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Mikeharvey

Dickens

I had taken down my copy of Dicken's "Christmas Books" to read "A Christmas Carol" again and guiltily realised that I had read none of the other stories. So I read "THE CHIMES" in a couple of sittings.  
It's about as long as "Carol" and was published the year after (1844). It's a story of the New Year as opposed to Christmas and is subtitled "A Goblin Story"
The story is about Trotty Veck who is a ticket-porter who works near a church and is always hearing voices in the church bells above him. He is a messenger and is very poor, as is his daughter, Meg and her intended, Richard. Trotty meets  an unfotunate vagrant, Will Fearn and Lillian the small child he is looking after.  After several encounters with rich individuals and so-callled philanthropists who condemn the poor for their way of life and their fecklessness and an alderman forsees disaster for Meg's forthcoming marriage. Trotty is filled with gloom and despondency and comes to believe that the poor are naturally ungrateful, are born wicked, and have no place in society.  That night Trotty climbs to the belfry and in a vision conjured up by the Spirit of the Chimes he sees his own death and a future of unmitigated gllom and disaster for all. Trotty is changed by his vision, and rejects his gloomy and negative view of Life.

It's by no means as effective as "A Christmas Carol" and I found its message rather difficult to understand.  It seems odd that D chooses a poor sympathetic character to have a conversion.  Dickens seems to be saying - but I'm sure he's not - that everybody can change their life - even the poor.  I must have that wrong.

It's well written of course, and there are some marvellous passages like the opening of the Third Quarter describing Trotty's climb into the bell-tower and his vision of the Goblins of the Chimes.  The unsympathetic characters like The Alderman, who believes that many things and people should be "put down" are splendidly vivid in Dickens' best manner.  And the dialogue is as always wonderful. But I felt that D overwrites the plight and misery of the poor characters, and sentimentality is never very far off. But even in the midst of the gloom there are lovely touches of humour.
Has anyone else read this? I'd be pleased to read somer other opinions.
I read it in a very nice edition with super pictures by Charles Keeping.
Marita

I’ve read ‘The Chimes’ several times as I have every story in Dickens' "Christmas Books". I agree that there are some wonderful passages in it. Still it is not a favourite Christmas story.
Quote:

Dickens seems to be saying - but I'm sure he's not - that everybody can change their life - even the poor.  I must have that wrong.

This is how I see it:
Trotty starts of as a happy character. The Chimes are his companions, they talk to him, encourage him, comfort him. After he has met the so-called philanthropists he starts to hear a different message in the chimes – the words of these rich men (put’em down, put’em down, facts and figures, facts and figures). That night, angry that he has put these words into their mouths, the Spirits of the Bells show him a dreadful vision. Trotty has to learn from the misery of his daughter that the poor are not to blame as the ‘philanthropists’ claimed. Having learned his lesson, he can be the old Trotty again, happy even if he is poor.

I’ve read somewhere that ‘The Chimes’ has not got the happy ending of ‘A Christmas Carol’. In the latter Tiny Tim does not die, but in ‘The Chimes’ nothing much has changed at the end of the story (except that Will Fern has found the person he was looking for). All the misery of Trotty’s vision could still happen.
I suppose that is one of the reasons why it doesn’t feel as good as ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Marita
TheRejectAmidHair

Strange you should start this thread Mike ... it occurred to me today that while I read A Christmas Carol every year, and often read The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth, I never have ago at the other two. So I just started on The Battle of Life: I'll report nback on it once I've finished.

A Christmas Carol is certainly the best of them. I suppose that, to employ modern parlance, its  ending is "feelgood", but it's by no means facile: the joy has been hard won, and we have glimpsed into the abyss on the way.

I do have a soft spot for The Chimes. It is true that there is no assurance that the tragedy prefigured in the vision will be avoided, but Trotty learns not to be censorious of human behaviour. I find irt oddly moving.

The Cricket on the Hearth is perhaps the warmest of the three.
lunababymoonchild

I'm increasingly warming to the idea of postponing Agincourt temporarily in favour of the rest of the Dickens Christmas books.  I've only read A Christmas Carol and that was only last year so I think I'll have a go at t'others this year.

Luna
MikeAlx

I just listened to The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton on the Classic Tales Podcast. I gather this formed a chapter of The Pickwick Papers - though it sounded pretty much like a standalone story to me (is The Pickwick Papers really a novel, or is it really a bunch of stories loosely strung together?).

Anyway, it struck me how much this story has in common with A Christmas Carol, which came out some 6 years later. There is the core theme of a miserable misanthrope taught the error of his ways by supernatural entities, a vision of the death of a child, the idea of 'poor but happy', the context of Christmas, etc. Did Dickens write a lot of stories in this mode, or are the Goblins and A Christmas Carol more closely related than most?
TheRejectAmidHair

Thre Story of the Goblins certainly foreshadow A Christmas Carol. The themes are more intricately developed in the later work, which, although equally whimsical, seems to me to have a greater depth of feeling.

Much of Pickwick Papers is loosely constructed- it is highly episodic, and often resembles a series of sketches. Indeed, I think that had been Dickens' intention to begin with - to put together a sequence of loosely connected comic sketches. However, in the latter part of the novel, something resembling an extended and coherent narrative does emerge, and in the prison chapters, the tone does darken surprsingly. I get the feeling that Dickens' ambition expanded as work progressed.

I personally find it Dickens' most delightful work. His very idiosyncratic humour does appeal to me (although I appreciate that it leaves many others cold), and he presents a comic world that I love to enter.
goldbug

Great  Expectations  was written in the first person perhaps that is why it was my favourite, reading it as school.

 Dickens was a human dynamo, writing novels,
writing for his magazine,  lecturing on stage,
he must have had a wonderful imagination.
I wonder if we can put him up there with
Shakespeare ?


 Sadly he seems to have  burnt himself out with
all this frantic activity and he died at  the
early age of 58   (in 1870 )
Caro

Today in our library I noticed we were ordering A Child's History of England by Dickens.  I don't seem to know this book at all - who has read it?  And is it a picture book or what?  

I am looking forward to seeing it - and seeing who gets it out.

Cheers, Caro.
goldbug

goldbug

He had a large family,  he  travelled widely,
he  wrote prolifically, he  lectured,
did  theatre tours where he  read  large sections
of his work to enthusiastic  audiences,  he  acted in amature dramatics....

He was a human dynamo... obviously a lover of the theatre..  I wonder what his opinion was of the
Victorian Music Halls  which he must have known  well.

Maybe the  theatre is a bigger influence than we know, there is so much dialogue in his novels... they are almost  scripts !
spidernick

Less than two years now to the bicentenary of Dickens' birth.  Living as I do near Portsmouth it will be interesting to see what they put on to mark the event.
Mikeharvey

I've been wondering for a while about what celebrations there'll be for Dickens' 200th Anniversary in 2012. I have a horrible suspicion that it'll get swamped by the Olympics. 2012 is also the 60th anniversary of the Queen's accession.  
And looking a little further ahead, I wonder what will be done in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. I remember the 400th anniversary of Will's birth in 1964. There was a marvellous exhibition at Stratford, across the Avon, on a special site opposite the theatre. I remember it well.  
Michael
goldbug

I think I read somewhere that  Charles was never
happier than when he was alone in his  study  writing and inventing  characters for his novels.
Theres a big house on a hill somewhere.... probably
a  Charles Dickens museum by now.

No doubt there will be some events lined up with lots of  Dickensian costume and hooped skirts.... should be fun !
 When Dickens lived,  Victorian sentimentality was at its height  and  Dickens writings are full  of  Victorian  sentimentality.... children  etc...
My theory is that he was writing  mainly for women.... they bought the magazines  and women  were  probably the main market for the  novels  too.
TheRejectAmidHair

goldbug wrote:
 When Dickens lived,  Victorian sentimentality was at its height  and  Dickens writings are full  of  Victorian  sentimentality.... children  etc...
My theory is that he was writing  mainly for women.... they bought the magazines  and women  were  probably the main market for the  novels  too.


Yes, I agree. That sort of thing was fine for its day, no doubt, but it just doesn't pass the test of time, does it?  Wink
goldbug

So much of  Dickens  work  seems to revolve around
children.... and of course ... the sentimentality  is turned on to full  force.

