Was Dickens writing about a real London?

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1 December
09:52
December
2016

I think the answer to that is to ask what kind of novelist he is. And I think, to be anachronistic, Dickens writes magical realism. That is to say his fiction is very firmly rooted in the social and psychological and political situations in 19th century England, but he's filtering that through an imagination that loves the Arabian Nights, loves ghost stories, and loves fantasy. 

A Christmas Carol is a perfect example of this because, in his correspondence before he started writing it, he said he will “strike the heaviest blow in my power” about the oppression of children as mine workers. And so you get the allegorical figures of ignorance and want, but the main thing you get is Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit and other characters, and at the end of day what we're concerned with in the story is the kind of attitudes we should take towards the life we live in.

In the preface to Bleak House he says “I have purposely dealt with the romantic side of familiar things” and he frequently writes about imagination, fantasy or fancy. So everything is seen through the lens of imagination. It's also seen from the perspective of someone who loves the theatre, and his characters routinely act as if they're on the stage, both in terms of their gestures and how they perform rather than conversing. That kind of theatricality permeates his fiction.

“Yes, it's real London, but viewed by someone who sees the allegorical in everything.”

One of the more interesting works in recent years is Malcolm Andrews' book about Dickens' public readings in which he emphasised the extent to which Dickens performing as the reader of his own work, doing solo entertainment, is very much Dickens the writer because the persona of the author writing and telling us a story is very much at the forefront of all his works. Again, a great example is in A Christmas Carol where he mentions that the Ghost of Christmas Present is standing very close behind Scrooge, just looking over his shoulder, as close to Scrooge as I am to you and I'm standing beside you. That sense of being entertained and amused at the art of a storyteller is very much what he does.

So, yes, it's real London, but a real London as viewed by an amazingly imaginative man who sees the representative, the allegorical, the significant aspect of everything he looks at, describes and writes about.

And did Dickens create our idea of the Victorians? I think so. Because he was so widely read and because he was so much attuned to the temper of the times, both in what he celebrated and what he deplored and attacked, for very many of us what we think of as Victorian Britain is Dickens' Britain. Just as he writes novels that look at the real world imaginatively, so too we look back at the Victorian age through the filter of Dickens' writing. 

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