Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Carry on Dick(ens); Or, What A Difference 60 Years Make

One of the things I repeatedly bore my students with is that we all have to be suspicious of literary canons. I point out to them that Shakespeare, though respected in his day, didn't become a colossus until the Victorian period. Even then, he wasn't put on a pedestal: I show them the Nahum Tate King Lear, in which everybody - including Cordelia - survives and lives happily ever after, and run through the tradition of bowdlerising and prettifying Shakespeare (e.g. Romeo and Juliet waking up and being fine) - the Elizabethans were seen as pretty bloodthirsty and barbaric, and in need of improvement.

Which brings me to my main - though undoubtedly muddled - point. Here's the opening sentence of 1948's The Great Tradition, by the dominant period of his day, F. R. Leavis:
 "The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad." 
Who's missing? Lots of people, obviously, and don't ask me what 'great' means: Leavis claims they change 'the possibilities of art for practitioners and readers'. But the name that most people would add to this is Charles Dickens, born 200 years ago today. Now securely on his pedestal (though the new biography suggests his personal life was less cheery than some of his novels), we forget that he hasn't always been the National Novelist - and that despite his enormous sales, he had several very serious rivals, including Dinah Craik (aka Mulock), from Stoke on Trent, who was up there and sometimes beyond Dickens and Eliot in the stratosphere of celebrity authors. Just as Leavis excludes Dickens from serious consideration (he did later recant), Craik was considered beneath critical attention too: George Eliot had this to say about her despite some respect for Craik's religious seriousness (thanks to Sally Mitchell for this)
Miss Mulock — a writer who is read only by novel readers, pure and simple, never by people of high culture. A very excellent woman she is, I believe — but we belong to an entirely different order of writers.
Craik didn't seem to mind the snobbishness - she felt that popularity was morally useful:
"The modern novel," she writes, "is one of the most important moral agents of the community. The essayist may write for his hundreds; the preacher preach to his thousands; but the novelist counts his audience by the millions. His power is threefold — over heart, reason, and fancy."
Craik had a good deal of respect for Eliot - but also a sting in her critical tail:
But take it from another point of view. Ask, what good will it do? — whether it will lighten any burdened heart, help any perplexed spirit, comfort the sorrowful, succour the tempted, or bring back the erring into the way of peace; and what is the answer. Silence. (444) 
I think Dickens would agree with this: moral purity is fine, but if nobody wants to read your work, you've reached nobody. This is something I discussed with my students yesterday: the role of popular fiction. We talked about Arnold and Leavis, and about Cultural Studies turning attention to what and how people read rather than judging literature according to its High or Low moral/artistic standards (leading into a chat about Gramsci).

The lesson of Dickens v Craik is that becoming a Secular Saint as Dickens is now, is not altogether a matter of literary quality. I suspect that many of those bounding round the TV studios pronouncing on his genius are unfamiliar with large tracts of Dickens' massive outputs. Survival is often arbitrary, or the result of hegemonic manoeuvring. I have no doubt at all that Craik's obscurity is partly due to her gender. Political pliability helps: nobody objects to giving  orphans a bit more gruel, whereas there are plenty of more directly political novels which languish in obscurity.

Dickens is interesting because he seems to transgress all these boundaries, hence Leavis' discomfort. Some work (Hard Times, for example, which I really love) is almost agit-prop (given the chance, I'd duct-tape Michael Gove's eyelids open and clamp in front of the opening two pages for a whole school term), whereas other works are whimsical, individual, or concerned with private impulses and trajectories.

There's a game academics play in David Lodge's Small World, in which they compete to boast about who hasn't read the most famous works of literature: the professor who claims not to have read Hamlet wins the game but loses his job. Plenty of my colleagues read Vole, including the Vice-Chancellor, but here goes: I can't stand an awful lot of Charles Dickens' work. There, I said it. I have read quite a lot, and I re-read Hard Times, Great Expectations and Bleak House fairly often. Prolix, overly-pleased with himself and just not funny.

