Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

The root of all evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

our-mutual-friendOld Mr Harmon has been a tyrannical father to his children, so that the odd terms of his will are in keeping with his character. He has left the bulk of his fortune to his one surviving son, John, on condition that he marries a girl his father has chosen for him – a girl he has never met. Bella Wilfer is a mercenary young lady, quite willing to go along with this scheme. But when John drowns on his way home from foreign parts, Bella finds herself in the unsatisfactory position of having to go into mourning for a man she didn’t know, without the benefit of receiving any of the wealth she was expecting. The money passes to the Boffins, who decide it is their duty to do something to help Bella.

Jesse Hexam is the man who dragged the body identified as John Harmon from the Thames. This is how he makes his living, rowing up and down the river looking for corpses, often taking his daughter Lizzie along to row for him. But during the identification of this corpse, Lizzie catches the eye of a young and rather unscrupulous lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn. Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie will affect many people around them, leading to jealousy, resentment and dark deeds. But, as always with Dickens, there are possibilities for redemption too…

It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither. Gaslights flared in the shops with a haggard and unblest air, as knowing themselves to be night-creatures that had no business abroad under the sun; while the sun itself, when it was for a few moments dimly indicated through circling eddies of fog, showed as if it had gone out, and were collapsing flat and cold.

Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses
Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses

Much though I love Dickens, considering him the greatest writer of all time, I’ve never been blind to his faults. It’s always been a balancing act for me – the anger beneath the social satire, the wonderfully created and unforgettably caricatured minor characters, the brilliantly atmospheric descriptive writing; all offset against the parade of nauseatingly saccharin heroines, the occasional descent into an archness I try hard not to call twee, and the fact that sometimes the plots don’t quite gel – a result of them being serialised, I assume, and Dickens not really having decided on an ending when he published the beginning.

In this book, the seesaw falls slightly more to the side of the weaknesses than the strengths. I believe this was the last complete book he wrote, and he was involved in a serious accident in the middle of writing, when he was on a train that became derailed, leaving many people injured. He was unhurt physically but apparently the experience left him shocked. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps age was simply tiring him, but for me, this books lacks some of what makes his great books great.

The Boffins
The Boffins

The major theme of the book is money – how possession of it corrupts, and how lack of it causes great suffering. He satirises the class of society that hangs around the rich, especially the nouveau riche. Mr and Mrs Veneering seem to have come from nowhere, but their lavish hospitality wins them a whole host of new “oldest friends”. The Lammles show the pitfalls of marrying for money, each believing the other is wealthy till after the wedding, when they discover that they have each married a mirror image of themselves – another person on the make. Having inherited the Harmon wealth, kind old “Noddy” Boffin finds himself the target of conmen and would-be thieves, and begins to admire and emulate some of the great misers he finds in books. And, through old Betty Higden’s story, Dickens shows the iniquities of the Poor Laws of the time, and how many people would rather starve than end up living on the state’s merciless mercy.

That night she took refuge from the Samaritan in his latest accredited form, under a farmer’s rick; and if – worth thinking of, perhaps, my fellow-Christians – the Samaritan had in the lonely night “passed by on the other side,” she would have most devoutly thanked High Heaven for her escape from him.

All good, and all typically Dickensian, but it seemed to me that the old anger wasn’t there; especially with the Poor Law stuff, I felt his tone was resigned, almost defeated. The characters are well-drawn to serve his purpose of showing the shallowness and greed of this portion of society, but on the whole they’re not caricatured enough to make them unforgettable, in the way that, say, Sairey Gamp is, or Uriah Heep. In fact, I can’t think of a character from this book whose name has really become part of the general public consciousness, as, for example, Fagin has, or Mr Micawber, or Scrooge.

The plot takes an age to get going and I found myself wondering exactly where the focus was – again not a thing I usually find with Dickens. There are always multiple sub-plots and meandering detours, but generally it’s clear where the plot is heading. I found Bella’s story too light to hang a whole book around, while Lizzie’s story, much more darkly satisfying, keeps disappearing for large parts of the book. But the real problem with the plot is the end, so here goes with a major spoiler….

Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of "the Parish"
Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of “the Parish”

* * * * * * * MAJOR SPOILER ALERT * * * * * * *

The idea that Mr and Mrs Boffin together with Mr Rokesmith keep up a charade for literally years to teach Bella a lesson is simply too unbelievable even for this reader who happily swallows most of Dickens’ amazing coincidences and contrivances without blinking. The thing is, Noddy’s descent into miserliness is one of the more interesting parts of the book, so that when it turns out to have been an act, it takes away much of the book’s substance. Furthermore, I feel I have to point out that the eventual division of the money represents a major fraud on the Crown, to whom it in fact belongs!

It feels to me as if Dickens had intended the miser storyline to be “true”, and then, having written himself into a corner, had to hastily contrive this twist to get himself back out – the major peril of publishing in instalments.

* * * * * * * END OF MAJOR SPOILER * * * * * * *

Bella and Lizzie are both good heroines, though. Lizzie in particular shows herself to be strong and self-reliant, and the scenes where she resists her own inclinations in the matter of love, or where she sees her brother’s selfishness clearly but still loves him, make her one of his most likeable. Bella’s redemption from mercenary little madam to loving little wife and mother has its nauseating moments, but on the whole she’s rounded and believable, and her alteration is given a proper foundation. Jenny Wren is also intriguing, and perhaps the most traditionally Dickensian caricature in the book – although Dickens clearly liked her, so that the caricature is kind with none of his occasional cruelty. But what on earth was Dickens playing at with all this daughters treating their fathers as children stuff? It was silly enough when it was only Jenny who kept referring to her father as her ‘bad child’ but when Bella started doing it with her father too… well, I’m still wondering what was going on in Dickens’ mind! Though perhaps I don’t really want to know.

Jenny Wren and Mr Riah
Jenny Wren and Mr Riah

I was delighted with the positive way Dickens portrayed Mr Riah, his one Jewish character. Not only is Mr Riah shown as kind and generous, but Dickens takes the opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism and the unfairness of how minorities are often judged by the behaviour of the worst of them. This is Dickens at his best, when he tackles an injustice head on, and I felt it went a long way towards making up for Fagin – a great Dickensian character but not exactly flattering in its portrayal of Jewishness.

“I reflected – clearly reflected for the first time, that in bending my neck to the yoke I was willing to wear, I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people. For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough – among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say ‘All Jews are alike.’”

Nobody does dark and wicked deeds quite like Dickens, and happily there’s plenty of evil to make us shiver. The filthy and polluted Thames runs through the heart of the book, appearing again and again as the place where the foulest acts take place, and Dickens uses it to great effect as he builds up an atmosphere of tension and horror. I’ve included enough spoilers, so I’ll just say that these river scenes are up there with the best of Dickens’ writing.

The white face of the winter day came sluggishly on, veiled in a frosty mist; and the shadowy ships in the river slowly changed to black substances; and the sun, blood-red on the eastern marshes behind dark masts and yards, seemed filled with the ruins of a forest it had set on fire.

Dark deeds by the river...
Dark deeds by the river…

To sum up, then, there are too many weaknesses in this for it to count as one of Dickens’ absolute best, but then he sets the bar so high. Even as one of his second-tier novels, it’s still a greater book than the vast majority out there, and its strengths still justify a five-star rating. When you’re the greatest writer the world has ever known, you can get away with an occasional clunky plot device or two…

Book 5 of 90Book 5 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 105…

Episode 105…

My persistent attempt at exercising willpower is finally showing results, with another week where my TBR has remained stable – at 176! Happily, the review copy backlog has dropped 4 to 32, of which only 18 are overdue – the best it’s been for a long time. Feeling good about being able to get off the review copy treadmill in the new year, and having time to read some of the books I’ve been stockpiling for far too long.

