The Literary Fiction Book Tag – Christmas Edition

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!”

Mr Tulkinghorn’s Roman

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.
By Phiz.

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.

Storming of the Bastille
Jean-Pierre Houel

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.

Pip and Estella

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!”

The Ghost of Jacob Marley

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!

* * * * *

HAVE THE DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY!

49 thoughts on “The Literary Fiction Book Tag – Christmas Edition

  1. Some of my favourite Dickens’ books here! I still haven’t read Little Dorrit – it didn’t come up for me in the CC Spin, but one of his books did – Oliver Twist, so I’m delighted. I totally agree with you about his use of the present tense! I hope you have a great Christmas and some time for reading maybe …

    • I nearly chose Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist as my example of a brilliant character study – hope you enjoy it! I’ve started Barnaby Rudge now so my Christmas is well under way. Merry Christmas, Margaret – have a lovely day!

  2. I have to admit the perfect definition of literary fiction has always escaped me, yours is perfect! I’m going to use it as a yardstick in future. Seriously…brilliant.

  3. What a great idea, FictionFan! And you make very well-taken points here. It’s easy to forget that Bleak House was experimental at the time. And you’re right about the characters Dickens created. So many of them are so very memorable, aren’t they? And the final major point you make – Dickens’ variety – is perhaps the most important one. One of his gifts was that he didn’t (need to) confine himself to one style or type of book. Have a wonderful holiday, and all the best for 2020.

    • He’s written so many brilliant characters it was hard to decide on just one! This was a fun post to do – reminded me of all the reasons that Dickens will always be my favourite author (except when it’s Conan Doyle, Christie or Austen, of course… 😉 ) Have a lovely Christmas, Margot – all the best to you and yours. 🎅🍾📚📚

  4. I think Flora would have made a much more dynamic heroine than the somewhat lackluster Amy Dorrit. One of the most common criticisms of Dickens is that he didn’t know how to write convincing women, but I would probably amend that to say he didn’t know how to write convincing heroines, as he spent too much time focusing on how pure and wonderful they were to allow them to fully live as characters. Despite this drawbak, I completely agree he is a genious, and the master of literary fiction.
    Have a lovely Christmas.

    • Yes, his heroines are a major weakness but I’m so used to them now I just accept them as they are and forgive him! I did love Kate Nickleby though when I re-read it last year – she’s got far more spirit than the others for some reason. If you can get hold of an audiobook called Dickens Women by Miriam Margolyes anywhere, I highly recommend it – she acts snippets from the various books, brilliantly, I may add, and also discusses his inspiration for many of the best-known characters. It’s a hugely entertaining performance.
      Merry Christmas, Alyson – have a lovely day!

  5. Brilliant post! Who better to talk about at Christmas than Dickens? Little Dorrit is one of my favorites of his books. I didn’t like it at first, but I grew to love it and the other favorite: A Tale of Two Cities. Martin Chuzzlewit is another I really enjoyed. I didn’t know that Bleak House was experimental. Interesting. I read it but I enjoyed the miniseries adaptation more. Didn’t love Great Expectations either.

    Have a great Christmas!

    • Thank you – glad you enjoyed it! 😀 I love A Tale of Two Cities – so much power in his description of the mob! And I did enjoy Martin Chuzzlewit’s adventure in America, though I must admit Dickens was rather rude in his portrayal – but then he’s pretty rude about the Brits too! The Bleak House adaptation is brilliant, isn’t it? It’s one of my top three of all time, along with my beloved P&P and one the BBC did of Vanity Fair years ago, with Natasha Little in the starring role. I may have to have a binge watch over the holidays…

      Merry Christmas – have a great one! 🎅

  6. What a great post! I haven’t read Little Dorrit or Martin Chuzzlewit yet (maybe 2020 will be the year) but I enjoyed all of the others you’ve mentioned, especially A Tale of Two Cities.

    Have a lovely Christmas. 🙂

    • Thank you – glad you enjoyed it! 😀 I enjoyed Little Dorrit, and Martin Chuzzlewit even more. But my favourites are definitely Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities and Nicholas Nickleby. At the moment anyway – it changes from time to time… 😀

      Merry Christmas, Helen – have a great day! 🎅

  7. I’m particularly fond of A Christmas Carol. Especially at this time of year, one can usually find it on TV in some form or another, and the story really is timeless. Here’s wishing you and Merry Christmas, FF, and a delightful new year!

