Dickens’s Dream; illustration by Robert William Buss

Charles Dickens Museum, London/Bridgeman Images

Robert William Buss: Dickens’s Dream, 1875

Charles Dickens was a great coiner of words—over four hundred, according to the Oxford English Dictionary—but “monopolylogue” was not among them. Credit for that particular invention belongs to the English actor Charles Mathews (1776–1835), who devised the term for farcical entertainments in which he played all the parts, each with its characteristic idiolect. The performances were a huge hit. As one contemporary reviewer testified:

The tip-top parts are capitally done—Charles does them;—the secondary parts are capitally done—Charles does them too;—the low parts are magnificently done—Charles does them too!

It should come as no surprise to any reader of Dickens that the future novelist was not only a devoted fan of these performances but a would-be imitator who went so far as to obtain an audition before yet another Charles—the celebrated actor Charles Kemble—in which he proposed to mimic Mathews’s act. Were it not for an ill-timed cold that forced him to cancel the appointment and a subsequent offer to take up work as a parliamentary reporter, the young Dickens might soon have been performing monopolylogues of his own. Instead, of course, he ended up writing them, producing some of the most polyloguist fiction—the adjective is irresistible—that the English-speaking world has ever known.

This is far from the only way Dickens managed to split himself up. The practice of serial publication dated to the eighteenth century, but it was the runaway success of The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837), which began with an invitation to supply the text for a monthly series of comic prints, that really popularized the format, making part-publication the standard means by which every Dickens novel to follow would first acquire its readership. Victorians grew accustomed to approaching his work in bits and pieces—a tendency further encouraged by contemporary reviewing practices, which typically relied on filling pages with quoted extracts from the work under review.

The variety of genres with which Dickens experimented produced still more multiples. He may have become “the most popular novelist of the century,” as his friend and first biographer John Forster proclaimed him after his death, but only after trying his hand at everything from theater reviews, journalism, short tales, and travel writing to works for the stage, including an early operetta—not to mention the loose sketches in which the pseudonymous “Boz” initially charmed the British public. We now think of Pickwick as his first novel, but it didn’t start out as one, and more than a decade later, as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has shown, its author was still hesitating whether to classify himself among the “novelists” or more simply—which is to say, more indeterminately—among the “writers.”1 By the last decade of his life, when he had taken to performing public readings from his work before enthusiastic crowds, even “writer” would not have done justice to the protean character of Dickens as artist.

At once dramatist, impresario, and actor, the Dickens of the public readings was clearly restoring the monopolylogue to its original venue. But as he threw himself now into the part of Ebenezer Scrooge or Tiny Tim, now into that of the prostitute Nancy or the murderous Sikes, he was also implicitly demonstrating that his version of the form had a tonal range well beyond that of Mathews’s farcical performances. Indeed, with its dizzying shifts among comic, satiric, sentimental, and melodramatic registers, the Dickens style might be said to contain multitudes. As early as 1837 a commentator had noted the phenomenon: “The various excellencies of the style of ‘Boz’ have been by many considered too numerous to be combined in one individual,” and this when all the novels except Pickwick and the first half of Oliver Twist (1837–1839) had yet to be written. Despite the subsequent assurance that “the world may now feel at rest as to both the personality and the unity” of the author, some of Dickens’s later readers were not convinced.

Beginning with the publication of Bleak House (1852–1853), the increasing darkness of the novels prompted such readers to feel that the Dickens they had known and loved had turned into another writer altogether. “But gradually his old characteristics have slipt from him, supplanted by others totally different in origin and result,” the reviewer for Blackwood’s Magazine complained of Little Dorrit (1855–1857). He was far from alone in expressing such sentiments. When critics in the following century rehabilitated the later novels by arguing for their symbolic coherence—tracing versions of imprisonment, both literal and figurative, in Little Dorrit, for example, or expatiating on the implications of the dustheap in Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865)—they managed to find in such works a unity apparently lacking in the earlier fiction, but only by slighting the very qualities that had first won acclaim from the Victorians. Between “the old natural, easy, unconscious Pickwickian style,” to quote the Blackwood’s reviewer, and the Dickens whose “complexity and…depth” inspired Dostoevsky, according to Edmund Wilson, it can be hard to imagine we’re talking about the same author.


