There was a time not so long ago in arts broadcasting when the Tiggerish presence of John Mullan was inescapable. He was the media-luvvie professor du jour whose only rival in bumptiousness and ubiquity was Mary Beard. Of late he has been less visible—a rare lockdown bonus?—but no less busy on the evidence of this new book. Let me admit straightaway that Mullan in print is a different beast from his public persona. The only thing that stops me from acclaiming The Artful Dickens a brilliant achievement is fear that its author will parlay it into an eight-part television series.
For nearly 50 years the key critical work on Dickens has been John Carey’s 1973 study The Violent Effigy. Mullan gives it a respectful nod, perhaps confident that his own book may supplant it for a new generation of readers. “Dickens is infinitely greater than his critics” was the resonant first line of Carey’s book. That may still be true, but Mullan’s close readings and imaginative interpretations argue that Dickens isn’t necessarily wiser. Nowhere is this more palpable than in the fearful treatment of sex. As Mullan writes, “His novels cannot face up to the truth of sexual desire and are distorted by the author’s Victorian propriety”. Dickens’s suppression was hypocritical, given that he kept the actress Nelly Ternan as his mistress for 13 years, almost certainly visited prostitutes and tried to have his estranged wife Catherine confined to a lunatic asylum. It is also ironic: the funniest novelist in the English language denied to himself a vital comic subject.
Fatal flaw aside, Mullan is more interested in his greatness, in the way his art was a form of sophisticated trickery. Dickens was an accomplished magician who thrilled in bamboozling audiences. One of his best tricks was to put the raw ingredients of a plum pudding into a hat and then pull a steaming-hot pudding out of it. Such ingenuity drove his writing. A whole chapter is devoted to “Smelling” and its effect on memory. When Scrooge in A Christmas Carol returns to his childhood it is vivified by a sense of smell—of a pastry cook’s, a laundress’s, a steam pudding “out of the copper”. Less agreeable is the frowsy odour Pecksniff detects from a corridor in Martin Chuzzlewit, a mixture of brandy, tobacco-smoke, beer and “several damp umbrellas”—this last the inimitable Dickensian ingredient.
He also loved mimicry, and in his youth was inspired by the “monopolylogues” of impersonator Charles Mathews—a prototype of “the man of many voices”—to try a dramatic career for himself, but the accident of a heavy cold thwarted his audition. The stage’s loss was the novel’s gain. His mimetic gift enabled him to invent individual voices, the earliest of them Sam Weller in Pickwick Papers whose transposition of “v” and “w” would have been instantly recognisable to the working-class Cockney: “Vy, that’s just the wery point”. Mullan is astute on speech in Dickens as an unwitting revelation of the self. He traces the author’s delight in pompous circumlocution to his father, John Dickens, whom he later magicked into the more benign Mr. Micawber. Verbosity may indicate pretension, or a concealment of moral failing, or simply a helpless social incontinence, as in Flora Finching from Little Dorrit: “. . . there was a time dear Arthur that is to say decidedly not dear nor Arthur neither but you understand me when one bright idea gilded the what’s-his-name horizon of et cetera . . . ” Do we not all know a Flora Finching?
Mullan considers the architecture of the novels through Dickens’s change of tenses, and his daring use of prolepsis—a jumping forward of the narrative to warn the reader. This is good and useful, though it’s not as absorbing as his investigation of dread (Dickens was “an epicure of fear”) and the way he married horror and comedy tightly together. Perhaps the best chapter in the book is on Dickens’s obsession with drowning. Given the number of drownings in his work it is notable how few biographers have asked whether Dickens could swim. Mullan thinks he learned to in his early thirties, but in his last completed novel Our Mutual Friend the Thames is still a vortex of doom. It’s not surprising to learn that when in Paris he always visited the morgue to inspect the drowned corpses there. “Drowndead”, as Peggotty says in David Copperfield. Mullan does a fantastic riff on the moment when Mr Dombey, hearing that his intended’s child from a previous marriage drowned—and will thus be no trouble to him—raises his head. A silent reflex, with a chilling implication.
The Artful Dickens teems with these fine squiggles of observation and insight. Like the best critics, Mullan not only elucidates the genius of his subject, he invites us to see it anew. Along with Claire Tomalin’s 2011 biography it is the most enlivening book about Dickens in the last 30 years, and wery varmly recommended.
The Artful Dickens: The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist
By John Mullan
Bloomsbury, pp448, £16.99