Archive for May, 2012

“The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

So starts The Haunting of Hill House, one of the acknowledged classics of the ghost story genre. And after so striking an opening, how could I not continue?

Given my love of creepy ghost stories, I really don’t know why it has taken me so long to get round to this this one. I had, of course, seen the marvellous film version from 1963 directed by Robert Wise, as well as, I’m sorry to say, the predictably inept modern remake.

The problem usually with ghost stories of novel length is that the sense of supernatural terror cannot really be maintained over long stretches: it is so fragile a state of mind that the slightest intrusion of reality shatters it. This is why ghost stories tend to work best as short stories, and, at novel length, the author generally has to pad the thing out. And the padding usually isn’t very interesting; or, worse, it detracts from the element of the supernatural. (I thought this was very much the case with the most recent example of this genre that I read, The Ghost Writer, which is actually rather fine once you get past the padding.) But Shirley Jackson avoids this issue by making this essentially a novel about a mental disintegration, and relating the supernatural elements to this central theme.

The story, such as it is is slight, and the set-up may be regarded as a bit hackneyed. Hill House is regarded as a haunted house: it has an evil history, and currently lies unoccupied. And here, Dr Montague, anthropologist, conducts an experiment in psychic phenomena. And to do so, he invites to Hill House three strangers – one who has telepathic powers; another who has telekinetic powers; and a third who is a relative of the owner, and is the house’s future owner. These four strangers assemble, and then, weird things start to happen. So far, so familiar: but the plot is never in itself an important element, I feel, in a ghost story. The ghost story is, it seems to me, a somewhat conservative genre: its impact depends not on any innovation, but in doing estalished things well. What matters – what the work must be judged on – is not the plot, as such, but how frightening the author can make it.

The principal character, Eleanor Vance, has been invited to the experiment because of her apparent powers of telekinesis – powers that she herself is not aware of. She is in a state of mental turmoil to begin with, and what she encounters in Hill House could well be emanations of her own mental state. This is not to suggest that the supernatural is illusory: other characters quite explicitly experience the supernatural. But Eleanor possibly does have telekinetic powers, and it is entirely possible that it is she who, albeit unconsciously, is the true source of the haunting. Shirley Jackson very skilfully integrates together a psychological study, and a creepy ghost story, but balancing the two elements does not become an issue, as the two are effectively the one and the same: as the ghostly incidents (although no ghost is ever actually seen) intensify, and become ever more harrowing, so Eleanor’s vulnerable mind becomes increasingly unhinged, as she moves from initial terror to acceptance, and even happiness, and, by the end, becomes convinced that the house itself is a conscious entity, and that, what is more, the house wants her: for the one and only time in her life, she is wanted.

Eleanor’s mind is the only one the author allows herself to enter. As a consequence, we don’t find very coherent pictures of the other characters, because Eleanor herself finds them difficult to understand. Particularly difficult to understand is the other lady invited to the experiment – Theodora, who, it is strongly suggested, is lesbian: at times, Theo appears to Eleanor to be sisterly and affectionate; at other times, cruel and mean. But over the few days over which the story is set, all these characters become, for Eleanor, less significant: what matters is the house itself. Whatever these other people may or may not want, this house, insane, wants her, wants Eleanor. And she is determined to stay.

Quite frequently, the ending is the weakest part of a ghost story, for at the end, issues need to be resolved, and resolution usually requires a revelation in terms of plot; and that detracts from the sense of mystery that the ghost story ideally requires. But here, the ending – which, to judge from various internet “reviews”, many find disappointing – seems to me perfectly judged: it is a resolution of what had gone before, and seems to me rather shocking. It does not detract in any way from the sense of fear that has so expertly been generated in th erest of the novel.

***

I don’t know that I should recommend this book to those who don’t care for the genre. I have always loved the creepy ghost story, so this was right up my street, as they say, but I do know there are those who find the genre eminently resistible, and do not find much sense of terror in the thought of what may be lurking unseen in the shadows. And, sadly, there are those also whose sensibilities in these matters are so coarsened by modern horror films that they appear to respond only to the explicit. What frightens one seems to be as unpredictably subjective as what makes one laugh. So I had better restrict myself to saying that this frightened me. And it frightened me consistently, right up to that ending. There is no better recommendation than that for a ghost story.

