Posts Tagged ‘Dickens’

“The Cricket on the Hearth” by Charles Dickens

An elderly, kindly man is married to a much younger woman. Then, out of nowhere, a stranger appears, and it seems that he is a figure from the young wife’s past, and that she is in love with him. The older husband is stricken by jealousy, and even considers killing the stranger. But then, having considered the situation, comes to feel that it is he who is in the wrong – that it was wrong for him to have married a woman so much younger than himself, and possibly, in the process, have thwarted her own desires and aspirations. So, although he still loves her – indeed, because he still loves her – he offers her freedom.

I could be describing a play by Ibsen here. Indeed, this is, more or less, the central dramatic action of The Lady From the Sea. But no – I am describing here one of the strands of The Cricket on the Hearth, the third of Dickens’ Christmas Books, a series that had started with A Christmas Carol. Dickens never did recapture the genius of that masterpiece: The Chimes, that followed the year after, was a dark and angry work – very powerful in its way, but lacking much sense of festive cheer, or any of the whimsy or exuberance we associate with Dickens at Christmas. Here, in The Cricket on the Hearth, he seemed to go the other way: the darkness is effectively banished, and we get nothing but the whimsy and the good cheer: even John Peerybingle’s jealousy dissipates almost as soon as it starts, and, unlike the Ibsen play where the possibility of the young wife leaving her husband was all too real, there is little danger of that here: it is all a misunderstanding here, and is wiped out quite painlessly. There is little danger, indeed, of anything: and there, perhaps, is the problem. The sense of joy at the end of A Christmas Carol was convincing because it was hard-earned; here, it is hardly earned at all. In A Christmas Carol, on the way to all that joy and rejoicing, we had been allowed to glimpse into the abyss: here, the abyss doesn’t even exist. There are very few shadows in this work, dark or otherwise: even the Scrooge-like figure, Tackleton, doesn’t seem that monstrous, and is easily accommodated into the general rejoicing at the end. Of course, this is a fairy tale, and a very whimsical fairy tale at that, but fairy tales, no matter how whimsical, need more than their fair share of darkness, and Dickens’ refusal to supply any – possibly as a reaction to the excessive darkness of The Chimes – results in a sort of flatness, a lack of those contours that mould figures and give them shape.

And yet, the themes were there, and, as A Christmas Carol demonstrates, neither whimsicality nor a fairy tale format need inhibit serious treatment of serious themes. But in his depiction of the Peerybingles, there doesn’t seem to be much awareness at all of the potential thematic richness: it’s not that I was expecting an Ibsenite dissection of marriage; but I was entitled to expect, I think, something not quite so superficial as this. Even the night where John Peerybingle wrestles with his conscience – a passage that really should have been the climactic point of the work – is dispatched in a quick couple of pages or so.

And then, there is the motif of the blind girl. The very motif of a young blind girl who imagines her world to be something grander than it actually is may appear sentimental to modern taste, but once again, there is potential here – as Chaplin demonstrated so triumphantly in City Lights. But Dickens makes surprisingly little of it. Even the scene where the blind girl is told how shabby everything really is around her does not make much of an impact. The problem is not that it is “stagey”, or “sentimental”, or “melodramatic”, or any of those other epithets that are regularly aimed at Dickens by his many detractors: it is, rather, that neither the staginess, nor the sentimentality, nor the melodrama, seems particularly well handled. It’s almost as if Dickens’ heart wasn’t in it. I frequently got the impression reading this that he was merely going through the motions; that, indeed, he was producing another Christmas Book for no better reason than that the public expected it of him. Perhaps.

And yet, The Cricket on the Hearth was immensely popular in Dickens’ own lifetime. Since I do not subscribe to the idea that public taste necessarily improves over time, I couldn’t help wondering whether I had approached this work in the wrong frame of mind – whether I had not been ideally responsive to this because I had failed to make the leap of the imagination that any fiction requires from the reader. That, too, is possible.

The next in the Christmas Books series was The Battle of Life – a real Christmas turkey that I’d prefer not to re-read: there’s nothing quite so depressing as a favourite writer writing badly – in this case, very badly. The year after that he gave it a rest, but then returned the next year with The Haunted Man, a splendid piece that was excessively florid even by the standards of Dickensian prose, and which was, like The Chimes, almost unrelievedly dark. It seems that the man who had given us Christmas at Dingley Dell could now see little in the world worth celebrating, or rejoicing over.

Well, we needn’t repine: The Cricket on the Hearth may be a bit of a flop, and The Battle of Life even worse; but The Chimes and The Haunted Man, dark though they both are, are wonderful works, and A Christmas Carol is a work beyond compare – a work one can return to year after year without ever feeling it has become stale. And anyone who says otherwise gets a punch on the nose from me – season of goodwill or no!

“Mansfield Park” by Jane Austen

It is, I think, fair to say that …

Now, always mistrust an essay or a posting that starts with such words. But I am going to go ahead and start with these words anyway.

It is, I think, fair to say that Mansfield Park is the Austen novel that her fans tend least to like. And the reason this novel is so frequently disliked – if the comments I frequently find around the internet are to be trusted – is that Fanny Price is not considered by many readers a likable character.

Now, disliking a protagonist seems to me, for reasons well articulated here, a poor basis for disliking a book. But the question of whether or not we like Fanny is not, perhaps, one that is easily dismissed. For while the reader’s personal like or dislike of Fanny has, or at least should have, no bearing at all on the reader’s judgement on the book’s literary qualities, it certainly has a very strong bearing on how the reader interprets the book. The reader who sees Fanny as priggish, repressed, and overly censorious of human frailties is bound to interpret this novel differently from the reader who sees her as clear-sighted, possessed of moral integrity, and, indeed, heroic. One may try, of course, to be more sophisticated as a reader, and see in Fanny both admirable and not-so-admirable features, but here again we run into difficulties, for those aspects of her character that may be regarded as admirable are precisely the same aspects that may, with equal justification, be regarded as reprehensible: the principled and the priggish are not different qualities, but, rather, the same quality seen from different perspectives. And where Austen herself stands on all this, from what perspective she views her creation, is hard to discern given the various levels of irony she employs throughout. Following immediately on the footsteps of the eminently reader-friendly Pride and Prejudice, Austen here seems to go out of her way to make things as difficult as possible.

