How to Read Dickens without Reading about How to Read Dickens

Penguin Clothbound Classics edition of “Hard Times”

I often read Victorian novels without reading about the Victorian novel first. I love a good Penguin, but I eschew the introduction and footnotes. You don’t want to interrupt the spell of Dickens’s charming  novel, Hard Times, with  a footnote on St. Giles’s Church, London. Not that it wasn’t a great note:

Chapter 4. Note 3. “St. Giles’s was a notoriously poor area of London. See Dickens’s piece, ‘On Duty with Inspector Field,’ Household Words, III (14 June 1851), pp. 265-70.”

I read the note fondly (the introduction and footnotes in the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition are by Kate Flint), but it is  too much in hot mid-July.  I do recommend Peter Ackroyd’s exhaustive 1990 biography, Dickens, though.

I picture myself at the British Library.

After years of reading Dickens and about Dickens, I would love to discover some area of Dickens studies that scholars haven’t done to death. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit with pencil and notebook at the British Library or the Dickens Museum or the Bodleian Library or the Harvard Library or the University of Texas at Austin library or God knows what other library and read musty old papers and discover a detail that changes Dickens studies? With the pandemic raging, that is unlikely to happen. I wonder if I’ll ever see London again.  Austin, Texas, maybe.

This week, I was fascinated by my third reading of  Dickens’s Hard Times. It almost seems like a new book, because I haven’t read it to shreds as I have, say, Our Mutual Friend. Published in 1854, Hard Times is a charming little book, and a good introduction for Victorian newbies who do not embrace 900-page books. Like Bleak House (1853), Dickens’s previous novel, Hard Times begins with a stylish repetition of the same word in successive sentences; note facts and principles in the first paragraph.  And the repetition of the word facts occurs throughout the first chapter.

“Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle upon which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle upon which I bring up these children!”

Fans of Dickens’s elegant whimsy realize immediately that he is satirizing education whimsically–again! Dickens thought poorly of the schools.  The character Thomas Gradgrind, who depends on facts, math, and a philosophy of self-interest for the system of education at his model school, detests whimsy and imagination. His unfortunate children, Louisa and Tom, are not the better for their facts:  they are not allowed to go to the circus, and are admonished for peeking through a gap in the tent.  A circus is not a pastime for reasonable people.

Ironically, they become connected to the circus when the pupil Sissy Jupe, known as “Girl Number Twenty,” is abandoned by her father, a circus clown.  Thomas kindly takes her into their home. Sissy’s sunny personality improves the outlook of his youngest daughter, Jane, but it is too late for Louisa and  Tom. Louisa is married off to Mr. Bounderby, a boastful middle-aged owner of a factory and a bank, to whom marriage is certainly a hell, and Tom becomes a dishonest clerk at Bounderby’s bank who begs Louisa to pay his gambling debts and other debauchery.

The education of the Gradgrinds has not served them well.  In some ways, Dickens is more sympathetic to the uneducated factory workers than to the Gradgrinds, though some of them are also frankly awful, too.  One thread of the novel is spun around the hard life of 40-year-old Stephen Blackpool, a weaver stuck in a loveless marriage to an alcoholic, and in love with kind, sweet Rachael, whom he can never marry. When he asks Mr. Bounderby about the laws of divorce, Mr. Bounderby says they are not for the lower class. There is one law for the rich, and another for the poor, as Stephen discovers.  And yet Stephen has paid his alcoholic wife to go away several times, and she always returns down-and-out, and sells the furniture for drink while he is at work.

The workers are poor and have no rights; but a dishonest union organizer turns on Stephen when he says he believes in the principles but doesn’t agree with the manner and will not join because he needs the money so badly. And so a campaign of ostracism against him begins.

Dickens loves to write about social issues, and I thought of other industrial novels, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854) and Mary Barton (1848), and Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849). Such issue-driven novels were “in the air” at that time. I wonder, Is anyone writing novels about labor and unions these days? Or does that belong to an earlier time?

Hard Times is such a brilliant read! It is satiric, elegantly written, and Louisa is an especially vivid character.  Parts are sentimental, but Dickens can get away with it.  In fact, where would we be without sentimentality?

A Glorious Read: Dickens’s “Dombey and Son”

An illustration in “Dombey and Son.”

I went to London (primarily) to visit the Charles Dickens Museum.  I came home (primarily) to reread Dickens.  Last month I enjoyed  Great Expectations,  but I have been spellbound by the great Dombey and Son (all 878 pages). 