Of course, I’m still looking forward to getting review copies of books from favourite authors and there’s a couple of those here, specially scheduled to ensure some great reading over the festive season. A bumper edition this week, since this will be the last TBR post till 2017…

Factual

how-shakespeare-put-politics-on-the-stageCourtesy of NetGalley. Shakespeare, politics, a bit of history and Yale University Press – how could it go wrong? Hmm… early reviews, including one from a reviewer I know and trust on this kind of book, suggest it could be way too academic and dry for my dilettante mind… but we’ll see…

The Blurb says: With an ageing, childless monarch, lingering divisions due to the Reformation, and the threat of foreign enemies, Shakespeare’s England was fraught with unparalleled anxiety and complicated problems. In this monumental work, Peter Lake reveals, more than any previous critic, the extent to which Shakespeare’s plays speak to the depth and sophistication of Elizabethan political culture and the Elizabethan imagination. Lake reveals the complex ways in which Shakespeare’s major plays engaged with the events of his day, particularly regarding the uncertain royal succession, theological and doctrinal debates, and virtue and virtù in politics. Through his plays, Lake demonstrates, Shakespeare was boldly in conversation with his audience about a range of contemporary issues. This remarkable literary and historical analysis pulls the curtain back on what Shakespeare was really telling his audience and what his plays tell us today about the times in which they were written.

* * * * *

Crime

the-beautiful-deadCourtesy of NetGalley. I have no doubts about this one though! A new Belinda Bauer is always a major treat…

The Blurb says:  In her latest, The Beautiful Dead, Bauer turns the trope of the media-attention-hungry killer on its head, with a riveting narrative centered on a down-on-her-luck crime reporter and a serial killer desperate for the spotlight.

Crime reporter Eve Singer’s career is on the downward slope when a spate of bizarre murders—each carefully orchestrated and advertised like performance art—begin in her territory. Covering these very public crimes revives her byline, and when the killer contacts Eve to discuss her coverage of his crimes, she is suddenly on the inside of the biggest murder investigation of the decade. But as the killer becomes increasingly obsessed with her, Eve realizes there’s a thin line between inside information and becoming an accomplice to murder—possibly her own.

A seamlessly-plotted thriller that will keep readers breathless until the very end, The Beautiful Dead cements Belinda Bauer’s reputation as a master of heart-stopping suspense..

* * * * *

Crime

cast-ironCourtesy of Quercus via MidasPR. The new Peter May has become part of my festive tradition in recent years. I’m going to whisper a little secret though – the Enzo Files series, of which this is #6, isn’t my favourite May series. In fact, I’ve only read a couple of them. The earlier ones were written several years ago, before the Lewis series, and I do think he’s been at his peak for the last few years, so will he be able to change my mind? Exciting… and even May’s less good books are still way ahead of most of the competition…

The Blurb says: West of France, 1989. A weeping killer deposits the unconscious body of nineteen year old Lucie Martin, her head wrapped in a blue plastic bag, into the water of a picturesque lake.

Lot-et-Garonne, 2003. Fourteen years later a summer heatwave parches the earth, killing trees and bushes and drying out streams. In the scorched mud and desiccated slime of the lake a fisherman finds a skeleton wearing a bag over its skull.

Paris, October 2011. In an elegant apartment in Paris, forensic expert Enzo Macleod pores over the scant evidence of this, the sixth cold case he has been challenged to solve. In taking on this old and seemingly impossible task he will put everything and everyone he holds dear in a peril he could never have imagined.

* * * * *

Fiction

our-mutual-friendMy major festive reading tradition is to read Dickens (hence why there are five Dickens novels on my Classics Club list, including this one). For some incomprehensible reason, I’ve never read this one before – an omission I can’t wait to rectify…

The Blurb says: A satiric masterpiece about the allure and peril of money, Our Mutual Friend revolves around the inheritance of a dust-heap where the rich throw their trash. When the body of John Harmon, the dust-heap’s expected heir, is found in the Thames, fortunes change hands surprisingly, raising to new heights “Noddy” Boffin, a low-born but kindly clerk who becomes “the Golden Dustman.” Charles Dickens’s last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend encompasses the great themes of his earlier works: the pretensions of the nouveaux riches, the ingenuousness of the aspiring poor, and the unfailing power of wealth to corrupt all who crave it. With its flavorful cast of characters and numerous subplots, Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens’s most complex—and satisfying—novels.

* * * * *

Horror

dark-talesCourtesy of NetGalley. Horror stories are an essential part of the Christmas season – the perfect antidote to all that excess goodwill floating around. Bah, humbug! And who better than Shirley Jackson to shiver the spine…

The Blurb says: There’s something nasty in suburbia. In these deliciously dark tales, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the country manor, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods…

* * * * *

Crime

maigret-and-the-tall-womanCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve been enjoying reading some older crime fiction recently, so this should fit in nicely. I did read some Maigret in my youth, but that’s soooo long ago, he feels like a new-to-me author…

The Blurb says: A visit from a tall, thin woman he arrested many years ago—now married to a hapless burglar—leads Maigret on a tortuous investigation in which he struggles with a formidable suspect. The thirty-eighth book in the new Penguin Maigret series.

A face from Maigret’s past reappears to tell him about the misadventures of her husband, a safecracker nicknamed “Sad Freddie” who discovered a dead body while committing a burglary and fled the scene in a panic. In a race against the clock, Maigret must use his full arsenal of investigative methods to solve the crime.

* * * * *

Fiction

el-doctorowCourtesy of NetGalley again! Some more short stories to fill in those short gaps that happen around this time of year, when there’s just not enough time to get properly stuck into a longer novel. And my first introduction to EL Doctorow…

The Blurb says: A superb collection of fifteen great stories by an American master, E. L. Doctorow—the author of Ragtime, The March, The Book of Daniel, and Billy Bathgate.

In A House on the Plains, a mother has a plan for financial independence, which may include murder. In Walter John Harmon, a man starts a cult using subterfuge and seduction. Jolene: A Life follows a teenager who escapes her home for Hollywood on a perilous quest for success. Heist, the account of an Episcopal priest coping with a crisis of faith, was expanded into the bestseller City of God. The Water Works, about the underbelly of 1870s New York, grew into a brilliant novel. Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate is a corollary to the renowned novel and includes Doctorow’s revisions.

These fifteen brilliant stories, written from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century, and selected, revised, and placed in order by the author himself shortly before he died in 2015, are a testament to the genius of E. L. Doctorow.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think?
Doesn’t this just look like a fab festive reading list?

* * * * *

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

martin chuzzlewitComin’ to America…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Old Martin Chuzzlewit’s greedy relations have always assumed that his grandson and namesake will inherit the bulk of his wealth. But when young Martin falls in love without his grandfather’s consent, the subsequent breach between them leaves the way open for all the rest to try to flatter, sneak or threaten their way into old Martin’s good graces. Meantime young Martin must make his own way in the world, a hard lesson for a young man who has never given much thought for anything beyond his own comfort. When old Martin makes it difficult for him to get on in England, young Martin decides to seek his fortune in the youthful United States of America…

Apparently on publication in serial form, this one didn’t take off as well as Dickens’ earlier novels, and I can see why. At first, as we meet all the horrible relatives, it’s quite hard to see who is to be the hero – they are all so unlikeable, including the two Martins. The major theme of the book is selfishness, perhaps more self-centredness, as each character is out for what he or she can get. The book is populated by grasping Scrooge-like businessmen, hypocritical flatterers and people whose pride gets in the way of their ability to make compromises. Tom Pinch, the put-upon assistant of one of the many Chuzzlewit relations, Mr Pecksniff, is the only main character who is purely good, and frankly he is such a doormat one wants to give him a good shake and shout “Man up, Tom, for goodness sake!” However, once Dickens has created all his characters, he then allows the circumstances in which they they find themselves to change them. And, as is always the case with Dickens, redemption is available for those characters willing to seek it.