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The enduring chill of Flannery O’Connor

We modern secularists often have a problem with religious art and literature: one the one hand, we cannot deny the greatness of Donne or of Milton, of Giotto or of Titian, of Palestrina or of Bach, as the greatness of these artists is not in any serious question. At the same time, we have rejected the religious ethos that permeates the work of these artists; sometimes, our rejection is so vehement that we even accuse those who do not reject of being somehow intellectually or morally deficient. And this obviously creates a problem when it comes to religious art: how can we exalt those works which project the very beliefs we denigrate? The usual way out of this is to claim that the Michelangelo’s Pietà or Bach’s St Matthew Passion are great despite their religious content. I don’t buy this: the religious belief that informs these works is not an optional add-on – it is central: without it, the works are meaningless. It seems to me, rather, that these works are important to us not despite their religious content, but because of it. We respond to these works because, from their religious perspective, they address issues that remain of vital importance to us, and which possibly cannot even be addressed in secular terms.

“But what exactly are these issues?” the sceptical reader may well be justified in asking at this point. And this is where I tend to take Wittgenstein’s excellent advice to remain silent on those matters whereof I cannot speak. But remaining silent is not really a valid option when setting out to discuss works that are so religious as the stories of Flannery O’Connor: to discuss such works, however inadequately, one has to take a deep breath and dive in, and hope that perhaps the odd gag or irreverent comment when matters threaten to become too weighty will allay the suspicion that, underneath my professed scepticism, there lies the devoutness of a true believer.

Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic in the Deep South, which was predominantly Protestant. In her relatively short life (she died at 39 from the rare inherited disease lupus) she wrote two short novels – Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away – and a startling series of short stories, most of them included in the collections A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. These stories are permeated with her religious faith: and yet, it is hard to discern what the nature of her faith is, for she deplored fiction that is didactic. Her characters are often religious: given these stories are set in the Deep South – “Christ-haunted”, as she once described it – how can they not be? And yet, in her fictional world, there is something missing that is very important. The faith professed by so many of her characters seems inadequate at best, and, often, merely silly. This is not because, as a Catholic, she is looking down on the non-Catholic varieties of the Christian faith: after all, Father Finn, who appears in the story “The Enduring Chill” and who is one of the few explicitly Catholic characters to appear in her work, is hardly an advertisement for the Catholic Church; and in any case, the moral and artistic vision she presents in these stories runs far deeper than mere factionalism. No – the human condition that she depicts is fallen, and, Catholic or Protestant or secular, black or white, man or woman, no-one is exempt from this fallen state.

But what, exactly, is it that is missing? We observe these characters through O’Connor’s unsparing eyes: we see cupidity, self-regard, selfishness, cruelty, violence; we see what we would term “racism”, though O’Connor does not use this term explicitly (and, much to the distress of many liberal readers, neither does she explicitly condemn it); we see a lack of generosity, a meanness of spirit, and a distortion of moral values that is frequently grotesque. But there is no moral lesson explicitly stated, or even implied: there is nothing to point to some trite message such as “Selfishness is a bad thing” or “Racism is not nice” or even “We need to accept Christ into our hearts”: Flannery O’Connor despised fiction with a “message”, and refused to saddle her own with one – even with one that she so powerfully believed in. There is no doubt that the sensibility underpinning these stories is deeply religious; but it is hard, all the same, to put one’s finger on what it is – other than the frequently Biblical imagery – that gives these stories their religious dimension. Perhaps it takes a commentator himself possessed of a religious sensibility to identify it. Here is Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on Catholic writers such as Flannery O’Connor:

The “religious” dimensions of these fictions lies in the insistent sense of incongruity, unmistakable even if no-one within the fiction can say quite what we should be incongruent with.

– from Dostoyevsky by Rowan Williams, London, 2008

Precisely. The selfishness, self-regard, racism – these are all symptoms of a greater malaise, an incongruity, a state that those of a religious temperament would describe as “fallen”, and for which we secularists must hunt for another word. And in this depiction of a “fallen” humanity, there is an undeniable sense of incongruity; and the question of what precisely it is incongruent with, though never posed explicitly, is, nonetheless, always present.

