Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Charles Dickens

Night Walks

 

penguin-great-ideas-dickens

Tis the season, and I am exhausted. But jolly. I love this time of year, even though work is absolute chaos. I’ve wrapped all my presents and turned the heating up. I’m still loving reading Middlemarch, slowly, and am just about to finish book three.

 

Whilst battling the crowds and stealing precious quiet moments away to myself, I fancied something light. You might think Dickens doesn’t quite fit this category, but this is a little book from the Penguin Great Ideas series.

Night Walks describes Dickens’ suffering as an insomniac, instead of sleeping he  goes out walking the streets of London until the small hours.

The restlessness of a great city, and the way in which it tumbles and tosses before it can get to sleep, formed one of the first entertainments offered to the contemplation of us houseless persons.

I love this essay as a document of times been and gone. Anything that lets us glimpse into human life, the unseen every day, is completely fascinating. Must read The Diary of Samuel Pepys next year.

Money, Money, Money

Yesterday, the day of the readathon, I was at work. Hurrah. But I put my best reading efforts forward and still managed to read a whole book: Life Class by Pat Barker. Rather excitingly I am going to hear her speak this evening so I will temporarily hold off talking about Life Class and Toby’s Room until next week.

I’ve spent a sunny but misty Sunday morning reading Martin Chuzzlewit. I’ve been trying to start it all week but with difficulty, just because I haven’t read any Dickens in a while. So far, I am a fan of this part:

‘For the same reason that I am not a hoarder of money,’ said the old man, ‘I am not lavish of it. Some people find their gratification in storying it up; and others theirs in parting with it; but I have no gratification connected with the thing. Pain and bitterness are the only goods it ever could procure for me. I hate it. It is a sceptre walking before me through the world, and making every social pleasure hideous.

On that cheerful note: The Casual Vacancy.

Am I allowed to compare J. K. Rowling to Dickens? Possibly with The Casual Vacancy more than Harry Potter but I will attempt to justify the comparison. I suppose I’m only drawing lines between the two because I am writing a post that happens to mention both of them. But, why not?

Firstly, the main reason I enjoyed The Casual Vacancy is because J. K. Rowling is an excellent storyteller. When it comes down to it, this must be why she has been so successful. Even with a very bleak plot, quite horrible characters and a grim outlook, I could picture it all – I knew the characters and I had to know what happened. Basically, she doesn’t need wizards or an audience with a nine year old reading age to write something compelling. Dickens link: I don’t think I need to justify the statement that Dickens is an excellent storyteller. That’d be ridiculous.

J. K. Rowling makes no secret of her humble beginnings. Living off benefits, struggling as a single mother, she has been very, very poor. These are the characters that are the focus of The Casual Vacancy. Set in the quiet suburban village of Pagford, the only blemish is the nearby council estate – known as The Fields. Here there are drug addicts, prostitutes, criminals and children. The book is so desperately sad because there are young children growing up in poverty with no chance of escape. Talking about this exploration into people’s lives, Rowling says:

People’s lives generally are more absurd, sadder, funnier, stranger, than you’re average soap opera […] but if you depict that then you are said to be writing satire.*

The book isn’t only about these people, it is about middle class parents and their children, high-flying academics, shopkeepers, Doctors, Councillors – everyone. Dickens link: What are Dickens’ characters if not an elegant and eccentric cross-section of Victorian society?

“Probably everything I write will be about death and morality because that’s what I think about.”* I think this is a moral novel because there is no way you could read it and not think that there must be a better way. I think that had this book been written by a different author I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read it. However, if I had read it then I would still think it was an important comment on the society we live in. Dickens link: I briefly mentioned the Dickens-morality-death theory in another post: there is a moral core to all the Dickens novels I have read so far. He was a big figure in trying to change what he viewed as negative in his society, he even ran his own house for fallen women. Think about Tom in Bleak House, or the debtor’s prison in Little Dorrit.

Well, that wasn’t quite the review I originally planned to write when I read The Casual Vacancy, but there you have it. And now I’m much more in the mood to carry on reading Martin Chuzzlewit.

* Quoted from the BBC Culture Show interview. If it’s not word for word, it’s because I was typing and listening at the same time.

The News Where You Are

I am so pleased to be able to say in this update that on Sunday evening I finished Parade’s End! As good as it was, I couldn’t concentrate on it any longer. Look out for a proper post about it later this week, along with an update on my original War Books project (hint: it is a much bigger list than when I started).

