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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

There is far too much sexism in the UK - but a point scoring system against other countries won't help to tackle it

Victoria Richards
 

Upmarket and downmarket – why the modern consumer loves a bit of both

Sean O'Grady
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers