Why so little chatter about Dickens?
The question is, of course, more than a little facetious. Having kicked off sometime in 1978, the Dickens bicentennial has now passed through about five media cycles. You know how these things go. Four hundred articles appear. Then somebody pens …
The question is, of course, more than a little facetious. Having kicked off sometime in 1978, the Dickens bicentennial has now passed through about five media cycles. You know how these things go. Four hundred articles appear. Then somebody pens a piece wondering “Why oh why is everyone writing about bloody Dickens?” Then one of the original correspondents bemoans the inevitability of the backlash and happily finds himself or herself at the vanguard of a counter-counter revolution. The procedure repeats itself until the tricentennial looms.
Here’s the thing. No British novelist is more worthy of your time than Charles Dickens. You will note that I have expressed myself in slightly couched terms. Yes, George Eliot is a more piercing social analyst. Yes, W M Thackeray is less sentimental. Yes, Jane Austen has a lighter touch. But none of those writers had the same ability to re-imagine the universe with such potency. What I mean is that the novels of Charles Dickens take place in an environment that is every bit as believably fantastic as that conjured up by less conspicuously Earth-bound talents such as Jules Verne, J R R Tolkien or H P Lovecraft. It is a very agreeable place to visit. Aged sea captains are forever opening dusty bottles of Madeira with their hooks. Dyspeptic nurses sit beside suspicious cats. Strange young men makes friends with humane pedagogues. It is often a very unsettling spot. Crossing-sweepers die lonely in the street. At least two wicked old ladies teach their charges to lead men astray. Ingratiating factotums crawl horribly after their vain superiors. Immerse yourself in all this for an hour or so and Jane Austen begins to seem more than a little underpowered.
Mervyn Peake’s drawing of Jo, the crossing-sweeper, from Bleak House.
So, why is any of this worth writing? We have, in recent weeks, been told over and over (and over) again that there’s nobody to touch old Charles Dickens. He occupies, puffier pieces suggest, a place just below Shakespeare in the pantheon. Well such raves ignore the fact that the venerable geezer has been fiercely old-fashioned for at least a century. Obviously he had supporters, but most critics echoed George Orwell’s view on Dickens: “rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles”. That is to say the books are awash with great characters, but they are shabbily structured. University lecturers tolerated Dickens, but usually argued that anybody who preferred him to George Eliot could not be regarded as a serious person. Up to 20 years ago, we Dickensians could, at least, celebrate the fact that he remained the most popular of 19th century English novelists. When Colin Firth hopped into a lake that all changed. Now, filthy Austen comfortably holds that title.
Let’s get the most common objection out of the way. There is (alas) no disputing the fact that Dickens can be appallingly sentimental. Few articles on the great man fail to mention Oscar Wilde’s amusing (I admit it) remark that: “one would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” Peter Ackroyd, who bows to nobody in his devotion to Charlie, notes that, in Dombey and Son, the pathetic, wan Florence Dombey weeps on 87 occasions; even in a book so weighty that’s an awful lot of blubbing. But, as you move through the career, the characters harden up somewhat and — take heed, Orwell — the plots become ever more securely structured. I can understand why a reader might, after embarking on The Old Curiosity Shop or Oliver Twist, quickly reject the author as nothing more than a maudlin melodramatist.
Dipping in for the first time, you don’t really want to bother with any full-length novel written before Dombey and Son (1848). Yes, I’m sorry. This does eliminate Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. Come back later if you fancy. The gargoyles really are great in those books. But the novels are chaotically plotted and the noise of blubbing young women is quite overpowering.
The books written after that period do, however, help to explain the recent hullabaloo. Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend: what a sequence of masterpieces. True, unlike in Austen, pale young ladies rarely go shell-collecting. But there are murders, labyrinthine law cases, unexpected windfalls, lurking ghosts and untouchable depictions of London that make that city seem more exciting (and a deal less cosy) than Middle-earth. Heck, somebody actually spontaneously combusts in Bleak House. Take that Mrs Gaskell.
Anyway, this being nominally a cinema “blog”, I should probably say a bit about Dickens on film. In truth, the larger 19th century novels have always fought back against adaptation. They’re so darn long. They have so many characters. Here’s an interesting thought. Many critics’ choice (though not mine) for the greatest English novel of the 19th century has never been made into a movie. It seems astonishing. But no film-maker has ever attempted Middlemarch. Emily Brontë comes off all right. Dickens doesn’t do badly. There’s that nice Ralph Thomas version of A Tale of Two Cities. Who could fail to love W C Fields as Mr Micawber in George Cukor’s take on David Copperfield. The Polanski Oliver Twist isn’t bad. I came close to recommending Christine Edzard’s Little Dorrit as the best of the lot. Split into two parts, featuring a superb Alec Guinness as the useless Mr Dorrit, the picture is an essential watch for any member of the Dickens clan. But let’s not be silly. The greatest Dickens adaptation on film is, of course, David Lean’s gorgeous, creepy translation of Great Expectations. I was going to post the fabulous beginning. But apparently I can legally show you the whole bleeding film. We’ve come along way in 200 years.