What the Dickens

Funny the things that happen when you’re a historian just trying to read a book, and the ways in which being a historian can get in the way of a good read.

I recently joined the Victorians! forum on Goodreads. People there read Victorian-era books. I’ve read some of those myself, including a few by Charles Dickens. I’ve read The Old Curiosity Shop (which someone spoiled for me, thinking everyone knows the ending), A Christmas Carol (of course), and Hard Times (ok, so I listened to the audiobook). The rest await me, eight or so volumes on the shelf. I figured Oliver Twist would be next.

Then I saw that the Victorian group would be reading Nicholas Nickleby. I’m not much of a joiner, but I thought it might be fun. I’ve never read with a group, never been in a book group or anything. The closest I get is reading the “book group questions” at the back of  novels.

But I didn’t have a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. I could have downloaded it from Internet Archive, but I don’t like reading things on a screen. Ironic, isn’t it? Backlit screens are for work, but reading for pleasure is different. I want a book in my hand, turning its pages, absorbing its history.

My ultimate site for second-hand books is abebooks.com. But I’m very choosy, because to me books are historical objects. My first preference is for a book published during the author’s lifetime, so “publication date ascending” is my go-to sort. Ending 1870, when he died. Whoa! the prices! How could Dickens be fetching such prices? OK, maybe not 1870. . . But even with an edition from 1920, we’re talking some money.

I knew Mr. Dickens was not getting a cut from my purchase, but I’m not a huge fan of him as a person, despite Simon Callow’s brilliant portrayal in Dr Who. As a historian, I try very hard to separate the creator from his creation. Where would I be with Rousseau if I cared about how he gave up his own children to foundling hospitals? Or if I ignored the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson because I was busy judging how he lived? People are not their ideas. We are all flawed. Good ideas survive long past the person’s lifetime.

Dickens is somewhat different because I went to his house. Not while he was there, of course, but several years ago. It’s a shrine to him.  I found this bizarre, because it was really her house. His wife, Catherine. She raised his ten (!) children. She wrote the best-selling menu book What Shall We Have for Dinner? Since 2016, the museum has made a huge effort to include her in the house’s story. The problem is that Mr. Dickens, who was having an affair with young actress Ellen Ternan, didn’t want his wife anymore. After she discovered the affair in 1858, he turned the situation on her, separated from her, and dissed her all over London. He even tried to get her committed to an asylum. (I’ve begun reading Lillian Nayder’s 2011 biography rehabilitating her reputation. I feel I must.)

I’ve learned that you cannot be a Victorianist without enjoying, or even reveling in, Charles Dickens. Certainly I admire his detailed portrayal of the era, the wonderful characterizations, the turns of phrase that make you chuckle aloud. He wrote so fast, and so much, that I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of his talent. But the hagiographic approach to him annoys me anyway.

So I clicked past the volume of Nicholas Nickleby that said “Works by Charles Dickens” on the spine, because it was part of a collection. I scrolled beyond the $1,000 matched sets of his work. I searched for the small 8vo versions I prefer, but there aren’t any because the novel is too long. I finally found one I liked and ordered it.

I do not hold it against Dickens that I spent so much time looking for a book I hadn’t wanted to read, by an author I personally dislike, just to join a discussion with a group I do not know. It’s just another case of a historian making things more complicated than they need to be.

2 comments to What the Dickens

  • jmm

    I love Dickens, partly for his writing but mostly for his ringing, passionate humanism. But he was anti-Semitic. But he loved children, and argued for improved conditions in schools and orphanages and workhouses. But he was a misogynist. But his books are full of good and noble women, including prostitutes, who get fucked over (literally and metaphorically) by rotten men.

    Mark Twain, in some ways the American Dickens, was contemptuous of Natives and Mormons but saw black people as human beings when they were legally considered ‘property.’

    Maybe our species just doesn’t live long enough to become fully enlightened.

    • Lisa M Lane

      A good theory.

      Twain’s satire on the Sandwich Islands certainly indicates a respect for the Hawaiian Islanders as their own people with a right to self-determination.

      I really don’t think we can expect people to be free of hypocrisy, or to embody standards of contemporary liberal beliefs. Perhaps the Dickens statues (are there any?) might remain standing.