I recently found myself reading a book I hated. Normally, I would have ditched it after a few pages – but this was for a book group, and moreover it was by an author whose work I normally enjoy and admire.
It didn’t get any better. In fact by the end of it, I disliked it so much that I felt the need to reach for an antidote. I wanted something guaranteed to restore my faith in fiction. I took a deep breath and reached for Great Expectations.
Now, I have always accepted that Dickens is a great writer. It’s just that I’ve never found him easy to get into. I have read some of his books; I once had to teach Our Mutual Friend, which obviously entailed reading it. (Though I did feel a sneaking sympathy for the student who confided that it was his aim to pass the exam without ever having read the book in its entirety – it is very long…) I read David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities back in the dim and distant past, and I’ve read the beginning of Bleak House lots of times – thoroughly admiring the amazing description of fog at the beginning, floundering a little at all the stuff about Chancery, and finally being too insanely irritated by the sweetness of Esther Summerson to carry on.
However, I felt that the time had come to try again. Somehow, I knew that right now, Dickens was what was needed. Plus, it’s the bicentenary of his birth next year, so it must be as well to be prepared for wall to wall Charles.
I was not disappointed. Great Expectations was a revelation. It was exuberant, it was funny, it had me on the edge of my seat; every character was distinctive and unique, Estella was far from sweet and Pip was an imperfect hero. The story rollicked along at a satisfying pace, but it also took the time to explore some interesting byways. And it made me think – about people, mainly, and how fallible but heroic they can be.
But another thing that struck me was that I have recently read a number of books for children and teenagers that have more than a touch of the Dickensian about them. I was interested to explore this: is it because Dickens – perhaps in the guise of film and TV adaptations – is so ubiquitous that his influence can’t be escaped if the setting is Victorian? Or were the writers concerned – Michelle Lovric, Penny Dolan, and Mary Hooper – conscious of his example? I decided to ask them.
Michelle’s book, The Mourning Emporium, follows the adventures of an extraordinary set of characters who we first met in The Undrowned Child, which was set in a sort of parallel nineteenth century Venice. For the second book, the action moves to London. Both books have for me the exuberance, the rich variety and the playfulness which characterise the master.
A mourning emporium also features in Mary Hooper’s book, Fallen Grace – amazingly to me, since I’d never heard of one before. It’s a shop where gloomy Victorians could buy all their mourning clothes, jewellery, cards etc, and arrange elaborate funerals with professional mourners (‘mutes’, whose job it was to look sad and weep), horses with black plumes, etc etc. Whereas Michelle’s book is a fantasy, Mary’s is set firmly in a real world, a world with vast divisions between the poor and the wealthy. Dickens actually has a walk-on part in this book.
Penny Dolan’s book, A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E., concerns the adventures of a boy who loses his parents and is cheated out of his inheritance by his unscrupulous Uncle Scrope and his lawyer. He is sent to an appalling boarding school, Murkstone Hall, whose headteacher is called Bulloughby – as with Dickens, the names tell you a great deal. He escapes, but has a long journey to make, and many villains to deal with, before he can find his way home
I asked the three writers whether Dickens was an influence they were aware of, and what aspects of his writing they admired or felt themselves to have been influenced by.
ML: For me, the greatest compliment I ever receive about my books is when someone describes them as ‘Dickensian’… If it is ‘Dickensian’ to extract the maximum joy from the English language, to royally entertain while pricking the conscience as painfully as if with hot needles… then yes, I want to be ‘Dickensian’.
Another thing I love about Dickens is the way he breaks all the rules. He makes lists. He repeats. He digresses. He invents patently ridiculous names. And yet… he makes it all work. I’ve always suspected that some of his success is precisely down to the gusto with which he trounces the rules. I can picture him writhing with pleasure at his desk while he subverts all the antiquated courtesies and conventions of writing.
When you love a writer as much as I love Dickens, I think you inevitably do end up writing ‘tribute’ characters. In The Mourning Emporium, I have Turtledove, an English bulldog who speaks a Victorian cockney dialect. He is a kind of Fagin character, looking after a band of orphans. Unlike Fagin, his entire being is focused on the welfare and happiness of his ‘childer’. I deployed Turteldove as a foil to a female villain, who pretends to ‘mother’ children, but in fact inflicts outrageous mental and physical cruelty upon them.
PD: There was no influence at the start, other than a preference for writing about the past. The growing points for the book were: a visit to an ancient boarding school; watching young actors ‘fly’ overhead in a theatre production and a BBC R4 fragment about the working conditions of Victorian theatre children.
My agent picked up on the echoes of Dickens and Nicholas Nickleby in the first section of A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. I hadn’t tried to do a Dickens, but am sure his work unconsciously primes the canvas whenever we try to picture the Victorian period. Although the Ackroyd biography (of Dickens) was part of my random ‘research’ reading, so were biographies of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry and a range of social history books.
Dickens, to me as a writer, offers an intense sense of the child or unformed hero struggling to make sense of an untidy and unkind world. To this he adds a variety of eccentric characters – likeable, silly, cruel or steadfastly brave. A whirl of other lives go on around the central character, enriching the story for the reader. And – is this Dickensian? – I often find myself thinking in terms of light and darkness when I’m picturing a setting as well as using emotional brightness and shadow throughout the story.
MH: I have read Dickens, of course (actually, not ‘of course’, because I only read him twenty years ago) but, knowing I was going to be writing a novel set in Victorian times, I deliberately didn’t re-read him when I was about to write Fallen Grace. I did read Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens, however, because I knew I wanted him to have a walk-on part and it was essential that I knew (a) he was in London at the specific date I wanted him to be and (b) how he felt about funeral directors! Of course, I must have been influenced by all the Dickens’ TV and film adaptations I’ve seen over the years, and quite a few have death/graveyards in them. Oh yes, and I knew Bleak House (my favourite) began with a massive pea-souper fog so I just HAD to have one of those.
I think what I admire most is the way Dickens manages to blend matters of great seriousness with humour. I also love his coincidences – I’ve got plenty of those in Fallen Grace but thought – well, if he can get away with them, then so can I.
SP: I’ve now moved on to my second Dickens – Nicholas Nickleby – and have been reading his account of the boarding school run by Wackford Squeers. (Oh, the names, the wonderful names!) It’s so horrifying I’m metaphorically hiding behind the sofa with one eye closed as I read it. (But I am not liking Dickens’ rendition of a Yorkshire accent. It’s very distracting.)
Many, many thanks to my panel. Oh, and a word to the wise; I’m told that there’s to be a new adaptation at Christmas on BBC of Great Expectations – no doubt the first of many tributes to the great man as his very big birthday approaches.
Sue Purkiss… whose most recent book, Emily’s Surprising Voyage, is set in Victorian times, and does perhaps have a very faint whiff of Dickens about it. For more information, see www.suepurkiss.com