Charles Dickens didn’t exactly have a dirty pen. This, after all, was the man who promised his delicate Victorian readers that he would “banish from the lips” of all his characters “any expression that could by possibility offend.”
Not the easiest of promises to make because, let’s face it, the Victorians were easily offended.
Case in point: These were the people who cringed over the word “trousers,” because men’s pants were worn a little too close to a certain tabooed male appendage for comfort. But, by and large, Dickens kept his promise like a classy gent, never using outright profanity in any of his 15 novels. But Dickens was obsessed with capturing reality in all of his writings. It just took a bit of cleverness to pull it off, to politely wiggle his way out of that very tight corset of Victorian censorship, and here are a few examples of how he did it:
[Mr. Peggotty] swore a dreadful oath that he would be “Gormed” if…[his generosity] was ever mentioned again. — David Copperfield
It’s the most famous and talked-about curse word in Dickens’s oeuvre. In the Dickensian universe, this is as profane as profanity gets — despite the fact that no one in that universe seems to know what this “dreadful oath” actually signifies. The long-standing theory, popularized by the OED, is that Dickens invented the word “gormed” as an even milder substitute for “gosh-darned.” Yes, they do share the same first and last letter, but Dickens played his delicate game with profanity even safer than that. Rather than inventing the word (and thus having to later defend it), Dickens built “gormed” on an actual, though obscure, English word. The verb “to gorm” once meant to “to stare blankly, vacantly” at something, likely related to the Irish gom, “a stupid-looking person.” Dickens’s “gormed” thus could be safely translated as something more like “confounded, stupefied” — hardly a swear word at all — and bearing no trace of any attack on the Almighty.
2. What the Deuce!
If the Victorians were squeamish about taking God’s name in vain, they had an equal dread of mentioning the devil’s. Sort of an awkward prohibition for them, as swearing by the devil tripped way too easily off most Victorian tongues. Their one acceptable remedy — euphemisms.
Almost every questionable word, circa 19th century, had its polite substitute (one of the acceptable euphemisms for “trousers” was, in fact, “inexpressibles”). And most convenient of all, the devil had his own choice euphemism — namely the word “deuce” — nonchalantly inserted into popular period phrases such as “What the deuce!” and “The deuce and all!” — expressions that Dickens used freely and frequently in his writing. There’s a lot of speculation on how “deuce” acquired its devilish reputation and, moreover, why it was acceptable to Victorian sensibilities. Simple answer, no one really knows.
3. I’ll be De’ed
If Dickens had a favorite indecent oath, it would have been the oh-so-versatile D-word. That’s, more or less, exactly how Dickens referred to it in his writing, as “D” something or other. That might seem cute and childish to us today, but even by dropping three letters of a four-letter word, Dickens was dangerously skirting the fringes of Victorian decency. Everyone knew what he meant and he probably lost a few of his more prudish fans over momentary lapses of censorship like these:
He flung out in his violent way, and said, with a D, “Then do as you like.”
— Great Expectations
“Capital D her!” burst out Caroline…“I’ll give her a touch of the temper that I keep!”
— “Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings”
He says…that he’ll be de’ed if he doesn’t think he looks younger than he did ten years ago.
— “The Old Couple”
4. Oh, Merdle!
Dickens’s character names are among the most brilliant and quirky creations in English literature.
Fantastically conceptualized names such as Scrooge, Pecksniff, and Bumble read and sound like perfect incarnations of who and what these characters are at their core. And sometimes it isn’t pretty. Nowhere more so than with the ignominious Dickensian duo with a swear word hidden in both their names — Mr. Merdle from Little Dorrit and Mr. Murdstone from David Copperfield.
Didn’t catch the dirty pun? Perhaps it will help by explaining that Dickens was a Francophile for most of his life, reveling in all things French, especially the language, which he gushingly described as “Celestial.” But even celestial tongues have their crudities and Dickens would have known one of its most popular: merde, literally “excrement,” the French equivalent of our s-word. And boy did that word came in handy for Dickens! Nothing sums up Mr. Merdle’s character better than saying that he is, well, full of merde. He’s one of literature’s biggest financial fakes, erecting the Victorian equivalent of a massive Ponzi scheme that ends up ruining countless investors. The same goes for Mr. Murdstone, though his poop-fullness is of a different sort. Namely, Murdstone is convinced that “all children” are “a swarm of little vipers” needing to be relentlessly beaten into submission.
