A bit of Dickens

I’m just reading Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (main comment so far: there are about a million characters and I can’t remember who is who), and came across this little gem. Silas Wegg has been offered some money to go and read a book for Mr Boffin, who’s illiterate.

“Half a crown,” said Wegg, meditating. “Yes. (It ain’t much, sir.) Half a crown.”
“Per week, you know.”
“Per week. Yes. As to the amount of strain upon the intellect now. Was you thinking at all of poetry?” Mr Wegg inquired, musing.
“Would it come dearer?” Mr Boffin asked.
“It would come dearer,’ Mr Wegg returned. ‘For when a person comes to grind off poetry night after night, it is but right he should expect to be paid for its weakening effect on his mind.”

Holiday book report: Bleak House

By Charles Dickens, obviously. I have to admit, this isn’t really my idea of holiday reading: it’s just too long for that. But I half-inched it from a hotel I stayed at in Quito. It was either that or Harry Potter in Finnish.

It’s odd reading Dickens; sometimes he seems so dated — so sentimental, so cosy, so verbose, so typical of everything about the Victorians which has aged least well, like the Albert Memorial and majolica. In Bleak House, this is typified by ‘Esther’s Narrative’, those chapters, probably about 1/3 of the book, which are a first-person narrative in the voice of the angelic heroine of the story. I find the syrupiness of her portrayal unbearable. It sets my teeth on edge.

But at the same time there’s a thick vein of weirdness which is all his own. Dickens’s grotesquery is always tinged with a reassuring touch of comedy, but it’s a fag-paper from being something much more radical and scarier. Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the Courts of Chancery, and Miss Flite’s birds Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach: it seems just a tweak in mood from being Kafka. And one particular chapter, the death of Krook, is not just grotesque, it’s genuinely and stomach-turningly nasty.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that some aspects of a book age better than others, but I still find Dickens a bit schizophrenic. And I know Bleak House is one of his darker books, but even looking at his work generally I think that his enormous popularity, his firm place in the canon and his sentimentality tend to disguise the fact that he’s a much odder writer than his image suggests.

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