
Exactly so. And the idea of instant conversion, of New Year’s resolutions, that we can turn ourselves around. It’s a hugely popular book. He was a Christian, in a non-doctrinaire sense. He believed in the values of Christianity, of helping your neighbour and the essential goodness of people, really.
You emphasize Christmas in your own book about Dickens.
Yes, there’s a bit about Christmas because he is so associated with Christmas. When he died, a girl who worked in Covent Garden asked, “Will Father Christmas die too?” Even now you’ll find productions of A Christmas Carol everywhere at Christmas. There’s a wonderful muppets version.
Why is he so associated with Christmas, is it because A Christmas Carol was so popular at the time?
Yes, partly. It also coincided with Christmas becoming more commercialised. Christmas trees came in in the 1840s. Prince Albert, who came from Germany, brought some Christmas traditions with him — like Christmas cards. There had always been a Christmas holiday, but a lot of the rituals we associate with Christmas really start to build up at that time. He did Christmas books after A Christmas Carol and other people did too. I don’t think there was much of a tradition of it before then.
Why do you think Dickens has been performed so much in so many different ways?
He gives you characters who are very welcoming to inhabit. They are very big. With Scrooge, you can inhabit the miser and he is melodramatic. His characters have that hugeness of melodrama, that emotional affect — because melodrama is very emotional. You root for people: the goody and the baddy. He deliberately embraces that popular form.
I think my first introduction to Dickens wasn’t a book, but a production of Oliver Twist.
It goes back a long way doesn’t it? I saw A Tale of Two Cities with Dirk Bogarde when I was at school. That was so exciting.
Your next book is The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens, which you edited and came out in 2012. I thought he had burned all his letters?
He burned all the letters that were sent to him, but obviously you can’t burn letters that you’ve sent to other people — because you haven’t got them anymore. But he said he would have burned those too, if he could have. He had a huge bonfire in 1860, just after his marriage collapsed. One critic said it must have been the most expensive bonfire of all time. Just think of all the people who were writing to him. He knew everyone.
He adored writing letters. He said he wrote about a dozen a day. To get a letter from him was like getting a gift and you would keep it. There are letters, in that collection, from chimney sweeps, from clock menders. They’re always funny, with jokes in them. We’ve got over 14,000 but there must have been many more. We know of whole collections that were destroyed, in things like the Blitz, for instance. Ones to his daughter Katey went up in a warehouse fire.
“Other men in his circle kept mistresses but he had to keep that side of his life secret because he was Mr. Family Values”
The first letter is from when he’s gone back to school after the blacking warehouse. He’s only about 13, and it’s to a friend about borrowing a dictionary. It’s got a joke about a wooden leg. Dickens adored wooden legs. There are loads of joke about wooden legs in his letters and novels. We probably don’t find wooden leg jokes funny anymore because we’re too PC, but he just thought they were very funny. It’s a bit of your body but it is not you. Where are the boundaries of the body? That kind of thing intrigues him. They’ve got this letter at the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street. It’s just a tiny fragment, but it is amazing to me that it survived — a letter from a 13-year-old school boy. Why would you keep that? It’s just a note. But it survived and there it is.
He was writing letters continually until his death. We’ve got letters that he wrote the day he died. Apart from that autobiographical fragment, he never wrote an autobiography. He said he would one day, but he never did. He was quite a secretive person. He didn’t tell his children about the blacking warehouse or the prison or anything like that.
He didn’t tell them?
No, it was a secret. Well, I can see that if you’ve been in prison, you’re not keen to talk about it, necessarily. So his children didn’t know about it until after he died. He’d given that autobiographical fragment just to Forster, he didn’t give it to anybody else. I think his wife knew, but nobody else.
So it’s through his letters that you are given these wonderful glimpses, it’s Dickens by Dickens, if you like. You’re really up close to his life, which is lived so intensely. The amount of invitations! You could have a selection which was just invitations. One of my favourite letters to Forster just says something like, ‘Come at 6, chops await you.’ He was such a convivial man.
How can somebody who’s writing a dozen letters a day be secretive?
About his personal life. He kept Nelly, his mistress, secret. Other men in his circle kept mistresses, but he had to keep that side of his life secret because he was Mr. Family Values. So he was living a double life, towards the end of his life.
So at the time, people reading David Copperfield didn’t know that Dickens was writing partly from personal experience?
They had no idea. It was a novel, he’s just made it up. It only came out a couple of years after he died, when Forster wrote a biography of him. Dickens knew Forster was going to write it — he’d sort of appointed him. Forster says that now the world will know that behind this great genius lay this very precarious and difficult childhood.
Also, in Dickens’s will, the first legacy is to Ellen Ternan. So he knew that that would come out too after he died. It doesn’t say ‘to my mistress’ but he leaves 1000 pounds to her. So people would ask who is she? For many years, Dickensians would say she was a ‘family friend’ or something like that, but gradually the evidence built up till it is, now, absolutely certain that she was his mistress.
Did he live with her after he left his wife?
It was a secret life. He had this wonderful family house in Gadshill in Kent, which he’d always wanted to buy. When he was a child, they’d go past this house and his father said, ‘Oh one day you might earn enough to live there.’ This was the myth, anyway, that Dickens told. So he did buy this house and you can visit it in Kent. He also had a flat above the office in London.
But he also had a series of houses that he rented under the name Charles Tringham for Nelly to live in and he would visit her. They were in Slough and in Peckham. He worked the railway timetables. He wanted quick journeys up and down from London. And they had trips to Paris. They had a house they lived in outside Boulogne.