5. Bleepin’ Grammar
Avid readers of Dickens often get the feeling that Boz routinely got bored with having to perform this prim circumlocution with profanity. It’s obvious that sometimes he simply didn’t want to invent a curse word, swap in a euphemism, or use a clever pun, sometimes he just wanted to let his seedier characters say exactly what they mean — to let that loose old language rip. And actually, on occasion, he did exactly that by doing what TV producers do today. He bleeped out bad words (but kept in the bleeps, of course, so we wouldn’t be robbed of all the fun). Dickens’s “bleeps” are actually quite funny indeed, relying on innocuous grammatical terminology to delicately remind his readership that not everybody spoke with such polite decorum, that some Victorian characters’ “parts of speech are of an awful sort.” Here comically recorded in Dickens’s article on crime, “On Duty with Inspector Field:”
I won’t, says Bark, have no adjective police and adjective strangers in my adjective premises! I won’t, by adjective and substantive! Give me my trousers, and I’ll send the whole adjective police to adjective and substantive!
Notice Dickens’s rare slip-up with the use of “trousers.” A double indecency!
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
What was Charles Dickens’s best novel? It depends whom you ask of course. G.K. Chesterton thought Bleak House represented the mature peak of Dickens’s skill as a novelist, although he went on to remark, “We can say more or less when a human being has come to his full mental growth, even if we go so far as to wish that he had never come to it.” This past February, on the occasion of Dickens’s 200th birthday, The Guardian put together this mesmerizing chart ranking 12 of Dickens’s 16 novels on a scale of most to least Dickensian. Bleak House came out first, Great Expectations was last, yet those two titles occupied the top two spots when Time issued its own Top-10 Dickens List for the Dickens bicentennial.
Searching for clarity, I decided to pose the question to a handful of leading Victorianists. In June, I sent out emails to select scholars asking them if they’d be interested in choosing a novel and making their case. I noted that of course there is no such thing as a singular best, and that really the exercise was meant to be fun. Just about everyone I reached out to was game. And, in recognition of how obsessive many Victorianists are about Dickens, one added that after debating his best novel, perhaps I’d be interested in curating a more esoteric discussion: Best Dickens character for a one night stand, or maybe which Dickens character you’d most like to have as your own child.
Saving those conversations for another day, here then are six impassioned, knowledgeable opinions on the topic of the best Dickens novel. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them, and that when you’re through, you’ll share your own views in the comments section.
1. Bleak House
Kelly Hager, Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies, Simmons College
“Not to put too fine a point upon it,” as meek Mr. Snagsby is wont to say, Dickens’s best novel is Bleak House. It might not be everyone’s favorite (that honor might go to Dickens’s own “favourite child,” David Copperfield, or to the newly-relevant tale of a Victorian Bernie Madoff, Little Dorrit, or to that classic of 10th grade English, Great Expectations), but Bleak House is absolutely his best: in terms of plot, characters, pacing, social relevance, readability, and its possibilities for adaptation, just to cite some of its virtues.
The BBC’s 2005 version brought to the fore the pathos of the heroine Esther Summerson’s plight and the hypocrisy of the world that produced that plight. Brought up by a guardian (actually her aunt) who led her sister to believe that her (illegitimate) baby was born dead, Esther does not learn who her mother is, or even that she is alive, until she has been so disfigured by smallpox that she no longer poses the danger of incriminating her (now married and ennobled) mother by their resemblance. The scene of their first (and only) meeting is heart-rending but not maudlin, revealing just how far Dickens has moved beyond the sentimental portrayal of Little Nell’s deathbed (in The Old Curiosity Shop) and his precious depiction of the orphaned Oliver Twist. The emotions the scene calls up are honest, earned, poignant.
