Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The best of writers, the worst of writers ...

It would be remiss of me not to mention that today is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens on 7th February 1812. There's all you could possibly want about this at the Dickens 2012 celebration page. But personally, two angles on Dickens struck me today.

One was Sydney Padua's fine summation of Dickens at 2D Googles:

Many happy returns of the day, Mr. Dickens! I am sure we are all spending this bicentenary eating gruel, fitfully walking the streets at midnight, drinking punch, speaking in thousand-word paragraphs interrupted by semi-colons; constructing elaborate book-length metaphors winding like dark trash-strewn rivers through a metropolis of words; enduring unspeakable losses and delighting in the simple pleasures of life, encountering more silly pretty females than one quite likes, and generally marvelling that one pen could produce such a torrent of ink.
- Many Happy Returns of the Day, Mr. Dickens!

The other was the ain't-it-awful commentary from Claire Tomalin, author of Charles Dickens: A Life:

Leading Charles Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin has said children are not being taught to read with the attention span necessary to appreciate the novelist's works.

Tomalin said Dickens's depiction of an unequal society was still "amazingly relevant", ahead of nationwide celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Children were now unable to appreciate this due to "being reared on dreadful television programmes", she said in an interview with the Press Association.

"Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that's a pity."
- Children lack ability for Dickens, says biographer Tomalin, BBC News, 5th February 2012.

What Ms Tomalin says may or may not be true: I don't know enough about current education to judge.  But Dickens in my view is a rotten data point. He's rightly viewed as great for many qualities, such as his superb portrayals of character and his social realism. But - and I say this as an avid reader of Victorian novels - his style is monstrously dense and verbose, even by the standards of books of his time. In part, he got away with it by packaging his novels in digestible chunks: readers would have been familiar with the serialised versions in advance of tackling the whole novels. Reading conventions were different too; commonly, novels would be read aloud with all the family together, allowing for pauses to gloss or recapitulate difficult sections.

So, I thoroughly agree with Nicholas Lezard in The Independent: Dickens always was a struggle. I really hadn't the capacity in childhood, or even teens, to grasp singlehanded the social and personal subtleties of a Dickens novel or many other complex works of the period. I used to feel ashamed of this - I felt stupid for my bafflement at the 'worthy' reading list we were given for English Literature O-Level (for example, A Tale of Two Cities and the unabridged versions of Moby Dick and The Water-Babies). Now I'm sure that feeling was misplaced: reading Victorian novels is a specialist task, and there's no discredit in not tackling them - however iconic they may be - until you're good and ready.

- Ray


  1. I'm not sure that Be Prepared is the best marching song. My granny gave me Great Expectations when I was even smaller than her, and getting hopelessly lost in something so huge and unfamiliar was actually marvellous. I was expected to read it, so there was no way out, but fortunately I don't think I was ever tested.

  2. I guess it depends. There are books where I did exactly that - read them at an early age and came away with not much more than sense of something strange and vivid - and they've since turned into favourites (for example, The Water Babies and MK Joseph's The Hole in the Zero). With others, I just came away with a sense of something incredibly dull. All I'm saying is, there's a vast variety of books, and no-one should feel guilt-tripped into wading through a particular one just because it's iconic.

  3. Don't forget that for an American, Dickens is a double whammy. Not only the dense and endless prose, but all the cultural mores even a current Englishperson takes for granted. It helps that much of the canon (at least in my salad days) is set in the Olde Country, so one has some inkling of things like primogeniture and high tea (thank you Mr. Trollope). But, to put it succinctly, there are no guns! How, one asks, can you have a novel without guns?