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José Viera, ‘Of Mice and Dickens: Representing Charles Dickens for Young Readers in Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright’s The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale (2011)’

2017 March 23

José Viera is an independent scholar with an MA in Advanced English Studies (Specialisation in Literature and Cultural Studies) obtained at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain. His current research focuses on representations of Charles Dickens in biographies and as a fictionalised character in Neo-Victorian fiction, seeking to scrutinise the formation of his public persona throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries and the different ways in which authors continue to interpret and deconstruct his figure a century and a half after his death.

It is an indisputable fact that Charles Dickens’ influence on our cultural panorama continues to be as strong as it was back when he was alive. Regarded as one of the most popular writers in the history of English literature and, quite possibly, one of the earliest celebrities, Dickens was able to produce a solid body of work consisting of over a dozen major novels (alongside the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood), a myriad of short stories and numerous pieces written as a journalist. To this day, none of Dickens’ novels has ever gone out of print [1], a fact that speaks volumes about the hold it continues to have over present-day readers. Dickens’ relevance has eventually led to a paradoxical situation whereby his standing as an author ‘exceeds our familiarity with most of his prose,’ instantly evoking the grandeur we often ascribe to the Victorian era [2]: Dickens’ reputation, then, amply transcends the realm of the literary and likens him to a symbol, embodying our ideas of Victorian England or even Englishness at large. [3]

As a consequence of Dickens’ iconic persona, numerous authors have recently sought to recreate and deconstruct his figure in fiction, resulting in a two-way process by which his figure inspires new works and, in turn, these works contribute to the sustainability of his popularity. While these works tend to be aimed at adult or young-adult readers –examples include novels such Richard Flanagan’s Wanting (2013), Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens (2009) or films such as Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman (2013)–, there have also been attempts to bring Dickens’ figure closer to children: a brilliant example is Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright’s novel The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale (2011) –henceforth referred to as Cheshire–, a story in which Dickens plays a relatively secondary, yet equally relevant role. As I shall examine now, Cheshire features a light-hearted recreation of Dickens as an author and, in so doing, it also illustrates how his figure epitomises the importance of literacy, encouraging children to read and fuel their imagination.

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Figure 1: cover of Cheshire, published in 2011.

Set in Victorian London, Cheshire revolves around the adventures of Skilley, an alley cat that, sick of having to run away from brooms and dangerous foes on the streets, manages to be accepted as a mouser in the mice-ridden Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, where he hopes to remain safe. As we learn early on in the narrative, Skilly hides two shocking secrets: not only does he refuse to eat mice, but he is an avid consumer of cheese. Skilley, then, must keep his bosses under the impression that he is doing his job to protect his life – fortunately, he soon forges a strong alliance with the mice in the inn and, in particular, with Pip, a mouse possessed of the gift of literacy. Skilley also grows close to Maldwyn, a raven from the Tower of London that ended up in the inn after being attacked by a group of cats, one of them being Skilley’s life-long enemy, Pinch. Through their playful use of prose and illustrations –which feature heavily throughout the novel–, Deedy and Wright make sure that the characters are well-defined right from the start, thus laying the groundwork for the conflicts that are about to arise.

Peace reigns supreme until, one day, Pinch makes his appearance as another mouser for the inn: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese soon becomes a battlefield where Pinch and Skilley strive to devour and protect the mice, respectively, leading to a narrative climax in which, as I shall examine later on, literature and the figure of Dickens prove instrumental. As the plot demonstrates, Deedy and Wright’s novel is highly imaginative from start to finish; however, a slightly closer analysis must be carried out to fully appreciate the various layers of intertextuality underlying the story: Cheshire is full of references to Dickens’ works and legacy, bringing his figure closer to emerging readers.

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Figure 2: Current picture of the interior of the Cheshire Cheese Inn (Source: www.cheshirecheeseinn.co.uk).

Despite the narrative focus on the animals’ hardships, it is clear that Dickens is to play a pivotal role from the onset of the narrative. To start with, the story takes place in the legendary Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a real-life inn frequented by novelists including William M. Thackeray, Wilkie Collins and, needless to say, the Inimitable –as Dickens was often referred to– himself. [4] The authors, then, are careful to breathe realism into their novel right from its early pages, choosing a setting that proved immensely popular among literary figures. Dickens, moreover, makes his entrance as a character early in the story: in fact, it is Dickens who lets Skilley enter the inn for the first time, initiating a narrative in which, as we shall see later, he plays a decisive role.