So my enthusiasm for re-reading Anna Karenina has not gone to waste – I’m just starting the second part this evening. All the comments on my last post made me look forward to reading it even more and so far it is just as great as I remember.

Yesterday evening I went to a talk called Dickens and the House of Fallen Women which was set in the most amazing library I’ve ever been in. Think of hundreds and hundreds of old leatherbound books on dark wooden bookcases, cracked leather armchairs, fireplaces, a ‘polite literature’ section – it was the stuff of a book lover’s dreams. The talk was good too, which was much needed because I haven’t read a Dickens novel in ages and am planning on Martin Chuzzlewit next month. I’ll give you the two most interesting snippets of the evening:

  • Dickens’ morality runs through all his stories, as he judges which characters are deserving of punishment. Generally speaking they are either female characters who ‘fall’ or male characters who treat women badly. These are always the characters who die. The characters that are able to be saved – i.e. re-establish themselves in society – live.
  • A nature of writing for serial publication was that Dickens often had to drastically change characters or storylines according to readership figures. Now I know why people say Dickens would be writing for soaps if he was writing today!

This afternoon I bought some new books:

On a war theme:

  • Toby’s Room and Life Class by Pat Barker
  • The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon which includes Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man – which I have wanted to read ever since I read Rachel’s post back in April, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress

I’ve also picked out:

  • The Charmers by Stella Gibbons
  • The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

I’m really excited to read my first Émile Zola – I’ve picked The Ladies’ Paradise because of the imminent BBC drama and thought a trip to nineteenth century Paris would be the thing, but my hype is really down to Fleur and o‘s posts recently.

Hope you are having a great literary week too.

My Best and Worst Times

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.

Dickens was testing my faith with A Tale of Two Cities, but he didn’t let me down at the end. This was a challenging read mostly due to language. It was quite flowery, especially when you compare it to the novel Dickens wrote next – Great Expectations. I’d had a false start with this book a few months ago: I couldn’t get part the first few chapters because I couldn’t work out what was happening. I decided to give it another try after Ulysses, because it could never be as tough as that.

Dickens described A Tale of Two Cities as his best ever story and it certainly reads as such. This was the first of Dickens’ novels to make me pay attention to where the original installments begun and ended. I was glad I didn’t have to wait for the next part after all the cliffhangers. Fortunately despite his slight change in style, A Tale of Two Cities still has that magical quality of language that made Dickens’ writing so original. Two of my favourite instances are:

  • A dead man lying in his grave is described as listening to the ‘whispering trees’
  • The crowd of revolutionaries rioting are described as rising up like an angry sea

Not to mention you have two of the most famous quotes in English Literature to open and close the novel. Got a little bit tingly when I read the last line.

This book got me thinking about historical fiction: Dickens was writing about a historical event eighty or so years in the past. I think people (I do, anyway) have a tendency to assume that ‘classics’ are a product of the time they were written and that the writers are transcribing their own times. But these books are artifacts of history in their own right. So really A Tale of Two Cities is a product of how the French Revolution was viewed in the nineteenth century. I suppose it made me think about each generation since Dickens’ adding to the meaning of the book, emphasising certain parts, imagining events according to what was important to the reader in their own lives.

After struggling with this book – it was definitely a challenging one – I felt so rewarded by how it ended. I didn’t know much about the plot when I started and I’m really glad everything came as unexpected. Even when a Dickens novel is hard to read, I’d never question the value in reading it. Discovering I could enjoy Dickens is one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

The Woman in White

I hadn’t planned on reading Wilkie Collins straight after Little Dorrit, because I really really want to read the copy of I Capture the Castle I bought last week. But there is a The Woman in White readalong and seeing as it was on my Classics Club list – why not? I’m self confessedly rubbish at following reading schedules so you shall not be surprised that I didn’t manage to follow this one either. If you want to take part, the readalong is going on until the end of April.

Before I say anything else, I have to start with some gushing. The Woman in White is brilliant! If you haven’t read it, put it on your to read list immediately (and then actually read it). A mightily fine book, but maybe not the one you were expecting. As the readalong graphic proclaims: there are no ghosts. This was a surprise as I had just always assumed this was a gothic kind of ghost story. Instead it is an insanely well crafted thriller told by several different narrators with twists that made me (embarrassingly, actually) gasp out loud. Should you be in the mood for a gothic story, there are plenty of elements to keep you happy; passions running high, doubles, people being locked up and setting churches on fire.

