Coming soon: the Year of Charles Dickens

2012 is, of course, the Year of the Olympics, especially if, like me, you happen to live in or around London. And riding on the back of the British Olympics is a year-long celebration of Shakespeare. It is heartening to see that when we think of what is most worth celebrating about Britain, it is still to Shakespeare we turn. But there is another year-long literary celebration to look forward to: 2012 is the bicentenery of the birth of Charles Dickens.  And I see that the celebrations have started early in the Guardian Books pages.

As a devoted Dickensian, I was wondering how I was going to celebrate it. Our Mutual Friend has been up for a re-read for along time now, so I might go for that. I might also read Sketches by Boz, a collection that I have, so far, only dipped into. I also have Peter Ackroyd’s massive biography staring down at me accusingly from the shelves, but although I love Dickens the Novelist, I don’t think I like Dickens the Man at all from what I know about him, so I might give that a miss.

Over the years, I have written, on various boards, and on this blog, what seems like entire volumes’ worth of stuff on Dickens. And it strikes me that much of the time, I’ve been on the defensive. This is because it has long seemed to me that Dickens attracts more unfair criticism than just about any other novelist of comparable stature. Of course, it is also true that Dickens was more deeply flawed than any other novelist of comparable stature (of novelists of the foremost rank – and Dickens most certainly belongs to this rank – the only other novelist I can think of who was as deeply flawed is Dostoyevsky); but all too often, it seems to me, his flaws are noted while his more-than-compensatory greatness ignored; or worse, flaws are seen where, to my mind, there aren’t any. At times, even, certain features in his writing that seem to me marks of genius are criticised as weaknesses – e.g. he is often criticised for creating caricatures when his superlative gifts as a caricaturist seem to me to be worth celebrating rather than denigrating. As a consequence of all this, when I write about Dickens, I perhaps get too defensive. Of course, no writing in praise of Dickens will be credible if it doesn’t acknowledge at least some of the flaws, but even here one has to be careful: those elements of his creative personality that are responsible for the flaws are the same elements that are responsible for much of his greatness. In other words, his genius and his flaws are part of one indivisible package.

But when I do acknowledge flaws, it is generally to the early books I turn, and this is unfair. Of all the articles that have appeared on Dickens in the Guardian Books pages so far, the one I particularly liked was Simon Callow’s on the early novel Nicholas Nickleby. Callow says, very elegantly, just about all that can be said about this novel within so short a space. He reminds us, among other things, that Dickens, still in his mid-20s, kicked off his career as a novelist by producing Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby all within a mere 18 months. Now, that is just phenomenal. Yes, yes, all three novels (especially Nicholas Nickleby) are flawed in many ways; yes, granted, they don’t present any profound vision of human life, and nor do they probe into the human psyche; but what is there that can match these works for sheer brio and exuberance? Where else can one find such variety of colour, such delight in human eccentricity? Is there, I wonder, any other novel so packed with iconic scenes and images as is Oliver Twist? Callow rightly says that to find an antecedent, we must go back beyond Shakespeare to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales.

(Which reminds me – reading The Canterbury Tales in the original is among my upcoming reading projects. But more of that later…)

The noted critic Edmund Wilson thought Austen and Dickens were the two finest British novelists, and, while I accept that literature should not be treated as a competitive sport, that’s probably a fair judgement to make. Certainly, Wilson’s erstwhile friend Nabokov did not have any quarrel with it, even though, like me, he personally preferred Dickens. (And that’s where my resemblance to Nabokov ends!) I can’t remember the bicentenary celebrations for Austen back in 1975, but here’s to a year and more of celebrating my favourite novelist.

(Actually, Tolstoy ranks with Dickens as my favourite novelist, but since I don’t have Dickens’ marvellous control of the rhythms of prose, I couldn’t think of a way of getting that detail into that last sentence without making it sound clumsy.)

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Yes flawed, but still a remarkable writer, twee and all. My favourite: Bleak House. Have you thought about having a Dickens fest or something? I’ll join in if you do.

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  2. Posted by Erika W. on September 29, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    A Dickens fest? I would promise to read one so far unknown to me and comment on it. I was first turned away from Dickens by our reading “Barnaby Rudge” in school. Really! Where do some teachers keep their common sense? We also had to read “Westward Ho!” and as I was from a Roman Catholic background this didn’t sit well with me either.

    I think I have read the usual titles, plus “Edwin Drood”. I so enjoyed the BBC series of “Bleak House ” that I may never read the book.

    Reply

    • Erika: wasn’t that a fantastic adaptation? Very impressive.

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      • I hadn’t thought of having a Dickens-fest here, but yes – why not?