Many years ago, a friend and I read Dickens and agreed that Dombey and Son was “not bad.”  I loved it and I suspect he did, too, but we tried to be nonchalant:  we never knew when someone would take us down for liking the wrong book.  (This was graduate school.)

My favorite Dickens is Bleak House, with its perfect structure and rich language,  but Dombey and Son is perfect in a different way. The plot may ramble, but the prose is exuberant and vibrant, and every character, even the mere caricatures, are colorful.   I find even the most outrageous comic scenes believable.

One of my favorite characters  is Mr. Toots, a foolish young man who writes letters to himself from famous people and keeps saying to Florence Dombey, his crush, “it’s of no consequence.” I am also enthralled by Mrs. Skewton, the lively, flirtatious elderly woman who dresses in the latest fashion–much too young for her–and becomes Mr. Dombey’s second mother-in-law.

Mr. Toots (right) confides in Captain Cuttle.

H. W. Garrod, who wrote the entertaining introduction to the Oxford Illustrated edition, is not enthusiastic about Dombey and Son.  He finds several characters unbelieveable, and asserts that the book  goes downhill after the death of little Paul.  He writes, “Of the death of little Paul, Anna Marsh-Caldwell (but who now remembers her novels?) said, without much exaggeration, that it threw a whole nation into mourning.”   But then, according to Garrod,  Dickens’s  interest in new characters and subplots takea him away from the original plan of the book.

Oh, well, plans?  It’s Dickens.    

I should say a little about the Dombeys.   Mr. Dombey, proprietor of Dombey and Son, is so  ecstatic to have a son and heir that he does not care about his wife’s death in childbirth.  He ignores his daughter Florence, no use to him because she is a girl; she brings up Paul, with the help of Susan Nipper, her sharp-tongued nurse.  And then they are sent to Brighton to live in Mrs. Pipchin’s strange, surreal, bleak boarding house for children, recommended by Miss Tox,  a friend of Mr. Dombey’s sister.  The sickly Paul dies after being sent, at age 6,  to the school next-door, which force-feeds the classics.  (Mr. Toots, who is grown-up, is apparently doing post-graduate work there.)

And then there’s the language.  Dickens is a master of rhetoric, and an incipient modernist, or post-modernist. Like Lucy Ellman, whose novel Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, he makes good use of anaphora, the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive clauses or phrases.  Ellman keeps repeating “the fact that,” and Dickens manages to do three pages of the repetition of “of.”

It was a vision of long roads, that stretched away to an horizon, always receding and never gained; of ill-paved towns, up hill and down, where faces came to dark doors and ill-glazed windows, and where rows of mudbespattered cows and oxen were tied up for sale in the long narrow streets, butting and lowing, and receiving blows on their blunt heads from bludgeons that might have beaten them in; of bridges, crosses, churches, postyards, new horses being put in against their wills, and the horses of the last stage reeking, panting, and laying their drooping heads together dolefully at stable doors; of little cemeteries with black crosses settled sideways in the graves, and withered wreaths upon them dropping away; again of long, long roads, dragging themselves out, uphill and down, to the treacherous horizon.

Pretty good, huh?

Dombey and Son is a glorious read!

The Joy of Rereading Dickens’s “Little Dorrit”

I was drinking a soy latte at A La Caffeine, the chic coffeehouse for itinerant readers.  And I was lost in the pages of Dickens’s Little Dorrit when one of the regulars dimpled at me, reminding me of Pet Meagles, the kind young woman with whom the hero of this dark novel is infatuated.

“I wish I had a Dickens novel to look forward to,” the regular said, adding she had read several of his books.

“You can always reread your favorites, you know.”

“Oh, I don’t like to waste my time rereading.”

I gasped with dismay, but have recently adopted a laid-back retro-‘70s attitude which precludes my jousting verbally with strangers or comparing my generation to the Millennials.  Needless to say, I think rereading is one of the best ways to know an author.  And who offers more on a second reading than  Dickens, that most elegant, witty, and outrageously satiric of Victorian novelists?

That said, Little Dorrit may not be my favorite, but it is one of Dickens’s more serious novels, a dark fairy tale about prisons and freedom.  Every character is imprisoned in some manner, whether in actual prison, by government bureaucracy, greed, or money or lack thereof. The diminutive heroine, Amy Dorrit, also known as Little Dorrit, has lived for 20 years in the Marshalsea prison with her family, because her father lost all his money and could not repay the debts.  

