Donald Clarke: My great expectations for Christmas

The Brontës were a force and Jane Austen mattered, but . . . Dickens still leads the way

Never sit easy with a fellow who doesn’t like dogs, beer or Charles Dickens. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Never sit easy with a fellow who doesn’t like dogs, beer or Charles Dickens. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

’Tis the season to write columns that get on board with the Christmas spirit or urge a rejection of all things Yule. You know the sort of thing. Why must we endure constant sleigh bells and endless snow from a can? Who doesn’t love the sound of sleigh bells and the merry sight of snow from a can?

It shouldn’t need to be said that I’m largely opposed to Christmas. Left to stew peacefully for 11 months of the year, the recreational misanthrope finds it almost impossible to avoid society during Advent. There’s always some Cratchit hanging about with a frail child and a feeble leg of goose. Bah! Humbug!

Which brings us to one seasonal tradition that deserves greater encouragement. Never sit easy with a fellow who doesn’t like dogs, beer or Charles Dickens. Such people are not wholly in the world. Hairy animals warm the spirit. Drinks that froth properly at the head imbibe the table with ancient energy. Nobody wants to read some filthy French novel about a syphilitic philosopher when the nights are drawing in.

English novelists

Jane Austen

We have Colin Firth’s dripping chest to blame for the subsequent rearrangement of tastes. The 1995 TV version of Pride and Prejudice began a popular revival in Jane Austen’s fortunes that continues to this very day. Not only did we see endless straight adaptations of the novels, but the gruesome Bridget Jones’s Diary – as reactionary and anti-feminist as the later Sex and the City – managed to spread feeble updates from Austen’s characters about Tony Blair’s plastic new Jerusalem.

Academic huffiness

It didn’t help that misguided fans would, noting the history of publishing in instalments, tediously argue that “if he were alive today, he’d be writing for EastEnders, you know”. Don’t let the Maoist professor of Cultural Studies at RedBrick Poly hear you. He’ll have us deconstructing the Detroit phone book again.

Serious-minded folk who wanted to read fat Victorian novels that addressed social issues were urged to strip to their metaphorical waists and grapple with the splintered tree stump that is Middlemarch. You don’t meet funny old men with names like Mr Fizzywinkle in the works of George Eliot. If Dickens is a pork pie and pint of cloudy ale by the fire, Eliot is a plate of raw vegetables after a swim in the nearest icy lake. This is literature. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be good for you.

All of this means that, as Christmas looms, the average reader need not feel that reading Dickens is any sort of obligation. An enthusiasm for that writer is now closer to being something of an eccentricity. He is neither so popular as Austen, nor so academically revered as Eliot. When his bicentenary occurred two years ago, he was celebrated as much as an unavoidable cultural institution as a literary genius.

Too entertaining

One joy of tackling his oeuvre is the happy realisation that, unlike so many writers, the books improve steadily in quality as the career progresses. He never quite got over his habit of casting women as grotesques or sickening saints, but the female characters become more rounded as, following a marked mid-career deepening, he moved towards less picaresque novels such as Bleak House, Little Dorrit and the untouchable, endlessly fetid Our Mutual Friend. The chaotic, coincidence-ridden plots of “early funny ones” such as The Old Curiosity Shop and Oliver Twist give way to more careful narrative knotting in those less well-known later works.

Happily, the piece that comes in the middle of the life and best bridges the two extremes is a novella entitled A Christmas Carol. Read it now if you are lucky enough never to have done so. Or watch A Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s better than that Bridget Jones thing.

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