- Charles Dickens on Poverty, edited by Pete Orford (Hesperus, 2013).
The latest entry in Orford's "Charles Dickens on . . ." series. Knowing how fiercely Dickens fought for the poor all his life, one would expect a consistently fiery tone throughout this essay collection. This turns out, surprisingly, not to be the case.
The first group of essays, about the high-profile case of Bartholomew Drouet (who owned a school where more than 150 children died of cholera under "appalling conditions"), is suitably fiery -- indeed, I think it's some of the best writing Dickens ever did. But just at the end, when we learn that Drouet got off scot-free and one would expect Dickens to boil over with rage, he instead writes quietly and matter-of-factly, as if almost too weary for words anymore. The effect is far more sobering than any outraged eloquence he could have possibly come up with.
In other essays he studies different facets of poverty: the "shabby-genteel," the begging-letter writers who plague him as a known philanthropist, the tramps, residents of the workhouse, and residents of his own Urania Cottage. Sometimes he shows genuine sympathy, but any group or individual that he finds more colorful than pitiable is fair game for his wit. He goes even further with the begging-letter writers; they come in for a full share of his wrath, as he blames them for taking bread out of the mouths of the genuinely poor: "The begging-letters flying about by every post, made it perfectly manifest, that a set of lazy vagabonds were interposed between the general desire to do something to relieve the sickness and misery under which the poor were suffering, and the suffering poor themselves. . . . The writers are public robbers; and we who support them are parties to their depredations. . . . Let us give all we can; let us give more than ever. Let us do all we can; let us do more than ever. But let us give, and do, with a high purpose; not to endow the scum of the earth, to its own greater corruption, with the offals of our duty."
In his general attitude toward poverty, in fact, Dickens comes across as far more nuanced, knowing, and thoughtful than most modern writers on the subject. Which, indeed, one probably should have expected all along.
- Malcolm Andrews, Dickensian Laughter (Oxford University Press, 2013).
In his preface, Andrews, a professor at the University of Kent, expresses some doubt about whether his purpose in this book can be accomplished: "One hears quite often that humour is very hard to write about in any intensively analytical way. . . . The popular view is that under the anatomist's knife the vital essence of humour seeps away, elusive as ever, leaving a pile of mangled remains."
But Andrews has reason to want to plow ahead with his exploration of Dickens's humor -- it has been a powerful force in shaping his own life and thinking. He has a special sympathy with all those -- from the Victorian age onward -- who can't read Dickens without laughing aloud (including Dickens himself, for whom "laughter seemed to be [his] natural element"). His own grandfather used to read The Pickwick Papers every night after work, chuckling until "the incendiary Pickwick effect jiggled tobacco ash from the bowl down onto the pages," leaving his daughter, Malcolm's mother, "somewhat in awe of the power of Pickwick."
So Andrews offers us a comprehensive study of how Dickens's humor developed, how it works, and how it influenced the society around him. "Boz was out to create the taste by which he was to be enjoyed," he explains, showing how Dickens drew on popular styles but used them to help him create something entirely new and unique. Dickens's humor, he reminds us, helped get a rather straitlaced society laughing, and to this day it still helps us recognize our common humanity.
Andrews is undeniably an academic, and writes like one, but fortunately the very nature of his subject keeps him focused and grounded. He approaches Dickens's humor with genuine appreciation and keeps his analysis, for the most part, practical and understandable. He also quotes frequently from Dickens, a wise decision that helps the reader understand and share his appreciation. I found myself laughing aloud only a few pages in, at this quote from Martin Chuzzlewit: "Mr. Spottletoe, who was so bald and had such big whiskers that he seemed to have stopped his hair, by the sudden application of some powerful remedy, in the very act of falling off his head, and to have fixed it irrevocably on his face." In his genuine enthusiasm for his subject and desire to communicate that enthusiasm, Andrews avoids falling into the trap he feared in his preface, and gives us a book well worth reading.
- Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, adapted for the stage by Terence Rattigan & John Gielgud, ed. Adam Spreadbury-Maher (Samuel French, 2013).
This is the adaptation that ran last fall in London, which I wrote about here, here, here, and here. An editor's note at the beginning explains how Gielgud and Rattigan came to write their adaptation in 1935, and why they were unable to perform it when they planned to (though it was later performed in various venues through the years, at schools, on the radio, and as a one-night-only charity production in 1988). It was Rattigan's centenary in 2011 that inspired Spreadbury-Maher to resurrect it and develop it into "a script that was completely true to the work of Dickens, Rattigan and Gielgud, but that is also a play for today."
The action has been stripped down and the historical context is sketched in only vaguely, so that the play can concentrate on the main characters (played by only eight actors). The adapters have taken quite a few liberties with the characters -- making Stryver, for instance, somewhat less assertive, Lucie more assertive, and Carton the sort of person who goes around actively and deliberately annoying people rather than just being slothful and passive. The play is not without poignancy and wit, but there's little actual character development until the very end, which I would think would make it rather difficult to sympathize with many of the characters. However, I'd still be interested in seeing a production of this adaptation someday, should the opportunity ever arise, just to see how well it works (or doesn't work) in its proper medium.
(Review copies purchased from Amazon, donated by Oxford University Press, and purchased from Samuel French, respectively.)