Charles Dickens audio books 7-9

September 28, 2015

I covered the first six audio books that I listened to here and here.

bleak house title page

Bleak House (1852) was Dickens’ ninth novel and falls just short of being one of his best. There were times while I listened to the audiobook that I thought it might turn out to be his best novel, however I was left disappointed by the concluding quarter or so. It has some classic Dickens themes and motifs, with powerful descriptions of eccentric, poverty stricken characters who live in the backstreets of a perpetually gloomy and foggy London, while others are caught up in complex legal cases that have run for so long that no one remembers what they are about and any money at claim has already been taken up in legal fees. It has one of his great ensemble casts of characters with some of the standouts being Mr. Chadband, the evangelical clergyman; Mr Snagsby, proprietor of a law stationery firm; Miss Flite, an elderly lady who lives in a boarding house and has a cage full of birds that represent various aspects of the convoluted legal cases she follows; and Krook, who runs the boarding house where several of the characters live and who also hoards items such as legal documents and bags of human hair.

As is often the case it is the major, heroic characters who are the least interesting. There are several of them in Bleak House, with the primary ones being Esther Summerson and Ada Clare, two young women who are friends and John Jarndyce, their wealthy and kind guardian. The character I had the biggest problem with was Inspector Bucket, a detective who is portrayed as being infallible in his deductions almost to the point of being telepathic. He really only seems to exist as a plot device to resolve certain mysteries and for me was one of the key factors that spoiled the end of the novel as it descended into predictable melodrama.

There are some wonderful passages of writing in the book, as well as brilliant character descriptions, such as this of the preacher … “Mr. Chadband is a large yellow man with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system. Mrs. Chadband is a stern, severe-looking, silent woman. Mr. Chadband moves softly and cumbrously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk upright. He is very much embarrassed about the arms, as if they were inconvenient to him and he wanted to grovel, is very much in a perspiration about the head, and never speaks without first putting up his great hand, as delivering a token to his hearers that he is going to edify them.” (ch. 19)

There are more interesting characters than I’ve had time to mention here, such as the scheming young law clerks, and a group of bourgeois women who concern themselves with raising money to carry out good deeds in distant lands. The book has an interesting structure with some chapters narrated by Esther Summerson and others by the standard narrator found in most novels. The reading by Sean Barrett and Teresa Gallagher is excellent, with Teresa Gallagher reading the Esther chapters. The duration is 35 hours.

dombey

Dombey and Son (1846), Dickens’ seventh novel was a real surprise to me. I’m not sure if I’d ever heard of it before I had the idea to listen to all of his novels, and I don’t believe that any of the characters in the book have become well known in the way that many Dickens characters have. Because of this I thought it might not be particularly good, however I found it an excellent novel with some great characters, and it has become one of my favourites of his.

The overall theme of the book is quite grim, being mostly concerned with selfishness and the corrupting role of money in modern life, with none of the characters leading particularly happy or easy lives. Even the title is sombre, as we learn that Dombey is a wealthy, self-centred businessman and the son a sickly, sensitive boy who only exists, in the father’s eyes, to inherit and grow the business. (The full title is “Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation.”)

Overall, the book is a series of character studies. There isn’t much in the way of complex plot or action, with most of the text being about people as they strategise their way through life. There are those who have money and use it to manipulate others; those who don’t have money but are scheming to get it; and the innocent or naive, who would like to exist outside the money system but end up as victims of it.

Typically, the heroic characters are the least interesting, such as Dombey’s daughter Florence, who is like a female version of Oliver Twist. Fortunately there are plenty of secondary characters who provide some great entertainment. Major Bagstock, (Josh, Joe, J.B., Old Joe) a friend of convenience to Dombey, is one of the great Dickens boors. David Timson’s vocalising of this gruff, conceited character is wonderful – he seems to have decided to have fun with him and go over the top, much as Dickens went over the top in writing the character, where he seemed to believe you couldn’t have too much of a good thing. The Major likes to talk himself up in the third person, regularly coming out with lines such as “’Dombey,’ said the Major, ‘I’m glad to see you. I’m proud to see you. There are not many men in Europe to whom J. Bagstock would say that—for Josh is blunt. Sir: it’s his nature—but Joey B. is proud to see you, Dombey.’ ”

