Archive for January, 2012

Not Prince Hamlet

Which character in Shakespeare do you identify with most strongly?

And, assuming you were capable of doing so, which Shakespearean role would you most like to play?

The two questions are not quite the same. When I was asked the first question some years ago over a few drinks in the pub, I had answered “Malvolio in Twelfth Night”. I wasn’t being entirely serious at the time, but, looking back, it wasn’t really such a bad answer. Yes, I trust I am somewhat more self-aware than was Malvolio, but self-awareness is a relative matter: we are all, perhaps, self-deluding to a point; none of us has the gift that Rabbie Burns had wished for, “to see ourselves as others see us”:

O wad some Power the giftie gi’e us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It would frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

So here I am, strutting and fretting like Malvolio, indulging in all sorts of daydreams of what I might be, but without really knowing what I am, or how others see me. This is among Shakespeare’s gifts to us: his comic grotesques are not people merely to be laughed at, and neither are they people for whom we come merely to feel pity: they are people in whom we see aspects of our own humanity.

As for the second question – I think I’d answer Antony: not the Antony in Julius Caesar, but the Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. Why? Partly because, as I advance through my sixth decade, I find myself identifying increasingly with Antony’s weariness with various worldly responsibilities; but looking beyond that – the actor playing Antony gets to snog the actress playing Cleopatra, doesn’t he?

What is “poetry”?

As we all know, all writing is either prose or poetry, so it seems reasonable to say “If it ain’t poetry, it’s prose, and if it ain’t prose, it’s poetry”. So the question of defining poetry is really a matter of distinguishing between the two, and the best distinction I have heard came from my daughter when she was about seven or so: prose, she said – or, rather, “normal writing”, there being nothing quite so abnormal as poetry – goes all the way to the right hand side of the page (except at end of paragraphs); and poems don’t. While this admittedly leaves out of consideration those curious hybrids “prose poems”, neither before nor since have I heard the distinction between prose and poetry laid out quite so clearly. 

For prose is written in units of sentences which may cut across lines, whereas poetry is written in units of lines which may cut across sentences. Of course, this leaves open the question of why one should wish to write in units of lines rather than that of sentences, but that consideration, important though it may be, is outside the scope of defining poetry: as far as mere definition goes, poetry has, I think, been well and truly defined. 

And it provides an apt answer to those who insist that mere prose broken up more or less at random into lines falling short of the right hand margin “isn’t poetry”; or those who tell us that mere banal doggerel cannot be poetry either. As far as I’m concerned, if the author says it’s a poem, then, goddammit, it’s a poem. Of course, whether or not it’s a good poem is another matter entirely.

The many lives of Holmes & Watson

Certain characters, once they are created, are no longer merely the author’s creations: each age reinvents them, finds new possibilities. Don Quixote has been interpreted both as visionary and as fool; Prince Hamlet has been portrayed as everything from sweet prince to psychotic thug. There are those who would hesitate to place Holmes and Watson in such illustrious company, but I say “Bah!”

I’ll say it again: “Bah!”

For if the Holmes & Watson stories don’t constitute great literature, what does?

There have been many interpretations of Holmes and Watson – on screen from the days of silent films to modern times; on radio; on stage; on television; on audio recordings, in retellings, in new stories… They are no longer merely the characters Conan Doyle had created. I am not even close to having seen (or heard, or read) all the countless interpretations of these two characters, but even in the small sample I know, the variety of interpretations is breathtaking.

The earliest Holmes-Watson partnership to make a mark – on me, at any rate – was the pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Let us get the obvious observation out of the way: they have very little in common with Conan Doyle’s creations. But there is no reason to see this as a drawback: these performances have a charm all of their own. And, no matter how insistently we fans of the original stories keep insisting that Watson, far from being the buffoon portrayed by Nigel Bruce, is actually an intelligent man, it is this image of the stupid assistant to the intellectually brilliant sleuth that has, to a great extent, eclipsed the original characterisations.

But there’s no need to regret this. Nigel Bruce’s performance in these films is as fine a comic performance as one could hope to see. Indeed, to accommodate this wonderfully eccentric portrayal, it is Basil Rathbone as Holmes who ends up being the straight man. As a consequence, Holmes appears a pillar of strength – reliable, authoritative, reassuring. And for those of us who imprinted on these performances – and whose identification of Rathbone with the original Holmes was enhanced by his extraordinary resemblance to Holmes in Sidney Paget’s illustrations – these are all qualities that define the great detective.

There have been other interpretations as well, and, while each actor put his own individual stamp on the roles, these qualities of reliability, authority, and reassurance remained intact: Peter Cushing, Ian Richardson, Clive Merrison (in the excellent BBC radio adaptations) all projected these qualities.

So, for those of used to seeing Holmes played in this way, it was a bit of a shock when Jeremy Brett’s interpretation (for Granada TV) first hit the screens in the early 80s. This performance is regarded nowadays in many quarters as “definitive”, but, to be honest, I must admit that I have never quite taken to it. The shock of a first encounter with a Holmes so very different from what I had been expecting has now worn off, and, on repeated viewings, I find myself becoming more accustomed to his interpretation; but it’s still fair to say that this is not quite the Holmes I imagine when I read the stories. But it’s only to be expected that a performance as idiosyncratic as this will sharply divide opinions; and one that is so far removed from what we had till then been the norm is bound to remain controversial.

I think I had been – and probably still am – too accustomed to thinking of Holmes as a sort of reassuring authority figure. Like many other readers, I first encountered these stories as a child, and this man with almost preternatural intellectual gifts (not to mention his skills in pugilism and in martial arts) struck me as someone to be unreservedly admired. His very presence was reassuring. I remember for instance when I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles: as soon as Holmes appeared in Dartmoor after his presumed absence, I felt a sense of reassurance – I felt that now, at last, things will be put right. Of course, as one gets older one becomes less starry-eyed, and one begins to see the very serious flaws in Holmes’ character – the drug addiction, the edginess, the sense of danger, the lack of sensitivity, and so on. But first impressions do tend to be strong ones. And Brett’s very edgy performance challenged all preconceptions I had about the character.

