The starting point for this book was the notion that nobody really quite understands how to understand Dickens. While Dickens’ virtues always place him among the greatest of English novelists, his books are variously regarded as rambling, eccentric, ad hoc and sentimental. His work doesn’t yield very readily to modern critical analyses and he still often seems an embarrassment to the canon of great Victorian writers however that is drawn, with his chaotic plots and most glaringly his failure to draw psychologically real portraits of his characters, and particularly of women. He is generally, I therefore suggested, seen as a great caricaturist rather than a serious novelist and his place and influence are not properly understood. It was my purpose to propose instead a new reading of Dickens that interpreted his artistic development in a way capable of exploring its complexity and appreciating fully its serious engagement with novel writing.
My approach in this book was based on the simple idea that in storytelling we make things up in order to amuse and entertain – invent fictions – and at the same time attempt to give these things unity and coherence as narrative. My argument was that, setting aside all our modern -isms and -ologies, Dickens’ writing should be viewed as a prolonged and intense struggle between his commitment to amuse the reader and his equal determination to be a serious and significant writer of novels. I also suggested that the intensity and urgency of this struggle arises from the fact that Dickens was uniquely placed to invent a new popular form of entertainment. Dickens experienced to the full the precariousness of the early Victorian middle classes during his childhood. This contributed both to a lasting shame, and (more importantly) to an understanding of and intimacy with people of all backgrounds and classes. He sought in his novels to engage a wider and more inclusive readership than any novelist had done before. Finding the balance of fiction and narrative through novel writing is therefore in Dickens’ work a pioneering and epic undertaking since he reached and included a larger readership than any previous novelist had succeeded in addressing. His writing created a mass audience for the novel.
However this theme in his writing, while apparently new, is not of course without precedent. Dickens’ preoccupation with the relationship between fiction and narrative is closely related to the one Wordsworth identified in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads when he undertook to be “a man speaking to men”. How can a writer have a voice that is at the same time an authorial and a common one? This is Dickens’ constant concern. In the course of my analysis of the novels I suggest that Dickens often writes like a reader, setting up strange artistic follies only abruptly to exit and circumnavigate them by means of an irreverent – and sometimes apparently irrelevant – character or plot twist.
Viewed in this way, his work becomes an accessible exploration of storytelling, and of what stories can mean to a new common reader. I suggest that each novel develops discoveries made in previous novels and argue that one of the most interesting and underrated aspects of Dickens’ writing is that through successive books he undertakes a complex exploration of the way stories work.
There is then one further suggestion, with regard to the discomfort of some readers with Dickens’ lack of ‘realism’. Dickens wrote little about writing, but in his Preface to Bleak House he attempted to address this issue of realism by saying that his writing seeks to find the ‘romantic side of familiar things’. The things we invent but recognise and our attempts to incorporate these new observations into a common story (the interaction of fiction and narrative) constitute for Dickens the ‘real’ way our imaginations work – a fact he was grasping for when he wrote of Nancy’s character in Oliver Twist, “IT IS TRUE”. The difficulty and importance (and elusive nature) of the enterprise is betrayed by his capitalisation. Dickens’ recognition that we all understand fictions and the urgency to make sense of them through storytelling is the driving force in his writing. It is then in the always surprising relationship between fiction and narrative that the story is told, and the truth Dickens was reaching after is found.
With this in mind, I hope that the following chapters discussing Dickens’ novels can be considered useful and entertaining in themselves, and more importantly lead to a rewarding reading of our most important English novelist.
Graham Daldry December 2015
A fuller version of this introduction may be found here: Charles Dickens and the Form of the Novel – full introduction