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  • The Artful Dickens: Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist by John Mullan
  • Dominic Rainsford (bio)
John Mullan. The Artful Dickens: Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. Pp. x + 431. £16.99. ISBN 978-1-4088-6681-8 (hb).

John Mullan is the current Lord Northcliffe Chair of Modern English Literature at University College London. It is a position with a certain profile in Dickens studies, albeit attached to broader interests and with affinities to literary journalism more than strictly academic research. Previous holders of the Chair have included Karl Miller, founding editor of the London Review of Books, who wrote vividly and eccentrically about Dickens in Doubles (1985) (and for whom, as an awed and besotted student, I wrote my own first essay on Bleak House), and John Sutherland, in whose copious writings about the entire range of Victorian fiction Dickens frequently appears. The Artful Dickens is dedicated to Sutherland, and John Mullan's emphasis on "tricks" and "ploys" owes something to his predecessor's highly successful strategy of promising to take his readers on a quirky exploration, disentangling mysteries along the way, in "crossover" books such as Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (1996) and Inside Bleak House (2005).

The book begins with the claim that Dickens's technical skills as a writer tend to be underestimated. While it is tempting to object that the last few decades have seen dozens of scholarly books and hundreds of articles that imply the opposite, the claim may still be true as far as Dickens's wider readership (let alone his non-readership) is concerned. Mullan does not assume that his readers know any Dickens criticism at all, and yet, given that he seeks to reveal Dickens's "qualities of formal ingenuity" (8) to a hitherto unsuspecting audience, it is impressive that the book does contain fresh and powerful readings, and that it includes evidence of considerable scholarly effort. This becomes apparent a few pages into the Introduction, where Mullan writes very evocatively about Dickens's manuscripts, describing what he has seen with his own eyes, in the Victoria and Albert Museum and elsewhere, to convey a strong sense of how Dickens must have worked, and above all how seriously he took his choices of word and phrase, sentence by sentence (9 ff.). Mullan divides his emphasis between Dickens's writerly skills and the other traits or qualities that make his work not just good but unpredictable, spectacular, and unique: Dickens as literally (8–9), but also metaphorically, a magician. "From one artful sentence to the next, he was, and is, the most exciting novelist writing in English" (14). The claim not just that Dickens was, but that he is, "the most exciting novelist" has weight coming from Mullan, who is also known for his former column in The Guardian, "Elements of Fiction" (collected in How Novels Work), which addressed the techniques of many present-day authors.

Mullan's knowledge of twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature [End Page 218] comes frequently to the surface in The Artful Dickens: when, for example, he describes Dickens's tendency to "discover" the monstrous, hinting at "a kind of horror fiction (H. P. Lovecraft? Stephen King?) that has not yet been invented" (29); and when he compares Dickens's innovative use of present-tense narration with James Joyce, Margaret Atwood, or Don DeLillo (85–88); and when he notes that, "[w]ell in advance of … novelists of the late twentieth century, [Dickens] has learnt to include within his narrative his reader's expectations about the designs of the novel" (308). However, Mullan also charts a peculiar affinity between post-Dickensian novelists, from Henry James to Iris Murdoch (127), and some of his best-known contemporaries, such as Trollope (363), insofar as they enjoyed Dickens despite themselves, envying his abilities while being baffled by them, and denigrating the very talents that held them enthralled. Dickens's seriousness as a writer needs to be explained, in other words, even– or perhaps especially– to his would-be peers.

After the lively Introduction, The Artful Dickens divides into thirteen chapters, each with a gerundive title expressing Dickens in action in a technical or thematic...


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