I can now see why Brett played Holmes in this way: he wanted to move away in no uncertain terms from the Basil Rathbone approach to the character. For all their merits, the performances of Rathbone, Cushing et al did not convey the darker, edgier aspects of Holmes that are undeniably present in the stories. But I still can’t help wondering whether Brett may perhaps have tipped the balance too far to the other side. I wonder, for instance, whether Holmes really is so insensitive to the feelings of others: Conan Doyle often tells us for instance that Holmes was very good at putting his clients and his witnesses at ease so they could tell their stories more coherently; but Brett’s Holmes never puts anyone at their ease. There are also many instances in the Conan Doyle stories where Holmes shows great consideration for other peoples’ feelings. For instance, towards the end of “The Blue Carbuncle”, when the criminal, tracked down by Holmes, begs for mercy, Holmes angrily reminds him that he himself had shown not the slightest feeling for the innocent man languishing in prison, or for that innocent man’s family. Holmes is not only sensitive to the feelings of the innocent man and of his family: he is furious that this person now begging for mercy had lacked this sensitivity. None of this seems to me suggested by Brett’s portrayal, in which Holmes’ utter lack of sensitivity for anyone’s feelings makes him seem almost autistic.

However, it is certainly a most striking performance, and there are many who are fans at least as fervent as myself of the Conan Doyle stories who reckon Jeremy Brett’s performances to be hwell-nigh definitive. Brett himself took the Conan Doyle stories very seriously, apparently bringing the books to the shooting, and frequently referring to them to ensure fidelity to the originals.

Recently, of course, we had the BBC series Sherlock, created by the self-confessed Sherlock Holmes nuts Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. The conceit is such a good one, one wonders why no-one had done this before: it considers what Holmes and Watson might have been like had they lived in contemporary London, and had access to modern technology. The stories are far more convoluted than Conan Doyle’s, and, where the original stories moved at the pace of Watson’s thinking, this series moves at the frenetic pace of Holmes’s. But the results – with frequent and affectionate references not only to the original stories, but also to the various adaptations – are wonderfully entertaining. The entire internet now seems to be buzzing now with theories on how exactly Holmes faked his death in the last episode of the second series: it seems to have made as great an impact as “The Final Problem” did in Conan Doyle’s time.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, like that of Jeremy Brett (though in a different way), is far more edgy than reassuring. Perhaps this is a reflection of our age that doesn’t believe in reassuring figures of authority; or, at least, is reluctant to see such figures as heroes.

Of course, one should not write about Holmes without writing about Watson: it is the relationship – perhaps the most unlikely friendship in all literature – between the two that is at the heart of these wonderful stories. We have long, I think – I hope – stopped seeing Watson as a buffoon, but it is still not generally appreciated, I think, that Watson is, in his own way, an intelligent character. Holmes, after all, is unlikely to have put up with anyone who isn’t; and throughout the stories, Holmes consistently displays complete confidence in Watson’s medical expertise. Of course, in Holmes’ own area of speciality, Watson is no match for him – but who is? Watson in recent adaptations – Michael Williams with Clive Merrison, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke with Jeremy Brett, and, most recently, Martin Freeman with Benedict Cumberbatch – have all been remarkably successful not merely in depicting the character that – to my mind at least – is closer to Conan Doyle’s Watson than previous incarnations had been, but equally successful in convincing us that two such different people could indeed be close friends, and have so warm a regard for each other.

I am sure we will go on re-inventing Holmes & Watson in ages to come. I don’t know that there are any other fictional characters whose immortality is more guaranteed.

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Second – “Birds of a Feather”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the First – “The Cup and the Lip”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Third – “A Long Lane”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Fourth – “A Turning”

At the start of the second part, Dickens completes the exposition by introducing Bradley Headstone, Charley Hexam’s teacher. And, over this second of the four quarters of he novel, we see emerging as a major strand a love triangle involving Lizzie Hexam, Eugene Wrayburn, and Bradley Headstone.

Dickens’ novels, with a few exceptions (Hard Times, Great Expectations), tend to be multi-stranded. This is because the problem Dickens faced was quite unlike that faced by most other novelists: exercising the imagination was never a difficulty with him – the difficulty was in keeping that wild and teeming imagination of his under some kind of control. His natural exuberance led him towards multiple strands, and the problem was somehow to knit them together, to impose upon this mass of often wildly divergent material some sort of shape. In his earlier novels, this wasn’t much of a concern: the various strands were placed next to each other more or less at random. But as Dickens’ artistic ambitions grew, he realised the need to tie the all the different parts together into a coherent whole. This he achieved triumphantly in Bleak House and in Little Dorrit. Indeed, in the former, the underlying and often subtly hidden links between the different parts of the novel are an integral aspect of its underlying artistic purpose: Bleak House presents a fictional world in which everything is intricately connected, and the nature of these connections, and their uncovering, is itself one of the major themes.

In Our Mutual Friend, the knitting together of the strands is nowhere near as complex, nor, indeed, as subtle. As the novel progresses, two strands emerge as the major ones all others become subservient, or even merely incidental, to these. These two major strands are that involving John Harmon, Bella Wilfer and the Boffins; and that involving Lizzie Hexam, Eugene Wrayburn, and Bradley Headstone.