Interestingly... a lot of  Stephen Speilberg's movies
are centred on children...  ET  for eg....
maybe he is the modern equivalent of  CD  ?
Castorboy

Although they will not be celebrations, more like commemorations, we’re bound to hear a great deal in 2012 about the sinking of the Titanic and the death of Captain Robert Falcon Scott in the Antarctic. He has strong associations with New Zealand and there are a number of reminders and memorials to him and his men particularly in the south of the South Island.
Caro

About a year ago we went to Port Chalmers near Dunedin and saw a plaque with historical bits about Dunedin, including one about Scott leaving from here, and another which interested me a lot at the time, of Shackleton's Aurora callling there.  I was reading Polar Castaways at the time which was about Shackleton's support crew in 1915.


I wonder if that means the photo is attached here.  I will check and if not will try again.

Cheers, Caro.
Melony

What an interesting photo - thanks for posting that!

The "real Forrest Gump", Robert Sweetgall, came to our school district to speak to all the 5th graders.  Anyway, he made the most interesting observation that all the great writers liked to take their walks, and how that contributed to their brain power, so to speak, and their creativity.  I immediately thought of Dickens and his walks, and how he liked to walk fast. That, too, was probably a Victorian convention of taking a constitutional.
TheRejectAmidHair

The Dickens bicentenary celebrations have started early in the Guardian Books pages, I see.

I was wondering how I was going to celebrate it. Our Mutual Friend has been up for a re-read for along time now, so I might go for that. I might also read Sketches by Boz, a book that I have, so far, only dipped into. I also have Peter Ackroyd’s massive biography staring down at me accusingly from the shelves, but although I love Dickens the Novelist, I don’t think I like Dickens the Man at all from what I know about him.

Over the years, I have written, on various boards, and, now, on my blog, what seems like entire volumes’ worth of stuff on Dickens. And it strikes me that much of the time, I’ve been on the defensive. This is because it has long seemed to me that Disckens attracts more unfair criticism than just about any other novelist of comparable stature. Of course, it is also true that Dickens was more deeply flawed than any other novelist of comparable stature (of novelists of the foremost rank – and Dickens most certainly belongs to this rank – the only other novelist I can think of who was so deeply flawed is Dostoyevsky); but all too often, it seems to me, his flaws are noted while his more-than-compensatory greatness ignored; or worse, flaws are seen where, to my mind, there aren’t any. At times, even, certain features in his writing that seem to me marks of genius are criticised as weaknesses – e.g. he is often criticised for creating caricatures when his superlative gifts as a caricaturist seem to me to be worth celebrating rather  than otherwise. As a consequence of all this, when I write about Dickens, I perhaps get too defensive. Of course, no writing in praise of Dickens will be credible if it doesn’t acknowledge at least some of the flaws, but even here one has to be careful: those elements of his creative personality that are responsible for the flaws are the same elements that are responsible for his greatness. In other words, his genius and his flaws are part of one indivisible package.

But when I do acknowledge flaws, it is generally to the early books I turn, and this is unfair. Of all the articles that have appeared on Dickens in the Guardian Books pages so far, the one I particularly liked was Simon Callow’s on the early novel  Nicholas Nickleby. Callow says, very elegantly, just about all that can be said about this novel within so short a space. He reminds us, among other things, thatDickens, still in his mid-20s, kicked off his career as a novelist by producing Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby all within a mere 18 months. Now, that is just phenomenal. Yes, yes, all three novels (especially Nicholas Nickleby) are flawed in many ways; yes, granted, they don’t present any profound vision of human life, and nor do they pro be into the human psyche;  but what is there that can compare with such brio and exuberance, such colour, such delight in human eccentricity? Callow rightly says that to find and antecedent, we must go back beyond Shakespeare to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales.

(Which reminds me – reading The Canterbury Tales in the original is among my upcoming reading projects. But more of that later…)

The noted critic Edmund Wilson thought Austen and Dickens were the two finest British novelists, and, while I accept that literature should not be treated as a competitive sport, that’s probably a fair judgement to make. Certainly, Wilson’s erstwhile friend Nabokov did not have any quarrel with it, even though he personally preferred Dickens. (And that’s where my resemblance to Nabokov stops!) I can’t remember the bicentenary celebrations for Austen back in 1975, but here’s to a year and more of celebrating my favourite novelist!

(Actually, Tolstoy ranks with Dickens as my favourite novelist, but since I don’t have Dickens’ marvellous ear for the rhythms of prose, I couldn’t think of a way of getting that detail into that last sentence without making it sound clumsy.)
Chibiabos83

I won a book token last week due to my library blog being voted Best Blog by my peers (I've decided to suspend all modesty momentarily), and I spent it yesterday on an Everyman edition of Dombey and Son, so I should think that will be the next Dickens I read. Looking forward to it enormously.
Caro

I remember Dombey and Son as a Dickens I enjoyed at university and have plans to read it again.  Would also like to read Great Expectations again.  

Though what I would like to read and what I do read are not the same thing at all.  

Cheers, Caro.[/i]
goldbug

quote
He reminds us, among other things, thatDickens, still in his mid-20s, kicked off his career as a novelist by producing Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby all within a mere 18 months.
end quote

if  true,  that's incredible.... the guy must have been
dynamic....
all his writing for magazines,  all his theatre amature dramatics,  all his  stage  appearances !
all his  children....
then he goes and dies in his  50s  ... probably burned himself out  !

Interesting that he was a close  contemporary of Charlotte Bronte...
Charlotte born   1816
Charles born   1812


Im wondering can there be any other novelist with as many  TV and  cinema adaptations ?
not to mention  mega  stage musicals !
TheRejectAmidHair

goldbug wrote:
Im wondering can there be any other novelist with as many  TV and  cinema adaptations ?
not to mention  mega  stage musicals !


If we consider the (number of adaptations):(number of works written) ratio, I imagine Jane Austen would score highly, but Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker may well top the list.
Castorboy

It's a pity Conan Doyle's short stories don't count - there was even a musical.
MikeAlx

Well I'm going to read Our Mutual Friend, which is looking at me accusingly from the bookshelf as I type. I meant to read it this year, but didn't really have time for such a hefty tome, so went for Great Expectations instead.

I think throwing stones at Dickens has become popular because he was such a sacred cow a few decades back - almost beyond criticism to people of my parents' generation and social class. Among British writers, probably only Shakespeare was held in comparable esteem. Unlike Shakespeare, who is too protean to stereotype, Dickens has tended to be caricatured, usually as a voice for radical social reform. However, Dickens the man seems to have been politically quite moderate, even conservative - which gives plenty of ammo for attacking the icon.
KlaraZ

Thanks for those links to the Guardian Book Pages, Himadri. However, fascinated as I am by those 'My Favourite Dickens' articles, I honestly don't know how I'd choose 'my favourite' out of all the novels. (I'd have no problem choosing my least favourite, Barnaby Rudge!) Like you, I love 'The Pickwick Papers', but I love so many others too, although, perhaps, I am fonder of the exuberance of the early books than I am of the darkness of the mature novels---even though, critically speaking, I suppose 'Bleak House' is a 'greater' novel than, say 'David Copperfield'.

Oddly enough, the book that's closest to my heart after 'Pickwick' is 'The Old Curiosity Shop', not because of all the sentimentality of Little Nell, but because of the humorous, life-affirming story of Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness, whom G.K. Chesterton described as 'the real hero and heroine'.
I shall definitely be celebrating the bi-centenary with a re-read of some of my favourite Dickens (some of which I haven't read for 40 years).  And I'm looking forward to seeing the new version of 'Edwin Drood' (completed!) on TV.
Green Jay

Claire Tomalin has a new biography of Dickens out - perfect timing.
She has already written about him in The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.  She is a very thoughtful biographer, should be worth a read.
Chibiabos83

I'm very tempted by Claire Tomalin's new Dickens book. I'm rarely tempted by literary biographies, even of Dickens, even the Peter Ackroyd one, but she was very engaging when she talked about it on Front Row recently.
TheRejectAmidHair

The recent biography my Michael Slater is reputedly very good. But as I say, I don't think I'd like Dickens as a person. When I read his novels, i do my best to shut out what i know of him as a person.

