Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Charles Dickens, dramatist

What makes a writer choose to write in one form rather than another? Is it a matter of choice, or do poets, playwright and novelists have poetry, plays and novels thrust upon them? Does the form suit the writer or the time? Was Dickens riding the tide when he chose the novel? Why did such a consummate creator of dramatic situations and theatrical characters, not write plays?

He might have done, if the novel had not given him a popular form which he could mould to his own expansive purposes in a way that the theatre of the time did not. Nineteenth century British theatre was stuck in the past and lacked ambition. It was a stage for actors, not writers. Dickens could have been an actor-manager, but he chose instead to be a storyteller-magazine editor. His talent and his ambition were too large to be contained within the narrow form that theatre then was, they needed a form capable of containing all forms.

The novel allowed Dickens to make theatrical characters out of the raw material of London life and bring them to life himself without the aid of actors. He gives each character a voice, a costume, a way of walking. All the things that an actor would do to bring a script to life on stage, Dickens does himself by combining script and stage directions in vivid prose that puts his readers in the stalls and the theatre in their imaginations.

He drew in his head again, sat down at the bedside, and looked on at Affery Flintwinch making the bed.

“Affery, you were not married when I went away.”

She screwed her mouth into the form of saying, “No,” shook her head, and proceeded to get a pillow into its case.

“How did it happen?”

“Why, Jeremiah, o’ course,” said Affery, with an end of the pillow-case between her teeth.

Dickens’s description of the servant’s expressions and gestures lets the reader see her as vividly as if the scene were playing out in front of them. In the same novel, Little Dorrit, the prison turnkey talks proudly of the Marshalsea’s oldest inhabitant.

“Brought up as a gentleman, he was, if ever a man was. Ed’cated at no end of expense. Went into the Marshal’s house once, to try out a new piano for him. Played it, I understand, like one o’clock—beautiful! As to languages—speaks anything. We’ve had a Frenchman here in his time, and it’s my opinion he knowed more French than the Frenchman did.”

An actor would know how to play it, where to pause to get the laughs. Dickens lets his readers do that for themselves, with a script that no playwright could improve on and that every actor would relish. As they would the part of Flora, Arthur Clennam’s childhood sweetheart.

“You mustn’t think of going yet,” said Flora—Arthur had looked at his hat, being in a ludicrous dismay, and not knowing what to do: “you could never be so unkind as to think of going, Arthur—I mean Mr. Arthur—or I suppose Mr. Clennam would be far more proper—but I am sure I don’t know what I’m saying—without a word about the dear old days gone for ever, however when I come to think of it I dare say it would be much better not to speak of them and it’s highly probable that you have some much more agreeable engagement and pray let Me be the last person in the world to interfere with it though there was a time, but I am running into nonsense again.”

In the case of Pancks, the rent-collector, Dickens adds imagery to his mode of characterisation.

He had dirty hands and dirty broken nails, and looked as if he had been in the coals; he was in a perspiration, and snorted and sniffed and puffed and blew, like a little labouring steam engine.

The simile becomes a metaphor when, contrasting Pancks with his employer, Mr Casby, he depicts the latter as a ship and the former as a tug.

…much as an unwieldy ship in the Thames river may sometimes be seen heavily driving with the tide, broadside on, stern first, in its own way and in the way of everything else, though making a great show of navigation, when all of a sudden, a little coaly steam-tug will bear down upon it, take it in tow, and bustle off with it; similarly the cumbrous Patriarch had been taken in tow by the snorting Pancks, and was now following in the wake of that dingy little craft.

In all his subsequent appearances, Pancks makes his entrance in the manner of a tug.

Mr Pancks worked his way in, came alongside the desk, made himself fast by leaning his arms upon it, and started conversation with a puff and a snort.

Dickens’s theatricality is one of his great strengths as a novelist, but so is the poetry of his prose.

Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day… Everything that lived or grew, was oppressed by the glare; except the lizard, passing swiftly over rough stone walls, and the cicala, chirping his dry hot chirp, like a rattle. The very dust was scorched brown, and something quivered in the atmosphere as if the air itself were panting.

The poetic cadence returns at the end of chapter 3.

And thus ever, by day and night, under the sun and under the stars, climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another, move all we restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life.

That cadence is there too in the last sentence of the closing chapter.

They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and in shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.

The sentence follows what might otherwise have seemed a happy, happily ever after, fairytale ending, and gives us instead its down-to-earth opposite. Dickens would never fall into the trap of making his prose too poetic or its rhythm too metrical, but the sentence in every other respect recalls the last lines of Paradise Lost.

They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way.

Dickens made the novel into a portmanteau form, combining all other forms, as Polonius might have said, theatrical-poetical-satirical-historical-comical-tragical. Later novelists, in their determination to be as little like Dickens as possible, confined themselves to one form or, later still, one genre. The Dickensian novel, ironically for something so diverse, came to be seen as a dead end. George Eliot took the English novel in a different direction, Virginia Woolf in yet another, since when most English novelists have made their way on one of those two bumpy roads.

In his refusal to be confined, in his jackdaw tendencies, in his theatricality, in his ability to communicate and above all in his popularity, Dickens’s legacy is not to be found in any literary form, but in film.

2 comments on “Charles Dickens, dramatist

  1. Matthew Evans
    July 30, 2020

    Thank you for a terrific appreciation of Dickens.
    His legacy may be found in film, but I don’t think it can ever do him justice. For example, Gillian Anderson does a great job of portraying Lady Dedlock in the TV adaptation of Bleak House, but I don’t think any actor’s craft can replace the way in which the written word evokes such depths in the reader’s imagination.
    For example this wonderful description:
    “How Alexander wept when he had no more worlds to conquer, everybody knows – or has some reason to know by this time, the matter having been rather frequently mentioned. My Lady Dedlock, having conquered HER world, fell not into the melting, but rather into the freezing, mood. An exhausted composure, a worn-out placidity, an equanimity of fatigue not to be ruffled by interest or satisfaction, are the trophies of her victory. She is perfectly well-bred. If she could be translated to heaven to-morrow, she might be expected to ascend without any rapture.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Calcutt
    July 18, 2020

    Excellent on one of my favourite writers, Neil. Thank you.


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This entry was posted on July 18, 2020 by in Literature.
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