In Celebration of Charles Dickens’ 200th Birthday: From Jane Austen to Charles Dickens: Guest blog by Lynn Shepherd, & a Giveaway

Google Celebration of Charles Dickens 2012

We are basically a tried and true Janeite, but quietly confess to admiration of another nineteenth-century novelist also born in Hampshire; – Charles Dickens. His style is entirely different than the witty underpinnings of our beloved Miss Austen, but one cannot ignore his fabulous characterizations and amazing plot twists.

Charles DickensToday is the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth on February 7, 1812 at Landport, in Portsea, near Portsmouth, England. If Miss Austen is wholly a Regency author, then Dickens is her Victorian counterpart in popularity. He would become the most famous author of his day, writing sixteen major novels, traveling the world with his speaking tours and publishing other authors works like Mrs. Gaskell.

Like Jane Austen, Dickens has a huge following of admirers and sequelers. I was thrilled to learn last year that Murder at Mansfield Park author Lynn Shepherd was also a fan of Dickens and had written a novel inspired by one of his most popular works, Bleak House. Published last week as Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK, Lynn’s new novel will also be released in the US in May by Random House as The Solitary House: A Novel.

Lynn is the perfect fellow Janeite to share her thoughts on Dickens’ bicentenary celebration with us on his special day. She has generously contributed a guest blog and a very special chance for readers to win one of three advance readers copies available of The Solitary House. Details of the giveaway are listed below. Welcome Lynn:  

Murder at Mansfield Park, by Lynn Shepherd (2010)The last time I wrote a piece for Laurel Ann it was because I had just written Murder at Mansfield Park; I’m back now to help celebrate Dickens’ 200th birthday because I’m just about to publish a new murder mystery, inspired by his great masterpiece, Bleak House.

It’s a very long way from the elegant ambiance of Regency country houses, to the dark and dirty world of Victorian London, so why did I decide to make the move from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens? And having made that decision, what challenges did I face?

The first thing I realized was that I didn’t want The Solitary House to be the same sort of book as Murder at Mansfield Park. In the latter I had worked very hard to mimic Jane Austen’s beautiful prose style, rigorously checking my vocabulary to ensure it was in use at the time, and replicating the special rhythm of her sentences. But I knew at once that I didn’t want to do the same thing with Dickens. His style is almost as distinctive as hers, but I suspected any attempt to pastiche it would descend very quickly into parody.

Likewise I made the conscious decision not to even attempt to cram in everything Dickens does – his books are astonishingly broad in their scope, with comedy and satire at one extreme, and drama and psychological insight at the other. I’ve always been more interested in the latter than the former, and I confess I do find his caricatures rather tiresome in some of the novels.  So by now I was clear: I wanted to write a book inspired by Dickens, but ‘darker than Dickens’, with no comedy, no caricatures, and in a voice of my own.

The Solitary House, by Lynn Shepherd (2012)The result is a book that runs in parallel with the events of Bleak House, with some of Dickens’ characters appearing in mine, and the two stories coming together and intersecting at crucial moments.  Bleak House is, of course, the very first detective story in English, with the first fictional detective, Inspector Bucket. He appears in my story too – my young detective, Charles Maddox, was once fired from the Metropolitan Police at Bucket’s insistence, and their paths cross again as Charles’ investigation deepens.

Anyone who’s read Murder at Mansfield Park, will recognize the name ‘Charles Maddox’ at once, but we’re now in 1850, not 1811, and this new Charles Maddox is actually the great-nephew of my original Regency thief taker. Old Maddox appears in the book as well, but he’s now an elderly man, and suffering from a disease that we recognize at once as Alzheimer’s, but which was unknown at the time. But when Maddox has lucid periods he is still one of the sharpest minds in London, and Charles will need all his help if he’s to unravel the terrible secret at the heart of this sinister case.

One of the great delights – and challenges – of writing The Solitary House was to go back and re-create Dickens’ London. As many people have said, London is not just a setting in Dickens’ novels, but a character in its own right, and I had the opportunity to be even more forthright about the realities of life in the city than Dickens was able to be. We know far more, in some ways, that Dickens’ middle class contemporaries did, and I’ve tried to bring the 19th-century city to life in all its splendor, all its sin, and all its stink.

