Everyone loves Charles Dickens during the holidays, yet no one seems to read him. Daniel Arizona ponders the man's literary genius ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
It never ceases to amaze me how embedded Charles Dickens is in our culture during the holiday season
, when Christmas holds the national imagination ransom. Where I live in San Francisco, a production of “A Christmas Carol” is battling with “The Nutcracker” for holiday audiences, and a Great Dickens Christmas Fair
had been in full swing since Thanksgiving, offering "A Victorian Christmas Card Come to Life!" (ie, a simulacrum of Victorian London with hundreds of actors and performers peddling vittles and wares from countless storefronts). A local swank gift shop now has an entire section called “Dickens’s Village” made up of miniature snow-bedecked street vignettes for your mantelpiece.
As if this weren’t enough, Oprah Winfrey, that literary kingmaker, recently selected “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Great Expectations” as her two book-club picks, billing her choice as a fireside "Date with Dickens". She confessed that she had never read Dickens before, and seemed to offer no reason for choosing his work aside from the fact that it was the holidays. I can certainly think of no better image to relish during the holiday season than that of hordes of ragged, bloody Frenchmen being led in tumbrels to the guillotine (ie, the worst of times). But seriously, who else gets this kind of treatment? I’m surprised that Starbucks hasn’t already offered a Dickens Lemon Latte Punch (perhaps with a Perfect Proust Madeleine with proof of purchase). With this year marking the 140th anniversary of his death, and with the bicentennial of his birth less than two years away, it looks as if Charles Dickens, Inc. is up for yet another banner year.
But I wonder how much real attention Dickens’s books will get. In America at least, he seems to be an author more known than read
. (Find me someone who claims to have read “Martin Chuzzlewit” and I will show you a goddamned liar.) Yet even if you’ve read only one of his books, his stamp is such that it feels like you’ve read them all. The virtues that kept him famous, prosperous and never out of print—that he is easily grasped and eternally inventive in his visuals and jokes—have served to make him iconic. His characters, of course, deserve most of the credit. They possess those funny allegorical names, behave just as fixedly, and get thrown into one melodramatic scene after another. But taken as a whole, those 989 characters make up an unforgettable universe of humanity matched only by Shakespeare, whom Dickens worshipped.
George Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, pegged the novelist as a cynic who was neither a radical nor an idle bourgeois, but a self-made mystery who unswervingly championed the underdog, typically the working poor. He went on to assert that Dickens’s reticence to take a definitive position on class and rights carried over to his characters, who tend to feel unreal. While Orwell claimed he could conduct a conversation with a chap like Leopold Bloom, he held that he couldn't imagine one with any of the folks imagined by Dickens.
The Orwell essay is a long one and is interesting because there is a palpable tension between his obvious love for Dickens and his need to bring a clear, socialist critique to the table, if for no other reason than to prevent Dickens from being 'stolen' by others with their own specious agendas. For example, Orwell couldn't say enough about how amazing Dickens was in writing the way children think, but on the other hand it rankles him that Dickens never talks about actual work and what people do when they're not standing around in some literary scene.
But despite persistent and, to my mind, niggling quarrels that Orwell picks with Dickens, he couldn't bring himself to condemn him. He went on to concede that he couldn't imagine a day when he wouldn't be reminded of a particular Dickensian scene or moment. It is this aspect of Dickens, the sheer scope of the world he created and the widescreen variety of his novels, that is his true legacy. Yes, his novels are of a piece, but when you fit the jigsaw together it’s a remarkable picture, whirling and alive. Its intricacies and moving parts far outweighing the surprise coincidences, occasional mawkishness and deus ex machina endings.
A few years back, while working with first-edition Dickens materials in a special collections library, I was overcome with a desire to read the entire Dickens oeuvre. It seemed like a gruelling task, but I was eager to separate the man’s work from the shellac of his myth. Because Dickens was so prolific, I’m still at it, but it’s always a treat to start a new book of his. A Dickens novel will always take you places, out of the stuffy drawing rooms of Austen and through the noxious slums of London, as in Tom-all-Alone’s in “Bleak House”, or among the seaman of Yarmouth in “David Copperfield”, or the haunted mansion of Miss Havisham in “Great Expectations”. Dickens will also surprise you every so often with whimsical yet disarming moments of great moral severity. Take a scene from “Bleak House” when the heroine, Esther Summerson meets the "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs Jellyby, who is so preoccupied with improving the lives of Africans that her own home and family is literally falling to pieces around her:
We passed several more children on the way up, whom it was difficult to avoid treading on in the dark; and as we came into Mrs. Jellyby's presence, one of the poor little things fell downstairs—down a whole flight (as it sounded to me), with a great noise.
Mrs. Jellyby, whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces as the dear child's head recorded its passage with a bump on every stair—Richard afterwards said he counted seven, besides one for the landing—received us with perfect equanimity. She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if—I am quoting Richard again—they could see nothing nearer than Africa!...The room, which was strewn with papers and nearly filled by a great writing-table covered with similar litter, was, I must say, not only very untidy but very dirty. We were obliged to take notice of that with our sense of sight, even while, with our sense of hearing, we followed the poor child who had tumbled downstairs: I think into the back kitchen, where somebody seemed to stifle him.
Only rarely does any piece of writing equal a Dickens novel for this level of satire, and this is only one small scene on the outskirts of the main plot. But I digress.
Out of plain curiosity and with some trepidation, I sallied forth to the Dickens Christmas Fair (pictured top) to see for myself how Chuck D was being represented at his own holiday shindig. What I found was not so much a celebration of the man's literary genius as a Renaissance Festival in frock coats, flat caps, bonnets and parasols. The steampunkers
were in attendance, with their goggles and leather trench-coats. With the exception of a single wand shop, the Harry Potter contingent was blessedly absent. However, after imbibing some specially made Copper Ale by Lagunitas Brewery and taking a picture of a ghoulish Jacob Marley (and me), I buried my disappointment at the lack of book stalls and assorted Dickensalia and ended up having a good time. It's hard to remain disgruntled for too long in an alternate reality replete with fine ale, great expectations notwithstanding.
Much in the way that Elvis will be more famous for being Elvis than for his Sun recordings, Dickens will be forever remembered and commodified for the vibe that his name conjures up rather than the social realism of “Bleak House” or the hilarious diction of Mr Micawber. One day perhaps his mass popularity will translate into mass curiosity and finally into mass appreciation. In the meantime, the basic Dickens DNA will continue to replicate in the stories we tell about life and love, poverty and scroogery. For that God bless us, every one.
Daniel Arizona is a writer based in San Francisco. Picture credit: Raymond Van Tassel