Amy’s sheer determination and work ethic have pushed her siblings out of the prison nest to find work: her older sister is a professional dancer, trained by a dancer who was briefly at the Marshalsea; and their  unreliable bother Tip works at odd jobs from which he is inevitably fired.  Amy herself is a seamstress:  her life changes when Mrs. Clennam, a harsh businesswoman who is imprisoned in a wheelchair, takes an interest in her and hires her to do sewing.  Mrs. Clennam’s motives, alas, are not altruistic.

An illustration of Amy, Arthur, and Maggy by “Phiz.”

The Clennam family is one of the unhappiest of all of Dickens’s unhappy families. Mrs. Clennam’s son Arthur, who has recently returned from China,  is gloomy, quiet, decent, and altruistic, but deeply unhappy at 40.  He is mentally imprisoned by depression, partly because of his mother’s severity, which is born of religion, a great secret, and crooked business practices.  He also is horrified by Flintwich, her servant and partner in crime, who lives in Mrs. Clennam’s house with his terrified wife, Affery.  In this  gloomy house, Little Dorrit is the only light.  Arthur considers Amy a child, though he is paradoxically in love with Pet Meagles, who, like Amy, is 20.  It doesn’t occur to him that Amy loves him.

Dickens’s humor is muted here, but there are many eccentric, endearing characters.  Maggy, a 28-year-old woman who is “intellectually disabled” (what used to be called”mentally retarded”), refers to Amy as “Little Mother” and exclaims that she is ten years old. Then there is  Tattycoram,  Pet’s moody, angry maid, who is indignant that Pet has all the love and advantages and she has none.  She is lured away by Miss Wade, another angry person who believes that others condescend to her.

My favorite character is Flora Finching, Arthur’s former fiancée, now the middle-aged widow of  “Mr. F.” (Arthur’s mother broke up the match.)  Arthur regards Flora as  old and fat now, and is repulsed by her flirting.  (That’s middle age, Arthur!  Too bad!) I  adore Flora’s jumbled comic monologues, which surely inspired James Joyce’s monologues.

‘Dear dear,’ said Flora, ‘only to think of the changes at home Arthur—cannot overcome it, and seems so natural, Mr Clennam far more proper—since you became familiar with the Chinese customs and language which I am persuaded you speak like a Native if not better for you were always quick and clever though immensely difficult no doubt, I am sure the tea chests alone would kill me if I tried, such changes Arthur—I am doing it again, seems so natural, most improper—as no one could have believed, who could have ever imagined Mrs Finching when I can’t imagine it myself!'”

I enjoyed Little Dorrit thoroughly.  The only problem is that I prefer not to notice common tropes–it interferes with my common reading–and of course one does notice.  Dickens’s novels are full of inheritances, ruin by speculation, orphans, altruists, dark Gothic secrets, grotesques, and marriage plots. 

One can’t help but compare the sweet, helpful Amy Dorrit with Esther Summerson (Bleak House), the furious jilted Miss Wade with the furious Miss Havisham (Great Expectations), Flora Finching with young silly Dora (David Copperfield)…and so it goes on.

What a great book!  I’ll read it again in five or ten years. And I’ll enjoy it.

Dickens’s Dark Side in “Martin Chuzzlewit”

It is easy to lose oneself in Dickens’s baroque prose and enchanting, lightning-past plots.  He is one of my favorite Victorians, just behind Charlotte and Emily Bronte; Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are two of my favorite novelsAnd yet I complained bitterly this month while reading Dickens’s picaresque novel, Martin Chuzzlewit.  This weird, asymmetrical novel proceeds haphazardly and  plotlessly, until it finally comes together in a sentimental, fantastical ending.

The loose plot centers on the separation of old, rich, cantankerous Martin Chuzzlewit from his grandson, also named Martin Chuzzlewit, after a quarrel about the young man’s determination to marry Mary Graham, old Martin’s companion. The youthful Martin ends up traveling to America to make money and almost dies  in a swampy settlement called Eden, saved by Mark Tapley, a working-class Englishman who wants to prove he can be” jolly” under any circumstances.  (He does.) Meanwhile, old Martin falls under the thrall of a creep named Mr. Pecksniff.

