Friday, August 3, 2012

Instalments IV, V and VI

My oh my, what an absolute surprise - little old me starting a blog and not keeping up with it - I never would have guessed...

Before I get into what is happening, Dickens, we need to have a little chat.

DICKENS: Oh, hello future man. Nice to meet you, kind of. Where are your top hat, monocle and cummerbund? You don't even have an ostentatious ironic 18th Century wig. You look ridiculous.

ME:Erm, OK...  Nice to meet you too.  Lets get straight to business.  You're a busy man, you're Victorian, which means you need to be sexually repressed at least 3 times before lunchtime.

D: True, sir!  Speak your piece and be gone, so I can cover up my piano legs and then flagellate myself for enjoying the smell of cinnamon!

M: Well, this is a bit awkward.  You're a great writer, I'm not gonna deny you that.  Probably up there with Tom Clancy and Andy McNab, if I'm being honest.  But you've got a problem, Mr. D.  You're addicted to characters..

D: I beg your pardon? I am but addicted to the further alienation of the industrialised class, and austere red-brick architecture, you fool!

M:  You've got a problem, Mr. D. It started off innocently enough.  You introduced us to Esther, the narrator.  That's fair enough. What's a story without someone to tell it?  Soon after we had Richard and Ada, the love-struck couple.  Now we've got three. That's nice.  A resonable number of major characters for a novel, some would say.  Well, maybe just someone who reads Mills & Boone - another one or two wouldn't go astray...

So you give us John Jarndyce, the World's Nicest Man, living in the House With the Most Depressing Name Ever (Bleak House - duh).  Now we're getting somewhere.  An antagonist would be nice, however.  So you give us Mr. Tulkinghorn.  He's a lawyer, which is A Bad Thing.  And his name is a bit scary too...

We're doing pretty well, wouldn't you say?

D:  Absolutely!   A good start.

M: No, Mr. Dickens, a good end - most novelists would have introduced these characters over the course of the novel, they would have interacted, it would be easy to follow and we'd have some strife and a nice resolution.  But that's not fucking good enough for Mr-fancy-pants-Dickens, is it?

D: Get to the point, sir, or I shall challenge you to an anachronistic duel.  Bleak House does not have to many characters!

M: Dude, you're addicted to characters like most of suburban L.A is to meth.  You can't get enough.  Harold Skimpole sound familiar?  Boythorne? Lord and Lady Dedlock? Mr. Turveydrop?  Snagsby? Jo?  Mr. Guppy?  Krook? Jellyby? Miss Flite?  You want more?  The whole Coavinses family?  And I'm only about a FIFTH of the way into the book!

D:  What's wrong with a few extra characters?  It gives the book depth.

M: Um, maybe nothing, if you're writing the fucking BIBLE.  You need to admit you've got a problem.  It's the first step on the road to recovery.  Don't worry, we'll start off slow.  I'm not going to show you the movie Buried, for example - you'd have a panic attack.

D: Well, it wasn't really very nice to meet you after all.  Please return to the future with your stupid jeans and funny haircut.

M: Goodbye!

So, what happened?  firstly, the opium addict was dead, deceased, an ex-Dickensian character.  After this revelation came his inquest which I'm nearly certain is going to become in some way central to the plot, because it has been revisited in various mysterious ways since...

Elsewhere in grey-rainy-London-Land, We have some more chapters which, it is becoming increasingly clear, are typical of Dickens.  There are several more passages poking fun at high society, both Lady Dedlock and Mr. Turveydrop.  The latter is pretty hilarious, allowing his son to work himself to the bone because he needs endless cash to keep up his image, and practise his 'Deportment', which basically consists of swanning around London going to fancy restaurants and meeting toffs.  Sounds pretty much like my life, actually.  There's also a magnifying glass put to the wretched condition of the lowest rung of London society, in the character Jo.

Meanwhile, Richard is having an existential crisis - which must have been doubly-difficult considering he's about 75 years before Jean Paul Sartre made that cool.  No smoking a Gitane inside a Gauloise whilst wearing a black polo neck for you, Richard!  On a slightly serious note, it's actually interesting how universal themes have remained, especially considering the book is 150 years old!  Many of us, myself very much included, still find it very difficult to figure out their 'life's calling'.  Richard's choices are rather simplistic, between lawyer and doctor, but the ideas's the same.  The more things change, eh?