Pickwick Papers: read. Hated. I'd like to gouge out Alfred Jingle's tongue.
Oliver Twist: read. Indifferent. I did not 'want more' (see what I did there?).
Nicholas Nickleby: read. Can't remember a word of it.
Barnaby Rudge: haven't read it.
A Tale of Two Cities: this one I did enjoy. Morality, passion, politics, love and revolution. No supposedly humorous characters and not to many dubious plot twists.
A Christmas Carol. Read it. Vomited copiously.
The Old Curiosity Shop: oh god. It does have a character called 'Dick Swiveller' (I have a serious problem with comedy names, but this is beyond parody). I found TOCS to be the worst sort of emotional manipulation. Even Richard Curtis would be ashamed of parts of this. If Little Nell had any kind of spine at all, she could have become a Moll Flanders or Roxana. As it is she passes away in one of the worst death scenes ever committed to paper and then her grandad pines away by her grave until he too joins the immortals. Pass the sickbag.*
Martin Chuzzlewit: sorry, the name puts me off. Trollope was good at names. So was Mervyn Peake, in the same vein, but without the 'I'm zany, me' element.
The Chimes - I have, and I bet you haven't. Despite being a Christmas book, it's rather good: short and to the point, with a theme of social justice.
The Cricket on the Hearth: no, me neither.
The Battle of Life: no. Apparently it's quite good: not too preachy.
Dombey and Son: orphans, loveless marriages, runaway 'polluted' wives: balanced by rather too many coincidences and complications.
The Haunted Man and The Ghost's Bargain: no - more Christmas stuff.
David Copperfield: bah. Uriah Heep? Mr Micawber? Another bildungsroman, Charlie. Please…
Bleak House and Hard Times: pointed, passionate, wonderful.
Little Dorrit: I haven't read this one, even though its themes (debt, who really loses out in society etc.) rather appeal to my tastes. Maybe when I've finished the 2000 pages of Trollope novels currently on my nightstand.
Great Expectations: I do like this one, though I could do with a lot less pathos and comedy names. As a brooding take on the vicious emotional undercurrents of Victorian society, unparalleled.
Our Mutual Friend: this really is a novel for our times: it's about money, and what it does to us. Recommended
Edwin Drood: never read it.

So there we have it: find some Mrs Craik novels and see what you think. Don't let the Canonisers push you around.

However, although I think that sanctifying an author marginalises others and doesn't do much good to critical approaches to the individual works, I will say something else that I think is important, again something we discussed in class yesterday.

I read and loved The Lord of the Rings when I was 14 or so, and thought it was the only book worth reading in the history of literature. When I tried again in my 20s, I thought it was amongst the worst books I'd ever read. The text hadn't changed: I had. I've grown to love some books that left me cold as a young man. I've lost affection for others. I do think that there are books which speak to us at different points in our lives. Maybe I'd feel more well-disposed to cute children in Dickens if I had children of my own. As I pass through the Ages of Man, I suspect I'll have a little more time for characters who've watched the world pass beyond their comprehension or sympathy. The big event, I guess, is death: I've lost grandparents but nobody has been snatched away from me in an untimely fashion, whereas the Victorian obsession with death is understandable given the mortality rate (with no antibiotics, Charles Lamb died from a minor cut).

We grow into - and out of - books, which is why I always have another go at books I've not got on with at first. A fair amount of Dickens is on that pile.

A correspondent chides me for criticising The Old Curiosity Shop, and reminds me that Quilp is as sickened as we are by the sentiment. Here he is (thanks to @CAPittard):
[Little Nell as Comforter] by George Cattermole. "Mr. Daniel Quilp, having entered unseen, was looking on with his accustomed grin." — Chapter 9, The Old Curiosity Shop. Original date of serial publication: 20 June 1840 (tenth plate in the series).
Image scan and text by George P. Landow. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL.]

1 comment:

Oldgirlatuni said...

Well, I'm a Dickens fan. I have read pretty much everything that he wrote, and while I agree with you about his cutesy children (was it Wilde who was reputed to have said that anyone who could read the death of Little Nell without laughing didn't have a heart?), I love the novels, and I sometimes use them to illustrate what I'm doing in the thesis.

By and large, I don't like the Christmas books much - although the Chimes does have an infanticide in it, if only in a vision, so is useful for my work. And every lawyer is supposed to read Bleak House (and most don't).

My favourite is Nicholas Nickleby - it's got everything - pathos, social comment (Dothebys Hall), comedy (the gentleman in small clothing), a villain, and yes some pretty saccharin stuff as well. However, when I read it, I can't put it down - and that, for me, means that it's a good book.

But, while I wax lyrical about Dickens, I don't necessarily think that he was as great as the 'Dickens industry' would have us believe. For me, Dickens is light relief - personally I prefer Wilkie Collins, Trollope and Thackery for a rewarding read.

One last thing - my love of Dickens is somewhat tempered by the fact that Seasidetown has connections with the man, and a veritable industry associated with those connections. This includes naming shops and houses after his novels and characters. Now, I have nothing against the cafe called the 'Old Curiosity Shop', but I did jib a bit at dining in the restaurant called 'Quilps', and I never could bring myself to shop at 'Smike's Shoes'.

Sorry. Gone on a bit....