Saturday, 3 March 2012

"Our Mutual Friend" has made me succumb to the general Dickens hysteria

I've generally been determined to resist the universal hysteria surrounding Dickens this year, because I’ve never been a big fan.

Of course I love the David Lean movie adaptations, and I was unexpectedly thrilled by the stage show of Oliver! when I saw it as a teenager (I even enjoyed the amateur production we attended in a big tent on Bodmin Moor two years ago). I’ve even read some of the books all the way through – Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol – i.e. the shorter stuff – and admired them all.

But I’ve always failed to complete any of the 700-page plus doorstop specials – Little Dorrit, Dombey & Son, Nicholas Nickelby etc. As for Bleak House, I’ve been locked in battle with it since buying an ancient two-volume edition in Lloyds Bookshop on Wimbledon High Street when I was eleven (I have no idea what made me do it – it may have been the illustrations, or perhaps I’d had an inklingthat even DC comics could eventually begin to pall). In any case, I managed about 20 pages before admitting the task was utterly beyond me, and headed down to the Popular Book Centre in Tooting on the hunt for more issues of The Atom and Green Lantern.

I must have tried to get through Bleak House on at least five occasions since then, starting in my mid-twenties, after I’d read three of the shorter novels on the trot. The last time was about a decade ago and I got about half way through before vowing never to open another Dickens novel ever again, and headed down to Waterstone’s on the hunt for more detective novels. That vow encompassed televised versions of the novels – I’ve successfully avoided them for a decade.

Well, I’ve broken my vow. Two weeks ago I heard an episode of an old adaptation of Our Mutual Friend (a title which both Kingsley Amis and Ambrose Bierce denounced as nonsensical – you can have a mutual understanding, but not a mutual friend, apparently) on that excellent station, Radio Four Extra. I listened to it while doing the ironing, and, when it was over, I realised I’d been so enthralled I’d got through half the pile without noticing. So I went straight upstairs and downloaded OMF onto my Kindle. I started reading it last week and the end is in sight.

It is superb. Yes, it’s full of Dickensian grotesques (in particular, Jenny Wren and Sloppy - they haven't met yet, but I presume they marry), impossibly selfless heroines, dastardly villains (I rather fancy being called "Rogue" Riderhood), ludicrously far-fetched coincidences (Lizzie Hexam just happening to be the person who discovers the dying Betty Higden – I mean!), golden-curled children dropping like flies, good-hearted morons, London pea-soupers, bodies being fished out of the Thames, Jewish money-lenders (I presume the saintly Mr Riah is meant to make up for Fagin), respectable schoolmasters turning into homicidal maniacs because of unrequited love (Bradley Headstone - another great name), worthless young men being saved by the love of a good woman (at least, I presume he's going to be saved) everybody - even cripples and 80 year-olds - walking distances that would have landed most of us in intensive care – and everywhere the terrible, corrosive effects of too much or too little money. 

Yes, the characters do tend to only have one defining feature (I can’t remember who originally made this point – Orwell?) which gets hammered home relentlessly, and, yes, there’s a fair amount of gooey sentimentality, especially where children and the simple-minded are concerned. But in return, we get some of the best comic writing I’ve ever come across – and I don’t just mean that kind of arch jollity which I always associate with Pickwick Papers, and which proves very wearing very quickly: I mean pin-point accurate satire which displays such a deep understanding of our myriad foibles, and is so well written and so brilliantly observed that it makes one laugh out loud again and again (something novels rarely make me do):