***

Fanny is the still centre of a turbulent world. While the various uncontrolled passions – or whims, or passing fancies – drive the other characters this way and that, Fanny remains in the midst of it all, not herself by any means passionless, but with a quiet and undemonstrative constancy. And being so still, and being, further, an outsider, she can see clearly what others cannot. Towards the end of the novel, Fanny is in Portsmouth, away from what many readers consider the “real” action of the novel: and this “real” action is resolved off-stage, as it were, with the turbulence of the various other lives merely reported to Fanny, and to the reader, second hand, through letters and through newspaper reports. Many have found fault with this: even Nabokov thought this a structural flaw. But let us give Austen benefit of the doubt on this matter: the decision to keep the static Fanny in the foreground and to relegate the seemingly more interesting turbulence of the other characters to the background, even in the climactic sequence, is a conscious artistic decision, and not one arrived at lightly. We have, indeed, been given a foretaste of this earlier in the novel in the very intricately choreographed sequence in Sotherton, where Fanny sits alone, still, observing the various other characters in motion all around her, all grouping and re-grouping with each other. Austen’s focus of the interest is not so much what these other characters do, but the repercussions of what they do in Fanny’s mind.

In the sequence that forms the denouement of the novel, Fanny is placed in Portsmouth, away from all the other characters who had, with Fanny, populated the novel up to that point. When the storm breaks, it breaks off-stage: it is merely reported to us. But, unless we are to assume that Austen had miscalculated badly on a point as important as this, we must conclude that it is not this storm in the background that forms the climax of the novel, but, rather, what Austen has placed in the foreground. It is here that we should search for the novel’s denouement.

Certainly, this off-stage storm solves all Fanny’s problems: she is entirely vindicated in her resistance to Henry Crawford; it paves the way for Sir Thomas Bertram to realise that it is indeed Fanny who is the daughter he had always wanted – i.e. Fanny becomes a fully-fledged member of the Bertram family, a position she had not till then held; her fears concerning Maria – fears that only she had entertained – prove well grounded; and, like so many protagonists of other Austen novels – Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse – Edmund is freed from false perception. All birds are killed with this one single stone; her foes all utterly vanquished, Fanny is triumphant. And yet, this personal triumph of Fanny’s, so complete and so unreserved, could only come about through misery for everyone else: a happy ending for Fanny could only come about with the destruction of others’ happiness. Maybe this is why it is so easy to dislike Fanny. But it’s unfair to dislike Fanny for this: she had not willed this, not even unconsciously; indeed, she feels genuinely sorry for those whose suffering forms the basis of her triumph. And if we dislike Fanny even for her magnanimity, as many seem to do, we must turn the moral lens of the novel on to ourselves; and doing so is rarely comfortable. It is little wonder this novel is not widely liked.

But if these off-stage events that lead to Fanny’s triumph in the Mansfield world – a world in which she had previously occupied that uncertain status that is somewhat above that of the servants and yet below that of the family – cannot be considered in themselves the resolution of the novel, then where exactly does this resolution lie? To answer this, we need to consider carefully the themes that have been laid out with such subtlety and intricacy in the rest of the work.

***

The novel tells of a journey from adoption to acceptance. We start with a brief resume of the older generation: the three Ward sisters make – rather as the Bennet sisters had done – three unequal marriages: one makes a brilliant marriage with a titled landowner; another weds a clergyman – not a particularly good marriage, but, thanks to her brother-in-law, one that becomes reasonably comfortable; and the third, disastrously, marries “a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions”. It is on the next generation that the novel focuses.

Mrs Norris, the Ward sister who had married the clergyman, and one of the great monsters of literature, in one of her most hateful moments accuses Fanny, progeny of the bad marriage, of ingratitude, “considering who and what she is”. Mrs Norris has no doubt that who Fanny is determines also what Fanny is. Fanny takes even this gross insult with her customary meekness and patience, but she herself, not quite one of the servants but neither one of the family, cannot be entirely sure on this point: what, after all is she? As someone who had been displaced from her native environment aged only ten, and who had occupied a most uncertain position within her new environment, Fanny’s identity – “who and what she is” – is far from clear.  Although from the same trunk, the branches of the Ward family have grown in very different directions, and within a mere single generation, the common origin from that single trunk seems barely visible.

Fanny is the only one of Austen’s heroines whose childhood is depicted. Despite being marked by the special favour of adoption into a rich family, her childhood does not appear particularly happy: wrenched at the age of ten from the only environment she has ever known – from her parents, from her siblings, her friends – and placed in the somewhat cold and unfeeling environment of Mansfield Park, where she faces mean-minded hostility from her Aunt Norris, and general indifference and disregard from her other aunt and her cousins (Edmund excepted), her situation is not one we are likely to wish on any child. And yet, Austen seems careful not to engage our empathy too strongly with this child. One need only look at how Dickens depicted the childhood of David Copperfield, or how Charlotte Brontë depicted the childhood of Jane Eyre (another ward in an unloving family), to see what Austen might have made of these chapters. Of course, it can be argued that engaging the reader’s sympathy so directly is very much counter to Austen’s classical temperament: the circumstances described here are such that some measure of sympathy for the child is inevitable anyway, and any further prompting on this score on the author’s part becomes a loading of the dice, and mere wallowing (a charge to which neither Charles Dickens nor Charlotte Brontë could entirely plead innocence). But it becomes difficult to account for Austen suppressing at this stage of the novel the death of Fanny’s sister. Fanny had been particularly attached to her sister, and one can but imagine that the news of her death would have made on her a devastating effect. And yet, it is only relatively late in the novel that this event is so much as mentioned. And the only reason I can think of for Austen to suppress this event at the point where we may have expected it to have been narrated is that she wants to maintain a certain emotional distance between the reader and Fanny. Even when we are taken into Fanny’s mind – as we often are – the reader is invited to judge the workings of that mind from as objective a perspective as is possible.

