I never liked Charles Dickens

One of the recurring Christmas motifs is A Christmas Carol – the story of how Ebenezer Scrooge goes from a miserable rich man to a happy generous rich man. (We like stories like this.) As George Orwell notes in his famous essay, this is Dickens’ only and recurring solution to the problems of human misery – we should behave decently towards each other.

But I’ve never got on with the Dickensian style of writing, never to use one word where three sentences will convey the same effect, and while Claire Tomalin may say

“Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Charles Dickens novel, and I think that’s a pity.”

my reaction is slightly: Dickens was writing (mostly) serial stories for the journal-reading public. He wrote three chapters for each issue, and it was distinctly in his own financial interest if he spun the story out as long as possible and used as much wordage as possible. You once had to be prepared to wait a month or so between each episode of the novel – which is why they take such steady reading now!

I enjoyed reading A Christmas Carol, I think just because Dickens wasn’t writing in his usual word-rich style. The problem was not length – I read longer books – but the jarring words getting poured on me, making it impossible for me to see through them. Dickens prose was heavy and sticky: I didn’t like it, as a child, and turned away to read lighter clearer things. I still don’t much.

Last Sunday’s complaint that ebooks are selling massively in downmarket genre fiction and not in “future classics” made me smile, though: Jane Austen and Charles Dickens wrote downmarket genre fiction, and people still read both for pleasure, which is the working definition of a classic: people still want to read your writing, a century after your death. No writer can aim for this, but surely every writer wants it? There is as much chance of achieving it in any genre, even the disrespected ones.

Though I’ll always prefer Austen to Dickens (and not because Dickens was a serial abuser of women) one of Dickens’ books I read for pleasure is his American Notes. A lot of it is straight reportage – veering off into moral judgement and with occasional bouts of trying-to-be-funny English superiority, which I can well imagine Americans may have found equally exasperating.

This, though, is alarmingly applicable to the modern day:

Another prominent feature is the love of ‘smart’ dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust; many a defalcation, public and private; and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel, are not gauged by its or his observance of the golden rule, ‘Do as you would be done by,’ but are considered with reference to their smartness. I recollect, on both occasions of our passing that ill-fated Cairo on the Mississippi, remarking on the bad effects such gross deceits must have when they exploded, in generating a want of confidence abroad, and discouraging foreign investment: but I was given to understand that this was a very smart scheme by which a deal of money had been made: and that its smartest feature was, that they forgot these things abroad, in a very short time, and speculated again, as freely as ever. The following dialogue I have held a hundred times: ‘Is it not a very disgraceful circumstance that such a man as So-and-so should be acquiring a large property by the most infamous and odious means, and notwithstanding all the crimes of which he has been guilty, should be tolerated and abetted by your Citizens? He is a public nuisance, is he not?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘A convicted liar?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘He has been kicked, and cuffed, and caned?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘And he is utterly dishonourable, debased, and profligate?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘In the name of wonder, then, what is his merit?’ ‘Well, sir, he is a smart man.’

That’s the sub-prime mortgage crisis (and media-led reaction to it) in a nutshell. Avedon Carol said, citing my post on Stephen Hester, “The infuriating thing is knowing that these guys get there with our government’s help” but the infuriating thing too is the spectacle on Question Time of spivs who were as involved in the crash as anyone, being treated as if they were respectable citizens. This is far from being an American problem only, but the scale of fraud in the US mortgage crisis is of men who think themselves too important to be ever prosecuted.

Re-reading George Orwell on Charles Dickens, I thought that Orwell was reflecting what he felt rather than fairly assessing Dickens – but in a year where the independence referendum for Scotland is perhaps making English people think harder than usual about what it means to be English, this near the end from the very English political writer:

But in moral outlook no one could be more “bourgeois” than the English working classes. The ordinary people in the Western countries have never entered, mentally, into the world of “realism” and power-politics. They may do so before long, in which case Dickens will be as out of date as the cab-horse. But in his own age and ours he has been popular chiefly because he was able to express in a comic, simplified and therefore memorable form the native decency of the common man. And it is important that from this point of view people of very different types can be described as “common”. In a country like England, in spite of its class-structure, there does exist a certain cultural unity. All through the Christian ages, and especially since the French Revolution, the Western world has been haunted by the idea of freedom and equality; it is only an idea, but it has penetrated to all ranks of society. The most atrocious injustices, cruelties, lies, snobberies exist everywhere, but there are not many people who can regard these things with the same indifference as, say, a Roman slave-owner. Even the millionaire suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton. Nearly everyone, whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood. Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.

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