"Reginald Wilfer is a name with rather a grand sound, suggesting on first acquaintance brasses in country churches, scrolls in stained-glass windows, and generally the De Wilfers who came over with the Conqueror. For it is a remarkable fact in genealogy that no De Any ones ever came over with Anybody else." 
"So boyish was he in his curves and proportions, that his old schoolmaster meeting him in Cheapside, might have been unable to withstand the temptation of caning him on the spot." 
There's an allusion to "the Society for Granting Annuities to Unassuming Members of the Middle Classes" (Civil Service pensions, perhaps?)
"Tippins, with a bewitching little scream, opines that we shall every one of us be murdered in our beds." 
"Mr Podsnap's world was not a very large world, morally; no, nor even geographically: seeing that although his business was sustained upon commerce with other countries, he considered other countries, with that important reservation, a mistake, and of their manners and customs would conclusively observe, 'Not English!' when, PRESTO! with a flourish of the arm, and a flush of the face, they were swept away. Elsewhere, the world got up at eight, shaved close at a quarter-past, breakfasted at nine, went to the City at ten, came home at half-past five, and dined at seven. Mr Podsnap's notions of the Arts in their integrity might have been stated thus. Literature; large print, respectfully descriptive of getting up at eight, shaving close at a quarter past, breakfasting at nine, going to the City at ten, coming home at half-past five, and dining at seven. Painting and Sculpture; models and portraits representing Professors of getting up at eight, shaving close at a quarter past, breakfasting at nine, going to the City at ten, coming home at half-past five, and dining at seven. Music; a respectable performance (without variations) on stringed and wind instruments, sedately expressive of getting up at eight, shaving close at a quarter past, breakfasting at nine, going to the City at ten, coming home at half-past five, and dining at seven. Nothing else to be permitted to those same vagrants the Arts, on pain of excommunication. Nothing else To Be —anywhere!" 
And, of course, much of the satire is still apposite: 
"As is well known to the wise in their generation, traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Shares. Have Shares enough to be on Boards of Direction in capital letters, oscillate on mysterious business between London and Paris, and be great. Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What are his tastes? Shares. Has he any principles? Shares. What squeezes him into Parliament? Shares. Perhaps he never of himself achieved success in anything, never originated anything, never produced anything? Sufficient answer to all; Shares. O mighty Shares! To set those blaring images so high, and to cause us smaller vermin, as under the influence of henbane or opium, to cry out, night and day, 'Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy us and sell us, ruin us, only we beseech ye take rank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us'"!

Whenever I used to notice the collected works of Dickens on our bookshelves, I’d always feel vaguely guilty: that row of dirty great slabby books were a testament to my flibbertigibbet nature, my lack of resolve, and to all the second-rate rubbish I’d read instead over the years. I also used to wonder if you had to be English to truly “get” Dickens. Well, the answer to that is evidently: no, you don’t. But I suspect that, if you’re a magpie reader like me, when it comes to the great man’s more massive works, a lot comes down to which one you happen to pick off the shelf. This time I chose right.

I have to put Our Mutual Friend aside for a few days and get on with something for our book group – but I can’t wait to read the rest of it. And I’m already wondering which one to go for next. The only thing I’m certain of is it won’t be Bleak House.


  1. I think the first two thirds of Our Mutual Friend is among the finest of Dickens's works. You don't have to be English to appreciate it but if you are a Londoner it makes the river scenes and the other locations all the more fascinating.

    You are right that Riah, which means 'friend' in Hebrew, was a response to reactions from friends and public to his portayal of Fagin or more specifically his conflation of Fagin's wickedness and his Jewishness. He is referred to as 'The Jew' as an occasional alternative to his name.

    I read my way through Dickens in my twenties, followed by Trollope (the main novels), as a reaction to being taught too fiercely the genius of Lawrence, Hardy and Conrad who still leave me cold. If Bleak House, a brilliant but oppressively dispiriting study of the law, greed and Government , is not for you then try Barnaby Rudge as your next one. It's twee in places, like much of Dickens, but I remember re-reading it at the time of the hand-wringing response to the 1981 rioting, 200 years after the Gordon riots at the centre of the book, and concluding that few novelists had ever captured the awfulness of mob rule so accurately and that not all that much had changed.

  2. I've never been able to read Hardy, but I'm a fan of Conrad's (especially "Victory", "Under Western Eyes" and "The Secret Agent", whcih seems to tell us everything we need to know about terrorists - except, of course, where they're hiding) and I once worked my way through Lawrence's major novels without, apparently, suffering permanent brain damage. In fact, while you were working your way through Dickens and Trollope in your twenties, I was getting to grips with The Great Tradition - "The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad." In my case, it was shame at being so ill-read. The books that utterly defeated me from the Leavis Hit Parade were "Nostromo" and "Daniel Deronda", so I'm saving them for when I finish "Bleak House" at the age of 87 or so.

    Thanks for the "Barnaby Rudge" recommendation. I know absolutely nothing about it, and will be moving straight onto it after OMF is out of the way.