Great Expectations (2011) UKOf course many of us owe our mental pictures of Victorian London to the screen adaptations of Dickens’ works, and he does translate particularly well to film and TV. The BBC aired a new – and I think excellent – version of Great Expectations this Christmas, with Gillian Anderson as a chillingly beautiful and aloof Miss Havisham. There was also a new adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with a new ending, and some wonderfully atmospheric scenes. There are many other excellent BBC adaptations of the books, and I’m also a great fan of the 1998 Our Mutual Friend, which has a marvelously intense Bradley Headstone, as played by David Morrissey, but my favorite – perhaps unsurprisingly – is the 2005 Bleak House.

Once again Gillian Anderson is utterly convincing and impressive as Lady Dedlock, and she’s supported by a wonderful cast of British character acting at its best. My only quibble is the choice of actor to play Tulkinghorn, as Charles Dance (in my view) is far too young, attractive, and just plain tall, to play the wizened old lawyer I have in my own imagination.

Bleak House (2005) BBCThe other fascinating thing about that Bleak House adaptation was that it was deliberately constructed in half-hour episodes, thereby mimicking the ‘serial publication’ of the original novel. It was a brilliant coup to screen it that way, since it helps us understand how Dickens structured his story with cliff-hangers at the end of each ‘number’, to keep people coming back for more.

And, of course, they did. And they still do, even 200 years after he was born, whether as readers, viewers, or – in my case – writers inspired by his great genius to create something new of their own.

Author Bio:

Lynn Shepherd studied English at Oxford, and later went on to do a doctorate on Samuel Richardson, which has now been published by Oxford University Press. She’s also a passionate Jane Austen fan, writing the award winning Murder at Mansfield Park in (2010), and just released another murder mystery Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK, inspired by Charles Dickens Bleak House. Retitled The Solitary House, it will be released in the US by Random House in May. You can visit Lynn at her  website, on Facebook as Lynn Shepherd, and follow her on Twitter as @Lynn_Shepherd.

A Grand Giveaway of The Solitary House: A Novel

Enter a chance to win one of three advance reading copies available of The Solitary House: A Novel, by Lynn Shepherd by leaving a question asking Lynn about her inspiration to write a Dickens sequel, her research process, or if you have read Bleak House or seen any of the many film adaptations, which your favorite character is by 11:59 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2012. Winners to be announced on Thursday, February 23, 2012. Shipment to US addresses only. Good luck!

Thanks for joining us today Lynn in celebration of one of literature’s most revered and cherished novelist of all time on his special day. Best of luck with your new mystery novel The Solitary House. I am so looking forward to reading it. 

© 2007 – 2012 Lynn Shepherd, Austenprose

25 thoughts on “In Celebration of Charles Dickens’ 200th Birthday: From Jane Austen to Charles Dickens: Guest blog by Lynn Shepherd, & a Giveaway

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  1. I’m of Czech ancestry, so I admire the writings of Franz Kafka. However, when it comes to never-ending Kafkaesque labyrinthine bureaucracy, I concede that Dickens, in his “Bleak House,” preceded Kafka. It’s been a long time since I read it — I was busy with grad school in Math, so I can’t quite remember if I ever was able to finish it (which almost seems appropriate in some sort of meta-literary way), but I enjoyed what I did read, and I also enjoyed the TV adaptations. I’ve got to put it on my “to do” list along with “War and Peace.”


  2. I think I’d have to use a notepad and paper to read Bleak House. The characters are certainly memorable but there are SO MANY of them. I read that the writers of the series cut the list to just 80 characters!

    My favorite part is the use of character names. Oh my!

    Happy 200th Mr. Dickens!


  3. I love classic literature (American, British, Russian) so of course I love Dickens. There is just something about the writing style that I enjoy. I think one of my favorites of his is Great Expectations more because I just love the character of Miss Havisham. I hope to be able to see the new adaption of it soon. Gillian Anderson is a great actress so I bet she really does well with the part.


  4. Huge fan of Dickens. Would love to win the book to add to my Dickens’ collection. My Great Aunt gave me a beautiful complete set of Dickens’ published in the 1800s. It is one of my greatest treasures. When i visited London I visited several Dickens’ sites including the Old Curiosity Shop. I bought some lovely little treasures from the shop there, and they sit proudly on my bookcase still. Thank you for this great blog today!


  5. Bleak House is my all-time favorite of all Dickens novels. I reread it every few years. The dark undertow of the novel, with each of the characters trying to “stay afloat” in unique ways, is totally engrossing. As a writer, I can only stand back in wonder at Dickens’ genius.