Comparing Dickens and Collins seems quite natural; they were contemporaries and travel buddies. What struck me about both writers was that I thought their writing was quite effeminate.  Both have a reputation of authoritative maleness that made their choice of writing from a woman’s perspective surprising. I was definitely pleasantly surprised when Esther appeared as a narrator of Bleak HouseI suppose the question is whether the female voices are accurate, or just appear to be. With women’s voices so limited in the 19th century their fictional representatives often fall into types: Virtuous or scandalous, wronged and weak or defiant and disobedient. There are hints of both in Collins’ writing.  The male / female divide wasn’t limited to the female characters themselves. Walter Hartright, the overall narrator of The Woman in White reminded me of Gilbert Markman from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Were the Brontës writing in their own voices, or had they mastered writing as men writing as women? A side note: if you like Anne Bronte you’ll like this.

Earlier this year I read The Dead Secret, which was the novel that Collins wrote before The Woman in White. It very nearly put me off Wilkie Collins altogether! I read that it is seen as Collins practicing the themes he mastered later in his writing. To be honest, the effect of this was that it seemed like a very underwhelming version of this novel. There are still secrets, grand old houses and mysterious parentage, but it is nowhere near as successful as The Woman in White.

Little Dickens

Little Dorrit really was a book of two halves. I started Book The First: Poverty back in January. I got to the end, put the book down, and left it on my bedside table for two months. Then, earlier this week, I picked it up partly out of guilt and partly as a desire for spring cleaning. This was a winter book and it isn’t winter anymore. Actually I could have pretended this was the plan all along as it turned out quite nicely – Book The Second: Riches was a completely different read greatly improved by a change of scenery.

This is a novel  about the debtor’s prison, Marshalsea, where Little Dorrit grows up after her father was imprisoned. Dickens was quite clearly against these institutions and is very sympathetic towards those in debt. Reading descriptions of people’s lives in there was quite touching, especially when there are so many comparisons with people’s situations today:

We are quiet here; we don’t get badgered here; there’s no knocker here, sir, to be hammered at by creditors and bring a man’s heart into his mouth. Nobody comes here to ask if a man’s at home, and to say he’ll stand on the door mat till he is. Nobody writes threatening letters about money, to this place. It’s freedom, sir, it’s freedom!

I suppose parts of this sound similar to Bleak House, although that was concerned with poverty through inheritance, a lot of the events of the book were motivated by people’s chasing money. This isn’t the part of Little Dorrit that really grabbed me. Instead, it was the odd sensation of not quite understanding what was happening whilst being insanely annoyed about missing bits. A lot of this novel is about misunderstandings and being talked out of things. One of my favourite, heart wrenching kind of moments, is this:

If Clenman had not decided against falling in love with Pet; if he had had the weakness to do it; if he had, little by little, persuaded himself to set all the earnestness of his nature, all the might of his hope, and all the wealth of his matured character, on that cast; if he had done this, and found that all was lost; he would have been, that night, utterly miserable. As it was –
As it was, the rain fell heavily, drearily.

Starting Book The Second made me remember that there are many weird things going on in Little Dorrit. Instead of trying to understand them in the first book, I decided to ignore them. As a result of this, I spent a lot of time frantically turning pages trying to work out why it wasn’t making any sense. I’m intrigued whether this has happened to anyone else who has read Little Dorrit, or if it is just me (like I unfortunately suspect it might be): Did the dreams of Mrs. Flintwinch make any sense to you? Luckily, I had a kind friend to explain them to me but I fear it was too late! If you haven’t read this book think doppelgängers, secrets in boxes, hearing ghosts in old houses and alternate realities. But all wrapped up in a cloud of normality.

All in all, Little Dorrit was really hard work. The first half didn’t leave me wanting more and the second half confused me beyond all measure. It was challenging, had really excellent characters and once the finer points were explained to me I could appreciate its cleverness. Having a two month gap in between parts might not have helped me pick up the subtler details but I think I would have hated this book if I hadn’t. The general experience, good and bad, can be summed up in this quote:

Affrey, like greater people, had always been right in her facts, and always wrong in the theories she deduced from them.

Wise, very wise, Mr. Dickens.