It is undoubtedly the villains who drive this  book. I  could not tell you who the hero  is, or if there is a hero.  But it will be a long, long time before I forget Mr. Pecksniff and Jonah Chuzzlewit.  I wish I could!

The sanctimonious Mr. Pecksniff, a fraudulent architect, hypocritical churchgoer, and windbag of an orator, swindles, plagiarises, and schemes to acquire money, including the fortune of old Martin Chuzzlewit.  And Jonah Chuzzlwit, who courts both of Mr. Pecksniff’s daughters, and abuses Merry Pecksniff after he marries her, is willing to commit murder if it will advance his financial dreams.

Mr. Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit, illustration by Fred Barnard

Eventually good prevails, and evil is punished. The dead even come back to life. (I’m not making this up.) But even though there is a happy ending, it does not end altogether happily for Tom Pinch, one of my favorite minor characters.  Even the good can live in darkness in Dickens.

Dickens sketches Tom as a kind, merry, and moral character who does good deeds and will never get what he wants—and yet must feign happiness.

Mary Graham tells Tom Pinch of Mr. Pecksniff’s harassment of her.((llustration by Fred Barnard)

Tom is the one loyal apprentice of pseudo-architect Mr. Pecksniff.  Tom thinks the best of everyone.  And as, one by one, the other apprentices discover Mr. Pecksniff’s true character and are driven from his employment, Tom tries to persuade them that they are mistaken. Martin, who has briefly been an apprentice, underestimates Tom, whom he thinks simple.  Fortunately, others esteem Tom highly despite his credulousness. It  is only after Martin’s departure that Dickens reveals Tom’s true depth.

Tom is not a sentimental Dickensian stick figure, though it may seem that way at first.  We learn he is musical and transported through music. He is enraptured when he plays the organ at church, and when Mary Graham, who is staying with her employer Martin at a nearby inn, comes into the church for solace and listens to his practicing, he begins to play music she especially enjoys.  It is his way of courtship/worship.

Tom even saves Mary from Mr. Pecksniff, after she confides that he has tried to bully her into marrying him.  Mind you, Mary is grateful to Tom and loves him as a friend, but it never occurs to her to think of him as a lover.  Martin is handsome and Tom plain, so there is no rivalry. But actually, Mary has a very small role in the book, so we know very little of her.  She IS one of the stick figures in the book.

At the happy ending, characters marry left and right, but Tom stays single.  He finally has a good job as a librarian, but his fate is to live with his sister Ruth and her new husband, and to be a happy uncle.  Dickens’ final portrait of Tom–the last few pages are about Tom–disturbed me.  Yes, the writing is sentimental, but Dickens doesn’t spare us the reality of the life of a man who lives through others.  Dickens writes,

And that mild figure seated at an organ, who is he! Ah Tom, dear Tom, old friend!

Thy head is prematurely grey, though Time has passed thee and our old association, Tom. But, in those sounds with which it is thy wont to bear the twilight company, the music of thy heart speaks out—the story of thy life relates itself.

Thy life is tranquil, calm, and happy, Tom. In the soft strain which ever and again comes stealing back upon the ear, the memory of thine old love may find a voice perhaps; but it is a pleasant, softened, whispering memory, like that in which we sometimes hold the dead, and does not pain or grieve thee, God be thanked.

There are a few more pages of this.   Tranquil?  Happy?  Maybe.  Dickens goes overboard.  He is not this mawkish in his later books.

I am haunted by Tom!  I cannot think this a happy ending.  I can’t think Dickens does.

Dickens can be very dark, but maybe I’m reading things into this  because it is NOT one of his best books and I am floored by this ending.

A Month of Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit”

For over a month now, I have been lugging Martin Chuzzlewit around in my  bag. That’s me, sitting in the theater lobby reading Dickens and wondering if Marnie will ever end. (It’s the Met Live in HD at a local theater.) But to be honest, it’s a roll of the dice which bores me more, Martin Chuzzlewit or Marnie.

I am a great fan of Dickens, and I adored rereading  Bleak House this fall.  But instead of reading Martin Chuzzlewit straight through, I keep setting it aside for other books. As a result I have read a lot of light fiction this month, including E. M. Delafield’s The Way Things Are, an undistinguished novel about a disenchanted housewife, and Kate Carlisle’s bibliophile mystery, Once upon a Spine (don’t bother!).  Not that I didn’t enjoy these books, but talk about mediocre!

