By Patrick Swinden

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Extra info for Unofficial Selves: Character in the Novel from Dickens to the Present Day

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We cannot say of him what Dickens says of Rogue Riderhood in Our Mutual Friend, that 'the spark of life in him is curiously separable from himself', but we can say that that spark plays as much upon his chairs, books and, above all, the sealing-wax he toys with, as it plays directly on himself. We remember the dinner services and other accoutrements of Mr Dombey's christening party and the Veneering soirees, in each case absorbing the energies, or lack of them, of the respective hosts; and we reflect on the amount of life that is so frequently drained from the characters to be pumped into the things they use.

The usual explanations for this follow E. M. Forster. How silly to suppose you could look through Miss Havisham. Turn her on her side and you'll see she hasn't got anything to look through. But this explanation is unsatisfactory, depending as it does on an over-simplified division of fictional characters into two kinds, round and flat - the flat ones, unlike Steerforth's Rosa Dartle, not having even an edge. Mr Tulkinghom is a good example of a Dickensian character. Is he flat or round? He should be flat, because he doesn't have the capacity to surprise us.

It is not the discovery of another world, but an activity in this one, an activity which is gradually understood to be converting itself into a meaning. This meaning lasts only as long as the reading lasts. It takes the form of a realisation of the limits of the writer's, and hence the reader's, world; and this allows him to stand for a while outside that world, looking in at it. He experiences himself 'not as an object in the world but as the limits of his world. And, mysteriously, to recognise this is to be freed of these limits and to experience a joy.

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