Similarly, the anger John Jarndyce feels at the Chancery suit that occupies the novel is not the self-righteous ire of those who uncover the educational abuses of Dotheboys Hall (in Nicholas Nickleby) or rail against the inequities of the law of divorce (in Hard Times), but the heartfelt anguish of a man who has seen friends and relatives destroyed by the red tape and bureaucracy of the Court of Chancery (a court that relies not on common law statutes but solely on precedents and was abolished in 1875). Dickens mounts a comparable attack on the aptly named Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, where the important thing is to learn “how not to do it,” but there, the depiction is comic. He does the more difficult and subtle thing in Bleak House, relying not on humor but on sad case after sad case to reveal the evils of the system. He writes with empathy; he doesn’t poke easy fun. In Bleak House, written between two national epidemics of cholera, in 1849 and 1854, Dickens also draws attention to the need for sanitary reform (specifically for a regulated, clean supply of water for the public); Bleak House is, in fact, one of the earliest fictional engagements with the field of public health.
Engaged in social issues, moving, and full of characters we love (the unflappable army wife, Mrs. Bagnet; Jo, the crossing sweeper; Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock’s loyal husband) and characters we love to hate (the selfish parents Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Turveydrop; Vholes, the vampiric solicitor), Bleak House is Dickens at his very best.
2. Bleak House
Anna Henchman, Assistant Professor of English, Boston University, and author of The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature
Bleak House begins in sooty obscurity: swirls of fog, snowflakes black with grime, indistinguishable masses. Movement is circular — “slipping and sliding,” — without progress. The laws of this world are quickly established: There is rigid separation between classes. Characters are moving parts in a system that consumes them. Separate realms coexist with little contact with one another.
But then the novel explodes when gauche Mr. Guppy presumes to call on the cold Lady Dedlock. She agrees to see him, and even more strangely, betrays in his presence a quivering vulnerability, a longing to know that echoes our own perplexity as readers of this novel. “What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury with the powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom…?” After Mr. Guppy’s visit, a new sequence of events unfolds, and Lady Dedlock’s life rearranges itself before our eyes. Later, on the open grass, another extraordinary meeting brings us even more closely into her consciousness.
Like us, Mr. Guppy has been playing detective, putting together the pieces of the book, and at this point he’s doing it better than we are. Bleak House is a novel full of detectives with whom we sit in uneasy intimacy because their inquisitive state of mind mirrors our own.Their “calling is the acquisition of secrets.”
Two distinct narrators take us through this increasingly comprehensible world. The omniscient narrator can enter anywhere, taking us from foggy London to Lincolnshire. He floats through walls, moving from the airless chambers of one house in town to the greasy interior of another that stinks of burnt flesh. Esther, by contrast, is a timid outsider, for whom everything is new and strange. Some of the greatest effects of the novel occur when Esther takes us through spaces we’ve visited many times and thought we knew. Right after Esther talks with Lady Dedlock, for instance, she walks through the fragrant gardens of Chesney Wold. “Grostesque monsters bristle” as she thinks about the lives they lead inside, and for the first time we feel attached to the stately home.
The great pleasure of this novel is the pleasure of plot — of retroactively putting events into sequence. Like detectives, novelists construct patterns out of disparate fragments. This novel more than any other Dickens novel feels both ordered and dynamic. Characters who flash past us — a man from Shropshire, a crossing sweeper — resolve into detail, acquire names, and fill out in time and space. As the lines between networks of characters thicken, the world gets smaller, more recognizable, but also more dangerous for the ones we love most.
3. David Copperfield
Maia McAleavey, Assistant Professor of English, Boston College
“Of course I was in love with little Em’ly,” David Copperfield assures the reader of his childhood love. “I am sure I loved that baby quite as truly, quite as tenderly, with greater purity and more disinterestedness, than can enter into the best love of a later time of life.” Loving a person or a book (and “David Copperfield” conveniently appears to be both) may have nothing at all to do with bestness. The kind of judicious weighing that superlative requires lies quite apart from the easy way the reader falls in love with David Copperfield.
To my mind, David is far more loveable than Pip (Great Expectations’ fictional autobiographer), and better realized than Esther (Bleak House’s partial narrator). And it does help to have a first-person guide on Dickens’s exuberantly sprawling journeys. David, like Dickens, is a writer, and steers the reader through the novel as an unearthly blend of character, narrator, and author. This is not always a comforting effect. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” David announces in his unsettling opening sentence.