On Oct. 28 I wrote in my journal:

Am making progress in Martin Chuzzlewit. Love the Pecksniffs! They’re so horrible, but really funny. Martin’s adventures in America, however, are dull, though he does get scammed and buys land in Eden, which turns out to be a swamp. Wow, the American values ARE SO BAD. I did know Dickens hated his tour of America. I didn’t remember Martin as so unlikable, but the Chuzzlewits and their relatives the Pecksniffs are all NO GOOD in different ways.

And since Oct. 28…nothing!

I have so many complaints about this excellently-written, weird book. First, the heft of it! The edition I’m reading: 839 pages. Not as long as Bleak House, but it seems longer. And I have to wrestle it it out of my handbag before I can get to my money, brush, memo pad, British Library pen, or trail mix. So whether I am at Dillard’s or Walmart, it is a huge production. “What a big book!” people say in a sprightly way.

(I silently raise my eyebrows.)

Perhaps Martin Chuzzlewit was unpopular in its day (and none too pop now) for a reason. There is no real plot, and the character sketeches don’t really hang together. The good characters are much less interesting than the wicked.  I can take the Pecksniffs–and the affected daughters are eventually radicalized by learning the secrets of the Pecksniff men– but every time I read a scene about the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Assurance Company, I tune out. Who could find that funny?

At its worst, there are beautifully weird sentences.  But I am not enjoying it, and can’t wait to finish.

The weird thing is that I enjoyed MC on a camping trip in the ’90s.  That’s probably because there was nothing else to do while shivering on a rocky beach on Lake Superior.

The “Bleak House” Journal: Notes on Reading Dickens

No fan of Dickens should scribble the following drivel in her journal:  “I read Bleak House because others don’t” (2012).  It isn’t even true. I was doodling.  Tens of thousands are reading Bleak House as we speak (probably).  Maybe tens of millions.

But people on the internet are often flummoxed by Dickens.  They speed through the succinct Tale of Two Cities  but are defeated by the bulk of Bleak House. In an online forum somebody wrote: “In doing a little research I ran across an article arguing that if Dickens were alive today he’d probably be writing soap operas, and I completely agree.”

This is a person who reads for plot not for language.  But as I scrawled in my journal I became as inky and indignant as one of my favorite characters in Bleak House, Caddy Jellyby, who miserably pens long letters dictated by her philanthropist mother about fund-raising for a project  in Borrioboola-Gha in Africa.  Mrs. Jellyby neglects her family.

Like Dickens fans John Irving and Desmond in Lost, I have reserved one of Dickens’s books to read in old age.  That does not mean I don’t go back to the others over and over.  In September I started rereading my favorite, Bleak House. And I’m recording some of my journal notes here, since I’m trying to get away from the bad habit of writing formulaic plot summaries–a trap we bloggers too often fall into.

September 26, 2018

I am reading quietly, interrupted only by the cats, and it does seem the best book I’ve read in ages. For a few hours a day I  am free from worry about politics, leaky roofs, tornado warnings, and renewing library cards and state IDs.

I love Dickens’ masterly use of English.  Where did he learn the rhetorical language?  His use of anaphora is flamboyant–acrobatics in a circus of repetition.   Here is one of the most famous passages.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

The action pivots around a court case about a will.   In the nightmare world of Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce drags on for decades, and  the litigators kill themselves or go mad.  But the charming, well-educated orphan Esther Summerson shines a light on her circle.  Esther, whose lovely first-person narrative (“Esther’s Narrative”) is at the heart of the novel, is a kind of Cinderella character (not princessy, though).  Raised by a godmother who devastates her by saying she would have been better off unborn, Esther does not know her parentage.  Yet Esther, whose education is paid for by her guardian John Jarndyce, is the most filial, loving character of all.  First she becomes an adored teacher; then she is invited to Bleak House by John Jarndyce to live with two other orphans,  wards of court, pretty Ada  and witty Richard.  Richard, alas, believes Jarndyce and Jarndyce will make him rich.

There is redemption among many of the orphans. Interestingly,  nuclear families are less nurturing than makeshift families.  (Are we talking about the 1960s?)   Orphans, bachelors, spinsters, elderly eccentrics, the mad, the poor, the single, and the rootless come together.  The nuclear families are damaging, among them the Jellybys, the Pardiggles, and the Skimpoles.

Esther is connected to everyone, I think.  But I won’t give away her lineage.

Enough!