And, so, as the world descends from Charles Dickmania following the bicentenary of the birth of our great writer, the Culture Secretary launches his attack on his cabinet. Jeremy Hunt, in possession of a name that can only come from a limerick, has given each member of the cabinet a different Dickens novel to enjoy / depress / intimidate the recipient. Whilst not belittling anything the great social commentator of the British produced – and no one could create character like Dickens could – it’s fearful, the amount of laudatory and celebratory efforts towards this most great social chronicler of the English. Arnold Bennett doesn’t get to celebrate his own birthday once he’s dead. Neither does HG Wells, but Dickens has locked himself firmly in the teaching, television-viewing, sentimental heart of all of us, and he isn’t budging. Apparently, David Cameron received Great Expectations and Hard Times. That’s probably because if someone had given Hard Times to Liam Fox he would have thought it was a story about Viagra. Nick Clegg got Oliver Twist. Cue huge Tory guffaws about him always “asking for more”. I can’t imagine that George Osborne got A Christmas Carol, despite the alarming similarities between his economic policies of austerity and those of Ebenezer Scrooge. Anyway, word has it from No 10 that George Osborne is frightened of A Christmas Carol, and so couldn’t be given it. It has ghosties in it, you see, and one sight of those and he screams “Nanny!” and sucks his thumb and has to be given a warm rusk in the night by a housemaid.
Some lucky bastard would have got one of the two most mature and devastating of Dickens’s novels – namely Little Dorrit and Bleak House. Each concerns itself with the corruption inherent in the material world, and the psychology of imprisonment and legal procrastination. Neither of them clocks in at under 800 pages. You wouldn’t have time to buy / squander / illegally rent a second home if you were too busy trying to find out what happened to Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam. Is it for the good of the nation that Dickmania is circulating among the cabinet? Will any of them actually read them? Probably not, although they may come in handy as reading “decoys” on Chequers weekends when Cameron wants to avoid playing croquet with Sarkozy. Bleak House is often considered to be one of the greatest novels written in English, a view to which I concur (the scene where Guppy proposes to Esther Summerson is one of the funniest in English literature) and its opening pages are so splendid that they are enough to make any prospective writer baulk at the prospect of ever putting well-nibbled biro to paper. However, one of the strange aspects of the English is that no other literature seems to exist except that which is written in English.
A few years ago a friend of mine, wanting to know the difference between her Pushkins and her Dostoyevskys, tried to sign up for a course in 19th century Russian literature in London. There were none. And she looked on Floodlight (although first got confused and looked on Searchlight, the magazine of the Anti Nazi League where there, actually, quite a few Russians). London’s evening classes are among the most diverse in the world, offering a highly consistent teaching standard. There are literally hundreds of courses. The organization of English literature evening classes in this country depend on dividing in 1900. For the twentieth century there are the modernist classes, focusing on Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, attended by fey women in unusual hats. Then there are the post-colonial novels, working on texts by Samuel Selvon and Chinua Achebe and unlikely to cause Dickens to turn in his grave when confronted with the quality of their prose. They are selected in order to apologise for the fact the British once – whoops! – ran a silly Empire, and which is intent on endlessly examining how post-colonial discourse as a literary expression has…..zzzzzzzzzzz…. sorry I fell asleep for a moment there. On the other side of 1900, back in the olden days, lives something sacred called the “canon” of English literature. George Eliot, Thackeray, Shakespeare and Dickens live here. Anyone who was ever buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey is essentially a shoo-in for the “canon”. Many of these people wrote books that are televised on Sunday evenings on the BBC and feature people in bonnets. Classes on the “canon” are attended by neat, middle aged women who live in Archway, retired school teachers and spindly young post graduates studying the homosexual in Great Expectations.
Why they put a great big line in at 1900 beggars belief, but they do. The Edwardians, therefore, present problems. I love the Edwardians for this. Some people shove them into 20th Century Fiction and herald them as modernists. Others tag them onto a riot of Victoriana and suspend that riot of Victoriana right up to the shot of the first bullet of 1914. Either way, E M Forster confounds classification in this regard, and the sublime Tono Bungay by HG Wells gets thoroughly neglected. Nor is it quite so clear why Virginia Woolf sneakily manages to monopolise the entire modernist section from beyond her watery grave, whilst other writers of more merit get neglected. But try to find courses on the Russians, or the Germans or the Italians? Nothing. The two greatest European novelists who ever lived – Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky – don’t crop up anywhere. Eventually, my friend found one course on the Russians, taking place at the City Lit, only for it to be cancelled a week before it was due to begin, as so few people had signed up. This was particularly annoying as by then she’d bought all the books and given herself a hernia carrying The Brothers Karamazov back from Hatchards. It would be just as difficult to find an evening class in London on Flaubert or Balzac and, just as no one captures character as brilliantly as Dickens does in English, so no one in French literature captures character quite like Balzac. But in England, you don’t learn about that. In English literary culture, you’d be forgiven for thinking no other language seems to exist. Whilst the French and the Russian write of crime, punishment, money, social revolution and how to keep your head warm in a Russian winter, the English prefer to find out whether Darcy and Elizabeth are ever actually going to shag.
I don’t want to belittle Dickens or the English canon at all; Dickens is one of my favourite novelists who never fails to astound me. In fact, as I get older and my outlook on the world develops, his ability to astonish me drastically increases. David Copperfield is my favourite, closely followed by Our Mutual Friend. At re-reads he is even more exceptional. Shades of narrative and character that had previously lain undetected when you read the novels at first ten years previously burst out of the pages and make themselves known. The novels become truly different books if you read them a decade apart, so probing and perceptive is Dickens’s intimation of behavioural patterns and social observation. Little Dorrit is astonishingly modern in its preoccupation with the destructive forces of economic speculation and the weariness and depression of a mind in a debtor’s prison. I’m 100 pages from the end of it at the moment and can’t wait to get to the end of the story. However, in English literature Dickens is like the sun – he breathes heat and illumination over the Victorian age to bring it to life for the rest of us, but his vigour and energy and vibrancy are so all-encompassing in our culture that he is nearly in danger of blotting so many other writers out. A cursory glance at the television documentaries of the last year would be enough to convince someone unfamiliar with Victorian literature that only the two people who ever wrote anything atall between 1810 and 1870 were Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. There are hundreds of Victorian writers out of print and a whole ton more in print and not celebrated or edging their ways onto the Schools Curriculum. What of Somerset Maugham? George Moore? George Gissing? Mary Elizabeth Braddon? Do so many wonderful Victorian luminaries deserve to be left out in the cold? In the last ten years the movement towards resusitating previously obsolete Victorian texts has spread with abandon (see www.victoriansecrets.co.uk, run by someone who attended the same MA as I did, Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College, and which pledges to reprint some wonderful forgotten Victorian thrillers) but the Victorian Age is over a hundred years ago, and perhaps the die is cast regarding who is to be celebrated and remembered and who is not. Whilst Dickens deserves to straddle the Victorian canon like some great, mustachioed colossus, I can’t help suggesting, as Oliver Twist did, “please sir, can we have some more?”
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