emma_in_dream: (obbit)
This is the most schmaltzy story, the very epitome of Victorian mawkishness. It features the blind daughter of a toymaker who has been misled by her father her whole life as to her surroundings. Although she lives in a hovel and her father works for a harsh man, he tells her that they have a lovely house and that their grim master is always winking and nodding as he says mock harsh things.

I always have this balancing act with Dickens – he is such a good writer that I get suckered in to his stories and then the second I stop reading I fall about laughing at the ridiculously over the top sentimentality of it. I have to whisper that I feel the same way about the Christmas movie *Love Actually*.
emma_in_dream: (Default)
Weep. Weep. Centrelink just contacted me to say that they've noticed that my income was incorrectly entered - a transposition of digits which they acknowledge was clearly their fault. Consequently I owe them a heap of money. God, how I hate them. If they allowed information out as well as in, it would be possible to check your income against what it should be and stop them from making this kind of error (third time in four years).

So, instead of thinking about the *ongoing* nightmare of dealing with Centrelink, I will tell you about Charles Dickens' *David Copperfield* (1850).

I've just read it for the first time. It was Dickens’ ‘favourite child’ and it has everything he does best: vast, interwoven plots, comic grotesque characters, the development of the hero over time, poverty, riches, and very, very badly characterised women.

Dickens is notorious for not being able to write women and this is a draw back in a novel where the pov character marries twice.

Rather than doing a proper review, I want to talk about David’s first love, Dora. Reportedly the originator of the phrase ‘dozy Dora’, she is a ‘favourite child of nature’ made of ‘sweetness, light and air’. She is in no way an adult, but is constantly described as doll-like.

To me she comes across as distinctly mentally challenged. Here is the scene where David has to break the news to her that his aunt has lost her fortune so he is indigent and will have to work hard and live frugally when they are married.

Dora came to the drawing-room door to meet me; and Jip came scrambling out, tumbling over his own growls, under the impression that I was a Bandit; and we all three went in, as happy and loving as could be. I soon carried desolation into the bosom of our joys—not that I meant to do it, but that I was so full of the subject—by asking Dora, without the smallest preparation, if she could love a beggar?
My pretty, little, startled Dora! Her only association with the word was a yellow face and a nightcap, or a pair of crutches, or a wooden leg, or a dog with a decanter-stand in his mouth, or something of that kind; and she stared at me with the most delightful wonder.
'How can you ask me anything so foolish?' pouted Dora. 'Love a beggar!'
'Dora, my own dearest!' said I. 'I am a beggar!'
'How can you be such a silly thing,' replied Dora, slapping my hand, 'as to sit there, telling such stories? I'll make Jip bite you!'
Her childish way was the most delicious way in the world to me, but it was necessary to be explicit, and I solemnly repeated:
'Dora, my own life, I am your ruined David!'
'I declare I'll make Jip bite you!' said Dora, shaking her curls, 'if you are so ridiculous.'
But I looked so serious, that Dora left off shaking her curls, and laid her trembling little hand upon my shoulder, and first looked scared and anxious, then began to cry. That was dreadful. I fell upon my knees before the sofa, caressing her, and imploring her not to rend my heart; but, for some time, poor little Dora did nothing but exclaim Oh dear! Oh dear! And oh, she was so frightened! And where was Julia Mills! And oh, take her to Julia Mills, and go away, please! until I was almost beside myself.

So they agree to maintain the engagement, but Dora does not want to talk of practicalities.

If it were possible for me to love Dora more than ever, I am sure I did. But I felt she was a little impracticable. It damped my new-born ardour, to find that ardour so difficult of communication to her. I made another trial. When she was quite herself again, and was curling Jip's ears, as he lay upon her lap, I became grave, and said:
'My own! May I mention something?'
'Oh, please don't be practical!' said Dora, coaxingly. 'Because it frightens me so!'
'Sweetheart!' I returned; 'there is nothing to alarm you in all this. I want you to think of it quite differently. I want to make it nerve you, and inspire you, Dora!'
'Oh, but that's so shocking!' cried Dora.
'My love, no. Perseverance and strength of character will enable us to bear much worse things.' 'But I haven't got any strength at all,' said Dora, shaking her curls. 'Have I, Jip? Oh, do kiss Jip, and be agreeable!'
It was impossible to resist kissing Jip, when she held him up to me for that purpose, putting her own bright, rosy little mouth into kissing form, as she directed the operation, which she insisted should be performed symmetrically, on the centre of his nose. I did as she bade me—rewarding myself afterwards for my obedience—and she charmed me out of my graver character for I don't know how long.

David suggests Dora might learn to do accounts or read a cookery book, but the suggestion makes her faint.

What is the reader to make of this? I am deeply annoyed by Dora’s hopeless helplessness, but as I read the rest of the novel I saw that this was not an affectation but the genuine extent of her abilities. Her most useful ever act is to hold David’s pencil case as he makes notes.

Dickens isn’t writing a satire about the uselessness of contemporary ideas of middle-class femininity. Dora does not fritter her time away in ladylike accomplishments like art or visiting, but plays with the dog and plays her guitar and amuses herself by playing with David’s hair as he studies. She is utterly child like.

Indeed, she asks David to call her his ‘child-wife’ which just squicks me but does encapsulate their relationship. It seems to me that although she is characterised as plump and pretty and slightly sexual (with the rosy lips in pouting form), she is mentally about eight. She certainly is not capable of meaningful consent and their entire relationship disturbs me.

