August 8, 2015
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February 1, 2015
January 12, 2015
Following on from an earlier post, this summary is of the next three Charles Dickens novels I’ve listened to as audio books in my car. The selection wasn’t deliberate, however, as the titles reveal, each novel has a male character as the main protagonist. In listening order the books were David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
I’m enjoying the experience of listening to the novels and have started to think of it as being like storytime for adults. Adding to the enjoyment is the quality of narration – all of the readers are English, which makes sense for Dickens, however they all seem to have been classically trained and have a good feel for rhythm and pacing, as well as a wide range of accents and character voices. It’s impressive to hear a male narrator carry off a convincing female voice, and also hear how they can switch from one character to another, along with the narrator’s voice, during passages of conversation. The readers of these three books were Ralph Cosham, Alex Jennings and Martin Jarvis. A quick search reveals that Alex Jennings has appeared on stage with the Royal National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, along with many film and TV roles. Martin Jarvis trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. As well as stage appearances he has also performed in TV roles, including Uriah Heep in a 1974 BBC version of David Copperfield. In other words these are readers with highly developed skills and I am appreciative of this.
One interesting aspect of car listening is how the story gets broken up. I’m in my car most days, probably averaging a couple of twenty minute drives. So on a short drive I only hear a short amount, perhaps only part of a chapter, whereas on long drives of an hour or more I can consume large portions of the novel. This is different to the experience of reading a book, which is almost always done at home where I will tend to read the same amount each day. Generally speaking, it takes about three weeks to listen to a Dickens novel, with most of them averaging about thirty hours.
David Copperfield (1850) was Dickens’ 8th novel and one of his best known due to prominent characters such as Mr. Micawber and Uriah Heep. Overall it’s an excellent story, worthy of its high status, although somewhat marred by a few dull segments. It is regarded as the most autobiographical of Dickens’ novels as the title character suffers early hardship followed by literary success as a young man. The suffering inflicted on the young David is heart-rending – after the death of his father he has a happy childhood for several years until his mother remarries the truly evil Mr Murdstone, who brings his complicit sister to live with them. Under the guise of strict Christianity they break his mothers spirit and ill-treat David with both physical punishment and psychological cruelty. After his mother’s death he is sent to London to work in a factory and fend for himself, an occurrence that might seem unbelievable if it wasn’t for the fact that this actually happened to Dickens at the age of twelve, and no doubt tens of thousands of other children in that era. From this he escapes with an epic walk of several days, (something that Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby also do), penniless and hungry, to seek help from his only relative, an eccentric aunt whom it had previously been hinted was not fond of him, but turns out to be a great help and protector to him. This is a common device with Dickens – a character is introduced to the story as a likely opponent to the main character, only to end up becoming a firm ally. From here things look up for David as he starts to make his way in the world, although there are various difficulties to be faced.
There are some parts of the story that might have been thrilling in the 1850s but act as a drag on the narrative to a modern reader. Most of this revolves around the simple fishing folk that David befriends in Yarmouth. One of the great scandals of the book is when Little Emily, one of the fishing family, abandons her betrothed to run away with Steerforth, David’s aristocratic bounder friend. There is much discussion of the shame she has brought on the family, and endless melodrama surrounding her distraught uncle who devotes his life to finding and redeeming her. The moral is that she fell due to pride, not being content with her place living in a shack on the beach. Her intended husband is a simple-minded oaf with whom she would have lead a dull, constricted life. These many chapters struck a false note with me as I was cheering on Little Emily for trying to have an enjoyable life. The other dull section concerns David’s first wife, who is written as lacking any depth of character. It becomes clear that David is intended for someone else, necessitating the removal of his wife via a lingering and melodramatic wasting illness. These aspects don’t spoil the book, merely make it less than thoroughly enjoyable. At its best it is Dickens at his finest, with characters that are complex, believable and surprising. There are enjoyable eccentrics such as Mr Dick and Mr Micawber, and good villains in Uriah Heep, Mr Creakle and the Murdstones.