The danger in presenting humanity as so fallen, in so incongruous a state, is that humanity appear not worth bothering with: if one sees one’s fellow human being as essentially depraved Yahoos, as Lemuel Gulliver did, it is but a short step to wish them destroyed. But that is not Flannery O’Connor’s vision. Depraved and despicable though humans may be, she is not looking down on them from on high: from her religious perspective, humans are, despite everything, creations of God, and as such, they matter, spiritually blind though they may be. “The fiction writer,” she once said, “presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes, there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.” Even in humanity’s fallen, incongruent state, it possesses, in her fiction, a Mystery – the very capitalisation of the word indicating the workings of the Divine – and this Mystery must be respected: it is an indication of the presence of God even in our fallen world.

Up to this point, even a reader such as myself of broadly secular perspectives has little difficulty. But from here onwards, I felt myself struggling – much as I felt myself struggling with the very religious novels of Dostoyevsky. The working of the Divine in a fallen world, the redeeming power of Grace, the wind blowing where it listeth – what does all this mean for me? Very little, I must confess. And yet, I was fascinated by and found almost mesmeric the extraordinary sharp-edged clarity of her prose, the startling intensity of her imagery, and, indeed, that sense of Mystery with which she imbues her characters – a Mystery which holds promise of a greatness not apparent in their daily lives. But her fictional world remains a chilly one. If I were to pick one of the titles of her stories as descriptive of the entire collection, it would be “The Enduring Chill”: despite the sultry Southern heat in which these stories are set, the impression they give is that of a chill – a chill that endures even the workings of Divine Grace. For, in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, even Divine Grace brings no peace, no serenity – no sense, to use Rowan Williams’ word, of “congruity”. As O’Connor herself once wrote: “Grace changes us and change is painful.” And, try as hard as I might to enter into O’Connor’s imagination, I find myself defeated at this point: if our everyday lives are so morally stunted that the only hope of something better is through the action of Divine Grace; but if that Grace itself is painful, and brings no respite; then what hope is there? What can there be to live for? I can understand an irreligious author such as Flaubert – who appeared to believe in nothing – telling us that all is futile; but how can one accept such a message from a religious writer?

I suppose the answer Flannery O’Connor might have given is that Divine Grace, though painful, is what we must strive to receive; because, after all, strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and all that; she might have said that even through the pain that comes with Grace, a pain so intense that it can even destroy our lives, there is a spiritual gain. But of course, she doesn’t say any of this: fiction as a vehicle for proselytising she found artistically distasteful. She merely depicts: what we readers choose to make of it is up to us.

Each of these stories is a little jewel, written in the most precise and striking prose, and polished virtually to perfection. “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “Good Country People”, “The Displaced Person”, “The Artificial Nigger” (the politically incorrect title of which possibly preventing frequent anthologising), “The Lame Shall Enter First”, “Revelation”, “Everything that Rises Must Converge” – each vying with the others to be regarded as her masterpiece. But, despite the extreme clarity of the presentation, there appears something mysterious at the heart of these stories, something that defies attempts to define – for the very act of defining, after all, is to limit the possibilities. I found myself reading these stories exhilarated by the obvious stature of the artistic achievement, but, nonetheless, puzzled: the very clarity of O’Connor’s writing takes us paradoxically into a world where nothing seems quite clear.

That takes us back to our initial question: how can a reader with secular sensibilities read works so obviously imbued as these are with religious belief? I suppose the workings of Grace we may see in secular terms as “epiphanies”, as Joyce called them, or as Wordsworthian “spots of time” – moments of revelation, when that which had remained hidden are perceived with a sudden clarity. While it is possible to see such moments in religious terms, it is not, perhaps, mandatory to do so. But seeing these stories in purely secular terms is to sideline that which, though not made explicit, lies at their very heart. That these stories had so powerful an effect on me – even when I failed adequately to understand them – indicates, rather disturbingly, how important to me those issues remain that we in our secular age prefer to dismiss as unimportant, and which we do not, perhaps, even possess the language to articulate.

