Thursday, August 15, 2013

How to read Dickens: high tea optional

"Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

You have read
A Christmas Carol, haven't you?

Without Charles Dickens, what would have become of Christmas --in the nineteenth century, that most somber and soberest of all religious days on the Church calendar? After the initial success of A Christmas Carol (it was published December 19, 1843, a tale written in six weeks to pay off debts) Dickens' tale of seasonal goodwill eventually became the antidote to England's Victorian gloom which, truthfully, wasn't very dark to begin with: the empire's money was rolling in from the burgeoning railways and overseas trade, and people had money to spend ... well, not everyone, as the story of Bob Cratchit and his family was meant to illustrate. The divisions of the English class system, and the poverty and hardship it wrought, were unassailable, it seemed.

Yes, I know: at this point, old Dickens seems as antiquated as the dead Marley himself, an overstuffed Victorian curio whose funny-named characters and creaking plots are the stuff of school-day dread. It's unlikely that Oprah's book club will find in either Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities much more than "old school" mustiness. She deserves an "A" for bravery, though the two books are being published together in one volume as an Oprah-show tie-in -- a merchandising feat Dickens himself would endorse.

But a far better choice would likely be A Christmas Carol: the cautionary tale of what just too much money in the wrong hands can do. Imagine what the book club could make of that discussion, a familiar theme these days it seems. The soft-hearted old Marley was dead -- and his business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, wasn't going to part with a shilling's worth of work from Bob Cratchit even on Christmas Eve. Thereby hangs a tale of the economic system, moral values, and three visiting spirits.

I doubt that Norrie Epstein's
The Friendly Dickens: Being a Good-Natured Guide to the Man Who Invented Scrooge will be included in the deluxe-Oprah package, but it does make the case for Charles Dickens in an entertaining way. The book is funny, lighthearted and full of anecdotal stories about the novels and Dickens' own life as it unfolded around his personal fortunes.

These turn out to be as complicated as the fate of any of his own characters; debt, bankruptcy, divorce ... he could have been his own best fictional creation, only Dickens was too busy knocking out the next installment of, say, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, which were published in weekly serials. Creaky plots? Stephen King must eat his heart out in jealousy. The stories sold, and how:

The serial's primary advantage was its low price. By paying a shilling a month, a reader eventually got an original, illustrated 300,000 word novel for a pound. Spread over nineteen months -- and sales for The Pickwick Papers often reached 40,000 for one installment -- that one shilling grew into a fortune, netting 10,000 pounds. ... Sales figures for a successful installment are enough to make a modern novelist weep with envy. One number of The Old Curiosity Shop sold more than 100,000 copies in one month....

All of these profits were being made as Dickens sat feverishly writing the next installment, with creditors usually knocking on the door.
Here's Epstein's account of one such episode:

"Martin Chuzzlewit, his current serial, was falling in sales, and in an effort to boost his flagging income, Dickens dashed off a tale for the Christmas of 1843 in about six weeks. The manuscript for his 'ghostly little book' is a scant sixty-six pages, as compared to the usual eight hundred for the typical Dickens blockbuster, yet it is the biggest seller he ever wrote. ...

The previous summer he had visited a 'ragged school,' part of an evangelical movement to provide basic instruction to poor children. Although he disapproved of religious indoctrination, believing that the poor need a bath more than a psalm, (Dickens) firmly held that ignorance is inseparable from want.

... The sight of such wretchedness horrified and unnerved him: 'I have very seldom seen in all the strange and dreadful things I have seen in London and elsewhere, anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited by these children.' Dickens had intended a tract on education for the poor, but he now decided to write a story that, he announced with justifiable hyperbole, would hit his readers over the head like a 'sledge-hammer'."

It's another Dickensian irony that the beautifully-bound first edition netted the author only 230 pounds -- most of his royalties were absorbed by printing costs, which he had paid for himself. Dickens wrote he "had set his heart and soul on a Thousand clear," and he thought he was ruined. He packed up the family and moved to Italy to avoid creditors. Eventually, his own staged readings of A Christmas Carol made him more money than any book he ever wrote -- career-enhancing tours that likely would be in keeping with Oprah's own post-show future plans.
In the meanwhile, here are Epstein's suggestions on "How to Read Dickens." High tea at four is, of course, optional, but in keeping with the spirit of things.

1) Take a Zen approach: the destination doesn't matter, it's the journey that counts. Savor each word; don't rush. And don't try to think logically! The truth is not always literal.

2) Read like a child, i.e., allow yourself to slip into Dickens' world completely. Let go of the desire to "find out what happens."

3) If you're tempted to skip something that looks boring, and it's either that or not finish the book, skip it.

4) Expect the author to make mistakes. He wrote fast. He wrote to entertain.

5) Expect inconsistency.

6) Read out loud! Dickens spoke his characters' lines as he wrote.

7) If one Dickens novel isn't to your taste, try another.
A Tale of Two Cities, often the only one most people read in school, is the least Dickens-like of them all.

8) If you've read a late-Dickens novel (anything after
David Copperfield, or 1850) and hated it, try an earlier one. It's almost as if the two groups were written by different authors.

The Friendly Dickens is a great introduction to those novels we were all supposed to read and seldom did. Judging from Epstein's foreboding outline of the aptly-titled, late period Bleak House -- more than 800 pages of Dickensian gloom which begins with six paragraphs describing the murky London fog -- I may save that work for next January's chill, when the Christmas bills begin rolling in.

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