My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening.
Pip in Great Expectations, Chapter 1
My memory is not as vivid as Pip’s, but I do have some recollection of my first encounter with Charles Dickens. On the page, I mean, not through animated ducks and mice.
I’m not sure whether it was a raw afternoon, but I do remember sitting in Mrs. Danelo’s ninth-grade classroom turning the pages of my literature book, curiously studying black and white photos that came, as I would later learn, from the 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations: a wide-eyed small boy, a menacing man in rags and chains, a pretty girl with her chin arrogantly tilted, a shrewish old woman gazing with eager, witchlike eyes from under her white hair and tattered bridal veil.
At fifteen, I was an avid reader familiar with all kinds of books, but these were characters not quite like any I had ever seen or imagined. They were more eccentric, more unusual—and paradoxically, more real.
A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied around his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
I didn’t realize then that the story that went with these strange pictures would be a kind of gateway drug for me—that the abridged novel in the pages of my reader would create such an appetite for more that after finishing it, I would go find and devour the entire novel. And then another Dickens novel. And another.
For if the film stills from Great Expectations had piqued my interest, the words had hit me like a wrecking ball.
When the church came to itself—for he was so sudden and strong that he made it go head over heels before me, and I saw the steeple under my feet . . .
At fifteen, I’m not sure I could have said exactly why. I knew only that the words that leaped from those pages were even more vivid and more indelible than the photographs had been. There was something about those long and rambling sentences that swept me up and carried me away with them. And those big words and funny, old-fashioned phrases created images that were startlingly real.
I clutched the leg of the table again immediately, and pressed it to my bosom as if it had been the companion of my youth and friend of my soul.
What other words have ever so compellingly described the fear of a sensitive, vulnerable child with no help or protection—or so effectively made us see the grim humor under some of even the most frightening moments of life? Who could help loving Pip—arrogant young twerp though he eventually becomes—when he can describe things so memorably and movingly?
Not me. And I've been loving Dickens ever since. Today, the 150th anniversary of the first installment of Great Expectations,* it's been nice to remember that first encounter, and what made me fall in love with him in the first place.
(And it's also the first day of the Dickensblog Pledge Drive! I've figured out how to add a Great Expectations twist to that, in honor of the day, so check back later to see it.)
*Actually, Dickens for Breakfast stated in this morning's e-mail that the first installment appeared on November 28, but was dated December 1. I guess it's something like American independence being voted in on July 2, but the Declaration not being approved until July 4.