Matters Dickensian

      From Loretta:
      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.
      

30 thoughts on “Matters Dickensian”

  1. I, too, was forcefed Great Expectations in high school, and it was done so badly that I refused to ever pick up another Dickens for years. I’m not certain why I checked TALE OF TWO CITIES out of the library, but the book sucked me like a vacuum. I lived in that world. You’re right, it’s the power of Dickens vocabulary that makes his stories resonate on every level, from the visceral to the intellectual. I love that people ran out to buy his chapters because of the story, but he was doing was forcing them to see the society they were living in through characters the average reader would never have met. Great stuff, thanks for reminding us!

    Reply
  2. I, too, was forcefed Great Expectations in high school, and it was done so badly that I refused to ever pick up another Dickens for years. I’m not certain why I checked TALE OF TWO CITIES out of the library, but the book sucked me like a vacuum. I lived in that world. You’re right, it’s the power of Dickens vocabulary that makes his stories resonate on every level, from the visceral to the intellectual. I love that people ran out to buy his chapters because of the story, but he was doing was forcing them to see the society they were living in through characters the average reader would never have met. Great stuff, thanks for reminding us!

    Reply
  3. I, too, was forcefed Great Expectations in high school, and it was done so badly that I refused to ever pick up another Dickens for years. I’m not certain why I checked TALE OF TWO CITIES out of the library, but the book sucked me like a vacuum. I lived in that world. You’re right, it’s the power of Dickens vocabulary that makes his stories resonate on every level, from the visceral to the intellectual. I love that people ran out to buy his chapters because of the story, but he was doing was forcing them to see the society they were living in through characters the average reader would never have met. Great stuff, thanks for reminding us!

    Reply
  4. A Tale of Two Cities was the one a high school English teacher ruined for me. We spent nine weeks “analyzing” the novel, and we all hated Dickens by the time the term was over. Except for A Christmas Carol, I avoided Dickens for years, convinced there was no author more boring. Then in grad school, I took a Victorian novel course and was forced to read Bleak House. Reading BH made me aware of how great a disservice my teacher had done me. But while I agree with everything you said about Dickens’s mastery in BH, Loretta, Pickwick Papers is my favorite Dickens to reread. I know it is a less mature work than BH, but have there ever been characters more filled with exuberance and good-humor than Pickwick and company? I smile just thinking of Sam Weller.

    Reply
  5. A Tale of Two Cities was the one a high school English teacher ruined for me. We spent nine weeks “analyzing” the novel, and we all hated Dickens by the time the term was over. Except for A Christmas Carol, I avoided Dickens for years, convinced there was no author more boring. Then in grad school, I took a Victorian novel course and was forced to read Bleak House. Reading BH made me aware of how great a disservice my teacher had done me. But while I agree with everything you said about Dickens’s mastery in BH, Loretta, Pickwick Papers is my favorite Dickens to reread. I know it is a less mature work than BH, but have there ever been characters more filled with exuberance and good-humor than Pickwick and company? I smile just thinking of Sam Weller.

    Reply
  6. A Tale of Two Cities was the one a high school English teacher ruined for me. We spent nine weeks “analyzing” the novel, and we all hated Dickens by the time the term was over. Except for A Christmas Carol, I avoided Dickens for years, convinced there was no author more boring. Then in grad school, I took a Victorian novel course and was forced to read Bleak House. Reading BH made me aware of how great a disservice my teacher had done me. But while I agree with everything you said about Dickens’s mastery in BH, Loretta, Pickwick Papers is my favorite Dickens to reread. I know it is a less mature work than BH, but have there ever been characters more filled with exuberance and good-humor than Pickwick and company? I smile just thinking of Sam Weller.