I think the only literary biographies I have read have been the one of Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess (and given how little we know of Shakespeare, it was more about his times than about his life); and the biography of Ibsen by Michael Meyer. I do mean to read Juliet Barker's biography of Wordsworth, which looks very interesting. I think I prefer to know Dickens purely as a novelist.
MikeAlx

I heard Tomalin talking about Dickens recently - must have been either on Front Row or the Guardian Books podcast. She is not impressed by Ackroyd's belief that Dickens' infatuation with Ellen Ternan was innocent - she said "two of his most intelligent children" had confirmed there had been an affair, and indeed a lovechild who died in infancy.
MikeAlx

BTW the problem I have with literary biographies is that the adulthood is seldom as interesting as the childhood. Indeed, once a person becomes successful, I pretty much start wishing they'd hurry up and die...  Wink
Caro

Himadri, if Juliet Barker's biography of Wordsworth is a tenth as good as her account of Agincourt, it will be very good indeed.  A really impressive piece of research and thought, taking full account of the attitudes of the times, and going into detail about the preparations and concerns both before and during the campaign.  

By a long shot the best historical review of an event and the people in it that I have read.

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

Wordsworth is a rare instance where I love the works, and also like the author (from what I know of him). I'm sure I'll getvround to reading this biography some day.
Green Jay

The new Claire Tomalin book on Dickens is going to be read on BBC Radio 4 this week - I think in the late evening reading slot. I can't imagine it will fit into one week, surely? Anyway, it should be available on iPlayer.
whereorwhen

goldbug wrote:
He had a large family,  he  travelled widely,
he  wrote prolifically, he  lectured,
did  theatre tours where he  read  large sections
of his work to enthusiastic  audiences,  he  acted in amature dramatics....

He was a human dynamo... obviously a lover of the theatre..  I wonder what his opinion was of the
Victorian Music Halls  which he must have known  well.

Maybe the  theatre is a bigger influence than we know, there is so much dialogue in his novels... they are almost  scripts !


I have just finished reading the new biography of Dickens by Claire Tomalin.  I read Peter Ackroyd's book some years ago and looked forward to this book after her book on Dickens and Ellen Tiernan and I wasn't disappointed.  Although so much is known of Dickens life this did add to my understanding.  He was a wonderful writer and in the past I felt he had a very sad life inspite of all the good things he enjoyed but there was another side.  His treatment of his poor wife was unforgivable .

Everyone that met hime said he was unique, a"sparkler" and great fun. He loved his amateur theatricals and performing generally and it was said if he had not become a writer he could have been a great actor. I would love to have met him.
Green Jay

Green Jay wrote:
The new Claire Tomalin book on Dickens is going to be read on BBC Radio 4 this week - I think in the late evening reading slot. I can't imagine it will fit into one week, surely? Anyway, it should be available on iPlayer.


Ooops, it seems to be on at 9.45 a.m. - sorry.
Castorboy

Green Jay wrote:
The new Claire Tomalin book on Dickens is going to be read on BBC Radio 4 this week.

Claire Tomalin is to be interviwed on Great Expectations in a specail edition of the BBC World Book Club on Feb 1st at 1405 with repeats on the following Sat and Sun.
Mikeharvey

In bed before sleeping last night I read two pieces from Charles Dickens’ THE UNCOMMERCIAL TRAVELLER - 'City of London Churches' and 'Night Walks'. Both are, it goes almost without saying, beautiful pieces of writing. Dickens’ is marvellous at bringing places and people to life. The first has some lovely portraits of the characters attending services, the second in which CD describes London at night and the people he meets on the streets is magnificent. And grimmer.  

‘The river had an awful look, the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds, and the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the spectres of suicides were holding them to show where they went down. The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed, and the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river…’
TheRejectAmidHair

Mikeharvey wrote:
In bed before sleeping last night I read two pieces from Charles Dickens’ THE UNCOMMERCIAL TRAVELLER - 'City of London Churches' and 'Night Walks'. Both are, it goes almost without saying, beautiful pieces of writing. Dickens’ is marvellous at bringing places and people to life. The first has some lovely portraits of the characters attending services, the second in which CD describes London at night and the people he meets on the streets is magnificent. And grimmer.  
‘The river had an awful look, the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds, and the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the spectres of suicides were holding them to show where they went down. The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed, and the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river…’


Dickens loved words, didn't he? He loved verbal extravagance, the kind of thing that, given our modern preference for slimline terseness, we often label as "overblown".

As with many other matters, my personal preferences are a bit out of step with modern taste. I enjoy exuberance and extravagance - and not merely in writing. I do enjoy reading authors who relish language, and luxuriate in words for their own sake: Faulkner attracts me far more than Hemingway, Richard Strauss more than Sibelius.

Reading Our Mutual Friend again, there are many aspects of the novel I find myself dissatisfied with: there are many places where Dickens appears to ave switched to auto-pilot. But The quality of the prose throughout is a delight.

"The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed, and the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river…" Isn't that magnificent?
Evie

Just read this on the BBC website - Claire Tomalin lamenting the fact that children are no longer taught to have the attention span required to read a Dickens novel:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16896661
Green Jay

Oh dear, as a child 40 years ago I did not have the concentration span to read Dickens!

I am thoroughly enjoying Bleak House, word for word, and wonder why I had such problems reading Dickens even as a young adult. Was I phobic, full of the wrong expectations, or what? Well, I can only say that, 40 years on, my tastes and tolerance have changed.
MikeAlx

I was in my 40s before I completed a Dickens novel. I've no objection to children reading Dickens, but doubt I would've got much out of him beyond what could be got from screen adaptations, at least until my late teens.
Green Jay

Yes, I think it is all the things above and beyond the immediate plot that I am enjoying now. And would not have enjoyed or appreciated or even understood when much younger. I did love those Sunday teatime TV serials, though.  Smile
TheRejectAmidHair

I actually came to Dickens relatively late. As a very young child (11, 12, 13 - that kind of age) I used to enjoy Oliver Twist, and the early chapters of David Copperfield (I didn't at that age ever get past the bit where the Murdstones get their come-uppance). By the time I came round to appreciating Dickens in his full glory, as it were, I was in my late teens/early 20s, and writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Chekhov etc were already firmly ensconced in my personal literary pantheon.

I think, inevitably, one is not always ready for certain works. Literature of this quality addresses life, and one needs, therefore, at least some experience of life to appreciate it to an adequate level. But it is important, I think, to introduce children at a young age to some, at least, of the towering literary peaks, if only to give them some idea of how wonderful and life-enhancing literature can be. There are, after all, a great many quite profound works that thrilled me at a very early age. Did I fully understand King Lear at 11? Or War and Peace at 13? No, I'm pretty sure I didn't. But what little of it I did get transformed my world. I feel it is a terrible shame for children to grow up without ever getting a glimpse of the of the inestimable riches that the greatest of literature has to offer. That is what is happening now, but I'll stop myself here, because I really do not want to start off on another rant! Laughing
Evie

Today is they actual birthday of the great man.  Happy Birthday!

As for the thing about children/teenagers...  I think it's definitely true that his books may be too much for children, and they were not written for children, but the point about attention span holds good, I think, and is, as Himadri says, one we have talked about before.  Tomalin isn't just thinking of Dickens; we certainly read Jane Austen for O level without any problems, and with a good degree of understanding, and while her books are not as long, they do take a degree of attention and certainly a lot more than About A Boy (lovely novel though that is).  The language requires a greater degree of effort.

I hadn't read any classics before reading Austen at the age of 15; but before I left school three years later, I had read (on my own - ie without a teacher's whip or guiding hand) all of Austen, several novels by Hardy, James's Portrait of a Lady, three of George Eliot's novels (not yet Middlemarch, but the others are not short, with the exception of Silas Marner, which was my introduction to her), Tolstoy, Turgenev, etc.  Those Sunday serials were brilliant, and they aided the attention span rather than undermined it - they were not afraid to have camera shots of longer than 20 seconds, and were allowed to dwell on things a bit.

I remember my sister, who would have been about 12, being utterly captivated by the adaptation of War and Peace in the early 70s, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre; I gave the DVDs to her as a present a couple of years ago, and it was extraordinary how different the direction was from modern adaptations.  It was huge in terms of the number of episodes, and the frequent scenes of people talking were unadorned in terms of camera gimmickry or cutting away needlessly.  My sister was clearly equipped at 12 to deal with this.

