In every Dickens novel there is always at least one Angel of the House, and, amidst the cruel masters, deceitful avaricious lawyers and crazed reverends, lots of goodly folk hanging about ready to good deeds without a thought for themselves. The novels are heavy with what could be termed as melodrama, farce, improbable and at times wildly exaggerated situations, all underpinned by strong Christian morality. So why are the novels of Charles Dickens so endlessly engaging, such masterworks? (I sometimes wonder this when I’m actually reading the novels… why am I enjoying this so much? But I am all the same.) The reason I started thinking about this at all was that I stumbled upon a blog on the Guardian website entitled, ‘Why are we still reading Dickens?’ (In a sense, it’s a silly question – why shouldn’t we all carry on reading the best works of English literature? Is there a best before date? But it’s one of those questions that is asked a lot, and is always interesting to consider.)
The author of this particular blog, Jon Michael Varese, is a Dickens scholar and must be incredibly knowledgeable about the man, but the reasons he came up with for why we still read Dickens were somewhat disappointing. Various clichéd reasons and talk of us all being Oliver, David and Esther, etc eventually culminated in this epiphanic realisation: ‘I began to understand more about why I was who I was because Dickens had told me so much about human beings and human interaction.’
I would refrain from calling Dickens sentimental, but I find the reasons Varese gives for reading Dickens sentimental. What Varese’s comments lack – and in fact what a lot of modern-day journalism and fiction-writing lacks – yet what can be found in all Dickens’ works, and in any work by a great writer of fiction or non-fiction, is wit, satire, a sense of the ridiculous… That is, humour of the most sharply observant kind must be at the heart of everything.
Such sincere talk also ignores how strange and unsettling Dickens’s writing is. How even when all ends of the narrative are seemingly tied up, like a ribbon atop a Victorian chocolate box, the reader – or at least this reader – does not feel exactly comforted. There is always unease, anxiety, guilt, ill-advised hope, happiness that is too perfect to give comfort.
Dickens likes to start his books with something startling – he grips his readers at once and will not let them go. One of my favourites is the scene at the start of Our Mutual Friend – the man and girl trawling the Thames for dead, her face fixed by horror and fear. Or take the famous introduction to Bleak House:
‘London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.’
Or the ridiculous introduction to Pip on the first page of GE:
‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.’
Phillip Pirrip is thus introduced, one of the great literary creations and most powerful first-person voices. And he is virtually introduced as a joke!
Dickens can tell you everything in a very short few sentences, and almost every sentence is as good as the last. I love this description of Pip’s first visit to Satis House when Miss Havisham asks him to call Estella: ‘To stand in the dark in a mysterious passage of an unknown house, bawling Estella to a scornful young lady neither visible nor responsive, and feeling it a dreadful liberty so to roar out her name, was almost as bad as playing to order. But, she answered at last, and her light came along the dark passage like a star.’
On the same afternoon I read the Dickens article, I read an interesting article about Roald Dahl in the Times and it was asking a similar question: why is Roald Dahl getting more and more popular… shouldn’t he have gone out of date by now? The answer was given that readers – adults and children alike – love the ‘cruelty, misanthropy and mischievous fun’ of Dahl’s storylines and his characters. That rather reminded me of Dickens, and I think there are certain comparisons between the two men’s fearsome energy and aggression both on and off the page, as well as their idiosyncratic styles: you could pick passages from both Dickens and Dahl out of an anonymous literary line-up without too much trouble. The key is their distinctive use of language – their voice – but also their ability to understand their readers perfectly and thus to engage them utterly.
To return to Varese’s reason for reading Dickens, I would turn it on its head. We don’t understand ourselves better by reading Dickens, we read Dickens because he understands us too well. This possibly has the same results as Varese suggests – a greater understanding of humanity’s lot – but to me it’s a necessarily different way of looking at it. And just like Dahl’s Mr and Mrs Twit, the most memorable characters from Dickens are the really bad eggs – 1 out of 10 in the morality stakes – like Uriah Heep and Fagin and Silas Wegg. Do people really like reading these characters because they’re consciously learning something about themselves?
I reread the introduction to an old Penguin edition of Great Expectations by Angus Calder and found some more interesting ideas to the question of what makes Dickens great. Regarding the audacious energy of his prose, and his extensive output Lionel Trilling is quoted as remarking that ‘“the mere record of his conviviality is exhausting”’, and you can feel the energy of Dickens’s pen on paper ricocheting off the pages of his novels. (One thinks, for eg, of the talking chair in The Pickwick Papers! One of my favourite moments.) Calder goes on to mention that Dickens sported ‘flamboyant dress and a hint of vulgarity in his manners, but he had powerful, magnetizing eyes and overwhelming charm.’ In some crude way, that description gets to the heart of his novels. And I love Graham Greene’s insightful comment about Great Expectations; that there is a ‘sense of a mind speaking to itself with no one there to listen’, and that the novel is constructed from ‘delicate and exact poetic cadences’.
There is so much to consider in Dickens, and I’m only scratching the surface like a restless child, so I will let George Orwell end, as he more successfully gets to the heart of Dickens’s enduring appeal from his essay on the author: ‘Dickens’s imagination overwhelms everything, like a weed.’