    Reply
  7. I’m a fan and regular reader of Dickens also, so you needn’t feel lonely, Loretta.
    BLEAK HOUSE is high on my list of his finest. I love PICKWICK PAPERS. But my fave of all of them is NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.
    Which reminds me, I’m due for a re-read…

    Reply
  8. I’m a fan and regular reader of Dickens also, so you needn’t feel lonely, Loretta.
    BLEAK HOUSE is high on my list of his finest. I love PICKWICK PAPERS. But my fave of all of them is NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.
    Which reminds me, I’m due for a re-read…

    Reply
  9. I’m a fan and regular reader of Dickens also, so you needn’t feel lonely, Loretta.
    BLEAK HOUSE is high on my list of his finest. I love PICKWICK PAPERS. But my fave of all of them is NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.
    Which reminds me, I’m due for a re-read…

    Reply
  10. Thanks for bringing Mr. Dickens to the blog, Loretta. In addition to his writing, I’ve always felt a kinship to him because he was a Working Writer, one of us — always under deadline, always short of funds no matter how popular his books were, always out there on reading tours (aka self-promotion.)
    Though I do have to stand up for dreary Mr. Hardy. I LIKE Hardy. 🙂 And Anthony Trollope, too. Viva les Victorians!
    Susan/Miranda

    Reply
  11. Thanks for bringing Mr. Dickens to the blog, Loretta. In addition to his writing, I’ve always felt a kinship to him because he was a Working Writer, one of us — always under deadline, always short of funds no matter how popular his books were, always out there on reading tours (aka self-promotion.)
    Though I do have to stand up for dreary Mr. Hardy. I LIKE Hardy. 🙂 And Anthony Trollope, too. Viva les Victorians!
    Susan/Miranda

    Reply
  12. Thanks for bringing Mr. Dickens to the blog, Loretta. In addition to his writing, I’ve always felt a kinship to him because he was a Working Writer, one of us — always under deadline, always short of funds no matter how popular his books were, always out there on reading tours (aka self-promotion.)
    Though I do have to stand up for dreary Mr. Hardy. I LIKE Hardy. 🙂 And Anthony Trollope, too. Viva les Victorians!
    Susan/Miranda

    Reply
  13. Great post, Loretta. I am always re-reading the classic 19th c. novels that I first read in high school and college — Dickens, Scott, Stevenson, Trollope, Lawrence, Collins, and others I’ve discovered since. I’ve always enjoyed Dickens — one of my personal faves is A Tale of Two Cities (I first read it in high school after slogging through Eliot’s Silas Marner, which I didn’t like, so Dickens’ voice was like a breath of fresh air and I kept coming back to it).
    I liked Bleak House, though I’ve only read it once, and Oliver Twist, absolutely. And I’ve always gone back to A Christmas Carol, reading to my kids too.
    My husband does amateur theater and once played Marley’s ghost in an updated version, where Marley is the onstage narrator. I played a little Victorian lady who faces up to Scrooge. I loved the black velvet and lace bonnet so much that they practically had to tear it away from me. 🙂
    (And a nod to Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, where Queen Vickie visits the shop, just hilarious!)
    Susan, rambling a bit 😉

    Reply
  14. Great post, Loretta. I am always re-reading the classic 19th c. novels that I first read in high school and college — Dickens, Scott, Stevenson, Trollope, Lawrence, Collins, and others I’ve discovered since. I’ve always enjoyed Dickens — one of my personal faves is A Tale of Two Cities (I first read it in high school after slogging through Eliot’s Silas Marner, which I didn’t like, so Dickens’ voice was like a breath of fresh air and I kept coming back to it).
    I liked Bleak House, though I’ve only read it once, and Oliver Twist, absolutely. And I’ve always gone back to A Christmas Carol, reading to my kids too.
    My husband does amateur theater and once played Marley’s ghost in an updated version, where Marley is the onstage narrator. I played a little Victorian lady who faces up to Scrooge. I loved the black velvet and lace bonnet so much that they practically had to tear it away from me. 🙂
    (And a nod to Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, where Queen Vickie visits the shop, just hilarious!)
    Susan, rambling a bit 😉

    Reply
  15. Great post, Loretta. I am always re-reading the classic 19th c. novels that I first read in high school and college — Dickens, Scott, Stevenson, Trollope, Lawrence, Collins, and others I’ve discovered since. I’ve always enjoyed Dickens — one of my personal faves is A Tale of Two Cities (I first read it in high school after slogging through Eliot’s Silas Marner, which I didn’t like, so Dickens’ voice was like a breath of fresh air and I kept coming back to it).
    I liked Bleak House, though I’ve only read it once, and Oliver Twist, absolutely. And I’ve always gone back to A Christmas Carol, reading to my kids too.
    My husband does amateur theater and once played Marley’s ghost in an updated version, where Marley is the onstage narrator. I played a little Victorian lady who faces up to Scrooge. I loved the black velvet and lace bonnet so much that they practically had to tear it away from me. 🙂
    (And a nod to Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, where Queen Vickie visits the shop, just hilarious!)
    Susan, rambling a bit 😉

