Hazel McHaffie

Learning from a master

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In my occasional musings about authors who break stylistic rules and get away with it, I haven’t as yet mentioned our old friend Charles Dickens. We all know he’s lauded and revered for all sorts of reasons, not least his perspicacious commentary of social issues, but only recently did I see an article about his narrative audacity. It was in The Author, and by Professor John Mullan of University College London, who’s currently writing a book about the great man’s novels. I found it so fascinating I thought I’d share some of his comments with you.

Professor Mullan maintains that it was Dickens’ experimental approach to prose that set him apart from all previous novelists. The ‘fizz of his sentences’ redefined what constituted eloquent prose. He latched on to habits of spoken English normally scorned by writers – clichés, redundancies, common parlance, idiosyncrasies, exaggeration, repetition, lists – and used them to brilliant effect.

Specific examples best illustrate the point, I think.

First then, clichés. OK, all self-respecting writers are taught to wage war against clichés. And yet Dickens brought out ‘the energy lying dormant within‘ them. Example? The famous opening of A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Two common phrases – ‘to begin with’ and ‘dead as a door nail’ are used very cleverly here. ‘To begin with’ tells us that this is the first fact to state, but it also alerts us to the fact that Marley will be coming back to life as the story progresses. Neat, huh?

‘As dead as a door nail’ …? Dickens explains:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Can’t you just hear some famous thespian declaiming these lines as an aside and the audience appreciatively roaring with laughter? Dickens not only brings this popular adage to life but he plays to the doubts we may harbour ourselves about the finality of a death: certainly the ‘common way of asserting that a life is extinguished will not be enough to stop this dead man returning.‘ (my emphasis)

Or another example of a cliché used for amusement as well as depiction: Mr Pecksniff the pious hypocrite in Martin Chuzzlewitt is telling the old man from whom he hopes to win a legacy, that he despises money.

It would be no description of Mr Pecksniff’s gentleness of manner to adopt the common parlance, and say that he looked at this moment as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He rather looked as if any quantity of butter might have been made out of him, by churning the milk of human kindness, as it spouted upwards from his heart.

Figurative absurdity that conveys so much about the man.

Another literary no-no: exaggeration. Generally speaking, less is more. In Dickens’ hands, however, it arouses our sense of the ridiculous. Listen to this passage conveying Mr Dombey’s exultation on the birth of a son, ‘not quite noticing that his wife is near death‘, and his sense of self importance, in Dombey and Son.

The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre … A.D. had no concern with Anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombeii – and Son.

You can feel the thud on the floorboards as the pompous fellow struts up and down, chest puffed out, self-satisfaction written all over his face, can’t you?

Repetition is another no-no for writers normally, but Dickens uses it to great purpose – to convey obsession – in Our Mutual Friend.

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby …

Don’t you wish you’d thought of this?

Then there are lists. Mullan shares two superb examples from Dickens’ pen. The first is Pip’s disgust as he takes in the horror of having a convict’s money paying for his gentlemanly expectations in Great Expectations.

In all his [Convict Magwich] ways of sitting and standing, and eating and drinking, – of brooding about in a high-shouldered reluctant style, – of taking out his great hornhandled jackknife and wiping it on his legs and cutting his food, – of lifting light glasses and cups to his lips, as if they were clumsy pannikins, – of chopping a wedge off his bread, and soaking up with it the last fragments of gravy round and round his plate, as if to make the most of an allowance, and then drying his finger-ends on it, and then swallowing it, – in these ways and a thousand other small nameless instances arising every minute in the day, there was Prisoner, Felon, Bondsman, plain as plain could be.

You can feel Pip’s eyes absorbing these habits with dawning horror, can’t you? All those small foibles amounting to a massive, eye-opening, most unwelcome realisation.

The second is also from Great Expectations (resonates with me particularly since I studied this book for O-level English lit back in the day). Pip is narrating his journey down the Thames estuary determined to intercept the packet boat to France so that his benefactor can escape.

For now the last of the fleet of ships was round the last low point we had headed; and the last green barge, straw-laden, with a brown sail, had followed; and some ballast-lighters, shaped like a child’s first rude imitation of a boat, lay low in the mud; and the little squat shoal-lighthouse on open piles stood crippled in the mud on stilts and crutches; and slimy stakes stuck out of the mud, and slimy stones stuck out of the mud, and red landmarks and tidemarks stuck out of the mud, and an old landing stage and an old roofless building slipped into the mud, and all about us was stagnation and mud.

Not one of us lesser spotted authors, I suspect, would dare a sentence this long, this repetitious, and yet, it works beautifully in the hands of Charles Dickens, doesn’t it?

I’m indebted to Professor Mullan for this illuminating new look into Dickens’ cleverness. Maybe, after all, the rule book for writers needs revision …? No, rather, I suspect that only the true expert knows when and how to bend those rules to such spectacular effect. And how many of us will ever aspire to Dickens’ giddy heights?


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