He was a gaunt man in a huge straw hat, and a coat of green stuff. The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them.

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. I’m not convinced it was a great decision – the whole American bit feels tacked on and unnecessary, although it provides a good deal of opportunity for some of Dickens’ fine satire as well as some great descriptive writing. Martin, accompanied by his servant Mark Tapley, finds himself at the mercy of the unscrupulous hucksters who prey on the immigrant dream of finding a land of golden opportunity. Ending up instead in a disease-ridden swamp, Martin has a chance to discover the meaning of true friendship, while Mark has at last found a place where he can find some merit in being jolly in the face of adversity.

The inaptly named Eden, young Martin's American home. By Phiz.
The inaptly named Eden, young Martin’s American home. By Phiz.

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.

Dickens’ picture of the newly independent United States is either deeply insightful and very funny (if you’re British) or rude and deeply offensive (if you’re American). Fortunately I’m British – and furthermore I spent a miserable couple of weeks last year in the company of the much more vilely rude Mr Twain as he travelled Europe and Asia in The Innocents Abroad, so hey! I was kinda glad to see Dickens do it the other way round, and so much better! Joking(?) aside, Dickens was surprised by the reaction of the American public, feeling that his satirisation of their society wasn’t significantly different to the way he satirised people and institutions in England. True, I feel, but somehow it does read more offensively because of his position as an outsider to their society. I’m not sure he meant to convey the impression that America was inferior to England – given his lowly opinion of the people who abused their power in England, I doubt it. But it nevertheless comes across that way, particularly when he brilliantly (and repeatedly) mocks the never-ending boast of “freedom” coming from men who kept and cruelly abused slaves. Dickens subsequently made a kind of apology to America (more than Twain ever did to Europe, as far as I know) and requested that this apology be always printed at the end of the book.

Each long black hair upon his head hung down as straight as any plummet line; but rumpled tufts were on the arches of his eyes, as if the crow whose foot was deeply printed in the corners, had pecked and torn them in a savage recognition of his kindred nature as a bird of prey.

Mrs Gamp shows her compassion and nursing skills by shaking old Chuffey out of his depression...
Mrs Gamp shows her compassion and nursing skills by shaking old Chuffey out of his depression…

For me, the book is much better when it stays in England, and fortunately the American interlude is relatively short. Some of the great Dickens characters are to be found here. Mr Pecksniff, the arch-hypocrite and flatterer, is superb – not quite as overdrawn as Dickens’ characters can sometimes be, making Tom’s belief in him more credible. Sairey Gamp, midwife and layer-out of corpses, with her invisible friend Mrs Harris, her ubiquitous umbrella, and her liking for a little sip of alcohol – just to wet her lips occasionally – is monstrous and comical simultaneously, a combination only Dickens could pull off so well. Jonas Chuzzlewit is one of the great evil characters, and the scenes relating to him in the second half of the book show Dickens at his dark and terrifying worst.

Did no men passing through the dim streets shrink without knowing why, when he came stealing up behind them? As he glided on, had no child in its sleep an indistinct perception of a guilty shadow falling on its bed, that troubled its innocent rest? Did no dog howl, and strive to break its rattling chain, that it might tear him; no burrowing rat, scenting the work he had in hand, essay to gnaw a passage after him, that it might hold a greedy revel at the feast of his providing? When he looked back, across his shoulder, was it to see if his quick footsteps still fell dry upon the dusty pavement, or were already moist and clogged with the red mire that stained the naked feet of Cain!

Of course, there is romance and one of Dickens’ never-ending parade of nauseatingly sweet young heroines – this time, Tom’s sister, Ruth. But I must say the love scenes in this one are done mainly for humour and that works so much better than some of the sickly sweet love affairs in later books (yes, I am thinking of David Copperfield and Drippy Dora).

Mr Pecksniff with Tom Pinch and the deliciously named ugly (natured) sisters, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff...
Mr Pecksniff with Tom Pinch and the deliciously named ugly (natured) sisters, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff…

Despite the rather slow start and the detour to America, for me this still ranks up there as a truly excellent novel. While it took me a bit of time to warm up to any of the characters, as they developed I became fully invested in wanting to see the goodies reach a happy ending and hoping the baddies would get their just desserts. The second half in particular, with its mixture of evil, justice and redemption reaches close to being some of Dickens’ best work. The sheer quality of Dickens’ writing always takes my breath away – it reads as if written so effortlessly and yet his descriptions of both place and people are unique, insightful and often unforgettable. A true master of his craft – I’m glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

a tale of two cities“Tell the Wind and Fire where to stop…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Set before and during ‘The Reign of Terror’ in Revolutionary France, A Tale of Two Cities ranks amongst the finest of Charles Dickens’ works, even though it is in many ways quite different to his other great books. The humour and exuberant language is toned down; there is not the huge cast of peripheral caricatured characters; there are no major sub-plots. Instead there is a tightly-focused and exciting plot, a hero in Sidney Carton of much greater complexity than Dickens’ norm, and some of his most hard-hitting commentary on the effects of poverty and abuse, not just on those who suffer directly from it, but on society as a whole. While often Dickens’ books feel as if they have organically grown during the writing, with Dickens himself being as surprised as the reader by the direction they take, this one always feels to me as if he had planned it down to the last detail before he began. Nothing happens that isn’t relevant, and everything is explained completely in the end. And it has a purpose – one overwhelming theme: to show the possibility of redemption and resurrection, personal and political. That theme is what carries the reader through what must be the darkest of Dickens’ stories to the sense of hope that is inherent even in the tragedy of the ending.

“Since I knew you, I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight. A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it.”

Dickens throws us into a state of menace right at the start of the novel, as Mr Lorry makes his way to Dover on the mail coach, the passengers and coachmen all in a state of extreme anxiety that the coach will be held up by highwaymen. This, together with the introductory chapter comparing the social inequalities and injustice in both England and France in the period, are an indication that Dickens is warning that the situation in England is not so very different to the conditions that led to the uprisings in France. This is one of the book’s strengths – Dickens doesn’t do the too frequent British thing of assuming that upheavals in foreign lands are somehow due to a form of moral inferiority. He makes it clear all the way through that the social problems in pre-Revolutionary France are paralleled in English society, and that the end result could very easily be the same.

tale-of-two-cities the mob

As always with Dickens though, the story is the thing. Unlike too many modern writers of misery, he recognised that the first thing an author has to do is entertain his audience. That way they might stick around long enough to hear the message. The story proper begins as Doctor Manette is released from the Bastille after a long imprisonment without trial, for reasons that only become known to the reader towards the end of the book. ‘Recalled to life’ through the love of the daughter he never knew he had, he returns to England where he regains his health and sanity. His beloved daughter Lucie falls in love with a young Frenchman, Charles Darnay, and the little family settles happily in a small house in London. But always Dickens keeps us aware of the approaching political hurricane that will soon sweep through France, and we know that somehow the family’s fate is tied to those events. When Charles Darnay is summoned to aid an old servant imprisoned for his loyalty to Darnay’s aristocratic family, the action moves to Paris…

