Book Review: "The Artful Dickens" by John Mullan
5/5 - a brilliant insight into one of history's most revered authors...
Charles Dickens is most commonly associated with making and bringing to life some of literature’s most incredibly complex child stars. From the friendship and politics of Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger to the gothic pull of Pip’s “Great Expectations”, Dickens has created a world of amazing characters who move around the social ladder of London and the surrounding area. From his expansive bildungsroman, “David Copperfield” all the way through the the visitation of three ghosts in “A Christmas Carol”, Charles Dickens usually holds up this version of society that tries to stay as truthful as physically possible to what actually happens - dispelling any strange and unwanted myths that have arose in-between. There is a surge of electricity in these novels by the fact that Dickens’ characters almost undergo some sort of massive moment of great realisation - an epiphany that changes the course of everything from their story to their politics, their thoughts and their own personal prejudices. Once we see what the true value of life is to these characters, we learn moral lessons about Victorian England and many myths we once thought about social mobility have been dispelled.
In John Mullan’s book “The Artful Dickens”, Mullan takes a stab at trying to pinpoint the different commonalities between Dickens’ novels. From the coincidences in “Great Expectations” and the ghosts that haunt Pip in his very real life all the way down to the way in which “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is often overlooked but is just as important in the Charles Dickens bibliography. He goes through each major novel, picking it apart and looking at everything from the supernatural to the sexual, from the monetary to the laborious. He understands and seeks to understand even more what Charles Dickens is trying to prove by writing these novels that are intensely similar in their presentation of the way children grow from one person into another in Victorian England. Personally, one of my favourite sections of the book is in the hardback edition pages 121 through to 124 where Mullan discusses the way in which Pip from “Great Expectations” sees and understands the supernatural influence upon his life and what he is actually afraid of. There is a suggestion that Pip is scared of the presentation of death because for him, as an orphan, it has constantly been linked to both abandonment and to haunting. Pip is abandoned by his family but haunted by people he probably does not want to be haunted by - like Abel Magwitch. The description of Ms. Havisham as a ghostly figure has always been fascinating to me even as a little girl, I have come to understand so much about this dichotomy through Mullan’s book and how this image of Ms. Havisham is actually shaped through Pip’s own sense of abandonment. The different methods that Pip uses to tell the story through reported speech, ideas from inside the heads of other characters and internal monologues kind of represents this want to be better than he is - but he is constantly haunted by the fact that he is looking in the wrong places.
At the end of the day, Mullan’s book with all of its analysis on the characters from Dickens that may be important into our understanding of Victorian England have one thing in common - they are all symbolic of something. They all have some sort of symbolism in the way they behave. For the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist’s friendship, there is something symbolic about moving down the ladder and for Pip and David Copperfield, there is something symbolic about moving up it. But without an understanding of human nature and loyalty, wherever they move, it cannot mean much to anyone. So is it really a social mobility problem after all? Or is it something much, much bigger?