So he continued living with his wife?
No, she was expelled in 1858. From then on, Dickens lived either above the office in Wellington Street in London or in Gadshill, where his children lived. They had had a big London house, which they gave up the lease of, in Tavistock Square. It was a very divided life. In the novel he wrote in 1859, ATale of Two Cities, he talks about how we all have secret lives. He talks about how when he goes into a city, how amazing it is to think of all these secrets in every house. You bet!
He exchanges letters with Queen Victoria as well, doesn’t he? Or at least her adviser.
When you think how famous he was actually, he wasn’t honoured in the way that we would honour writers now. There’s a wonderful quote about Oliver Twist in her diary, she’s trying to get her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, to read it and he says ‘Oh no, I don’t like such things.’ But much later, right towards the end of his life, her equerry arranges an audience with Queen Victoria. He’s such a radical, but, on the other hand, he was obviously very pleased to go. There seems to have been a suggestion that he would have been given some honour, but he died quite soon after.
What do you make of the letters he writes to his children?
He loved them when they were little, and when they get older…it’s very difficult to have a famous father. He would say things like, ‘When I was your age, I had to earn my living.’ He obviously started work very early, as a solicitor’s clerk and a journalist. He sends a couple of them out to the colonies. They went to Australia. One of them was only 16 when he went. I think it was a great pressure on them, really. I think it was easier to be a daughter than a son.
I read the one where he’s writing about his son Sydney saying, ‘Oh, he’s as good as dead.’
He was the one who went to sea. He writes about him so affectionately and so movingly when he was younger. People think he’s trying to write Sydney off but he had been ill. He did die soon after Dickens.
I got that impression—that he was sick—but it was an odd way for somebody to be writing about a sick child.
He could be very callous. He was a dropper. He would drop his friends just like that. Particularly when there was trouble with Catherine, his wife. If you took Catherine’s side, you’d had it. And he dropped Thackeray, though they made up and became friends again. Thackeray was a rival, obviously.
As your last book you’ve chosen a work of criticism: Palgrave Advances in Charles Dickens Studies (2006), which says, in the introduction, that it’s an exciting time to be studying Charles Dickens.
I’ve chosen a collection of essays because it gives you lots of different ways into Dickens. It includes some of the best critics who are writing at the moment: the editors, John Bowen and Robert Patten are both excellent. These are some of the best Dickens critics collected in one volume. You also get all these different aspects, like “Psychoanalyzing Dickens” by Carolyn Dever.
If you were going to read one critical book, this would be a good one to have. Some critical stuff can weigh you down a bit, but this one is written very accessibly. Each person writes very clearly. They are also excited by Dickens — and that comes across really well. Particularly, for instance, some aspects that had maybe got a bit muted, like the visual that we were talking about earlier.
Is there one essay in the book that you particularly love?
I think Rosemarie Bodenheimer is an absolutely terrific critic on Dickens. Her chapter is, “Dickens and the Writing of a Life.” She talks about the energy of Dickens and uses the letters as a lens to look at the novels. She’s done a whole book on that and she does it quite briefly here, but she writes about him really intelligently. She looks back through past critics. Some of the best ones were actually novelists themselves. George Gissing, the novelist, wrote terribly well about Dickens and so did GK Chesterton. They really get him, and I think she does as well.
Because he was quite extraordinary. It was Peter Ackroyd who wrote about “the essential strangeness of the man” and I think a lot of these critics get into that in different ways. He really is a novelist like no other, and, in a way, you need lots of critics to give you different angles on that and, in this book, they do.
A lot of people have criticised Dickens, because he can’t do interior, he can’t do psychology. Yes, he is not George Eliot, but he does it from the outside in. So he gives you people’s tics, their way of behaving. We talk about body language quite happily now, but Victorians didn’t. We understand how to read somebody from the outside. That’s a great gift that he has given to us, if you like. Malcolm Andrews talks about that really well. So you can read a character by what they are wearing, how they speak, the little tics of behaviour. Other novelists pay tribute to Dickens for doing that.
I don’t see why it should necessarily be better to be inside someone’s head rather than looking in from the outside.
We’ve had a whole thing of going into people’s heads, George Eliot gave us people’s inside, as did Henry James—at great length—the minute turns of thought. Dickens didn’t do that. Maybe now we can see it again, but of course his length is against him. If you were to give someone an 800-page novel, they would flinch.
The word ‘picaresque’ comes up quite a bit in works of criticism on Dickens.
Yes, the idea of journeying, being episodic. I actually think he had a much tighter hold on the plot than that. Sometimes the plots are a bit ridiculous— these wills that suddenly turn up, somebody’s third grandchild has inherited—but I think he wants to show that there is a plan to the world. Maybe it goes back to religion, but there is a shape and a meaning.
Dickens, I suppose, went out of fashion because he says, ‘No, we are all connected. In Bleak House he famously says, ‘What can be the connection between all these people in London?’ And he shows there is a connection, a moral connection. In that book, the connection is partly through disease. We can affect each other that way so we are connected in a very real way. The character at the bottom of society can infect the character at the top of society, and our actions do have consequences.
The word ‘picaresque’ suggests something that goes on and on like a soap opera. His books have been compared to soap operas. Which, in a way, is great. They do have that melodramatic aspect, it’s a popular form. But they also have shape and a universe and a meaning. Everything belongs, everything fits together.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at email@example.com