Dickens at Christmas…
A few months ago I did this tag concentrating mainly on Scottish fiction as my examples. Since now ‘tis the season to be jolly, and nothing could be jollier than Dickens at Christmastime, I thought I’d resurrect it and see how wonderfully the Great Man shines in all aspects of the art of literary fiction. Join me for a bit of…
1. How do you define literary fiction?
Last time I said “I’m looking for great writing – and by that I don’t mean creative writing, I mean writing that uses a vocabulary that stimulates the brain without baffling, that reads effortlessly and that creates wonderful images of places or people, or both, with beautiful descriptive prose. I want emotional truth – the characters might be realistic or exaggerated and even caricatured but they must fundamentally act in ways people would act. If it’s historical fiction, it must be true to the time in which it’s set. If it’s genre fiction, it must transcend the genre but must never forget its roots in its desire to be literary. If it’s contemporary fiction, it must say something intelligent and preferably profound about society, culture and/or the human condition.” Dickens meets all these criteria, and I suspect is the man who has been most influential in forming my opinion of what literary fiction should be.
2. Name a literary fiction novel with a brilliant character study.
Little Dorrit – of course Dickens is famous for his dazzling array of unique characters, but the character I’m choosing is less well known than some of the others: Flora Finching. She was the hero Arthur’s first love, but their parents prevented them from marrying. Now Flora is a widow and is no longer quite the beautiful young girl of whom Arthur once dreamed. But she flirts with him dreadfully, calling up all the silly, romantic things they said and did as young lovers and behaving as if she’s still a young girl, and she’s very, very funny. It could so easily have been a cruel portrayal, especially since she was inspired by Dickens re-meeting his own youthful first love in middle life to discover she had become old, fat and dull, and determined to flirt with him as if they were still lovers. But Flora’s character is actually done with a real degree of warmth – more warmth than Dickens showed to the original, I fear.
“Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!” tittered Flora; “but of course you never did why should you, pray don’t answer, I don’t know where I’m running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it only the men, and when they pull their hair so very tight off their foreheads don’t they hurt themselves, and why do they stick little bells all over their bridges and temples and hats and things or don’t they really do it?” Flora gave him another of her old glances.
Frivolous Flora and her elderly aunt-in-law
3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.
Bleak House – Dickens here shifts between a first person narrator, the young heroine Esther Summerson, and a third-person omniscient narrator, and also between present and past tenses. This may not seem like such a major thing now, when so many authors try to use present tense and shift between narrators, but it was innovative and experimental at the time and gives the book an essentially modern feel. Plus, Dickens being Dickens, he’s great at it, using present tense effectively and appropriately, which sadly is rarely the case with lesser beings…
Through the stir and motion of the commoner streets; through the roar and jar of many vehicles, many feet, many voices; with the blazing shop-lights lighting him on, the west wind blowing him on, and the crowd pressing him on, he is pitilessly urged upon his way, and nothing meets him murmuring, “Don’t go home!” Arrived at last in his dull room to light his candles, and look round and up, and see the Roman pointing from the ceiling, there is no new significance in the Roman’s hand tonight or in the flutter of the attendant groups to give him the late warning, “Don’t come here!”
4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.
Martin Chuzzlewit – In the middle of this one, Dickens suddenly transports Martin and his faithful servant Mark Tapley to America, and has them have a complete story there before returning them to the main story back in England. Dickens’ method of writing for serialisation meant that he often reacted to how early instalments were received by his public, and this book is a major example of that. While he clearly had the main arc of the story mapped out, apparently the decision to send young Martin off to America was made mid-way through in order to revive flagging sales. While I’m not convinced it was a great decision, it provides a good deal of opportunity for some of Dickens’ fine satire as well as some wonderful descriptive writing. Dickens’ picture of the newly independent United States is either deeply insightful and brutally funny (if you’re British) or rude and deeply offensive (if you’re American). Fortunately I’m British…
It was hastily resolved that a piece of plate should be presented to a certain constitutional Judge, who had laid down from the Bench the noble principle, that it was lawful for any white mob to murder any black man: and that another piece of plate, of similar value, should be presented to a certain Patriot, who had declared from his high place in the Legislature, that he and his friends would hang, without trial, any Abolitionist who might pay them a visit. For the surplus, it was agreed that it should be devoted to aiding the enforcement of those free and equal laws, which render it incalculably more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write, than to roast him alive in a public city.
The inaptly named Eden, young Martin’s American home.
5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.
A Tale of Two Cities – every novel Dickens wrote explores social themes, but he never conveys his anger more effectively than in this book about the Terror following the French Revolution. We talk endlessly now of the dangers of the rise of populism in response to the inequality in our societies and then we smugly wrap ourselves back up in our warm and comfortable cloak of social privilege, and dismiss as ignorant anyone who disagrees with our world view. Dickens was warning his contemporaries of this way back then, showing how the Revolution arose out of the failure of the rich and powerful elite to respond to the growing discontent of the disadvantaged and ignored in society, and showing further and with immense power how once violence is unleashed in a society it feeds on itself, growing until it becomes a monster – the mob…
“Patriots and friends, we are ready! The Bastille!”
With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm-bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack began.
“To me, women!” cried madame his wife. “What! We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!” And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in hunger and revenge.
6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.
Great Expectations – I was trying to stick to books I’ve reviewed on the blog, but really I think that perhaps his best exploration of that nebulous thing we call the “human condition” appears in my least favourite of his novels. Miss Havisham blighted by disappointment and betrayal; simple Joe Gargery’s generosity and fidelity; Estella’s nature deliberately warped from childhood so she can act as an instrument of Miss Havisham’s revenge: all of these are brilliant examples of how circumstance and nature collide to make us what we are. But Pip himself stands out – following him from an early age into manhood allows us to see how his character is formed by experience, shaped by the material expectations he’s told he has and by the social and emotional expectations of his family and friends. Ultimately, with two possible endings, there’s ambiguity around whether Pip’s original nature is stunted for ever, or is simply dormant, ready to put forth fresh shoots if the sun shines on him.
“But you said to me,” returned Estella, very earnestly, “‘God bless you, God forgive you!’ And if you could say that to me then, you will not hesitate to say that to me now—now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape. Be as considerate and good to me as you were, and tell me we are friends.”
“We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.
7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.
A Christmas Carol – Dickens brilliantly uses the format of a ghost story to explore the true meaning of Christmas as a time for family and joy, of course, but also for reflection on greed, generosity and the inequality that existed in extremes in his society and sadly still pervades our own. A chilling tale, warning his readers not to look away, not to become so concerned with their own narrow concerns that they cease to notice the plight of those less fortunate, not to impoverish their souls in pursuit of material wealth. The wonderfully redemptive ending is pure Dickens as he shows how material and spiritual generosity enrich the giver as much as the recipient. Dickens suggests we can begin to enjoy our rewards here on earth, and lessen the harsh judgement that may otherwise await us in the hereafter.
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?
The joy of Dickens, and a lesson I wish many contemporary writers would learn, is that he saw no reason to limit himself to a single style or single subject, even within a single book. Each contains elements of social themes, human condition, romance, crime and horror – each is a microcosm of all that it is to be and to experience in this ugly, complicated, glorious world, and each shows the intelligence, insight and profound empathy that make him the greatest writer the world has ever known.
…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!