Esther's crush, Woodcourt, gets another brief mention.  They're so getting married it's not even funny.  They might as well just do it now and we can skip the next 800 pages...

There's a pretty suspenseful scene set in the street with the creepiest name ever:  Tom-All-Alone's.  Dunno why it creeps me out so much but it does.  Why is the mysterious posh woman talking to Jo and asking to see all the places the dead opium addict was associated with?  Is she some kind of pervert? 

These answers, and more, next time...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Instalment III - Chapters 8 - 10

I haven't given up on Bleak House, I've just been lazy about actually writing on it...

The third instalment of Bleak House, sent out to subscribers in May 1852 covers chapters 8 - 10.  This being a rather slow boil of a book means that there is much continuation and not a massive amount of plot exposition.  In chapter 8 we are treated to yet more Dickensian satirical savagery, this time directed towards what he obviously saw as meddling 'do-gooder' societies.  Mr. Jarndyce has a rant against these trivial types of charitable, upper class societies.

However Dickens doesn't just tackle the subject from a humurous side.  In Mrs Pardiggle's visit to the brickmaker later in the chapter, we are shown the tragic side of poverty and the vainglorious efforts to combat it.  Mrs Pardiggle blows in, making a great fuss about the dirt and godlessness nature of their home, and pretty much misses the fact that there is a girl nursing a dead baby the entire time.  It's still pretty upsetting, actually.

This must have been upsetting but also unsettling, if not shocking, to a Victorian English readership.  The Victorians had a fairly rigid class system but would have seen itself as quite liberal in its general attitudes towards the poor - they would have taken great pride in being the enlightened nation that abolished slavery, for example. 

I think that Dickens' aim was to show upper and upper middle-class's efforts of charity for what they were, which was patronising, paternalistic and above all mostly useless.  Although it was to be a long time before a different model of social welfare was to come about (just under 100 years in the UK), Dickens, amongst others, helped to plant the ideas that there was something wrong with a system that basically relied on ineffective private charities run essentially to massage the egos of those involved.  He might not have suggested that the Government got involved, but it's really the only alternative to this type of system.

On a more basic plot level, a few other lines are emerging if still fairly maddeningly vague at the moment.  We are introduced to yet another of the 18,000 characters, the thoroughly AWESOME Mr.Lawrence Boythorn, who is also tangled up in all sorts of lawsuits.  Richard and Ada are all loved up.  Esther turns down a marriage proposal from a Mr. Guppy (I assume everyone is going to get married in the end, the Victorians wouldn't have stood for anything else. There would have been riots.  Or at least strongly-worded letters).  There's also a great cliff-hanger at the end which I had to force myself not to continue reading, when Mr. Tulkinghorn visits a opium-addled scribe for some nefarious reason, and the instalment ends with the man possibly dead (or maybe just very stoned) and the former's candle blowing out.  Scary stuff!  Can't wait to read what happens next!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Part II: Chapters 4-7

So, I finally got around to reading and more importantly posting about the next part of Bleak House. First of all , a note on the 'meta' experience (by that I mean the actual process of reading the novel as it was originally published).  It has to be said that the amount in each part is surprisingly short, almost frustratingly so.  I was thinking a little bit about the reasons for this, and I have a couple of theories. 

While Dickens was quite prolific, the actual process of writing a novel at this time was orders of magnitude more time-consuming and technically difficult than it is today.  Firstly, the whole 'issue' would have been written out manuscript (a fancy word for by hand) by Dickens, involving lots of rewriting, crossing out, and the hand of an editor.  Then it had to be typeset, which involved painstakingly setting rows and rows of tiny letters into a wooden frame for a printing press.  Then it had to be printed (pretty much manually, page by page) and bound, then sent to subscribers all around Britain.  Even though Dickens by the time of Bleak House had access to the best publishing and printing technology money could but, it was still a very long process and perhaps this is why each issue is only 40 or 50 pages.

