Rachel Holdsworth recently took a few swipes at Dickens in the New Statesman, claiming that the show Dickensian is boring and "it's really all Dickens's fault."
This, she says, is because (1) Dickens wrote women poorly and (2) "Dickens wrote potboilers." This is a rarely used word nowadays, so I give you the Merriam-Webster definition: "a usually inferior work (as of art or literature) produced chiefly for profit."
I think that right there would be enough to torpedo Holdwsorth's article -- by every measure, including critical acclaim, popular acclaim, sales figures, length of popularity, and so forth, Dickens's work is anything but inferior, and it was no more "produced chiefly for profit" than any other great work of art or literature. (Though of course Dickens wrote to earn money, the implication of "potboiler" is that one writes for no other reason but to earn money, which is manifestly untrue in this case.) But let's look at it anyway. We've already debunked the potboiler accusation -- how about the accusation about the women?
Most people in the 21st century agree that his heroines are largely problematic. Consistently sweet and passive heroines don't cut it anymore. Fair enough; I can go along with that. But the problem with Holdsworth's contention is that she's not content to make a nuanced, thoughtful argument about this. She's all about the broad and sweeping statement -- so broad and sweeping that she overshoots the mark (pardon my mixed metaphors). Let's break down some of her statements:
-- "Dickens’s women are only allowed one character trait. They are either moral, mad or monstrous."
Not Dickens's heroines, Dickens's women. Leaving out whether it's always true of his heroines, is it fair to say this of all of his women? Can we say it of Betsey Trotwood? Jenny Wren? Miss Mowcher? Fanny Dorrit? Edith Dombey? Caddy Jellyby? And conceding that Dickens loved to create grotesques, of both sexes, it's simply not true that even the grotesques had no other qualities but their grotesqueness. They also had brains, and hearts, and quite often they had the gift of winning a reader's undying admiration and affection.
I would even argue it's not true of all his heroines. Some, yes, but not all. Can we truly say that Estella has only one trait? How about Louisa Gradgrind or Esther Summerson?
-- "The core attribute of the central female characters is 'simpering'; change that too much and the conceit that these are Dickens’s creations is lost."
As you know, I haven't seen the show yet, but I know that Honoria Barbary/Lady Dedlock and Miss Havisham are among its heroines. And I think we all know that neither of those ladies would be caught dead simpering, not just on TV, but in their original novels.
-- "He wrote characters in the cartoon sense, emphasised by his insistence on giving them ridiculous names. . . . I’d argue that introducing Mr Heinous Evil-Bastard and Miss Simperingly Delightful in chapter three is an eye-roll inducing exercise in nominative determinism. Congratulations, you can now work out the rough plot. Have fun wasting time with the next 50 chapters."
Because obviously, NO character with a funny name has EVER changed or done something unexpected in the course of a Dickens novel. Right?
This leads me to another bone I have to pick with Holdsworth -- she bases almost her entire contention that Dickens is boring on his depiction of women. But even if her argument about that weren't as full of holes as it is, that's only one aspect of his very complex and multifaceted books. The leap from "his women are one-note" to "his books are boring" is so great that you could fall to your death trying to make it.
I get the sense that Ms. Holdworth is trying to be bold and daring here in challenging the classic status of an author like Dickens. But with all due respect, her arguments are poorly thought out and even more poorly communicated. Unfortunately (and ironically), her screed reads like, well, a potboiler.