Here he is, at once a young man thoroughly soused after a night of boozing and a comically estranging narrative voice: “Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains…We went down-stairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.”
Is the novel nostalgic, sexist, and long? Yes, yes, and yes. But in its pages, Dickens also frames each of these qualities as problems. He meditates on the production, reproduction, and preservation of memories; he surrounds his typically perfect female characters, the child-bride Dora and the Angel-in-the-House Agnes, with the indomitable matriarch Betsey Trotwood and the sexlessly maternal nurse Peggotty; and he lampoons the melodramatically longwinded Micawber while devising thousands of ways to keep the reader hooked. If you haven’t yet found your Dickensian first love, David’s your man.
4. David Copperfield
Leah Price, Professor of English, Harvard University
“Of all my books,” confessed Dickens in the preface, “I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.”
David Copperfield fits the bill for a “best of” contest because it’s all about who’s first, who’s favorite, who’s primary. It’s one of Dickens’s few novels to be narrated entirely in the first person; it’s the only one whose narrator’s initials reverse Charles Dickens’s, and whose plot resembles the story that Dickens told friends about his own family and his own career. (But Dickens takes the novelist’s privilege of improving on the facts, notably by killing off David’s father before the novel opens in order to prevent him from racking up as many debts as Dickens senior did over the course of his inconveniently long life.)
That means that it’s also one of the few Dickens novels dominated by one character’s story and one character’s voice (This stands in contrast to Bleak House, say, which shuttles back and forth between two alternating narrators, one first-person and past-tense, the other third-person and couched in the present). As a result David Copperfield is less structurally complex, but also more concentrated, with an intensity of focus that can sometimes feel claustrophobic or monomaniacal but never loses its grip on a reader’s brain and heart. Its single-mindedness makes it more readable than a novel like Pickwick Papers, where the title character is little more than a human clothesline on which a welter of equally vivid minor characters are hung. Yet at the same time, it’s a novel about how hard it is to be first: Can you come first in your mother’s heart after she marries a wicked stepfather? And can your own second wife come first for you after her predecessor dies?
On David’s birthday, he tells us, “I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best — your very best — ale a glass?’ ‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.'” David Copperfield is the genuine stunning: there’s nothing quite like it, in Dickens’s work or out.
5. Little Dorrit
Deb Gettelman, Assistant Professor of English, College of the Holy Cross
There’s a different best Dickens novel for every purpose. Even though Dickens’s peculiar characters with their tic phrases sometimes appear interchangeable, his novels as a whole are surprisingly different from each other in their focus of interest, narrative structure, and in some cases, length. The best Dickens novel to read? Bleak House. To teach? Oliver Twist. To boast that I’ve read? Martin Chuzzlewit (really, I have). To understand Dickens’s consciousness as a writer? Little Dorrit.
I’d like to think a writer’s best novel is the one that, if it had never been written, would cause the greatest difference in how much we think we understand about that writer’s overall work. It might be predictable, but for me the later, darker, reflective books often suit this purpose best: Persuasion, Villette, The Wings of the Dove. For Dickens’s readers it is Little Dorrit, his deeply personal novel of middle age that reveals the author’s consciousness as an artist at its most mature, reflective, and darkest stage
Little Dorrit is Dickens’s moodiest novel, and comparatively little happens in it. There are the usual plot complications — and what Dickens called the novel’s “various threads” often seem to hang together by a thread — but at its heart is the stasis of a debtor’s prison, where Amy, or Little Dorrit, has grown up tending to her self-deluding father. The novel’s many psychologically imprisoned characters mostly sit around brooding about their thwarted lives, especially the hero, Arthur Clennam, who is older and more anguished than Dickens’s other heroes and heroines. Elements familiar from Dickens’s other novels — satiric portrayals of bureaucrats and aristocrats, the self-sacrificing young woman, even a murderous Frenchman — seem more sinister in this novel because they are the cause of so much melancholy.
