Please extend a very warm welcome to Dickens and I... for Amanda Craig, writer and journalist and great encourager of all things dovegreyreader. Amanda's most recent novel, the hugely successful Hearts and Minds is currently optioned for development as a TV series and for the novel's all-seeing eye over 21st century London, it is surely covering territory that Mr Dickens would find very intriguing were he to walk back into our lives today. Another of Amanda's novels, A Private Place has just been re-published in Kindle format, and with its themes of life at a boarding school I think our man would have been fascinated by that one too.
When I was 21, I discovered Our Mutual Friend, and it was like getting an electric shock. I’d read several other Dickens novels (David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby as a child, Great Expectations and Bleak House as a teenager) but I read them too young, without understanding, and with a good deal of resentment in the case of the last because it was a set text for English. I found his style and his characters grotesque. But one day I found nothing but Our Mutual Friend to read on a long hot summer abroad, and it pretty much turned me into a novelist.
What thrilled me wasn’t the obvious things – the exuberant language, the fantastic characters, the suppurating gloom – but the way that Dickens combined so many genres of story.
Our Mutual Friend (or OMF) is at once a murder mystery, a thriller, a romance, a social satire, social realism and a contemporary literary novel of its time. From the very first chapter when we realise the figures we see floating on the Thames are towing the body of a dead man,
to the second with its exquisitely funny description of the Veneerings’ dinner party, to the third with its three lawyers describing their frustration, loneliness and boredom – it was like moving through a succession of brightly-lit railway carriages, and living with each of the passengers. Each carriage was different, but all were connected.
It had never occurred to me that a big, serious novel about contemporary life could have a detective story as its engine, and of course I copied it years later. But Dickens did it first, and best. If a few modern novelists are rediscovering his panoptic technical genius, it’s because he understood so clearly how to make us understand that life isn’t all written in the same key. The very aspect of his work that makes refined critical sensibilities recoil in horror is the source of his greatness, because he shows how our existence can seem tragic one moment and wildly farcical the next.
I love his vulgarity, his energy, his passion and his compassion. Who hasn’t met people like the Veneerings, with their “bran-new house in a bran new quarter”, immensely pleased with themselves and mindful at all times of social advancement? But then, who hasn’t walked quickly past people like the Hexams? Going into their miserable, decomposing home after the Veneering mansion is a classic Dickens manoeuvre: you are made to shiver, then laugh, then find yourself moved to tears. He’s the only writer besides Shakespeare whose imagination contains a whole world.
Of course, if you’re looking for the perfect Dickens novel, you turn to Great Expectations. Unlike the “baggy monsters” it never wastes a word, and the tightness of its construction is in contrast to OMF, Dickens’s last completed novel. Nor does OMF have the gorgeous squalor and oracular passion of Bleak House. Yet to me it’s the most fascinating, and in a way the most topical of his works, equating the worship of money with filth, and dismantling the heavy materialism that corrupted both the Victorians and present day society. It has an exceptionally moving heroine in Jenny Wren, a disabled child who transforms her pain and poverty and shame by becoming a dolls dressmaker; the whole novel is shot through with the spirit of fairytales. The lovely, kindly Boffins may not be able to rescue us from the world of the Veneerings (Mr Veneering, inevitably, becomes an MP) but to encounter them as characters always puts a smile on my face.