Sunday, 2 May 2010

Victorian Literature

I have a confession to make. It's a hard confession for someone who likes books and reading, and who would very much like to be a literature student in a different life, but the truth is I really am not a fan of Victorian literature. I can appreciate the important role of Vic-Lit in the development of the novel, the exploration of themes, the effect of the sudden influx of female writers and, in later works, the slow movement away from the rigid straightjacket of Victorian Christian morality. The influence Vic-Lit has had on later works is priceless, and the books themselves make for a prime source of information about life and peoples attitudes during the 1800s.

I just really don't like reading the stuff.

I find Dickens one of the hardest authors to read in the world. I can just about stick Bronte, and I've never actually managed a Jane Austin so can't comment (and she's pre-Victorian anyway) but I studied "David Copperfield" for A-level and found it almost impossible. There were several chapters near the end I actually missed out, I was getting that bored of it and just relied on the BBC serial for my knowledge of what I'd missed. I read "Great Expectations" as well, in the hope it might turn out to be better, and almost read "Nicholas Nickleby" before realising that I had better things to do with my life.

I can't stand them. I can't find a single reason to recommend Dickens apart from the fact that some of the jokes (once they finally finish) aren't bad. The writing is stodgy, getting through a paragraph in Dickens is like wading through porridge and to call the characters 2-dimensional is to give them two more dimensions than they actually possess. The storyline relies on a number of massively improbable coincidences (everyone you bump into on the street is likely either to be an old friend or an unknown relative) and entire story arcs are dropped in the middle of the book, or occasionally spring up out of nowhere.

Writing within a straightjacket of the surrounding morals is not something I take issue at. Every writer does it, and it can sometimes produce beautifully complex and thought-provoking characters like Shylock or Heathcliff, that teeter on the bring of acceptability (either by being an 'evil' character saying things that could be good or a 'good' character behaving in ways that are conventionally evil). But Dickens embraces the straightjacket; all his evil characters are called things like "Mr Badde-Personne" and you can tell their evil because they routinely torture small children, and because it usually says so in the text. Inevitably, of course, the evil characters will die, or end up miserable or maimed while the good characters all end up happily married. Apart from characters who are too good of course, and they end up dead, presumably in heaven.

You can see authors like Bronte beginning to break out of this straightjacket (Mr Rochester ends up both married and maimed for example, and Heathcliff is another post altogether). But it never seems to occur to Dickens to make his evil characters anything more than Punch cartoon illustrations.

Redemption is rare. Dickens uses his characters to make social points (like "torturing small children is bad") but he uses them clumsily, like hitting the reader over the head with a brick. At the risk of sounding somewhat heartless and shallow, the effectiveness of this method in causing social change is, in my opinion, another issue entirely. Social change notwithstanding, this is bad writing! It's like Dolorous Umbridge in Harry Potter. Writing a character you call evil and then having them do evil things is just boring. There's no chance of redemption, no character growth, no character arc, no character.

The writing style is probably my biggest boundary, as I said earlier, I just find it so stodgy. Dickens never uses one word where ten will do, never sketches a scene out through the actions and words of the characters but instead sits down at every other vantage point and writes a couple of nice thick paragraphs just so everyone knows exactly what their looking at. One of the reasons that you can fit Dickens books quite nicely into a few BBC series is that several pages of writing can often be replaced by a quick shot of the inside of a room, or a busy street.

The coincidences though, are what finally kill it. While I was studying David Copperfield I decided, in a moment of bored desperation, to try and interpret the story as if Mr Micawber (a random character who is constantly appearing throughout the story and constantly in debt) was actively stalking David, following him through London and Plymouth, tracking him down across the cities and feigning surprise whenever he met him. It actually made for a far more realistic story, if a rather creepy one. I then tried adding Steerforth into the plot (David's old school-friend who he randomly bumps into in London when he's grown up), he too was stalking David, possibly aided by Micawber. There had to be a reason for it though, so I decided (it was a very boring lesson) that Micawber and Steerforth were spies, sent by Her Majesties government to protect David from ... something. That worked surprisingly well, as there's very few places in the plot where he isn't in touch with one or both of them. I was just trying to work Mr Dick into the plot, and Uriah Heep into the 'something' when the bell rang and I had to go to Chemistry.

Anyway. While I can certainly understand the importance of Dickens, and I can even sort of see why some people might like reading it, I find that most of my time reading Dickens is spent daydreaming about other stories I'd rather read. And although Dickens is the worst offender, I find most Vic-Lit, for some of the same reasons, hard to get through. I waded through Jane Eyre more than I read it and although it raises a lot of interesting points, I'm quite glad I know enough to discuss them without having to read the book again.

That post was a therapeutic rant as a break after finishing my thesis. I know other people hold different views, and would be very pleased to hear about them :)

1 comment:

  1. Hello!
    I enjoyed reading ur post. Being a fan of the victorian literature, it is always great to see how others view the cannons in that era.. for me, Hardy is the best novelist in the entire history of 'English' lit! Maybe that's why I am so into it!
    I am an MA student majoring in this field so I have been searching for blogs that may delve into the realms of ficitional and non fictional prose...

    P.S. english is not my first lang!