Often, I know I’ve read a particular book without remembering much about it. Someone mentions book “X” and I am quite brazen about it: “Oh yes,” I’ll say with breezy confidence, “that is a good book.” I might be able to dredge up some vague ideas, e.g. it’s sad/nihilistic/offers redemption, or I might even be able to pick out a specific character or scene (who can forget the opening scene of Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love”, once they’ve read it?). The point is, I know I’ve read it.
But here’s the mystery. A couple of weeks ago, my dear daughter brought me a book from the library. She knows I like Dickens and handed me “Our Mutual Friend”. I couldn’t remember when I’d read it, but I assumed I had, perhaps twenty or so years ago. I read the somewhat offputting introduction by Nick Hornby, saying why the book was probably one of Dickens’ least popular novels. None of what he said rang any bells. I started reading: still no bells. I thought the story was good. Surely, I’d have remembered some of the characters? After all, these are Dickens’ forte. Nope. I found the story gripping. I spotted John Harmon (spoiler alert, as my dear son would say after the spoiler), but that was clearly Dickens’ intention.
Then it happened. A character said something I say. ‘ “I know your tricks and your manners.” ‘ I quote this at my children to tell them I know what they’re up to. I always thought I knew who’d said it: Miss Mowcher in “David Copperfield”. In fact, it’s Jenny Wren in “Our Mutual Friend”. So, I thought, here is proof that I have read the book; the only mistake I made was in confusing the characters. Miss Mowcher is undeniably a dwarf and Jenny Wren is described as “a child—a dwarf—a girl—a something—”, so I assumed I’d just latched on to the “dwarf” idea, forgotten Jenny Wren and ascribed the quote to Miss Mowcher. Problem solved.
Not so. As I read on, I realised I couldn’t remember a single thing about this book. I didn’t even know what happened to the main characters. I hoped they’d marry, but I didn’t know – and I always remember the marriages, because that’s the happy ending we long for, isn’t it? The biggest shock was what happened to Lizzie Hexam and Eugene Wrayburn (no spoilers here). That would never have happened in earlier Dickens books. I had to conclude I had never read the book before.
So, the mystery is, where did I get that quote and why – if I’d never read the book before – did I attribute it to a “dwarf”?
I love Dickens’ wordiness. Some people say he used so many in order to pad out the weekly or monthly instalments: the form in which his novels were published; I think he loved words and what they could do. Dickens’ words draw you down meandering alleyways to give you a perfect picture of his characters. This is why we know those characters are right or wrong when we see them on film.
I have a soft spot for Charles Dickens: not the man, the books. Even doing “Great Expectations” for O level (yes, I am that old) didn’t put me off. I graduated to David Copperfield and wept copiously when Dora died, although I think that Jip’s death struck me as a bit melodramatic and any tears I cried for him were just hanging on the coat tails of those I wept for Dora. When my children were young I couldn’t wait to read them “A Christmas Carol”. Imagine my dismay when they found it too scary. Perhaps I put too much soul in to my interpretation of the door knocker.
I think I have read all his novels now (see final sentence of this post), most of them at least twice. Sometimes I look at them on my bookshelf and think: that’s too long, I can’t be bothered reading it, but if I pick it up and start, then I can get hooked very quickly. It’s all right to skip bits you don’t like (nobody said Dickens was perfect). For example, I’m not at all keen on his addresses to ‘my lords and gentlemen and honourable boards’ in “Our Mutual Friend”. I know he felt a responsibility to help the poor, but sometimes you just have to get on with the story. N.B. Tolstoy bangs on about his theory of history in “War and Peace”, especially at the end, so feel free to skip the last few pages once the story proper is concluded. I did.
I know some of Dickens’ characters are grotesques (Miss Mowcher, Uriah Heep) and most of his young women are pretty awful, two-dimensional saints or dolls (Agnes, Dora), or sinners who atone for their sins by death or exile (Little Emily), but given the huge number of characters, I think he deserves we cut him some slack. We may not know someone exactly like Miss Betsey, but her determined battle against trespassing donkeys is not unlike our preoccupation with outwitting people who park outside our homes, I mean right outside, in our parking spot.
More on Dickens in another post, but first, I must give a big hurrah to “David Copperfield” for providing all my examples in the previous paragraph. Next time, the mysterious case of the Dickens book I had never read before last week . . . or had I?