The narrative strand depicting the society centred around the Veneerings doesn’t really have anywhere to go. Every single character in that part of the novel is a caricature: brilliant caricatures, admittedly, but caricatures all the same, and therefore incapable of development. (Lightwood & Wrayburn are exceptions – but they are involved in a different narrative strand, independent of the Veneerings and their circle.) Of course, Bleak House and Little Dorrit were also full of caricatures, but there, Dickens had successfully integrated them into the overall scheme. (How he had achieved this integration would require an entire book-length study, and since I have neither the space nor the ability to write such a study, let us not go there now.) But in Our Mutual Friend, the integration of the different trands seems to me less successful. It is hard to imagine, for instance, any strand of Bleak House being omitted without damaging the overall picture, but in both the two previous BBC dramatisations of Our Mutual Friend, the Veneerings and their circle had been omitted without any great loss to the whole. Dickens does, admittedly, try to develop a narrative line of sorts with the Lammles’ schemes involving Georgiana Podsnap, but even that very soon comes to a dead end without adding much substance to the novel.

There is the Silas Wegg-Mr Venus storyline, of course, but, so far, that seems to do little except provide some comic relief. It’s very good comic relief, admittedly: even so late in his career, Dickens’ very individual sense of humour and his unique sense of comic timing remained intact from his earlier works. But, in this part of the novel at least, it is incidental and not integral. And there’s also the Betty Higden storyline – fine it itself, but comparatively minor in the grander scheme of things. Of course, no Dickesian would want to be without any of these strands, but they do not seem so closely knit together as the strands had been in some of the earlier novels: they seem to exist more or less independently.

However, the two strands that do stand out from the rest are both fascinating, and couldn’t be more different from each other. The Bella Wilfer-John Harmon story is essentially a fairy tale: the tale of the prince who woos his beloved in disguise to see if she could love him for his own sake is an old motif, and occurs frequently in all sorts of folk stories. The Lizzie-Eugene-Bradley story, on the other hand, is much more realistic in mode, and here, I think, Dickens was entering new areas: his depiction particularly of Bradley’s violent and uncontrollable passions was new not only in his own writing, but also possibly in prose fiction. Dostoyevsky, soon to produce his first great masterpiece Crime and Punishment, was, one imagines, paying close attention.

Bella herself is a character who had appeared before in Dickens’ work in different shapes: she was Louisa in Hard Times, Estella in Great Expectations – the beautiful but cold woman who either has no tender emotions, or who keeps them repressed. Bella is, however, is not so extreme as the others: she is, one feels, merely on the cusp: as her warm regard for her father testifies, she is capable of great tenderness of feeling. But circumstances are such that she is on the point of relinquishing such feelings: she cannot bear the misery and the humiliation of poverty – especially now that a new and different world has come into her view. And the worst of it is that she is sufficiently intelligent and self-aware to recognise what is happening to her: she is becoming mercenary, heartless, and even as she is distressed by the path she knows she is treading, she cannot help treading it. This is a complex character, and those who make that penny-in-the-slot criticism that Dickens “couldn’t do women” would do well, I think, to examine his achievement here.

(As an aside, I wonder to what extent Dickens may have had Austen’s Pride and Prejudice on his mind when creating the Wilfers. From what I know, Dickens was not the greatest admirer of Austen, but the picture of Bella’s impossible mother, and of the warm relationship that exists between Bella and her father, reminded me irresistibly of the Bennets in Austen’s novel. However, Mr Bennet, who has effectively barricaded himself in his study away from his family – his beloved Lizzie apart, of course – is a very Austenite figure, whereas the child-like “cherub”, Mr Wilfer, could only be a creation of Dickens. But perhaps Mrs Bennet and Mrs Wilfer might have got on with well each other.)

John Harmon, in contrast with Bella, emerges as rather dull. After the likes of Arthur Clennan in Little Dorrit, or Pip in Great Expectations, Harmon, presented here as a flawless being who is intelligent, courageous, honourable, and sensitive to a fault, seems a bit of a throwback to the worthy but dull heroes of some of Dickens’ earlier novels. Through most of Our Mutual Friend, he is in disguise of some sort or other, and we don’t really get a chance to see beyond the disguise. Even the long interior monologue he is given (Chapter 13 – “A Solo and a Duet”) is purely expository in nature, revealing to us (in a surprisingly clumsy manner) the backstory, but little of interest relating to his character. In short, John Harmon exists purely to provide a mainspring to set the plot in motion; and, once it is in motion, he does little except help keep the wheels turning.

In Chapter 12, he turns up in disguise at Rogue Riderhood’s in a scene that is straight out of The Count of Monte Cristo – that masterpiece of continuous narrative in which characterisation does not extend beyond the minimum that is required to render the narrative intelligible. But what is acceptable – indeed, exciting and thrilling – in The Count of Monte Cristo does frankly seem out of place in a work such as this: one would gladly have sacrificed some of the Count-of-Monte-Cristo dramatics here for greater depth of characterisation.

The Lizzie-Eugene-Bradley strand takes us into a very different fictional world.  Dickens does, however, manage to counterpoint the two very different strands together, as in that sequence of chapters in which Bella’s rejection of John Harmon’s proposal is counterpointed with Lizzie’s rejection of Bradley Headstone’s: on the one hand, we have John’s sorrowful understanding that human affections cannot be forced; and on the other, we have Bradley’s furious inability to understand this same point.

Of course, the intensity of Bradley’s passion is exacerbated by class resentment. He has, he knows, worked hard to raise himself to the social level he now occupies (and which, as a consequence, he values): his endeavour has been admirable, and he knows it. On the other hand, there is Eugene, who may be impoverished by the standards of his class, but who, by virtue of belonging to that class, lives nonetheless a reasonably comfortable life without actually having to work. And yet, this Eugene, from his privileged position of comfortable indolence, can casually insult the schoolmaster, and coolly humiliate him. And he does. Just as he had insolently held Charley by the chin when he had first met him – a gentleman is entitled to do that sort of thing to a mere working class lad, after all – he is gratuitously rude and insulting to Bradley Headstone: he takes his entitlements for granted, without ever pausing to think, and the more Bradley smarts under the insults, the more Eugene appears to enjoy the power he wields over him.