But for all that, it is difficult to feel any great affection for these stories: they emanate a chill that, long after reading, endures.

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

“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”

London is Dickens’ usual setting – so much so, indeed, that it is hard for many of us to think of the city at all without some Dickensian images coming to mind. Our Mutual Friend had, in the third part, briefly wandered outside London in the scenes surrounding the death of Betty Higden: at the start of the fourth and final part of the novel, we find ourselves out there again – on the Thames to the west of the city, somewhere between London and Oxford. This river flows through the novel, and is among its most potent images: the novel had started on the river, in the midst of the murky darkness of the city, when a corpse had been fished out: now, we are in more pastoral settings, away from the filth of the metropolis.

But the filth of the city has not gone away: we meet again Rogue Riderhood, who is now keeper of the lock; and we meet again Bradley Headstone, obsessively stalking Eugene Wrayburn. Riderhood links together the three characters Mortimer Lightwood, Eugene Wrayburn, and, now, Bradley Headstone: he is not sure exactly how they are related, but he is picking out the links. And if Mortimer Lightwood had been a guvnor, and Eugene Wrayburn ’tother guvnor, then Bradley Headstone becomes, with delicious indifference to the laws of grammar ’Totherest guvnor. In Dickens’ eccentric world, that henceforth becomes Bradley’s name: ’Totherest.

The tension is high. This strand of the novel involving the love triangle of Bradley Headstone, Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam is approaching its climax. Possibly, it has developed beyond Dickens’ own expectations: it has about it a passionate intensity that goes way beyond anything Dickens had attempted before. Compared to Bradley Headstone’s murderous passions, previous forays into the psychology of violence – whether with Bill Sikes or Jonas Chuzzlewit – seem merely stagy, written for immediate effect rather than with any great insight into the vicious and impassioned mind. But there’s nothing stagy here. And, given the geniality and the warmth that is apparent in so much of the rest of the novel – which recall Dickens’ earlier work rather than his later, darker novels – one wonders whether Dickens had found himself in this particular strand going into areas that he himself had not anticipated. But be that as it may, once in this area, Dickens doesn’t shirk its implications. Closely observed by Rogue Riderhood, Bradley Headstone, already dangerously near the edge of sanity, seems mentally to tear himself apart. The scene where the rush of blood to Headstone’s head causes his blood to gush through his nose is terrifying: I do not know how accurate this is in medical terms, but, as with Krook’s death by spontaneous combustion in Bleak House, Dickens’ fictional world is one where metaphor can easily become a physical reality.

There are a few other strands to be resolved as well, of course. The Lammles, we had learnt towards the end of the third part, are now all washed up: Dickens brings Giorgiana Podsnap back into the frame here, and tries to enlist some sympathy on behalf of this pathetically dominated girl, but she had been presented earlier in the novel in such grotesque terms that it is difficult to take her seriously now as a real person. Or, at least, if the reader is to take her seriously, Dickens needed to give himself a bit more time and space than he could spare for so incidental a character. There’s also Mr Riah, whose moral scruples force him to leave Fledgeby’s employment (shortly before he receives an unceremonious letter from his employer telling him he is sacked anyway), and whose relationship with Jenny Wren is re-established as previous misunderstandings are cleared up. Fledgeby himself gets his come-uppance as Lammle, as his final act in the novel, gives the bounder a damn good thrashing. Modern sensibilities may recoil at such a resolution: physical violence, we feel nowadays, is always to be deplored; but Dickens wrote in, we may say, an age with more “robust” values, and was an admirer of Fielding to boot: he saw nothing untoward in a snivelling cad such as Fledgeby getting his come-uppance in such a manner. This leaves two other major strands: there’s Silas Wegg’s continuing attempts to blackmail Boffin, and this continues agreeably in Dickens’ best comic manner till its predictable, though nonetheless funny, resolution. And, finally, there is the fairy tale thread – the Prince in Disguise testing his Beloved.

