Invisible Ink: No 91 - Charles Dickens

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The Independent Culture

There was once a comedy sketch from the Monty Python precursor At Last the 1948 Show in which the annoying bibliophile Marty Feldman tried to buy a copy of Rarnaby Budge by Darles Chickens.

But no – I'm talking about Charles Dickens, who as well as the more famous Little Dorrit, etc, wrote The Haunted House, Mugby Junction, The Battle of Life, Going Into Society, Doctor Marigold and A Message From the Sea.

Great writers tend to have their leading works repeatedly cherry-picked, until we remember only those that become more familiar with each generation, and have to suffer through the 43rd television version of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, say, while Shirley and Villette are sidelined.

The same happened with the astoundingly prolific Dickens, who wrote short story collections, non-fiction, children's works, supernatural tales, sketches, dramatic monologues, Christmas fables and a dozen collaborative works. To complicate matters, some books had excerpts removed to be tailored into individual stories. Let's not even go into his poetry, plays, essays and journalism.

The charming A Child's History of England is so chatty and informal that it probably provided a blueprint for today's Horrible Histories. One chapter begins: "We now come to King Henry the Eighth, whom it has been too much the fashion to call Bluff King Hall or Burly King Henry and other fine names, but whom I shall take the liberty to call, plainly, one of the most detestable villains that ever drew breath."

Mugby Junction is a collaboration compiled by Dickens, in which stories ranging from the eerie to the comic are connected by a bustling train station. When the narrator sees a deserted house from his railway carriage in "The Haunted House", he ignores local legends and takes up residence with a group of friends. The resulting multi-part novel has contributions from Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins among others. Dickens often wrote with Collins, but does that make these stories "impure" and therefore less canonical? It seems odd that we should face annual remakes of A Christmas Carol while "A Christmas Tree" and the "Mrs Lirriper" Christmas stories are overlooked.

Not all of the neglected shorter prose is perfect, but it seems well suited to downloading and e-reading. Dickens's less visible works are not out of print but have been collected too often in different formats, so that tracking them down without duplication is pretty tricky work.

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