Nor did seeing Dickens whole become any easier when aspects of his personal life that Forster had preferred to suppress began to resurface more than a half-century after his death. Contemporaries had certainly been aware of the painful dissolution of the novelist’s marriage: after rumors of it began to circulate, Dickens took the extraordinary step of announcing the couple’s separation both in the London Times and on the front page of his own journal, Household Words. Two months later, an accusatory letter in which he referred to his wife’s “mental disorder” and neglect of their children was leaked to the American press and predictably recirculated in Britain. But the myth of cheerful domesticity his readers had learned to associate with the novelist overrode the disquieting facts, and so, too, did the genial image of Dickens himself: “a man of an eminently kindly nature, and full of sympathy for all around him,” as the leading article in the London Times pronounced on his death in 1870.

When evidence emerged in the 1930s that the same man had carried on a secret affair for over a decade with Ellen Ternan, a young actress less than half his age, the shock was almost as great as if the acquaintances of Dorian Gray had gotten a glimpse of the picture hidden away in his attic. The problem wasn’t so much the existence of the mistress herself—Dickens’s good friend and fellow novelist Wilkie Collins, after all, had managed to divide his time between the households of two women, neither of them his wife—but the gap between what everyone thought they knew and what they now discovered. Unlike Collins, whose novels had been openly critical of marriage and its laws, Dickens was famous for his celebration of domesticity: “a writer of home life” and “a delineator of household gods,” as one reviewer put it in 1846, whose life and writing now seemed radically split in two. Though recent commentators have worried more about his cruelty to his wife than his sexual hypocrisy, the doubleness of this Dickens still has the power to scandalize.

John Mullan’s The Artful Dickens may begin its title with a singular article, but it makes no effort to offer a unified picture of its subject. Rather than advance a consistent argument about Dickens’s artistry, Mullan responds to the novelist’s multifariousness with an appealing miscellany of his own: a collection of assorted essays on the “tricks and ploys,” to quote his subtitle, by which the writer works his magic. Some of these feel more random than others: it’s hard to think of Dickens’s obsession with death by drowning, for instance, as a sign of his artfulness, though Mullan has arresting things to say about the “primal” fear these episodes succeed in capturing, as well as the novelist’s capacity to turn such fear to comedy, as when Mr. Peggotty in David Copperfield (1849–1850) solemnly informs David that both his brother and his brother-in-law are “drowndead”—a mispronunciation that manages to render the victims doubly dead, even as it confirms that this is the form death is liable to take in a seafaring family.

In Little Dorrit, the irrepressible Flora Finching explains to her former suitor Arthur Clennam why she accepted the proposal of her late husband: “He was so very unsettled and in such low spirits that he had distractedly alluded to the river if not oil of something from the chemist’s and I did it for the best.” As Mullan observes, more pithily than Flora, “Merely mentioning the river is enough to make a young woman think of drowning and give in.”

Other chapters of The Artful Dickens take up subjects or devices common to many Victorian novels, in order to consider what idiosyncratic turns this particular writer managed to give them. Coincidental plotting, for example, is everywhere in nineteenth-century fiction, but few novelists, Mullan argues, so insistently highlight the practice as Dickens. Unlike George Eliot, he suggests, whose realism depends on effacing such contrivances even when she clearly makes use of them—think of the subplot that assures the arrival of the blackmailing Raffles in Middlemarch—Dickens loves to point up the coincidences that connect one part of his narrative with another. The word “connect” itself echoes like a drumbeat through Bleak House as the novel flaunts its ability to tie everyone together, from the outworn aristocrat to the lowliest street sweeper, while the discovery that Estella in Great Expectations (1860–1861) is the daughter of the same criminal to whom Pip owes his fortune just drives home the utter illusion he has been living. “The outrageousness of the coincidence,” as Mullan shrewdly remarks of this turn in the narrative, “is its power.”


Not all Mullan’s attempts to argue for Dickens’s distinctiveness are quite as persuasive. Though he is undoubtedly right to observe how haunted the novels are by intimations of the supernatural, he exaggerates the degree to which this marks them out from their contemporaries. It is simply not true, for example, that Emily Brontë explains away Cathy Earnshaw’s ghost in Wuthering Heights, and even the more sober-minded Charlotte never really supplies a plausible account of how Jane Eyre manages to hear Rochester summon her to his side after the burning of Thornfield, when more than a day’s journey still separates them. In a chapter entitled “Knowing About Sex,” Mullan comments sensitively on how “Dickens makes us hear what is repressed,” but he is hardly alone among Victorian novelists in thus exploiting the unsaid, and it seems odd to include what this book must concede is the least daring side of Dickens’s art among the “tricks and ploys of the great novelist.”