And some readers have judged Fanny very harshly indeed. She is the most morally upright of all Austen’s protagonists, and even for her moral uprightness she is upbraided. This is not to say that censorious judgements of Fanny are necessarily wrong: indeed, Austen, having refused to enlist our sympathies for her heroine further than is unavoidable, gives us perfect freedom to judge her any way we want. It is, indeed, the author’s refusal to guide our moral judgement in this matter in this most morally serious of novels that makes it so very troublesome.

Austen seems to me actually to go further: not only does she refuse to direct the reader’s moral judgement, she makes it difficult for the reader to exercise that judgement. For, very soon after the start of the novel, she introduces the brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, characters of tremendous vivacity, charm, and wit; sparkling and effervescent; and tremendously attractive. These people are, indeed, everything Fanny isn’t. Austen, in short, invites us to like characters whose very existence seems a sort of reproof to Fanny.

Yet it would be very wrong to accuse Fanny of lack of feeling, or even lack of passion. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet has combined charm and vivacity with a depth of feeling, but here, the two do not go together: Mary Crawford may possess the former, but it is Fanny who possesses the latter. No-one in the Mansfield circle possesses such depth of feeling as Fanny shows for her brother William, or for Edmund. Consider, for instance, her feelings on Edmund’s letter when he presents her with a neckchain to wear at the ball (one of the novel’s many symbols):

Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author—never more completely blessed the researches of the fondest biographer. The enthusiasm of a woman’s love is even beyond the biographer’s. To her, the handwriting itself, independent of anything it may convey, is a blessedness. Never were such characters cut by any other human being as Edmund’s commonest handwriting gave! This specimen, written in haste as it was, had not a fault; and there was a felicity in the flow of the first four words, in the arrangement of “My very dear Fanny,” which she could have looked at for ever.

(From Chapter 27)

No-one else in Mansfield Park, Edmund once again possible excepted, is capable of such feelings, of such an emotional reaction. Indeed, so Romantic are Fanny’s sensibilities, it is difficult to forget that she is a contemporary of Wordsworth’s:

Fanny spoke her feelings. “Here’s harmony!” said she; “here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here’s what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.”

(From Chapter 11)

Later, speaking to Mary Crawford, Fanny seems even more explicitly Wordsworthian:

“… How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!” And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”

(From chapter 22)

But Mary, we are told, is “untouched and inattentive”. Fanny, observing this, returns to more trivial matters that she knows will interest Mary more.

No-one else seems to share Fanny’s depth of feeling, or her fine sensibilities (here so conspicuously married to sense). Not even, perhaps, Edmund: although he is certainly the most sensitive of the family, he has still to learn to perceive clearly. But Fanny, the outsider, can perceive very clearly indeed: the Bertram household, together with the Crawfords and the Grants, seem to constitute a veritable Vanity Fair, with everyone driven to some degree or other by self-regard, by selfishness, by thoughtlessness, by malice. Fanny can see all this, but she is silent – too silent, in many readers’ estimation; but that is hardly to be wondered at: had she spoken, those around would be as untouched and as inattentive as Mary had been.

Fanny’s silence, though censorious up to a point (as it must be, given how clearly she sees), is not, however, without compassion: she can see how great a fool Mr Rushworth is, and yet when his intended, Maria Bertram, walks off with Henry Crawford during the visit to Sotherton, Fanny naturally feels sympathy for him. She is, indeed, perhaps the only character in the entire novel who does feel sympathy for this great booby of a man. More surprisingly, Fanny can even feel sorry also for Julia when, in those famous chapters describing rehearsals for the play, Henry Crawford snubs her by showing quite openly his preference for her sister Maria:

…Maria felt her triumph, and pursued her purpose, careless of Julia; and Julia could never see Maria distinguished by Henry Crawford without trusting that it would create jealousy, and bring a public disturbance at last.

Fanny saw and pitied much of this in Julia; but there was no outward fellowship between them. Julia made no communication, and Fanny took no liberties. They were two solitary sufferers, or connected only by Fanny’s consciousness.

(From Chapter 17)

The entire sequence of the rehearsals that ends the first of the three parts is one of the many virtuoso passages in the novel, although, perhaps, given how harmless the entire enterprise may seem to modern readers, it is possibly the easiest to misinterpret. In particular, Fanny’s objections may seem prissy: they aren’t. In the first place, everyone concerned knows that they would not have been doing this had the owner of the house, Sir Thomas, been present: when he returns unexpectedly in the midst of the rehearsals, they all know without having to be told that these rehearsals must stop instantly. And in the second place, under the guise of play-acting, some very real feelings come to the fore – rather as they do in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte – and, as Fanny can see (though no-one else can), these feelings, rooted as they are in mere vanity and selfishness, and lacking in depth or in sincerity, are dangerous and destructive. Maria, though engaged to Mr Rushworth – an engagement she has walked into of her own free will, and which she does not break off because she rather likes the idea of being mistress of Sotherton – responds to the cold-blooded and calculating flirting of Henry Crawford with “triumph”; she is indifferent to the feelings of her future husband, and takes delight in humiliating her own sister. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, has her own plans concerning Edmund. The entire enterprise develops such a momentum that not only is it unable to stop, it sucks in everyone: even Edmund finds himself thinking up excuses to become part of this, and one wonders how even Fanny could have held out had not Sir Thomas’ unexpected return put an abrupt  end to all the shenanigans..

But though Fanny can see clearly, and even sympathise, she must keep all she feels to herself: the others, like Julia, make “no communications”, and it is not Fanny’s place to take “liberties”. Like many a narrator of tragic tales, Fanny cannot do anything about what she sees.

But the novel, in the latter half, takes a sinister turn: Fanny is no longer merely the observer of events, but becomes a participant. Henry has taken it into his mind that it would be amusing to win Fanny’s heart. Rather like the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangeruses, Henry and Mary plot together, and aid each other in their amoral schemes and stratagems. But in the course of this charm offensive, something rather strange happens: Henry genuinely seems to fall for Fanny, and he proposes. From this point onwards, Fanny becomes the focal point of the plot itself. Sir Thomas, who has a genuine regard for Fanny, goes to the little room – the “little white attic” that Fanny had made her own – and observes a symbolically fireless grate. He is perturbed by this: Fanny must, he insists, have a fire. And she must also have a husband.

