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.