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Why I can’t escape Dickens

Zadie Smith: “Oh, hi, Charles.” Getty

When I began writing a historical novel set in 19th-century London, says Zadie Smith in The New Yorker, I encountered a problem: “the long shadow of Dickens”. In my youth, the author had been a “tiresomely gigantic influence”. He was in school, and on the shelves at home. “He invented Christmas.” I read far too much of his work, and despite having all the usual doubts (“too sentimental, too theatrical, too moralistic”), I could never quite escape his influence. And so it went with my new work. In every book I read – in the main chapters, in the index, in footnotes – “I’d run into Dickens”. I could be “minding my own business”, boning up on an uprising in Jamaica, when “suddenly there he was again, signing a petition on the matter”. At times I would encounter him somewhere really unexpected and “find myself saying ‘Oh, hi, Charles’, like an actual crazy person”.

So I was determined not to let him creep into my own book. “This meant – at the very least – no orphans, no lengthy Dickensian descriptions, and absolutely no mean women called Mrs Spitely or cowards called Mr Fearfaint, or what have you.” But before long I discovered that the author himself had played a bit-part in the real-life court case on which my book was based. So I relented. “I said to Mr Dickens: ‘Look. You can have a walk-on part, but then I am killing you in the following chapter, straightaway.’” And that’s what I did, in a very “un-Dickensian chapter” entitled “Dickens Is Dead!” Only, I soon found myself bringing him back for a flashback scene. And not long after that, I totally gave in. “I let him pervade my pages”, just as he pervaded 19th-century London – and just as he has pervaded my whole life. I suppose that’s the thing with childhood influences. “They drive you crazy precisely because your debt to them is far larger than you want to know or care to admit.”