“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
Storming of the Bastille
Jean-Pierre Houel

It’s in Dickens’ depiction of Paris at this horrific moment in its history that he shows his genius, with some fantastic writing of the storming of the Bastille and the behaviour of the mob. With barely concealed anger he straddles both sides – showing the decades of cruelty and abuse meted out to the poor by pampered aristocrats, and the dehumanising effects of this, turning the Revolutionaries into savage monsters, akin to devils, when they come to power, wreaking vengeance even on the innocent. Though never sympathising with the viciousness on either side, he nonetheless brings the reader to feel pity amidst the revulsion for those caught up in these times – to understand how mobs become a force apart from the individuals within them. Madame Defarge is one of his greatest creations. The driving force behind the Revolutionary zeal to feed the guillotine, she is monstrous in her savagery, all the more so for being female. And yet we see the forces that have formed her and it is a hard heart indeed that can feel no trace of pity for her in the end – and for those who follow her. Dickens shows us how weak people can be in times of great turmoil, as neighbour betrays neighbour, and loyalty to a cause, or fear of it, trumps personal morality.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

Six tumbrils roll along the streets. Change these back to what they were, thou powerful enchanter, Time, and they shall be seen to be the carriages of absolute monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, the churches that are not my father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants.

But amidst all this horror and tumult, there is Sidney Carton. In love with Lucie but knowing that she could never love someone so deeply flawed as he, his unselfish devotion is brilliantly portrayed, without any of the wild exaggeration of character in which Dickens often indulges. Carton is believable and therefore the reader cares about him. The redemption of this weak drunkard, a wastrel who has thrown away the talents he was born with, is the heart of the plot, and central also to the wider message of the book – that through love, faith and sacrifice, resurrection is possible – for the person, but also for this deeply fractured society. Carton’s final scenes and last speech are beautifully written and intensely moving. I can’t think of another book where both the opening and closing lines are quoted so often that they have passed into cliché. (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…”)

french_revolution_guillotine

For me, Bleak House is the best, but this one has all the things that make Dickens great – the writing, the plotting, the social conscience – without the things that sometimes put new readers off – the caricatured comedy, the overblown descriptions, the saccharin romances. If anyone were to ask me where to start with Dickens, this would be the book I would recommend.

To my dearest love(s) on Valentine’s Day…

…aka FictionFan’s Fictional Fickleness…

 

Well, with such a choice on offer, why on earth would a girl stick to just one? Here are some of the many, many men to whom I’ve given my heart over the years…

* * * * *

Gilbert Blythe, Anne of Green Gables, LM Montgomery

 

My earliest true love was the utterly perfect Gilbert Blythe, a “tall boy with curly brown hair, roguish hazel eyes and a mouth twisted into a teasing smile.” (*swoons*) How Anne withstood him for so long, I’ll never understand…

gilbert blythe

“I have a dream,” he said slowly. “I persist in dreaming it, although it has often seemed to me that it could never come true. I dream of a home with a hearth-fire in it, a cat and dog, the footsteps of friends – and you!”

* * * * *

Fitzwilliam Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

 

If anyone is surprised to find Darcy on my list, welcome to the blog, newcomer!

fitzwilliam-darcy

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

OK, go ahead, Darcy, dearest! I’m all ears…

* * * * *

Bertie Wooster, The Inimitable Jeeves, PG Wodehouse

 

Bertie, I feel, would bring much jollity to a girl’s life, though it might be tricky to get him to the altar…

bertie-wooster

“Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.”
“But, dash it all…”
“Yes! You should be breeding children to…”
“No, really, I say, please!” I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs, and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking-room.”

* * * * *

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

 

I’ve never fallen in love with any of Dickens’ heroes – they’re all too nauseatingly good! Dickens himself, on the other hand, is strangely attractive, despite building a wall in the middle of his bedroom as a hint to his wife that the marriage was in trouble… and yet no-one could dispute the man was a romantic…

charles dickens

If I may so express it, I was steeped in Dora. I was not merely over head and ears in love with her, but I was saturated through and through. Enough love might have been wrung out of me, metaphorically speaking, to drown anybody in; and yet there would have remained enough within me, and all over me, to pervade my entire existence.

* * * * *

Aragorn, The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

 

It’s a close tie between Aragorn and Faramir but if you think I’m going to pass up a chance to have Viggo Mortensen on the blog, you are mistaken.

Aragorn might marry Arwen Evenstar in the end, but everyone knows the true love story is Aragorn and Eowyn…

Viggo Mortensen in a scene from THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, 2001.

Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Eowyn, Lady of Rohan, and thought her fair; fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood. And she now was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, grey cloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt. For a moment still as stone she stood, then turning swiftly she was gone.

* * * * *

Mark Watney, The Martian, Andy Weir

 

Ah, Mark! Heroic, gorgeous, funny, heroic, intelligent, resourceful, heroic… and let’s face it, there wouldn’t be much competition…

the martian cover

If I could have anything, it would be a radio to ask NASA the safe path down the Ramp. Well, if I could have anything, it would be for the green-skinned yet beautiful Queen of Mars to rescue me so she can learn more about this Earth thing called “lovemaking”.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a woman. Just sayin’.

* * * * *

Dr Watson, The Sign of the Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

Holmes might have the superior intellect but he’ll never be a match for Watson in the romance stakes…

dr watson

Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

* * * * *

Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

 

All these men may have lived for love, but Gatsby is so romantic he died for it. Ah, Gatsby, I will love you forever…pretend I’m Daisy!

gatsby

But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

* * * * *

So there you have it, a few of the men I truly love. Do tell who you would have included! And meantime…

Happy Valentine’s Day!

TBR Thursday 46…

The People’s Choice 5…The Result!

 

An exciting contest this time! On Day 1, it looked like there would be a runaway winner, but gradually two other contenders narrowed the gap, and it looked as though there might be a major upset. But in the end the frontrunner held its lead – this week’s winner is…

the unquiet dead

The Blurb – Despite their many differences, Detective Rachel Getty trusts her boss, Esa Khattak, implicitly. But she’s still uneasy at Khattak’s tight-lipped secrecy when he asks her to look into Christopher Drayton’s death. Drayton’s apparently accidental fall from a cliff doesn’t seem to warrant a police investigation, particularly not from Rachel and Khattak’s team, which handles minority-sensitive cases. But when she learns that Drayton may have been living under an assumed name, Rachel begins to understand why Khattak is tip-toeing around this case. It soon comes to light that Drayton may have been a war criminal with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.

 *******

Thanks to all who voted, and to Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling for the review that brought this book to my attention.

Now all I have to do is find time to read it…

(Somehow or another, The Murder of the Century snuck on to the TBR as well. Don’t know how that happened…!)

*******

And here’s a few more that should be rising to the top of the pile soon…

Fiction

 

stay up with meCourtesy of NetGalley, this collection of short stories has been nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize…

The Blurb – The stories in Tom Barbash’s evocative and often darkly funny collection explore the myriad ways we try to connect to one another and to the sometimes cruel world around us. The newly single mother in ‘The Break’ interferes with her son’s love life over his Christmas vacation from college. The anxious young man in ‘Balloon Night’ persists in hosting his and his wife’s annual watch-the-Macy’s-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-floats-be-inflated party, while trying to keep the myth of his marriage equally afloat. The young narrator in ‘The Women’ watches his widowed father become the toast of Manhattan’s midlife dating scene, as he struggles to find his own footing. The characters in Stay Up With Me find new truths when the old ones have given out or shifted course. Barbash laces his narratives with sharp humour, psychological acuity, and pathos, creating deeply resonant and engaging stories that pierce the heart and linger in the imagination.  