    • I try to read, watch or listen to at least one version of A Christmas Carol every year – haven’t decided which yet this year! Merry Christmas to you and yours, Debbie – have a great day! 🎅

  8. The penchant for padding, his famous verbosity due to being paid by the word, has kept me from truly enjoying his books. I wonder if he would revise them if given the ability.

    • Ha – I love his verbosity! He’s the only author that I can get to the end of 800 pages and wish there was more. 😀 He’d be daft to revise them considering they’ve remained on bestsellers lists for well over a century…

      Merry Christmas, Pam! Have a great day. 🎅

      • Well—I tip my bookmark to his characterization and applaud his efforts to bring awareness to the plight of those in dire poverty.
        And a very Merry Christmas!🎄

    • I’ll eventually brainwash you into reading them all – that’s my nefarious plan, anyway! Bleak House, in my humble opinion, is the greatest novel ever written – foggy London, romance, mystery, murder, horror, spontaneous combustion – what more could you possibly want? 😀

      Merry Christmas, Kelly – have a great day! 🎅

  9. Oo, this is so instructive. I am going to save it. I am about to embark on my first Dickens since Oliver Twist in high school and A Christmas Carol: David Copperfield. It’s been tough figuring out which one to start with, so I asked some people!

    Merry Christmas, FF, I hope you have a great day!

    • Thank you – glad you enjoyed it! There are so many good ones and he’s a bit like Austen – everyone has different favourites. David Copperfield is excellent – there are some unforgettable characters in it and it’s probably the one that reveals most about Dickens own early life. Enjoy! 😀

  10. Wonderful post! I realise I need to read more by Dickens. Bleak House will always remain my favourite because there is so much of my beloved “law” there 🙂 I have to look up Martin Chuzzlewit. There can never be too much of Dickens. I constantly come back to his books because they are some of the very best written in the English language.

    • Thank you – glad you enjoyed it! Bleak House is my favourite too – he does the legal stuff so well, but also the wonderful horror of the murder… and the spontaneous combustion! 😀 I enjoyed Martin Chuzzlewit a lot when I re-read it recently – I try to read one of the novels every Christmas, so this year it’s Barnaby Rudge. That way I know every year will be starting with a good book… 😀

  11. I hope your Christmas brought some good company, food and pleasant times, FF.
    Some years ago, I saw Miriam Margolyes’ TV programme Dickens in America. I remember I was as enthralled by her passion for Dickens as I was by the retracing of Dickens’ journey. Your comment led me to find that her Dickens’ Women is in the library. Time for a listen!

    • A quiet one for me, but then that’s how I like them! Hope you had a lovely day too. 😀

      Ah, great! I hope you enjoyed it. I still always laugh when I remember her disgust with all these tiny perfect seventeen-year-old heroines. I have a copy of her reading Bleak House – unabridged – that I really must listen to sometime, but it’s incredibly long. Maybe I should make it one of my challenges all on its own!

  12. I always read A Christmas Carol around this time of year it’s a favourite of mine – not just of Dickens’ work – and I do enjoy various adaptations on large and small screen. I will catch up on the new adaptation from the BBC in the next day or so – have you seen it? What did you think of it?

    I remember seeing Dickens in America, she was so passionate. Dickens Women sounds like an interesting listen.

    This was a terrific post, I have very much enjoyed.

    Best wishes for a wonderful New Year!

    • Thank you – glad you enjoyed it! 😀 I always try to either read, watch or listen to A Christmas Carol over the holidays but haven’t got round to it yet this year – maybe on New Year’s Day! Hmm… I was going to watch the new version but when I looked at the iPlayer it’s got a strong language warning so clearly they’ve changed it out of all recognition. Think I’ll stick with the Patrick Stewart version!

      The Dickens Women audio is great fun – she’s so good at doing all the characters, even the men, and she’s very funny especially about all these saccharin seventeen-year-old heroines. I hope you get a chance to hear it sometime.

      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 😀

      • I’ve ordered a copy of the Dickens Women CD, sounds well worth a listen. Thanks for the recommendation.
        I did wonder about this new adaptation too! Perhaps give it a bit of a wide birth and stick to a re-read this year!
        It’s always a pleasure to read your comments when I pop in for a browse. 😀

        • Aw, thank you! And I do hope you enjoy Dickens Women when it arrives. 😀 Yeah, the recent adaptations of classics seem to be making too many changes – I wish they’d just stick to the original!

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