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Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Charles Dickens

My esteemed friend Fr Zuhlsdorf has reminded us all that today is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.

Some years ago, I was at a dinner with a couple of other priests I had not seen in a while. In conversation I mentioned that I was reading through all the novels of Dickens. Their disgust was almost palpable, and a complete surprise to me. Theirs was not the "I was made to read Dickens at school and hated it" kind of dislike, it was a cultural distaste; some of Dickens' works were published weekly and were the soap operas of the day (O tempora! O mores!) My guess was that he was also seen as a kind of socialist, though they explicitly objected to his sentimentality. Apparently nowadays too, according to a commenter over at WDTPRS, literary modernists don't like him for various reasons, principally related to his style of writing.

Well I did read through most of the novels and thoroughly enjoyed them. It was while reading one edition in a rather small print "complete works" collection which my sister gave me, that I realised that I should go and get my eyes tested: I have worn spectacles for reading ever since. That interrupted me, I did not get back to the great man and so I have not yet read the American Notes or Martin Chuzzlewit. Now I will look out for a collected works edition for the Kindle and probably start reading them all again.

People who like Dickens vary in their reasons for doing so. One of my own is his wit, the way that he gently lampoons many of his characters. Since reading him, I have never been much attracted to films or television adaptations of his stories (much less the tedious "Oliver" musical) because they cannot capture the observational humour of his descriptions of people and their foibles; and those are often the best parts of his books.

I just took a few volumes from the bookcase to look, more or less at random, at passages I marked. Here is one from Barnaby Rudge that made me chuckle again:
... they sat down to tea in the bar, where there was an uncommon display of buttered toast, and - in order that they might not grow faint for want of sustenance, and might have a decent halting-place or halfway house between dinner and supper - a few savoury trifles in the shape of great rashers of broiled ham, which being well cured, done to a turn, and smoking hot, sent forth a tempting and delicious fragrance.

Mrs Varden was seldom very Protestant at meals, unless it happened that they were underdone, or overdone, or indeed that anything occurred to put her out of humour. Her spirits rose considerably on beholding these goodly preparations, and from the nothingness of good works, she passed to the somethingness of ham and toast with great cheerfulness. Nay, under the influence of these wholesome stimulants, she sharply reproved her daughter for being low and despondent (which she considered an unacceptable frame of mind), and remarked, as she held her own plate for a fresh supply, that it would be well for Dolly, who pined over the loss of a toy and a sheet of paper, if she would reflect upon the voluntary sacrifices of the missionaries in foreign parts who lived chiefly on salads.
If you want to start on Dickens, Barnaby Rudge is a good choice for Catholics because it involves Lord Gordon and the riots in London against the Papist Act of 1778 which relieved some of the penalties imposed upon Catholics.
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