Of course it must partly be personality; but the soundbite culture does seem to have reduced the expectation of a decent attention span, and how often do we hear people complaining that a drama or a book is 'slow' because 'nothing happens' - unless there is visual movement or story development in short periods of times, something is classed as 'slow'.

Few contemporary writers seem to relish words, as Himadri has said of Dickens, and that is part of the problem for me too.  It's all about telling the story or getting a point across, words are not given the value they once were, and writers are accused of being flowery or pretentious if they use words in a richer way.

Adam Thorpe's novel Ulverton gets that message across very well - the life of a village from the 17th century to the present day - and one of the most striking things about it is the change in language, from the richness of the 17C to the monosyllabic, grammar-free shorthand of the 20C.  It's not that I want to be stuck in the past or not want things to develop - and I do love sparse writing too, if it's skilfully and meaningfully done - but language is a writer's tool, and many are not great craftsmen these days.

Dickens, like Shakespeare, has changed our everyday language and influenced our culture in deep-rooted ways; and for that he deserves every accolade going.  But in a way that's a by-product of being a great storyteller, a great writer in terms of craftsmanship and in terms of human understanding, and his books manage to combine craftsmanship of the highest level with being just damn good reads.  I can think of no other English novelist who achieves such breadth and depth and accessibility to anything like the same extent.

Happy birthday again, sir!
TheRejectAmidHair

Hello Evie, you’d obviously read the post I later took down! I took it down because I have promised myself not to use these boards for rants. How long I can keep this promise I don’t know, but I didn’t want to break it almost immediately after making it! But yes, our teenage daughter’s GCSE text is About a Boy, and, with no disrespect at all to Nick Hornby, I do not think this is an appropriate choice of text, especially when the core writings of English literature – Shakespeare’s plays, Keats’ odes, the novels of Austen & Dickens, etc etc – have not even been touched upon.

It is indeed instructive to compare the classic adaptations from the 70s and 80s, say, to the more recent ones. Evie’s summary is entirely accurate: while the more recent ones certainly have better production values, the earlier ones took their time to focus on such matters as development and interaction of character – which, after all, form the basis of all drama. Jack Pulman’s adaptation of War and Peace, and Dennis Potter’s of The Mayor of Casterbridge, seem to me ideal examples of how to dramatise great novels. They respected both the original material and the viewer’s intelligence, and weren’t worried about the viewer switching off if a single scene went on for longer than two minutes.

But let us not go into all that now. Critic Edmund Wilson once opined that Austen and Dickens were the greatest of all English novelists, and, while cases can be made for, say, Fielding or Eliot or Hardy, I find it hard to dissent. I finished Our Mutual Friend last night: it has weaknesses, sure, but it has greatness also. Yes, it was sentimental at times, but by the end, I really was very deeply moved. Dickens’ novels have given me some of the most wonderful experiences I have had from literature, and I am delighted that his bicentenary is being celebrated in such a manner.
TheRejectAmidHair

May I draw your attention to two excellent posts that have appeared on Norman Geras' blog:

First, there's one by Norman Geras himself having a go at would-be party-poopers.

Then, there's a very interesting post by historian Ann Stott on Dickens and religion.
Evie

The Norman Geras post is great!  Haven't read the other one yet.
Green Jay

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:

It is indeed instructive to compare the classic adaptations from the 70s and 80s, say, to the more recent ones. Evie’s summary is entirely accurate: while the more recent ones certainly have better production values, the earlier ones took their time to focus on such matters as development and interaction of character – which, after all, form the basis of all drama. Jack Pulman’s adaptation of War and Peace, and Dennis Potter’s of The Mayor of Casterbridge, seem to me ideal examples of how to dramatise great novels. They respected both the original material and the viewer’s intelligence, and weren’t worried about the viewer switching off if a single scene went on for longer than two minutes.



In the 70s and 80s we didn't have the remote control. It took some effort to get up, cross the room, and twist that button - in which time something dramatic may have happened on screen!  Smile

I think also costs of production comes into it - though they spend masses on 'production values', but won't make many episodes, which inevitably reduces a complex classic to the more dramatic events which need to move rapidly to cover even this much. I loved  The Jewel In The Crown (1980s?), which went on for weeks - though one could argue that it was drawn from a quartet of very detailed novels and so we were short-changed even so.
Evie

Jewel in the Crown is surely one of the best TV series ever - I still rewatch it from time to time, it is just incredible.  14 episodes - Granada, not BBC, but even so, wouldn't happen today.

Our Mutual Friend is my favourite Dickens, I think - and the descriptions of London are worth the cover price alone.  That opening on the Thames is the best opening to any novel I have read.  Lizzie Hexam is also, for me, one of Dickens' best female characters.

I would also say, in case it seems the opposite, that I think it's not only fine but also crucial that children study contemporary literature; it is essential to an understanding of contemporary culture.  But as well as, not at the expense of, the classics, which are the foundation of modern literature.
Caro

Speaking just from a personal point of view, I think you need to take care not to foist onto children works they are too young for or not prepared for.  I was brought up on fairly light reading, and when someone gave me Lorna Doone I managed a couple of pages - and that's all I've ever read of it.  Is it possible Pamela is better than I give it credit for, since it single-handedly almost put me off any classic forever.  (Can't have totally since I studied English for my degree. but it really did make me assume all classics would be very heavy-going indeed.)

Like others, I have enjoyed the Dickens I've read recently more than I remember liking them at university.  (I'm sure we didn't read any at school; I can't remember what we did read at school, beyond Cry the Beloved Country and probably Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.)  I remember writing an essay where we compared Thackeray and Dickens and I came out preferring Thackeray (but Vanity Fair is one of my very favourite novels).

There's plenty of time after school for young people to learn to enjoy these type of books - my eldest son, teaching English, says he now really likes them, and my youngest son has always rather enjoyed them (I don't know if he read any Dickens), though he reads thinks very dependent on how he finds the characters and their morals.  My middle son will never enjoy classic novels - he is of the type of man who finds fiction a waste of time, unless, perhaps it is strongly informative somehow.  He reads quite a lot, but it is non-fiction aspirational biographies mostly, or history.  He wants to learn factual things when he reads.  

Great Expectations has just started on our television - we loved the first episode, though Miss Havisham surprised us at first, but I think she worked.   It doesn't hurt to shock the viewer into reassessing a character a bit, as long as they still stay true to the feel of the novel.  My husband wondered if, since she looked quite young, there was enough time between the jilting and the scenes for all the dilapidation.  But I know how quickly these spiders arrive after you feel sure you've cleaned them away!

Cheers, Caro.
Evie

The point is not about foisting particular books onto children before they are ready, but about the way modern culture is eroding our attention span - Tomalin blames television, and its hard to disagree.  

Keats died at 25, having written some of the most sublime poetry in the English language - have young people changed so much?  No, it's the culture they are brought up in that has changed.
MikeAlx

I suspect TV is less to blame than internet and mobile phones. Modern TV editing* may have reduced attention spans, but text-based interactive media have fundamentally changed the way we read (by which I mean a lot more of our reading time is now spent exploring tangled networks of textual fragments, rather than engaged with unified linear narratives).

If you talk to people in primary education, you'll find the challenge isn't getting kids to read longer or more challenging books; it's getting them to read anything at all (especially boys, apparently, who would mostly prefer to be playing computer games). This is despite major efforts being made to reverse the trend - for example, trying to source more exciting books, encouraging reading with parents, and schemes like the one my wife volunteers on, where adults come in to do one-to-one reading sessions with kids who are falling behind.

(*Which I don't actually think is all bad. Older TV often seems to spend ages stating the obvious, which doesn't make for richer content; it's merely tedious and patronising.)
TheRejectAmidHair

MikeAlx wrote:
I suspect TV is less to blame than internet and mobile phones.


Yes, agreed.

MikeAlx wrote:
.If you talk to people in primary education, you'll find the challenge isn't getting kids to read longer or more challenging books; it's getting them to read anything at all


Indeed. And, as Evie says above, it is not because children have changed: biologists all agree that there has been very little  - if any - biological change in humans across generations. Whatever change we observe in children's behaviour is a consequence purely of cultural factors. And I can't help reflecting on what a brave new world we've created!

Quote:
Which I don't actually think is all bad. Older TV often seems to spend ages stating the obvious, which doesn't make for richer content; it's merely tedious and patronising.


