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Sunday Salon: A Dickens of a Week

It took nineteenth months for the first readers of Dickens’ Little Dorrit to get to the end of the story. Fortunately I don’t have to wait a month for the next instalment but even so this is not a book that can be read quickly, nor do I really want to since I’m enjoying it so much. It’s a relief after trying and failing miserably to read two other Dickens novels that are also on my  Classics Club list (namely Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House).

Dickens has been in and out of favour many times since the 1840s. F R Leavis even left him out of The Great Tradition, his 1948 seminal work examining the works of authors he considered the greatest of English writers. He didn’t rectify the omission until 197o when he published Dickens the Novelist. One frequent criticism levied at Dickens is that was he created stereotypes rather than fully rounded characters; another is that all his plots really come down to the same thing: ‘love and be loved’; George Orwell complained that even Dickens’  much vaunted social criticism was over-rated since he never offered any real solutions to the problems he highlighted.

There’s a degree of truth in all those complaints but for me they overlook two things  — one is that this is an author who is a master of the complex plot.  He can be verbose sometimes especially when he wants to have a rant at a social injustice or when he gets carried away with his descriptive powers. But he assuredly knows how to tell a good story; one that makes you want to keep reading if only to find out what happens next.

And secondly, this guy has a superb ear for patterns of speech, using them to create characters that may not be fully formed but are so wonderfully larger than life , they linger in the memory well after the book is closed. In Little Dorrit, we have some fine examples. There’s the French murderer Rigaud, whose evil eye makes others tremble and the downtrodden servant Affery Flintwinch whose very odd dreams give clues to some of the nasty secrets in her mistress’s house. But the prize for the most comic character of all goes to Flora Finching, a gone to seed widow who mistakenly believes she is still a young, and highly attractive young girl and who simply cannot shut up. To hear her stream of consciousness speeches is to experience the verbal equivalent of the Japanese Bullet train.

The withered chaplet my dear,’ said Flora [to Arthur], with great enjoyment, ‘is then perished the column is crumbled and the pyramid is standing upside down upon its what’s-his-name call it not giddiness call it not weakness call it not folly I must now retire into privacy and look upon the ashes of departed joys no more but taking a further liberty of paying for the pastry which has formed the humble pretext of our interview will forever say Adieu!’

Phew. I’m glad I don’t have to share my home with her………..


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