Susan/Sarah’s recent post asking about current reading forced me to fess up that I’m reading BLEAK HOUSE again. Even though I’ve read it so many times that when watching the recent BBC version, I could tell at least half the time what lines came from the book (most of them, surprisingly) and whether or not the character uttering them was the one who’d said them in the book. I’m reading it even though I am not now or ever will be in danger of running out of TBR books. While my leisure reading time shrinks, the pile grows ever higher.
But I need Dickens. He reminds me why I wanted to be a writer. He reminds me how I came to understand how to tell a story. Most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from him and his fellow Victorian novelists. He reminds me, above all, of what I aspire to.
I write this knowing that Charles Dickens is not to everyone’s tastes. In fact, so far as I can ascertain, he is hardly to anybody’s tastes these days. When I was in college, he was out of fashion. The English faculty ignored him, mostly. They did not seem enthusiastic about teaching him, though they were fine with Thomas Hardy, who is way too depressed for me. Only one professor shared my joy in the opening scene of BLEAK HOUSE. This I still consider the best opening scene of any book ever, notwithstanding PRIDE AND PREJUDICE’s brilliant “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” That’s a work-of-genius opener, but Dickens builds a world in a few pages, and the language always knocks me out.
By the time I encountered that college professor I had read BLEAK HOUSE two or three times. This was thanks to one friend. It was he who taught me to appreciate Dickens–via DAVID COPPERFIELD–when I was an adolescent know-it-all who believed that only modern music, books, and art counted. Having been force-fed A TALE OF TWO CITIES and GREAT EXPECTATIONS by high school teachers who seemed to view Dickens as an unpleasant duty at best, I was not about to read him for fun. But my friend was about ten years older and had taught himself six or seven languages as part of his process of reading, systematically, the entire body of the World’s Great Literature, each book in the language in which it was written. His apartment was decorated in the Turkish style, rather like some of the interiors of Egyptian houses I described in MR. IMPOSSIBLE. As an adolescent, I was in awe of him. Now, looking back, I realize that he was a Dickensian character.
I did learn about characterization from Dickens. I don’t do it as he does. I haven’t an imagination half so fertile, nor an extensive acquaintance with Characters with a capital C (the friend described above is one of the few I can recollect). I don’t and can’t walk restlessly, for hours and hours, the streets of 19th century London. But he taught me to think about speech patterns and “hear” the character’s voice. He taught me ways of setting a scene. Above all, he taught me to appreciate the English language, its vast vocabulary (considerably vaster now than in the 19th century), its elasticity–in short, its abundance.
This is what tends to be lost when a Dickens work is brought to the screen, large or small. His plots, pared down, are Victorian melodramas. The distinctive characters are either toned down or exaggerated so that they become cartoons. Oh, and the women, the good women of the books, can be sick-making to the modern mind–so I must admit that anything a screenwriter or director does to them is probably for the better. As to mood–even the best directors can’t do much more than dark and gloomy with a bit of light here and there. They can’t capture the ever-changing sunlight and shadows of the books. Above all, they can’t translate to the screen the narrative voice–the wit, the screwball comedy, the cynicism and sarcasm, the sorrow, the sense of loss, the sense of triumph. The recent BBC production was a marvel, beautifully done. I say this as one who’s hated every screen version of every Dickens story. But as beautifully written, acted, and directed as it is, it is a screen work, another species. Something completely distinct from the book by the same name. (Please see Mary Jo Putney’s blog on making books into movies for more on this subject).
For me, the joy of Dickens is the words, the magical words. I never grow tired of them. That’s why I’m reading BLEAK HOUSE for the umpty-bazillionth time. And still learning.