    Reply
  16. From Loretta:
    Pat, you nailed it: the power of vocabulary. His command of the English language was extraordinary.
    Wylene, A Tale of Two Cities was ruined for me, too. But not permanently, I’m happy to say. I’m able now to go back and read any Dickens book, and always discover something new to enjoy. Of course The Pickwick Papers is a delight, and Sam Weller is one of a long line of wonderful characters.
    Margaret, Nicholas Nickleby is another great (OK, to me they’re all greats) with one of Dickens’s more complex villains, I think.
    Susan, you (and Mary Jo) already had to endure my yammering about BLEAK HOUSE for an hour. Did you want to shake me when you saw the title of my post? I do like FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. But I liked Hardy’s books better when I was younger. Same goes for the Brontes. Tragedy is harder for me to take these days, so I tend to return to the Victorian authors who give me more humor. And I do love Trollope, too. And Thackeray.
    And George Eliot–Susan/Sarah, I haven’t gone back to Silas Marner, but I did read Middlemarch and discovered that George Eliot is pretty wonderful–and wittier than I’d been led to believe in high school.
    Ooh, Blackadder. Be still my heart. Maybe we should blog about that sometime.
    How wonderful to find out that others find joy in Dickens, too!

    Reply
  17. From Loretta:
    Pat, you nailed it: the power of vocabulary. His command of the English language was extraordinary.
    Wylene, A Tale of Two Cities was ruined for me, too. But not permanently, I’m happy to say. I’m able now to go back and read any Dickens book, and always discover something new to enjoy. Of course The Pickwick Papers is a delight, and Sam Weller is one of a long line of wonderful characters.
    Margaret, Nicholas Nickleby is another great (OK, to me they’re all greats) with one of Dickens’s more complex villains, I think.
    Susan, you (and Mary Jo) already had to endure my yammering about BLEAK HOUSE for an hour. Did you want to shake me when you saw the title of my post? I do like FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. But I liked Hardy’s books better when I was younger. Same goes for the Brontes. Tragedy is harder for me to take these days, so I tend to return to the Victorian authors who give me more humor. And I do love Trollope, too. And Thackeray.
    And George Eliot–Susan/Sarah, I haven’t gone back to Silas Marner, but I did read Middlemarch and discovered that George Eliot is pretty wonderful–and wittier than I’d been led to believe in high school.
    Ooh, Blackadder. Be still my heart. Maybe we should blog about that sometime.
    How wonderful to find out that others find joy in Dickens, too!

    Reply
  18. From Loretta:
    Pat, you nailed it: the power of vocabulary. His command of the English language was extraordinary.
    Wylene, A Tale of Two Cities was ruined for me, too. But not permanently, I’m happy to say. I’m able now to go back and read any Dickens book, and always discover something new to enjoy. Of course The Pickwick Papers is a delight, and Sam Weller is one of a long line of wonderful characters.
    Margaret, Nicholas Nickleby is another great (OK, to me they’re all greats) with one of Dickens’s more complex villains, I think.
    Susan, you (and Mary Jo) already had to endure my yammering about BLEAK HOUSE for an hour. Did you want to shake me when you saw the title of my post? I do like FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. But I liked Hardy’s books better when I was younger. Same goes for the Brontes. Tragedy is harder for me to take these days, so I tend to return to the Victorian authors who give me more humor. And I do love Trollope, too. And Thackeray.
    And George Eliot–Susan/Sarah, I haven’t gone back to Silas Marner, but I did read Middlemarch and discovered that George Eliot is pretty wonderful–and wittier than I’d been led to believe in high school.
    Ooh, Blackadder. Be still my heart. Maybe we should blog about that sometime.
    How wonderful to find out that others find joy in Dickens, too!

