READING CHARLES DICKENS – first presented as a talk at Evensong in Christ Church Castlemaine July First 2012
Reading fiction has always been one of my greatest pleasures. I can trace my interest in the novels of Charles Dickens from when I was six. My sister was older than I was and she had borrowed The Pickwick Papers from the local Children’s Library. She would laugh as she read the stories, and sometimes she read out bits of them to me. I became desperate to borrow stories by Charles Dickens from the library. But – you had to be seven before you could take out books. So my father said he would take me to the adult library where I could borrow a book on his card. He led me away from the Children’s Library which was on street level, and where there was a tank of goldfish, round the corner to a yellow Georgian building. (This building, in Launceston Tasmania, no longer exists. It was lovely.) At some point inside he led me up up up a narrow spiral staircase that wound through shelves and shelves of books. My memory of them is that they were all rich brown and gold. Perhaps this is a true memory, or perhaps it is invested with the magic of the occasion. I searched long and lovingly among the Dickens novels for the one that I would take. I decided on Barnaby Rudge because it had delightful illustrations of a character called Dolly Varden. She wasn’t one of the alarming and vigorous imp-like caricatures, but a pretty girl in a bonnet. I also knew her name from a kind of cake, and also from a kind of figure that was often embroidered on tablecloths. So in a mood of quiet ecstasy I took home Barnaby Rudge. I am not really sure why my father let me do all this – perhaps I was impossible. Anyway.
Now I had a reasonable grip on reading, but when I set about reading this book I found that although I could often get the words, I generally couldn’t make any sense out of them. The sentences! Oh the sentences. Far from chuckling away at jokes that might have been in the narrative, I turned the pages slowly, weeping with a terrible frustration and despair.
For the record, here is how Dolly Varden, daughter of the locksmith, is described:
‘A face lighted up with loveliest pair of sparkling eyes – the face of a pretty, laughing girl, dimpled, fresh, and healthful – in a smart little cherry-coloured mantle, with a hood of the same drawn over her head, and on the top of that hood, a little straw hat, with cherry-coloured ribbons, and worn the merest trifle on one side – a cruel little muff, and a heartrending pair of shoes.’
I could see this from the pictures, but it was to be a few years before I could begin to comprehend the text. However this terrible beginning didn’t put me off, and I gradually collected my own copies of many of the books. In fact I became so devoted to them that from when I was about ten I used to write little dramas based on events in Dickens. I lived in Tasmania – this was before television, and entertainment was limited. So something people used to do was have eisteddfods where people – lots of them children – competed as singers and musicians – and so on. And it was possible to write little dramas and act them out with another child. I wrote up Pip and Estella from Great Expectations, also Miss Havisham and Pip. Another girl was Pip. I wrote up Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. I was the Dodger. Also Oliver and Fagin. Also Mrs Squeers and some of the boys from Nicholas Nickleby, and a monologue as Ebenezer Scrooge. We had costumes and scenery and sound effects. All this took place in a beautiful old theatre. This sounds a bit strange now – but in fact I think that the exercise of working, as it were, from Dickens, gave me some understanding of how a lot of it functioned. I came to love the sentences which had defeated me in the first place. And many of them have remained in my memory. In fact when I watched the recent TV production of Great Expectations I couldn’t understand why they made up new dialogue instead of sticking to the words Dickens had written.
Going back to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol – it was the name Scrooge that alerted me to the fact that some of the delicious and idiosyncratic names of Dickens’ characters had taken on lives of their own, and had gone into the language itself. My father used to read Disney comics to my brother, and I used to like to listen. There in the Donald Duck comics suddenly was the miser, Scrooge McDuck. The name of the Dickens character had come, longsince, to mean ‘miser’, and here he was – conflated with the Scottish stereotype of the penny pincher.
Just as the name Gamp, being Sarah Gamp, the vividly terrible nurse in Martin Chuzzlewit, became a word for ‘umbrella’, Mrs Gamp’s umbrella being her signature. Havisham. Oliver Twist. Fagin. Then there is the eternal optimist Micawber in David Copperfield – he is sure something will turn up. It’s from him that you get the quote:
‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.’ You don’t have to understand old English money to understand that this is a warning against the global financial crisis. The characters, while being hilarious or terrifying or tragic or moving, are forever offering pearls of wisdom.
Dickens is well known as a social reformer, not only because of the effect of his fiction, but also because in everyday life he campaigned for change in areas of moral, social and economic matters. His early novels expose isolated abuses and shortcomings of individual people, whereas his later novels contain a bitter diagnosis of the condition of England. Just one example – in Nicholas Nickleby where he describes the children abandoned to the care of Wackford Squeers in the school, Dotheboys Hall:
Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!