  3. If I may add some brief thoughts to your Dicken's debate. I too can heartily recommend "Barnaby Rudge". His description of the Gordon Riots brought out all the ugliness of mob rule [the only answer really is to break out the Gatling guns or fragmentation mortars -neither available in 1780]. The other novel depicting mobocracy is "Tale of Two Cities" [ I thought the Dirk Bogarde film did justice to it. The sight of the beautiful young woman standing next to Sydney Carton on the tumbril at the end is heart-breaking]. I have read most of the Great Man's work [never finished "Old Curiosity Shop" and skipped "Martin Chuzzlewit" having seen the wonderful TV series with Scofield and Tom Wilkinson. I have never had the chance to use "Pecksniffian"]

    His Victorian readership had a great advantage over us because they didn't have to go out and buy these enormous tomes. The were fed chunk-sized bites of 3-4 chapters every month [or later weeks] via literary publications. Not all of us can afford Kindles so have to buy the equivilant of the box set. My very favourite novel is "David Copperfield" which features the truly nasty Edward Murdstone, his facially disfigured sister, the strange Mr Dick, Micawber and the creep to end all creeps, Uriah Heep [how many times have we met him during our lives?]. Usually some shifty-eyed little book-keeper on the make?

    Trollope is close to Dickens in greatness. Sir Walter Scott is a dead loss [although more popular than Dickens in his lifetime - I keep meaning to read "Ivanhoe"]. I have had the same experience with Conrad as you, but have always marvelled at the fact that he is not writing in his mother tongue. Did anyone else achieve this? The other thing about the great Victorians is the sheer hard work they put into their craft [Dickens basically killed himself]. No JD Salingers here.

    In his book "A Handful of Dust" Waugh has that wonderful character in the jungle [played by Alec Guiness in the film] who captures white men so they can read Dickens to him in perpetuity. That's basically why I decided to read him.

    Sorry, this is far too long. I apologize.

  4. Actually, SDG, I think that the unconvincing endings to a few of Dickens's novels are attributable to the fact that he was behind the deadline for delivering the monthly instalments and didn't have time to revise and edit, or quite possibly that he hadn't plotted out how to end them and ran out of time.

    You're right about the Victorian novelist work ethic. Trollope invented the post box, stood for Parliament and ran the Post Office in Ireland at the same time as writing a novel or two a year. What a pity we can't look to Martin Amis to publish something new every six months, appear more frequently in public and take up a senior Government position.

  5. ex-KCS, very interesting about the instalment format and the hurried endings. Thanks for that. If I ever finish "Old Curiosity Shop" I shall be on the qui vive!

  6. I read my first full length Dickens novel when I was about 10 or 11 years old. My dad really encouraged me and my brother. David Copperfield was the one I remember best. Immortal characters, like Micawber, Uriah Heep (name of a rock band too!), Steerforth, Peggotty and Little Emily. And those scenes from Victorian school life! What they went through! I think I'd read 5 or 6 big fat ones by the time I was 15, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop and Great Expectations. I thought they were fantastic at the time, they completely captured my imagination.

    If I had time I think I'd try to read one again. I wonder how his novels seem now we've moved into the digital age.

    William Thackeray was another author I liked, Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon in particular. I notice you mentioned Joseph Conrad earlier. I think he's probably my all time favourite. His descriptions are just unbelievably vivid, like in Heart of Darkness and again in his novels out at sea, like Youth and End of the Tether. You really feel like you're there. Real purple patches. I could also relate to all his Asian stuff, having travelled extensively there myself.

    I think our generation still had a link to those times, in that we had grandparents who hailed from those times. For youngsters today, it must seem like a completely alien world

  7. TropicalRob, I have a horrible feeling kids don't read big fat classic Victorian novels any more - they don't even study them for A-level.

    However, I don't think London teenagers would find the world of Dickens all that alien - I was struck again and again by how astonishingly contemporary much of OMF was.

    I always feel ashamed when I discover how well-read my school contemporaries were - there was chap called John Robson who, I think - like you - didn't do English at A-level, but had worked his way through most of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy by the age of 17 - something I wouldn't manage till my early forties.

  8. SDG, the only other writer I can think of who became a master of English despite it not being his mother tongue was Nabokov, whose "Pale Fire" is still one of my favourite novels.