A Dickens of a Mystery: Interview with Jean C. Briggs, author of the Charles Dickens Investigates novels

José Viera is an independent scholar based in Barcelona, Spain. He holds an MA in Advanced English Studies and intends to start a PhD in the near future. His current research focuses on biofictional representations of Charles Dickens, analysing novels published around his 200th anniversary, celebrated in 2012. Other research interests include the representation of Victorian England in video games and the connection between England and the Canary Islands, where he is from.

A former English and Drama teacher, Jean C. Briggs found in her retirement the opportunity to embark on an exquisitely ambitious project: writing a detective saga starring none other than Charles Dickens. 2014 saw the publication of The Murder of Patience Brooke, the first of four novels published to date – the fifth one, At Midnight in Venice, will be available on August 23rd. In the novels, Dickens lends his knowledge of London and human nature to Superintendent Jones, striking a formidable partnership that leads them to unearth all kinds of crimes. Intertextuality and imagination converge in a zealously detailed saga that is bound to please even the fiercest devotees of the author.

In our interview, Briggs discusses key aspects such as her personal inspiration for the novel, current trends in ‘Dickensian biofiction’, and even the ethical dimensions of this postmodern phenomenon.

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First of all, allow me to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. How exactly did the idea of writing a Dickens-themed saga come to your mind? What aspects of Dickens’s life/production inspired you to write the novels?

The idea came to me when I was re-reading Dickens in 2012 as it was the bi-centenary of his birth. I came across his articles in Household Words about going out with the police and I read a book about his establishment of the Home for Fallen Women with Miss Coutts. In a biography by Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, I found a comment that suggested Dickens would have liked to be a detective. These three things came together and gave me the idea of creating Dickens as an investigator of murder. The novels, letters and articles he wrote for the newspapers all point to his interest in crime so that was also an inspiration.

Your novels are very much in keeping with a recent trend in biofictional portrayals, masterfully cloaking fact with concoction to recreate Dickens’ life. While other canonical authors (e.g. Henry James, Jane Austen, Lord Byron) have enjoyed a similar resurgence of popularity, the number of works focusing on Dickens is far more impressive. Why do you think there is such a keen interest in fantasising about his life?

Dickens had such a varied career; he was a man of boundless energy and interests and he did so much for various charities such as the home for fallen women, the ragged schools, orphanages, hospitals, workhouses, and he subscribed to all sorts of cries for help that he appeals to a writer who wants to show the realities of Victorian life through a crime novel.

There are many sides to his character – he was much loved by his friends yet he has a darker, rather melancholy aspect, and there is a loneliness about him despite his marriage and his many children. He has a feeling that he has missed something – ‘that old, unhappy want of something’, David Copperfield observes about himself and this is Dickens, too. And, there is his time at the blacking factory which certainly left its scars and by which he is haunted. All these things feed into my portrait of him, but, of course, it must only be partial – it is impossible to know him fully. ‘The mystery of Charles Dickens’ is a phrase that stays with me.

In your novels, there are many references to people from Dickens’s circle and landmark moments in his career, which obviously lends credence to your narrative. However, the storylines are generally of your own devising. Are there any real-life details behind the bits of fiction?

The first novel, The Murder of Patience Brooke, is based on the home for fallen women – I just imagined what Dickens would do if there were a murder at the home. Death at Hungerford Stairs [the second novel in the series] was inspired by my reading about the blacking factory and about the enormous number of homeless and missing children in Victorian London. 

Murder by Ghostlight [the third novel] was inspired by my reading about Dickens’s theatrical projects and his visits to Manchester. During my research on Manchester theatres in the period, I came across the story of an actor accidentally shot on the stage at the Queen’s Theatre in Spring Gardens. The stage manager did not know that the pistol’s ramrod was inserted into the barrel and it was this piece of metal that was lodged in the actor’s chest. Naturally, I wondered about murder, especially when I read in the newspapers of the time that the stage manager was a particular friend of the actor’s wife. That gave me the central idea of the novel. 

The idea for the fourth novel, The Quickening and The Dead, came from a letter from Mrs Gaskell to Dickens asking for advice about a poor girl who was in prison in Manchester. She was a clergyman’s daughter who had been abandoned by her mother, apprenticed to a milliner, seduced by a doctor, and ended up in dire poverty. My novel’s starting point is a young girl in Newgate, accused of murdering a doctor.

As I am sure you know, recent biographies and biofictions have chosen to focus on obscure, unflattering aspects of Dickens’s biography; a trend that has been termed ‘Dickens bashing’[1]. Your novels, by contrast, generally foreground his humane nature drawing our attention to, for instance, his painstaking efforts to sustain Urania Cottage. Was it a deliberate choice?

Yes, it was a deliberate decision. I do feel that a great deal of emphasis is placed on his failed marriage and his failures as a father, but there is so much else about him. Of course, he is flawed, but he did a great deal of good. 

There are so many stories in the Pilgrim letters, especially, which show his compassion and thoughtfulness. One example is his sending a message to his brother, Fred, from Switzerland, asking him to go to see ‘a poor woman named Greenwood, who lodges in Blenheim Street, Oxford Street, at a little cobbler’s’, and to give this woman a pound or two to relieve her poverty.  Two things struck me forcibly: Dickens remembers her address and he remembers her when he is in Switzerland. Of the child offenders he saw in Newgate, he said it was ‘enough to break the heart and hope of any man …’ So, yes, I think readers ought to know the good he did. 

The writer is influenced by what he or she reads. I’ve read a great deal of Dickens and about Dickens – my portrait of him grows out of that. Claire Tomalin observes that ‘Everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens.’ The Dickens in my novels is my version – and I stand by it.

