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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

To my mind, all novels enter into a larger conversation with all the novels that have come before them.  In some instances this is thematic; in others it’s a more direct dialogue.  Lloyd Jones’ superbly crafted Mister Pip is one of the latter types, creating a close relationship with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (see my review here).  Early on in Mister Pip, our young narrator, Matilda, relates how she feels she was entering into the story of Great Expectations as it is read to her class by the memorable Mr Watts.  I understand this beguiling and beautiful pull completely, for I was experiencing the same thing; I was entering into the world of Mister Pip.

And what a world it is.  Set against the backdrop of a civil war on Bougainville, Matilda tells the story of her village during the war, and how Mr Watts, the last remaining white man in the village after the blockade, steps in to teach her and the other kids in their school.  He is not a teacher, and tells them that he has no wisdom, but he exudes such a presence that the children respond to him.  The only book he has at his disposal is Great Expectations, which he describes as “the greatest novel by the greatest writer of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens.”  He reads it to the class and Matilda and the others are hooked.  She feels as though Pip is a real person, a friend.

Bougainville is a tropical paradise.  It is “one of the most fertile places on earth.  Drop a seed in the soil and three months later it is a plant with shiny green leaves.  Another three months and you are picking its fruit.”

But war transforms this paradise into something of a hell.  Trouble descends when the government army come into the town looking for rebels, destroying the villagers’ possessions and homes.  Mr Watts is introduced to them as Mr Dickens, and soon the soldiers are trying to find Mister Pip too.

In the aftermath of their visit, Mr Watts tells the children:

… these loses, severe though they may seem, remind us of what no person can take, and that is our minds and our imaginations.

Amen to that.

Acts of violence are never far away, though, and Pip is something of a life-raft to which Matilda clings; (she clings to Mr Jaggers in an unexpected way later in the book too!).

Much to his credit, Mr Watts invites all the children’s parents and family into the class to tell the kids whatever it is they know about life.  Here we see Matilda’s God-fearing mother, Dolores, become something of a nemesis to the non-religious Mr Watts.  Their tender rivalry is depicted so, so well.  Matilda reflects that her mother:

thought she had Mr Watts summed up.  She could not see what us kids have come to see: a kind man.  She only saw a white man.  And white men had stolen her husband and my father.  White men were to blame for the [copper] mine, and the blockade.  A white man had given us the name of our island.  White men had given me my name.  By now it was also clear that the white world had forgotten us.

But though Dolores thinks she has the wood on Mr Watts, it is really he who has the measure of her.

Jones construct some sublime moments, including the scene in which Matilda, remembering a fragment of the destroyed Great Expectations rans breathless into Mr Watts’ house in the moment he closes the eyes of his dead wife.  The dilemmas that Matilda, her mother, and Mr Watts all face as things race toward the climax are also deftly managed, and the climax when it comes is gripping stuff.

There are wonderful echoes of Great Expectations throughout, in the characters, plot, and even the way the book starts, with Matilda introducing us to Mr Watts by his other name, the name everyone knew him as: Pop Eye – just as Pip introduces himself by his nickname.

Mister Pip was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007 (losing to Anne Enright’s The Gathering) and won the (now sadly defunct) Commonwealth Writers’ prize for best book in the Southeast Asia and South Pacific ‘zone’ in the same year.

There is a movie version in the works, with none other than Hugh Laurie (better known as Dr Gregory House) playing the part of Mr Watts.  It is due out sometime this year.

Mister Pip speaks to us about how the power of story can triumph in the most appalling of situations.  In so doing it becomes a triumph itself, a haunting book that will stay with me long after reading.  I wager it will have the same effect on you.

Also worth a look is the First Tuesday Book Club’s panel discussion of Great Expectations with Lloyd Jones and the marvellous Miriam Margolyes, which you can see here.

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

2006

Text

220 pages

ISBN: 9781021520242

Source: the local municipal library

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“Please, sir, I want some more.”

It was one of the classic lines isn’t it?

I’ve been doing some reading on Newgate Gaol of late which is why, when I decided to celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, I chose Oliver Twist, for it is typically classified as a ‘Newgate Novel’.  This seems to me to be a bit of a misnomer because there is precious little of the novel set inside Newgate.  (As an aside, the nefarious place went by endless nicknames which, according to Kelly Grovier in his excellent book, The Gaol: The Story of Newgate (2008), include: ‘Whittington’s College’, ‘The Quod’, ‘Rumboe’, ‘The Start’, ‘The Stone Pitcher’, ‘The Stone Jug’, and ‘The Mint’.  Presumably ‘The Start’ was coined because of the role Newgate played in the education of young thieves.  But I (sort of) digress!)

