Archive for September 7th, 2020

Before I plunge into my latest trigger to look at the novels of Charles Dickens again, I need to give a bit of bizarre background.

In my last year at school a few of us used to revise for our A levels in the local library opposite the book shop from which I eventually purchased my second-hand set of his complete novels.

Transitions in my life at this period were often accompanied by a death.

One day when we had been revising together in the library, we went to a local cafe for a chat. We were all shocked to hear of the death of a fellow sixth former whom we did not know well. Not only is it shocking to hear that someone so young, the same age as you, had suddenly died.  The circumstances made it even more of a shock.

His girl friend had broken off their relationship. Unable to accept her decision this acquaintance of ours had taken the shotgun from his father’s farm and gone to her place of work, killed her and then turned the gun upon himself. A murder-suicide.

I did not keep a diary in those days so I’ve no idea exactly what I thought and felt. That I still remember the basic facts is proof enough that the events affected me strongly.

My experiences of death did not stop there. In my last year at university I had chosen to take a finals paper on Dickens. This was why I bought the complete set of his novels, and read them all except Sketches by Boz and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Not long after I got a job at a grammar school. I’ve described that experience elsewhere on this blog. The main point of interest here is what happened over the Christmas break in my first year there.

When we returned from leave, again the talk over coffee focused on a death. A young man had started work in September, and, like me, it was his first real job. We had all been aware that he was struggling to control his classes, but I had not thought he was any worse than me in that respect. However, he did not return to work in January. When the news broke that he had thrown himself under a tube train over the Christmas break we struggled to make sense of what had happened and find some way of coming to terms with our sense of guilt at not having done enough to help him cope.

After almost three years in this job I decided grammar school teaching was not for me. So, I was fortunate to be able to get a job at a polytechnic in Kilburn. I had been asked, after being offered the job, to do a series of lectures on Charles Dickens at the beginning of my first term there. So, over the summer holidays, for the second time in my life, I read my way through all of his novels, again except Sketches by Boz and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I think my resistance here was to do with my preference for novels rather than short stories, in the case of Boz, and my dislike of unfinished stories in the case of Drood.

This time though there was a painful factor at play. In the front bedroom of the family home there was an adjustable wooden armchair with fitted cushions, similar to the one we inherited from my aunt which graces our hallway still. I sat in that chair reading my way through Dickens every day for the whole six weeks of my summer holiday as my father lay on the double bed dying of cancer.

I have never been able to read him again since. I gave away the books to Oxfam in the end except for Drood, which I still haven’t read, and probably never will.

Later, when I had decided to leave teaching altogether and was starting my psychology degree at the same time as working in mental health, my mother died, but that is another story.

Recently I bought a book by A N Wilson called The Mystery of Charles Dickens. I’m not sure whether it will be enough to melt the massive iceberg still standing in-between the novels and me. What I do know is that many of his comments on certain of the novels reminded me of the intense pleasure I derived from reading them, and by pleasure I do not mean fun, but rather a deep sense of satisfaction at immersing myself in a richly fascinating if rather dark world.

The novels I responded to most strongly and remember best are the later ones, particularly Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations. What is intriguing is the explanation that Wilson gives for the greatness of the later novels:[1]

The worse that the husband, and son Dickens became in the twelve years left to him on earth, the greater his art became. The books that followed his separation from Kate [his wife] – A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend – were getting better all the time in a progressive curve.

More on that next time.



[1]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 141.

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