Emily Bowles is a PhD candidate at the University of York. Her research focuses on Charles Dickens’s self-representation 1857-1870, and representations by Dickens’s friends and family 1870-1939. She is also a postgraduate representative for the Northern Nineteenth Century Network and assistant administrator for the Women’s Life Writing Network. You can find her on Twitter @EmilyBowles
I had been keeping an eye out for Dickensian since October 2014, when rumours of it echoed around the Dickens Day Conference in Senate House, University of London. As such, there was a lot of pressure and great expectations for the screening of the first episode on Boxing Day 2015.
The first two episodes introduced a broad cast of characters drawn from a wide range of Dickens’s novels, including Oliver Twist, Martin Chuzzlewit, A Christmas Carol, The Old Curiosity Shop, David Copperfield (if we count Jip, Miss Havisham’s dog, who takes his name from Dora Spenlow’s pet), Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, with further novels invoked through the dialogue. The dizzying list meant that Tony Jordan’s addition of Fanny Biggetywitch took me a while to clock: it’s a very Dickensian-sounding name, and the overwhelming character introductions were a challenge even to committed Dickens fans and scholars (you can find a cast list on the BBC website). At thirty minutes long and with twenty episodes in total, the format more closely mirrors creator Tony Jordan’s previous work with soaps like Eastenders than the kinds of BBC adaptations that have been a regular feature of the Christmas period for many years.
It’s difficult to classify Dickensian: it’s certainly not an adaptation in the conventional sense, and it plays fast and loose with the lives of its characters. Trying to date it, for example, is near impossible, although fun to attempt: most of the characters are pre-Dickens iterations who have not yet begun to tread the paths laid out for them in the novels, but that is not universally true: although Fagin, Nancy, Sikes and Dodger seem to pre-date Oliver Twist (and they would have to in order to be present at all, based on the climactic events of the novel), comedy is provided by the married Bumbles that echoes the latter half of Oliver, and this is a marriage that should only take place during the events laid out by Dickens.
Oliver Twist seemed like the easiest touchstone to use to give the series a date, being published serially from 1837 so specifically in response to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. As such, I provisionally gave the series a date in the early 1830s: this would seem to fit with A Christmas Carol taking place in 1843, with Marley dead for some years before, and it was conceivable that a young Lady Dedlock and Miss Havisham could be friends before their Dickens storylines were written in the 1850s and 1860s, although the events of Great Expectations should take place in the early nineteenth century. I feared that an already-aging Inspector Bucket might not make it to Bleak House twenty years later; however, this 1830s date was contradicted by Honoria Barbary’s remark to Amelia Havisham, to reassure her about her own business capabilities, about a woman running the country. As Queen Victoria ascended the throne mid-1837 and Oliver commenced in February of that year, my detective work unravelled.
Part of the enjoyment of the series is bearing these details in mind while preparing to have your expectations subverted. An angelic Little Nell, assumed to be dead by a gin-sodden Mrs Gamp, revives. Bill Sikes attempts to rescue Nancy from having to sell herself for Fagin. Jaggers manages the financial affairs of several characters, Silas Wegg serves them drinks, and Scrooge lends – and collects – money from all. At the same time, we first see Fagin cooking sausages as in Oliver, and what we know about Miss Havisham haunts her narrative arc. Of course it isn’t possible to date the series, or second-guess how far Tony Jordan will conform to Dickens’s intended fates for his characters. The series has more in common with neo-Victorian fiction like Lynn Shepherd’s novel Tom-All-Alone’s than it does with Dickens’s fiction, and Jordan has suggested – or threatened – that he might change the characters’ storylines.
Some Twitterstorians have bemoaned the lack of humour in the series and complained that the dialogue is un-Dickensian. While I personally find the relationship between Inspector Bucket and Mr Venus quite entertaining, the complaint raises questions about what it means for something to be ‘Dickensian’. The series has clearly been built on the premise that it is the characters that shape the ‘Dickensian’, and as such it is adapting them to different circumstances and not attempting to mirror Dickens’s dialogue – although I would argue that reducing some characters to repetitive, humorous tropes is very recognisably Dickensian – while those seeking for Dickens’s other qualities are, perhaps, disappointed. With its soap opera format, flitting between the lives of so many different characters in a short space of time, it puts paid to the idea that Dickens’s fiction was the Victorian equivalent of the soap. There’s clearly a big difference between the two, but it is nonetheless enjoyable, especially after the character confusion of the first few episodes, once the series has settled into a few focal storylines. These are mostly centred on A Christmas Carol, Bleak House and Great Expectations.
Whether or not the series is truly or satisfactorily ‘Dickensian’, it is a joyous tribute to Dickens. Tony Jordan’s love for the characters comes through, and Stephen Rea makes a particularly compelling Bucket, as a figure who is at once ponderous, excitable, honourable and funny. I find myself wishing very hard that Amelia Havisham and Honoria Barbary will avoid their fates at the hands of Dickens, no doubt just as Jordan intends me to. At the very least, the series is an interesting intervention into questions about the nature of fictional worlds, how far we can stretch them, and what it is that makes something Dickensian.
You can immerse yourself even further in the world of Dickensian, as well as explore Dickens’s own house, by visiting the ‘Dickensian: Behind the scenes of the BBC drama series’ exhibition taking place at the Charles Dickens Museum in London until the 17th April 2016. To relive the first few episodes, you can see a Storify of the @JofVictCulture tweets here.