Sketches on Boz: Books Inspired by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is a poet. In his Defense of Poesy, Sir Philip Sydney, said something like this: “There are many poets who never versified and there are many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poet.” So, Dickens may not be one to slide a romantic rhyming couplet over on you or scratch out a sonnet on the springtime, but he does have a beauteous sense of rhythm, metre, and poetic wording. But as much as I would like to wax poetic on Dickens’ various literary powers, the more technical skills of plot and characterization are the ones that writers try to emulate to this day. His resolutions may sometimes strike the reader as too convenient and coincidental, but there is satisfaction in the smooth detangling of the threads of a plot suitably knotted by the author, with enough minor uncertainties left to fodder interest and speculation in the interested reader. And the characters fairly leap from the pages, fleshed out with speech patterns and tics, distinctive looks, and, well, flesh, dazzling the mind with their palpable personalities and presences. Even the side characters are solid templates for any ambitious Dickens impersonator to fill in with brush strokes and plunk down into the midst of a Dickensian plot of their own. Which many have.

I have read a few tales that borrow characters and plots from Dickens novels that, while not pretending to perfectly replicate Dickens’ style or content, pay homage to the great English novelist that has become so much a part of cultural consciousness. The first one I read is Havisham by Ronald Frame, based on Great Expectations, then The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd, based on Bleak House, and also The Mammoth Book of Dickensian Whodunits by various authors, based on the life and various works of Dickens.

Great Expectations: Dashed

Although Great Expectations was not destined to become my favourite Dickens novel, I enjoyed the intrigue and the characters, including the bizarre Miss Havisham, the elderly never-bride who lives eternally in the moment of her wedding morning when she heard her bridegroom would not be coming. Her backstory leading up to that is what Ronald Frame attempts to re-imagine with Havisham. After her mother’s death, young Miss Havisham’s father marries their cook for love, adopting the cook’s son and cutting him into the inheritance. Whether or not the cook’s son was also Mr. Havisham’s son is debated upon, but either way, Miss Havisham resents the cook and the boy who she sees as cheating her out of her due share in the family brewery business. The relationship with her new step-family disintegrates to the point that she is sent away to live with another family. There, she meets Mr. Compeyson and falls in love, setting up the dramatic events at the end, when Miss Havisham is given the news while dressing for her wedding that Compeyson has disappeared.

Now, to understand my reaction to this novel, I must first explain that I had recently watched the single season run of the show Dickensian. In it, the backstory of Miss Havisham plays a central part in the story arc and the scoundrely jilter, Mr. Compeyson, takes over as primary antagonist and all-round bad’un. Despite the show’s copious mis-steps—which I cannot take time to include here, but might put in a review sometime—Mr. Compeyson is a marvel of well-written villainy. He is so unerringly competent, ruthless, and opportunistic that I grew to feel such a passionate hate of him that I would have been happy to see him dead in a ditch. Usually I don’t feel strongly about villains, good or bad, but Dickensian‘s Compeyson really affected me and I admired the writing that created such a powerful character. Coming into Havisham, I was hoping for a comparable character to the Mr. Compeyson from Dickensian, though I knew there would be a different imagining of him, as he is so briefly named and never even makes an appearance in Great Expectations.

In Frame’s novel, Miss Havisham, from whose perspective it’s told, was a dull protagonist to me. She shows little personality and I didn’t feel like her character developed strongly enough to lead logically to the extreme reaction when she is left at the altar, so to speak. The events were forgettable as were the other characters generally, and the writing style/voice didn’t contribute much to counter that. And because the plot and characters were so lacklustre, I had hoped that, to make up for it, I would at least get a well-written villain; after all, Compeyson makes up for so much that is lacklustre in Dickensian. But, far from making up for Miss Havisham’s bland character with scheming and villainy, Compeyson turns into more of a Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility. Think what you like about spineless, heartless, mercenary Willoughby playing around with women’s affections and then ditching them, he at least is not to be maligned as a criminal offender who sets out to deceive and cheat women from the word “go.” He’s irresponsible at best, but only selfishly negligent at worst. And, let’s face it, not that interesting. Compeyson barely gets a character worthy of Miss Havisham’s interest, and then before you know it he’s disappeared with someone else. Of course, it doesn’t take long to develop a premature attachment to or obsession of someone, but she didn’t show believable signs that that was what she was experiencing. So in the end, the climactic forever-wedding-gown-wearing, stop-the-clocks, leave-the-wedding-feast-to-moulder reaction seemed out of nowhere. I think I’ll read Great Expectations again.

