Columnists have thought it smart to write pieces on how tiresome they find the Dickens bi-centenary ballyhoo. They are what's tiresome. So is the hypocrisy of the relevant Guardian academic rentamouth, Prof. John Sutherland, who yesterday published his Dickens-is-overrated piece (including a list of all the Victorian novelists he claims to find superior) . . . and today publishes his book The Dickens Dictionary, whose sub-title is An A-Z of England’s greatest novelist'.

Dickens too can easily be accused of hypocrisy, and on a less shallow scale; certainly the great campaigner against injustice was vile to his wife and to his children. But he was, and therefore is, a great writer, and it seems more reasonable to say so today than to be spewing" cheap shots.

Yes, a great writer. The objection to TV adaptations  -  less so to today's than to those ghastly children's television serials of days gone by  -  is that they emphasise the wacky names, grotesquerie and plot, when of course it's the writing  that's the superlative core of his genius. So often he contradicts the foolish notion we have that nineteenth-century writers are far too wordy  -  so often he can say in a clipped phrase what would take any contemporary writer a paragraph. Yet he is, too, so very powerful when he expands into rhetorical luxury. And it's hard to comprehend any denial of his vividly persuasive imagination or acuteness of observation.

Here are a few passages I love, from just one of his novels, Bleak House:

Mr. Vholes put his dead glove, which scarcely seemed to have any hand in it, on my fingers, and...took his long thin shadow away. I thought of it on the outside of the coach, passing over all the sunny landscape between us and London, chilling the seed in the ground as it glided along."

[Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock] start for home...out of Paris...Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my lady, under the worn-out heavens... Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man, to have so inexhaustible a subject."

It is a dull street, under the best conditions; where the two long rows of houses stare at each other with that severity, that half a dozen of its greatest mansions seem to have been slowly stared into stone, rather than originally built in that material. It is a street of such dismal grandeur, so determined not to condescend to liveliness...and the echoing mews behind have a dry and massive appearance, as if they were reserved to stable the stone chargers of noble statues."

...in a large house formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now; and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. But its roomy staircases, passages, and ante-chambers still remain; and even its painted ceilings, where Allegory, in Roman helmet and celestial linen, sprawls among balustrades and pillars, flowers, clouds and big-legged boys, and makes the head ache... Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendant names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn... Here he is today, quiet at his table. An oyster of the old school, whom nobody can open.
         Like as he is to look at, so is his apartment in the dusk of the present afternoon. Rusty, out of date, withdrawing from attention, able to afford it... The titles on the backs of his books have retired into the binding; everything that can have a lock on it has got one; no key is visible..."

Excerpts, of course, snatch things from their context, and those above are the more powerful and numinous within the book, where they resonate within the great ebb and flow of the novel, sounding in the deeps of its themes, its atmospheres and passions, just as on the small scale of a short passage itself, a word or phrase reverberates against another a sentence or two before or after. The last passage above, for example, is part of the long and masterly scene-setting for the drama of Mr. Tulkinghorn's murder there: a drama in which the impact of violation is more felt because it violates not only the man but the privileged, guarded hush, so strongly established by Dickens, of the room in which it occurs.

There are Dickens novels I still haven't read  -  Martin Chuzzlewit, Barnaby Rudge  -  but they surely cannot better Bleak House, or Dombey and Son, or Great Expectations, or even, for all its marring facetiousness, the compelling Our Mutual Friend. Those readers who were alive in Dickens' own day were luckier than us: they had the chance not only to read his work but to go to hear his readings  -  hugely attended, clamorous, larger than life. Their core, though, was words. His great writing.


  1. That's great stuff, Michael. Of course, you'll always have a Prof. for hire who'll debunk the notion that guys like Dickens are geniuses, foundational to our culture, brilliant at what they do. And there'll always be a paper like The Guardian to give them space to write this step-on-my-grave nonsense.

    Dickens was remarkable and thankfully there are plenty of articles telling us why. Like you, I'm a little leery of TV adaptations, firstly because they're so Downton Abbey-ishly formulaic, but also because they never quite capture the dirt under the fingernails of his prose. He was exceptional at description, depiction and narrative.

    Also, he seems to have been somewhat of a showman and great manipulator of his own legend, which makes him seem even more close to us, in time...

  2. Of course, you're right about the words - and it is such fun and so rewarding to read the books out loud to someone. However, I do think some of the TV adaptations and movies work well because the plots - which you don't mention - are so gripping and compulsive and thrilling, and because the characters give good actors such brilliant material to work with. Also, I have to say that I love Dickens' sentimental side - I blub at all the deaths, especially noisily at those of children.

  3. Thank you both. One small quib (ie a quibble that's barely even a squib): I didn't quite lose the plot, Nigel: to quote myself, "they emphasise the wacky names, grotesquerie and plot..." and I did distinguish between some adaptations and others. I agree that they can be good vehicles for good actors, and did find the BBC's Bleak House exemplary for all the reasons you give. But the old ones (and the old film of David Copperfield) encouraged bad acting - the worst kinds of hamminess, which can't but give the impression that character and plot is all. You're given dialogue but you're deprived of the vibrant, shrewd, resourceful prose.

  4. I'm sure you will agree that David Lean's version of "Oliver Twist" is a cinema classic, Michael. Film has the power to surpass the book from which it is adapted.

    I think the term "Dickensian" has become interchangeable with "Victorian Values" and thereby tarnished his reputation.

    Wait till Michael Gove reintroduces the blackboard and the strap ( next white paper- the return of Gradgrind!).

  5. Rambling Gambling Gordon08 February, 2012

    lizessaAny attempt to compare a book (and especially one by a writer as great as Dickens) to its filmed version is bound to be invidious because you’re self-evidently not comparing like with like. A film is an infinitely simpler way of telling a story, so there’s little point, it seems to me, in lamenting the loss of something it’s impossible to have. Films are overwhelmingly visual – we can’t go to them for the complex pleasures that great prose can give us.

  6. Well, RGG, I can't speak for Joe B re David Lean's film v Dickens' Oliver Twist, but for me, if a book's main virtue and/or main ingredient is just its plot, then there's no reason why a film version can't be comparable - it might be better, it might be worse. Ditto a TV series.

  7. "Films are overwhelmingly visual"

    gosh thats a stunningly important discovery, Gordon.
    Actually I haven't read Oliver Twist, so it was cheeky of me to imply the film surpassed it. But then I've never been hampered too much by the facts in having a debate.

    I did read however read the offending piece by Prof. Sutherland, Michael, and I'm mystified by the sobriquet "academic rent a mouth". He appeared to me, to be merely challenging a widely held assumption that Dickens was the greatest Victorian novelist.

    Perhaps we could get some other Guardian hack to debunk that other relic of the Victorian era, Mrs Windsor, who seems lately to have approached the status of a Mother Teresa in the veneration accorded to her by the grovelling
    scribes in media land.

  8. Rambling Gambling Gordon09 February, 2012

    The ‘if’ in your argument, Michael, is surely a very large one. Yes, ‘if’ the book is primarily about plot then indeed the distance between the book and the filmed version will matter far less, if at all. Who, watching the film of a John Grisham novel, for example, is ever going to pine for the loss of such-and-such a paragraph, or description, or observation, or sentence? But you don’t have to go very far up the scale for the two forms to diverge substantially, making comparison between the two futile. My disagreement is with your apparent impatience with a form that emphasises Dickens’ ‘wacky names, grotesquerie and plot’ at the expense of the quality of his prose when the quality of his prose is what by definition the form is incapable of emphasising.

  9. It may be a "big if", RGG, but it's also rather a large category of film.

    Joe, don't be uncivil to RGG please. Re Sutherland: the point is, clearly the Grauniad wanted (as they often do) a piss-on-the-party piece, in this case on the Dickens bi-centenary, and he supplied one, not saying much but stoking the pale fire of his argument by sniping at other academics working in exactly the same way and same subject area as himself - "spewing monographs, Ph.D. theses and over-annotated editions": all these forms being the stuff of academic process, in which he partook fully before he retired. And either he was merely pretending to find Dickens a lesser novelist than all the others on his list, or else the book he published the very next day had a very dishonest sub-title, namely: ‘An A-Z of England’s greatest novelist'. So yes, whether one agrees with the thrust of his article or not, it was a rentamouth exercise.

  10. Michael

    I do so like your chutzpah. Please be civil to RGG, whilst I ,meanwhile, kill Professor Plum in the Library with the thesaurus.

  11. Rambling Gambling Gordon09 February, 2012

    Handbags now flying about good style – excellent. As for the killing of the professor in the library, surely the Butler ought to have done it.

    Out of the blue a final (?) thought. The greatest short story ever written (okay, okay – a very fine short story) is James Joyce’s The Dead. The film version (directed by John Huston) can’t hold a candle to the story because – obviously – most of Joyce’s words have been left out, but in its own right it’s a hugely satisfying and beautifully accomplished piece of work.

  12. Funny you mention that RGG, I'm reading The Dead at this very moment! The last story of Dubliners, which is a very fine short story book indeed.

    I don't know if English people ever read Dickens and feel that there's not much changed in English people since he wrote his books, but reading Dubliners - as a Dubliner myself - I think we haven't changed much. The foibles are all there, beautifully and sometimes harshly exposed, but in the 100 years since this book, we have the same failings, and the same character, despite (our temporary) independence, the Celtic Tiger, the great influx of migrants, and all...

  13. Rambling Gambling Gordon10 February, 2012

    Glad you like the collection of stories about your native city, Kieran. In some ways it can be seen as a harsh book – in part Joyce condemning Dublin’s citizens for their abject failure to do precisely what he managed to do himself, which was to get the hell out of the place – but it never strikes me as quite that mean-minded. Ulysses may be his best work, but Dubliners – a very different kind of book, of course – isn't far behind. If you can get hold of the film of The Dead I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

  14. RGG: Joyce? Rambling gambling convolution isn't supposed to be your style. Except, of course, when you're indulging in it. Personally, I like to stick to simple straightforward stuff. I'm deeply touched to see that this Dylan-transcending little literary club is also deeply steeped in the period-drama fiction such as my mother read and watches; it really shows how genuinely cultured and broad-minded you all really are as opposed to obsessing over just the Beats just because Dylan read them. I wonder how many of the Beats read Dickens and so on. I think Paul Simon once said that Desolation Row is just recycled Ferlinghetti. But who the Dickens is he? I'll never go haring off to the library to read him but I'm sure Michael has, yet for one reason and one reason only:

    The bookshelves were full of books and I noticed the novel Ulysses. Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records, had given me this as a gift, a first-edition copy of the book and I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it. James Joyce seemed like the most arrogant man who ever lived, had both his eyes wide open and great faculty of speech, but what he say, I knew not what. I wanted to ask MacLeish to explain James Joyce to me, to make sense of something that seemed so out of control, and I knew that he would have, but I didn’t.

    "But what he say". To pick people up on minor points can all seem so petty:

    "Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please"


  15. Thanks, RGG. I agree, he seems to understand that mentality of people who are bitter about not leaving. It's a particular Irish melancholy, the idea of home, and leaving home. It's always an option and as a man who stayed, a lot of what's in this book resonates with me.

    I saw a good discussion on BBC2's Review Show about Dickens, as entertainer, novelist, and the recent biographies about him, including one by Simon Callow. Very informative and enjoyable, I'm sure it's available in BBC iPlayer...

  16. I like Simon Callow but I have this against him: he once gloated that he'd never bought a Dylan album.

  17. Rambling Gambling Gordon13 February, 2012

    Hello to the Anonymous who mentioned his mother.
    I was wondering why poor Joe Butler had been mildly reprimanded by Michael for his alleged lack of civility while your own observations got off scot-free, until the likely explanation – involving a petard, and being allowed to be hoist with one’s own – struck me.
    As for my own response to your pellucidly coherent and charitable contribution, well, what’s the matter with me? I don’t have much to say. I mean, daylight’s sneaking through the window here...
    Why don’t I just send you a Downton Abbey badge?

  18. Elmer Gantry24 February, 2012


    Have been re-reading Hard Times recently and have been struck (again) by the brilliance of Dickens' description of Coketown.

    This must be among the best (if not the best) descriptions of an industrial town ever:

    It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if
    the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a
    town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.
    It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which
    interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and
    ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a
    river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of
    building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same
    pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same
    as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the
    last and the next.