This summer just past, inspired by reading Clare Tomalins’s biography of Charles Dickens, “A Life”, I’ve read two of his magnum opuses, both around a thousand pages long. “Bleak House” and “David Copperfield”.
Both were truly magnificent. The kind of of novels you live with. They aren’t perfect, but each day, as I read another 30-40 pages, on the tube, I grew closer to the characters, the plot and the author. Dickens lives and breathes these pages, and getting on for 150 years later, his character still shines through.
I started with “Bleak House”. It’s a sprawling story with a dark heart. There are many comic characters, who endlessly amuse as they repeat their characteristics each time they appear. But deep down it’s a tale of class divides, dark secrets and the deleterious effect of the legal system on everyone who has the misfortune to become involved with it. The symbol of all of this is the lawyer, Tulkinghorn. A man with his finger in every pie, and really, no redeeming features. The squalor of London is vividly portrayed, along with the suffering of so many people living in the city. There is goodness, principally in the central characters of Esther Summerson, the young woman at the centre of so much in the story, who also narrates parts of the tale, and her benefactor, John Jarndyce. Jarndyce is also part of the mysterious legal battle that suffuses the whole story, and brings it to an end, when the legal costs outweigh the money at stake in the dispute. Dickens has a vehement dislike of the legal system, caused by his own experiences when disputing copyright, and it doesn’t half show.
“Bleak House” is a pessimistic tale, which takes apart the class obsession of Victorian life and the cruelty of a society which leaves so many people at the bottom of the pile. It has a real coherence, despite the myriad sub plots, and conveys a picture of nineteenth century London which is unsurpassed. There is laughter as Dickens teases the minor characters: the mother who obsesses over African affairs rather than her children, Guppy, the junior lawyer who can never quite say what he means, the pompous preacher uttering meaningless phrases, Snagsby, the stationer who gets caught up in all sorts of affairs which he’d rather avoid. But in the end the darkness prevails, alleviated only by Esther’s virtue.
Where “Bleak House” is a grand canvass of despair, “David Copperfield” is a more straightforward tale of a young man’s passage through life. The backdrop, especially in its London scenes, is little different to “Bleak House”, but the story is essentially optimistic, and there is a happy ending. A really happy ending, which moved me to almost-tears as I stood, crammed into a Piccadilly Line tube train, absorbing those lovely last moments. David goes through a whole range of suffering, especially in his early life. The cruelty of Victorian life is vividly portrayed, but throughout the story there are good people – (Miss) Peggotty, Mr Peggotty, Traddles, Aunt Trotwood after her initial outburst, Mr Dick, and above all, the lovely, perfect, Agnes (too perfect really) – who elevate the story and give you hope. There is tragedy, deception and evil, but good wins in the end. It’s not always convincing, but despite the thinness of some of the characters (especially David’s wife Dora, who is hardly raised above the one-dimensional “child-wife”, and Uriah Heep, whose main defect early on is being sweaty, ugly and ginger ) the sheer scale of the story wins you over. You really do care about the fate of all the characters.
I think I’ll take a little bit of time off from Dickens now, but I do plan to work my way through the novels. They are an extraordinary chronicle of the 19th century. He is the English Tolstoy – or should I say Tolstoy is the Russian Dickens?
If you haven’t ever read Dickens, do give him a go. And maybe “David Copperfield” is a good place to start, not least because there is a strong autobiographical element in the story. Follow it up with Clare Tomalin’s book, and you’ll know all you need to know about one of our country’s greatest writers.