Hard times ahead: a whole year of Dickens

Over Christmas, TV got off to a flying start in celebrating the bicentenary of the author’s birth - with mixed results.

David Bowden

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Has there ever been as bad a great writer as Charles Dickens?

None of the other classic novelists cause as much difficulty to their respective champions. Tolstoy’s appeal will surely continue for as long as there is war, peace or heartbreak; Dostoevsky, Proust and Joyce as long as there are show-offs; Mann, Updike and Nabokov as long as there is a disjuncture between youth, age and erections; Eliot and Flaubert as long as there is human life; and it’s a truth universally acknowledged that Austen will endure for as long as lazy hacks need an opening line. But Dickens? Dickens in the modern era has Simon Callow and Stephen Fry. I wouldn’t start from here, as the saying goes.

Okay, that’s not quite true. Dickens has plenty of champions and they’ve all been out in force over the last few weeks, manning the Christmas soup kitchens and ladling out thick spoonfuls of our most cherished writer. Even if you were able to avoid the numerous adaptations of A Christmas Carol, you could opt on Radio 4 for a Mumbai-set reworking of Martin Chuzzlewit and Charles Dickens’ iPod (featuring Callow), BBC2 for The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff (featuring Fry) or one of the two BBC reworkings of Great Expectations. There is also the forthcoming The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the famously unfinished last novel that has now been given a new ending.

In fairness to the Beeb, there have been over 400 Dickens adaptations for TV and film, so it cannot be singled out for unoriginality. It’s all in honour of his bicentennial year and, given the information that Britain’s schools are largely retreating from attempting to teach the doorstop classics due to a palpable lack of enthusiasm among students, the BBC has an understandable urge to fulfil its public-service remit by filling in the gaps of the education system.

Yet it’s questionable whether this surfeit of Dickens really helps. He’s a surprisingly tricky writer to pin down: famously sickly and sentimental, yet capable of piercing emotional insight; a prose stylist of great technical skill and subtlety yet – by Christ – you can really tell that he was getting paid by the word most of the time. He produced the novel which classes as one of the all-time great satires on educational instrumentalism and utilitarianism (Hard Times), while also producing the novel you would want to keep as far away as possible from students attempting to cultivate a love of literature and reading (Hard Times).

I suppose such complexities and contradictions are where some of the greatness lies. Every age tries to claim him as their own, with limited success. Up until recently, those seeking to push his relevance insisted that if he were alive today he would be writing for EastEnders or some other soap opera. If you would consider your reaction to someone who sat you down and told you that you simply MUST watch episodes of EastEnders from 1987 to 1990 (for example) then you quickly realise that EastEnders always did much better out of that comparison. Dickens wrote in one of the popular and disposable mediums of his day, but given his day was the birthplace of modern industrial capitalism, different standards apply. At its very, and rare, best an episode of a popular soap may reach Dickensian levels; at his very (and frequent) worst, Dickens wrote as badly and didactically as most soaps generally are. Beyond that, context is everything.

Similarly, while many are currently attempting to reclaim Dickens as the novelist for the time because of his focus on social justice and the evils of poverty – what, we should read Little Dorrit so we can discover that poverty is bad? – it’s a sadder reflection on both the man himself and our time than is probably realised. George Orwell’s famous essay on Dickens, berating his absence of structural critique and calling for a fairer and more moral branch of capitalists, would be well worth reading while sat in an Occupy tent, for sure. Yet celebrating the modern significance of Dickens by emphasising the least modern aspect of his fiction seems doomed to failure.

Armando Ianucci provided a refreshing attempt to avoid some of these pitfalls in BBC2’s Armando’s Tale of Dickens. The conceit of the programme was not deeply inspiring: smart-alec comedian gets together with his comedian mates to explain the writer’s ‘gunpowderish’ sense of humour. A pompous announcement that he would be speaking to Dickens’ ‘readers’ rather than ‘experts’ or ‘literary critics’ hardly helped. Comedy notoriously doesn’t age well: only the deeply humourless talk of Shakespeare, or even Chaplin, in terms of the quality of the jokes. There was much ominous discussion of Dickens’ ‘theatrical’ qualities which, while true and important, almost inevitably leads to Simon Callow appearing and doing his most thespian of voices.

He didn’t, as it happens, although we did get Kevin Eldon, which is much better all round. This was a neat way of exploring Dickens: placing him in a tradition of comic exaggeration and observation, with plenty of textual analysis thrown in. Although attempts to explain why something is funny are invariably tiresome, it at least put the focus on the craft of Dickens’ writing and characterisation. It was a deeply limited approach, true, and the claim that much of today’s comedy is following in the footsteps of Dickens again smacked a tad of self-flattery, but at least the focus was on Dickens as a novelist, rather than social campaigner. More importantly, it made me want to read the man himself.

There will be a lot of cant spoken about Dickens this year, and I’m sick of him already, but this was a programme that at least reminded you that great novelists are there to be read.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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