Dickens and me have a – shall we say – troubled relationship. Nothing to do with the shabby way in which he treated his wife, although that certainly doesn’t help. Rather my issues are with his style. Far too many grotesque characters, too many digressions and diversions. So wordy as well. And his female characters – oh watch my eyes roll – maudling and sentimental.
There is one exception to all of that. Bleak House. Superlative in every way and nothing at all maudling or sentimental about Lady Dedlock. I’m afraid though that I must caveat my praises thus. I don’t think I could have read it without the support of a group read and a parallel viewing of the BBC’s superb TV series.
You see, I’ve never recovered from being introduced to Dickens via David Copperfield at the age of 14. A classic case of being made to slog over something for months with a deadly dull English teacher ….
Anyway, this being the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth, I thought I’d give him one more shot and so I signed up to The Argumentative Old Git’s readalong of Our Mutual Friend. Not that I intended to read it. I borrowed an unabridged audio – 27 discs. I saw the televised series years ago and remember some of the themes, in particular the environmental thread. Unfortunately, I discovered about 10 CDs into the “book”, that there were far too many threads, characters, diversions and digressions for me to keep track of what was going on while driving. After listening to CD 11 3 times, I surrendered.
My efforts to get to grips with Dickens fared better when I went on the Dickens trail in February.
August is a month full of driving for me and so I got hold of an unabridged audio of Oliver Twist. Who is not acquainted with the story of Oliver thanks to the musical. I remember being taken to Manchester, to a big fancy cinema, to see this. I also played a very mean Mr Bumble (who else?) in the school play. In those days I needed cushions to pad myself out. .. Sadly no longer. So I thought there’s no danger of me losing the plot while listening to this. I can concentrate on how Dickens tells the story. I was in for a surprise or two. All those subplots and digressions ….. this was the first time I knew that the very parochial Mr Bumble had a wife, who delivered the much deserved comeuppance and that that whole subplot was very, very funny. Of course, I knew about the darkness of Sykes and Fagan and the tangled web that poor Oliver cannot escape. And the nuanced portrait of Nancy, the proverbial tart with a heart. But, but, but Dickens drove me to complete and utter distraction with his utter reliance on coincidence to resolve the plot, and the repetition – how many times did Oliver escape Fagan’s clutches, only to be kidnapped once more. It only happened once in the film, proving that a judicious editor can improve on the original. And even though Mark Lester’s cherubic face is forever imprinted on my mind, I do not buy that Oliver could remain so perfectly stain-free and spotless in the environments to which he was subjected. As for the perfect and completely virtuous dull-as-dishwater Rose, now my eyes really are rolling …… and I’m applauding Oliver Stone once more for knowing what to leave on the cutting-room floor.
So you see, my relationship with Dickens remains troubled. It begs the following question: why am I participating in Dickens in December? Not to complete My Mutual Friend (although I do intend to return to it sometime) but to record my thoughts of Oliver Twist before they fade entirely and to read a couple of new novels, penned by those who find Dickens more inspiring than I do. I’ve enjoyed a number of reads this year that have paid homage to classic novels of the past, and although I’m not his greatest fan, I grant that Dickens provides a wide seam of inspiration for others. I’m looking forward to this.