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Dickens’ third century
This is a big year for anniversaries. That great practical joker, Eric Williams, was born a hundred years ago, as was Albert Gomes, a victim of one of Wil-liams’ best practical jokes—“nationalism.” Each deserves a column, but another eminent personage, a bi-centenarian, commands attention first. This is Charles Dickens.
The first time a book made me shiver with something other than laughter or apoplexy (which happens when I read many local and Caribbean “poets” and UWI employees’ uhm, “essays”) was Dickens’s great panoramic novel, Our Mutual Friend. In it, quite early on, a young orphan named Johnny is dispatched to the great beyond, having perished because the medicine that could have saved him was a day late.
Dickens evilly wrings every drop of pathos out of the scene, as Johnny asks, with his last breath, to be allowed to kiss “the Boofer Lady” (the beautiful lady)—one of the heroines, Bella. I doubt anyone with a heart could read this scene and not shudder a little.
And this is a splinter out of a forest—the novel has everything: Bella goes from being a snob to an angel and finds love; Lizzie Hexam’s virtue causes Eugene Wrayburn to defy class convention for love and marry her; Rokesmith gets his fortune, and virtue is rewarded, evil punished, and hypocrisy ridi-culed. And it’s funny.
It’s hard to describe the appeal of Dickens to someone who doesn’t “get” reading, but anyone who likes thriller movies, television dramas, or comedy would love him. And unlike the Twilight movies or the Kardashians, Dickens makes you live and feel what other people live and feel. His characters are funny, like Major Bagshot in Dombey; strangely familiar, like the penurious yet profligate Micawber in Copperfield; or tearfully sad, like young David Copperfield’s life in the factory after his mother dies.
But Dickens’ books were not just entertainment, although they were, and remain, very entertaining. They were meant to slap the British upper class, and the newly prosperous middle class, into acknowledging the misery and vice they complacently floated above, and contributed to.
His glimpses of what would be called “inner city” London are quite gruesome, as when (in Dombey) the teenaged Florence is abducted by an old woman who cuts her hair off to sell to the wig-maker.
Even his comedy could be brutal. His depiction of 1840s America (in Martin Chuzzlewit) caused Americans offence—such was his popularity there. He saw antebellum America as uncivilised and dangerous. A slave is introduced early on to remind the British public of Americans’ brutishness—England had abolished slavery by 1834.
And the Americans’ crudeness is underscored in a dining hall scene: “All the knives and forks were working away at a rate that was quite alarming… everybody seemed to eat to his utmost self-defence.”
He presents a typical American, Hannibal Chollop, as a man who “described himself to strangers as a worshipper of freedom, was the consistent advocate of Lynch law and slavery, and invariably recommended, both in print and speech, the ‘tarring and feathering’ of any unpopular person who differed from himself.” Chollop carried pistols and a “great knife” which he called “the Tickler,” and regularly hacked, stabbed, and shot people to death for disliking his favourite newspaper.
I think I saw Chollop on CNN last week—in other words, Dickens, at 200, still speaks to us. The BBC has dramatised many of his works; he’s inspired fashion up to last year’s Fashion Week in Europe; and he is credited with inventing the “cliffhanger” plot strategy via his stories which were run as serials in magazines.
But the most compelling reason for Dickens’ perpetual popularity is his intimate knowledge of the human animal. His most memorable characters—the hypocrite Pecksniff, the malevolently ’umble Uriah Heep, and the monstrously selfish Dombey—are not just entertaining, they are immediately recognisable here, thanks to Trinidad’s British history. A glimpse into our institutions of law, politics, business, and higher education would reveal a profusion of Pecksniffs, Heeps, Dom-beys, Pumblechooks and a few Misses Havishams.
But even without an interest in necrophilia, Dickens’ sublime skill in creating compelling stories, combined with his strong sense of justice and morality, make it impossible for any reader to leave his works without deep satisfaction. With Stendhal or Flaubert or Har-dy this moral satiation is absent and you just steups and feel like cussing at the end.
This access to the more profound and transformative theatre of human experience is something every reader of Dickens knows, but now, science has verified it. In the NY Times of March 17, Anne Murphy Paul (“Your brain on fiction”) described neurological research which confirms that: “The brain…does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”
Reading, especially novels (good novels), brings something special to our experience: “novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”
A wonderful illustration of this, and Dickens’ grasp of the human situation, can be found in Martin Chuzzlewit’s transition (from himself to “a shadow”) in the brutal American frontier: “And it was strange, very strange, even to himself, how by quick though imperceptible degrees, he lost his delicacy and self-respect and gradually came to do that, as a matter of course, without the least compunction, which but a few short days before had galled him to the quick.”
If, instead of a Pecksniffian prayer at the start of Parliament and government functions, this paragraph were read (with big words explained for the PNM MPs) we’d at least remind the honourable members that what’s happening to them is not unique, and visible to the rest of us.
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