But Mullan is at his heart a critic of style, and the most rewarding parts of The Artful Dickens are those in which he turns his eye on the various maneuvers by which the novelist’s prose comes alive. Even so obvious a device as the as-if construction affords a key to the working of Dickens’s imagination, since he characteristically adopts the formula, Mullan shows, not to clarify a point but to fantasize. Rather than introduce a simile that helps to make visible the implications of a character’s behavior, in the manner of George Eliot or Henry James, the Dickensian as if becomes the springboard for “analogies that are so far-fetched they can hardly be called similes at all.” Here are a few examples, culled from Mullan’s more generous selection:

[A horse] lifts his mouth to the ear of his companion, as if he were saying, in a whisper, that he should like to assassinate the coachman.

[He was] looking at his own arms and those of everybody else, as if to assure himself that two and not one was the usual allowance.

[A] peculiar fragrance was borne upon the breeze, as if a passing fairy had hiccoughed, and had previously been to a wine-vaults.

As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

These evoke, respectively, a hackney coach waiting outside a pub (Sketches by Boz, 1833–1836), a temporarily befuddled bully (Barnaby Rudge, 1841), the drunken Mrs. Gamp entering the premises of Mould the undertaker (Martin Chuzzlewit, 1842–1844), and the mire of London (the opening paragraph of Bleak House). The sheer outlandishness of that urban dinosaur has made the last of these deservedly famous, but most readers will probably have forgotten the others, if only because they tend to fly by so quickly. It’s good to be invited to slow down and savor them.

Elsewhere Mullan focuses his attention on the exuberant varieties of Dickensian speech, from the “staccato idiolect” of Alfred Jingle in Pickwick, whose every few words are interrupted by dashes, to the unpunctuated effusions of Little Dorrit’s Flora. “Dickens loves characters who love speaking,” Mullan aptly observes of such verbal performers, a category that also includes, among others, Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1841), and the sinister Jeremiah Flintwinch in Little Dorrit. (The latter’s final denunciation of Mrs. Clennam apparently produces the longest single paragraph in the entire corpus.) Mullan points to more subtle effects, too, like the “odd mid-sentence noises” of William Dorrit in the same novel, when he seeks to conceal his habit of sponging on others by pausing over the words that are about to give the game away: “Sometimes—hem—it takes one shape and sometimes another; but it is generally—ha—Money,” as he says of the “Testimonial” he has come to expect from visitors to the debtors’ prison.

Anthony Trollope deplored Dickens’s style, calling it “jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules,” but Mullan turns the attack on its head in order to argue that stylistic rule-breaking was essential to Dickens’s art. The evidence includes not only the liberties he took with conventional grammar and punctuation—Flora’s breathlessly run-on sentences, unbroken by even so much as a comma; the fragments with which the fog and mire of London are evoked at the opening of Bleak House—but the number of words he added to the language, a list that includes such unexpected coinages as “gunpowderous” and “slangular.” (The count from the Oxford English Dictionary at the beginning of this review is indebted to Mullan.) Beginning with terms like “Pecksniffian” and “Podsnappery,” which Dickens himself invented, the possibilities of English have been further enriched by the practice of deriving words from the names of his characters, a source that has yielded more eponyms, as such words are known, than those of any other novelist.

The coiner of new language was also brilliantly reviving the old, as he explored the potential buried in outworn idioms and dead metaphors. The phrase “butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth” goes back at least to the sixteenth century, but by using it to conjure up another common phrase, Dickens at once gives it new life and makes a splendid mockery of Pecksniff’s hypocritical response to Chuzzlewit’s claim that riches only bring him unhappiness:

It would be no description of Mr Pecksniff’s gentleness of manner to adopt the common parlance, and say that he looked at this moment as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He looked rather as if any quantity of butter might have been made out of him, by churning the milk of human kindness, as it spouted upwards from his heart.

That Pecksniff is himself an inveterate spouter of clichés only adds to the satisfying absurdity of the image.

Remarking on the novelist’s gift for making comedy out of horror and violence, Mullan cites John Carey: “Once Dickens starts laughing nothing is safe, from Christianity to dead babies.” A.N. Wilson’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens occasionally describes its subject in similar terms—Wilson speaks, for example, of how the author of Great Expectations “carried shame of home to gloriously comedic, poignantly tragic, imaginative heights”—but for the most part this biographical study has little to say about laughter, whether of the man or of the artist. The Dickens who fascinates Wilson most nearly resembles the one portrayed by Edmund Wilson eighty years ago: “a divided, sick soul” whose art emerged from torments he barely succeeded in controlling.

Though The Mystery of Charles Dickens frames its story with the clandestine affair and its consequences, its singular article also quickly dissolves into multiples, as Wilson sets out to explore a series of mysteries that purportedly surround his divided subject. The list ranges from Dickens’s childhood and “cruel marriage” to his works of charity, his public readings, and the unfinished novel on which he was working when he died—The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), whose title clearly inspired Wilson’s own.

There is no question that Dickens had his secrets. Long before the revelation of the affair with Nelly Ternan, as she is generally known, the public had belatedly learned from Forster’s biography that the world-famous author had once been consigned as a young boy to work off the family debt in a boot-blacking factory, an episode he regarded as so shameful that he had never spoken of it, even to his wife and children. (Though Forster claimed that the embargo included Catherine Dickens, she later testified to having read the so-called autobiographical fragment in which her husband recounted the episode before his biographer published it.) And while it’s hard to imagine that Dickens felt ashamed of establishing—and then zealously overseeing—a charity for fallen women, which he did with the aid of the wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, that, too, was apparently a side of his life he concealed from his readers. Just why the novelist’s very public performances of excerpts from his work also figure among Wilson’s mysteries is less obvious, though he does come down hard on the fervor with which Dickens pursued the activity, especially his compulsive reenacting of Nancy’s murder—an act that Wilson’s account treats as nearly suicidal in its intensity. “Tearing himself to pieces,” he characteristically remarks, “was what Dickens needed to do.”

The melodrama of Dickens’s final years was real enough, and Wilson’s heightened prose keeps pace with it, as he dwells insistently on the dark forces that haunted his subject. The novelist’s contemporaries would have had their own reasons for being troubled by the affair with Nelly, but Wilson’s version of the story makes for particularly unnerving reading in the era of Me Too, both because of his repeated emphasis on the actress’s childlike stature (“the way he liked them, small”) and because he twice invokes the report of the older Nelly’s confession to a local vicar that she now “loathed the very thought of this intimacy.”

In her 1990 biography of Nelly, Claire Tomalin observed that “it would have been surprising if a woman in her position, speaking to a clergyman, had uttered any other sentiment than the one he attributed to her”; but Wilson, who likes to think that Dickens anticipated the entire affair when he invented Quilp’s sinister obsession with Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, prefers to take that loathing as visceral.2 (The name Quilp, we are told, “is a shortening of Quill-pen, or the Writer.”) Wilson also slightly—if tellingly—misquotes Nelly’s reported confession by turning the recollected loathing from “this intimacy” into “his intimacy,” as though to assure that there was nothing mutual about her former relations with “the dark, dwarfish, demonic little novelist.”

Like other modern critics, Wilson believes that Dickens became greater as his work grew darker, a principle he extends to the claim that the unfinished Drood, with its sinister opium-addicted protagonist, was the author’s “most ambitious novel,” as well as “the one that killed him.” Like others, too, Wilson senses in Dickens an unusual capacity to deny dangerous impulses by projecting them onto his fictional characters.3 But by leaving no room either for the genial entertainer who first captivated Victorian readers or for the artist who sometimes mastered his demons—even if only by mocking them—The Mystery of Charles Dickens ends by turning its divided subject into an increasingly one-dimensional figure. “Prison doors clang in the majority of the novels,” Wilson writes, “and we feel the cell doors clink behind us as we enter Dickens’s world.” The oppressiveness of that description certainly fits the man described here, but the semi-suicidal “prisoner of his own inventions” is not the only Dickens on offer. Mullan’s rule-breaker was Dickens too, and his improvisational genius still feels liberating.