My second idea is a little more far-fetched.  I wonder if it has to do with literacy ability in the 19th Century?  While it's true that many households of the increasingly-sized middle class were literate thanks to a reasonably recent primary school system, I am curious as to the quality or ability of the readers of Bleak House.  Even in middle class homes, many students would have stopped their education at the beginning of their teens, and I would hazard a guess that the speed and accuracy of reading, even among those who could be said to be fully literate, must have been much lower than it was today.  Is it possible that 40 or 50 pages would have felt more like 100 or 150?  Do we have a way of quantifying literacy quality?

So, the chapters themselves.  Well, we were introduced to the eponymous Bleak House.   I have to say that for such a foreboding name, the place sounds actually quite nice.  We were introduced to two new characters, Mr. Jarndyce, the owner of the house and who seems like a fairly decent chap, if a little dull, and the much more interesting, if slightly creepy Harold Skimpole.  Other than that not a whole lot happened... 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

'Twas the night before installment two...

One hundred and sixty years ago today, thousands of mainly middle-and-upper class Englishmen and women were looking forward to the second installment of Dicken's much-anticipated and serialised novel Bleak House. 

I don't have to wait for the post to deliver my copy (though amazingly had it been sent from the publishing house in London this evening it probably would have reached most regions by Monday or Tuesday) but having waited a month after the mysterious and ambiguous end to the first installment, I think I am looking forward to it in much the same way as in one would have in 1852.

I can imagine the package arriving, probably with a one-penny stamp (still something of a novelty; having only been introduced a decade previously) affixed to its brown paper.  I can imagine carefully unwrapping and taking out the magazine inside - then settling down to read the next couple of chapters.  It must have been a nice way to start a Monday morning.

Today I don't have to wait to read the next chapters, but though I'd like to start now as I'm fairly hard-up for reading material at the moment, I'm going to wait as I know I'll enjoy it more this way.  I'm looking forward to the morning all ready!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Chapters 1-4: First thoughts.

So, that's the first installment done!  My first thoughts are that these first four chapters are a great set-up for whatever plot is coming.  Also much shorter and easier to read than I would have expected. We've had a devastatingly witty description of what I gather is one of the main antagonists of the piece - the ridiculously inefficient and pompous Courts of Chancery.*  We've been introduced to an intriguing female character - what did her mother do that caused her Godmother to barely speak to the daughter?  Why has she been looked after by a complete stranger since said Godmother's death?  What's the connection between her and the two other young people she meets at the court?  Overall: Good entertainment, plenty of questions, and not many answers...  I'm actually really looking forward to reading the next installment on the first of April.  I'm beginning to see why Dickens was considered a master of the novel...

* From my reading of the introduction, the Court of Chancery was a sort of civil court that was abolished not long after Dickens wrote Bleak House.  It was notoriously inefficient and some of the cases went on for literally decades, until they took on a sort of Kafkaesque life of their own, involving hundreds of people and thousands in costs, reaching a point where no one even really knew what the case was about in the first place.  'Jarndyce and Jarndyce', mentioned several times in the first installment, is a fictionalised version of a real case that had the qualities mentioned above... Dickens had been involved in a case in the Court of Chancery, and had a bone to pick with them...

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bleak House: The Beginning

I have a guilty secret. I am an English and History 'major' (as our American Friends would say), yet I have never read anything by Charles Dickens, the man widely regarded as one of the finest novelists the English language has ever seen. Nothing at all. Not a novel, not a poem (did he write poetry? Doesn't seem like the type...) Not a short story, nor a newspaper article (he was quite the journalist, apparently - he'd undoubtedly be writing for The Guardian if he were alive today. The pompous git.) In my entire career as a consumer of literature, which encompasses everything from Sophocles to Jane Austen to Hunter S. Thompson, I've read entirely nothing of Dickens. Not a word. Nada.

Even worse, I've never even watched any of the seemingly endless adaptations of Dickens' work that the BBC put on year after year. There's just something so soul-destroyingly solemn about his novels and their TV counterparts that makes me want to leave the room. I break into a cold sweat just thinking about Peter Ustinov playing the horrible, wheezing old Grandfather in The Old Curiousity Shop. Even Oliver Twist fills me with dread, though I suspect that's mainly due to all that fruity singing...It's about time I put aside my feeble excuses and fixed deficit in my knowledge of English Literature.