The references to Dickens’ legacy, nevertheless, go far beyond the choice of setting and his inclusion as a character, encompassing numerous allusions to his works. In fact, the novel opens with the lines ‘[h]e was the best of Toms | He was the worst of Toms [referring to Skilley]’ [5], a clear nod to A Tale of Two Cities which, in turn, sets the mood for a highly intertextual novel. As the novel unfolds, it is common for the characters to reference Dickens’ works in the form of casual remarks: for instance, Skilley and Pip refer to Dickens as ‘[their] mutual friend’ [6, emphasis added] or, when asked if he believes a cat and a mouse could be friends, Dickens himself cleverly replies that ‘[he has] great expectations’ [7, emphasis added] – thereby alluding to the novels Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations, respectively. The characters also constitute clear nods to the Inimitable’s creations: not only is Skilley’s best friend, Pip, named after the main character in Great Expectations, but the owner of the inn’s daughter is called Nell (after Little Nell) and Pinch, Skilley’s nemesis, is rebaptised Oliver upon being adopted – a clear allusion to Oliver Twist. Even Skilley’s name evokes Dickens’ habit of giving symbolic names to his characters, emphasising the cat’s proficiency at weathering adversities. Through this clever game of references, the authors invite us to immerse ourselves in Dickens’ universe, challenging us to spot as many references as possible and, in the case of young readers, to learn as much as possible about the author.

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Figure 3: illustrations from the novel, p. 138.

Apart from containing numerous references to Dickens’ works, Cheshire also grants us enlightening glimpses into the intricacies that made him the literary phenomenon he continues to be today. An aspect eloquently tackled by the authors is Dickens’ social consciousness, as evidenced by his tendency to side with the mice in the inn – especially after the evil Pinch makes his appearance. Such is his fondness for the mice that he even thwarts one of Pinch’s attempts to eat one of them: after noticing that the mouse is trying to protect his offspring, Dickens tells him that he is ‘wise to take such care’ as the ‘new cat [Pinch] is nothing like [their] friend, the blue [Skilley].’ [8] Shortly afterwards, when Pinch manages to capture the mouse, Dickens twists his ear and forces him to release his prey, telling him to ‘find [himself] another mouse’ and sentencing that he has ‘grown rather fond of this one.’ [9] Dickens’ leanings towards the mice are, curiously, reminiscent of his support for the struggling classes in England – viewed in that light, it can be argued that Dickens’ socially engaged writing is exalted on Deedy and Wright’s pages, albeit in a comical manner.

Dickens’ literary production also plays a key role in the development of the story, since it is thanks to his works that Pip learns how to read. As he confesses to Skilley:

Nell [Pip’s owner] was reading a book in her bed one evening. It was a volume by Mr. Dickens, who’s often a guest in our very chop room. Nell liked to read aloud and that’s how I learned a good many fine human words. [10]

Pip’s gift of literacy is instrumental in the narrative, as it enables him to write a letter to the Tower of London informing them that their raven Maldwyn lies in the inn: in so doing, Skilley and the mice hope to send the injured Maldwyn home while also unmasking Pinch. Such is the distress caused by the letter that Queen Victoria herself decides to visit the inn, believing that Maldwyn has been kidnapped. Coincidentally, it is then that a quarrel between Pinch and Maldwyn ensues, with the mice ultimately defeating the evil cat by swarming around him. Dickens, again, aids the mice and informs the Queen that they are to thank for Maldwyn’s safety:

“Is it not evident? This cat was trying to kill Your Majesty’s raven.” […] “The raven was saved by the blue cat. The cat that has just been saved by […] these creatures [the mice]. The very ones who cared for your raven when he was attacked once before, as young Nell has just testified. [11]

This, added to the comical discovery that the mice’s tasting skills are responsible for the quality of the cheese produced by the inn, leads the Queen to claim that they “are henceforth under Royal Protection,” culminating in the happiest ending possible for the rodents. Dickens’ role in the story is thereby essential, becoming a catalyst for Pip’s development and, by extension, for the resolution of the novel.

figure-fourFigure 4: Pip writing letters on a wall (Source: illustration from the book).