* * * * *

 

a tale of two citiesIn accordance with my resolutions, some Dickens – I shall be reading my beautiful Nonesuch edition of A Tale of Two Cities, courtesy of Santa Claus (Christmas, 2012, I think!)…

The Blurb – After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

 * * * * *

Crime

 

the ice princessThis one has been on the TBR since I read The Stranger in May 2013! Time I got around to reading it, I think…

The Blurb – In this electrifying tale of suspense from an international crime-writing sensation, a grisly death exposes the dark heart of a Scandinavian seaside village. Erica Falck returns to her tiny, remote hometown of Fjällbacka, Sweden, after her parents’ deaths only to encounter another tragedy: the suicide of her childhood best friend, Alex. It’s Erica herself who finds Alex’s body—suspended in a bathtub of frozen water, her wrists slashed. Erica is bewildered: Why would a beautiful woman who had it all take her own life? Teaming up with police detective Patrik Hedström, Erica begins to uncover shocking events from Alex’s childhood. As one horrifying fact after another comes to light, Erica and Patrik’s curiosity gives way to obsession—and their flirtation grows into uncontrollable attraction. But it’s not long before one thing becomes very clear: a deadly secret is at stake, and there’s someone out there who will do anything—even commit murder—to protect it.

* * * * *

Sci-fi/Fantasy

the glittering worldCourtesy of NetGalley. Not quite sure if this is sci-fi, fantasy, horror – or all three. But hopefully I’ll know after I read it…

The Blurb – When up-and-coming chef Michael “Blue” Whitley returns with three friends to the remote Canadian community of his birth, it appears to be the perfect getaway from New York. He soon discovers, however, that everything he thought he knew about himself is a carefully orchestrated lie. Though he had no recollection of the event, as a young boy Blue and another child went missing for weeks in the idyllic, mysterious woods of Starling Cove. Soon thereafter, his mother suddenly fled with him to America, their homeland left behind.

But then Blue begins to remember. And once the shocking truth starts bleeding back into his life, his closest friends—Elisa, his former partner in crime; her stalwart husband, Jeremy; and Gabe, Blue’s young and admiring co-worker—must unravel the secrets of Starling Cove and the artists’ colony it once harbored. All four will face their troubled pasts, their most private demons, and a mysterious race of beings that inhabits the land, spoken of by the locals only as the Other Kind…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or NetGalley.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

(And aren’t all four of these covers gorgeous this week?)

Tuesday Terror! No. 3 Branch Line, The Compensation House by Charles Collins

Sensational…

 

Penny Dreadful 3Since I started this little journey into horror, my recommendations from Amazon have taken a somewhat sinister turn. Last week they drew my attention to a new series of Kindle collections – the Penny Dreadful Multipacks. Each volume contains two or three stories and a little bonus or two. I selected Volume 3, which includes a bonus essay explaining the origins of the Penny Dreadful…

The term Penny Dreadful came to be applied to any sensational literature that came from the cheap Victorian printing presses rather than the more respected publishing houses. Or, indeed, to any kind of lurid matter from the time, including and not limited to… Dracula, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Wagner the Wehr Wolf, Varney the Vampire, The String of Pearls [in which Sweeney Todd made his first appearance]…

So while a lot of the stories were apparently really dreadful, there were some future classics hiding in there too. Volume 3 contains The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Mysteries of Paris Vols. I – III by Eugene Sue (which is about the same length as War and Peace, so may never be read by this reader!), and the story I’ve selected for this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

“Sir, he was Strange by name, and Strange by nature, and Strange to look at into the bargain.”

No. 3 Branch Line, The Compensation House was first published in Charles Dickens’ periodical All the Year Round, which I don’t think would have ever fallen into the Penny Dreadful category, so I guess it counts as one of the bonuses. And I suspect it intrigued the editors for the same reason as it did me – namely, the author Charles Collins was the brother of the infinitely more famous William Wilkie Collins, not to mention husband of Dickens’ daughter Kate.

What a vision of horror that was, in the great dark empty room, in a silence that was something more than negative, that ghastly figure frozen into stone by some unexplained terror! And the silence and the stillness! The very thunder had ceased now. My heart stood still with fear…

Mr Strange is a still a young man but is dying of an incurable lung disease. For years though, he has been tortured by a weird hatred of mirrors and will not allow one in his house. If he catches sight of his face in a mirror, he sometimes goes into a wild rage, destroying the mirror, while at other times he goes into a kind of catatonic trance, standing staring at his own reflection for hours with the utmost sadness and horror. Now that his death is approaching he has decided to tell his doctor and faithful servant what it is he sees when he looks in a mirror…and why…

‘Why, look there!’ he said, in a low, indistinct voice, pointing to his own image in the glass. ‘Whose face do you see there?’

‘Why, yours, of course.’ And then, after a moment, I added, ‘Whose do you see?’

He answered, like one in a trance, ‘His – only his – always his!’ He stood still a moment, and then, with a loud and terrific scream, repeated those words, ‘ALWAYS HIS, ALWAYS HIS,’…

Charles Allston Collins by Millais
Charles Allston Collins
by Millais

This is quite a good little tale, not totally horrifying but certainly a bit chilling. Collins writes very well and builds a nice atmosphere of rather unsettling mystery. For much of the story, we don’t know whether there’s something supernatural going on or whether Mr Strange’s affliction is a product of his own mind. As the story progresses we discover that guilt has a part to play and that the story is one of a search for ultimate forgiveness and redemption. Since this was printed in the Christmas edition of a Dickens’ publication, I’m sure you can guess how that works out!

An enjoyable story – and the Penny Dreadful Multipacks look very interesting for anyone who has a taste for Victorian sensation stories (and a Kindle). The formatting is fine, there is an easy-to-navigate table of contents and there’s a good sprinkling of the original illustrations. I suspect I’ll be downloading a few more of these…

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bah! Humbug! A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens narrated by Tom Baker

Christmas starts here…

santasantasantasantasanta

 

 

This little pre-Christmas Dickens mini-series started with one version of A Christmas Carol and is now ending with another. (Think yourselves lucky – I could be recommending the Complete Works. 😉 ) If none of the previous choices have tempted you, let me try one last time to persuade you to…

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

51CWXmZKCgL._SL300_Like King Lear, every actor reaches a point in his career where he wants to stamp his mark on this classic, so you have to be really quite special to compete with the crowd. Fortunately, this reading by Tom Baker IS really quite special!

Forget your Peter Capaldis, your Matt Smiths, even your David Tennants – Tom Baker was THE Dr Who and there will never be a better! Who else could carry off a hand knitted stripy scarf and make it a cool fashion trend? But when he wasn’t saving the planet, Baker had time to play many other roles, including a stint at the National Theatre – not to mention being a very fine Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, beloved of Narnia fans everywhere. He is also an accomplished voice-actor both on radio and as narrator of several animated series.

Puddleglum the Marshwiggle
Puddleglum the Marshwiggle

I approached this recording of A Christmas Carol with some trepidation because, much though I like Baker, for me the definitive version is Patrick Stewart’s and I doubted Baker could match him. I was wrong – Baker brings drama, fear, sorrow and ultimately joy to the story just as much as Stewart does. As with all of the best of the Dickens’ narrators/performers, Baker has a huge personality and a powerful voice – necessary to fill the shoes of Dickens’ larger-than-life creations. Although this is a straight reading, Baker uses his fine acting skills to give each character an individual identity. Unlike the Stewart version where we hear only his voice, this one has occasional background music and other sound effects at the more dramatic points, and these work well with Baker’s performance.

tom1

I intended to listen in instalments but by the time the first disc ended, I was so hooked I ended up listening to the whole thing in one session. Not better than Stewart (not possible!) but as good, and of course this is the unabridged version. Three hours of pure listening pleasure – this set has now joined my select collection of Christmas Carols, to be brought out and savoured time and again over many Christmases to come. Just the thing to ensure that you Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link
Currently not available as discs on Amazon UK.

