July 23, 2019

Reading between the lines

Behind the Book by
I wanted to write about childhood reading after lights out, about reading curled up by the fire, about adventure stories and fantasies and connecting so deeply with a character that they come alive and never quite leave you.
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In H.G. Parry’s debut novel, literary scholar Charley Sutherland has an ability that would make most book lovers weep with envy: He can bring characters out of books and into the real world. But since Charley can sometimes use this ability unconsciously, especially when he’s particularly interested in a book, it causes no end of trouble for him and for his long-suffering brother, Rob.

When the villianous Uriah Heep escapes from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Charley and Rob race to find him and put him back. But is Uriah Heep a victim more than he is a villain? Parry explains why turning to Dickens was the key to unlocking her own story.

When I started writing The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, I knew very early on that this was going to be a book about books and the many different ways we read them. I wanted to write about childhood reading after lights out, about reading curled up by the fire, about adventure stories and fantasies and connecting so deeply with a character that they come alive and never quite leave you.

I also wanted to write about literary analysis. I know studying books is often seen as a barrier to the pleasures of reading them—as though it’s impossible to feel a book if you think too hard about it. But doing a true, deep close analysis of a book is about doing exactly that; at best, it’s solving a mystery and falling in love at once. I wanted to try to capture the joyous intellectual discovery to be had in English Literature scholarship, as science fiction has often done for physics and electronics. I already knew that Charley was a literary scholar, for this very reason—and I knew that whatever he specialised in was going to shape the backbone of the plot. I needed a writer whose work was vast and malleable enough to be read in all these different ways.

And so, I turned to Dickens.

This wasn’t an obvious choice. I do, honestly, love Dickens, but there are many writers I love just as much or more. I don’t have a particular academic background in Dickens, or even in Victorian literature, though I’ve tutored on plenty of university courses that included both. But Dickens is one of those wonderful writers who bridges the gap between reading for scholarship and reading for pleasure. His works were and are intensely popular, and yet they’re also the subject of academic debate and research. His stories are given to or retold for children (controversial opinion: Disney’s Oliver and Company is still one of the best adaptations of Oliver Twist), and yet they’re also considered challenging for adults. He’s brilliant, socially conscious and plain hilarious, often all at once—as anyone who’s read the first page of A Christmas Carol can attest to.

David [Copperfield], bless him, is an idiot.

Dickens also has a lot of scope to play with. Many classic authors write beautifully tight, self-contained novels. Dickens’ worlds are sprawling and expansive; they’re riddled with gaps for a reader (or a writer) to work their way into. His plots meander—they’ll divert without warning to follow a promising subplot and halt entirely for a good joke (or a bad one). The pages teem with characters, vivid and memorable, who hint at stories of their own. It’s perhaps these characters, more than anything else, who linger—which is very helpful if you want to write a book in which characters come to life. Dickens undeniably writes caricatures: He’s very good at giving you a memorable name, a few repeated phrases and a quirk or two to create an instantly unforgettable person. Yet they rarely, if ever, feel like only caricatures. There’s too much truth in them, and too much going on beneath the surface of the narrative. When they drop their masks (as Jaggers does, or Miss Havisham, or Magwitch), there’s invariably a terrible social reality under it (the tragedy of childhood poverty, the vulnerability of women, the unfairness of the criminal justice system). There’s a lot of anger in Dickens, and a lot of secrets, and a lot of heart.

Once I’d decided that I was writing about Dickens, a lot of things fell into place—including many I can’t talk about without spoiling the story! One of the best things it gave me, though, was Uriah Heep. There are a lot of wonderful villains in Dickens’ work, but Uriah Heep is special. For one thing, he’s the nemesis of David Copperfield. David Copperfield was Dickens’ self-confessed “favourite child”—David is based on Dickens himself, and the book draws heavily on Dickens’ life. There’s something intensely personal about Dickens’ antipathy of Uriah, and it comes out in some of the most delightfully repulsive descriptions in all of literature. (He is so obsequious that he literally leaves a slime trail when he shakes hands.) And yet what fascinates me most is that his position is understandable, even sympathetic. Uriah’s grotesque mock humility isn’t just a matter of playing up to those in power: it’s a deliberate parody of what’s expected of him, one which he plans to turn on his social betters.

“Father and me was both brought up at a foundation school for boys,” he explains to David. “They taught us all a great deal of umbleness, . . . We was to be umble to this person, and umble to that; and to pull off our caps here, and to make bows there; and always to know our place, and abase ourselves before our betters. And we had such a lot of betters! . . . ‘Be umble, Uriah,’ says father to me, ‘and you’ll get on.’ . . . And really it ain’t done bad!”

David’s reaction to this confession is to blame Uriah’s father and mother: “It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that this detestable cant of false humility might have originated out of the Heep family. I had seen the harvest, but had never thought of the seed.” David, bless him, is an idiot. The real seed, as Dickens knows perfectly well, is the entire foundation of the Victorian class system, which insists on humility and is flattered to receive it. Uriah is what it produces: a monster, but one that is self-begotten.

Uriah Heep is trapped in a system in which he can never rise. He is also, on another level entirely, trapped in a narrative that will never allow him success. The story doesn’t belong to him, but to David Copperfield. In the end, David marries the saintly Agnes Wickfield, exactly as Uriah schemes to do. He becomes a gentleman, by birthright as well as by education and effort—even though, as Uriah points out, his past (and Dickens’) as a child-laborer in a factory brought him lower than the Heeps have ever have been. Uriah remains the scapegoat: He exists to carry the guilt of the other characters, so that he can be punished and they can achieve happiness. I think, on some level, he knows this. I wanted to have fun with what he would do if he escaped the page—if, in short, he had the power to change his own story.

In the end, the story shaped itself around Dickens and Victorian literature in ways I never predicted it would. As well as being a book about reading books, it’s a book about family, and so many of the things central to David Copperfield and Uriah Heep are also central to Rob and Charley’s relationship: jealousy, childhood trauma, the feeling of being in someone else’s story. Figuring out how those threads entwined and played off each other was intensely joyful to write, and I hope it will be to read.

Writing is lot like literary analysis, in that it requires you to be both working with your brain and feeling with your heart. On the best days, it’s like solving a mystery and falling in love at once.


Author photo by Fairlie Atkinson

The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep
By H.G. Parry

ISBN 9780316452717

H.G. Parry

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