Why would David, an otherwise sympathetic character, have this weird relationship? It makes sense in terms of his personal history – his mother was a child-wife to the terrible Murdstone, and his favourite teacher is a full forty years older than his wife. And, of course, Dickens himself had a mistress 28 years his junior.

Anyway, the whole thing ends happily (for David anyway) when Dora dies from an illness brought on by a miscarriage and David then marries the more adult Agnes. BTW: Jip expires at the same time as Dora, which I find hard to believe even the Victorians found pathetic rather than bathetic.

*David Copperfield* was the first novel Freud gave to his fiancé while courting – and I can see why. It is a semi-autobiographical novel that cries out for the author to receive a hefty dose of counselling.
emma_in_dream: (pic#)
This year featured a lot of biographies, notably one of Dickens, one of Dickens' mistress, and one of his wife.

His mistress, Nelly Ternan, managed to reinvent herself after his death. She just eliminated the decade with him from her biography, pretended to be ten years younger than she was, and married someone. She kept it up her whole life.

Unfortunately, after her death her son inherited a box full of papers about her early theatrical career and letters. He put it to one side because it was 1914 and he was a soldier. He had a long war and wasn't demobbed until 1920. Then he read the letters and realised his mother had lied implicitly to him his whole life. He visited Dickens' only surviving son - no record of their conversation - but he came home and burned all the papers and never spoke of it again. He would not even allow books by Dickens in the house.

Read more... )
emma_in_dream: (X Files)
I was so obsessed with Catherine Dickens (Charles Dickens' abandoned wife) that I bought a biography. She might not have danced the night away after he left her, but she did stay out at parties, so hooray.

Dickens burnt her letters to him and wanted to destroy his to her, but she hung onto them and left them to her daughter with instructions that they go to the British Museum to prove her husband had loved her in their early days. Her daughter Katey nearly burned them, having accepted Dickens' version that they were always antipathetic to each other.

Luckily she consulted a friend, George Bernard Shaw, who said the letters were worth saving. Before reading them, he said 'that the sentimental sympathy of the nineteenth century with the man of genius tied to a commonplace wife had been rudely upset by a man named Ibsen' and that 'posterity might sympathise with a woman who was sacrificed to the genius's uxoriousness to the appalling extent of having had to bear eleven children [actually ten children and two miscarriages] in sixteen years than with a grievance which, after all, amounted only to the fact that she was not a female Charles Dickens'. [NB: the biography includes a chart of the relative time spent pregnant/not pregnant over the course of her marriage.]

After reading the letters he said: 'They prove with ridiculous obviousness that Dickens was quite as much in love when he married as nine hundred and ninety nine out of every thousand British bridegrooms.'

I like to think of this as Catherine Dickens getting the last laugh.


Jan. 13th, 2015 06:42 pm
emma_in_dream: (Default)
Did you know Charles Dickens left his wife? Or rather, he forced her out of the house, told everyone she was mad, published a lengthy description of her saying she was crazy and that she was constitutionally incapable of loving her children, and kept the house, the kids, and his sister-in-law to look after them. This seems positively un-Victorian.

How I long for Catherine Dickens to have spent the rest of her life vivaciously enjoying herself at masked balls while writing best-selling novels under a nom-de-plume. Alas, there is no evidence that she did anything at all to fill in the long hours alone, with no children, no husband, no duties and presumably very few people who were willing to associate with an outcast. How did she fill in the time?
emma_in_dream: (Default)
*A Christmas Carol* is a difficult book to describe. It’s so mawkish, so sentimental, so over the top as to be ridiculous, and yet, somehow, it works. It reminds me of *Love, Actually* which, when you think about it is ridiculously saccharine, yet when you watch it you are caught up in it.

At least, parts of *A Christmas Carol* are mawkish and sentimental. Other parts of funny – the opening riff for instance. ‘Marley was dead to begin with’ is a great opening line, and Dickens carries on with this nonsense for another three paragraphs.

And other parts are just plain terrifying. The vision of the third ghost is terrifying, the way it does not speak but points to his tombstone. Scrooge begs to see someone who is moved by his death and he is shown a debtor who has just heard his debt has been transferred to someone else and who cries ‘Thank God!’

Also, I love the vision of plenty which the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge. The vision is both of its time (plenty is defined as fruit, not sweets) and it verges on pornography in its lingering descriptions of sensuality. In particular note the friars winking at the girls wantonly.

Read more... )

So, *A Christmas Carol* suffers from the usual problems of Dickens – overly wordy, revealing that he was paid by the word, sentimental, extravagant. But also the typical virtues of Dickens – fabulous vignettes summarising characters and some really striking lines. When Scrooge says that the poor should go to the poor houses and the prisons, he could be a modern bankster. The second ghost talks to him about the grasshopper on the leaf complaining about the too-muchness of his brothers on the ground, a metaphor which holds up today.

Dickens is said to have invented Christmas as a secular celebration. All the trappings we see,the tree, the cards, the presents, the feast, all took off just after he wrote. And to quote him...

'He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!'
emma_in_dream: (cameron)
Dostoyevsky makes Dickens look like a laugh a minute. And, really, Dickens’ titles say it all - *Hard Times*, *Bleak House*.


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