Oliver Twist (1838) was Dickens second novel, following on from The Pickwick Papers. It could be argued that it was his first proper novel – that is, planned from the outset as a coherent narrative rather than a series of episodes. I was familiar with the story, as no doubt most people are, from having seen the musical film from the 1960s, which I found thrilling as a child. I was surprised at what a disappointment the novel was, with its one-dimensional characters and creaking, full of holes plot. No Dickens novel is completely bad or unreadable, and the best parts of the book are the early chapters that describe the living conditions of the poor and destitute, particularly the brutal conditions in the workhouses and the portrayals of the uncaring minor officials who run these places. Ill-treatment of children was a major theme for Dickens due to events in his own childhood.
Oliver Twist was born in a workhouse to a mother whose name was not known and who died during childbirth. He was named by Mr Bumble, the beadle, who describes his method for naming such children –“And notwithstanding a offered reward of ten pound, which was afterwards increased to twenty pound. Notwithstanding the most superlative, and, I may say, supernat’ral exertions on the part of this parish,’ said Bumble, ‘we have never been able to discover who is his father, or what was his mother’s settlement, name, or condition.’Mrs. Mann raised her hands in astonishment; but added, after a moment’s reflection, ‘How comes he to have any name at all, then?’The beadle drew himself up with great pride, and said, ‘I inwented it.’ ‘You, Mr. Bumble!’ ‘I, Mrs. Mann. We name our fondlings in alphabetical order. The last was a S,—Swubble, I named him. This was a T,—Twist, I named him. The next one comes will be Unwin, and the next Vilkins. I have got names ready made to the end of the alphabet, and all the way through it again, when we come to Z.”Why, you’re quite a literary character, sir!’ said Mrs. Mann. I found this passage interesting, as Dickens is noted for some of the outlandish names he gave to characters, and wondered if perhaps he was commenting on that in this passage – the power the author has to name someone, and the fun that could be had with it.
Due to constant mistreatment Oliver escapes and makes an epic walk to London where he falls in with the well-known gang of criminals. This is where the story goes off the rails with a series of absurd circumstances where Oliver is essentially passed back and forth between the criminal gang and various kind-hearted, wealthy people who want to save him. Towards the end there is a pointless romance between Harry Maylie and Rose that has no relevance to the story but simply seems to have been included because he thought a novel needed a romantic episode. This is written in the worst sort of Victorian purple prose, a device that Dickens often used and which tends to be among the weaker parts of his books.‘The disclosure of to-night,’—Harry began. ‘The disclosure of to-night,’ replied Rose softly, ‘leaves me in the same position, with reference to you, as that in which I stood before.’ ‘You harden your heart against me, Rose,’ urged her lover. ‘Oh Harry, Harry,’ said the young lady, bursting into tears; ‘I wish I could, and spare myself this pain.’ ‘Then why inflict it on yourself?’ said Harry, taking her hand. ‘Think, dear Rose, think what you have heard to-night.’ ‘And what have I heard! What have I heard!’ cried Rose. ‘That a sense of his deep disgrace so worked upon my own father that he shunned all—there, we have said enough, Harry, we have said enough.”Not yet, not yet,’ said the young man, detaining her as she rose. ‘My hopes, my wishes, prospects, feeling: every thought in life except my love for you: have undergone a change. I offer you, now, no distinction among a bustling crowd; no mingling with a world of malice and detraction, where the blood is called into honest cheeks by aught but real disgrace and shame; but a home—a heart and home—yes, dearest Rose, and those, and those alone, are all I have to offer.’
Nicholas Nickleby (1839) was Dickens third novel and is vastly better than Oliver Twist. I was amazed at how much better it was and wondered if there was an explanation, as I wouldn’t expect a writer to improve so dramatically from one book to the next. It has a great cast – there are a dozen or so major characters, all of whom are compelling and three-dimensional. Although the book is ostensibly about Nicholas as the hero, I read it as there being two heroes, with his sister Kate the other. They are both typical Dickens heroes – young, basically decent people trying to make their way in the world and dealing with a series of obstacles. The problem with most Dickens heroes is that they are too good – they never have any character flaws. What I found refreshing about Nicholas and Kate is that both have character flaws (such as pride, foolishness and being quick to lose their temper), that sometimes add to their problems, a trait which made them more likeable for me.
