I’ve always thought that Bleak House is Dickens’ masterpiece – not just a vast panorama of contemporary London, from the highest to the lowest, but a rich compilation of literary genres from social commentary, to psychological drama, to mystery thriller. You can say something similar of most of his novels, of course, but in Bleak House Dickens is at the height of his powers, giving us some of his most compelling storytelling, his funniest comedy, and his most telling satire. As a writer, you can’t compete with that, and in writing The Man in Black I didn’t even try. My ‘re-building’ of Bleak House attempts to distil all Dicken’s generic richness into the one genre he pioneered in this novel – the detective story.
In John Carey’s wonderful book about Dickens he says that there are two novels Dickens wanted to write in Bleak House, but he couldn’t write either of them, so he ended up writing a detective mystery instead, almost by default. The first book he couldn’t write was about the workings of the law, which proved just too technical for a page-turner. The second was a book about Lady Dedlock’s illicit pre-marital affair. But this was a subject way beyond the pale of the Victorian publishing industry.
Dickens couldn’t describe these things, but I can. And I do. And by doing so, I wanted to create a new text that would be both a homage to, and a creative interaction with, what is arguably the greatest of all Victorian novels.
All of which sounds fine in principle, but there’s a very big difference between conceiving an interesting theoretical approach for a novel, and creating something people will actually want to read.
My first and most important decision was that I would not ‘re-write’ or ‘re-imagine’ Bleak House itself, but enter its world: in other words, try to devise a story that would run in parallel with the events in Dickens’ novel. A story that would take place at the same time, with the events in my narrative intersecting at certain key points with events in Bleak House. But this was easier said than actually written. One of the main stumbling-blocks was time – a typical detective thriller takes place over a few weeks, even a few days, but Bleak House covers around seven years. It took a long time to crack this particular nut, but the answer turned out to be to work with not just one masterpiece of Victorian literature, but two – another of my favourite 19th-century novels – Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White
Having a second source text changed the whole dynamic of the plot. On a technical level, Collins provided the ‘secret’ that would propel my story forwards – the ‘page-turning’ bit, if you like. It also allowed me to weave many of The Woman in White’s’ themes of madness, power and abuse into my own plot, which culminates in the same London asylum in which Sir Percival Glyde confines Anne Catherick. As a result The Man in Black has an overt relationship with Bleak House, which is obvious from the beginning, but a covert one with The Woman in White, which only becomes clear in retrospect.
Working with The Woman in White also gave me the vital ‘scaffolding’ of a chronology. Wilkie Collins has an extremely detailed timeframe for his novel (helpfully included in my World’s Classics edition), which comes to its climax in Glyde’s death in the church fire in late November 1850.
That gave me my year –all I had to do then, was work backwards. I then chose a ‘slice’ of Bleak House time that included the key elements of the plot I wanted to work with in my own story (most notably the murder of Tulkinghorn and the subsequent police investigation).
I then mapped those events from Bleak House onto the Woman in White time-scheme, working out days and dates in 1850, and the lapse of time between specific incidents. (Incidentally, this led to one small but noticeable change – in the very first sentence. I begin as Dickens did – “London, Michaelmas term…” but with the chronology I was working to, my term had to be lately ‘begun’ not lately ‘over’. And yes, I did check the dates of the legal terms in 1850… In historical fiction, the devil really is in the detail …)
Anyway, you can imagine the size of the spreadsheet I had by now…
But having built this elaborate ‘scaffolding’ I had – in effect – created both a ‘space’ and a ‘time’ between these two great Victorian novels where I could locate my own story. I then developed my own plot in that ‘space’, drawing in places and people from both of my sources.
Dickens’ characters populate the whole landscape of The Man in Black – some as leading protagonists, like Tulkinghorn and Inspector Bucket, some as secondary characters, like Trooper George and Phil Squod in the shooting gallery, and some as mere bystanders we glimpse or overhear in the crowded London streets, pubs, and omnibuses – like Guppy in the slap-bang dining house, or Mrs Bagnet with her basket (spotted on a bus).