  6. I’m curious about Ms. Shepard’s claim that “Bleak House” is the very first detective story in English. What about Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin? He was featured in three stories written in 1845, seven years before “Bleak House.” Then of course there’s Wilkie Collins’ 1868 “The Moonstone” with Sergeant Cuff – widely held as the first truly detective novel in the English language and the forebear of our modern detective genre. Considering that Collins was Dickens protege and that they met in 1851, do you think Collins influenced any of Dickens novels, specifically “Bleak House,” with his darker, more sensational style?

    I’d love to hear your opinion on any of these points. I’m very excited about this giveaway. Dickens is one of my favorite authors – in fact, I’m watching the BBC adaptation of “Bleak House” today as a mini celebration of his bicentennial.


  7. Did you find it difficult to divorce yourself from the comedy and caricature of Dickens? It’s such a signature of his that I imagine writing inspired by him would be difficult without it. Look forward to reading this new book.


  8. I enjoyed your essay here, Lynn. I’ve been a Dickens fan since college when I read my first (and favorite!) Dickens novel, “Great Expectations. ” Did you have a need to study some of Victorian London’s social structure when you researched your new book? I’ve read” Inside the Victorian Home “(Judith Flanders) and have seen so much in there that’s good story/poem material!


  9. I recently read on the BBC website…but can’t re-find it…that the opinion is that newer generations cannot read and appreciate Dicken’s as their attention spans have been trained into smaller incriments than is needed for Dicken’s. Waht do you think? Does Dickens have a future among the younger readers? I certainly hope so!


  10. Liked the essay today and can’t wait to read your new book!
    My favorite character is Lucie Manette, in A Tale of Two Cities, as she is the epitome of a Victorian lady.
    Thank you for the giveaway.


  11. I would love to win a copy of this book,, since I really liked Murder at Mansfield Park and Bleak House! My favorite character in BH was probably Mrs. Jellyby, with her clueless “philanthropy.” But Mr. Guppy was pretty great too!


  12. I spend a great deal of time in the Jane Austen sequels and what ifs. I am very excited about the same idea with Dickins! I can’t wait to see what you do with it! Congratulations!


  13. Ms. Shepherd, congratulations on your new book! It sounds fascinating.

    Whom would you have cast as Tulkinghorn in BH, if you’d had the chance?


  14. Lynn: I must tell on myself and admit I’ve never read a single Dickens novel. My excuse? Five years ago I wasn’t reading ANY fiction but I’m making up for lost time at warp-speed. What’s a good starter?
    I’m not a total slacker because I see you are a Samuel Richardson scholar and I HAVE read Pamela (addictive, I couldn’t put it down) Burney, Fielding, and Hardy. A fine and enlightening blog/essay.


  15. Great blog! I must admit that I haven’t read any Dickens novels in spite of loving many of the film adaptations! I’m inspired to read some this year. Maybe I’ll start with Bleak House and then read your sequel!


  16. Lynn,

    Congrats on the second novel. Loved hearing about Maddox and how it intertwines with your previous book, clever indeed. Oh I love the cover art,must have it.

    I really like Lady Dedlock and Gillian Anderson’s portrayal was magnificent to me. Especially with her earlier TV fame in X-files.

    Thanks for writing the book and for the giveaway,



  17. I must admit that I have never read a Dickens novel or seen any movie adaptations. Until I discovered our dear Jane, I had never read a classic that was not assigned reading. Now I am happy to say that I have read quite a few classics but unfortunately Dickens has not been one of them. I would love to read this book. It sounds wonderful! Who knows, it might just kick start an interest to finally read one of his beloved novels!!=) Thanks for the giveaway and by the way I adored Murder at Mansfield Park!!


  18. Tom-All-Alone’s (aka The Solitary House) has been right at the top of my Want List (aka Must-Have-at-All-Costs list) ever since I heard about it last year. I’ve been a faithful follower of Lynn Shepherd on Twitter and every time she mentions her novel, I go into mini paroxysms of book fever. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, Thanks for offering this giveaway.

    My question: Do you have any plans for other Dickensian adaptations?


  19. I’m currently writing historical fiction set in Texas and find myself going down rabbit holes of research and getting less writing done than I want. Did you have that problem or did you do the bulk of your research before you started? If not, how did you find a balance?


  20. Charles Dickens is one of my favorite writers as well. I have read “Bleak House” and “Great Expectations” (and have seen the TV mini-series versions).


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