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May 2011
Nicholas Nickleby - Charles Dickens - Penguin Classics, 1999
* * * *
Many voracious readers will have played the game of author bingo, in which you tick off their major works and call "house!" when you have read them all. It is a bittersweet moment. On the one hand there is pride in the achievement of what may have been a very long-term project, particularly if the author's body of work is substantial. On the other, there is the melancholy realisation that you will never again experience the thrill of encountering a full flower of their imagination for the first time. There are some pleasures to be had from re-reading or delving into minor works, but they are not the same.

I have now reached that point with Charles Dickens. This was the only one of his twelve major novels that I hadn't read, and while it isn't the best (that was Great Expectations), it is particularly interesting for the way in which it prefigures the themes and tropes of later and greater works. So not a bad one to end on.
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Dec 2008
Great Expectations - Charles Dickens - Oxford University Press, 2008
* * * * *
Truth be told, Dickens is not as great a writer as some critics and literary academics have made him out to be. He has an eye for character and a way with words, but his novels can be preachy, digressive and appallingly sentimental, with viewpoint characters who are thin moral ciphers rather than real people (exhibit A: The Old Curiosity Shop). These weaknesses, especially if encountered in an uninspiring educational context, must have created a legion of the Dickens-phobic, and it is possible that you, dear reader, are one of them. In which case, this review is for you.

Firstly it is important to acknowledge that your antipathy is not at all unreasonable (or unusual: a google for "I hate Dickens" returns 352,000 results). If you are intolerant of emotionalism or implausible characterisation, Dickens is always going to be a hard sell, and I am certainly not going to argue that Great Expectations is free from them. But it has a focused three-act plot structure, a flawed and therefore interesting hero, and things to say about betrayal, revenge, class, the corrupting effects of unearned rewards and the well-springs of character. So it might be worth a few hours of your time.
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20 Aug 2005
The Old Curiosity Shop - Charles Dickens - Penguin Classics, 2000
* * *
I am forever grateful to the actress Miriam Margoyles, who in her stage show Dickens' Women gave a pointer as to how to read Dickens without being put off by the grotesque characterisations and the sugary sentimentality lavished on his heroes and heroines, particularly the children. She describes Miss Mowcher, an extraordinary dwarf chiropodist who appears in David Copperfield and who (if memory serves) talks about cutting the nails of the Prince of Wales and preserving the trimmings for display to interested parties. Miss Mowcher may seem like a typical Dickens grotesque, but it turns out that she was based on a real woman who wrote to Dickens to complain about her depiction in the novel (as a result, when she appears later on she is utterly saintly and very boring). And that's the point. The "grotesques" in Dickens' novels are the real people, the characters he was writing from life, while the heroes and heroines are idealisations, personifications of how Victorian society thought people ought to be. This is why they are so nauseatingly prim and proper (a particular problem, as we shall see, with Little Nell). Whereas real people are odd, eccentric, funny, sometimes grotesque, and morally ambiguous, and Dickens clearly loved them. You can tell because when he writes a chapter featuring them, the energy and imagination of the writing spark off the page. By contrast, when the heroes and heroines are in play the writing is listless and conventional, using the clichés of melodrama to maintain the emotional interest of the reader. The heroes had to be there, of course, because his audience expected them. But it is the grotesques that are at the heart of Dickens' work.

So where did this idea of the "real" heroes and the false "grotesque" characters come from? Well, not from Dickens himself. Instead, I blame his illustrators. If you look at the sketches that accompany his stories, you will notice that there are two distinct styles used in drawing the characters. The features of the "grotesques" are detailed but distorted caricatures, not remotely realistic. The heroes and heroines are regular and in proportion but are ciphers, their faces mostly white space, with only a few lines to hinting at their features. The difference in style helps to perpetuate the myth that the heroes are real people and the grotesques are not, although it is the heroes who are lacking in detail. It would be interesting to publish an edition of Dickens' novels that didn't have the illustrations and see how this affected readers' perceptions.

So, to The Old Curiosity Shop. This is generally regarded by most critics to be second-rate Dickens, and like Crime and Punishment, can be accused of excessive emotionalism. This was certainly the view of Oscar Wilde who famously remarked that "one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing". Modern readers are inclined to concur and to look down on their Victorian equivalents as naive and sentimental for responding so strongly to the scene. But perhaps the Victorian public was being a bit more sophisticated than we give it credit for.
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