    Reply
  19. Loretta, I loved that you spoke on Dickens at the WRW Retreat two years ago. As Susan/Miranda says, he was a working writer like us, and he combined great storytelling with powerful social messages: a man after my own heart.
    While I’m not as well read in Dickens as others of you, I do remember the surprise I felt when forced to read David Copperfield when I found how FUNNY Dickens could be. WHo knew?
    Hardy, on the other hand, of whom I had to read too much (the trials and tribulations of an English major), makes me want to slit my wrists. Give me a jolly 18th century writer like Oliver Goldsmith or Henry Fielding, please.
    Mary Jo

    Reply
  20. Loretta, I loved that you spoke on Dickens at the WRW Retreat two years ago. As Susan/Miranda says, he was a working writer like us, and he combined great storytelling with powerful social messages: a man after my own heart.
    While I’m not as well read in Dickens as others of you, I do remember the surprise I felt when forced to read David Copperfield when I found how FUNNY Dickens could be. WHo knew?
    Hardy, on the other hand, of whom I had to read too much (the trials and tribulations of an English major), makes me want to slit my wrists. Give me a jolly 18th century writer like Oliver Goldsmith or Henry Fielding, please.
    Mary Jo

    Reply
  21. Loretta, I loved that you spoke on Dickens at the WRW Retreat two years ago. As Susan/Miranda says, he was a working writer like us, and he combined great storytelling with powerful social messages: a man after my own heart.
    While I’m not as well read in Dickens as others of you, I do remember the surprise I felt when forced to read David Copperfield when I found how FUNNY Dickens could be. WHo knew?
    Hardy, on the other hand, of whom I had to read too much (the trials and tribulations of an English major), makes me want to slit my wrists. Give me a jolly 18th century writer like Oliver Goldsmith or Henry Fielding, please.
    Mary Jo

    Reply
  22. Mary Jo, I laughed about the “trials and tribulations of the English major.” There WAS a lot of Hardy in our English Dept, too, as I recall, and little or no Dickens. I think at the time the profs considered him more “modern” than Dickens. But thank you for mentioning the 18th century writers. I did love one of the survey courses where we read Fielding, Sterne, Smollet, et al. I loved them even more later, when I read them for pure pleasure.

    Reply
  23. Mary Jo, I laughed about the “trials and tribulations of the English major.” There WAS a lot of Hardy in our English Dept, too, as I recall, and little or no Dickens. I think at the time the profs considered him more “modern” than Dickens. But thank you for mentioning the 18th century writers. I did love one of the survey courses where we read Fielding, Sterne, Smollet, et al. I loved them even more later, when I read them for pure pleasure.

    Reply
  24. Mary Jo, I laughed about the “trials and tribulations of the English major.” There WAS a lot of Hardy in our English Dept, too, as I recall, and little or no Dickens. I think at the time the profs considered him more “modern” than Dickens. But thank you for mentioning the 18th century writers. I did love one of the survey courses where we read Fielding, Sterne, Smollet, et al. I loved them even more later, when I read them for pure pleasure.

    Reply
  25. Dickens had some wonderful character names, didn’t he? Which reminds me, I was going to suggest that someone (or all of you) blog on the subject of naming characters.
    —Tal, aka Tiffany the Viking jarl’s daughter

    Reply
  26. Dickens had some wonderful character names, didn’t he? Which reminds me, I was going to suggest that someone (or all of you) blog on the subject of naming characters.
    —Tal, aka Tiffany the Viking jarl’s daughter

    Reply
  27. Dickens had some wonderful character names, didn’t he? Which reminds me, I was going to suggest that someone (or all of you) blog on the subject of naming characters.
    —Tal, aka Tiffany the Viking jarl’s daughter

    Reply
  28. These Hardy references reminded me of an experience from my high school teaching years. A student read Tess for a book report, but evidently she found the novel too disturbing to finish. She gave Tess and Angel a HEA in her report. I laughed almost as much as I did the time a student wrote movingly of Benjamin Franklin’s death when reporting on Franklin’s Autobiography.

    Reply
  29. These Hardy references reminded me of an experience from my high school teaching years. A student read Tess for a book report, but evidently she found the novel too disturbing to finish. She gave Tess and Angel a HEA in her report. I laughed almost as much as I did the time a student wrote movingly of Benjamin Franklin’s death when reporting on Franklin’s Autobiography.

    Reply
  30. These Hardy references reminded me of an experience from my high school teaching years. A student read Tess for a book report, but evidently she found the novel too disturbing to finish. She gave Tess and Angel a HEA in her report. I laughed almost as much as I did the time a student wrote movingly of Benjamin Franklin’s death when reporting on Franklin’s Autobiography.

    Reply

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