And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once: old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth. A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry WHOM SHE LIKES. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.
I like to post at least once a week, but to be honest, I’m only 100 pages into Vanity Fair. Which means I’m only about 1/8 of the way through – the length of many 19th century novels is part of the fun and part of the challenge!
For one reason or another, I’ve found myself discussing 19th-century English literature a lot recently. Dickens, Austen, Gaskell, Trollope, Thackeray…
I enjoy them all for different reasons, and I think a lot of the difference has to do with the distinctive tones of the authors.
Dickens is the impassioned social activist, bluntly depicting the miseries of poverty and the inadequacies of bureaucracy in the middle of the 19th century. That said, his characters tend to be stock character types, as if taken from the traveling theatricals depicted in Nicholas Nickleby. To some extent, these stock types are the source of his humor and pathos, but it also explains the remarkable two-dimensionality of many of his female characters.
Austen, who’s chronologically the earliest of the group I’ve named, is quintessential romantic comedy. Her writing style is still heavily influenced by the 18th century, which is most evident in some of the stilted phrasing in my favorite of her works, Sense and Sensibility.
Gaskell, a contemporary of Dickens, is somewhere in between him and Austen in her style. Many of her novels deal with the impact of the new industrial world upon rural England, such as the introduction of railroads in Cranford and the reaction of country-bred Margaret to the cotton mills of northern England in North and South. Her tone is less impassioned than Dickens’, and takes the role of observer and recorder more than that of activist.
If Dickens is the impassioned social activist, Trollope is the inside-the-Beltway gossip columnist. His novels about politics and the political world of London in the second half of the 19th century are funny, wryly observant of human nature, and can be easily imagined as read in that posh London drawl that sometimes borders on speech impediment. His characters, especially the women, are startlingly realistic. Laura Kennedy’s ambitious marriage and self-destructive love for Phineas Finn, Glencora Palliser’s struggle to choose duty and honor over love, Alice Vavasor’s difficulties in knowing her own mind and heart, and Marie Goesler’s self-sacrifice and deep-seated desire to love and be loved, are all situations that crop up all the time in the 19th century as well as the 21st. They are real women, prone to faults and mistakes as well as well-intentioned efforts, deep love, and extraordinary generosity of spirit.
Thackeray is an author I’m still getting to know. At 100 pages into Vanity Fair, he already comes across as far more cynical than any I’ve encountered up until now. Trollope may seem cynical at first glance, but he’s more prone to straight-faced explanations than true cynicism. In Becky Sharp, Thackeray has created an unabashedly self-serving and consciously manipulative anti-heroine. She digs her nails into every rung of every ladder she can find and hauls herself up, inch by inch. She flatters and simpers and pretends to whatever emotion is needed in order to do so. She performs demeaning tasks, gossips, flirts, and aims for advancement through marriage and connections. Anything to get ahead.
I’ve still got a long way to travel with Miss Sharp. I look forward to seeing where she’ll take me.
Oliver! (Best Picture, 1968)
I like Dickens novels. His use of language and storytelling are unparalleled. However, in the ones I’ve read, I’ve found an interesting trend. The main character is frequently the least interesting. Dickens excelled at creating extraordinary supporting characters. The title character of OLIVER! is the kind of innocent, uncomplicated vessel that is typical of Dickensian main characters. His unsullied purity and naivete catch the attention and hearts of those around him. In particular he seems to bring Ron Moody’s Fagin up short. Moody gives a wonderful performance as the crooked miser who leads a gang of pickpocketing boys, providing him with a complexity that makes him far more interesting than the caricature might have been. Oliver seems to make Fagin feel guilty for what he teaches the boys to do.
The rest of the supporting characters are equally fascinating. Nancy is a disturbingly perceptive portrayal of a battered woman – passionate and loyal to the man who beats her, yet recognizing that he does bad things. She is the first person in Oliver’s life to show him genuine love and unselfish concern for his well-being. Nancy tries to protect Oliver from Fagin, Sikes, and the rest, and tries to help him escape the pickpocket life for the comfort of Mr. Brownlow’s home. And then there’s Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger. This may be one of the most fun roles for any boy to play. He gets to do everything, really, from picking pockets to being Fagin’s second-in-command with the boys.
Bill Sikes may be one of Dickens’ most frightening creations. I remember a while back I saw another filmed version of Oliver Twist (not the musical – might have been shown via “Masterpiece Theatre”) that featured Andy Serkis (yes, the physical counterpart of the CG Gollum in LOTR) as Bill Sikes. Serkis was mesmerizing and thoroughly terrifying. He has this way of looking just slightly mad. Oliver Reed, in the 1968 musical, takes a different route. Sikes rarely changes expression, he rarely raises his voice, and he moves with a slow smoothness that all work together to make the menace clear. I don’t know if anyone’s done a psychological profile of Bill Sikes, but it would be interesting. Is he a sociopath or just hardened and warped by the life circumstance forced upon him?