In his conversations with his friend Lightwood, we find a man full of self-loathing, a man drifting through life with no aim, no sense of purpose; we find a man who, although attracted to a girl from a lowly social background, simply does not know what to do, how to act. Despite his insulting behaviour to those he unthinkingly considers his inferiors, he is sufficiently decent to want genuinely to help Lizzie. As we know from novels as diverse as Adam Bede and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a casual seduction followed by an equally casual desertion was hardly unknown in such relationships across the social divide, and such a possibility is clearly in the minds both of Charley and of Headstone when they express their objections to Eugene. And it may have been in Lizzie’s mind also when she ends up hiding herself away both from Bradley and from Eugene. And yet, Eugene appears to have no thoughts in this direction: for all his insulting behaviour, there is in him a core of decency that prevents him doing such a thing. A core of decency, and also a very real respect and concern for Lizzie. But what can he do with this respect and concern? He knows also that he cannot marry her: at this stage of his moral development, he is in no way ready to challenge so dramatically the rules of society, even of a society he despises. So he is left not having the first idea what to do: all possible alternatives – not seeing Lizzie, seducing her and then abandoning her, or marrying her – seem completely out of the question. So, as in everything else, he contents himself merely to drift along, with no aim, and with nothing, indeed, to aim for.

Lizzie, when we first see her in this part, is staying with Jenny Wren, the Doll’s Dressmaker, and yet another in that melancholy Dickensian list of children forced by circumstances to assume adult responsibilities. We are never quite sure throughout the novel whether she is still a child, or an adult whose physical growth has been stunted. For Jenny is crippled: the leitmotiv with which Dickens associates her is that sing-song refrain and recurs in various different forms – “my back’s so bad, and my legs are so queer”. Her father, when we see him, is a pathetic drunk: Jenny reprimands him severely as if she were the parent and he the child – indeed, she refers to him explicitly as a “child”. And as her father, ashamed of having drunk away the precious pennies needed for survival, turns his pockets inside-out on Jenny’s orders to see what, if anything, has survived from his alcoholic binge, one thinks of Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment: but it is Dickens’ presentation that seems the more vivid. However, marvellous though both Jenny and her father are, they are, once again, not integrated so neatly into the fabric of the novel, as, say, characters such as Skimpole or Chadband had been in Bleak House: Jenny Wren and her father are certainly marvellous creations – of a type that no-one without an imagination so strange as that of Dickens could ever have conceived – but they remain incidental, not really an integral part of the whole.

Meanwhile, other characters emerge. There’s that wonderful creation, both hilariously funny and morally despicable, Fascination Fledgeby: he is the most boring man on earth – rich, socially well-placed, but lacking any social grace or manners, and utterly lacking in anything to say that is of the slightest interest to anyone (hence his nickname, “Fascination”). Fledgeby forms a link between the society scenes, and the strand involving Lizzie: for Lizzie and Jenny are friend with Mr Riah, a kindly and generous Jew; and this Mr Riah is Fledgeby’s front in a money-lending business.

Mr Riah is, as is well-known, Dickens’ attempt at reparation for the unthinking antisemitism in Oliver Twist. When that novel had been published, Jewish readers had, not surprisingly, taken offence at the antisemitism displayed in the figure of Fagin. When Dickens realised the offence he had occasioned, he was mortified, and disclaimed any intent to offend: it is, I suppose, a measure of how deep that antisemitism was that Dickens had not even recognised it. But here, he is making amends: not only is Mr Riah kindly and sensitive, he is also, quite explicitly, a scapegoat for the Christian: it is the Christian who is here the moneylender – a profession traditionally associated with Jews – and it is Mr Riah, the Jew, who takes upon himself the opprobrium of a sin not his own.

Dickens has been accused of overdoing it here. Orwell described the depiction of Mr Riah as “pious”, and the general critical consensus appears to be that Dickens, in making amends for past trespasses, had gone out of his way to present a Jewish figure as an embodiment of all that is admirable; and that, as a consequence, he had not succeeded in creating a real person. I don’t know that I’d go along with that. For Dickens had long presented characters of just such kindness, generosity, and unassuming nobility of nature. We may think back on the Peggottys, on Joe Gargery, or, even in this novel, the Boffins, or Betty Higden. Mr Riah seems to be the latest in what was by this this stage a well-worn Dickensian tradition, and he seems to me every bit as believable as all the other saintly characters Dickens had depicted.

But what seems to me more striking than Dickens’ depiction of Mr Riah is his depiction of, and sensitivity to, the everyday antisemitism that someone such as Mr Riah experiences. That Fascination Fledgeby should be antisemitic is only to be expected: Fledgeby is, after all, morally vacuous; but more striking is a quite remarkable scene in which Mr Riah, generously offering his aid to Lizzie when she is at her lowest ebb, meets up with Eugene Wrayburn, and he, intelligent, polished and self-aware though he may be, sees fit to sneer at Mr Riah’s Jewishness, referring to him insultingly as “Mr Aaron”. Mr Riah takes the slights with his customary placid dignity, but Dickens knew well the extent to which even small insults could hurt. Eugene Wrayburn, we realise, is, for all his sophistication, much in need of a moral education; but, as with Bella, he is not, we feel, is irredeemable. Both he and Bella are capable of learning in time how to value human worth for what it is, despite all that conspire to divide us one from another.