And here, Dickens has a problem: having set this as one of the two major plot strands in the novel (the other being the Headstone-Hexam-Wrayburn triangle), he cannot drop it with a quarter of the novel still to go – he has to keep it going to the end; and yet, the strand has already been resolved. Once Bella decides, towards the end of the third part, that she would rather forfeit her fortune than be party to the injustice meted out to John Rokesmith, this particular story is effectively finished: she has triumphantly passed her test, and all that remains is to disclose the identity of the Prince in Disguise so the two can live happily ever after. But – rather surprisingly, given the extraordinarily intricate planning in the earlier Bleak House – Dickens appears to have miscalculated here: the resolution of this story had come too early, and Dickens has to do what he can to stretch this strand through to the end, even though there is no further material to keep it going. As a consequence, the testing of Bella continues quite gratuitously, stretching in the process both probability and psychological coherence. Indeed, it becomes distasteful, as the continuing “testing” of Bella even when she has proved herself can only be seen as tantamount to deliberate cruelty; and, even in the context of a fairy story, her cheerful acceptance of it all when all is revealed makes no sense at all.

Dickens, especially in his earlier work, enjoyed describing good people being happy together: such material is usually eschewed by writers (and not just modern writers) for obvious reasons – the most obvious of which is that it lacks dramatic tension. But there was an aspect of Dickens that made him return to this sort of thing, and it is perhaps surprising that after the darker and more pessimistic views of humanity expressed in Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, he should return again to this. But he does, and does so with a vengeance; and it becomes hard to escape the impression given here of tweeness, and of a forced jollity.

But if, as I suspect, Dickens had some inner need to write in this mode – almost as if he needed to convince himself that virtue can triumph, even in a world so wicked as this – the other principal strand shows no sign whatever of compromise. Eugene Wrayburn has tracked down Lizzie Hexam, but is still without much idea of his own intentions; and Lizzie, very understandably, remains apprehensive. If the depiction of the violent passions of Bradley Headstone is a new departure of Dickens – and it is a mark of his artistic restlessness that even in so late a stage in his artistic career he was willing to take the risk of making such departures – then the depiction of Eugene Wrayburn is no less so. Convention – which Dickens has often been happy to accept at face value – would have demanded that Eugene be an innately good and decent man. But while Eugene certainly has in himself elements both of goodness and of decency, he is no spotless hero. On his first meeting with Bradley Headstone, Eugene had made full use of the one weapon he had in his possession – the superiority of his social rank over Headstone’s. Headstone was enraged, and it is not hard to see why: not only is this man his rival in love, this man also insults him gratuitously purely because, by an accident of birth, he happens to occupy a superior social position. (Indeed, his hatred of Eugene, which has its roots in their first meeting, may well have been as potent a force as his desire for Lizzie in driving him to homicidal madness). And later, when Eugene meets Mr Riah, he does not hesitate to make insulting remarks regarding Mr Riah’s Jewishness. It is a distasteful scene, but perfectly in character.

Eugene lacks any sense of purpose – either in personal or in professional matters; and yet, he feels superior to others, on account of his social class, and also on account of his race. He is obviously attracted to Lizzie, but does not know what to do, how to act, or what to say. Even his close friend, Mortimer Lightwood, worries about what he might do. In such cases, after all, even the possibility of rape could not be ruled out: as readers of Tess of the d’Urbervilles will know, a man of higher social standing would be unlikely to be called to account for what would have been regarded merely as a “seduction” of a working class girl. Under the circumstances, Eugene’s winning of Lizzie is no mere conventional love story of spotless hero and spotless heroine triumphing over the odds: for, among the hurdles Eugene has to overcome, the most significant is his own mind. Like Bella earlier in the novel, Eugene needs to be educated; and since his story is not a fairy story, as Bella’s is, his education is harsh and painful. It almost costs him his life.

The development of Eugene’s consciousness is among Dickens’ triumphs. Eugene has long been sexually attracted to Lizzie, to the point even of obsession, but he can only develop a healthy relationship with her once he learns to respect her. Each touch in the telling of this story is a touch of a master, and refutes all those allegations of lack of depth or of sentimentality that the latter part of the John Harmon-Bella Wilfer story appears to confirm. After Headstone’s attack leaves Eugene almost dead, it is Lizzie who rescues him, and tends to him. And her heroism is answered by his: he finally decides what is important in his life, and, defying all social conventions, marries her. It is a heroic decision, as he knows full well that this will mean exclusion from the only society that he is acquainted with. But he makes his decision with a fierce pride and defiance. He briefly mentions to his friend Mortimer the possibility of escaping away from society to the colonies, and, when Mortimer suggests that this may be the right thing to do, Eugene reacts passionately:

‘No,’ said Eugene, emphatically. ‘Not right. Wrong!’

