Howard Jacobson: If you haven't got the stomach for messy, dirty Dickens, then leave him alone

Ironic, that we who scorn Victorian bowdlerisation of Shakespeare routinely boil Dickens down
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The Independent Online

As for those who wonder why a British Citizenship Test shouldn't be applied to the self-disinheriting masses who happen to have been born here yet still inhabit, in a phrase from Bleak House, "the utter darkness of meaning" and themselves know nothing of Dickens, I confess I wonder likewise. Airlift them all to Borrioboola-Gha, I say - Borrioboola-Gha, as I don't need to remind my readers, being Dickens' bad-taste joke corner of Africa to which Mrs Jellyby, who has made a hellhole of her own home, directs her charitable energies.

Yes, the bad taste is something else missing from the BBC's Bleak House. We find ourselves stigmatising television for its grossness so often that we forget how dainty it can be when grossness is what's called for. All the overt sex the sex-crazed can desire where no overt sex originally existed in Jane Austen and George Eliot, but only let a writer of another age upset our modern sensibilities in matters of gender, race or class, and we are out with our blue pencils. I am still trying to decide why Jo the smudge-faced crossing-sweeper who in Dickens says of Nemo "He wos wery good to me, he wos!" is reduced in Andrew Davies's adaptation to noting sedately, "He was good to me." Maybe he will grow Dickensian before he perishes, but it isn't looking like it. So what's the problem? Does Someone object to Dickens' sentimental treatment of the Victorian working classes? Does it offend Somebody that Dickens has them ungrammatical and unable to distinguish a wee from a woubleyou? Condescending, is it? In violation of the human rights of crossing-sweepers?

Ironic, that we who scorn Victorian bowdlerisation of Shakespeare routinely boil Dickens down to accommodate our queasier assumptions. And to what end? If we can't stomach Dickens, then leave Dickens alone. In Dickens' world that's how the poor talk - "He wos wery good to me, he wos." Just as cabmen in love with Peggotty propose marriage via third parties with the words "Barkis is willin". Must we, for fear of offending the Cabmen's Union, change that to "Mr Barkis seeks the means to offer you his hand in matrimony, ma'am"?

Something tells me that Andrew Davies finds Dickens a mite untidy for his taste. He complained recently that Dickens would begin a story without knowing how it was going to end. Behold, in that observation, the world of difference between the storyteller of genius and his mere adapter! The latter knows what's coming because it has already come. The former must, against the clock, pull his own rabbits out of the hat. Cliffhangers are usually poor exercises of the imagination unless it's the author himself who's clinging to the cliff. And many of the narrative wonders of Dickens proceed precisely from the demands of serialisation on his invention: the tumult of coincidence and secrets, machinations beyond the imaginings of normal men, characterisations of heroic preposterousness, all glued together with great swollen torrents of indignant satiric-sermonising orotund oracular rabble-rousing prose. He was an entertainer like no other, Dickens. Magician, actor, reformer, propagandist, populariser, prophet, poet. That's what you pays for; that's what you gets. And Dickens evened out and neatened up is not Dickens. Yes, Andrew Davies cuts his way through the narrative complexities of Bleak House with impressive clarity. But what does clarity have to do with Dickens?

The near universal glee with which this latest Dickens-eviscerated Dickens has been greeted by critics should be a matter of national shame. What has happened to our nerves that we can no longer be moved to rage and laughter, berated, sermonised, satirised and sentimentalised in a single sentence? A telly review on which my eye accidentally fell last week went so far as to congratulate Andrew Davies for having done away with Dickens' "numbing weight of words". Nice novel, Dickens, shame about the words.

But pull the words and you pull their meaning. Of course some compromise had to be reached, for television, with the hyperbolic cadences of "Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollution of a great (and dirty) city...". But where did the fog itself go in the process? The fog is integral to Dickens' apocalyptic vision of London and the Law - the fog hanging heavy in the High Court of Chancery, where the Lord High Chancellor, haloed in "foggy glory", sits "in the midst of the mud and at the heart of fog" - the fog spread everywhere, blighting the land, filling the mad-houses with lunatics and the churchyards with dead, overthrowing every brain and breaking every heart. Take the fog away from Bleak House and you might as soon remove the witches from Macbeth, or the inclement weather from King Lear.

Ditto the waters which are out again in Lincolnshire. Yes, yes, when not fixated on the steaming flanks of horses the director does remember to drop the odd bucket of rain on my Lady Dedlock's place and have her looking out of her bedroom window, bored. But neither the script nor the camera renders her boredom unto death, the stultification of spirit which is more than just an accident of her personal life, the saturation of tedium and damp, as though nature itself has lost the will to live. In Bleak House the entire nation is imagined fallen into stagnation, choked with obfuscation at the centre, drowning in the damp of enervation at the margins, the churches mouldy, the bridges "sapped and sopped away", the trees so wet that the "soft loppings and prunings of the woodman's axe can make no crash nor crackle as they fall", the air so moist that not even a rifle shot can pierce it with any sharpness.

There's the clue - no crackle, no sharpness. So they shoot it crystal clear. To please, they tell us without a blush, viewers brought up on Hollyoaks.

So day by day we shrink ourselves a little more. Imagine what Dickens would have done with Blunkett. Imagine the scale of the ambition and the egregiousness of the fall. Then think what thin gruel we have made of him - how small the man, how jeering the satire, how feeble the comedy. And now tell me we are not the meaner for being unDickensian.