For, as with Great Expectations, it is this theme that seems to me to be at the centre of this novel: how can we recognise and value human worth in a world in which humans are valued purely in terms of wealth and of social status, or, as in Mr Riah’s case, in terms of race or religion? Everywhere we look, human worth is hidden. Lizzie’s warm and loving heart is hidden behind her lowly social status (and it is the fact that Eugene can see through her lowly social status and value her that gives us hope that he may be capable of redemption). The Veneerings and their circle cannot perceive human worth at all: everyone in the Veneerings’ circle, no matter how brief their acquaintance with the Veneerings may be, is greeted with a faked warmth and generosity as their “oldest friend”. Whether the Veneerings are cutting the friends they had before they made their wealth, or whether they never had any friends at all, we do not know: either way, they are heartless. They belong now to a world in which social form is everything: all else is banished. Warmth, love, human regard, generosity – such things can only be faked because the real articles are not there. And it is this world from which Eugene needs to escape; and it is this same world that Bella longs to enter. It is this world that exerts its fascination on her to such an extent that, even knowing full well how heartless it is, she is prepared to sacrifice her own heart to enter it. Different though the stories are of Bella and of Eugene – one belonging to the realm of fairy tale and the other belonging very much in the real world – they complement each other.

In the last chapter of the second quarter of this novel, we are shown again Veneering’s circle. Having no real part to play in the novel, they are now reduced to a sort of chorus on the proceedings – a chorus that is on all matters most reliably unreliable. But even in the midst of this, Dickens shows us Mrs Lammle rising above the moral squalor she willingly inhabits to save the innocent Georgiana. And we can’t help but feel that even if someone such as Mrs Lammle could rise above all this, then so, perhaps, in time, could Eugene, and so could Bella.

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the First – “The Cup and the Lip”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Second – “Birds of a Feather”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Third – “A Long Lane”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Fourth – “A Turning”

Beginnings are notoriously difficult. Until the reader gets to know the characters, they are nothing more than made-up names; and yet the author has to introduce these made-up names, and, while introducing them, ensure that the reader remains interested. The information concerning these characters must not come too quickly: that will only confuse the reader; but neither must it too come too slowly, as that will merely bore the reader, and make it more difficult for the characters to emerge as anything other than mere made-up names. At the same time, a milieu must be depicted, so the reader can imagine the characters occupying a certain space. And a tone needs to be set suitable for the rest of the novel. All in all, it’s a pretty difficult business, and sometimes, even the most experienced of novelists can experience difficulty. But Dickens by this stage was a master: in the first six chapters of Our Mutual Friend, he effectively starts off five different novels: he introduces no less than five distinct sets of characters, in five different milieux. Only the third chapter follows from the second: for the rest, each new chapter is, effectively, the start of another novel. It’s almost as if he were showing off.

And in a sense, he is. Dickens was always the showman, even when, as here, he harboured serious artistic ambitions: he did not see any contradiction between writing a serious novel and putting on a show for the reader.

In the first chapter we are introduced directly to one of the major images of the novel – the dark river. Gaffer Hexam makes his living from the river: he finds and fishes out dead bodies for the reward. He is not above pillaging the pockets of the dead: a man must live, after all; but he draws the line at anything beyond that. Gaffer Hexam and his daughter are the first people we encounter in this novel: they have been lucky – they have found a corpse in the river.

After this very sombre opening, we are taken into a very different environment – a dinner party given by the nouveau riche Veneerings. And here, the tone of the narrative voice changes: it is satiric, sarcastic, and sneering. And this seems to me a sort of departure for Dickens. Of course, he had employed satire before, and there had been people in his earlier novels (such as, say, Skimpole and Chadband) whom Dickens had clearly despised; but there’s something more here. Here, for the first time, I think, Dickens attacks wholesale an entire class of people. Orwell had famously described Dickens as a man who was “generously angry”, but there seems little generosity in his anger here: the satire is, true, often very funny, but Dickens cannot – indeed, he makes no attempt to – restrain his utter loathing for these unfeeling, shallow, insipid, insincere creatures, for whom all human intercourse is about a matter of show, with no substance, no human feeling.

It is in this second chapter that we are presented with the central exposition – the story of the Harmon legacy – and it is delivered in a curiously theatrical manner: the lawyer Mortimer Lightwood informs the other guests of all the events past that we need to know about. It is the sort of expository technique one expects from a play rather than from a novel, and, although Dickens loved the theatre, this is, once again, I think, new in Dickens. Towards the end of this second chapter, news comes: a man, believed to be the heir of the Harmon estate, has been found drowned. This brings together the two milieux depicted in the opening two chapters; and the third cements the two by following Lightwood (with his friend Eugene Wrayburn) as they go to the police station, meet with Gaffer Hexam, and, significantly for Wrayburn,  with his daughter Lizzie. Already, links are being created between different parts of the novel – links that will be developed as the work progresses.

One thing that is left unclear in the exposition so far is the exact source of the late Harmons’ wealth. We are told it comes from “dust”; whether Harmon had been a refuse collector, or a dealer in clay and sand and building materials, is, in typical Dickensian fashion, left unclear: but the exact concrete nature is unimportant – what matters is the metaphor equating of wealth to dust. And it is more than hinted that the term “dust” is a sort of euphemism: it is what, in less decorous modern times, we would call “shit”. And, we are told in the sort of surreal touch that is not out of place in Dickens’ rather strange fictional world, there are huge mounds of this “dust” just outside Harmon’s house –“Harmony Jail”, as it is known.

In the fourth chapter, we are introduced to the lower middle-class Wilfer family: there’s beautiful Bella, contemptuous of the poverty in which she lives, and deeply resentful – resentful of having been merely a condition of a dead man’s will, resentful that her own inclinations had meant nothing and continue to mean nothing, resentful of having to wear mourning for a man she has never even known. There’s her good-natured father, a menial clerk in one of Veneering’s businesses; and there’s her absurd mother, for ever seeking out offence where there isn’t any, and standing on what she considers to be her dignity.

Chapter five, and yet another milieu, yet another set of characters. There’s Silas Wegg, the ballad seller, and the Boffins, former servants, and now, after the presumed death of the heir to the Harmon estate, the sole inheritors. After the darkness of the opening chapter, after the false civilities of the Veneerings and their guests, it is a relief to come at last to Dickens’ typically warm and eccentric sense of humour. Here, at long last, is the man who had given us Pickwick Papers.