 Aside from the significance of Dickens’ work and concerns, reference is also made to the prestigious connections he made in his day, exalting his relevance as a public figure and his proficiency at liaising with fellow writers: the novel brings into relief his links with authors such as Wilkie Collins –whom he befriended and mentored, assisting the writing process of works such as The Woman in White (1859) [12]– or William M. Thackeray, with whom, despite their falling outs, always preserved an underlying friendship. Dickens’ most célèbre liaison, however, is that which he forged with Queen Victoria, who, upon visiting the inn to demand the release of Maldwyin, recalls him ‘from [his] brilliant performance before Our Person [alluding to herself].’ [13] By displaying these liaisons, Deedy and Wright convey the extent of Dickens’ fame, emphasising the impact he had on his contemporary peers and society in general.

Last but by no means least, allusions are also made to Dickens’ struggles to come up with a narrative for A Tale of Two Cities, detailing the perils of the process of fabulation confronted by so many authors. At the onset of the story, Dickens is shown to be distressed and Wilkie Collins tells the owner of the inn that ‘[t]he first edition of his new magazine [referring to All the Year Round] is coming out soon, but poor Charles seems to be at a loss for an opening to his story.’ [14] Deedy and Wright chronicle the writing process by featuring various fictionalised entries from Dickens’ diary, providing readers with a humanising glimpse into the hardships that plagued the author’s mind. Apart from complaining that he is unable to ‘write an opening for my new novel that stands out from all the rest’ [15], he is also shown to draw inspiration from his surroundings, enthusiastically saying that a sighting of Skilly eating a stamp (when he actually collects it to post the letter to the Tower of London) has given him ‘an idea for [his] story of the French Revolution,’ more specifically ‘[a] letter, written in soot mixed in blood.’ [16] Cheshire, in fact, ends on a tongue-in-cheek note when Pip, having learned of Dickens’ writer’s block, writes the opening lines of the novel in his diary as a way to ‘thank him for his kindness’ [17], thereby giving the narrative a sense of closure.

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Figure 5: one of Dickens’ fictional entries, p. 13.

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Figure 6: Picture of the first issue of All the Year Round (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Cheshire may be a novel generally aimed at children or young readers in general yet, as we have seen, it soon reveals itself as a richly intertextual narrative throughout which the figure of Dickens is brought closer to readers. Wright and Deedy successfully undertake the challenge of presenting a narrative that is both appealing and informative to readers, potentially attracting the children Dickens felt so strongly about as well as long-time devotees of the writer. While the authors are careful to introduce a well thought-out set of characters to enliven the narrative, it is also clear that they are constantly paying homage to Dickens’ legacy, giving us various reasons to understand why the author remains a favourite of many readers. Not only does the story succeed in entertaining us but, as it draws to a close, it leaves us with a strong need to continue reading: it is this appreciation of literature that makes Cheshire such an engaging, charismatic work. There is nobody quite like Dickens to illustrate what words can do.

References:

[1] Lewis Buzbee, The Haunting of Charles Dickens (New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2011), p. 358.

[2] Iris Kleinecke-Bates, “Historicizing the Classic Novel Adaptation: Bleak House (2005) and British Television Contexts,” in Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities, ed. by Rachel Carroll (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010), pp. 111-22 (p. 111).

[3] Mary Hammond, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations: A Cultural Life, 1860-2012 (Dorchester: Ashgate Publishing, 2015), p. 137.

[4] Harris Pearl, “The Historic Pubs of London,” TimeTravel-Britain.com, <http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/london/pubs.shtml> [accessed 22 October 2016]

[5] Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright, The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale (Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers), p. 1.

[6] Ibid., p. 228.

[7] Ibid., p. 221.

[8] Ibid., p. 97.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p 90.

[11] Ibid., p 220

[12] Sue Lonoff, “Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35.2 (Sep. 1980), pp. 150-170 (p. 151).

[13] Cheshire, p. 178.

[14] Ibid., p 12.

[15] Ibid., p 13.

[16] Ibid., p.144.

[17] Ibid., p. 228.

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