A warm welcome to Susan Hill, author, publisher and all round very generous and tell-it-like-it-is person, and my thanks to Susan for her thoughts on 'Dickens and I' today.
If you have perhaps been in a coma for the last few weeks... and if so I hope you are better now:-) you may have missed the current box office storm that is The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe and which opens in UK cinemas today. Daniel's first film without that zigzag mark on his forehead and Voldemort on his trail, but I doubt things could have taken a much more frightening turn than they have with his role as Arthur Kipps in that god-forsaken Eel Marsh House. I hear the film is causing normally quiet people to shout out in cinemas and grab whoever is sitting next to them, and is apparently the first British film in twenty-five years to take the number one slot in the US box office rankings, and you can read Susan's personal thoughts on all that excitement on her website, but for now Susan Hill on Charles Dickens...
No greater influence, no greater source of reading enrichment and pleasure – Dickens.
My Great Aunt had one of those glass fronted bookcases containing, besides an English Dictionary and a medical ditto, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, Scott and Dickens. I was 9 when I first opened the glass doors and browsed, first enjoying the old line illustrations by Boz, but then, attracted by the chapter titles, starting to read Great Expectations. Still fed by Enid Blyton, I didn’t know what to expect. How could I possibly have foreseen that Dickens would have such an effect on me, or understood how his novels would help shape every future one of my own ?
What was it about him ?
Yes, the stories, yes, the characters, but before those it was his places that enthralled me and I have always started a book with a strong vision of its setting ever since. Dickens’s London. Ancient dark houses. Dank courtyards. Slums. Counting houses. Shops. The Marshalsea prison. The law courts and the inky offices of the lawyers. The wet grey flat Wolds of Lincolnshire. The Kentish Marshes. The river. The wharves and warehouses. I lived in those places, I smelled them. I wanted to make my own fictional worlds as exciting, dramatic, palpable.
Dickens, like Thomas Hardy, writes in great scenes and set-pieces, and both writers have a theatrical or painterly way of lighting those scenes, from within or without, by candlelight, lamplight, gaslight, firelight, moonlight – the sun seems to feature little. I read leaning against the back of my great aunt’s moquette sofa, not understanding some things but never less than absorbed – and at that age, what puzzles you in a book you skim quickly over. The nuances, the subtleties, the adult take on life and death, the social minutiae, all of these pass a young reader by. It is the broad brushstrokes, the excitement of the plot, the larger-than-lifeness of the characters, their grotesqueness, weird appearance, that impresses. The rest comes later, which is why Dickens is both for young readers and for adults.
Every decade, I have discovered more in him as I have experienced more myself. Nine year old tears were wept over the death of Joe the crossing-sweeper but the tragedy and loneliness and innocence of Miss Flite requires a more mature reader to understand fully. As a teenager I was full of righteous indignation over the social injustices Dickens highlights, the poverty, oppression, suffering, misery, lack of decent housing and medicine. Those still matter but after many years of reading him you come to see how balanced Dickens is, how the political and humanitarian issues are offset by family happiness, requited love, and above all, by humour. The irony and bleakness are countered by the sweetness, and yes, the sentimentality, of the love affairs. There is nothing, nothing that he does not know about, understand and explain by presenting it in fiction. Domestic violence, the betrayal of children’s innocence, ‘the insolence of office and the law’s delays,’ pomposity and self-regard, pride, humility, self-sacrifice, altruism, greed….it is all, all in Dickens. I often wonder if I need any other writer.