I saw the stage version of this musical years ago. I remember little about it except for Nancy’s death. Unlike the book or most filmed adaptations, when Sikes beats her to death, the musical I saw had her shot, instead. Maybe it was the first time I saw a musical or a play in which someone died – somehow the way the actress just crumpled made an impression on me. At home, though, I used to listen to the soundtrack. The songs are simple and fun. “I’d Do Anything” is utterly charming, while “As Long As He Needs Me” is devastating. The musical changes some things about the book, but it’s not Disney-fied. OLIVER! keeps the grime and pain and all the other shadows. Even for the audience that knows the end of the story, Oliver’s peril – that he will end up in a life of crime, the workhouse, or an early grave – feels very real.
Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture, 1969)
MIDNIGHT COWBOY has the dubious distinction of being the only X-rated movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Yes, it’s a story about a man who comes to New York City with the intention of being a hustler – a gigolo. But it wasn’t rated X on account of a man trying to sleep with bored, wealthy married women in exchange for money – the film isn’t even all that sexually explicit (by current standards – may very well have been shocking in 1969). It’s rated X because at one point Joe, the hustler, agrees to a homosexual encounter. How times have changed, huh?
This film is just miserable. I mean, it’s an interesting story and the friendship between the naive Texan Joe and the rapidly deteriorating, worldly Rizzo develops convincingly. It’s everything else that’s miserable. The grime and squalor of this underside of New York City is depressing, and the portrayal of physical suffering – poverty, hunger, bone-deep cold, and physical infirmity – it’s powerful and heartbreaking. Rizzo and Joe are both broken in different ways. Rizzo has a gimp leg from a childhood encounter with polio, and he’s got some sort of lung ailment that’s slowly sapping his strength. It’s never said exactly what it is – could be untreated bronchitis or pneumonia, could be tuberculosis – but over the course of the film he grows weaker and weaker. Joe, on the other hand, has the traumatic backstory. Abandoned by his parents, left to grow up with a grandmother who repeatedly left him alone to pursue boyfriends of her own, in love with a promiscuous girl who gave up other attachments to be with him but was then gang-raped by those others in revenge… you get the picture.
One of the interesting things about the film is it feels more stereotypically 1960s than the others in this decade have been. The film is full of weird sections of flashing images, either to illustrate Joe’s memories or to indicate time passing, Joe’s or Rizzo’s nightmares, or other indications of time passing. In one famous scene, Joe and Rizzo go to a party that is clearly populated by people enjoying a bit of 1960s counterculture. Joe accidentally has his first encounter with drugs other than tobacco (pot and an unidentified pill), the party is full of artsy, stoned types enjoying drugs, grinding, and discussing all sorts of things that might seem important when under the influence.
It’s an odd film and I’m not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, I can see foreshadowing of other creations, like the loneliness-in-a-crowd of Sondheim’s COMPANY, the unlikely male friendship (but without the sex) of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and the New York rapid-fire speech and obsessiveness of Woody Allen. On the other hand, it’s grimy, sordid, and deeply unhappy, and I tend to prefer entertainment that helps me escape from the world over those which force me to face distressing realities.
Up Next: Patton (Best Picture, 1970) and The French Connection (Best Picture, 1971)
After a day spent at the Dickens Fair (go visit! it’s fun! there’s only one more weekend!) in the San Francisco area and a few evenings spent in reading Little Dorrit, I find myself thinking about why I like Dickens novels. My usual response, when people ask, is to either say I like the language or that I enjoy the characters, but the reasoning is actually more complicated. The complaints I hear most involve the length and the wordiness.
Length is a legitimate issue with Dickens. My 2003 Penguin Classics edition of Little Dorrit weighs in at 985 pages, 860 pages of which are actually the novel. David Copperfield is well over 900 pages and Bleak House is over 1000 pages. So yes, the novels are long. But too long? Puh-LEEZE. Game of Thrones is nearly 700 pages long. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are all well over 400 pages long. The American edition of Order of the Phoenix came in at a whopping 870 pages. The Da Vinci Code is 450-odd pages. The four books of Twilight total 2492 pages. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is 1000 pages, the His Dark Materials trilogy is about the same… you get my point. Books are often long. Yes, Dickens could have tightened some stories and some chapters. Yes, he goes haring off on some odd tangents (see: storytelling chapter in Nicholas Nickelby – a depressing story about sisters who become nuns and a weirdly funny story about a suicidal baron? Ooookay…). I say, stop whining. You read all those other long books. Yes, the sentence structure is different in Dickens, but not so much as to be unintelligible. Stop whining and start reading.