Bah! Humbug! Complete Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens

Christmas Spirits…

santasantasantasantasanta

 

 

So far in this little mini-series, I’ve tried to tempt you with some great performances of Dickens’ work. But you’re all such organised people that I’m sure by now your Christmas presents will all be bought and wrapped, your cards have been posted, your decorations are up, your food order has been placed, and there’s nothing left to be done but cook the meal…and it’s a little early for that, perhaps! So plenty of time to curl up with a good book and…

 

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

dickens ghost storiesThe Christmas season wouldn’t be complete without a good ghost story or two, and in this collection we get twenty. The centrepiece is, of course, the novella length A Christmas Carol, and we also get what is probably Dickens’ next best-known ghost story, The Signalman, which is perhaps the most chilling tale in the book. The other stories range from several very short ones through to another novella-length one, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.

“When twilight everywhere released the shadows, prisoned up all day, that now closed in and gathered like mustering swarms of ghosts. When they stood lowering, in corners of rooms, and frowned out from behind half-opened doors. When they had full possession of unoccupied apartments. When they danced upon the floors, and walls, and ceilings of inhabited chambers, while the fire was low, and withdrew like ebbing waters when it sprang into a blaze.”

The joy of Dickens’ ghost stories is that they are truly family reading – not one of them would be unsuitable for reading aloud to a mixed age group. Many of them were first published in one of Dickens’ periodicals, All the Year Round or Household Words and were very much intended for the whole family. Others (The Queer Chair, The Goblins who Stole a Sexton, etc.) are taken from the novels, mainly Pickwick Papers, and these are usually more humorous than scary. In fact, humour runs through the majority of the stories, with The Signalman and The Portrait Painter’s Story being the main exceptions.

The Goblin and the Sexton
The Goblins who Stole a Sexton

As with any collection, the quality of the stories varies a bit, but even Dickens’ less good tales stand up well. The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain is, like A Christmas Carol, a morality tale; this time reminding us that sorrow and trouble are part of what makes us human, and with a strong social message about the dangers of allowing the continuance of an underclass excluded from things the rest of us take for granted – a message that relates almost as much to today’s society, sadly. This story also contains who must surely be the most annoying of all Dickens sickly-sweet heroines, Mrs. Swidger, a woman so indefatigably happy she brings out all of my homicidal tendencies (which, I hasten to assure you, I restrict to fictional characters).

“So she rolled out the crust, dropping large tears upon it all the time because he was so cross, and when she had lined the dish with crust and had cut the crust all ready to fit the top, the Captain called out, ‘I see the meat in the glass!’ And the bride looked up at the glass, just in time to see the Captain cutting her head off; and he chopped her in pieces, and peppered her, and salted her, and put her in the pie, and sent it to the baker’s, and ate it all, and picked the bones.”

(NB This is not a recipe for Christmas dinner.)

In the shorter stories, Dickens often takes the opportunity to mock the spiritualism that was becoming so popular in the Victorian era, turning much of his humour on the mediums and table-rappers. There is also a recurring theme which suggests that Dickens believed many apparitions and hauntings owed as much to alcoholic spirits as the other kind. Overall this is a jolly little collection, filled with madness, murder, revenge and other such traditional Christmas fare; and, whether chilling or humorous, all written with Dickens’ masterly story-telling skills. Whether you read one a night throughout the Christmas season, or splurge and read the whole thing over a few evenings, it’s guaranteed to ensure that you Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bah! Humbug! Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow

Dickens the Performer…

I’m cheating today by reissuing one of the first reviews I posted on the blog, secure in the knowledge that almost no-one saw it! I couldn’t let my little Dickens mini-series pass without mentioning Simon Callow’s wonderfully readable biography of The Great Man. If you’re looking for an in-depth, academic tome, this is not it – but if you fancy a human and very affectionate account of Dickens’ life, then look no further; and…

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

Exuberant and boisterous…

santasantasantasantasanta

 

 

Charles Dickens Theatre CallowCallow has written a superbly readable and affectionate account of the great man’s life, viewing it from the perspective of how Dickens’ love for the world of the theatre influenced his life and work. Interspersed generously with Dickens’ own words, taken from his correspondence with friends, we get a real feel for his massive personality, his sense of fun, his unstoppable energy and, yes, his occasional pomposity too.

Callow doesn’t shirk from telling us about the less flattering aspects of Dickens’ life – his appalling treatment of his wife, for instance, and the occasional bullying of his poor publishers. But he also reminds us of the social campaigning and the generosity to family, friends and colleagues. The account is a linear one, so we find out what Dickens was involved in at the time of writing each of his novels and get a feel for the inspiration for each one.

Callow concentrates in considerable depth on Dickens the showman – the many theatrical performances he wrote for, played in and directed in his early life; and then the tremendous and punishing public readings of his own works which came to dominate so much of his later years. Here was an author who gave generously to his adoring public and who thrived on the adulation he was shown in return.

Charles Dickens' The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain at the Adelphi, in the Illustrated London News, 30 December 1848
Charles Dickens’ The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain at the Adelphi, in the Illustrated London News, 30 December 1848

I’ve been in love with Dickens the writer for most of my life and now having read this fabulous biography I have fallen in love with Dickens the man! If I tell you that I cried when Dickens died (not an altogether unexpected plot development) then it will give you some idea of how much of the humanity of the man Callow has managed to reveal. I have been left wanting to re-read so many of the novels and stories, not to mention the letters – thank goodness for my copy of The Complete Works.

An exuberant and boisterous biography – a fitting tribute to this exuberant and remarkable man. Highly, highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bah! Humbug! Bleak House by Charles Dickens (BBC Drama 2005)

Bleak House is the best novel ever written.

 

santasantasantasantasanta

 

 

What? You don’t agree? Then let me give you just three reasons to try to convince you…

dickensApart from the usual Dickens’ stuff – the gorgeous language, the lush descriptions, the humour, the unforgettable characters, the social commentary and, of course, the romance – Bleak House could fairly lay claim to being the first modern crime novel, complete with the earliest appearance in an English novel of a police detective, Inspector Bucket. Wilkie Collins often gets the credit for this with his Sergeant Cuff, but I don’t know why, since he didn’t appear till a full fourteen years after Dickens’ creation and was clearly a derivation. Perhaps it’s because there is so much else in Bleak House that it isn’t primarily thought of as a crime novel, but the detection element is crucial, while the murder is central to the book, and is in fact one of the finest and most atmospheric pieces of writing in the English language. And Bucket is one of the most enigmatic detectives.

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 to-night or in the flutter of the attendant groups to give him the late warning, “Don’t come here!”

The novel is best known, however, for Dickens’ brilliant and excoriating depiction of the Courts of Chancery – a place of ruined hopes and ultimate despair, perhaps best summed up by Miss Flite in the naming of her birds, all to be set free on the Day of Judgement. Who but The Great Man could turn such a dry subject as the processing of wills into a sweeping saga of life and death, hopelessness, madness and cruelty? As always with Dickens, even when he’s in full social-rant mode, he shows his contempt through the human lens of the effect on his characters, major and minor.

“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.”