As the saga unfolds, Dickens seems to evolve into a fully-fledged detective. While he initially collaborates closely with Superintendent Jones, he gradually goes on to make better-informed choices and occasionally strays from his role of sidekick. Could we view your saga as a Bildungsroman or, better yet, DetektivRomanof sorts?

I suppose Dickens does go through an education into criminal investigation, but he begins, I think, with the qualities a detective needs. G.K. Chesterton observes that ‘He had quite exceptionally bright and active eyes that were always darting about like brilliant birds to pick up all the tiny things … for he was a sort of poetical Sherlock Holmes.’ That was an inspirational quotation for me – Sherlock Holmes, indeed! 

He had an excellent memory for faces and places and the novels show his interest in the mind of the murderer. One only has to think of Sikes’s guilt and fear as he flees from London, pursued by dead Nancy ‘that morning’s ghastly figure at his heels … he could hear its garments rustling’, and he is tormented by dead Nancy’s eyes. Two other murderous minds are very tellingly explored: Bradley Headstone and John Jasper. He is good on motive, too. 

In an article for The Daily News on capital punishment, he analyses motives for murder; there are those committed in rage, those for gain, but most interesting is Dickens’s analysis of ‘the slow corroding, growing hate’ which leads the murderer to the despatch of ‘the dreaded or detested object’ who is a danger for some reason to the killer. So I do think he makes a convincing detective, and, of course, he was very familiar with the current and past cases of murder, many of which are reported in the Household Narrative of Current Events, the supplement to Household Words. I think he gains confidence as his and Superintendent Jones’s relationship develops into a very close friendship.

Academics such as Mark Llewellyn and Ann Heilman have noted that biofictions often touch upon ethically delicate matters, as they blur the line between “lives lived and lives created”[2]. Were you concerned about this at the time of writing?

Yes, I wanted to be true to the character of Dickens as I discovered him in his own works, his letters, his speeches, and the biographies. There is a very amusing quotation from Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘I am not in favour of this modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice…’ I think the opposite – I am not in favour of turning good people into bad people, so I am careful. 

There is a danger that when a writer presents a famous figure in a very unflattering light, or even invents incidents in which the person, say, turns to crime or deviancy that is then believed by the general reader who may not have an academic knowledge. In the end, though, the detective story sets out to entertain so I really don’t think it is my place to invent a Dickens who is wicked, or criminal, or deviant. The historical novelist opens a window on the past to allow the readers to imagine what it might have been like to be there; the novelist makes a human being out of the famous man. To achieve these things, however, the novelist must do the research. The historical novelist’s inventions must grow out of the facts. There’s enough fake news about as it is!

It is widely known that Dickens regarded his audience as a community of people whom he addressed on friendly terms. Novels such as yours, curiously enough, feature layers of intertextuality that only well-informed readers can decipher. Drawing an extended metaphor, is biofictional intertextuality a new way of sustaining the Dickensian community?

I hope that my novels appeal to lovers of crime novels who then learn more about Dickens and his age, as well as appealing to readers who do know Dickens and his circle. There is pleasure in recognising a true incident, a real person, or a reference to one of Dickens’s works. Those who know Dickens well will, I hope, experience that pleasure.

Dickensian biofictions began to proliferate in the years preceding the author’s 200th anniversary. Could we conclude, then, that this intertextual admiration for Dickens responded to commercial demands, or is there a genuine interest in his figure that shall linger for years to come?

I think there is a genuine interest in Dickens – there is so much richness in his works and they have been open to much re-interpretation and re-evaluation. There is the famous case of F.R. Leavis, who dismissed Dickens as a novelist in the 1940s, but changed his mind by 1970. And the television, theatre and film adaptations keep him alive for general readers – and those who do not read him. I saw Hard Times recently in Halifax, performed by the Northern Broadsides Company to a very mixed audience – and a delighted one.

What are your future plans regarding the Charles Dickens Investigates saga? Your fifth novel, At Midnight in Vecine, is just about to be published. Any hints you might care to share?

I found a letter from Dickens to John Forster written from Ferrara in 1844 – a most intriguing letter describing something that Dickens felt when he was approaching the town at sunset: 

… at sunset when I was walking alone, I arrived upon a little scene which seemed perfectly familiar to me, and yet I had never been in this place, in this life.

In the blood red light, there was a mournful sheet of water, just stirred by the wind, upon its margin a few trees. In the foreground, a group of silent peasant girls were leaning over the parapet of a little bridge, and looking down into the water; in the distance sounded a deep bell; the shade of approaching night on everything. If I had been murdered there, in some former life, I could not have seemed to remember the place more thoroughly, or with a more emphatic chilling of the blood.

The word ‘murdered’ leapt out at me, of course, and I considered those peasant girls looking from the bridge into the water. What were they looking at? Dickens doesn’t say, but, of course, I thought: a body. And, it must be a murdered body.

And that’s how the idea for a murder mystery set at first in Venice came to me and that book is destined to be number 5 [At Midnight in Venice, out August 23rd] in the series.  

Thank you very much for your insightful comments, Mrs Briggs. Lots of good luck with your new book – I look forward to reading it!

Notes

[1] Bell, Emily. “A Brief History of Dickens Bashing.” Journal of Neo-Victorian Culture Online, 13 July 2015: http://blogs.tandf.co.uk/jvc/2015/07/13/emily-bowles-a-brief-history-of-dickens-bashing/ [Accessed 28 Jul 2019]

[2] Llewellyn, Mark and Ann Heilman. Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 38.