Saturday, 15 January 2011

Dickensian Kindred Spirit

I can't claim, as Susan Hill does in Howards End is on the Landing, to have ever read one of Dickens' novels while seated behind the sofa. In fact, I don't think I've ever read anything behind the sofa. I've always lived in houses where sofas stood flush against the living room wall. However, in the chapter headed Great Expectations behind the Sofa Hill does admit to having the same three favourite Dickens novels as my own.

[I]t is time I went back to Little Dorrit. Is it the best? I sometimes think so. Then again, I change my mind. Bleak House is the greatest of all the novels. But Our Mutual Friend has, I think, absolutely no flaws, and there is something about its description of London's river at its blackest, most secret, most terrifying, and the low life that lurked about its quays and alleys and pot-houses, that takes me back to those Michaelmas terms, and the chill mist drifting off the Thames.

And, with Anne Shirley, I want to exclaim at the finding of a kindred spirit.

Which is the greatest? I couldn't possibly say but, while I love most Dickens, it is these three to which I find myself returning time after time. If not to read the entire novel then to comfort myself with favourite passages or to spend the evening in the company of a much loved character, Arthur Clennam, or Mr Wilfer.

While I love most of them, you will have noticed. And again Susan Hill and I walk hand in hand. My husband, she says, is welcome to laugh at Pickwick because I never could...
Me neither, me neither.

However, one of Ms Hill's pronouncements has given me pause for thought.

In the silly game of which authors to throw overboard from the lifeboat and which one - just one - to save, I would always save Dickens. He is mighty. He is flawed. His flaws are huge but magnificent - and all of a piece with the whole.

Could I really save Dickens at the expense of Shakespeare? Could I manage with just Shakespeare if there was no Dickens to add narrative variety? The question has been tormenting me all day, much to the puzzlement of the friend with whom I had lunch, who pointed out that unless I was extremely unlucky it wasn't a decision I was ever likely to have to make. Well, I know that. But what if I did? Sometimes the most unlikely things do happen, otherwise they wouldn't be simply unlikely, they would be impossible.

Which should I choose? I'm going to fret about this all night. Be blowed to questions of international finance and political corruption. Let's stick to the really important dilemmas in life.



  1. I've actually just finished reading Our Mutual Friend for the first time today and although I haven't read all of Dickens' novels yet, it's my favourite so far. And I agree that Dickens vs Shakespeare would be quite a dilemma!

  2. I think if push came to shove, Helen, then I would have to go for 'Our Mutual Friend' as my absolute favourite. There are so many wonderful characters in there. Although, as someone who's spent her life as a teacher of one sort or another I wish the schoolmaster didn't have to be the baddie.

  3. I feel embarrassed to say that I couldn't choose between them either, but it's because I'm mostly ignorant about both Dickens and Shakespeare. I have negative views of them that are lingering from my school days. Do you have a recommendation of a Dickens novel and Shakespeare play to start with for someone who cringes at the thought of reading them?

  4. I'm ashamed to say I've only read A Christmas Carol (loved it) and Hard Times (hated it!) by Dickens and a handful of Shakespeare's plays. Anbolyn - A Midsummer Night's Dream is delightful.

  5. Thank goodness we don't really have to make those choices! You make me want to read another Dickens novel. It's been a while.

  6. Anbolyn,some of us teachers have so much to answer for. I'm still trying to get over what my school days did to 'Emma'. Where Shakespeare is concerned you really need to start by seeing him rather than reading. He didn't write to be read. VR is right about 'The Dream', but of course you are limited by what is available and a bad production can be as devastating as a bad teacher. There are a couple of very good DVDs you might want to try, Branagh's 'Henry V' and Trevor Nunn's 'Twelfth Night'. I've put in the links to Amazon UK so that you can see what I mean and then look for them locally.

    As far as Dickens is concerned, I would start with 'Great Expectations'. It's a wonderful story and not as long as some of the others.

    VR, I'm not a great fan of 'Hard Times' either but it is a long time since I read it and my reactions to Dickens have altered over the years, so perhaps I ought to go back to it. We have a production of 'The Dream' scheduled for the upcoming Stratford season, so it'll be interesting to see what they do with it. I've seen just about everything, including one set in the Caribbean!

    Dorothy, I'm lousy at those sorts of choices. I know I don't have to make them, but they still plague me.

  7. Annie, Dickens is the one author who reliably causes me to miss stops on the subway here in New York. For that reason alone he gets to stay in my lifeboat. But I'd happy toss Pickwick to the sharks, along with you. What is it about the male sense of humor that is so different from the female?

  8. Carol, that is so interesting. I feel as if I need to do a survey round the department and see what the results are by gender. And I am so glad I'm not the only one who misses stops because of books. At least it means I get some exercise when I have to walk back!

  9. That's a tough one! I hope we never have to decide. But I think if I had to on impulse, I would save Dickens and regret mightily the loss of Shakespeare.

  10. The more I've thought about it, Stefanie, the more I think I would take Dickens too. As someone said to me yesterday, I know great swathes of Shakespeare off by heart anyway. And then there's the fact that Shakespeare on the page is really a bit of a cop out . The only works that he saw to publication were his poems. The plays belong on the stage, not on the page.