I forgot to put it in my Sunday rundown yesterday but this week I went to see a stage production of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The production itself was amazing and the staging, as always with West Yorkshire Playhouse productions, was phenomenal. The actors were placed on a round stage that rotated when it was necessary to move the action to a new location. It was all very dark, Gothic and rural in keeping with the creepy setting of the first section of the novel. The cast were also pretty great at their roles and Jane Asher’s Miss Havisham was one of the better portrayals that I’ve seen in an adaptation. She didn’t overplay the part but offered enough anger, bitterness and regret. Still, I couldn’t help but leave wondering why people still felt the need to go back to Dickens’ works.
My hatred of Charles Dickens goes back a long way. I had to study Great Expectations for my GCSEs and remembered quite liking the bits of it I read. However, I definitely never finished it. I guess I relied on good old SparkNotes to get me through my coursework because I’m sure I only read the first half and the scene where Magwitch returns in any real detail. I may have read the ending for good measure but it seems unlikely if I’m honest. That whole section where Pip is just pissing about in London is really fucking dull. The novel promises so much with it’s creepy opening but fails to provide anything as dramatic for the rest of its run. Although, I guess at this point in my education I was still of the opinion that I needed to like Dickens because I loved books. Every English teacher in the country bangs on about how important and influential he is to our literary history, after all. How can you study English Literature and not like him?
Then my A Level teacher forced me to read Hard Times for my coursework. This time I had the pleasure of also reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to compare it to but, no matter how good that novel is, it wasn’t enough to get over the other one. During the interval of the play, my friend commented on how often I’d ranted to her about the “humourous” character names that everyone was always banging on about. I studied literature for many years and had to put up with a lot of shitty novels. Hell, I was a student of Romanticism and there are so few worthwhile novels to pick from that era. Still, none of them have quite affected me as much as Hard Times. I hated that book with a passion and, coincidentally, it lead to the lowest mark I received on a piece of coursework ever.
I remember at the time discussing with my class that I wasn’t enjoying the book and felt Dickens was just a bit pompous and unnecessary. It was at this point that my teacher, who was new to the school that year, decided I wasn’t going to be his favourite student. I don’t mind teachers not liking me but I’d always had good relationships with my English teachers before this. We shared a mutual respect for each other and the subject at hand. It was great. Then this guy discovered I could never love this dead writer and he decided we were never going to see eye-to-eye again. It was just the start of my experience of academics disagreeing with my negative feelings towards popular authors. In hindsight it was a mistake to admit to my feminist Romanticism dissertation tutor that I hated Jane Austen but we live and we learn, right?
With English more than any Arts subjects there are unwritten rules that it is just accepted that you agree with. There are a handful of authors that have reached such heights that you can’t possibly speak out against them without experiencing utter disdain. Dickens is, perhaps, one of the top dogs of this list. Yet, who really reads and enjoys Dickens? It sometimes seems that Dickens has just become a name on a class reading list rather than someone who infects the personal libraries of ordinary people. Although, that’s not true. He often turns up in the Instagrams of supposedly bookish people who think reading classics makes them more of a book nerd but really they’re just going along with the lines they’ve been fed for most of their lives. If a book is old then it must be read and appreciated.
Still, most people that I know who enjoy reading and have tried to pick up Dickens only end up abandoning their books about halfway through. Of course, many don’t even reach that far. Now I get it. Dickens isn’t the easiest writer to read. Why would he be? He got paid by the fucking word so his novels drag on way more than they need to. What everyone would love to believe is artistic is just verbose because it upped his wages for that month. He’s also incredibly repetitive because it took such a long time for his readers to get their series of the book. Dickens’ novels were presented as periodicals so they were published in chunks of two chapters. That means every other chapter contains a dramatic cliff hanger and every character is introduced about a thousand times. Otherwise readers wouldn’t keep reading or would have no fucking clue what’s going on.
Now I have to admit that I really love A Christmas Carol and think it’s definitely worth a read. I also understand that Dickens had some things to say about humanity that still ring true to this day. He went through a lot and is interesting from a historical point of view. He has a lot to offer in terms of personal and historical context but is that enough to make him such an important figure? A lot of writers that have since been forgotten about had a great deal to say about history and humanity. So what makes Dickens so special? I don’t fucking know! The idea that he was funny because his character names are so descriptive is bullshit. It isn’t hilarious that a guy who hates kids is called Mr Kidkill or that a woman who has been left by her lover is called Miss Lonesome. It’s just ridiculous. I mean that is some Deathly Hallows epilogue style shitty names right there.
I always think it’s weird in this sense that certain authors make it so far through history to become figureheads of our literary history. I may not be her biggest fan but I can at least understand why Jane Austen is still so widely read. She’s chick-lit and easy to read. There are no shocks and the stories are resolved in ways that readers will be more than happy with. Dickens is different, though. His novels are so long and laborious that it almost feels as if people have convinced themselves he must be saying something important. Something that difficult to understand must be so intelligent that we need to keep people reading it. I don’t know and, really, it doesn’t matter. All I will say it, I’m at an age now where finding time to read is difficult enough as it is without forcing myself to read classics that don’t speak to my sensibilities. You can keep Dickens. I’ve got better things to be reading.