The brilliance of his writing is shown in the reader’s willing acceptance even of his most extreme flights of fantasy. The spontaneous combustion scene paints a picture of such creeping horror – the stench, the drifting soot, the grease, the discovery – that the central incredibility is easily overlooked. A piece of horror writing that stands with the very best.

A thick yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.
“What have you been doing here? What have you been pouring out of window?”
“I pouring out of window! Nothing, I swear! Never, since I have been here!” cries the lodger.
And yet look here – and look here! When he brings the candle here, from the corner of the window-sill, it slowly drips and creeps away down the bricks, here lies in a little thick nauseous pool.

(Now that’s how to use the present tense!)

* * * * * * * * *

This is all a lengthy preamble to introduce this week’s recommendation of how to ensure you…

Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

 

bleak houseThe 2005 BBC production of Bleak House is my favourite of all the Dickens TV serials. Adapted by the brilliant Andrew Davies (who was also responsible for the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle P&P) this was originally produced as a series of half-hour episodes that were aired twice-weekly after one of our leading soap operas, in a largely successful attempt to draw in a new audience.

For the same reason, the casting is a mix of costume drama stalwarts, along with a strange mix of people drawn from popular culture who might be expected to bring their own audience. So we have Alistair McGowan, best known over here as an impressionist; Gillian Anderson, with her following from the hugely popular X-Files; and, most strangely, Johnny Vegas, a somewhat off-the-wall comedian. Lump them together with people of the stature of Charles Dance (a superb Mr Tulkinghorn), Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket, Denis Lawson as Mr Jarndyce and Pauline Collins as the most vulnerable Miss Flite of all time – and this should have been a complete mess. But somehow the directors (Justin Chadwick and Susannah White) pulled extraordinary performances out of everyone involved, lit the whole thing in contrasts of light and gloom, shot it in HD, and wove through it the beautifully atmospheric music orchestrated by Julian Kershaw; turning the whole thing into a feast for the senses.

The quality of the casting can be seen by looking at the three central young characters, all of whom have gone on to become leading lights in their profession – Anna Maxwell Martin, Timothy West and a very young Carey Mulligan in her first major role.

Go on – you know you want to…and Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bah! Humbug! The Mystery of Charles Dickens performed by Simon Callow

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

A Night-In at the Theatre…

santasantasantasantasanta

 

 

the mystery of charles dickensIt’s a measure of Dickens’ greatness that so many of our best writers and actors remain fascinated as much by the man as by his writing. The flamboyant showman side of his nature is a gift for dramatic presentations of his life. And Simon Callow’s exuberant and flamboyant style is a perfect match for Dickens’ own.

Written as a vehicle for Callow by Peter Ackroyd, Callow describes this one-man performance as a ‘living biography’. Ackroyd, of course, has written a huge ‘proper’ biography of Dickens. Unfortunately, it is so tedious detailed that I gave up on it when Dickens had only reached about the age of 10 by page 180 or so – and that was the abridged version! However, it does mean he knows his stuff about The Great Man’s life, and having to meet the requirements of a running time of roughly an hour and a half seems to have concentrated his mind wonderfully.

‘Heads, heads – take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. ‘Terrible place – dangerous work – other day – five children – mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash – knock – children look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in – head of a family off – shocking, shocking!’

For Dickens’ geeks like myself, there are no great revelations in this. It’s a fairly standard run-through of Dickens’ life – the blacking factory, the marriage, the death of the sister-in-law, the writing success, his separation from his wife, Ellen Ternan, his reading tours. If it were only a biography it would be worthwhile and interesting. What brings it to life is Callow’s performance of excerpts from the various books in the first half and, in the second, the flavour he gives of what it might have been like to have attended one of Dickens’ own performances.

Charles-Dickens-007

There’s a good mix of comedy and tragedy in the readings – from Mr Jingle of Pickwick Papers and Mr Crummles of Nicholas Nickleby, to poor little Oliver Twist, made marginally less simperingly nauseating than usual by Callow’s performance of him as he leaves the workhouse, and a stunning performance of the Bill Sykes and Nancy murder scene at the end, modelled on Dickens own performance of it. Along the way we pop into Bleak House, get a quick blast of Uriah Heep, a nicely judged physical depiction of Sairey Gamp etc etc.

The housebreaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainty of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury; and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.

Simon Callow

Filmed in front of a live audience at The Albery Theatre in London in 2002, the DVD itself is pretty basic. There are no subtitles and the only extra is a very brief snippet of Callow talking about the play. But the combination of Callow’s brilliant performance and Dickens’ immortal words makes this a wonderful night-in at the theatre. Remember to order interval drinks before the performance starts, then sit back and… Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bah! Humbug! Dickens’ Women co-written and performed by Miriam Margolyes

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

Love her, love her, love her!

santasantasantasantasanta

 

 

Dickens womenMiriam Margolyes is one of our best and best-known character actresses. From a variety of roles in Blackadder to Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films, she has shown her talents for comedy time and again. But she’s also a very fine dramatic actress who has had major supporting roles in many films and TV series including, of course, some of the BBC adaptations of Dickens over the years. Some years ago she co-wrote (with Sonia Fraser) a one-woman show where she talks about Dickens’ life and performs some of his characters. This audiobook is a recording of some of that show made in front of a live audience.

‘Mrs. Corney, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bumble, slowly, and marking the time with his teaspoon, ‘I mean to say this, ma’am; that any cat, or kitten, that could live with you, ma’am, and not be fond of its home, must be a ass, ma’am.’
‘Oh, Mr Bumble!’ remonstrated Mrs. Corney.
‘It’s of no use disguising facts, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bumble, slowly flourishing the teaspoon with a kind of amorous dignity which made him doubly impressive; ‘I would drown it myself, with pleasure.’

As Margolyes talks about The Great Man, it’s clear that she’s a huge admirer of his writing, particularly of the way he creates somewhat caricatured but unforgettable characters. She draws parallels between his life and his work, and often tells us about the real person who inspired a particular character. But she does it all with a great sense of fun – mocking both Dickens and herself as we go. Her little section on all Dickens’ nauseatingly sweet seventeen-year-old heroines is hilarious, as we hear her getting more and more fed up with his idealisation of youth, beauty and most of all, petiteness as the perfect woman. And she doesn’t hold back when she tells us about Dickens’ appalling treatment of his wife. She takes us through from his early days in the blacking factory to his death, packing a lot of information in along the way, but all most entertainingly.

sairey gampmiss havishamicruiks001p4

But the real joy of the disc is in the readings – performances, really. From the humour of Sairey Gamp to the sorrow and madness of Miss Flite, she takes us on a trip through some of the best known of Dickens’ women, but also includes some of the characters from his lesser read works. We have Mrs Lirriper’s story of Willing Sophy, the girl with the eternal smudge of blacking on her nose, from Household Words, and the description of the Clemms from The Uncommercial Traveller. Little Nell, Rosa Dartle and Mrs Micawber all put in an appearance. Her performance of Mr Bumble’s courtship of Mrs Corney is superb and had me laughing out loud again and again, while Miss Havisham comes across as truly bitter and twisted, and frightening in her intensity.

“Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces, – and as it gets older and stronger it will tear deeper, – love her, love her, love her!…I’ll tell you what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter – as I did!”

