I read “Our Mutual Friend” on vacation. Lounging (flopped like a jellyfish actually) in a low-slung chair at the beach, a rather corpulent woman in a polka dot one-piece paused by my side after catching sight of the thick tome on my lap.
“Dickens!” she exclaimed, nose wrinkled.
Pulled back from the foggy banks of the Thames, I simply smiled and bobbed by head.
“Ew!” she said as if she’d stepped in shark poo. “Isn’t Dickens dry?”
“Dry?” I was aghast.
“You know… boring.”
“No,” I said, “quite the contrary. When’s the last time you read him?”
“Oh, high school. I hated him.”
Then she wobbled off into the water. I thought vaguely of dunking her head under the water for a few minutes, but then I decided that I had been possessed by Bradley Headstone (the psychopathic criminal and one of the villains in “Our Mutual Friend”).
Dickens isn’t dry nor is he boring. But don’t listen to me. Listen to Vladimir Nabokov: “If it were possible I would like to devote the 50 minutes of every class meeting to mute meditation, concentration, and admiration of Dickens.”
Or Eudora Welty: “My mother read secondarily for information; she sank as a hedonist into novels. She read Dickens in the spirit in which she would have eloped with him.”
Dickens is a magic carpet ride. A heady rush of imagination that infuses itself to your soul and flies you to places in the human condition that make the unreal very real.
And just for fun – here are some interesting things about the man who gave us Scrooge and the Artful Dodger.
- At 12, Dickens, father was imprisoned for debt and Charles was forced to work at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse at 30 Hungerford Stairs. For about six shillings a week, young Charles covered pots with paste-blacking applied with oil paper. He did this from morning until night. The episode scarred him for life: “Until old Hungerfordmarket was pulled down, until old Hungerford-stairs were destroyed, and the very nature of the ground changed, I never had the courage to go back to the place where my servitude began. I never saw it. I could not endure to go near it.”
- Dickens first love was Maria Beadnell. She broke his heart. He later immortalized her as Dora in “David Copperfield” and Flora Finching in “Little Dorrit.”
- Possibly because of the little girl Nell in the novel “The Old Curiosity Shop,” Dickens developed a reputation for killing children in his books. But Dickens scholar Norrie Epstein (in her wonderful book “The Friendly Dickens”) says that Dickens only killed 14 people under the age of 25 in all his novels. That’s nothing compared to the death count of most video games these days.
- Dickens traveled to the United States in 1842 with unprecedented fan fair. He was greeted like a king on his first visit to America. But Dickens hated the place. “I never knew what it was to feel disgust and contempt until I traveled in America,” he wrote. The book he produced from his visit, “American Notes,” turned many in the U.S. against him.
- Dickens carefully disguised sexual dysfunction in his novels. For example, Miss Wade in “Little Dorrit” is probably a lesbian. Uriah Heep in “David Copperfield” seems to harbor masturbatory impulses. Quilp in “The Old Curiosity Shop” appears to be a sexual deviant. And then, of course, there is the likely pedophile in Fagin in “Oliver Twist.”
Labels: Dickens, literature, reading