        As I said, I was thinking of reading “Our Mutual Friend”, since it has been many years since I last read it. Would anyone care to join me in that? (Other suggestions welocme.) “Our Mutual Friend” is Dickens’ last complete novel, and is one of his finest and most sophisticated works. Indeed, as I try to explain here, I have often thought of this novel along with “Bleak House” and “Little Dorrit”, as a sort of unofficial trilogy.

        (Incidentally, TS Eliot initially considered “He Do the Police in Different Voices” as the title for the poem that later became “The Waste Land”: “He Do the Police in Different Voices” is a quote from “Our Mutual Friend”, and I do feel that modernism’s debt to Dickens – espcially a novel such as “Our Mutual Friend” – has been underestimated.)

        “Barnaby Rudge” is not really, I think, a good introduction to Dickens. It was the last Dickens novel I read, and although there are some points of interest, it is really for Dickens fans and for completists.

        The recent adaptation of “Bleak House” was certainly impressive, but the original material is so good that it’s hard to go wrong with it. I have fond memories of a BBC adaptation from the 1980s with Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott.

        Isn’t it interesting, by the way, just how many very great novels were written in the 1860s? The decade started with “Great Expectations” and “The Mill on the Floss”, and we also had “Our Mutual Friend”, “Fathers and Sons”, “L’Education Sentimentale”, “Crime and Punishment”, “The Idiot”, “War and Peace” …

  3. Posted by Erika W. on September 30, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    I will certainly read “Our Mutual friend” as otherwise I am sure it never will be read by me and that is a sad thing to say.
    Some time ago I mentioned that I have a personal, sorry list of books i wasn’t able to finish and “The Mill on The Floss” is one of them.

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  4. I’m sure I’ll read some Dickens during the next year. I usually do. Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend are the two remaining that I have never read.

    I am amazed that a school would use Barnaby Rudge as a text. It’s his worst novel.. Although every Dickens novel has some substantial rewards – the long section on the Gordon riots is very good.

    Completely agree about the 1860s – Notes from the Underground, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Les Misérables.

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  5. Posted by Erika W. on September 30, 2011 at 11:24 pm

    My only memory of “Barnaby Rudge” is of a raven called Grip–I’m sure not the major character!

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  6. So if we have the group read, when do we want to do it? Soon – or at the start of 2012, when the bicentenery year starts? I am currently reading Fielding’s “Amelia”, and, not being a fast reader – and not wishing to rush a book that should be relished – I expect to be reading it for the next two weeks. I’d be happy to start on “Our Mutual Friend” any time after that.

    (And if anyone else wants to join in – pelase do: I’ll be putting up posts on the book here from time to time as I am reading it, and there’s plenty of opportunity for everyone to pitch in!)

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    • I certainly will join in. I’m going to join in Caroline’s German Lit month in November, so Jan would be fine with me. I don’t think it gets better than the 19th C.

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  7. Posted by Erika W. on October 1, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    Starting in January sounds ideal. Maybe a few chapters each month so that our other reading will not be swamped? I have just begun to read Fanny Burney’s ” Evelina”. I’m not expecting much enjoyment from it but have read her journal twice and also quite a bit of biographical material and feel that a gap needs to be filled.

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  8. Posted by alan on October 4, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    You might like to comment on what purports to be Mr Henry James review of ‘Our Mutual Friend’.

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  9. Posted by alan on October 4, 2011 at 11:24 pm

    But I’m far more impressed by orwell’s essay on Dickens.
    You don’t have to agree with Orwell to admire his abilities as an essayist, and by comparison I very surprised by the poverty of the article attributed to James.

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  10. “purports to be”? “attributed to”?

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  11. James’ antipathy to Dickens, and especially to Mutual Friend is well known. It’s not an isolated instance of one major writer hating the works of another: Tolstoy’s hatred of Shakespeare comes to mind. I think these people were so immersed in their own artistic vision, they found it particularly difficult to come to terms with any other artistic vision that was radically different from their own.

    ( Angus Wilson also thinks that James’ dislike of Our Mutual Friend can also in part be attributed to Dickens encroaching, as it were, on James’ own territory in terms of theme, and also in terms of the social background of some of the narrative strands of that novel. One should also bear in mind that James was very young when he wrote that review.)

    Orwell’s essay on Dickens is a particularly fine one. As a teenager, I had – and still have – a 4-volume edition of Orwell’s essays, reviews, journalism, etc., and, not surprisingly, these essays helped mould my youthful thoughts and ideas on a number of things, including literature. Indeed, it was Orwell’s essay that encouraged me to take Dickens seriously as an artist. I looked over that essay again recently, and found myself disagreeing with much of it this time round, but that’s only to be expected: one’s judgement and perceptions inevitably change over 35 years.

    Incidentally, Orwell’s essay on Gulliver’s Travels is particularly good.

    Reply

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