The Artful Dickens: The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist by John Mullan

Chubblewig. Chuzzletoe. Chuzzlebog. Chuzzlewig. On loose sheets of paper, Charles Dickens tried out titles. Martin Sweezleden. Martin Sweezlebach. Martin Sweezlewag. Finally, triumphantly, on its own, on the reverse of the first sheet: Martin Chuzzlewit. Elsewhere, Dickens fiddled with a title for a book provisionally called “Mag’s Diversions”. Trotfield. Trotbury. Spankle. Wellbury. Copperboy. Flowerbury. Topflower. Magbury. Copperstone. Copperfield. He wrote it a second time. Copperfield. That’s my boy.

Dickens has given the OED more eponyms — words derived from the names of characters — than any other novelist. Bumble: a self-important minor official. Scrooge: a miser. Pecksniffian: hypocritical. Micawber: a feckless optimist. Gradgrind: a hard, cold, basher of facts. Podsnappery: complacent, blinkered self-satisfaction. Pickwickian: plump, jovial, all too hoodwinkable.

Some coinings, once common, are obsolete. Stiggins: a pious humbug, after the rum-drunk clergyman in The Pickwick Papers. Tapleyism: a will to be jolly, after Martin Chuzzlewit’s irrepressible sidekick Mark Tapley. Who now knows that a “Penny Pickwick” was a cheap cheroot? So named because an enterprising cigar-maker sold his wares in boxes decorated with a picture of Mr Pickwick. Or that a “gamp” is an umbrella untidily tied?

Name Games

John Mullan’s The Artful Dickens is full of such nuggets. Did you know, you might say to your own Mrs Cratchit, that Dickens used to keep scrap bags of improbable names jotted down from Privy Council education lists? Henry Ghost, Walter Ashes, William Why, Robert Gospel, Rosetta Dust, Miriam Denial, Sophia Doomsday…

Did you know that among Miss Flite’s caged birds in Bleak House are Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon and Spinach and that “gammon and spinach” is a proverbial phrase meaning “nonsense”? Have you ever wondered where Dickens’s obsession with bodies “Found Drowned” came from? Could it be because in the mid-19th century there were nearly 25 times more deaths by drowning than today?

Mullan, the Lord Northcliffe chair of modern English literature at University College London, is the best of professors. If you’ve heard him sparring with Melvyn Bragg on In Our Time you’ll know him as impish, amused and slyly scholarly. His previous books include How Novels Work and What Matters in Jane Austen? The Artful Dickens is in this mold. The tone is less ivory tower, more doublestout at the Magpie & Stump. The book’s fault is a tendency to Dickensian excess. Two or three illustrative quotes become four, five, six, seven… Please, sir, I want some less.

Dickens fiddled with a title for a book provisionally called “Mag’s Diversions”. Trotfield. Trotbury.... Copperboy.... Copperfield. That’s my boy.

Mullan is a brilliant noticer. He leads you from individual words, crossings out, inky amendments to sweeping themes of haunting, drowning, foreseeing or coincidence. Many of his insights come from close comparison of manuscript and printed text.

Here, for example, is Dickens working up the graveyard meeting of Pip and Magwitch in Great Expectations for utmost terror. The finished sentence reads: “He looked in my young eyes as if he were eluding the hands of the dead people, stretching up cautiously out of their graves, to get a twist upon his ankle and pull him in.” In Dickens’s first version, the dead “try to get hold of his ankle” and “pull him down”. As Mullan explains: “He then has the better ideas of ‘get a twist upon’ (a nicer turn of supernatural malice) and ‘pull him in’ (not just trip him up but haul him down into the underworld.)” One last manuscript afterthought is the comic absurdity of “cautiously”.

There’s a pungent chapter on Dickens’s smells. His characters don’t merely get under your skin, they get into your nostrils. Mr EWB Childers, the circus horseman in Hard Times, is described as smelling of “lamp-oil, straw, orange-peel, horses’ provender and sawdust”. Can’t you just sniff him? And here is Fanny Dorrit, now Mrs Sparkler, living in an inconvenient mansion “with a perpetual smell in it of the day before yesterday’s soup and coach-horses”.

There are some wonderful lines. In Oliver Twist, Dickens likens the alternating of tragic and comic scenes in “all good murderous melodramas” to “the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon”. The chapter on speaking and Dickens’s gift for “doing the police in different voices” is excellent. Not just the police, but the dustmen, the midwives, the lords, ladies and crossing sweepers. Mullan writes that we don’t have to be told who characters are when they recur after many chapters’ absence: “We have heard who they are.” Mamie Dickens remembered her father pulling faces in a mirror and “talking rapidly in a low voice” as if “with his natural intensity he had thrown himself completely into the character he was creating” and become “the creature of his pen”.

Dickens “was always trying something new”. He was a conjuror, an inventor, a rule breaker and, yes, an artful dodger. He makes you laugh and makes you cry, offends your nostrils and assaults your ears, freezes you in fear and smothers you in sentiment, he wins your confidence, bends your ear and, before you know it, has made off with your handkerchief.

Laura Freeman is the author of The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite