Thursday, January 11, 2007

Report from London: Mutt Ploughman on "Dickensfest V"

In what is quickly becoming an annual feature of The Secret Thread (well, ok, I started it last year), and in lieu of the fact that there's not much to report on the novel-writing front (I'm in a writing hiatus, for numerous complicated reasons, but I hasten to add that I am still conducting research in the interim), I now devote some time to a mid-novel report from my yearly endeavor to read one major work from the canon of the great, great English novelist Charles Dickens. This is my fifth annual "Dickensfest" venture (technically, the sixth in the last seven years). For posterity, here are the previous installments in the history of Mutt Ploughman's "Dickensfest":

2000 - A Tale of Two Cities
2001 - (year of ignorance/terror)
2002 - Our Mutual Friend
2003 - Bleak House
2004 - Dombey and Son
2005 - Martin Chuzzlewit

And now, as you can see on the right, I am immersed in the third novel in Dickens' catalogue, Nicholas Nickelby.

Right now, I am about 1/2 of the way through the novel. A little less, technically, but close enough. The first thing I'd say about this novel is that I confess to not really having had a great desire to read it, at least compared to other Dickens novels. I chose to, however, because I wanted to see if my gut was wrong (so far, it is!), because I have committed to reading all of his works anyway, and because, the most practical reason, I happened to have a copy of the novel on hand. I did have other Dickens works on hand too, but in the end I chose to see what it is that was making me less than compelled to explore this work, and whether those feelings were unfounded.

It may be that I felt this way about the novel beforehand because of the way it's described on the back of the Bantam version I have: the synopsis touts it as 'the most gorgeously theatrical' of Dickens' novels. I didn't know what the heck that meant, and I don't really know who would, since it sounds like one of those high literary-critic catch phrases that mean more or less nothing except demonstrate how creative the critic can be with his or her words. But it did indicate that the novel concerned itself more with the stage/theater world more than other Dickens novels, and that isn't a particular interest of mine. I enjoy the theater as much as anyone else but that is a world I have never been involved with nor cared a whole lot about. But I knew, as is fairly common knowledge about Dickens, that the theater was a tremendous source of inspiration and joy for Dickens, so it was not surprising that he would write about that world. It's not surprising either that he felt this way about it either; it was more or less the motion picture industry of Dickens' time (and all ages before then), and one can see why he felt so strongly about it as a form of entertainment. But I've never been that interested in the theater myself.

Furthermore, the story of a down-on-his-luck young man making his way in the world certainly seems to be rather commonplace in Dickens' work, and I guess I wondered how much different of an experience this novel would be than some of his others. Dombey and Son had a similar vein running through it, and Martin Chuzzlewit also contained plot lines with young, ambitious, but disadvantaged men, and women, with firm moral qualities, trying to make headway in a society that disdains them in favor of people with more 'advantages'.

All this being said, I know enough about Dickens now to know that his novels are always worthwhile, and although they all do contain similar elements, they are by no means all the same. Each Dickens story is different, each cast of characters particularly striking and memorable. But those casts are always remarkable, always finely drawn, and always most impressive in their scope and variety. In Nickelby, so far I have run into the virtuous title character and his beautiful and good-hearted sister; their woebegone, constantly lamenting mother; their miserly, cold uncle; a colorful manager of a theater troupe; a chattery and warm female painter; a number of buffoon-ish young men with high social positions but little else to recommend them; a scheming, whiny young woman who sees herself as entitled to become Nicholas' wife and becomes devilish when rejected by him; and a cruel, tyrannical, abusive boarding school master who gives new meaning to the term 'child abuse'. (Dickens was always a stong voice for disadvantaged, poor children - he experienced poverty in his youth, and always remembered it and preserved his experience of it in his novels and in his public life.)

With Dickens the enjoyment is always found in the accurate, humorous, and insightful exhibition of human nature, with all of its foibles, as embodied in these wide casts of characters. What was true of men and women in all casts of society in London in the early to mid-19th century is in many ways still true. Thus in Nicholas Nickelby, we recognize the ways men & women jostle and parry for social positioning, and although the constraints for women were far more prevalent at that time, their ends, and those of men, seemed to be nonetheless the same. We recognize how ridiculous humans can act when we concern ourselves with how we look to others, how to get ourselves 'ahead' in society, and what the consequences are of placing our priorities on things that are transitory. Ralph Nickelby, Nicholas' distant and self-concerned uncle, is more than willing to place his niece and nephew into unhappy circumstances simply in order to maintain business relationships that benefit his own financial well-being. Many of those same contacts consider themselves entitled to the hand and attentions of Kate Nickelby, Nicholas' sister, simply because of their titles and her lower position in life. The reader sees how preposterous this is, but also witnesses the devastating consequences for the virtuous character of Kate, who ends up suffering despite her constant effort to have her voice be heard and her own individual rights respected.