He said it with such a lively–almost angry–flash, that Mortimer showed himself greatly surprised. ‘You think this thumped head of mine is excited?’ Eugene went on, with a high look; ‘not so, believe me. I can say to you of the healthful music of my pulse what Hamlet said of his. My blood is up, but wholesomely up, when I think of it. Tell me! Shall I turn coward to Lizzie, and sneak away with her, as if I were ashamed of her! Where would your friend’s part in this world be, Mortimer, if she had turned coward to him, and on immeasurably better occasion?’

Mortimer is indeed surprised: this is not the Eugene he had known – the man with no purpose in life, and who hid his lack of energy and direction under an affected show of languid boredom and indifference; and neither is the Eugene we had known earlier in the novel – the man who had rubbed in his unearned sense of superiority over those to whom he had no right to feel superior. Eugene’s blood is up, as he says: we had never seen that before. But now, it is “wholesomely up”: he has grown in moral stature.

The novel ends with a final visit to that demented chorus at the Veneerings, and they are enjoying a good old gossip. That Eugene Wrayburn, who used sometimes to frequent that table, has gone and married a boatwoman of some kind, and one by one, they take turns to ridicule the match, and to express their disgust. Mr Podsnap is so offended and disgusted at this – his gorge rises to such an extent – that he declines to hear anything further about it, and sweeps it away with a movement of his arm. Only one voice in the company remains unheard – that of Mr Twemlow. Throughout the conversation, he has been feeling increasingly uneasy, and, finally, when asked to speak, he overcomes his usual gentlemanly reticence (as with all passages depicting the scenes of society at the Veneerings’ table, this is written in the present tense):

Twemlow has the air of being ill at ease, as he takes his hand from his forehead and replies.

‘I am disposed to think,’ says he, ‘that this is a question of the feelings of a gentleman.’

‘A gentleman can have no feelings who contracts such a marriage,’ flushes Podsnap.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ says Twemlow, rather less mildly than usual, ‘I don’t agree with you. If this gentleman’s feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection, induced him (as I presume they did) to marry this lady–‘

‘This lady!’ echoes Podsnap.

‘Sir,’ returns Twemlow, with his wristbands bristling a little, ‘YOU repeat the word; I repeat the word. This lady. What else would you call her, if the gentleman were present?’

This being something in the nature of a poser for Podsnap, he merely waves it away with a speechless wave.

‘I say,’ resumes Twemlow, ‘if such feelings on the part of this gentleman, induced this gentleman to marry this lady, I think he is the greater gentleman for the action, and makes her the greater lady. I beg to say, that when I use the word, gentleman, I use it in the sense in which the degree may be attained by any man. The feelings of a gentleman I hold sacred, and I confess I am not comfortable when they are made the subject of sport or general discussion.’

And on this splendid note, we come to the end of Dickens’ last completed novel. For all the pessimism and darkness that permeate his late works, he ends with the belief that the degree of being a “gentleman” can be “attained by any man”; and that, with human kindness and decency, those barriers that separate us humans one from another may indeed be overcome. Dickens did not, of course, know that this was to be his last completed novel; but, in retrospect, this does seem to me a fine way to bow out.

***

Our Mutual Friend is one of those proverbial curate’s eggs (although, frankly, I’m not too sure what a real curate’s egg is): so much that is merely crude or simplistic or sentimental lies side by side with other elements that remind me why it is I love the novels of Dickens – alongside those of Tolstoy – more than, I think, the novels of just about anyone else. Our Mutual Friend is not so intricately planned as Bleak House, nor, perhaps, as deeply felt as Great Expectations: neither does it have quite the epic sweep of Little Dorrit. There is too much here to provide ammunition to the anti-Dickensian, and even make confirmed Dickensians such as myself regret at times his reversion to some of his bad old ways. But which other novelist could have given us this?