It is a measure of the subtlety of Austen’s characterisation that although Fanny has been represented up to that point as quiet and tractable, we are not surprised to see her refuse the offer of marriage. And the persuasion she resists is extremely subtle. It is noticeable that the pressure to marry Henry does not come from the more unlikeable characters of the book: Aunt Norris is quite conspicuous in these pages by her absence. Rather, the pressure comes, insidiously, from those very people who actually care for Fanny – from Sir Thomas and from Edmund. Not that they have any intention to be cruel, or to force Fanny against her will: but, rather, they think the marriage will be good for her; that she does not yet understand herself; and that her mind, with persuasion, can be changed. Unlike the cruelties practised on Clarissa Harlowe in Richardson’s novel – a character who in many ways foreshadows Fanny, not least in her quiet determination not to submit, whatever the odds – Fanny is, in this moment of greatest danger, treated with perfect civility and kindness. And, if anything, this makes her resistance all the more difficult.

And so, to teach Fanny a lesson (although Sir Thomas wouldn’t have seen it in such terms), Fanny is packed off to Portsmouth for a few months, so she can see the life she would have been condemned to had it not been for the Bertrams.

It is certainly a very daring step to change the locale so dramatically at so late a stage in the novel. It comes almost as a shock to the reader: it is certainly a shock to Fanny. Austen isn’t, in general, particularly noted for conveying a sense of place: not that she is bad at it – at this stage of her artistic development, she was in complete control of her material – but possibly, this is the sort of thing Dickens might have achieved more memorably. Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, despite his self-proclaimed attempt to be “fair”, couldn’t resist comparing Austen’s description of the sea from this section of the novel unfavourably with a similar passage from Bleak House. But it’s an unfair comparison: if there are certain things Dickens could do better, there are also certain other areas where Austen’s art remains peerless: comparisons at these levels are pointless, and not, perhaps, the best way to appreciate the art of either writer.

The depiction of what goes on in Fanny’s mind at this stage is masterly. The dirt, the clutter, the cramped conditions, the noise – everything to which Fanny is unaccustomed, and which to her appears insupportable – are conveyed partly through detailed description of the physicality, but, more powerfully, through the depiction of the impact they have on Fanny herself. Inevitably, Fanny finds herself comparing Portsmouth, her original home, to her adopted home Mansfield Park:

Such was the home which was to put Mansfield out of her head, and teach her to think of her cousin Edmund with moderated feelings. On the contrary, she could think of nothing but Mansfield, its beloved inmates, its happy ways. Everything where she now was in full contrast to it. The elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquillity of Mansfield, were brought to her remembrance every hour of the day, by the prevalence of everything opposite to them here.

(From Chapter 39)

And here, it seems to me, is the denouement . On returning to her origins, she realises her true identity: it is that of her adopted home. Everything about Mansfield – “the elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquility” – she finds she values, and cannot do without. Fanny now knows who and what she is, and the rest is mere plot.

***

Although, admittedly, it is the development of this plot that allows Fanny to assert her identity. But this assertion seems to me but a coda – albeit a powerful one – to the drama that, thematically, at least, has already been resolved.

Sir Thomas’ world collapses: as with Sir Leicester Dedlock in Bleak House, his peace of mind, built as it was on illusion, cannot survive the revelations of the various cracks in the fabric of his family that he had not previously noticed. But in the embers is something that doth live: Fanny, he realises, is the daughter that he had always wanted; and Edmund begins to see clearly – as clearly, indeed, as Fanny had done. And a particularly nasty fate awaits the monstrous Mrs Norris and the sinning Maria: they are to spend the rest of their lives together, in what strikes me as a rather Dante-esque punishment for them both. Oh – what a play Beckett might have written about Maria and Mrs Norris living out their futile days, and tormenting each other for eternity!

But all of this is in the coda. In Pride and Prejudice, the union of Elizabeth and Darcy had been the point at which the drama had been resolved, but Mansfield Park is a far more intricate work. Despite the happy ending for Fanny and for Edmund; despite the complete vindication of Fanny, and the fulfilment of her passions; it leaves behind troubling questions that are more easily felt than articulated. If Austen had never written anything beyond Pride and Prejudice, I doubt we’d have considered her to be capable of something so troubling and so very intricate as this. No wonder it isn’t better liked!

Meta-novels

How about this for a plot of a 19th century novel?

A young man of independent means, not particularly handsome as such but extremely polished and self-confident, eminently eligible and unutterably vain, delights in winning the hearts of ladies. Not that he cares a whit for any of them: he is utterly cold-blooded and unfeeling. He does it because it flatters his vanity. His sister, beautiful and vivacious, is a confidante of his, advising and helping where she can. It is a thrilling power game. Once, out of boredom, he decides to have a go at a rather prim, quiet and softly-spoken young lady – a ward of a family, at that, and not likely to be endowed with a large dowry. It is a challenge for him – something a bit different to re-invigorate his jaded sense of pleasure. But far from being bowled over by such eminent attention, she keeps her distance. He is a bit puzzled at first: no-one had ever resisted him before. But he sees this as a challenge: he is determined to win her heart, as his vanity will not allow him to walk away unsatisfied on this score. But in the process, a strange thing happens: he really does find himself in love with her. It is something he had never felt before. He ends up proposing, but she, unaccountably, and to the great distress of her guardians, refuses. He keeps open his offer, sure that eventually he is bound to win her affections. He behaves, for the first time in his life and despite himself, with honour and with sensitivity.

But then, away from the young lady to whom he has proposed, he meets up with another lady whose heart he had won earlier. This second lady is married now, to a rich young booby whom she despises. Our hero, unused to letting anything stand in the way of instant gratification, begins an affair with her, and the affair is discovered. The future for the lady, whom her great booby of a husband soon divorces, is blighted; but as a man, he can escape without too great a stain on his character. However, his prospective marriage with the woman he had despite himself come to love, comes to nothing, and this once proud heart-breaker is left pondering on what might have been.

This is not my plot, of course. It is from Austen’s Mansfield Park, slightly embellished and with the centre of gravity moved from Fanny Price to Henry Crawford. But just that shift makes for what could be a very different but equally great novel. A meta-novel, if you like. Imagine what Henry James could have made of such a plot! Or, for that matter, Jane Austen herself!

I have already speculated on how Anna Karenina might have been had Tolstoy focussed on Dolly rather than on Anna. And I can’t help wondering what sort of novel Austen might have written had she focussed, say, on Charlotte Lucas rather than on Elizabeth Bennet: a young woman, handsome, intelligent, and sensitive, knowingly marries a man she knows to be a complete idiot for the sake of her future security. Could this have developed into one of the great 19th century novels of adultery, I wonder?

Or how about this for a plot:

A young lady of a passionate nature, orphaned and without means, is invited to become companion of a recently widowed distant cousin of hers. Having no other option, she accepts. This widow has a young teenage son, pampered and handsome. The young lady, intense and passionate, is violently attracted to him. The violence, if not necessarily the passion, is returned: in one incident, the pampered boy, in a fit of rage, throws a hammer at her. He is immediately horrified by what he has done, but the scar, both real and symbolic, remains upon her lip. Later, when the boy comes of age, they embark on an affair: the sex is intense and violent. She fantasises about displacing the boy’s mother as the Lady of the House, as surely as she has displaced her from the boy’s heart.

But the boy is not as attached to her as she likes to think. For all the passion and the excitement, he finds her exhausting. Despite being the spoilt son of a rich mother, he is actually quite a decent, easy-going chap at heart; and, given his good looks and his natural charm, he is popular with the ladies. He eventually leaves home, and is happy and relieved to get away from his mother’s companion. She, noticing this but refusing to accept, is eaten up with jealousy. A violent jealousy.

And then, the storm breaks. The young man has eloped – not with a society lady, but with a girl from the working classes. An orphan at that – a fisherman’s niece. He has genuine feelings for her, and she is dazzled the idea of becoming a lady, but society will not, of course, accept a union across such disparate social classes. He cannot even bring her home to his doting mother, who is now heartbroken. So he travels around Europe with her, pretending to be husband and wife; but even there, they cannot mix with English expatriates, as her social background is all too apparent. As for her, this life is not what she had expected: she is desperately lonely, and is torn with guilt and remorse. She spends all her time grieving, and becomes severely depressed. The young man eventually becomes fed up with her constant moaning, and deserts her. But his mother’s companion, who loves him still with a passion as violent as ever, is determined to seek out this presumptuous upstart, and punish her for having, as she thinks, destroyed her happiness.

Now, wouldn’t this have made a terrific novel? Instead, Dickens keeps Rosa Dartle, Steerforth and Little Em’ly in the background, while filling the foreground with the dull David Copperfield, the even duller Agnes Wickfield, and the unbearably tedious Dora Spenlow, who is a sort of Madeleine Bassett without the laughs.

Any other ideas for meta-novels?

A Happy New Year … I think …

Despite wishing everyone I know, and many I don’t, a Happy New Year, I always find this a rather miserable time. There is no particular reason why this should be so:  in theory, no day in the calendar is privileged over any other; but since we find it convenient to parcel out time in discrete entities rather than see it as a continuous flow, and since the traditions of the Western world have determined that January 1st should mark the beginning of each of these discrete entities, it is inevitable that, around this time, our minds are haunted, more perhaps than usual, by thoughts of the passage of time. And thoughts of the passage of time are rarely conducive to good cheer.

We try our best to disguise this. We party; we drink ourselves sometimes even to oblivion (Scottish readers will know what I mean); we tell ourselves with a tiresome repetitiveness that we are looking forward to a better and brighter tomorrow; and we join hands with each other to spread good cheer, and swear fellowship with all of humanity. But I can’t help thinking that we have picked the wrong Robert Burns poem for this occasion: for it is “To a Mouse” rather than “Auld Lang Syne” that comes to mind at this time of year … well, to my mind at least:

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

Perhaps one needs a close acquaintance with Scottish patterns of speech to feel the full force of that seemingly inarticulate “Och!” – so perfectly placed in the verse – but the meaning is fairly clear: backward cast your eye, and it lights only upon on prospects drear; and forwards, we can but guess and fear. (How strange, incidentally, that Burns should associate prospects with the past rather than with the future!) This is all a far cry from Auld Lang Syne (that’s just “Auld Lang Syne”, and not “for the sake of Auld Lang Syne”, as so many ignorant sassenachs will have it!); and no, there’s not much cheer in any of this. And, as we hear the usual tributes to those who have passed away over the previous twelve months – and think, inevitably, of our own friends and acquaintances in these ranks – we can but wonder how this same list will read in twelve months’ time. Not all the spectacular firework displays in the world can disguise this as a happy and celebratory time, and attempts to do so seem but a forced jollity. And there’s nothing quite like forced jollity to make one feel even more depressed than one had previously been.

Perhaps it is merely my nature that is excessively saturnine. But I doubt it: I know many who feel similarly gloomy about Christmas, and my saturnine nature does not extend quite that far. Possibly the New Year’s gloom is but a natural reaction, and, some may say, a corrective, to the excessive merrymaking of Christmas. Perhaps. Some may say that this New Year’s gloom is but a sign of advancing years; but even in my youth, I do not think I have attended a single New Year’s Party where I have not felt my jollity to be counterfeit. And, as Samuel Johnson reminds us in Rasselas:

Every man … may, by examining his own mind, guess what passes in the minds of others: when you feel that your own gaiety is counterfeit, it may justly lead you to suspect that of your companions not to be sincere.

If Johnson is indeed correct in this, then it seems there is an awful lot of counterfeiting going on around this time of the year.

There’s little cheer on this matter in literature: I cannot, off the top of my head, think of a single happy depiction of the New Year. Even when Dickens, that most genial of authors, turned his attention from Christmas to New Year in The Chimes, he produced a work so unremitting in its gloom that he never repeated that experiment again in any of his subsequent Christmas Books. What about films then? Not much cheer here either, I’m afraid: the two depictions of the New Year that come immediately to mind are far from uplifting. One is Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, in which the Tramp, ridiculous as always, has invited for New Year a beautiful lady and her friends to his ramshackle home, not realising that they wouldn’t even consider forgoing the bright lights of a New Year party for his homely fare; and as they enjoy the pleasures of the party, the ridiculous little man is left alone, nursing his prospects drear. And the other instance that comes to mind is in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, in which Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), desperate to break away from the curiously unreal world he has found himself in through his affair with the self-deluding and mentally unstable Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), attempts to re-enter the world of “normality”: he goes to a New Year’s party, with ordinary, normal people enjoying themselves in ordinary, normal ways. But the unreal world he has entered draws him back: the lover he thought he had left has tried to slash her wrists, and this he cannot walk away from. Normality is for others, not for him.

Perhaps I have just been reading the wrong books, and watching the wrong films. Well, I’ll break a long-standing rule and make, here and now, a New Year’s resolution: I shall, henceforth, be as happy and as cheerful and as optimistic as I possibly can. After all, there’s so many things that can go wrong with our lives, and with the world in general, that once one starts being pessimistic there’s no end to it. So one might as well be happy. Why not? After all, it’s less than twelve months now to Christmas!

A Happy New Year, everyone!

It’s nearly Christmas – where’s my Dickens?

The older I get, the less the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come seems to matter. Or, indeed, the Ghost of Christmas Present: the shops have been done up in tawdry decorations since even before the autumn leaves had started to fall, and it is frankly all rather tiresome. But the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Past remains stronger than ever.  I do not know what there can be about what is, after all, a fairly arbitrary time of the year – borrowed, as our modern atheists never tire of reminding us, from some pagan festival or other – that allows me to relive with such vividness those days which, at the time, I had no idea would end up becoming so precious.

And of course, as sure as the Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols in the shopping centres, as sure as re-runs on television of the old Morecambe and Wise Shows, one inevitably reaches at this time of year for the Dickens. Possibly, this too is a tribute to the Ghost of Christmas Past than to anything else: reading Dickens has become by now a time-honoured Christmas tradition.

Over the last three Christmases, I have, more by accident than by design, been writing about one or other of the five Christmas Books (see here, here, and here); I suppose I can continue this series by reading this Christmas The Cricket on the Hearth. But after that, the series must stop:  not even the compulsive completest in me could force me to revisit the remaining Christmas Book – The Battle of Life, surely the Christmas turkey of the set.

This year, for a change, I reached for the two-volume edition of Christmas Stories, a collection of the various bits and pieces Dickens had written over the years specially for Christmas.  (Tom, of Amateur Reader fame, had, it seems, a similar idea: see here, and the posts that follow.) The Christmas stories I read were variable: some, such as “The Poor Relation’s Story”, were very good indeed; others were middling. These are scraps dropped from the great man’s table, and, while some of these scraps are obviously very fine, not all are of the same standard; and it may well be the case that there is the odd piece there that is as tiresome as The Battle of Life. Well, we’ll see. But this is hardly an anthology to be read from cover to cover: it’s one for dipping into. And, having read some quarter of it so far, I think I’ve dipped into it as much as I care to for now.

The piece I enjoyed most was “A Christmas Tree”, a nostalgic retrospect of Christmas Past, written in that characteristically rich and opulent plum-pudding prose that readers, depending on their taste, find either tiresome or irresistible. As regular readers of this blog will know, I belong firmly to the latter camp. Just finding my way through those endlessly long, labyrinthine sentences, which, thanks to Dickens’ unequalled ear for the rhythms of prose, never run out of breath nor lose their way; or sounding in my inner ear the sheer luxuriousness of the sounds  made by the words; is, for me at any rate, an unmitigated delight. Those who favour nouvelle cuisine should look elsewhere; this is a full Christmas turkey dinner with all the trimmings, followed by the sweetest and heaviest of Christmas puddings.

How strange, though, that Dickens should look back so nostalgically on his childhood! As we all know, his childhood was not, after all, of the happiest. But perhaps it is in the very nature of nostalgia to look back not on reality, but on reality shaped by the imagination into an ideal form. Occasionally – as in The Battle of Life – that imagination of Dickens’ is tired, and goes merely through the motions; but at other times, as here in “A Christmas Tree”, the sheer exuberance of that imagination is intoxicating, and seems to me to have no peer.

It is difficult, especially given my own nostalgic temperament, not similarly to look back on my own Christmases Past. And no, I never did believe in Santa Claus. My parents, having emigrated from India in the mid-60s just a few months before Christmas, and generally unused to these funny Western ways, found the whole idea of Santa Claus pretty damn silly. If you buy presents for your children, God damn it, your children should at least know who’s buying them! Looking back, I sympathise. But when I told the other children in school that there was no Santa, they all laughed at me. And my teachers seriously assured me that Santa was, indeed, very real. I was confused. Was I to believe my parents, whom I trusted, or my teachers, whom my trusted parents had instructed me to trust?

Back then, everything about Christmas was new to me, and it all enchanted me. Those decorated trees, those carols we used to sing in class, the Nativity Play (in which, inevitably, I was cast as the frankincense-bearing Second King) – even the glitter and the tinsel, which only later in life did I find were metaphors for false and vulgar jollity. In the years to come, my parents made sufficient concessions to the spirit of the new land they had come to by giving me Christmas presents: they did not want me to feel left out and isolated from my school-friends. But admitting the reality of Santa Claus remained for them a step too far. So I never did really get to believe in him, even though I remember staring at the skies on Christmas Eve through my bedroom window, hoping against hope for but the briefest of glimpses of an airborne reindeer-driven sleigh that would prove my parents wrong.

