How we failed Dickens in his bicentenary year

It’s easy to love the Christmassy Dickens. But can we deal with the brutally funny one?

Share

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, 20 miles of the sea. Not true, I was 12 before I saw a river and 20 before I saw a marsh, but if I confuse myself with Philip Pirrip, the blacksmith’s boy, that’s because I seem to have done little else this year but watch adaptations of Great Expectations, Dickens’s great novel about the deranged fastidiousness we call romantic love. Not that you’d guess that’s what it’s about from the prim and starchy versions I’ve been watching.

The year that was meant to be a tribute to Dickens’s genius began with the BBC’s removing all trace of it in a three-part Great Expectations that wasn’t funny, except in the sense of being cloth-eared, and wasn’t frightening, except in the sense of demonstrating how much less emotionally and linguistically vigorous than the Victorians we are.

Mike Newell’s film, which closes the Dickens bicentenary, is altogether more creditable, and doesn’t make the mistake of thinking it can put in bits of Dickens that Dickens missed, but it still wilts before the novel’s savagery, still dilutes its eroticism, and still reduces it to a moral fable about a snob’s progress. Yes, Pip is ashamed of his origins, wants to be a gentleman and lives beyond his means in London. Who doesn’t? But if that were all Great Expectations amounted to, Arnold Bennett could have written it.

In fact, the marshes from which Pip can never escape conceal darker, more murderous secrets. There’s no explaining why Newell turns his back on one of the darkest by leaving out the attack on Mrs Joe and removing her assailant altogether; you might as well not mention that Raskolnikov kills an old lady, or have Macbeth change his mind and take Duncan tea in bed. For the shock of Orlick’s brutal beating of Mrs Joe resonates through the novel: not only implicating readers in the violence (there isn’t one of us, if we are honest, that hasn’t been wishing her harm in the pages before the attack), but miring Pip further in that consciousness of crime that crowds his every thought, binding him with Orlick, an alter ego who makes a mockery of his longing to be spotless enough to deserve Estella.

As for the masochism of that misplaced idolatry – loving her for what she isn’t, and loving her the more, the more she mistreats him – it is mirrored in the submissiveness Mrs Joe shows Orlick after the assault: a “humble propitiation,” Pip notes, “such as I have seen pervade the bearing of a child towards a hard master”. We hated her rampagings, but it is a painful, shaming thing to see her broken, a slave to the man who broke her. And it asks a terrible question about the psychological hierarchy of beater and beaten.

Later in the novel, Jaggers (played colourlessly in the film, as though afraid of exaggeration, by Robbie Coltrane) muses on the nature of Bentley Drummle, who is a sort of Orlick released into society: “He may cringe and growl, or cringe and not growl; but he either beats or cringes.” We are in an emotional world that is ruled by violence and power, and love, of whatever complexion, must submit to this rule as well. Not for nothing does Estella forgo Pip and marry Drummle.

Miss the disturbing seriousness of Dickens and it’s odds on that you’ll miss the comedy, too. A certain kind of reader always has. In 1860, the same year Great Expectations was published in serial form, John Ruskin noted that “the essential value and truth of Dickens’s writings have been unwisely lost sight of by many thoughtful persons merely because he presents his truth with some colour of caricature”. For all his labelling such criticism “unwise”, Ruskin too would rather Dickens had exaggerated less. But then there was much in life that Ruskin wished there were less of. We can divide the world between people who relish exaggeration and people who don’t. In my experience, those who shy from it fear the power of the imagination to imbue what is plain with what is marvellous, and want to shrink the world – I was about to say to the size of their own small soul, but the soul, too, like everything invisible to science, is an exaggeration, and so they cannot be allowed to possess one.

“What displeases us in Dickens,” the critic and philosopher Santayana wrote, “is that he does not spare us; he mimics things to the full; he dilates and exhausts and repeats; he wallows... This faculty, which renders him a consummate comedian, is just what alienated him from a later generation in which people of taste were aesthetes... they wanted a mincing art...” And there you have us. Lovers of mincing art, anxious to be let off, afraid of what Santayana calls “absolute comedy” which is “scornful, merciless, devastating, holding no door open to anything beyond”. Newell’s film, which cannot bear to take responsibility for the devastating assault on Mrs Joe, so wants to hold a door open that it even tries to make Estella nice.

For all the grandeur of its themes, Dickens’s art, as Santayana notes, is rooted in the harsh vitality we still find in circuses and pantomimes, at the end of the pier, in Punch and Judy and such expressions of popular vigour as the morris dance when it’s undiluted, and the cruel, heart-stopping ’Obby ’Oss they continue to perform in Padstow. We have tried, of course, we lovers of mincing art, to clean up the likes of Mr Punch (whose gender politics leave much to be desired), and we complain whenever a comedian goes too far, though what a comedian is for if not to go too far is hard to imagine. As for Dickens, we can take him Christmassy and picturesque, but mercilessly funny, no. We are grown too refined. Quite simply, we are not robust enough to enjoy him.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

** Secondary History Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Secondary Geography Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Young Syrian refugees gather around a small fire at the Minieh camp in Lebanon  

Cameron and Obama may want to ‘destroy’ Isis, but what will they do about the growing number of refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria?

Kate Allen
“You're running away!” Nick said to me the other night as I tried to leave the hospital  

In Sickness and in Health: ‘There’s nothing I want more than to have you at home, but you’re not well’

Rebecca Armstrong
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments