Monday, December 13, 2004

Wot the dickens...

Just the other night I came across these comments regarding Dickens at Catalogue Blog:

I have never been a big fan of Charles Dickens' novels. I admire him greatly as a writer, and can appreciate that his fiction is great fiction, but I have always felt alienated by his two-dimensional portrayal of women.

Further to all the Dickens comments of the other day, I'm wondering if his treatment of women factors into your dislike (or like) of Dickens, or if it's a non-issue. I'd never given the matter any thought before.

(I'm starting to think I should read some real Dickens now just so I can get more of the jokes to be had in the Jasper Fforde books.)

Feel free to discuss this among yourselves while I sit here quietly working.


Anonymous said...

It doesn't bother me in Dickens, for whatever reason. I'm not sure if it's because I devoured most of his books at such an early age that that wasn't important to me yet, or if I just take it as an artefact of his times, and that he did reasonably well, considering.

OR, and I think this is more likely, if the female cariacatures don't bother me because they're surrounded on all sides by male cariacatures. That is the biggest, most damning criticism of Dickens, IMO -- that he's a cariacaturist. The portraits are brilliant, concise, hilarious, and completely flat.

His strength is not in characterization, female or male. His strength is in plotting, in storytelling, and in creating an enormous, detailed world to contain these giant plotlines.

If you want an enormous, complicated world AND depth of character -- it IS possible to have both! -- try Middlemarch. Eliot trumps Dickens in my deck, and I love Dickens.

Anne Welsh said...

Two words: Little Dorrit.

I rest my case.

However I can appreciate Dickens' attractions ... and, indeed, the point of my originating post was that I am reading (or rereading in some cases) his Christmas books right now...

matchingtracksuits said...

I first have to preface this by saying that Dickens is one of my all time favorites. Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas Nickleby, and Bleak House are among my favorite books of all time.

Little Dorrit is indeed a good example of Dickens' not-quite-two-dimensional potrayal of women, but I think that Dickens didn't entirely escape the environment in which he lived.

Does this make him a bad writer in some ways? I recall the same discussion regarding T. S. Eliot and his anti-Semitism. I think it remains an open question.

Anne Welsh said...

For the record, I just want to say that I have never said that Dickens was a bad writer. I wrote a post about how much I was enjoying rereading his Christmas books, and mentioned that, in many of his novels, I felt somewhat alienated by his two-dimensional portrayal of women.

If people wish to move the discussion on to whether or not he is a bad writer, then that is up to them, but I would distance myself from any such statement.

- Annie

(still enjoying reading The Chimes).

Isabella K said...

I'm glad there are so many smart people around the world to do my thinking for me.

I'm sorry, Annie, if you feel your original words were taken out of context. We'd accidentally stumbled onto the topic of Dickens, with one person loving Dickens (another, now), one person hating Dickens (no reason stated), and myself marvelling that writers I admire speak glowingly of Dickens — everyone does — and realizing I don't have a proper firsthand opinion of Dickens. I'd enjoyed what little I'd read, but had never given it any thought. So I was tickled to find you articulating such a bold opinion.

Consensus: he's a product of his environment, artefact of his times — but that doesn't change the fact that some people may feel uncomfortable with, offended by, or simply irritated by his characters. (Similarly, I can't stand Jane Austen.)

I don't think anyone would call Dickens a bad writer, but we do judge artists and their work (and everyone, on some level) according to standards outside of their professional realms. I'd like to think a work of art can stand on its own and be free of its author's biography, but that's just not always the case. Yes, TS Eliot. Recently the SF writer Orson Scott Card was under fire for making very harsh and public anti-gay statements. Of course, this is another discussion entirely, and I agree it remains an open question.

Sadly, Bleak House must've been among the many boxes of paperbacks I'd given away when moving. But I promise I'll pick something up over the holiday and give it a proper effort.

Anne Welsh said...

No need to apologise: I just wanted to make it clear where I stood, before the discussion turned into one of whether Dickens was a good writer or not and I was left looking on the wrong side of where I actually stand, through no fault of mine, or yours! (I've been caught that way before).

Austen is my favourite author. I wrote my Masters thesis on her portrayal of male characters, and referenced Dickens a lot as her antithesis in terms of characterization (male and female) and plot development.

So, perhaps the issue is around the definition of "huge fan." What I mean by that is that I have read nearly all his fiction and a lot of his journalism, work on the site of his old chambers and am a member of his old Inn of Court (attracted greatly by his membership and John Webster's), but he's only in my top twenty, not my top five, and he would certainly have been so if he had just fleshed out his female parts a bit. Even Trollope did better with women, and he was nowhere near as worldy as our Charles ...

Catherine Detweiler said...

Sad to say, I believe I've read more Jasper Fforde than Dickens. I suppose this is something I should rectify.

Anonymous said...

Dickens IS just terrible. Although his plots occasionally make good drama, his oleaginously prolix style and ridiculous names (guess who's good or bad here, guys: Fecalia Leechordure/Blesspoppet Softpuppy) are enough to make cat laugh. (I think Oscar Wilde said something like" One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.") And it is so obvious that much of the time he was paid by the word ("It was dark. Inkly blackly darkly, dark, dark. The night was a pitch dark dark night night, and very dark [cont p94]")