Notes on how Dickens worked his novels

Dickens' Working Notes for His Novels, edited with an introduction and notes by Harry Stone. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 432 pp. Illustrated. $74.95. Charles Dickens was a novelist of the highest imaginative gifts - and the dedicated craftsmanship to transform his imaginings into the reality of art.

For many years, the fact that he wrote for serial publication in magazines; the broad appeal of his intensely emotional public readings; his dramatic, even melodramatic, style and subject matter (admired by Dostoyevsky); his lack of a formal education - in short, his sheer popularity - undermined his critical reputation.

Responding to his American friend Charles Eliot Norton's praise for Dickens, John Ruskin expressed his fear that Dickens's sensationalism stirred audiences for the wrong reasons.

In the 20th century, the critic F.R Leavis excluded Dickens from his ``Great Tradition'' of the novel, although he later revised his view to admit the merits of ``Hard Times.'' The ``New Critics,'' who ought to have admired the ``organic unity'' of Dickens's ``texts,'' failed to notice it.

And conversely, many current authors of best-selling potboilers proudly invoke Dickens as their putative ancestor: a writer who was immensely popular, dismissed by the literati, yet vindicated as a great master after all!

But as this superbly edited and produced edition of Dickens's working notes demonstrates, Dickens was a highly conscious, conscientious artist who took great pains to achieve his effects. Certainly, this edition of his notes should go a long way toward resolving literary critical arguments as to whether Dickens was fully aware of using the wealth of motifs, images, symbols, voices, viewpoints, and other techniques that his most sensitive and sophisticated interpreters have found in his novels. The answer would seem to be a definite yes.

From these notes we can see, for example, that it is no accident that some of his characters seem more realistic, others more symbolic. ``Wife - allegorical,'' he notes of one character. Phrases that reverberate in our memories, like little Paul Dombey's question, ``Papa, what is money?'' are shown to be the very seeds from which the chapters surrounding them took shape. We also see the importance Dickens attached to the titles of his novels as providing keys to their themes.

In his introduction, Harry Stone distinguishes these ``working notes'' from Dickens's notebooks (in which he jotted down ideas in a more casual way) and from his manuscripts and proofs (which represent his work at a later stage of polishing). This volume contains the incomplete working notes extant from two of his earlier works, ``The Old Curiosity Shop'' and ``Martin Chuzzlewit,'' and the complete sets that served as the ``bare bones'' from which sprang the fully fleshed creations ``Dombey and Son,'' ``David Copperfield,'' ``Bleak House,'' ``Hard Times,'' ``Little Dorrit,'' ``Great Expectations'' ``Our Mutual Friend,'' and the unfinished ``Mystery of Edwin Drood.''

Photographs of the original handwritten notes appear on the left-hand pages, typographical transcriptions on the right. There's a helpful introduction to each set of notes, and the book as a whole is enhanced by charming illustrations.

In these notes we can see the dual components of Dickens's art. First, there is the seed, the spark, the ``daimon'' or spirit that leads him on: the snatch of phrase or dialogue heard in the mind's ear; the haunting image of river, strand, sandstorm, deserted house, or fog-shrouded city in the mind's eye; the moment of revelation; the odd, irreducible something that must be incorporated, that, indeed, will form the core of the corpus.

From this comes the working out, the planning, the extension of the story line, the plotting up to crisis points, the shading, pacing, and balancing, in short, the craft, the task of making the vision that burns within him believable, meaningful, compelling, and real to the reader, who is the imagined goal of all his imaginings.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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