Sunday, February 26, 2012

On Charles Dickens

About a week ago, the Google home page featured a scene from Victorian England. I couldn’t establish its relevance until I found in the paper next day that it was Charles Dickens’ 200th birth anniversary. Since then newspapers have been writing about Dickens and I was tempted to blog about him but I was hesitant because I felt although I know tit bits about the author’s life and have read two of his novels (Oliver Twist and Tale of Two Cities) and want to badly read The Great Expectations, I don’t have much to share about Dickens because I have never had the affinity for Dickens you have for authors whose work you like, so whatever I would tell would be impersonal and dry pieces of information.

I liked Oliver Twist and parts of The Tale of Two Cities, but they did not leave me with the yearning to read more Dickens, mainly because of his language - long-winding sentences with a single sentence often running into a paragraph with multiple possibilities packed into it and separated by commas. Another thing about Dickens is over theatricity of everything, the characters, situation, homour. By the time I read The Tale I knew what to expect but I was callow when I tried out Oliver Twist. The climax of The of Two Cities is just like the ending of a Bollywood movie. Perhaps that’s why it’s commonly said his books lend themselves to films very well, because of their strong visual character.

I was not sure of my views about Dickens for some time, but over time I found most of my Dickensian misgivings confirmed by many authors and even when Dickens lived he had enough detractors who attributed the popularity of his works to low art or mass appeal. 

However, what can’t be taken away from Dickens is that he was the pioneer of the novel. Until he started writing and publishing his work in serialized form in various magazines (remember most of his works actually appeared in serialized form in magazines first) and became popular, prose was highly looked down upon; verse was the order of the day.

Melodrama is often a component of popular fiction, but what is surprising is despite the turgidity of Dickens' language, his novels were popular, unlike modern popular works that use a very easy language. Probably the language that reads so odd today was the norm in Victorian England. (If you read Thomas Hardy, who wrote some decades after Dickens, you will find the language far friendlier than Dickens.) I also think it’s a little unfair to blame Dickens for his lack of art because the novel was a new-art form then and it has gone through lot of refinement over 150 years of its existence and anything written so long back, if measured by modern literary standards, would feel deficient.

Albeit, Dickens is liked by many because, unlike many contemporaries of his who mainly wrote on upper class British society, Dickens’ singular muse was poverty and poor, parhaps the empathy came from the fact that his own childhood was one of hardship and impoverishment. And maybe the melodramatic character of his work owed to his own melodramatic life - which went from poverty to fame of the kind which even big movie stars of today seldom enjoy.

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