A Collection of Characters

Great Expectations, 1860-1861

I am happy to report that when you aren’t forced to read Great Expectations, you really really love Great Expectations. I might even say really really really love it. It was an absolute pleasure to read from beginning to end; it has so many brilliantly drawn characters, a gripping atmosphere and an absolutely fantastic plot. I think this quotation completely sums up everything about Great Expectations:

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

Dickens, you blow my mind. I read that passage, paused, and shivered contentedly. I think Pip as a boy is the key to the universal appeal of this story. The childhood Dickens describes rings so true – it is a bit like reading a part of yourself that you had forgotten. For example, the way Pip imagines how his mother and father looked according to the shape and inscriptions of their gravestones: its so easy to forget as an adult how you once pictured the world as a child.

No review of Great Expectations is complete without a bit of Miss Havisham. She has to be one of my favourite literary characters. On first impressions I admired Dickens’ imagination for thinking of things like stopping the clocks, letting things rot and floating about in a wedding dress. However, on reflection (and a second read) I think it is more admirable to think about what she represents. She is actually very human, she is the worst in all of us.

“I’ll tell you,” said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper, “what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter – as I did!”

There are so many dimensions to her that I think I would see something different every time I read this book, even if I read it hundreds of times.

The last of my adoring quoting is to do with Dickens’ writing itself. When I read this I had to tell the person I was sat next to what had happened. Luckily I was sitting at home and didn’t have to resort to quoting at strangers. Basically there is a normal paragraph where Pip is out and about in his usual London haunts. And then right at the close of the chapter, Dickens writes:

What was the nameless shadow which again in that one instant had passed?

Oh yes. He manages to completely change your attitude towards the entirety of what you have just read with thirteen words. Yes, he has just irrevocably changed the atmosphere and tone. Yes, you are now tense. Yes, you are hooked. Yes, without reference to the shadow previously you know exactly which shadow he is talking about.

YES, DICKENS, YOU ARE A BLOODY GENIUS.

Great Expectations for 2012

Happy New Year!

With Clarissa being my bedtime book, as it is too heavy to carry around, I’ve been reading Great Expectations in the daytime. I have read it once before at University about six years ago and didn’t like it. In fact it put me off Dickens for six years straight, as I deemed him too dour and bleak. If you’ve read any of my posts semi-recently, you will know I am a Dickens convert, through Bleak House and then A Christmas Carol.

The BBC adaptation of Great Expectations over Christmas was so good that I thought it was time to try again. I’m still quite near the beginning but there is so much to think about already.

In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong. I had had no intercourse with the world at that time, and I imitated none of its many inhabitants who act in this manner. Quite an untaught genius, I made the discovery of the line of action for myself.

Yes, I’m reading about Pip’s moral dilemma about helping the convict out on the marshes. This, for me, is such a big part of Dickens’ genius: The book turns out to be a series of events spiraling from this one moment, and Dickens manages to believably completely define one human being from his reactions to events as a child. He completely captures what it is like to be a child:

Since that time, which is far enough away now, I have often thought that few people know what secrecy there is in the young, under terror.

I love the image this conjures up. Remember how many secrets you had as a child? And the trade you did with other people for their secrets? I can vaguely remember not liking Great Expectations the first time around because as Pip grew up I didn’t like how he treats his family and the people from his humble origins. After thinking about this early incident on the marshes I think I will appreciate Pip’s progress more this time around.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol, 1843

This copy of A Christmas Carol belonged to my boyfriend’s great-grandfather and so I read it with great care – reading such an old copy added something special to my experience. A Christmas Carol is such an iconic tale but one I had never read firsthand. It is funny how the creation of a man one hundred and sixty-eight years ago can be so integrated into our culture and language surrounding Christmas that we use the name of his main character as an adjective.

I was initially surprised at parts of the dialogue which were familiar to me from adaptations. During The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, for example, when Scrooge is described as being ‘solitary, like an oyster’ I chuckled at the quirkiness of the description. Dickens wrote it.

My all time favourite line from this story has got to be:

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!

I think this says it all about Dickens’ writing: the language is a real joy. (Say it out loud!) I bet he picked each word with extreme care.

I read on the Penguin Doing Dickens blog that Dickens is supposed to have thought up A Christmas Carol during the course of one of his infamous walks around London. He seems very much to have been a man for the people. There are all levels of society here, with a particular emphasis on how rich men like Scrooge have an obligation to look out for those suffering.

The introduction to the book immediately got me hooked:

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

A book that has never been out of print since it was published, that helped rekindle the growing Victorian nostalgia for traditional Christmas, that has won the hearts of each new generation that encounters it: I don’t think the ghost of A Christmas Carol will be put to rest any time imaginable.

Christmas Books

Merry Christmas!