The Artful Dickens: The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist

Written by John Mullan
Review by Susan Lowell

From the pun in the title to the final footnote, this delightful book plays a double game. It’s an eye-opening analysis of Dickens’s fiction by a distinguished scholar, and of genuine interest to first-time readers as well as devoted Dickensians. But it’s also an extremely useful (and entertaining) handbook on the craft of writing, no matter the genre or the century.

Like the child pickpocket he christened the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, Dickens was a trickster. He has often been dismissed as a showman, a cartoonist—too simplistic, “too” popular. The feeling was, and is, that Dickens is impossible to imitate.

But Mullan suggests instead that he was a skilled stylist and a fearless experimental writer who invented techniques that were followed and developed in the 20th century, such as switching between past and present tenses, changing narration from third person to first, playing with diction, and using sentence fragments and invented words. He broke all the rules.

Mullan’s virtual magnifying glass shows Dickens at work on the word and sentence level. And he teaches a most enjoyable writing class, illustrated by glorious lessons from Dickens. Here comes tipsy Mrs. Gamp: “A peculiar fragrance was borne upon the breeze, as if a passing fairy had hiccoughed, and had previously been to a wine-vault.”

Taste and smell have magical powers. Funny names are fine (Wugsby, Slurk, Puffle), and so are fantasy and comedy. Add a dash of the supernatural. Remember that horror can cohabit with humor; “I wants to make your flesh creep” is an excellent motto for any writer. Embrace the possibilities of clichés and coincidences. And occasionally, very carefully if you’re not Dickens, forget all the rules!