It also has two of the great Dickens’ villains – the brutal Wackford Squeers who runs a school for boys where the pupils are exploited and mistreated, and Ralph Nickleby whose evil is worse than most villains as it is his own nephew whose life he seeks to ruin. There are also some great comic characters, such as the bottom dwelling gigolo Mr Mantalini and some of the theatre troupe that Nicholas falls in with. The Mr Mantalini voice characterisation by the narrator Alex Jennings is brilliant, so enjoyable that I looked forward to his regular appearances.
There are a few minor flaws; I found the Cheeryble brothers unlikely, they seem to exist as plot devices to be brought in to help various characters out of difficulties. There are also a couple of problematic romances involving Nicholas and Kate. It’s fairly predictable in a Dickens novel that if a noble young chap meets a beautiful young woman there will be some barriers but eventually they will declare their love and marry, after a lot of florid prose. One amusing episode occurs in chapter 28, where Kate reads part of a popular romance novel to the lady who has employed her. It’s funny to read him sending up one style of romantic narrative when he is also guilty of practising a similarly dull style at times.
It was four in the afternoon—that is, the vulgar afternoon of the sun and the clock—and Mrs. Wititterly reclined, according to custom, on the drawing-room sofa, while Kate read aloud a new novel in three volumes, entitled ‘The Lady Flabella,’ which Alphonse the doubtful had procured from the library that very morning. And it was a production admirably suited to a lady labouring under Mrs. Wititterly’s complaint, seeing that there was not a line in it, from beginning to end, which could, by the most remote contingency, awaken the smallest excitement in any person breathing. Kate read on. ‘”Cherizette,” said the Lady Flabella, inserting her mouse-like feet in the blue satin slippers, which had unwittingly occasioned the half-playful half-angry altercation between herself and the youthful Colonel Befillaire, in the Duke of Mincefenille’s Salon De Danse on the previous night. “Cherizette, Ma Chere, Donnez-Moi De L’eau-De-Cologne, S’il Vous Plait, Mon Enfant.” ‘”Mercie—thank you,” said the Lady Flabella, as the lively but devoted Cherizette plentifully besprinkled with the fragrant compound the Lady Flabella’s MOUCHOIR of finest cambric, edged with richest lace, and emblazoned at the four corners with the Flabella crest, and gorgeous heraldic bearings of that noble family. “Mercie—that will do.” ‘At this instant, while the Lady Flabella yet inhaled that delicious fragrance by holding the mouchoir to her exquisite, but thoughtfully-chiselled nose, the door of the boudoir (artfully concealed by rich hangings of silken damask, the hue of Italy’s firmament) was thrown open, and with noiseless tread two valets-de-chambre, clad in sumptuous liveries of peach-blossom and gold, advanced into the room followed by a page in bas de soie—silk stockings—who, while they remained at some distance making the most graceful obeisances, advanced to the feet of his lovely mistress, and dropping on one knee presented, on a golden salver gorgeously chased, a scented billet. ‘The Lady Flabella, with an agitation she could not repress, hastily tore off the envelope and broke the scented seal. It was from Befillaire—the young, the slim, the low-voiced—her own Befillaire.’ ‘Oh, charming!’ interrupted Kate’s patroness, who was sometimes taken literary. ‘Poetic, really. Read that description again, Miss Nickleby.’ Kate complied. ‘Sweet, indeed!’ said Mrs. Wititterly, with a sigh. ‘So voluptuous, is it not—so soft?’ ‘Yes, I think it is,’ replied Kate, gently; ‘very soft.’ ‘Close the book, Miss Nickleby,’ said Mrs. Wititterly. ‘I can hear nothing more today; I should be sorry to disturb the impression of that sweet description. Close the book.’
Most Dickens novels end in a predictable fashion, with a revelation concerning aspects of one or more characters, and with the wicked being punished and the good rewarded and living happily thereafter. Nicholas Nickleby has two shocking revelations at the end that took me by surprise and gave a more disturbing and serious conclusion than most of his books. Having listened to or read thirteen of his fifteen novels, I regard Nicholas Nickleby as his best by a fair margin. It has an abundance of the qualities that make Dickens great, and not too much of his weaknesses. The reading by Alex Jennings is superb.