On what would have been Charles Dickens' 201st birthday, Joanna Godfree reflects on why she has always disliked his novels.
|Simon Callow as Charles Dickens|
In general, I really don’t have an issue with a reader who takes against a particular author. My line with a pupil who is uncertain about whether they will enjoy a book would always be: Give it a try. Read 20 or 30 pages. If you take to it, if you’re gripped, carry on. If not, put it aside for later. Life is long. And as a nominal grown-up, I take the same line with my own reading, by and large. But it has been different with Charles Dickens. If I had not felt guilty enough already, living in Dickens’s natal city, for disliking and avoiding his work, the comments of colleagues over recent months - as the anniversary approached - have forced me to re-examine my own attitudes. One very old friend (hearing I had been ‘commissioned’ to write this piece) begged me: Don’t write against Dickens! Use the time reading him instead!
So how, I wondered, had I got to my present advanced age – via English A- and S-levels, an English degree at Oxford, a teaching qualification – in English –and 35 years of educational librarianship – not to mention non-stop reading all the way along - without reading practically anything of Dickens, let alone relishing him and longing to read more? Why did I feel not drawn to but repulsed by him? It’s true that good TV adaptations have nudged me back to the novels from time to time, and I enjoyed for instance ‘Bleak House’ far more after seeing that on screen; but I couldn’t escape the sense that the man is always searching to make an impression, that he has designs on me, that I am being steamrollered with his richness of detail – and, though I know that every writer is out to do most of that of course, with Dickens I feel a particular aversion to it. Interestingly, I didn’t feel the same while reading and loving George Eliot’s Middlemarch in my late teens; yet the editor of the Penguin Classics edition speaks of those who have objected to her tone as ‘too didactic … authorial bullying’. Why didn’t I feel this at the time? Or perhaps I did, but was happy to go along with that particular authorial voice.
Dickens’voice in my head has always been a loud hectoring one, one I didn’t respond to and felt browbeaten by, and it was only when I went to see Simon Callow perform on the stage of Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal on the actual 200thanniversary of Dickens’s birth that the voice finally cast its spell on me. Callow’s huge energy and flamboyance brought alive a scene from The Pickwick Papers and made it sound like stand-up knock-down comedy – but comedy with a heart, with delicacy of feeling and characterisation. Subsequently, I have listened to Callow’s performance of The Mystery of Charles Dickens, the biographical piece he commissioned from Peter Ackroyd, left stunned by the graphic re-enactment of the murder of
by Bill Sikes. Suddenly I could understand how Dickens was emotionally drained and shattered after such performances on the stage, when he took the stories on tour, just as he was by the actual process of writing the books in the first place – indeed, how his works effectively were the death of him. Nancy
I can still feel an unlikely twinge of sympathy with Kingsley Amis (in What became of Jane Austen? & other questions, Cape,1970), who wrote, ‘My own experience in reading Dickens is to be bounced between violent admiration and violent distaste almost every couple of paragraphs, and this is too uncomfortable a condition to be much alleviated by an inward recital of one’s duty not to be fastidious, to gulp the stuff down in gobbets like a man.
Indeed, this was overwhelmingly my feeling, until my New Theatre Royal epiphany. But now I can say of Dickens, to myself and to others, as of any other book: “Forget about Duty; just try him out, stick with him for a while. And READ HIM OUT LOUD – or get someone else to read him to you. Simon Callow, for instance …
P. S. If all else fails, try this: The trick to reading Dickens is to remember how he was published. In Dickens' time, books were published as serials. So in whatever news magazine was handy you'd get two chapters of a book. Then you'd have to wait a month, and you'd get two more. At the end, you'd get the last four chapters. (This is why all the good stuff happened at the end of every even chapter, and why characters are reintroduced sixty-three times). So if you want to READ Dickens, the best way to do it is to read two chapters at a time, and take a week off between them. It's a weird way to do it, but you'll quickly discover that "pull" that readers felt towards the next chapter.
This article was originally published in Portsmouth Point magazine, in June 2012.