Sleights of hand

Feats of legerdemain in Dickens’s novels
by
May 2021, no. 431
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The Artful Dickens: The tricks and ploys of the great novelist by John Mullan

Bloomsbury, $29.99 hb, 448 pp

Sleights of hand

Feats of legerdemain in Dickens’s novels
by
May 2021, no. 431
The novelist and critic Charles Dickens (Wikimedia Commons)
The novelist and critic Charles Dickens (Wikimedia Commons)

‘What is so good about Dickens’s novels?’ It is a question ‘oddly evaded by many who have written about him’, in John Mullan’s reckoning. ‘Gosh he is good – though so careless,’ Iris Murdoch wrote to Brigid Brophy in 1962. Many writers before and since have found Dickens not only improvisatory and self-indulgently digressive but also sentimental, melodramatic, and sermonising – a great entertainer rather than a good writer. Mullan undertakes to demonstrate that what appears to be carelessness is as often as not ‘technical boldness and experimental verve’. Composing ‘on the wings of inspiration’, in response to the exigencies of serial publication, Dickens essentially revised as he wrote. Yet, consulting the manuscripts of the novels, Mullan notes how meticulously he adjusted his diction and phrasing. Like Oliver Twist’s companion in crime, the Artful Dodger, who comes alive through his sleights of hand and language, the Artful Dickens is a magician in prose and a talented conjurer: ‘his feats of legerdemain might equally apply to his writing’.

Jennifer Gribble reviews 'The Artful Dickens: The tricks and ploys of the great novelist' by John Mullan

The Artful Dickens: The tricks and ploys of the great novelist

by John Mullan

Bloomsbury, $29.99 hb, 448 pp

Buy this book

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