And of course there is a dimension of Christian faith to the narratives, one brief example of this being in Dombey and Son. In the closing chapters Dickens invokes the presence of God, being: ‘that higher Father who does not reject his children’s love.’
Micawber’s story ended well, as he migrated to Australia where he prospered. In fact Dickens wrote a lot of essays about life in Australia – sailors, convicts, miners, bushrangers – and it features quite often as a place of hope and refuge in the novels.
Uriah Heep, also from David Copperfield, is synonymous with hypocrisy – he being the most vile and oily hypocrite who gets his power by pretending to abase himself. And as far as I know the Dolly Vardens who became embroidery designs took their name from the girl in Barnaby Rudge.
In Little Dorrit there is the girls’ companion the snobbish Mrs General – she is engaged to give the girls some social polish. She is forever giving silly words of advice, and is famous for trying to improve the mobility of their lips by suggesting they practice saying the words: papa, potatoes, prunes and prism. Prunes and prism – is a phrase that has gone into the language to signify a prissy manner of speaking.
Many of the wonderful names are obviously invented – the family of Smallweeds in Bleak House. Joshua Smallweed is ‘a leech in his disposition, a screw and a vice in his actions, a snake in his twistings, and a lobster in his claws.’ In such a description you can see the intensity of the vision and sense the momentum that informs the whole story. One of my favourites is that of Pleasant Riderhood, daughter of the pawnbroker in Our Mutual Friend. Pleasant is an unattractive looking girl with a muddy complexion. She marries the taxidermist, Mr Venus who has sallow skin and weak eyes.
The humour in Dickens is so sharp and hysterical, the pathos so melancholy, so sorrowful – and the whole thing comes at you with the power of hallucination, and stays with you forever.
Pickwick was apparently a real name that appealed to Dickens as the name for the genial founder of the Pickwick Club. He sets out on his travels accompanied by Tupman, Snodgrass and Winkle. Their destination is the cathedral city of Rochester. Now this is important. Dickens’ early life was spent very happily in Rochester. The terrible times came in later childhood when he had to work in the blacking factory, and when his father was imprisoned for debt. The extremes of good fortune and ill fortune are constantly being played out in the novels. In Pickwick, then, Rochester is a destination of joy and optimism and comedy.
Think now of the title of Dickens’ final and unfinished novel – The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Drood might be a real name – but in any case it is the very opposite of Pickwick. Death and doom and darkness and disaster ring in the name Drood. And again, the destination is Rochester – named in the novel as Cloisterham, it is clearly Rochester. So here at the end of the author’s life, when he was desperately troubled and ill, the scene returns to the place of his joyful childhood, but now it is a place of evil weirdness and terrible hallucination. The journey from Pickwick, through all the magic and drama of the novels, comes finally to Drood, to the tombs and terrors, horrors and opium dens of the last book. This story is imbued with mournful anxiety and an atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Cloisterham is a forgotten town, bypassed by the developing railway and subject to decay and destruction. The eerie Cathedral with its hidden secrets is at the dead centre of Cloisterham. Edwin Drood disappears on Christmas Eve – not the celebratory Christmas of A Christmas Carol, but a dismal evening in the shadowy town.
Wonderfully, there are, in this creepy murky world, comic characters such as the stonemason Durdles who spends his time tapping the stones of the cathedral to discover the resting places of long dead celebrities. But as always, much of the comedy is in the way Dickens used language. Here is the description of Durdles who was: ‘Chiefly in the gravestone, tomb, and monumental way, and wholly of that colour from head to foot. In a suit of coarse flannel with horn buttons, a yellow neckerchief with draggled ends, an old hat more russet-coloured than black, and laced boots of his stony calling.’
There is the rosy and good minor canon the Reverend Mr Septimus Crisparkle who lives with his mother in Minor Canon Corner. As for his mother: ‘What is prettier than an old lady when her eyes are bright, when her figure is trim and compact, when her face is cheerful and calm, when her dress is as the dress of a china shepherdess.’ Many things would be prettier of course. By contrast is the main love interest, Rosa Bud who is a pupil of Mrs Twinkleton. Rosa as it happens is less vivid than Mrs Crisparkle. She is ‘wonderfully pretty, wonderfully childish, wonderfully whimsical.’ As for Mr Crisparkle the minor canon, who equates spiritual health with physical fitness: ‘His radiant features teemed with innocence, and soft-hearted benevolence beamed from his boxing gloves.’
You can quote Dickens forever and ever. But that bit about the boxing gloves was my punch line.