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The Dickens Issue

Wednesday 8th February, ice still hard, very dry, grey skies. The birds have made a bit of a comeback: I've seen one of the female blackcaps two days running now, and great tit, hedge sparrow & one male chaffinch as well as my faithful blue tits & robin. Crowds of sparrows in my brother's garden yesterday.

Charles Dickens has been on my mind for the last couple of years, originally because of a novel he wrote called Bleak House, which, as you may remember, features a family civil action case, over a disputed inheritance. Jarndyce vs Jarndyce finally, at a leisurely pace and after ruining many lives (some of the recipients eagerly embracing their ruin, others just in the wrong family at the wrong time), completely destroys both the family and the inheritance, and absorbs all the money in legal fees... After trolling my way through Bleak House, and appreciating the anaesthetic effect of its deft storytelling, I later decided (never having been a fan) that I would set myself to read my way through the workd of the great Charles Dickens on my commute from Brighton to Manchester.

Previously, and apart from A Christmas Carol (which depends for a lot of its effect on the incomparably greater modern work, A Muppets' Christmas Carol) I'd only met Dickens novels as "set books" in secondary school. I remember being thrilled by the Magwich opening of, Great Expectations, and intrigued by the mysterious Miss Havisham and Estella (Estrella?) set up, but then the tide of coincidences began to roll in across the mudflats, and in the end I lost patience.Hard Times was memorable, in that I still remember Mr Gradgrind and his utilitarian philosophy of everything, but I don't remember being moved or gripped by the story... I think there was David Copperfield too, but can't recall a thing about that one, except for the dolly little child bride, about as much use as a hamster, who rather annoyed me. Meanwhile, all adult, ie non-classroom based, literary and intellectual opinion seemed agreed that Dickens was a sentimental hack, a big bit of a hypocrite and no great shakes as a novelist either. But I'm now an adult myself, so I know that fashions change & you can't tell fashion from reliable reporting until you try.

I started with Little Dorrit, for the very good reason that the tv version had recently been filmed using the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich (aka these days Trinity College of Music) &, thus the modern mind, I've walked those hollowed pavements a few times so I felt a connection... Then resolved to start again at the beginning and read The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist in succession, plus I ordered the Claire Tomalin biography from Father Christmas.

My verdict? Definitely a sentimental hack, and a big bit of a hypocrite. Had only one or two ideas for plots/characters/situations, which he recycled shamelessly and relentlessly. And no doubt the same will be true, mutatis mutandis, of the great fictioneer of our times when he (well, obviously, but okay, outside bet on J K Rowling) comes to be enshrined as a cultural icon... Of course (this is in response to Claire Tomalin's view on the subject) he "resorted to prostitutes", what's more, internal evidence suggests he preferred girls at least as young as anybody could possibly consider decent. In fact that's obviously why he quietly supported a small and kindly reformatory for getting girls off the streets. He was not heartless, and he had an imagination. He married the wrong woman, poor man, and visited his marital disappointment on a long parade of monstrous fictional females, to match the long parade of infuriating insolvent fathers. Which is forgiveable, I suppose, but it's harder to forgive the author of Nicolas Nickleby for fathering a mad succession of children he insisted he didn't want, and then sending the boys off to the most ghastly prisonhouse boarding schools, where they had to stay even over Christmas... His "never mind the quality feel the width" writing style led him into the mire again and again, with the last third or so of any given novel just about bound to collapse under its own weight. Little Dorrit is awful for this: I was embarrassed for the man. They say he worked hard at his meticulous plotting. I pay him the compliment of saying, frankly I do not believe it. On the other hand, he was a terrific, if self-indulgent (but the two things go together) natural storyteller, and a terrific master of the art of arousal; ie the vital art of gripping an audience's attention. And (further in response to Claire Tomalin) he certainly knew how the English talk and behave, how desperate, drunken prostitutes behave, how extravagent and wild the underclass can get. Seriously, you'd think he'd been studying such scenes all his life.

I salute him. But.

Pickwick Papers is mainly an interminable waste of time and space. And they don't half drink a lot. Stunning non-stop consumption, even by the standards of C21 UK.

Oliver Twist is the one I recommend, the pick of the bunch, coincidences & all

& then my mother died, and I have set the task aside.


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