Yesterday was Dickens’ 200th birth anniversary and all over the internet (on twitter “Charles Dickens” was trending worldwide alongside “There is a Penis”) people were trying to explain what it is about his work that makes it so amazing. I will inevitably fail to do this.
I spent a lot of my life disliking Dickens. I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist when I was too young to see them as anything other than bildungsromans about virtuous boys and people with funny names. During my teens I read Dickens as a writer of not very good realist novels. I had to read Hard Times in my first year of college and that (with the opinions of most of my class and the addition of an unpopular teacher) was so easy to dislike.
The moment at which Dickens began to make sense to me, and I suspect this reflects very badly on me as a reader, was when I began to read him as weird. In Larry’s post here, he suggests that ‘…the more a Text (or even its Author, divorced as s/he may be from the Text’s semantics) diverges from a Reader’s expectations for what a Text ought to do, the more and more likely that Text will be dismissed as being “shoddy” or “poor”‘. And I needed a tradition, a particular lens to read him Dickens through, to appreciate how wonderful he was.* I’m not sure quite when I found it, but sometime in the last few years it has clicked into place.
And so last year when I first read this first paragraph of Bleak House…:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
… I was thinking about the Victorians and evolution and geology, I was thinking about the cleverness of that compound interest metaphor in this place, I was thinking how marvellous and evocative it all was, and I was thinking fucking dinosaurs and it was the first time I’d started reading Dickens and immediately felt such utter glee.
*(The Pickwick Papers – which is, after Bleak House, the Dickens work I’ve loved most – I read through a somewhat different lens, and one which took me rather less time to find)