A warm welcome to author Helen Rappaport and my thanks to Helen for today's Dickens and I...contribution. It is no secret that I have been a great fan of Helen's writing since the day I first read and wrote here back in 2007 about No Place for Ladies, her book on the women of the Crimea, and I have written about several of Helen's books since...Dark Hearts in Chicago followed by EkaterinburgThe Last Days of the Romanovs and most recently of course Magnificent Obsession. I will be on the very edge of my seat for the next book about the four Romanov sisters, and for a change US readers will get their hands on that one first.
I suspect Helen's recollections will chime for many of us...
This may sound like heresy coming from a writer, but I’m going to start by coming clean and admitting that my earliest recall of Dickens is a very vivid, visual one. I fell in love with him not on the page – but on the screen. When I was a child and we had our first black and white TV the one thing we all enjoyed as a family was sitting down for the Sunday afternoon teatime serial at 5.30. It was usually Dickens, or one of the Brontes or Jane Austen. I’m not ashamed to admit that it was the truncated TV versions that first captured my imagination; I did of course read the books, first in abridged form in school and then later in their full version. I loved them with a passion and, ever since, I have re-read them on a regular basis.
But Dickens, in the first instance for me, was seared on my brain not just by those wonderful tea-time serials, but also by the now familiar, iconic film versions. Every Christmas, regular as clockwork, there was a re-run of Alastair Sim in Christmas Carol, as well as endless showings of George Cukor’s 1935 David Copperfield....
....and David Lean’s inimitable Great Expectations made in 1946 with, for me one of the defining sequences not just of English literature but also English cinema: the unforgettable opening scene where Pip encounters Magwitch by the row of little graves in that bleak, windswept churchyard.
How could I ever forget that seminal cinematic moment, growing up as I did in sight of the mud flats and marshes of north-east Kent where the story is set?
It is for me an image that encapsulates my childhood and the birth of my love affair not just with Dickens but, as a historian, with the Victorian period.
My first attempts at the novels ended in abject failure. I tried to read them too soon – as I suspect many people do – before I could fully understand the great flights of the language and Dickens’s quirky humour. Nor could I at first appreciate their supreme grasp on the life, times and landscape of mid-Victorian Britain. By the time I had studied O-level history at school and fallen in love with the Victorians with a venegeance. the novels began to speak to me in a way that no other author did or still does, except perhaps for George Eliot. They have the power to transport me within minutes across time into a world that my imagination recognizes and feeds on creatively.
I still enjoy Dickens on the screen – and one dramatization remains supreme – the glorious, kaleidoscopic and frenetic RSC marathon version of Nicholas Nickleby of 1980. It wasn’t just a thrilling piece of theatre, it was Dickens’s world brought vividly to life in all its poignancy, its humour, its visceral pain and passion. And, more importantly, it made people want to read the original. Perhaps coming to literature the wrong way round, via dramatisations first, is not such a bad thing.