There are times I wonder how skilled comic artists know what they write will make people laugh: how did Oliver Hardy know, for instance, that twiddling his tie will be funny? Twiddling one’s tie isn’t usually seen as funny, after all. How is it possible for someone writing a comedy script to know that something which seems merely silly will make people laugh? I have no idea – and I suppose this is why people like Stan & Ollie were comic geniuses, and I’m not. I feel similarly about Dickens: somehow, he got laughs out of things that one wouldn’t have thought had any comic potential at all. Why Boffin referring repeatedly to Wegg as “a literary man, with a wooden leg” – as if possession of a wooden leg enhanced his literary status – should be funny, I don’t know: but it is. Why the entire conversation in which Boffin’s proposes that Wegg – literary man, with a wooden leg – should read him Decline and Fall-off of the Rooshan Empire should be funny,  I don’t know: but once again, it is. The humour is as eccentric as ever it was, and – although Wegg turns out eventually to be a bit of a pantomime villain – there’s no malice in the laughter. The laughter is as open and as generous as it was in Pickwick Papers: that we find the Boffins funny does not make us look down on them, or feel superior to them: as with Stan and Ollie, the laughter generates affection, not contempt.

Chapter 6. Another chapter, another opening. Here, we are taken to the riverside pub, The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, and its formidable landlady, Abby Potterson. We see again Rogue Riderhood from the first chapter, and also Gaffer Hexam’s daughter Lizzie. At the end of the chapter, Lizzie, foreseeing trouble, sends her beloved brother away. And at this point, the exposition ends. All the strands, all the major characters, and the various different milieux straddled by this huge novel have now been introduced. All except one: we have yet to meet with Bradley Headstone. But he can wait till the second of the four parts of the novel. The rest of this first part is spent developing the strands so far introduced, and finding links between them.

Some of the links are easily apparent. The Wilfers are linked to the Boffins through the will; and Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn, whom we had met in the society scenes, are linked to the Hexams. But Dickens is in no hurry to establish the other links links: he is happy instead to let each strand proceed at its own pace – introducing new characters as and when he needs to (the Lammles, Georgiana Podsnap, Betty Higden, Mr Venus, etc.) And, wherever he is, he never loses his way: in each milieu, with each set of characters, Dickens appears perfectly at ease with his material.

I cannot think of any other writer who had such a fine ear for the rhythms and cadences of English prose. One could open this book at any page at random, and find monstrously long sentences that pack in vast amounts of information – but no matter how long, no matter how densely packed, it is always perfectly structured, it flows without a jar. Such is the mastery, Dickens can throw in vast amounts of incidental details, asides and parentheses, without the sentence ever losing its way, or becoming overwhelmed. Indeed, the adjective “inimitable” that is often applied to Dickens seems not misapplied here, for not even the finest parodist could, I think, bring off that unique and instantly recognisable prose style that smothers everything with such profusion of eccentric incidental detail, that gives free rein to that wild and untamed imagination, that switches effortlessly from the real to the metaphorical and back again – often blurring the boundaries between the two – with such consummate ease.

Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, identified this profusion of irrelevant detail as a hallmark of Dickens’ style. These details are not merely in the prose, but in the narrative itself. For instance, in Chapter 9, the Boffins decide they want to adopt a child, and, in search of a suitable orphan to adopt, find themselves speaking to Reverend Frank Milvey. Most authors, I think, would not have bothered introducing Reverend Frank Milvey as a character: after all, apart from advising the Boffins on the matter, he has no part to play in the novel. But Dickens not only introduces him, he gives us a characteristically brilliant portrait of an impoverished and harassed man keeping up, with what good humour he can, an image of gentility. But Dickens is not finished here: he introduces Mulvey’s wife – who has absolutely no part to play at all in the novel – but who, in the brief two pages in which she appears, seems to burst with eccentric life. And in Mrs Mulvey’s conversation, for page after page, he overwhelms us with yet more detail that just about any other writer would have considered irrelevant:

‘I think,’ he pursued, ‘we had better take Mrs Milvey into our Council.She is indispensable to me. If you please, I’ll call her.’

So, Mr Milvey called, ‘Margaretta, my dear!’ and Mrs Milvey came down.

A pretty, bright little woman, something worn by anxiety, who had repressed many pretty tastes and bright fancies, and substituted in their stead, schools, soup, flannel, coals, and all the week-day cares and Sunday coughs of a large population, young and old. As gallantly had Mr Milvey repressed much in himself that naturally belonged to his old studies and old fellow-students, and taken up among the poor and their children with the hard crumbs of life.

‘Mr and Mrs Boffin, my dear, whose good fortune you have heard of.’

Mrs Milvey, with the most unaffected grace in the world, congratulated them, and was glad to see them. Yet her engaging face, being an open as well as a perceptive one, was not without her husband’s latent smile.

‘Mrs Boffin wishes to adopt a little boy, my dear.’

Mrs Milvey, looking rather alarmed, her husband added:

‘An orphan, my dear.’

‘Oh!’ said Mrs Milvey, reassured for her own little boys.

‘And I was thinking, Margaretta, that perhaps old Mrs Goody’s grandchild might answer the purpose.

‘Oh my DEAR Frank! I DON’T think that would do!’


‘Oh NO!’

The smiling Mrs Boffin, feeling it incumbent on her to take part in the conversation, and being charmed with the emphatic little wife and her ready interest, here offered her acknowledgments and inquired what there was against him?

‘I DON’T think,’ said Mrs Milvey, glancing at the Reverend Frank’–and

I believe my husband will agree with me when he considers it again–that you could possibly keep that orphan clean from snuff. Because his grandmother takes so MANY ounces, and drops it over him.’

‘But he would not be living with his grandmother then, Margaretta,’ said Mr Milvey.