The readers who complain about length need to take the publication circumstances into account. Dickens wrote serialized novels. They were published a few chapters at a time in cheap paperback pamphlets over the course of several months. Of course the stories are long! Our closest equivalent is television. Now before you start screaming, let me explain. Television shows are serialized stories, released a chapter at a time over the course of several months. Sound familiar? Imagine a television show like, say, Friends as a published written work. It ran for 10 seasons at around 24 episodes per season. In terms of books, that could be 10 books of 24 chapters each. Each volume would be quite long to cover the whole story, but it would all hang together. Some chapters would be better than others, some might seem to want editing, but since each chapter was released individually, the authors wouldn’t want to go back and change it from what their audience already knows and loves. Though Dickens never wrote novels to be sequels of another of his creations, the format of his work is essentially the same as the serialized shows.
While I can write off complaints about length as a lack of patience or contextual understanding, I have less patience with grumping about the language itself. I admit, I love the way Dickens uses language. I also have to admit that I grew up with it. Children’s fiction from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were beloved at my house – Nesbit, Eager, Milne… I still love them. And they use language differently than we do today. Their writing is more formal, more challenging. It is also firmly rooted in a cultural context that no longer exists. Part of my love for Dickens is something that I suspect is a stumbling block for many – he uses lots of big words. He also uses lots of words. There’s a story that comes up whenever Dickensian novels are the subject of discussion. Dickens’ novels are so long, they say, because he was paid by the word. He tried to make them as long as possible so he’d get paid more. It may be apocryphal – I don’t know. But again, context. People who wrote for newspapers, who wrote articles and serialized stories, were all paid by the word. And more importantly, they still are today. The story may or may not be true – but it’s not a circumstance unique to Charles Dickens.
Dickens’ novels often come laden with descriptors like “dark,” “depressing,” “intense,” “gritty,” “emotional,” and so forth. The sense of humor that comes twinkling through at odd moments hardly ever comes up. Like I’ve mentioned, I’m re-reading Little Dorrit right now, and this evening I read the chapter that introduces the Circumlocution Office (motto: How Not To Do It). While it’s a brilliant and skewering critique of governmental bureaucracy, it also has some moments that are achingly funny. One of my favorites is the exchange between Barnacle Junior and Arthur Clennam:
The Present Barnacle, holding Mr. Clennam’s card in his hand, had a youthful aspect, and the fluffiest little whisker, perhaps, that ever was seen. Such a downy tip was on his callow chin, that he seemed half fledged like a young bird; and a compassionate observer might have urged, that if he had not singed the calves of his legs, he would have died of cold. He had a superior eye-glass dangling round his neck, but unfortunately had such flat orbits to his eyes and such limp little eyelids, that it wouldn’t stick in when he put it up, but kept tumbling out against his waistcoat buttons with a click that discomposed him very much.
‘Oh, I say. Look here! My father’s not in the way, and won’t be in the way to-day,’ said Barnacle Junior. ‘Is this anything that I can do?’
(Click! Eye-glass down. Barnacle Junior quite frightened and feeling all round himself, but not able to find it.)
‘You are very good,’ said Arthur Clennam. ‘I wish however to see Mr. Barnacle.’
‘But I say. Look here! You haven’t got any appointment, you know,’ said Barnacle Junior.
(By this time he had found the eye-glass, and put it up again.)
‘No,’ said Arthur Clennam. ‘That is what I wish to have.’
‘But I say. Look here! Is this public business?’ asked Barnacle Junior.
(Click! Eye-glass down again. Barnacle Junior in that state of search after it, that Mr. Clennam felt it useless to reply at present.)
‘Is it,’ said Barnacle Junior, taking heed of his visitors brown face, ‘anything about – Tonnage – or that sort of thing?’
(Pausing for a reply, he opened his right eye with his hand, and stuck his glass in it, in that inflammatory manner that his eye began watering dreadfully.)
‘No,’ said Arthur, ‘it is nothing about tonnage.’
‘Then look here. Is it private business?’
‘I really am not sure. It relates to a Mr. Dorrit.’
‘Look here, I tell you what! You had better call at our house, if you are going that way. Twenty-four, Mews Street, Grosvenor Square. My father’s got a slight touch of gout, and is kept at home by it.
(The misguided young Barnacle evidently going blind in his eye-glass side, but ashamed to make any further alteration in his painful arrangements.)
–pages 123-4, 2003 Penguin edition
This scene is important to the novel, but also had me snorting with laughter. I can just envision Dickens giggling while he wrote it.
Give Dickens a chance. Sometimes one has to approach it like Shakespeare. The language is recognizable but a little foreign, and if you spend too much time trying to understand every single word individually, you’ll get hopelessly bogged down. Let the words flow past and paint the picture for you. Flow is much easier than slogging through it sentence by sentence. One way to approach it, if you have trouble with the printed books, is to get an audiobook version. Try the local library and have it on in the car or something. Do NOT start with the movies. Dickens’ novels are complicated and delicately balanced creations, and Hollywood has yet to do justice to them.