At one point Dickens summarizes Clennam’s thoughts in a way that seems emblematic of the novel: “Little Dorrit, Little Dorrit. Again, for hours. Always Little Dorrit!” As Lionel Trilling observed, Little Dorrit is the most interiorized of Dickens’s novels. Shortly after writing it Dickens made a spectacle of breaking up his family, and characters in the novel torture, contort, misrepresent, and stifle one another’s feelings in spectacularly awful ways. In a game of word association, ‘Dickens’ would readily call to mind words like ‘comedy,’ ‘caricature,’ and ‘satire.’ ‘Little Dorrit’ would yield ‘interiority,’ ‘psychological depth,’ ‘angst,’ and all the inventive strategies Dickens uses to achieve these qualities. It enables us to see the fullest possible psychological and artistic spectrum of his work.
Our Mutual Friend was my Dickens gateway drug. The opening sequence plays like a Scorsese tracking shot on steroids. A body fished out of the Thames becomes gossip at a nouveau riche banquet, from which two lawyers slip out to a dockside police station, where they meet a mysterious man who runs off to take lodgings with a clerk, whose daughter becomes the ward of a dustman, who hires a peg-legged balladeer to read him The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And I haven’t even mentioned the taxidermist.
It’s the Facebook fantasy: everyone is connected — though in the darkly satiric world of late Dickens, this is less an accomplishment than an indictment. The surprise comes from how much fun it is to navigate his corrupt social network. Conventional wisdom asks you to choose Dickens savory or sweet: the ineluctable fog of Bleak House or the bibulous conviviality of The Pickwick Papers. Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel, gives you both an intricate web of plots and a cast of delightfully scurrilous plotters.
Its particular tickle comes from the recognition that everyone’s an impostor, and a gleeful one at that. People who dismiss Dickensian eccentrics as fanciful caricatures miss how much the fancies are the characters’ own insistent projections. As the narrator says of the self-important balladeer: “His gravity was unusual, portentous, and immeasurable, not because he admitted any doubt of himself, but because he perceived it necessary to forestall any doubt of himself in others.” The self we perform is the self we become.
And everyone’s performing in Our Mutual Friend. A lawyer pretends to be a lime merchant for an undercover job in pub, and after the sleuthing concludes, he’s so enamored of the role that he offers the potboy a job in his fictional “lime-kiln.” When the orphan Sloppy reads the newspaper, “he do the police in different voices” — a line that T.S. Eliot pinched as his working title for the The Waste Land.
This literary legacy, along with the novel’s sustained imagery, have led some critics to call it proto-modernist. Dickens shows us as well that the insights we call post-modern (personality as performance, fiction as artifice) have Victorian roots. The creators of The Wire declared their debt to the 19th-century master of serial narration, and it’s no surprise that a season finale of Lost revolved around a copy of Our Mutual Friend. This is the book you want on a desert island.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
In the house where I grew up, the child of English teachers, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre connoted “classiness” in at least two senses. On one hand, its filmed adaptations of classic novels added a touch of literary refinement (and sometimes even of eat-your-vegetables self-improvement) to a television schedule larded with junk food. On the other, it offered a place for us churchmice to indulge our fascination with “class” in the baser sense: idle wealth and posh intrigues and butlers who ring for tea at three.
In America, I’ve lately come to feel, this latter is the love that dare not speak its name. We’re a nation whose hereditary upper class keeps insisting there’s no such thing (see gubernatorial scion and presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tweets from Carl’s Jr.), and where even the concept of “class” is dismissed as taboo (see the suggestion, ibid., that income inequality is something best talked about “in quiet rooms”). But Masterpiece, safely couched in the past, and usually overseas, remains one of the public venues where the upper crust, albeit fictional, can exercise their privilege without scruple, and where the rest of us can go to gawk. Those houses! Those costumes! Those accents! (In this light, The Forsyte Saga, which launched the series 41 years ago, appears almost proto-Kardashian.)