‘No, Frank, but it would be impossible to keep her from Mrs Boffin’s house; and the MORE there was to eat and drink there, the oftener she would go. And she IS an inconvenient woman. I HOPE it’s not uncharitable to remember that last Christmas Eve she drank eleven cups of tea, and grumbled all the time. And she is NOT a grateful woman, Frank. You recollect her addressing a crowd outside this house, about her wrongs, when, one night after we had gone to bed, she brought back the petticoat of new flannel that had been given her, because it was too short.’

‘That’s true,’ said Mr Milvey. ‘I don’t think that would do. Would little Harrison–‘

‘Oh, FRANK!’ remonstrated his emphatic wife.

…and so on. We get more accounts of possible orphans to adopt, each accompanied by an entire world of irrelevant and eccentric detail, all piled with seeming recklessness on top of each other. All this is clearly not to advance the plot, and neither is it to give us greater insight into character: but it does help create what we may call, for want of a better expression, the narrative texture of the novel – a sense of a wild, grotesque world teeming at all corners with irrepressible life, with no square inch of the canvas left empty. This indeed is inimitable, because no-one has that mad, exuberant imagination, combined with that extraordinary ear for the rhythms of English prose.

If art holds up the mirror to nature, the mirror held up by Dickens’ art is a distorting one. That strange and irrepressible imagination of his couldn’t be limited merely to anything so prosaic presenting an accurate representation: he has to distort, to exaggerate, to stylise. He creates his own fictional world, but that fictional world is by no means divorced from the real. And, at this stage of his life, the real world seems increasingly to disgust Dickens. Not that he ever lost his almost childlike faith in human goodness: the Boffins and Betty Higden are characters that could only have been created by someone who sincerely believed that human goodness was not merely possible, but real. But increasingly, Dickens  sees a world controlled by the Veneerings, a world in which the likes of the Podsnaps are esteemed. Never has Dickens’ satire been more savage. It is sometimes very funny indeed – the first half of Chapter 11, “Podsnappery”, contains some of the funniest pieces of satirical writing I have come across – but the satire is so motivated by genuine hatred that it runs the danger of becoming crude. The unmoneyed Lammles marrying each other because they both deceived the other into thinking they were wealthy makes for a good comic sketch, but one wonders whether there is enough substance in what is essentially a simple anecdote to carry the weight it is allotted. Podsnap speaking to the Frenchman (complete with The Man Who Says “ESKER”) is hilarious, but Dickens’ turning the conversation to starvation on the streets makes too blatant points that had already been well made. Georgiana Podsnap, crushed by her overbearing parents, is skilfully done, but one wonders whether a less grotesque presentation might in the context have been more poignant. For all the brilliance of the satire, perhaps, one may feel, a bit less anger on Dickens’ part might have led to a more nuanced picture.

There can scarcely be any such complaint about the other parts of the novel. Not the least of Dickens’ achievements is his depiction – as apparent here as in Bleak House or Little Dorrit – of the teeming city, which seems both real and, at the same time, unreal, phantasmagoric. It is no accident, after all, that, some sixty years after the publication of this novel, modernist T. S. Eliot’s original title for his depiction of the “Unreal city” was a line from Our Mutual Friend: “He Do the Police in Different Voices”.

By the end of the first of the four parts, most of the situation has been set up, and most of the major players have been introduced. Eugene Wrayburn, a young lawyer without a practice, bored with the life into which he has been forced and affecting a world-weary cynicism that is already partially real, is clearly attracted to Lizzie Hexam, who originates from one of the lowest strata of society: he is confused about his own feelings. Who John Rokesmith is, we are not yet sure: but we may guess. Silas Wegg, we are sure, is up to no good in the employment of the unsuspecting Boffins: he may be but a comic villain, but we can never be sure of the impact that even a comic villain may have in so strange a fictional world. Georgiana Podsnap, overwhelmed in a life she has not yet begun to live, is set to become a pawn in the matrimonial games of wealth and power that society so delights in, while the predatory Lammles, each simultaneously deceived and deceiver, lie in wait, ready to pounce. And Bella, like her literary cousin Kate Croy in Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, is given an opportunity the escape the poverty in which she has grown up and which so shames her, and become a lady. All is set up in this rich, Christmas pudding of a novel.

The “literary genre”

…either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral…

–          From Hamlet, II, ii

We’ve always had genres. Even Homer, I imagine, knew that The Iliad and The Odyssey belonged to different genres. Over time, genres appear and disappear, sub-genres develop: there’s nothing particularly new about any of this. But one genre appears to have emerged over the last few years that I find a bit puzzling: the “literary genre”. A few years ago, the W. H. Smith chain of shops in the UK displayed their books under the various genre labels – “science fiction”, “romance”, “crime”, etc. – and then lumped everything else under “literary fiction”. They don’t do this anymore, but the idea of a “literary genre” appears to have caught on. And I am very confused. For, surely, a genre is defined by content: to judge whether a novel is a Western, say, or a whodunit, or science fiction (with its various sub-genres), or erotica, or whatever, one must examine the content. And, as far as I understand it, the adjective “literary” is applied to works that exhibit what we may judge to be “literary quality”, just as the adjective “artistic” is applied to works judged to have artistic quality. Of course, I accept it is not possible to define in so many words precisely what we mean by “literary quality”: that is what literary criticism is for, and that is why those of us who care about such matters engage in endless discussion. But however we define quality, whatever it may mean, it is this, the quality, the perceived quality if you will, and not the nature of the content that determines whether or not a work is “literary”. That, at least, is how I understand it. And if the definition of the word is changing – as definitions of words do tend to change over time – we must consider whether this particular change is in any way helpful. As far as I can see, it isn’t.