I'd actually agree that the change in editing styles hasn't been all bad, for the very reasons you give. But it's a question of what is suitable given the content. In something such as Sherlock, say, the modern technique of fast-editing works very well. The problem is that fast-editing has become the norm, and is applied to everything irrespective of suitability; and, in dramas of substance, where time is required to establish often complex relationships between characters, it simply isn't suitable.
Caro

I wonder if reading was so much different in my childhood.  I always loved reading and my family was a tolerant one who let us do whatever we liked, so I could read as much as I liked (except late in bed when I have memories of hiding the torch under the covers).  But my recollection is that this was considered by others as somewhat weird; reading wasn't really the thing to do.  I don't recall other kids reading much - they were usually outside.  I think some of them would have struggled to know what a book was! Certainly no one in my neighbourhood read classic literature.  I don't think we had any Shakespeare in the house, or Dickens or Austen.  The people on this board are readers, but I am not half so sure that the population in general read all that much in the past.  (And certainly novels weren't considered the thing to read at all for young women in the early 19th century, very low.)

As regards concentration, there is no doubt my children have a far greater concentration span that I ever had and we didn't television in our family till I was about 17.  I recall my mind wandering off in exams and only coming to when it was urgent that I write something in the last twenty minutes.  

And young geniuses have always been scarce.  I think Keats and Mozart were very much one out of the box.  There are still youngsters who show that sort of incredible talent, though not necessarily now in those fields.  We had a incredibly talented young film-maker in NZ, Cameron Duncan, who died of cancer when he was 17.  Peter Jackson said of him, ''You see a lot of work from young film-makers and this kid was the real thing. It was stunning, frightening how clever he was at that age."

Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

The teaching of literature is certainly very different now from what it was in my childhood. Not all of us took to classical literature, but some of us did. The children in our daughter's class haven't been given that opportunity to "take to it", and I can't help feeling that's a great shame.
MikeAlx

If your daughter's experiences are typical, Himadri, it seems that literature has been thrown out in favour of literacy. Which strikes me as ridiculous. I didn't read much in the way of 19th century classics at school (Huckleberry Finn excepted), but we did study in some detail a diverse range of 20th century works: Steinbeck, Graham Greene, E. M. Forster, Solzhenitsyn, Harper Lee etc., and the other English set studied Dickens. And of course we all studied a couple of Shakespeare plays. We also did some classical studies in our first few years of senior school, which I think is invaluable in understanding the foundations of the western tradition in literature.
Evie

It only seems to be in English too.  I did Latin, French and German, and so was reading Virgil and Moliere in the original at 16 or 17.  And I know I've bleated on about this before, but I was very struck reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's wonderful book A Time of Gifts - he had all sorts of problems with school, ultimately being expelled or dropping out (in the 1920s and early 30s), but when he set off, alone and on foot, at the age of 19 to travel across Europe, he took a Loeb classic with him.  He may have struggled with the education system, but he had managed to learn enough Latin to take that as his one book, and to show a level of literary knowledge generally that suggests a much greater degree of emphasis on 'difficult' works than is now considered feasible.

It's definitely the culture that has changed, not the people, though the one creates the other.
TheRejectAmidHair

MikeAlx wrote:
If your daughter's experiences are typical, Himadri, it seems that literature has been thrown out in favour of literacy.


That's perhaps the intention, but, as the government's own figures show, increasing numbers of people are leaving schools "functionally illiterate". So even on that level, it's not working.

My own diagnosis is that we, as a society, no longer have sufficient confidence in our literary culture to believe it important and worth propagating.
Mikeharvey

When I started teaching English Literature in a comprehensive school I was fortunate to be able to choose the books my classes studied for external exams.  I always tried to choose books that were of high literary quality which were within my pupil's grasp but which also stretched them. I can remember doing 'Tess of the D'Urbevilles' and 'A Midummer Night's Dream' and 'Romeo and Juliet', 'A Christmas Carol' some short stories by people like Damon Runyon, Hemingway, plus lots of poetry from all over the place.  We tackled Sophocles' Antigone'.  We made our own poetry anthologies which included the pupils' own poems. Of course we read Keats. We also did contemporary novels like Barry Hines' 'Kes'.and RK Narayan's 'A Tiger For Malgudi'. I only chose books that I was enthusiastic about and hoped that my enthusiasm rubbed off.  The choice was decidedly eclectic.  Our exam results were very good.
When I was on interviewing panel for applicants for posts in the English Dept. I always asked what books the applicant was reading and what books and authors he/she particuarly enjoyed. The answers were very revealing.  They often mentioned books they had studied for exams and not much else.  It was a good indicator of literary enthuiasm.
Caro

Back to Dickens.  When I was in Dunedin recently the art gallery there had an exhibition of small paintings of Dickens, called Haunts of Dickens.  

The description of this was:
 
This exhibition celebrates the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth (7 February 1812). It features a series of delightful watercolours by the British artist Paul Braddon (1864–1937) given to the Dunedin Public Library by well-known New Zealand literary figure A. H. Reed in 1956. Braddon has illustrated scenes from many of Dickens’ novels – including Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop, David Copperfield, Great Expectations as well as the unfinished Edwin Drood.

An example of the paintings is here:  http://dunedin.art.museum/exhibitions.asp?d=239

They were all in browns, reds, creams and greys and those sort of autumn colours, though no blues or greens, except in a dark olive or ultramarine way.  The paintings were arranged to go with the books they were from.  So several depicting places in Bleak House, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, etc.  

When I asked in the shop if there was any memorabilia to do with this exhibition the woman said there was a delightful (at this point I thought delightful might be a simile for expensive but it wasn't) bookmark and it was free!  So I have that, and she also wondered if I would fill in a survey which would take about 20 minutes, so I did.  Mostly about why I was there (options like wanting to see things of beauty, learning more about art, wanting to support the gallery, wanting to explore the artworks more, etc.  Mostly I was there because it was suggested to me and I like literary things and I had time to fill in).

Now have a survey re Radio New Zealand's National station to fill in.  Will do that now.

Cheers, Caro.
Joe McWilliams

For all that Dickens has been an important figure in my literary life, I seem to have only read four of his novels - David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. This year I hope to add a couple more to that list, and thought I'd ask members here for recommendations.

To make it easier and more fun (I hope), let's say I'm going off into exile on a desert island and am able to take only two Dickens books with me, and will never have the chance to get my hands on the rest. Which two would you recommend?
Caro

Well, I would recommend Bleak House, because apart from the ones you've mentioned that's the one I've read.  (I do remember vaguely interested and fond memories of Dombey and Son, but I think that's because I sympathized so much with the young girl in this whose father basically ignored her.)

Bleak House was wonderful.  Not quick or easy reading but excellent.  Again my main memory is of sentiment with the warm reaction of the generally repressed husband when his wife is in trouble.  No, I have lots of memories of Bleak House, really.  Great book.  May seem even better in retrospect, perhaps.  

But I don't have a second one for you.

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

Excluding the ones you've already read, I'd go for:

Pickwick Papers: it does take a while to get going, but once it does, it's very, very funny. (If you like Dickens' eccentric humour, that is!) it is also very warm and genial.

Bleak House: possibly Dickens' most ambitious work. It's huge I scope, but very intricately constructed. And the very first chapter is indicative of the quality and inventiveness of Dickens' prose.
Apple

My two favourite Dickens books which I couldn't be without couldn't be more different, my favourite is also one of my favourite books of all time full stop - Bleak House, an astonishing book which has everything and more you could possibly get in one story I was hooked from the very first page where I was transported directly into Victorian England!

My second may be considered by some a very odd choice, but I have a particularly soft spot for A Christmas Carol, its a story which I have been familiar with in numerous guises since I was a child via different tv adaptaions but its a book I always try and read at some point over the festive season.
chris-l

I absolutely endorse 'Bleak House': it works on so many levels and is an amazing book. My second choice would be 'Our Mutual Friend', which always seems to me to actually contain several books, so complex is the interweaving of the many stories which make up the whole.
Chibiabos83

Another vote for Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend here. I think those might be the two I would take to a desert island. Hard to leave some of the others behind, though...
KlaraZ

My recommendation would be to read one of Dickens's early novels, with all the picaresque exuberance (definitely love Pickwick Papers, agree with Himadri) and one of his later, darker, more unified novels. In the first category, I might choose 'The Old Curiosity Shop' a particular favourite of mine because of the characters of Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness, although Quilp is a hilarious villain too, and in the latter category  'Little Dorrit' is superb.
Evie

For me, Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House are two of the greatest novels in the English language.  My personal favourite is Our Mutual Friend - worth reading for its evocation of London and the Thames alone, though of course for much more than that.  I have yet to read any Dickens in this anniversary year, so maybe will re-read that...though must read something 'new' as well!
Marita

I’d recommend ‘The Pickwick Papers’ because, as Himadri said, it’s very funny and has a great warmth about it. As a second choice I’d go for ‘Our Mutual Friend’ with its different storylines. I think these two would best cover Dickens’ early, middle and late style of writing.



Joe McWilliams

Well, thank you very much. That was fun. Our Mutual Friend is on its way, via the regional inter-library loan system.

Long live Dickens!
chris-l

Joe, has your local library recovered from the storm damage? Or are you having to rely on inter-libary loans for all your books?

Enjoy 'Our Mutual Friend': it is a marvellous book - but expect to have to extend the loan period, it is not something you read in a couple of evenings.
Joe McWilliams

Hi Chris

Thanks for asking. The library is set up in a temporary location while the proper one is rebuilt. Regardless, most of the books I borrow come through the ILL - just the way it works out. As for the loan period, surely I can knock off Our Mutual Friend in three weeks. Can't I?
chris-l

Joe McWilliams wrote:
As for the loan period, surely I can knock off Our Mutual Friend in three weeks. Can't I?


Maybe - but do you really want to? Some things need to be savoured and enjoyed and I think 'Our Mutual Friend' comes into that category. On the other hand, I doubt if there will be a long list of other readers waiting for you to finish so they can have their turn, so I don't suppose renewal will be a problem.
TheRejectAmidHair

I re-read Our Mutual Friend earlier this year. Some long posts on it here:

http://bigreaders.myfastforum.org/about1733.html
Caro

On another board which was talking about who from modern times would join a cultural canon of European artists and writers, (http://s4.zetaboards.com/Radio4forum/topic/9700290/1/)

someone wrote: Dickens was noticably deliberately left out of a recent list (compiled by people who reckoned they knew their stuff) of the ten best nineteenth century writers in English ...... for being too populist as a comic writer, too sentimental and not technically good enough, I think they said.

My reply was:
In that case they hadn't read Bleak House. And you'd almost wonder if they'd read Great Expectations. Why should a populist writer not also be the best, anyway?

But I do find it odd that even with that sort of criteria they found 10 people better than Dickens.  Does anyone here know of this list or who compiled it?  

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

There are Top Ten lists all over the place, and I don’t know that any of them need to be taken too seriously. But whoever compiled this particular list, if they had excluded Dickens for the reasons they give, then they clearly don’t “know their stuff”.

Sophisticated literature requires sophisticates response, and “too populist as a comic writer, too sentimental and not technically good enough” doesn’t quite cut the mustard as sophisticated criticism.
Chibiabos83

A passage from towards the end of Dombey. The magnificent but unworldly Captain Cuttle has just encountered the fearsome Mrs MacStinger, on her way to the church to marry Cuttle's dear friend Captain Bunsby, she having somehow trapped him into marriage.

'Cap'en Cuttle,' said Mrs MacStinger, 'if you would wish to heal up past
animosities, and to see the last of your friend, my 'usband, as a single
person, we should be 'appy of your company to chapel. Here is a lady
here,' said Mrs MacStinger, turning round to the more intrepid of
the two, 'my bridesmaid, that will be glad of your protection, Cap'en
Cuttle.'

The short gentleman in the tall hat, who it appeared was the husband of
the other lady, and who evidently exulted at the reduction of a fellow
creature to his own condition, gave place at this, and resigned the lady
to Captain Cuttle. The lady immediately seized him, and, observing that
there was no time to lose, gave the word, in a strong voice, to advance.

The Captain's concern for his friend, not unmingled, at first, with some
concern for himself--for a shadowy terror that he might be married by
violence, possessed him, until his knowledge of the service came to his
relief, and remembering the legal obligation of saying, 'I will,'
he felt himself personally safe so long as he resolved, if asked
any question, distinctly to reply, 'I won't'--threw him into a profuse
perspiration; and rendered him, for a time, insensible to the movements
of the procession, of which he now formed a feature, and to the
conversation of his fair companion. But as he became less agitated, he
learnt from this lady that she was the widow of a Mr Bokum, who had held
an employment in the Custom House; that she was the dearest friend of
Mrs MacStinger, whom she considered a pattern for her sex; that she had
often heard of the Captain, and now hoped he had repented of his past
life; that she trusted Mr Bunsby knew what a blessing he had gained, but
that she feared men seldom did know what such blessings were, until they
had lost them; with more to the same purpose.

All this time, the Captain could not but observe that Mrs Bokum kept
her eyes steadily on the bridegroom, and that whenever they came near a
court or other narrow turning which appeared favourable for flight, she
was on the alert to cut him off if he attempted escape. The other lady,
too, as well as her husband, the short gentleman with the tall hat, were
plainly on guard, according to a preconcerted plan; and the wretched man
was so secured by Mrs MacStinger, that any effort at self-preservation
by flight was rendered futile. This, indeed, was apparent to the mere
populace, who expressed their perception of the fact by jeers and cries;
to all of which, the dread MacStinger was inflexibly indifferent, while
Bunsby himself appeared in a state of unconsciousness.
Joe McWilliams

This is really delightful. Cuttle, MacStinger, Bokum and Bunsby. I'd read on for the names alone.
Caro

I was going to write something like "As regards length" but I think Himadri must have edited his post or else he has written about criticism of Dickens' length somewhere else recently.  I am only about page 100 in Dombey and Son and was a little daunted by Gareth's remark that he had read 600 pages and there wasn't a resolution yet.  My edition looked quite small so I was surprised to find it was more than 800 pages of rather small print.  I am reading a little each night in bed.

I did wonder at the chapter of the baptism whether Dickens might have slightly overdone the cold and chill, and not left his reader much to their own imagination or ability to see a analogy.

My edition is a sort of leatherbound thing published by Collins.  It has a short and to my mind rather odd introduction by Mark Whyte.  He says, "Paul, again, to some extent conquers his own creator. He is real and human and sad almost in spite of Dickens himself. Because Dickens sometimes became too fond of his own people, talked about them too much, almost buried them alive.  He saw and felt a character with eager, imaginative emotion and gave it life.  But he intruded his own tears, laughed at his own jokes, and thus sometimes damaged the effect, risking the charge of insincerity." That's not the bit I take issue with so much, but when he continues with, "There are, however, more false sentiments surrounding Florence...her abject desire for his ([her father's] affection must be regarded as sheer cant or as a symptom of morbidity.  Yet, like nearly all Dickens' children, she is at bottom a real and attractive child..."
Perhaps I haven't read far enough but any desire for the love of her only surviving parent seems completely realistic to me.  I don't understand what the word 'cant' means in this context.  Children do love their parents, no matter how little an outsider might feel they deserve it.  

But I've only got to where Florence gets lost and found by Walter Gay, and her father kisses her on the head, which Dickens doesn't see as sufficient but which was more than I would have expected from him, really.  

This should all  be on a Dombey and Son thread really. I might shift it there later.

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

Hello Caro,

Yes, I did abridge my post, as the middle part of it did develop into something of a rant, and I'd promised myself to cut down on my rants here. But yes, one of my points concerned the criticisms made about Dickens being "long-winded", with no examination of the implicit assumption that concision is necessarily superior to expansion.

As to the point you raise, it's an interesting one, and something I have often pondered: given that people often feel very powerful emotions in real life, is it objectionable to depict such emotions in fiction? The obvious answer is that it all depends on how it's depicted; but that leads us into deeper waters. I do get the feeling that depiction of powerful emotions, especially those emotions that are of a lachrymose nature, is frequently looked down upon and considered to be in bad taste, and often dismissed by that catch-all pejorative "sentimental".
Evie

I am just realising it is September, and I still haven't read any Dickens this year - must do so.  I have Dombey on the TBR shelves - I know it's not his best, but I very much enjoyed the radio adaptation on R4Extra a while back.
Caro

There seem to be quite a few of us reading it - we should have had a group read.  (Mind you I read so slowly everyone else finishes a year before I do!)
Chibiabos83

A few mangled thoughts about Dombey and Son, which I have been reading for what seems like years but in fact took somewhat less than a month, records show. It was a struggle to begin with, primarily because the arrival of a new member of staff at work has eaten into my reading time. As has been observed, everyone seems to be reading Dombey at the moment - both me and Marita, Caro's just started, and in fact the new man at work is currently on a project not unlike Marita's, to read chronologically all of the Dickenses he hadn't read before. He's just finished Dombey himself, and has lent me the DVD of the BBC adaptation from the 1983 (the year of my birth - surely it's time for a new version instead of bloody Great Expectations which is being wheeled out AGAIN in a couple of months), which I am looking forward to watching (mostly unfamiliar names, but James Cossins as Major Bagstock and Barbara Hicks as Mrs Pipchin - good auspices). Anyway, all of this Dombey - there must be something in the air.

Even by Dickens' normal standards, this is a pretty long book, and with more longueurs than there are in similarly weighty tomes. Bleak House springs to mind - you could summarise the plot of Dombey in many fewer words, and there are fewer balls Dickens is juggling in the air at once. It hints at the greater books that were still to come. Dickens has not perfected the formula yet, but there are signs of a great ambition. It doesn't drag (quite) as much as it might, and there is, as usual, an enormous amount to love about it.

James Carker is an interesting villain. The frequent references to his constantly flashing teeth get a bit wearisome, like Skimpole's eternal protestations of his childishness, but of course the teeth themselves are not the point. His permanent display of them encapsulates his character. Captain Bunsby is another case. Reference is made to his never looking into someone's eyes, but always several miles into the distance, the result of his seafaring life. At the moment where Captain Cuttle talks of the West Indies, Bunsby is focusing on Greenland. This occasionally expressed quirk is a beautiful distillation of his being. Re Carker's teeth, I thought of Vronsky and wondered if perhaps Carker's teeth might be rendered less effective as Carker's inevitable comeuppance neared; sadly he never gets his Martin Amis moment. Carker's a bit like a prototype for Tulkinghorn a few years later: he is an insidious presence with his fingers in many pies, makes it his business to know secrets, winnows his ways into people's beings; but other than that he appears somewhat impotent. So much is suggested, but we rarely see him exercising any of his undoubted (albeit insinuated) malevolence until the book's later stages, his part in Walter Gay's exile notwithstanding. Occasionally I found him rather lacklustre.

The book has another villain, of course, and that's Dombey himself. It's a bold move by Dickens to make his protagonist such an utter dick, and I found it problematic. It's not a spoiler to say that a lot of the book focuses on Dombey's neglect of his saintly daughter Florence (a Dickensian saintliness that sometimes strays into goody-goody Esther Summerson territory, though I can't pretend I didn't fall in love with her) and her attempts to win his love. Dombey is proud and pompous, and very rarely checked. The one occasion where another character is bold enough to tell him to his face what a disgrace he is, is a cause for celebration. Florence puts up with a tremendous amount for the sake of her father, without much respite. She's like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, but Dickens being Dickens one senses that the good will end happily and the bad unhappily. At least she has her acolytes in the likes of Susan Nipper and Polly Toodle, Captain Cuttle and Solomon Gills and Walter Gay, her brother Paul and his friend Toots, who are all devoted to her, and some of whom are in a position to assuage her suffering.

I always protest when I haven't got the measure of a book that my reading of anything tends to be superficial. It's not false modesty; I don't read Dickens because I expect to understand great truths about the world from him, or about the structure of the book and his manipulation of themes or anything like that, I read him because like almost no other author he makes me fall in love with the people he creates, and that is the case with a number of the aforementioned characters, but none more than Captain Cuttle or Toots. They are so utterly good-natured and devoted that to fail to love them is surely an impossibility, even for those to whom Dickens is anathema. In Captain Cuttle there is a profoundly touching innocence and wrong-headedness and self-doubt and utter fidelity that recall Joe Gargery (yet to be written). He also likes to shout 'Hooroar!' which I always appreciate. Not a word I ever encounter outside Dickens, sadly.

The title's an interesting one. An event that occurs about a quarter of the way in perhaps leads the reader to question its validity. Dombey and Son is the name of the family firm, initially referring (before the book) to Dombey (decd.) and Old Paul Dombey, later (during the book) to Old Dombey and his son, also Paul, and of course the title refers not only to the firm but to the people themselves. At the end of the book, though the firm's fortunes vary, there is a hint that Dombey and Son will prosper, though perhaps more as Dombey and Daughter. It's a book in which relationships between daughters and their parents (particularly their mothers) are at the foreground - most notably Edith and Mrs Skewton, but also Alice and Good Mrs Brown, and Florence and her various surrogate mothers. I ought to write about Edith, as she is one of the more fascinating characters in Dickens, but I'm out of steam. She might be a good example to wheel out when challenged by people with the tired old chestnut that Dickens can't do women.
TheRejectAmidHair

Thanks for that, Gareth. That brought back a lot of memories about this novel.

I think the portrait of Edith Dombey, fine though it is, could have been even finer if Dickens had had the freedom to explore his characters' sexual lives. (The characterisation of Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield also remains a bit incomplete thanks, I think, to this restriction.)
Mikeharvey

Hello Gareth, I enjoyed your comments about Dombey and Son which I read years ago but not recently. My first acquaintance with the book came via Emlyn Williams. He used to do a one-man show in which he reproduced CD's famous readings/performances. I saw him do it at the Guild Hall, Preston, in the 1960s. I can still remember it well.  He made a recording of the show which I used to have on vinyl. His interpretation of extracts from D&S is wonderful. I can still hear him as Paul Dombey listening to the waves and saying 'Where is India....? Recommended if you can track it down.
Michael.
Caro

I haven't read your analysis of D and Son too thoroughly, Gareth, not wanting to read too much of the story (though I don't think you have done that).  I am making my way slowly and fairly happily through this.  One of your statements did resonate well with me though and would be my main cricitism of the Dickens I have read in recent years.  
Quote:
The frequent references to his constantly flashing teeth get a bit wearisome, like Skimpole's eternal protestations of his childishness, but of course the teeth themselves are not the point. His permanent display of them encapsulates his character.


I don't mind the caricatures, I don't mind the sentimentality (not that I have read Little Nell's death, that might change my mind!  But why do people object to having their emotions manipulated by Dickens in a sentimental style when they don't by Cormac McCarthy or Thomas Hardy, or even Tolstoy with Anna?), I don't (much) mind the length - certainly would rather read 700 pages of this than 700 pages of chick lit saying next to nothing.  But I do object to being hammered over the head in this way, and made to feel that Dickens thinks I am too dumb to realise what the point of these caricatured features are.  Earlier I have been reading about Mrs Pipchin and the mention of her husband 'breaking his heart in the Peruvian mines' which is used constantly by people to praise her loving and hard-working character and constantly by Dickens to show her lack of heart.  I just don't need to have it repeated SO often.  

I know one of the main themes is love and how it is portrayed, and all this fits, but I wish Dickens would credit his readers with some intelligence and ability to carry information in their minds for more than a page.  

On a plot line, I do wonder why My Dombey, with plenty of money to spare, I think, should have chosen a school for Paul where most of the pupils are close to moribund or intellectually slow.  (On the other hand the thought that a six-year-old would be expected to learn all this English sytax, and Greek and Latin seems unbelievable.)  I wonder how much our view of Victorian life has been unfairly influenced by Dickens' experiences.  Surely there were plenty of well-run schools where the pupils' were treated fairly and well.  And did everyone live in dark rabiit holes of houses? (must admit that is my memory of old people's houses when I was a child).
Caro

I did mean to mention a quote that I really liked.  Dickens is describing how the boys in Dr Blimber's educational establishment have their spirits crushed and says, " [i]and at the end of the first twelvemonth had arrived at the conclusion, from which he never afterwards departed, that all the fancies of the poets, and lessons of the sages, were a mere collection of words and grammar, and no had other meaning in the world."  [/i]  This is still a hazard for teachers - how to show students the skills of a writer without making it merely a mechanical exercise to read them.