By contrast, the characters I include from The Woman in White are never identified, because they are crucial to the final denouement, and I can’t afford my readers to guess what that might be too early. That said, the well-informed reader may well suspect who they are long before their true identity is revealed – the unnamed baronet, for example, has a prominent scar on his hand and I give him a black swan as his family crest – a hint to ‘glide’ and of course to Blackwater Park. (I confess I was rather pleased with that one…). And there are also two mysterious women – one named only Anne, and another described by Hester as she is glimpsed in the garden… (more of Hester later)
It was still very early, and the sky overcast and drab, but I was sure I could see figures in the garden. I believe – I am sure I caught a glimpse of white – that one of them was Anne, the boarder I think I referred to once before. She was walking on the farther side of the lawn, accompanied by one of the maids and another woman I had never seen. I should have remembered if I had, for though her figure was comely and her manner elegant, I could see even from my window that her face was ugly. I am not being unkind, I assure you – her skin was swarthy, her forehead low, and her features almost masculine. Looking back at what I have just written, I realise that I have omitted to mention that Anne had recently returned to our company after an absence of some months. To my mind, she seemed rather changed from when I had last seen her, but my Guardian said she had been very ill and the slight changes to her appearance were no doubt due to the effects of that illness.
I’m sure you’ve worked out exactly which incident Hester is witnessing here… in fact it was listed on the earlier slide – it’s 12th October 1850, when Marian Halcombe visits the asylum and realises the woman committed there as ‘Anne Catherick’ is, in fact, her sister Laura.
Creating a moment of ‘convergence’ like this was one of the greatest pleasures in writing The Man in Black – I was careful to ensure the book works perfectly well as a standalone murder mystery, but readers who know either Collins or Dickens will discover a lot more. It’s like a literary Easter egg hunt in which the more knowledge you bring, the more nuggets you will find… for example, Dickens’ fans will realise at once that all my chapter titles are taken from Bleak House, though not in the same order and they often mean something very different in The Man in Black. And I’ve also tried to answer questions Dickens left unanswered – from tiny details like why Bucket wears a mourning ring, to much more significant issues like providing a reason for Tulkinghorn’s relentless pursuit of Lady Dedlock.
My favourite example of how The Man in Black interacts with Bleak House is Tulkinghorn’s house – Dickens has him living in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but I’ve taken this one step further, and chosen to model his house on the Soane museum. There’s nothing in Bleak House to say Tulkinghorn owns a collection of artefacts like the one Sir John Soane amassed, but there’s nothing to preclude it either, and I think it’s entirely in keeping with Tulkinghorn’s character – and his enormous wealth – that he should want something so extraordinary, built entirely for his own private pleasure, and hidden from prying eyes. For me, this was another one of those exhilarating moments where my imagination could engage directly with Dickens’, and create something new as a result.
Here Tulkinghorn is showing my young detective, Charles Maddox, around his private collection
A few words on the language. In my first novel, The Mansfield Park Murder, I set myself the task of emulating Austen’s prose style and recreating – as far as I was able – the experience of reading an authentic Jane Austen novel. It was a fascinating exercise, in purely intellectual terms. For example, I wouldn’t allow myself to use a word unless I had verified whether it appeared in the novels or was previously in use. And not just whether it appeared in her work, but how it was used too. I couldn’t, for example, refer to the ‘atmosphere’ in a room, because that word is only used in the literal sense of weather, or the physical qualities of the air, for example in a sick-room. My personal favourite of this kind was ‘intriguing’: I wanted my detective ‘thief taker’ to refer to one of his suspects as ‘intriguing in both senses of the word’. ‘Intriguing’ in its original sense of ‘plotting’ was absolutely fine; but ‘intriguing’ in the sense of ‘fascinating’ only comes into English as late as 1909, so I ended up having to kill that particular darling.
Doing something like that teaches you a huge amount about the author you’re working with – arguably even more than studying them at one remove. I learned, for example, that Austen has a surprisingly limited lexicon. And when I moved from Austen to Dickens, I learned just how much English changed in that crucial half century. Dickens’ English is far closer to the language we speak now, 150 years later, than it was to the English of only 50 years before.
When it came to actually writing The Man in Black, one obvious option was to do the same as I had with its predecessor and try to ‘write like Dickens’. But it only took me about 15 minutes to decide that anything like that would be doomed to caricature (not so much pastiche as parody). But even if I wasn’t going to be Dickens’ ‘ghost writer’, I still had to be his ‘ventriloquist’ when it came to the characters from Bleak House I was ‘recalling to life’.
Dickens has a superlative ‘ear’ for capturing personality through dialogue (something else I learned, if I didn’t know it before). Some of his characters are easier to replicate than others – Jo’s ‘mockney’ is pretty easy to mimic, but with a character like Tulkinghorn it’s much more about rhythm and cadence (something I learned from Austen as well, incidentally). While with Bucket it’s all those things plus his habitual tics and tricks of speech.