Dickens isn’t the only literary Christmas tradition, of course. Some may consider the story of the Nativity, as told in two of the Gospels, also rather pertinent to this time of year. It is, of course, commonplace to praise the beauty of prose of the King James version, but sometimes, it is worth repeating the commonplace: the prose of the King James version is, indeed, extraordinarily beautiful. Of the two evangelists who tell the story, it is Luke who is the poet. Matthew tells of the wise men, and of the Massacre of the Innocents; but just about everything else we associate with the Christmas story – the annunciation, the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord…”), no room at the inn, the child in the manger, the shepherds abiding in the fields – everything that makes this story so poetic, so irresistibly lyrical, even to those who do not profess faith, can be found here. And if Dickens’ prose is of the plum-pudding variety, the prose we get here in the King James version is pure spring water: it is prose of such apparent simplicity and such utter perfection that not a single word can be altered, omitted, or added.  There are those who tell me that they care about religion neither one way nor the other, but who belie that claim almost immediately by refusing to read the Bible: the loss is all theirs.

Less exalted, perhaps, is the tradition of ghost stories. Perhaps it is not surprising that dark winter nights should be seen as a suitable time for scaring the shit out of ourselves. M. R. James, famously, used to read out a new ghost story after dinner every Christmas Eve. Dickens, wedded as ever to all things traditional when it came to Christmas, tried his hand also at the ghost story, but, apart from “The Signalman”, he never quite succeeded: his literary persona was too genial, his temperament too exuberant, and his imagination too expansive, to conjure up with any conviction the air of still emptiness upon which supernatural terror thrives. No – it is to the likes of M. R. James (or his namesake Henry), Algernon Blackwood, E. F. Benson, the two Ediths (Wharton and Nesbit), A. M. Burrage, and the like that one should turn. Recently, I have downloaded on to my iPad a complete reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and have been listening for about half an hour or so every night before bed. Those early chapters relating Jonathan Harker’s imprisonment in Castle Dracula retain the power to frighten, even for such hardened addicts of the genre as myself. It’s marvellous stuff, but it’s not perhaps recommended for those of a nervous disposition.

With so many Yuletide literary traditions to keep up with at this time of the year, it’s hard to find time to indulge in a bit of traditional boozing! Well, I suppose there’s nothing to prevent me doing both. So let me reach for the Dickens, settle back in my armchair, and raise my glass to the Ghost of Christmas Past. I can no longer look to the skies hoping to see Santa’s sleigh, but remembering a time when I could is recompense enough. As, indeed, is my taste for whisky, which I certainly lacked in those days: the Ghost of Christmas past, fine though it is, doesn’t have everything going for it!

Here’s to your very good health!

Expectations great and small

We are accustomed to speaking of Dickens as a “flawed author”. Or, at least, I am. And on the whole, it doesn’t really bother me: perfection, I’ve often felt, is such an overrated quality. But Great Expectations seems to me just about perfect. I can’t think of a single thing in it I would wish changed. Except, perhaps, for one: the character of Orlick. In a more characteristic Dickens novel – multi-stranded and multi-faceted, overflowing with life and with vigour and with figures painted in each square inch of its gloriously overcrowded canvas – such a flaw wouldn’t really have mattered: after all, who cares about a few flaws in the face of God’s Plenty? But Great Expectations is a very different sort of novel: here, a single blemish, a single vicious mole of nature, seems to disrupt the harmony of the whole. And yes, I have often wished Dickens had done away with Orlick. I have often fancied that he would have done so had he not been writing in serial form, thus committing himself in later parts to what he had already written in the earlier.

But this is, indeed, mere fancy. The possibility does exist – as it always does – that it is I who have got this badly wrong, that Orlick is, indeed, a necessary component of the whole. That is certainly the view put forward recently by novelist Howard Jacobson:

… the shock of Orlick’s brutal beating of Mrs Joe resonates through the novel: not only implicating readers in the violence (there isn’t one of us, if we are honest, that hasn’t been wishing her harm in the pages before the attack), but miring Pip further in that consciousness of crime that crowds his every thought, binding him with Orlick, an alter ego who makes a mockery of his longing to be spotless enough to deserve Estella.

Further, Jacobson contends, Mrs Joe’s pathetic submissiveness to her assailant mirrors Pip’s own relationship with Estella – “loving her for what she isn’t, and loving her the more, the more she mistreats him”. Jacobson continues: “… it asks a terrible question about the psychological hierarchy of beater and beaten.”

This deranged psychology, “the deranged fastidiousness we call romantic love”, is indeed, as Jacobson says, at the heart of the novel. And yes, there is a “savagery” and an “eroticism” that many of us perhaps fail to see because these are not the qualities we expect from a work we have come to think of as a “venerated classic”. However, I wonder whether Jacobson is being perhaps a bit unfair in denouncing the view of this novel as “a moral fable about a snob’s progress”. For it seems to me that such a view of the novel is also tenable; and that, furthermore, seeing it in such terms is not necessarily, as Jacobson claims, to “reduce” the work. After all, the search for a moral code in an immoral world is surely a big theme not unworthy of a major novelist at the height of his powers. And neither is this theme subsidiary to that of Pip’s erotic obsession: Pip learns, by the end of the novel, to love Magwitch, and this is a moral redemption – indeed, a moral victory – that seems to me every bit as significant as the failure of his erotic aspirations.

But what of Orlick? Is to omit him from adaptation to “…[wilt] before the novel’s savagery”, and to “…[dilute] its eroticism”? Perhaps. But the problem with the strand involving Orlick is that there seems no satisfactory way of resolving it. It was a problem that Dickens himself could not, I think, solve. After Pip goes to London to become a gentleman some one third of the way through the novel, Orlick, who had previously played so striking a role, effectively disappears from the narrative, and is only brought back, presumably for the sake of completeness, in a single incongruous chapter towards the end. And this chapter refuses resolutely to fit its surroundings: it is a crude episode of an adventure story set in the midst of what is otherwise a complex moral and psychological web, and seems to me a very conspicuous blemish on what is about as near perfection as makes no odds.

