Friday, September 2, 2011

Dickens, Death, And Domestic Disturbance

In last week's New Yorker Jill Lepore wrote about "Dickens camp":  a place ordinary people go every summer to talk about Dickens. 

She seems to have had a great time.  Me, I've got no plans for Dickens camp.   To be fair, there does not seem to exist any X for which I would want to go "X camp."  But it's also true that part of why I would never go to Dickens camp is that I've never really liked Dickens and I've never understood his popularity.

It's not that I don't like long nineteenth-century novels, because I do:  I am an absolute fanatic for Trollope.  And you know, you might think that in the Venn Diagram of the world, the area of "likes to read long nineteenth-century novels" would be so small that there wouldn't be a lot of room inside for non-overlapping categories.  But, there is.  Here I am:  like Trollope; don't like Dickens.

Part of what I don't like in Dickens is the caricature aspect.  OK, I've gone on about this before.  But even this year at Dickens camp, one of the first questions that comes up is "Why is Pip such a little shit?"  Indeed, why are the people of Dickens's universe all either saints, or devils, or morons, or children?  How can this be considered good?

I was appalled to learn from Lepore's article that when they were in their forties, and had had twelve children with ten living, and the youngest kid was just six, Dickens basically kicked his wife out of the house and "all but forbade the [nine younger] children to see their mother."

How does something like this happen?  How can you have twelve children with someone you can't bear to live with?  Lepore says about this that "domestic tragedy, like domestic happiness, is ineffable."  But, you know, not in Trollope it isn't.  If Trollope were writing the story of Dickens's life, he'd easily describe this story to you so that it makes sense that two seemingly normal people can come to despise one another so deeply, despite having lived in such intimacy for so long.  It's Dickens who can only tell this story by making the wife into a shrew, or the husband into a monster.

The one thing in Lepore's article that gave me insight into why the Dickensomania was a quote from Thomas Carlyle, who said that in Dickens the reader finds "dark, fateful, silent elements . . . the elements of death itself."

Darkness and death:  there's something to that.  Certainly the character of Miss Havisham makes you feel the dark and the death.  Remember Miss Havisham?  Jilted at the altar as a young woman, she spends the rest of her life in her wedding dress, with the clocks stopped and the wedding cake uneaten at the table.  Frightening.

Miss Havisham, drawing by Harry Furniss

It's true, there's nothing like this in Trollope.  The main jiltee of Trollope's fiction is Lily Dale, and though she never really recovers from being jilted by the only man she loves, Lily has a very normal life:  she's a companion to her mother; she helps out her friends; she makes a second man who wants to marry her very miserable, because she can't give up her love for the first.  She is, indeed, utterly determined to live out her life as a reasonable and friendly, if sad, person.

The standard reason people give for why they think Dickens is great where Trollope isn't has to do with politics and class:  it's true that Trollope writes mostly about the aristocracy, and Dickens writes about poor people.  That's all to the good in its way, I'm sure.  But I can't help but feel that among poor as well as the rich, there's a million Lily Dales for every Miss Havisham. 

I mean, to live out your life being a good friend and helpful person, trying to be cheerful despite some very bad luck and some deep sadness:  that is a completely universal experience, and not at all restricted to the upper classes. 

Lepore quotes a camp attendee who says that the reason Trollope was so exasperated by Dickens was that "Trollope mistrusted rhetorical power."  It has to be admitted, as Trollope admitted, that if we go by literary fans and majorities, Dickens clearly has the more succesful rhetorical style.  But maybe in this case the majority is just wrong. 

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