Following in Dickens’ footsteps

2012 is a year of Dickens anniversaries – a major one for him, and what’s turned out to be quite a significant one for me.  It’s his bicentenary, of course, but it will also be 30 years since I first read Bleak House. I know that because I wrote an essay on it in my first term at Oxford. Looking at that again, when I came upon it a few weeks ago, I experienced one of those odd time-slip moments when you meet your younger self coming back. I wrote, then, about ‘angles of perception’ in the novel, which was a fancy way of saying I looked at the double narrative structure, one in the voice of Esther Summerson, and one in the third person, which we’re led to believe is Dickens himself – giving us information we wouldn’t otherwise have, making us laugh, and sermonising at us, on occasion, about the desperate need for social change.

Needless to say Bleak House has survived rather better than my 18-year-old attempt to analyse it, but the sheer exhilaration I felt on first reading the book has remained with me – in fact not just remained but enriched and evolved over time, and emerged, finally, into The Man in Black, my own small offering to the great man by way of a 200th commemoration. It’s an attempt to engage creatively with his 19th-century masterpiece from a 21st-century perspective, in which I’ve tried to follow in his footsteps, rather than step into his (very large) shoes. All the same, I was surprised to find how few people had been there before me.

Considering how popular his books are – how many adaptations are still being made – there aren’t many contemporary writers who’ve used his books as the starting point for new work of their own. Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip are obvious exceptions, as are the various continuations of Drood, but when you look at what an industry of Austen ‘fan fiction’ there is out there, it seems odd that characters like Bill Sikes or Miss Havisham haven’t had a literary after-life. Or Inspector Bucket, of course, the first fictional English detective (though I’ve done my best to remedy that particular omission). But when you look at the question again, an answer does start to suggest itself.

Another favourite subject for first-year Eng Lit students is a standard ‘compare and contrast’ contest between Dickens and George Eliot. In one corner, the mistress of psychological analysis; in the other, an entertainer, satirist, and slapstick comedian. You don’t need an English degree to guess who tends to win that sort of prize fight, but does Dickens deserve to be dismissed so loftily? It’s true that many of his characters are two-dimensional, which perhaps explains why very few of them can survive outside the special hothouse atmosphere he rears them in. But when he creates such characters he does so with a very precise aim in mind, and signals that fact quite clearly by giving them a name no real person ever had, like Turveydrop, or Squeers, or Pumblechook. As Evelyn Waugh says in Brideshead Revisited, these caricatures aren’t complete human beings at all, but tiny bits of ones, unnaturally developed and pretending to be whole. But that’s how caricatures work – how cartoons work – how all satire works. And no-one does that better than Dickens.

It was fascinating to see the BBC schedule their wonderful 2005 Bleak House in half-hour slots, creating the broadcast equivalent of Dickens’ own serial publication, complete with episode-ending cliffhangers that kept ‘em hungry for more. It’s often said that if Dickens were alive today he’d be writing for EastEnders, and there’s a lot of truth in that. But I think the analogy may work even more widely. A book like Bleak House isn’t just a great soap opera (though it is), it’s also a detective mystery, a psychological thriller, a comedy sketch show, and a series of hard-hitting social documentaries. From Panorama to Little Britain. And how he would have loved that.

Yes, Dickens may be shallow in depth, but his strength in breadth is astounding – he is, in effect, an entire evening’s worth of TV rolled up into one book. And after all, in a pre-TV age, reading was one of the only forms of entertainment accessible to most of the population, and a Dickens novel offered them a magnificent, if sometimes chaotic medley of everything on offer on the BBC on a good Saturday night (with the possible exception of Match of the Day). If you’ll forgive me a cliché he would probably not have forgiven himself, all human life really is here.

So happy birthday, Mr Dickens, and what better gift could there possibly be than to pick up one of his books, sit back, and let him – gloriously – entertain you.


This post was originally written in 2012 for the Spectator arts blog

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