For instance, I see that science fiction author Stephen Hunt “has declared war on the idea that the only good book is a ‘literary’ one”, and has a formidable array of writers backing his cause. Obviously, Mr Hunt does not define “literary” in the way that I do, for if he did, he would not be declaring war on what is not merely a self-evident truth, but a tautology: a good book is “literary” by my definition, and a “literary” book is a good book – a rose is a rose is a rose. But if Mr Hunt does not subscribe to this definition of a “literary book” – i.e. a book that exhibits literary qualities, however we may define these qualities – then what exactly is his definition of “literary”? For all his indignation, he does not appear particularly forthcoming on that matter.

Meanwhile, on the actual BBC programme to which Mr Hunt was objecting, entitled “Books We Really Read” (as opposed, presumably, to books we only pretend to read) thriller writer Lee Child told us that genre writers could easily write literary books if they wanted to, but literary writers couldn’t write genre books. How strange! If Mr Child really could, if he wanted to, write a book exhibiting literary qualities then the obvious question to be asked is “Why the hell doesn’t he?”  And if the books he writes do indeed exhibit literary qualities, then is he not already writing “literary fiction”?  But, to be fair, I doubt Mr Child was defining “literary fiction” as “fiction exhibiting literary qualities”: the idea that there exist writers who could write well if they wanted to, but who just don’t want to, is too absurd even to be contemplated. But once again, what exactly Mr Child meant by “literary fiction” is anyone’s guess, for he certainly did not define it.

All this is a somewhat typical state of affairs: an awful lot of rage and spluttering indignation over terms that no-one even attempts to define. I’d guess – and this is only a guess, since my internet searches so far have not shed much light on this matter – that the term “literary fiction” is applied merely to define any fiction that does not obviously fit into any of the currently established genres. And I really can’t see that this is at all useful.

In the first place, most books labelled “literary” in this manner will not exhibit too many qualities one may recognise as “literary”:  mediocrity is, after all, the norm in any field of human activity, and the mere fact of not belonging to any established genre is hardly in itself an indicator of superior quality. But if this is, indeed, what the likes of Mr Hunt and Mr Child are referring to as “literary fiction” – fiction that cannot be categorised in terms of the currently existing genres, the leftovers – then it’s hard to see what useful function such a definition could serve. Unless, of course, we are to see literary criticism as an act merely of taxonomy.

The whole thing seems to me to reach the height of absurdity (unless, of course, anyone can point out absurdities of even greater heights) in this piece written by science fiction writer Daniel Abrahams. Mr Abrahams’ conceit (if I may be forgiven for using so literary a term) is that of Genre Fiction writing a letter to Literature, the implicit assumption being, presumably, that fiction written within a particular genre cannot be termed Literature. A trifle snobbish and elitist, if you ask me, but let us move on. What does this somewhat dubious assumption lead to? A mere protracted and rather pathetic whinge, as far as I can see. It is hardly worth rebutting, especially as so much of it is well answered in many of the below-the-line comments. But one particular whinge of Mr Abraham’s did, I must admit, make me smile:

You take the best of me, my most glorious moments – Ursula LeGuin and Dashiell Hammet (sic), Mary Shelly (sic) and Philip Dick – and you claim them for your own. You say that they “transcend genre”. There are no more heartless words than those. You disarm me. You know, I think, that if we were to compare our projects honestly — my best to yours, my mediocrities to yours, our failures lumped together — this division between us would vanish, and so you skim away my cream and mock me for being only milk.

Aw, there, there … who’s been mocking you? I have, over the years, looked around and even contributed to various book blogs around the net, and while I have seen much mockery of books that require intellectual effort, mockery of – or even well-argued criticism of – anything that is popular is effectively to pull down a ton of bricks upon oneself. But leaving that aside, is Mr Abrahams really objecting to writers such as Ursula le Guin and Philip K. Dick being regarded as “literary” – i.e. regarded as “good writers”? Shouldn’t he be pleased that the genre he practises, and which he obviously loves, is regarded as capable of producing works of quality? Mr Abrahams thinks it “heartless” to speak of works “transcending the genre”, and I am at a loss to understand why: all it means is that these works are of interest even to readers who do not normally care for the genre. Is that not a good thing? Is it not a good thing that writing of literary quality within his favoured genre is recognised even by those who are not aficionados of the genre?

Now, as I have explained in a previous blog post, it has been established by exhaustive clinical tests that I am incapable of enjoying science fiction. I admit that the shortcoming is all on my part, that the loss is all mine, etc. etc. Indeed, I will admit to anything rather than have to read one of those damned books ever again. But why any admirer of science fiction should object to certain works of their beloved genre being enjoyed by many who don’t normally read the genre is beyond me. I am, myself, an aficionado of the genres of Gothic horror, and of supernatural stories, and I find it thrilling that the stories of the likes of M. R. James or Algernon Blackwood, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, are considered literary classics; I am delighted that people who don’t normally read ghost stories nonetheless read and enjoy The Turn of the Screw. So what is it exactly that Mr Abrahams is complaining about here? Doesn’t he want people who don’t normally read science fiction to enjoy nonetheless the works of Ursula le Guin or of Philip K. Dick?

This, I fear, is the sort of absurdity that I find myself encountering all too frequently these days, and it seems to me a direct consequence of banishing from literary discourse considerations of literary quality. To parcel off writing into various identifiable genres, and then to parcel off all that remains into another genre called “literary”, is to diminish our ability to discourse on literature; and it diminishes our ability precisely because reducing discourse merely to this dubious taxonomy sidelines the vital issue of literary quality. Instead of considering literary quality of any book, all we end up considering is whether or not the book is serving its purpose, whether or not it is meeting the expectations of its target market. And this cannot be healthy. Nowadays, bookshop shelves are groaning with books that are frequently atrociously written, but any criticism to that effect, even when backed up by detailed argument, is met with the riposte “You are not the intended readership”. As if it mattered. As if pisspoor writing could be any less pisspoor because its intended readership doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care even if it does notice. We have always had genres, yes, but I don’t think we’ve ever had the kind of ghetto-isation we are seeing now. It is conspiring, with various other forces, in helping lower the standard of literary discourse.