The current Masterpiece feature, Downton Abbey, mashes both class buttons hard. In the economic sense, it centers on the Earl of Grantham and his fabulously wealthy family, and on the eighty-eleven-dozen servants who attend to their every whim. On the cultural front, it offers a whiz-bang pastiche of three centuries of English literature. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is a venerable type: part Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie, part Thackeray’s Miss Crawley, part Dickens’, Aunt Betsey Trotwood (likewise played by Smith in a Masterpiece adaptation)…maybe with a touch of Professor McGonagall thrown in to keep things lively. Carson the Butler surely owes some of his imperturbability to Wodehouse’s Reginald Jeeves. The central romance, between the earl’s eldest daughter and her cousin Matthew, hews closely to the Jane Austen playbook (though, two episodes into Season 2, it’s still not clear who’s Elizabeth and who’s Mr. Darcy). And Downton Abbey, the titular estate, is like a mash-up of Brideshead and Wuthering Heights.
I doubt any of this is accidental. Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, has adapted Twain and Thackeray for screens large and small, and has gone so far as to nick the Crawley surname for his own aristocrats. Nor is his erudition limited to English-language literature; this is the kind of show where, when a Turkish character appears, his name is an amalgam of two of the greatest living Turkish novelists: Kemal Pamuk. (I’m still waiting for the American character named Melville von Updike.)
Needless to say, Downton Abbey is also serious fun; it’s become a surprise successor to Friday Night Lights and Mad Men as TV’s current “must-watch” show. But when, in the dead days between finishing Season 1 on DVD and waiting for the premiere of Season 2, I rummaged through my Brit-Lit shelf looking for some upstairs-downstairs action to sustain me, I was shocked by how little of the actual aristocracy I found.
It turns out that my sense of the “classiness” of the English novel is like my sense of the monolithic “classiness” of English elocution — that I suffer from a kind of cognitive foreshortening, wherein important distinctions disappear. In fact, what the English novel is overwhelmingly about, in class terms, is not the hereditary nobility but the middle classes: the downwardly mobile landowners, the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie.
Granted, the English class terminology is hopelessly confusing (sort of the way over there “public school” means private school.) But consider the seminal novels of the 1700s. Richardson’s Clarissa may moon around a swell house, but she hails from a family of arrivistes. And though Fielding’s Tom Jones lives with Squire Allworthy — a member of the landed gentry, if I’ve got my terminology correct — he does so as “a foundling.”
Then there’s the 19th century. Mr. Darcy, with his £10,000 income, could probably give Allworthy a literal run for his money, but his Pemberley estate is more the Maguffin in Pride & Prejudice than its setting; Jane Austen’s eye keeps returning to the raffish Bennets. Or take the Bröntes. We experience the grandeur of Rochester’s Thornfield Hall only through the eyes of Jane Eyre, the governess. Class roles are more fluid in Wuthering Heights, but between Heathcliff and Catherine, one is always on the way up and the other on the way down. Even Thackeray’s Crawleys, with their titles, are really supporting characters. The main attractions in Vanity Fair are the upper-middle-class Amelia Sedley and the scheming Becky Sharp. And perhaps the very greatest of the 19th-century English novels, Middlemarch, declares its allegiances right there in the title.
It’s possible to account for the English canon’s emphasis on the middle purely as a matter of dramatic interest. Unlike earls and princes and duchesses, the gentry and the striving bourgeoisie are people with places to go, with something to gain…and to lose. Still, compare the English novel of this period with the Russian — all those counts! — or with Proust’s elaborate explication of the Guermantes line, and you remember that aristocrats have plenty to lose, too, starting with reputation. (Indeed, questions of reputation animate some of Downton Abbey’s key plotlines.) And surely readerly interest in lifestyles of the rich and fabulous isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, I suspect that the overlay of aristocratic intrigue in a novel like Vanity Fair is an attempt to satisfy it.
But the rise of the English novel parallels historically the rise of the middle classes; these are the classes from which most of the great novelists hailed, and to whose upper reaches their profession would have limited them. Dickens, one of Karl Marx’s favorite writers, offers the archetype of Victorian social cartography. Sure, you’ve got your Lord and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, but more often the aristocrats resemble the generic Oodle and Boodle and Noodle, who in Little Dorrit form a kind of choral backdrop to a foreground of slums and inventors’ workshops and banks and debtors’ prisons.