And this part made me laugh, though ruefully, also describing the school's teachings:  "Doctor Blimber's establishment was a great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work.  All the boys blew before their time.  Mental green peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round.  Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were comon at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber's cultivation.  Nature was of no consequence at all.  No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other."  He continues the metaphor saying the boys didn't taste well or keep well, and one "remained a mere stalk".
Chibiabos83

Well, I can only speak for myself, but although I sometimes find the restatement of characteristics like Carker's teeth tiresome, I never remotely felt that Dickens was patronising me. He must surely have another motive for doing it. Comedy, I assumed - and we all know how individual senses of humour can be. Perhaps Himadri has a theory.
TheRejectAmidHair

Repetition has always been – and continues to be – an important element of comedy. Much of comedy, then as now, depends upon this repetition – whether it’s of certain expressions (“Ooh, you are awful, but I like you!”, “This is another fine mess you’ve got me into”, “And now for something completely different!”, “Girls! Feck! Arse!” etc.), or of certain situations – e.g. we know Manuel is not going to understand what’s being said, or that Humphrey Appleby will be manipulative and underhand, or that Captain Mainwaring will be pompous,etc., but our expectations don’t stop us finding these things funny. We laugh not because certain things are unexpected, but because, quite the contrary, they are exactly as we’d expect. Repetition is inbuilt into comedy.

In long novels with many characters, it can serve as a sort of leitmotif – i.e. a label whereby to distinguish the character from others. Dickens soon saw the benefits of this, and, arguably, while he was still perfecting his craft, he may have overused it. But, as ever with Dickens, he re-thought his craft, and found greater potential in what he had previously used. The leitmotifs soon become not merely labels to distinguish characters, and not merely stock catchphrases or stock situations: he discovered that if these leitmotifs were associated with certain things – certain themes, certain states of mind, etc. – and take on a symbolic resonance; and if they are allowed to interact with and to counterpoint each other; then they could be used both for structural purposes (i.e. to hold together strands that could otherwise appear divergent); and also to develop the novel in terms of themes and of symbols. In Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend (though possibly not in Dombey and Son, in which he was still developing his craft in this respect) he used this technique in an extremely subtle and sophisticated manner. Thus, the motif of Skimpole claiming only to be a child is part of a larger pattern: complementing Skimpole, the adult-as-child, Dickens introduces children-as-adults - children who have to take on adult responsibilities; and every time the Skimpole motif of adult-as-child recurs, Dickens places it in a different dramatic context, or juxtaposes it with other motifs, so it acquires various types of resonance that go far beyond the characterisation of a single character. The network of motifs and symbolism in Bleak House seems to me among the great triumphs of fiction.
Chibiabos83

You remind me that the thing that tickled me most about Great Expectations when I first read it was a joke of repetition - Pumblechook's constant entreaties to shake Pip's hand - 'May I?' - after Pip starts to go up in the world.
Caro

I wonder if those repetitive leitmotifs do work better visually and show comic intent more.  I didn't ever find Skimpole in the least bit funny and on the written page Mrs Pipchin isn't either.  They both support the themes and contrast with other people, but they are not portrayed as humorous at all, I think.  (But I think they both could be on stage or in the cinema though I also think that part of the power of their characters would be lost from this.)

The phrases you give, Himadri, are very definitely comic (and generally of pretty awful comedy too!). They don't seem to have much point beyond their comic effect (which wears thin quite quickly often).  

But I just think Dickens should have trusted his audience more.  I don't know how many times in a couple of chapters the phrase about the Peruvian mines and Mrs Pipchin's husband was mentioned but it was considerable.  I would like a little more subtlety for these characters who are, as you say, not there just for fun and interest; they are there very definitely to emphasize a point.  Captain Mainwaring on the written page could be shown as pompous, for instance, without the same phrase used every time he is mentioned, and so could Skimpole's meanness and manipulative behaviour and complete lack of innocence.
TheRejectAmidHair

I do actually find Skimpole very funny, although the humour is by this stage very pointed. But humour is a very subjective matter, so I won't insist on it.

Repeated motifs on the printed page can be funny also, as Gareth's example above demonstrates. Bertie Wooster is always a silly ass, always in danger if getting hitched to Madeleine Bassett, and Jeeves is always extricating him from tight corners. There are plenty of other examples. Even on the printed page, repetition is the basis of comedy.

But as I said, by the time Dickens got on to Bleak House, the repetition wasn't merely for comic purposes. And it seems to me that Dickens was expecting a great deal from his readership to take in & pick up his subtle and sophisticated use of these motifs.

I think we've been here before, Caro: if we insist that Dickens' repetitions exist merely to hammer home a particular point to the reader, then, yes, they are indeed unsubtle and tedious. But if, as I suggest, Dickens was attempting something more ambitious, then I really don't think the charge of unsubtlety, or of not trusting the reader, holds.

I seem to remember in the dim & distant past writing a long post demonstrating in some detail how Skimpole's adult-as-child motif unexpectedly interacts with the caged birds motif at an important point in the novel. This sort of sophistication hardly indicates a lack of trust in his readership.
TheRejectAmidHair

PS

Caro wrote:
The phrases you give, Himadri, are very definitely comic (and generally of pretty awful comedy too!). They don't seem to have much point beyond their comic effect (which wears thin quite quickly often).  


What? - Stan & Ollie, Dad's Army, Monty Python, Father Ted, Fawlty Towers, etc,. are awful comedy? No ... I'm not having that!  Very Happy
Caro

You shouldn't have started with Benny Hill, then!  (I didn't notice these posts before now for some reason.)

Wooster is always a silly ass and Jeeves always rescuing him (and on the telly at least I do rather wish sometimes Bertie could get the better of him occasionally!) but not in identical words.  That's what I object to in Dickens' portrayals.  The absolute repetition of words, not of the type of person.  

I wanted to talk about Dombey and Son and am wondering about taking the discussion here about it off to Novels.  Might find that too much trouble.
TheRejectAmidHair

It was Dick Emery I started with, not Benny Hill. Just as classy, though... Wink

Repetition of catchphrases is a staple of comedy, and always has been, I think.
Chibiabos83

No need to keep going on about it...
Marita

Repetition is not only used in comedy. Think about Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and how often the phrase  ‘Brutus is an honourable man, so are they all, all honourable men’ is repeated.


Joe McWilliams

My wife and I have taken to watching episodes of Heartbeat which airs here Saturday nights - probably years after it appeared in the UK, but that's beside the point. The point being that I'm reading Martin Chuzzlewit at the same time and of course it is chock full of pompous buffoons spouting hyperbole pretty much non-stop. So much so it comes as a positive relief to encounter the occasional character that seems somewhat 'ordinary,' and one yearns for more of them.
What I'm getting at is that the Heartbeat characters Vernon Scripps and his clumsy but honest sidekick David appear to have been pinched whole from Dickens. I feel I'm watching Pecksniff and Pinch, transposed to 1960s Yorkshire. The impression becomes stronger each week, as I plough on through Chuzzlewit.
It makes one reflect upon the breadth of the Dickens influence. I'm sure it's vast - no reason to doubt it.
Caro

I came here to talk about Dickens and Great Expectations, but have got sidetracked by the other discussions, especially the comic bits.  We are watching Heartbeat too, Joe, and have got to the end, but now they are repeating some but have not gone back far enough and we are just seeing again the last couple of series, as far as I can tell.  I hadn't thought of Dickens as regards David and Vernon Scripps (though now we are onto Vernon's brother, Bernie, who has a different character and personality, though you could see Dickensian elements to him).  

There isn't much comedy so far in GE.  But I am very impressed with Dickens' understanding of how children feel.  He has Pip feeling totally guilty about stealing a meat pie from Joe's and his sister's pantry, and certain he is going to land in jail.  Never mind that they are for an escaped criminal.  It is part of a pattern for Pip, I feel.  He feels equally guilty for not enjoying his indenture to be apprenticed to Joe, having got a taste for middle-class life at Miss Havisham's (though why her house makes him feel his is 'low', I don't quite understand, as her room is covered in cobwebs and in the same state as it was when she was jilted at (or near) the altar.  

The depictions of life in the Gargery house would have the family and especially Mrs Joe taken to court nowadays.  The casual cruelty is commonplace.  As I think I said above, I don't know if this was actually the way kids were generally treated in the 19th C or just Dickens' own experience.

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