Nicholas, meanwhile, makes his way to the nearby town of Portsmouth on his own force of will and ingenuity, and at this point in the novel has found himself in an acting troupe there, where he discovers he has an immense amount of natural talent. He has not disclosed to his mother and sister yet how he is making his fortune, but when he is paid for his increasingly lauded performances on the stage, he sends his money to his mother and sister back in London. He vows that, after having been shipped off by his uncaring uncle to the dungeon-like boarding school to wither away under the cruel Wackford Squeers early in the story, he will make his own fortune in the world, and when he does he will return to care permanently for his mother and sister. No one else in the world will.

Dickens was not a subtle writer, and every character is an exaggerated version of what we encounter in life. The good are noble, true, and eternally kind-hearted; the evil are eternally scheming and devising ways to defeat their enemies with the blackest of hearts. But his characterizations bring out the truths and folly of humanity, and probably do so better than any novelist has done again or will do. Add that to the tremendous descriptive ability Dickens possessed, a man who used to wander the streets of London for hours at night taking note of every detail, every dirty corner, vagabond outcast, noisy tavern, windswept sky and cold rainy landscape, his penchant for humor, and his unmatched ability to craft long, twisted plots that always coalesce in the end into something satisfying and good for the soul, and you have the Charles Dickens experience. It will never go out of style. His novels will stand forever as the gift of a superb writer to the world of literature.

See the second installment for my commentary on the second half of Nicholas Nickelby.


Duke Altum said...

What the Dickens?!? (aw, someone had to say it...) This is one of the great literary traditions of the modern era... MUTT PLOUGHMAN'S ANNUAL DICKENSFEST! I think I just read something about it on CNN; Rueters and AP tend to cover it every year...

More importantly, TST does... in fact I had just been looking at some old posts not too long ago and was reading through some of Mutt's comments on last year's Dickens read, Martin Chuzzlewit. Now THAT one sounded like an interesting read. This one, I guess it remains to be seen. Mutt indicated that he was less interested in it than some others and frankly, I can see why. The plot in and of itself doesn't sound all that intriguing to me either. HOWEVER, as Mutt rightly points out, we're talking about a World Master novelist here. Charles Dickens probably could have written a novel about the IRS and made it a rolicking and rousing story (actually, from what I've heard, he basically pulls off something like that in Bleak House, taking the British legal system as his raw material and creating, through some kind of mysterious alchemy, one of the greatest novels ever written in English!).

We still have a half of a Dickens novel to go here, and anyone who's familiar with Mutt's always entertaining commentaries on these works knows that that means anything goes. Mutt's amassing quite a number of these commentaries on Dickens' work actually... perhaps someday they will be collected in a volume that will rival GKC's classic collection of essays on Dickens?

I'd buy it... having only Great Expectations (in high school no less, hardly counts) and Oliver Twist under my belt, I obviously have a lot of catching up to do...

Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke, I'll agree to publish my Dickens commentaries, which the world needs no more of, as soon as you agree to publish an anthology of your POTW series......

My only other comment here is that now that I am making my way through the second half of Nicholas Nickelby, I can tell Duke and others that it is, increasingly, a compelling and interesting story. I was not as interested to read it BEFORE I started it, but I have enjoyed it pretty much from the get-go. I can't explain why so well - Dickens just draws you into his plots, and you end up pulling for the characters. As the introduction to my edition points out, there's never really any expecation in the reader's mind that things will NOT turn out well for the heroes of the novel. But their adventures and misadventures are still very colorfully and interestingly rendered. This book is no hiccup on the Dickens canon; it has many memorable and fascinating elements.

The one I just encountered about 2/3 of the way through will interest Duke in particular - this is the first Dickens novel I've ever come across that introduces two TWIN BROTHER characters. You GOTTA love that!!! Not only that, but they're among the most 'virtuous', or at least likeable, in the novel! It's a fascinating thing to encounter Dickens' take on this relationship - Duke, you gotta admit that's cool!!!

Look for the second installment......