It is not uncommon to hear a contemporary novel described as “Dickensian.” But what does that mean exactly? Most of the time the book is nothing like Dickens but it is long and wordy with lots of characters so automatically gets labeled “Dickensian” as if that defines a Dickens novel. Or maybe there are a few quirky characters, after all I’ve yet to read a Dickens novel that lacked an eccentric or quirky character. But there are plenty of books with quirky characters and they are nothing at all like Dickens.
I am currently reading David Copperfield on my kindle and have reached the 53% mark. A couple weeks ago Tom at Wuthering Expectations had a multi-day discussion of Great Expectations noting so many wonderful details of the book.
And so I have been thinking more carefully while reading David Copperfield, paying more attention to the details. And I have decided that while Dickens tells a great story, the fun of it all, what is “Dickensian,” is in the details.
When we first meet Miss Murdstone we instantly know quite a lot about her just from a few marvelous details:
When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was.
Don’t go to Miss Murdstone looking for comfort or sympathy!
Dickens uses detail for humor too. David is giving his first dinner for his friend Steerforth and two of Steerforth’s friends. Much alcohol has been drunk and David, only about 18, has far too much:
Somebody was leaning out of my bedroom window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself. I was addressing myself as ‘Copperfield’, and saying, ‘Why did you try to smoke? You might have known you couldn’t do it.’ Now, somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass. That was I too. I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair—only my hair, nothing else—looked drunk.
Only his hair looked drunk! I giggled over that one for quite some time.
But what keeps popping into my head since I read it most often is the description of a lady who was at a dinner party given by David’s boss. Dickens describes her as someone who could be Hamlet’s aunt. Whenever he refers to her she has no name but Hamlet’s aunt. And then comes this gem:
To mend the matter, Hamlet’s aunt had the family failing of indulging in soliloquy, and held forth in a desultory manner, by herself, on every topic that was introduced. These were few enough, to be sure; but as we always fell back upon Blood, she had as wide a field for abstract speculation as her nephew himself.
The “family failing of indulging in soliloquy.” Who else but Dickens could come up with a description like that? It’s a brilliant off-hand description almost thrown away and easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention.
Yes, I’m pretty sure that what is “Dickensian” about Dickens is in the details.