MARGOLYES

All-in-all this is a tour-de-force performance that, with a running time of an hour and a half, will keep you smiling while you make a start on wrapping those pesky presents. Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

Bah! Humbug! A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens narrated by Patrick Stewart

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…ah, yes, Dickens truly understood the meaning of Christmas! So in the lead up to that wonderful season of conspicuous spending, gross commercialism, gluttony, over-indulgence and family feuds, I say along with The Great Man himself – Bah! Humbug! (I’ve always loved humbugs, don’t you?)

humbugs

Scientific tests (carried out by yours truly) have shown that the only way to survive the approaching Season of Goodwill with anything approaching the requisite amount of jolliness is to cut off all contact with the outside world for a while and curl up with a good Dickens (and a box of chocolates, of course). Then, when Santa suddenly arrives down the chimney, you should be able to offer him a glass of sherry and a mince pie with not just equanimity but actual joie de vivre!

So here goes for the first instalment of…

Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

 

mr fezziwig's ball

* * * * * * * * *

A Christmas Carol narrated by Patrick Stewart

 

santasantasantasantasanta

 

 

a christmas carol

I had the great privilege some years ago of seeing Patrick Stewart’s one-man show of A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic theatre in London – one of the theatrical highlights of my life. At the time I was aware of him as Jean-Luc Picard of the Star Ship Enterprise and knew that he’d been a ‘proper’ Shakespearian actor before that. But seeing him perform Dickens’ wonderful story live was a revelation. This audio version is based on that performance.

“They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing.”

A Christmas Carol must surely rate as the best ghost story of all time, and be on the shortlist at least for best short story. Dickens’ exuberant and larger-than-life style is perfectly suited to a tale of this nature, and it in turn is perfectly suited to the message of Christmas. We see Scrooge first as a mean and miserly old man, measuring out his clerk’s coal and objecting to losing a day’s work for Christmas. Our introduction to the ghost of Marley is truly scary – the clanking chains, the face on the door-knocker, the chimes of the clock; and who can forget the gaping jaw as Marley removes the kerchief tied around his head? The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come lead us through a turmoil of emotions as we see the lonely little boy, the young man who lost his one love, the gradual sinking into loneliness and miserliness, and the horror of what might be to come. But Dickens does redemption like no-one else, and he leads us away from the despair of Ignorance and Want towards a joyous and uplifting ending, where Scrooge gains his salvation through learning that to give to those less fortunate than himself brings him the pleasure and happiness he had forgotten could exist.

patrick stewart as scrooge

Stewart’s performance is superb. There’s no music, no sound-effects – he performs the whole thing completely with his voice, creating different personas for each character, each fully realised and totally individual. It is his voice that gives us the bells, the chimes of the clock – it’s through his voice that we hear the fear, the horror, the hope and finally the wondrous joy. When Scrooge learns to laugh at the end, I defy anyone not to laugh with him. When he sings a Christmas carol for the first time in years we hear his voice go through the stages from creaky and rusty to a full-scale boisterous bellow. And when he gives us Dickens’ last sugary-sweet line, he makes it so tender that even the cliché becomes truly moving.

This is an abridged version, running at just under two hours, but it’s so skilfully done I’m never really aware of what’s missing. It’s a once a year must-listen for me and I love it just as much each time. A masterly performance of a masterpiece, and guaranteed to boost your festive stock of goodwill to all men. Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

“…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!”

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

Smith by Leon Garfield

Stand and deliver…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A rat was like a snail beside Smith, and the most his thousand victims ever got of him was the powerful whiff of his passing and a cold draught in their dexterously emptied pockets.

smith 2Smith is a twelve-year old pickpocket surviving by his wits in the London of the 18th century. But one day Smith picks the pocket of an elderly man and as he runs away, he sees the man being attacked and killed. Running for fear that he will be caught and accused of this much worse crime, Smith has to wait to find out what he managed to steal – a document, clearly official, but that’s as much as he can tell since he can’t read. But Smith knows documents are worth money and he’s determined to find out what it says…

This book is always marketed as if for children and it certainly is suitable for any child from about ten or eleven, I’d say. But it is also entirely suitable for adult consumption and very enjoyable. Who wouldn’t enjoy a story about pickpockets, highwaymen, mysterious documents and murder? Like Treasure Island or the Quatermain books, this is complex and well written enough to satisfy even a demanding adult, while having enough excitement and adventure to appeal to a younger audience. And, because of its historical setting, it hasn’t suffered from age.

Garfield’s skill is in creating an entirely believable setting and filling it with interesting characters – sympathetic good guys, villainous bad guys and several that fall somewhere between the two. Smith himself is a mixture of hard-nosed thief who will do anything to survive and soft-hearted child who can’t stop himself from helping Mr Mansfield, a blind gentleman whom he meets by accident while on his quest to learn to read. Mr Mansfield is a man who believes in law and justice but who gradually learns the meaning of trust and pity, while his daughter devotes herself to protecting him from anyone who might wish to take advantage of his blindness or good-nature. Together with Smith’s sisters and Lord Tom, the highwayman, all the characters are slightly caricatured in the way Dickens’ characters are.

Leon Garfield
Leon Garfield

And the Dickens comparison extends to the setting – this London, its streets and jails, its dirt and poverty, and the heaths around it where the highwaymen ruled could have come straight from the pages of the master himself. But, unlike Dickens’ little pickpocket Oliver Twist, Smith is not sickeningly good – he’s more of an Artful Dodger, trained by the circumstances of his life to rely on his own wits to survive. The one concession Garfield makes to a younger readership is to keep the language and sentence structure simpler than Dickens, making this an easier and shorter read, but without ever condescending or patronising the reader. And the simpler language still allows room for some great writing and imagery…

Even great ladies came and went – their huge skirts swinging and pealing down the doleful passages like so many brocaded bells, tolling:

What a pity. What a shame. Dick’s to die on Tuesday week. What a pity. What a shame. Poor Mr Mulrone.

I first read this book many years ago and am often reluctant to re-read a book that I remember with pleasure in case it doesn’t live up to my memories. In this case, I enjoyed it just as much again and look forward to reading more of Garfield’s work. Highly recommended to young and old alike.

This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYR Children’s Collection. Just to mention that this edition has Americanized spelling which, since it’s an American publisher, I’ll forgive. However, I’ve changed the spelling back to British in my quotes – nothing in the world could make me spell ‘draught’ with an ‘f’!

Amazon UK link
Amazon US Link

Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow

Exuberant and boisterous…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Charles Dickens Theatre CallowCallow has written a superbly readable and affectionate account of the great man’s life, viewing it from the perspective of how Dickens’ love for the world of the theatre influenced his life and work. Interspersed generously with Dickens’ own words, taken from his correspondence with friends, we get a real feel for his massive personality, his sense of fun, his unstoppable energy and, yes, his occasional pomposity too.

Callow doesn’t shirk from telling us about the less flattering aspects of Dickens’ life – his appalling treatment of his wife, for instance, and the occasional bullying of his poor publishers. dickensBut he also reminds us of the social campaigning and the generosity to family, friends and colleagues. The account is a linear one, so we find out what Dickens was involved in at the time of writing each of his novels and get a feel for the inspiration for each one.

Callow concentrates in considerable depth on Dickens the showman – the many theatrical performances he wrote for, played in and directed in his early life; and then the tremendous and punishing public readings of his own works which came to dominate so much of his later years. Here was an author who gave generously to his adoring public and who thrived on the adulation he was shown in return.

Callow playing Dickens
Callow playing Dickens
I’ve been in love with Dickens the writer for most of my life and now having read this fabulous biography I have fallen in love with Dickens the man! If I tell you that I cried when Dickens died (not an altogether unexpected plot development) then it will give you some idea of how much of the humanity of the man Callow has managed to reveal. I have been left wanting to re-read so many of the novels and stories, not to mention the letters – thank goodness for my copy of The Complete Works.

An exuberant and boisterous biography – a fitting tribute to this exuberant and remarkable man. Highly, highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link