We’ve all grown up with Oliver Twist.  His is a classic tale, the poor orphan boy brought up in the workhouse and escaping off to London where he falls in with Fagin’s gang of thieves, including the evil Bill Sikes and the boy who runs the pickpockets, the Artful Dodger.

The interesting thing is that there is much of the novel in which Oliver is ‘off-stage’, or at its edges.  Often when he appears in a scene he says very little.  Things happen around him, affecting his prospects.  He is a pawn in a larger game.  I felt a surprising distance to Oliver which was, I believe, exacerbated by the omnipotent narrator, who calls himself a ‘biographer’ of Oliver, but he is much more than that.  This framework goes some way to explaining the very mature and learned diction of Oliver’s dialogue, but it read unevenly to me; some of it sounded like that of a young boy, while elsewhere it sounded more adult-like.

The streets of London are suitably dark, grimy, and – for children particularly – full of menace.  Oliver’s introduction to them is described as follows: [p63]:

A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen.  The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.  There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside.

The story is populated with memorable characters – or caricatures if you prefer.  There is the arch-criminal (though uncomfortably racially stereotyped) Fagin, with his “My dear(s)” reeking of malevolence.  His whole ethos is captured in his advice to Mr Claypole, [p360]:

Every man’s his own friend … Some conjurers say that number three is the magic number, and some say number seven.  It’s neither, my friend, neither.  It’s number one. 

Working for him is the Artful Dodger, who sadly has far less of a part than I expected.  There is the menacing Sikes.  There is Nancy, the prostitute whose heart wins over her shortcomings but who, maddeningly, cannot see a way out of her relationship with Sikes.  There is the scheming, bumbling, ‘parochial’ Mr Bumble, always complaining of the pauper’s demands; there’s a great scene in which he edges his chair around the table to lay a kiss on Mrs Corney, in which her feigned protests – “I shall scream!” – are indeed a scream.  Monks’ ravings are perhaps less successful.

Dickensian humour is found throughout, too.  Take Oliver’s first night spent in Fagin’s den, [p64-6]:

One young gentleman was very anxious to hang up his cap for him; and another was so obliging as to put his hands in his pockets, in order that, as he was very tired, he might not have the trouble of emptying them when he went to bed.

There is a wonderful recurring motif of the noose as neckerchief/cravat.  (The irony of course, and I’ll give a small spoiler alert here, is that when Oliver meets Fagin, Fagin is described as having a bare throat.)

Adding to the enjoyment is the dark artwork of George Cruikshank.

As with any satire, the thematic aims are lofty: the treatment of the poor, how they are at the mercy of those with wealth and power, how they are exploited by the criminal class.  It explores how criminals operate and instil their code and methods into the young boys who find themselves cast out of society with little choice but to play the game.  Much of this is summarised when the lowly Nancy says to the lady Rose [p333]: “Oh, lady, lady! … if there was more like you, there would be fewer like me…”

Part of the intrigue of Dickens’ writing is the way he published in serial form.  In the case of Oliver there is disagreement as to how much of a plan he had for the story when starting out.  Often his writing was only a few chapters ahead of the latest published ones.  It’s a remarkable achievement in many ways, especially considering modern writers’ editing practices using all manner of word processing and other organisational tools.  In the case of Oliver Twist it means somewhat ‘loose’ plotting and some astonishing coincidences (all those handily placed aunts and chance meetings!), though serialised ‘novels’ were not usually tightly plotted.  Many of his later novels were far more controlled in this regard.

Even more astonishing is his work ethic and the fact that he had often started – and had published the first chapters of – a new story before reaching the end of the one in progress.  This overlap was more than just chronological; it was often thematic as well.  The end of Oliver Twist is set in Newgate, while the start of his next book, Nicholas Nickleby, sees Nicholas in a fright at seeing Newgate and has him imagining an execution.

For all that, Oliver Twist was slightly disappointing.  Though I can point to some reasons, I don’t fully understand why I felt the distance between myself and the eponymous hero because, on paper, the fact his life is at risk should be moving.  The result was that I didn’t love Oliver Twist in the way I did Great Expectations (see my review here).  In a sense, I was a boy like Oliver, wanting just that little bit ‘more’.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Penguin Classics

1837-8

ISBN: 9780141439747

455 pages & additional appendices.

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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Confession time!  Sue over at Whispering Gums rightly took me to task a few months back after she perused my ‘Favourite Reads’ only to find no Dickens.  The reason?  Even more shocking than not having him on my list was the fact that, as I quipped to Sue, the closest I’d come to reading Dickens was the thoroughly enjoyable Jack Maggs by Peter Carey(!)  (Jack Maggs is Carey’s Dickensian homage based around Magwitch—the convict who spooks Pip in the opening pages of Great Expectations.)  Now, my single brush with Dickens is not completely true, for in primary school did put on a musical production of Oliver one year, in which, thankfully, I had only a bit part.

I’m not really sure how my lack of Dickens came to pass, though I had for some years been operating under the (very false) perception that I did not need classic realist tales, so engrossed was I in my favourite magic realist genre.  I am a dilettante after all.  But, as Sue will be glad to hear, I am very fond of Jane Austen!  So it is a little strange that I hadn’t got round to Dickens.  In any case, what can I possibly add to what has already been written on such a great book?

Famous for his characters (and caricatures?), I think one goes in expecting over-the-top characterisations, yet I was very glad to find myself enjoying all the characters that Dickens establishes and defines so well and with such flourish.  It is no wonder his characters are some of the most memorable in literature.  Yet for all of the sense of character, for me Great Expectations is a wonderful illustration of plot and structure.  It is here that Dickens so excels, with an intricate—and yet completely controlled—plot.  Yes, there are some happy co-incidences here and there, but they are easily forgotten.  The three-part ‘stages’ of Pip’s expectations are equal in length and perfectly balanced.  Straight from the off we are introduced to a character who might seem a bit player in the form of the convict Magwitch, to whom Pip offers some food and drink, and yet it is these characters, so expertly stage-managed within the structure of the story, who go onto play very important roles in Pip’s life.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT – FOR ALL THOSE WHO HAVEN”T READ IT (WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH YOUR TIME?!):

In each stage we see a very different Pip, from the boy ‘raised by the (Rampaging!) hand’ of his very much older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery, who comes into his ‘great expectation’ of inheritance at the end of the first stage, to the snobbish, ungrateful, devil-may-care Pip, carelessly living beyond his much increased means in London in the middle stage, to the final stage in which he realises the errors of his ways, and begins to redeem himself by admirably assisting his good friend Herbert Pocket.  Along the way he also finds the truth behind his benefactor and his wealth vanishes before he finally comes to rest in a comfortable position.

Great Expectations is a bildungsroman story—i.e., the tracing of a youth growing into adulthood, gathering wisdom along the way, but it has very definite thrills and action sequences.  Set against the highly stratified and rigid class hierarchy of Victorian England, we follow Pip’s internal struggle with his guilt over jumping up the social ladder and the ill-treatment of those he left behind.  The story pretty much has a bit of everything, with the rise and fall of Pip’s wealth, his attaining of wisdom, his finding and losing and finding again of love,  whilst all around him the lives of very rich cast of characters evolve, including the slighted (and simply wonderful) Biddy who finds love, the rise of Magwitch (as a convict done well in our very own Australia, we should be so proud!), the memorable Mr Jaggers, who seems to act as lawyer to just about everyone—and why not?, for he’s seems unbeatable in any argument!—to the deceitful and cloistered Miss Havisham and her adopted and seemingly heartless Estella.  The list goes on.  And in each of them is traced out an arc of growth or retardation.  The book even has two different endings offered(!), with the original and discarded ending offered after the revised, refined, far more enjoyable and, dare I say it, more ‘Hollywood’ ending.

Last, but by no means least, there is the language.  The prose’s exuberance and vitality is so overwhelming it almost threatens at times to be a little too much, but it never is.  Instead, we are totally entranced by Pip’s (very erudite!) narrative of this wondrous and eventful story.  Humour abounds, with wry observations such as ‘one always feels better when one has a lot of stationery’ (how true!), to the more overt: take Trabb’s Boy’s mimicking of the pompous Pip when he returns a gentleman to the village he grew up in, as well as the delightful Mr Pocket lifting himself up by his pulling his own hair.

The evocation of place is another highlight – particularly when that place is either a very old house(!) or anything to do with London.   Early on (p14), we get a taste of Pip’s abilities to describe a scene:

Now I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; … On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it.  Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.

It is also quite moving at times too, none more so than Magwitch’s death (p436):

‘Dear Magwitch, I must tell you, now at last.  You understand what I say?’

A gentle pressure on my hand.

‘You had a child once, whom you loved and lost.’

A stronger pressure on my hand.

‘She lived and found powerful friends.  She is living now.  She is a lady and very beautiful.  And I love her!’

With a faint effort, which would have been powerless but for my yielding to it, and assisting it, he raised my hand to his lips.  Then he gently let it sink upon his breast again, with his own hands lying on it.  The placid look at the white ceiling came back, and passed away, and his head dropped quietly on his breast.

Wonderful, and what great use of ‘passing away’ to refer to his gaze and, of course, his life.  I am so very glad I finally got around to reading it.  With thanks to Sue for her rightful prompting, it is left only for me to say: a classic.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Vintage

ISBN: 9780099511571

460 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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