Moving on to structure. The narrative structure of The Man in Black has two sources – first (most obviously) Dickens himself.
Bleak House famously has a ‘double narrative’ – Esther Summerson’s past-tense first-person account, interleaved with the third-person present-tense voice which we infer to be Dickens himself, lecturing, hectoring, and addressing us directly on the evils that he sees, and the wretchedness of the poor ‘dying thus around us every day’
We as readers have to reconcile the two narratorial viewpoints – fill the gaps, and make a judgement (appropriately enough, in a book that deals so scathingly with the law). And as any reader of the book will know, neither of these two narrators is as straightforward as they seem – both withhold facts when it suits them, and both can send us – on occasion – in quite the wrong direction.
I adopt the same ‘double narrative’ in The Man in Black. Part of this – of course – is a deliberate homage to Bleak House. But it’s also more than that. My interventionist third-person narrator doesn’t just echo the ‘Dickens’ voice in Bleak House: it’s also ‘present tense’ in a much more literal way, taking a 21st century perspective on Victorian London.
The inspiration for the second element of the narrative structure was John Fowles’ 1969 bestseller The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the first ‘neo-Victorian’ novel and a long-time favourite of mine.
Fowles’ narrator writes his 19th-century novel standing firmly in the 20th, and with no illusions whatsoever about those brutal truths Dickens was unable to describe, most obviously the scale and squalor of the Victorian sex industry. Adopting the same stance in The Man in Black allowed me to solve many of my most thorny technical challenges, including that perennial elephant trap of historical fiction, the Conversation Contrived to Communicate the Context – all those toe-curlingly artificial chats about how Napoleon has just escaped from Elba, or Henry VIII is still waiting on that divorce….
Crucially, this approach also offered me a postmodern ‘knowingness’. On the one hand, I wanted to create the illusion for the reader that they are indeed reading a 19th-century novel, and I deployed all the resources of language, syntax, and sentence structure to achieve that. The sentences are longer and more complex than you’d typically find in contemporary fiction, and the vocabulary much more extensive and ambitious. I was also very careful to be as accurate with my dialogue as I had been throughout The Mansfield Park Murder. I invested in a dictionary of historical slang and spent many happy hours looking up words like bloke (first written use 1851, possibly deriving from the Celtic word ‘ploc’, meaning ‘large, stubborn person’), to geezer (first written use in the 1880s, but probably in spoken use long before then, as it may derive from the Basque word ‘giza’, or ‘fellow’, which Wellington’s soldiers would have come across in the Peninsula War).
But running in parallel with all this, I also wanted – on occasion – to jolt the reader out of the neo-Victorian illusion. To paraphrase the title of Michael Fried’s landmark book on 18th-century French painting, I wanted both ‘absorption’ and ‘theatricality’.
On the most obvious level, I use ‘theatricality’ as a variant of dramatic irony. In other words, I create a deliberate complicity with my reader. They and I both live in the same 21st-century world – a world which excludes the characters in the novel, who clearly cannot share the hindsight of history. My readers understand the grim realities of 19th-century child prostitution and what really went on in the city’s slums. And my readers know how serial killers operate and are alert to their presence in both fiction and film, though the term – even the very idea – would have meant nothing to an officer of the Metropolitan Police in 1850.
Sometimes this technique operates for ironic effect, and sometimes for emotional resonance, as in this passage, where my young protagonist struggles to understand – because he has no name for – a condition which you (and my readers) will recognise immediately.
Looking at [his great-uncle Maddox] now, mumbling and staring, it’s hard to credit that only a few minutes before this man was sharp, astute, categorical. This happens so often now that Charles is no longer surprised, but all the same he’s by turns baffled and horrified by the speed of the change – Maddox’s mood can plummet and soar as quickly and as violently as his command of his reason. Most of the time he seems completely unaware of these sudden and vertiginous shifts, but there are occasions when his face is haunted – when he grips Charles’ hands and stares out at him from eyes that are a long way back, and drowning in the dark. It’s as if a rent has been torn in his mind, and corners of his character long dormant – or long controlled – are flooding through in rising and regular tides, one moment overwhelming all that made Maddox the man he was, the next ebbing back to reveal the battered wreckage left by the last swell. Even now, more than a century later, there’s no aid or succour for those devastated by this disease but patience and understanding, and a great deal of what Thomas Hardy will call ‘watchful loving-kindness’.
But there’s another purpose for postmodernism in the novel. By evoking the present, I want my readers to re-consider the past. Some aspects of The Man in Black have been deliberately constructed as a commentary or critique on the novel – and period – that inspired it. The most significant of these relates to my other narrative strand – the first person account given by ‘Hester’.
Even in Bleak House, Esther is an unreliable narrator, not always telling us all she knows, and I push this ambivalence far further in my own. I carefully mimic the tone and rhythm of Esther’s voice, and her rather winsome repetitions of her own praises, but just as the name Hester sounds like Esther but is not the same, my female narrator sounds like Dickens’ but is most definitely not the same.
Many of my readers have described their growing unease with Hester’s narrative – their conviction that something is not quite right, despite her repeated assertions that she is beloved and beautiful. And those who have read Bleak House feel this, if anything, even more keenly. And that is quite deliberate. I want people who do know Dickens’ novel to return to it, after The Man in Black, with new questions about the relationship between Esther and her Guardian, John Jarndyce – John Jarndyce who watches her from afar when she is a very young girl, and then finances the education of this otherwise unwanted child with the express intention of making her his wife, before eventually bestowing her on another man without even informing her, never mind asking her. I am not alone in finding this aspect of the novel unsettling, and while there is no question that Jarndyce is anything but benevolent (a word Dickens repeatedly applies to him), it would only take the slightest of shifts in their relationship for the modern reader to see it as one founded on sexual grooming.
And if Dickens’ presents Esther as the archetypal ‘angel in the house’ (to use Coventry Patmore’s treacly phrase) it is because he has a profound empathy with the ideal of Victorian womanhood which that phrase encapsulates – marriage to such a paragon is the reward Dickens invariably reserves for his deserving heroes, and no female character in the books exemplifies this ideal more completely than Esther Summerson.
She is quite literally the ‘housekeeper’, with her mania for cleaning and tidying, and her devotion to looking after children (not her own). So it is no surprise that her destiny is to be “mistress of Bleak House” (regardless of whether that’s what she actually wants).
But a modern reader will find the ideology informing these ideas not merely outdated but dangerously pernicious. Dickens may respond both morally and emotionally to the image of woman as wife, mother and housekeeper, but as novels like Bleak House and David Copperfield amply illustrate, it’s a version of femininity which can both infantilize women and confine them within the domestic sphere. Not so much domestic angel as perpetual child and permanent prisoner. And it is this story that Hester’s narrative tells.
I said earlier that I drew on two masterpieces of Victorian literature in constructing The Man in Black, but that’s not strictly true. There was also a ‘third man’ – Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor, which is to Victorian non-fiction what Bleak House is to fiction.
It’s a huge seething panorama of the filthy, crowded streets and the people who lived on them. Costermongers, fruit sellers, street performers, animal dealers, muffin men, or as he puts it, “toasting-fork makers, pin-makers, engravers, tobacco-stopper makers, stocking-weavers, cabbage-net makers, night-cap knitters, doll-dress-knitters, leather brace and garter makers, and glass-blowers”. To name but a few.
Mayhew conducted hundreds of interviews and gives many of these conversations virtually verbatim, making his book the closest thing we have to an oral history of how people really lived in the middle of the 19th century. Reading Mayhew is like walking by his side, listening to what he hears, and seeing what he sees. I took this one step further by having my protagonist, Charles Maddox, visit a down-and-dirty pub on the City Road to witness a night of rat-killing – the same rat-killing Mayhew himself describes, and indeed Charles spots him, sitting at the bar, drinking only lemonade, making copious notes in a large black notebook. “The sort of man you cannot imagine at 20, or with a full head of hair.”
So to sum up, literature has always been recycled – the purists who condemn the sort of thing I’ve done with The Man in Black would also deny us the Aeneid, Joyce’s Ulysses, and most of Shakespeare. There are bad re-workings, of course, that merely pillage or plagiarise their inspirations, but I hope The Man in Black brings a new dimension to Bleak House in the same way as Wide Sargasso Sea does so marvellously with Jane Eyre.
And, even more importantly, I hope The Man in Black sends readers back to its sources. The best emails I ever get are those who tell me the book has inspired them to read Dickens for the first time. There can be no better compliment.
Originally written in 2017, updated 2022