But Jacobson is right, I think, to complain that we have reduced Dickens to a “mincing art”. This is perhaps the fate of all works we label as “classic”: the very term seems to imply a certain gentility, a certain preciousness and over-refinement; and, in our readings, we tend, perhaps unconsciously, to reduce works bearing this label to the scale of our own Reduced Expectations. And, having reduced them to our own size, we criticise them for being too small. Great Expectations is about many things, and a “moral fable about a snob’s progress” is not, I think, to be ruled out: but yes, it’s time we saw again something of its savagery.

On adaptations

I see there’s yet another film adaptation of Great Expectations doing the rounds. And the question “What’s the point?” does come to mind. There seems to be a new adaptation of this novel either for the big or the small screen every other year – I’ve frankly lost track of them all. I suppose it shouldn’t really come as a surprise: so powerful a story with such a gallery of memorable characters is bound to attract adaptations. But perhaps it raises a wider question of why one should choose to adapt books in the first place. After all, we have the novel: is that not enough?

An obvious answer to this, I suppose, is that far more people watch films than read novels, and so, by adapting it, one could reach a far wider audience. This is undoubtedly true, but it would be wrong to infer from this that watching a film adaptation, no matter how faithful, is a comparable and equivalent experience to reading the novel. Even when the film-makers set out to be faithful, they are translating a literary experience into a cinematic experience; and the two are essentially different. There are certain things that the written word can communicate better than cinematic images; and, of course, vice versa.

Of course, this is but one type of adaptation: there is, it seems to me, another type – where the intention is not so much fidelity to the original, but to take the original as a starting point to create something that is new.  If the former category includes such works as, say, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, David Lean’s Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and – my own personal favourite – The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, then the latter would include Kurasawa’s Shakespeare-inspired Samurai films (Throne of Blood based on Macbeth, Ran based on King Lear), Bresson’s Pickpocket (which takes Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as its starting point), and Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (based on the novels of Bibhuthibhushan Banerji). Indeed, if we were to widen our scope to include adaptations other than cinematic, then we could also include Verdi’s great Shakespeare operas Otello and Falstaff. Or indeed, Shakespeare’s own plays, which almost invariably are derived from other sources. In this type of adaptation, fidelity to the original is not a serious consideration: we do not judge Shakespeare’s history plays on how closely they reflect the chronicles of Holinshed. But in the adaptation that sets out to be a translation of the original work into a different medium, then, as with any other type of translation, fidelity to the original is inevitably a major consideration.

However, when translating from a literary to a cinematic medium, some things are bound to differ. Most obviously, one cannot squeeze so much into a two hour film as one can in a novel of several hundred pages. This is why even as strongly plotted a novel as Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is not really good material for cinematic adaptation: over its thousand and more pages, Dumas delights in introducing new plot strands at every possible opportunity, and, with all the finesse and exuberance of a master showman, allows these various strands to overlay each other to quite exhilarating effect; but in any film adaptation of reasonable length, this dense narrative texture has to be thinned out considerably, thus robbing the work of the very feature that makes it so wonderful a reading experience.

There is another problem: cinema isn’t as effective as is the written word in depicting the inner lives. What goes on in a character’s mind can at best be communicated in voice-overs. But even voice-overs can be clumsy, and cannot be used at all when, as is often the case, the characters themselves are but vaguely aware of their own selves. Of course, skilful film-making can overcome even this (The Innocents once again comes to mind), but usually, complex psychologies that we often find in novels go missing in film adaptations –  even in the finest: David Lean’s version of Great Expectations, for instance – a landmark film in its own right – conveys very little, I think, of Pip’s complex psychological development.

But of course, other aspects of literature can translate very well into film: it is hard now to read the atmospheric opening of Great Expectations now without conjuring up in one’s mind the images of David Lean’s film. (This is even more true of David Lean’s film of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: whatever criticism one may have of the film version, Freddie Young’s cinematic images, once seen, haunt the mind insistently.)

And sometimes, a film adaptation can add to the original: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful little thriller, but how much richer is its effect when enhanced by the directorial skills of John Huston, and by the now iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre et al!

One may say, of course, all that matters is whether or not the film is good – as a film. That there’s no point in complaining that the latest version of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina is not true to the book; the question is – did it make a good film? But I am really not so sure on this point. If one does know the original; and if the adaptation falls far short of the standard of the original (as is virtually unavoidable when the original is of the quality of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina); then comparisons, odious though they may be, are inevitable. The latest Great Expectations may or may not be a fine film – I don’t know: but if it isn’t, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ponder of the size of the gap between what it is based on, and what it is.

And finally, there’s the argument that at least it may encourage people to read the book. This is undoubtedly true: I was about 12 or so when I found myself enthralled by the BBC production of War and Peace. (The production values of this adaptation look very primitive by modern standards, but the quality of Jack Pulman’s script, and of the acting in general – a then relatively unknown young actor called Antony Hopkins gives a quite sensational performance as Pierre Bezuhov – are exceptional.) It was this adaptation that encouraged me to tackle the novel itself, and now, some 40 years on, I’m still hooked. Would I have tried to read Tolstoy had I not been taken by this adaptation? I don’t know. But I am certainly grateful to have seen it at so impressionable an age

But there’s a possible downside to that as well: a poor adaptation may convince readers that the book is not worth reading. Or it may project the wrong impression: nowadays, it seems virtually de rigeur for television adaptations to use fast-editing techniques, and not allow any single scene to go on for more than, say, a couple of minutes at most; and this really does not lend itself to communicating much of the complexity or the intricacy of literature of any quality. Or film-makers may decide that the novel may have been good enough for its own times, but we moderns are so much more sophisticated now that we can’t do without a few sex scenes. Now, why we sophisticated moderns should require sex scenes in adaptations of classic novels when pornography is so easily available on the net for one and all, I really do not know – but there it is.

So will I be rushing out to see this new Great Expectations? No, I don’t think I will. I did not rush out to see the recent Anna Karenina either. But it is possible for a great work of literature to be translated successfully into a great work of cinema: unlikely, perhaps, especially given current cinematic fashions, but nonetheless possible. So I suppose there’s no reason why they shouldn’t keep on trying. And if they happen to be somewhat less than masterpieces – well, we still have the books, don’t we?