Solitary House; see also Bleak House

Bleak House is my favourite Dickens novel (so far: there are two I haven’t yet read), so The Solitary House being based on it could even more easily lead to disappointment than Havisham did. However, I found The Solitary House well-written, with the bonus of a compelling and interesting protagonist. The main character, Charles Maddox, is a detective of sorts, out to delve into the mystery presented to him by the lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, on behalf of a client. Through the seamy side of London, the lawless countryside, and the city’s law offices, Charles uncovers the buried clues to a conspiracy that centres on the “solitary house” and its nameless inmates. Rather than reimagining Bleak House in a fictional setting, it transposes some of the loose events and characters into a “real-life” setting, casting Dickens’ novel as one fictionalized version inspired by certain facts of something that actually happened. In a way, Dickens is a character in this universe. It is (mostly) done in a unique and thoughtful way that creates another layer underneath the story as told in Bleak House, without disrespecting the source material. (Ahem! Frank Beddor.) Also, in contrast to Havisham’s vanilla villain, The Solitary House delivered with a corrupt and sinister Mr. Tulkinghorn who was as formidable as he was in Dickens.

Now, for some possible drawbacks to the rather positive report above, our flatfoot Charles Maddox is a man of rather loose habits and morals, and engages in some questionable behaviour with a member of his domestic staff. Also, the repurposing of the central, and overwhelming majority of the POV, character of Bleak House to contribute to a different mystery plot (because it’s not a Bleak House retelling, and rightly so) felt a bit off to me in its execution. Without being too spoiler-y, a character’s mental faculties were made to be lacking in The Solitary House in order to explain why she mistook something momentous for a simple “fever” illness. It just seemed so unlikely to me that she wouldn’t feel something different was going on right under her nose, even if she didn’t understand it completely. Regardless, it’s a good read and I found it highly entertaining.

Woolly Mammoth Extinct: Whodunit?

I’m only briefly, and very generally, going to talk about how I found The Mammoth Book of Dickensian Whodunits. They were by and large based on different characters or scenarios from Dickens works and life: there was an alternate history of little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop, a future encounter between Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger (though I seem to recall the explanation being a little fuzzy on how the Dodger got out of being deported, as he was going to be at the end of Oliver Twist), an attempt on Dickens’ life during his American travels in Boston (during which, bizarre as it is, Edgar Allen Poe appears briefly as a suspect), and a case involving a train wreck and featuring a guest appearance by author Mary Gaskell. There are was also a story dealing with the extant circumstances surrounding Great Expectations, though not directly relating to Miss Havisham, as well as other instances from Dickens’ life, and a few others, but I only have a fuzzy recollection of them. Overall, I enjoyed reading the Dickens-inspired short-stories, but very few stood out as above and beyond.


There are other books on my radar based on Dickens that I haven’t yet read but want to–Dodger by Terry Pratchett, and Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard–but the next one I’m planning on reading is Drood by Dan Simmons. When I read The Mystery of Edwin Drood years ago, I had it downloaded onto my Kobo which tracks the percentage as you turn the pages. I kept looking at the percentage with concern as I neared what I supposed was the middle of the book: it was telling me I was over 90% done and closing on the end. I assumed it was a glitch, but then I turned a page in the middle of a chapter and got sent to the home screen. I clicked back in, thinking it was a mistake. I tried to turn that last page once more. Back to the home screen. I had finished the book. What kind of crummy, incomplete free downloadable classic was this I had gotten? I went online, looking for another version. I found discussions of alternate endings, different people’s completions of the story, the mystery of a work left incomplete at the author’s death. Somehow, I had started (and finished) the book not knowing that The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens was never completed. Now, with the bitterness of that memory somewhat lessened, I am going to read something based on The Mystery of Edwin Drood and hope for some sort of satisfactory closure. Dan Simmons, don’t let me down. 

Do you like Dickens? Have you read any good books inspired by him? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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