Dombey’s son Paul is a fascinating character, a sickly child who is deeply introspective and troubles his father with philosophical questions about the meaning of money, at one point being described as being “like an old man or a young goblin”. Due to his sickliness he is sent to stay with Mrs. Pipchin, who runs “an infantine Boarding-House of a very select description” and is mourning her late husband who died of a broken heart after losing his money in a failed investment in a Peruvian mine. “This celebrated Mrs Pipchin was a marvellous ill-favoured, ill-conditioned old lady, of a stooping figure, with a mottled face, like bad marble, a hook nose, and a hard grey eye, that looked as if it might have been hammered at on an anvil without sustaining any injury.”

The old sailor Captain Cuttle worried me at first as being a cliche pirate “ahoy me hearties” type, but ends up being a complex and delightful character who lives in fear of his Scottish landlady Mrs MacStinger.

The novel has one of Dickens’ great female characters in Edith Granger, who marries Dombey after being essentially pimped out to him by her mother, Mrs Skewton. The descriptive passages around this “courtship” are almost Hogarthian in revealing the naked cynicism behind this type of arranged marriage. It is similar to the scenario in Our Mutual Friend where Alfred and Sophronia Lammle marry each other for money, only to discover that both are penniless and were putting on a front to trap the other.

James Carker is a great villian, comparable to Uriah Heep, acting humble to his employer Dombey, as he seethes with resentment and plots his own fortune.

There is an interesting passage early in the book where Mr Dombey seeks to interview a wet nurse for his newly born son and interviews a woman named Polly Toodle. He tells her that if she wants the job she will have to change her name to Richards as he doesn’t want anyone with such a silly name working in his house. I interpreted this as another Dickens joke about some of his outrageous character names, similar to the passage in Oliver Twist describing how Mr Bumble named him. “‘My good woman,’ said Mr Dombey, turning round in his easy chair, as one piece, and not as a man with limbs and joints, ‘I understand you are poor, and wish to earn money by nursing the little boy, my son, who has been so prematurely deprived of what can never be replaced. I have no objection to your adding to the comforts of your family by that means. So far as I can tell, you seem to be a deserving object. But I must impose one or two conditions on you, before you enter my house in that capacity. While you are here, I must stipulate that you are always known as—say as Richards—an ordinary name, and convenient. Have you any objection to be known as Richards? You had better consult your husband.'”

The listening time is 39 hours and the reading by David Timson is superb, one of the best I’ve listened to.

two cities

A Tale Of Two Cities was Dickens’ twelfth novel, published in 1859. Along with Oliver Twist it is probably one of his best known stories, with some big budget film and TV series having been based on them. I found it to be one of his dullest novels and it was a relief that it was relatively short. It’s a straightforward adventure novel about people doing dangerous things in revolutionary France. There are none of the interesting characters that are found in most of his novels. Most characters in this novel are two dimensional cliches – possibly why Hollywood film makers like it so much. There is none of the humour that makes his other novels so enjoyable, perhaps because he thought of this as being a serious novel. It’s a plot based novel and I feel that intricate plotting was not one of Dickens strengths, with character driven action being more what he was good at. I found it absurd that the main plot device that resolves the story is that two of the major characters look so alike that they are easily mistaken for each other. This happens not once, but twice. The first time is early in the book, presumably to prepare us for what happens at the end. Not only does he use this absurd plot device twice, but he supposedly lifted the idea from an unpublished play by Watts Phillips that he had been shown.

The text has some well known passages such as the famous lines at the start and end about the best and worst of times and ‘tis a far far better thing I do. I particularly like the writing that opens chapter three “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this.”

It’s a decent enough story but far from being one of his best. The best Dickens novels are epic, dense books in which diverse characters interact with each other, without the need for major events driving the action. The reading by Anton Lesser is good and runs for 14 hours.

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