The sheer lifetime word count of Dickens is impressive. But even more impressive is his staying power a century and a half later. His books and stories are steeped in Victorian-isms, and yet his tone sounds modern and relatable to a current reader. Literary critic John Mullan investigates and analyzes the writing tricks of Dickens through a series of essays in The Artful Dickens.

The chapter on “Naming,” as one would expect to see in a book about Dickensian conventions, highlights the obvious joy the author had in choosing monikers for his characters. Mullan refers to notes and early manuscripts where Dickens literally made lists of possible names, and sometimes used them in amusing ways.

Dickens’s early novels revel in their freedom to name their characters as ludicrously of as wittily as they wish. In Nicholas Nickleby the author’s delight in peculiar names for minor characters is shared by the garrulous Mrs. Nickleby. She offers us her own wonderful list of the names of her past suitors. She begins by recalling ‘young Lukin’ and then embarks on her recollections of others, ‘beginning with her left thumb and checking off the names on her fingers — “Mogley–Tipslark–Cabbery–Smifser–“‘ (Ch. XLI). She is interrupted, but evidently could have gone on listing any number of implausible names. ~Pg. 174

In the essay entitled “Enjoying Clichés,” Mullan pulls brilliant examples of Dickens using otherwise trite turns-of-phrase to his advantage. In describing the insufferable Mr. Pecksniff, Dickens hitches together “butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth” and “milk of human kindness” and uses the ridiculousness to his advantage.

Dickens with his daughters. National Portrait Gallery.

There are chapters on scents, verb tenses, ghosts, laughter, foresight, drowning, and more. Each topics becomes a thread and Mullan follows the through-line in Dickens’s work.

The essays are a fresh take on beloved writings and bring new enjoyment to old favorites. He easily makes the case for Dickens’s talent as a practitioner of classic storytelling and inventor of new techniques.

Amusing, thoughtful, and approachable, this book is a must for any Dickens fan.

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My thanks to Olivia and Bloomsbury for the review copy.

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (May 11, 2021)
Language: English
Hardcover: 448 pages
ISBN-10: 1408866811

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