So where to start?  In my second year in college, for part of a 12 week module on 19th Century Literature, we were required to read Charles Dickens' Bleak House.  A quick glance on t'internet tells me that the entire novel weighs in at 360,947 words.  That's an awful lot of words to an undergraduate with a couple of other novels to read for the aforementioned course, as well as all the reading required for three other modules.  When exactly was I supposed to fit in my other course requirements: namely listening to Pink Floyd, watching pretentious movies and of course mild substance abuse? (sorry Mom)

Ok, I'll stop with the recriminations.  I'm better than all that. Onwards and upwards. Bleak House, the novel by Charles Dickens, was first published one hundred and sixty years ago today. Well, when I say published, I mean the first episode was sent out.  Yup, that's right.  Even the Victorians, living in their stuff red-brick mansions, with nothing better to do than spend their days being sexually repressed, weren't expected to read Bleak House or indeed any other Dickens novel all in one go, never mind in twelve weeks while maintaining a robust diet of Koka Noodles and Dutch Gold...

When I found this out I was mildly aggrieved, if I'm honest.  I felt it was rather unfair that I should have to read a gigantic novel with horrible bible paper in a very short space of time when even those nasty moustachioed Victorians were allowed to take almost two years, and all they had to do all day was go around the place being Imperialists and Scrambling For Africa. (They did enjoy a good Scrambling, those Victorians - mad for Africa, they were...)  So I mustered up all my passive-aggression, and didn't read it....  However this was only after I had bought the annotated version for about thirty Euro in the University bookshop (for our American Friends, €30 should be approximately $0.78, by the time you're reading this...), so it has spent the past five years on my shelf, taunting me in its snooty Victorian way.  Sitting their as if it had personally unified Germany under Otto Von Bismarck.

It's two hundred years this year since the birth of Charles Dickens.  It's one hundred and sixty years since Bleak House was published.  Imagine the scene:  A moustached Victorian is sitting in his sun house, enjoying his increasingly varied diet of stuff from abroad thanks to the Casual British Imperialism of Free Trade, while his oppressed maid spends her time cleaning and Diminishing The Role Of The Female In Middle-Class Victorian Society.  His footman brings in the mail.  There's a copy of The Times, and a small package.  He opens the newspaper first and reads the headlines.

Breaking News: Africa Has Been Thoroughly Scrambled By The Imperialist Nations Of Western Europe.

Analysis: Otto Von Bismarck: Has German Reunification Gone Far Enough? Oh Wait We're About Ten Years Too Early.

Investigation: Moving Pictures: Are The People Really Walking That Fast Or Are They Speeding Things Up To Get Us Out Quicker?

Sport: Football Has Been Invented. 

Check Out Page 3 For Our Sexy Picture Of An Oppressed Victorian Housewife Swathed From Head To Toe In Dull Black Material

After he finishes perusing the newspaper, he opens his package.  It's probably around the size of a decent magazine.  It's chapters one to four of Charles Dickens' new novel, Bleak House.  He's happy that it has arrived and looks forward to spending a couple of hours over the next month reading it, when the next issue will arrive.

In my (albeit ignorant) mind I see Dickens' novels as the Victorian equivalent of The Wire or some other smart TV show.  It's a serial, published bit by bit for economic reasons (buying the full novel would have been quite expensive) but also because it's sometimes more enjoyable like that.  So that's how I'm going to read it, as it was originally published, in chunks of three or four chapters every month.  I have made a calendar with the exact publication information, taken from Wikipedia, so I'll try and make that into a public one in case any one wants to join in.  I'll probably write a few thoughts down after finishing each chunk, but nothing structured and certainly nothing as long as this.  Hopefully one or two people will join me - it's not a huge commitment and I really hope it will be a worthwhile experience.  How a novel is read can have a huge impact on its interpretation and enjoyment, and reading it as it was originally meant to can't be a bad thing.