To really get your fill of the aristocracy in between visits to Downton, you might look to the second tier of the 19th-century canon. There’s Eliot’s brilliant but flawed Daniel Deronda; there are Trollope’s Palliser novels and some of the Barsetshire ones. (There are also glimmerings of nobility throughout the top-shelf corpus of that American interloper, Henry James.)
Or, interestingly, you could just move on to the 20th century, in whose early years Downton Abbey is set. For here and only here, with the aristocracy in decline, does it move to the center of the English novel. (I guess you don’t really miss something until it’s gone.) Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End are palpably influences on Downton Abbey. In each, a sense of nostalgia for the days of real privilege hang heavy; in each the shifting sands under the aristocracy’s castles are viewed through the prism of war. Portions of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music Of Time likewise concern the titled classes. I’ve not read At Lady Molly’s, but I might well be forced to turn to it a couple of months from now, when I’m once again going through Downton Withdrawal. Perhaps the single most Downton-y book I know of — I’d be shocked if Mr. Fellowes (er…Sir Julian) hadn’t read it — is Henry Green’s miraculous short novel Loving, from 1945. Green’s beautifully impacted idiom is short on exposition, and when I picked up Loving a few weeks ago, I found it enriched by the hours I’d spent in Fellowes’ world. That is, I suddenly understood the difference between a head housemaid and a lady’s maid.
The two most astute novelists of class currently working in England, I think, are Edward St. Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst. St. Aubyn hails from the social stratosphere himself, and the terrific first three novels in his Patrick Melrose cycle — Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — detail what’s happened to the Granthams of the world three or four generations on from Downton. Spoiler alert: the titles and the dough still linger, but the culture has moved on, leaving in its wake terrible boredom and worse behavior. Hollinghurst’s finest novel, The Line of Beauty, can’t properly be said to center on the aristocracy, but retains some of Waugh’s nostalgia (and much of the flavor of mid-to-late period James). Who has replaced the hereditary nobility, at the top of Margaret Thatcher’s England? Callow politicians and oil millionaires. Still, like a title and a castle, parliamentary clout and petro-pounds are not available to everyone, and so our protagonist, Nick Guest, occupies a familiar position: nose pressed to the glass.
In the end, this is the secret to Downton Abbey’s success, as well. The glamour of the earldom draws us in, but it’s the vividly realized characters who surround it — especially the servants below-stairs — that hold it in perspective, and so give it life. We live now in the Age of Austerity, and as a sometime practitioner of what Romney has called “the bitter politics of envy,” I feel a little weird being enthralled with this show. But then I look at what else my poor TV has to offer, and I find myself murmuring, Burgundy-style, “Stay classy, Downton!”
Is Google making us stupid? Is reading in America a dying pursuit? Will novel srviv in age of twtr? String together enough of these think-piece propositions, and you begin to notice a pattern. Ostensibly open-ended, their very existence presumes an answer in the affirmative: yes, Google is making us stupid…at least, too stupid to entertain the possibility that this is other than a yes/no question.
If the presumption is correct, we might reasonably expect to see it reflected in the evolving form of the literary novel. Just last month, in a cover story on Jonathan Franzen, Time’s Lev Grossman postulated that “the trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm.” And in practice, a young writer presenting her manuscript to editors quickly surmises that the working definition for a novel is no longer Randall Jarrell’s “a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it,” but “a prose narrative of 235 to 325 pages that we can bring out as a paperback original.” Joshua Cohen, the 29-year-old author of several books, recently told The New York Observer that, of the eight publishers who passed on his novel Witz (800 pp), “One of them told me they would publish it if it was 200 pages…. One said 10 years ago they would have done it, back when people read novels.”
But if, as Grossman suggests, the “literary megafauna of the 1990s” no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time’s interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America’s bookstores – not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin’s The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like “literary megafauna” (or less charitably, “phallic meganovels”), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture.
Not so long ago, the phrase “long novel” was no less redundant than “short novel.” The serial publication practices of the 19th Century nudged the Victorian novelist toward amplitude. Multiply 16 (the number of pages in a signature) by two (the number of signatures in an installment) by 20 (the number of installments favored by Dickens and his publishers), and you get 640 serial pages – the length, give or take, of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. Not to mention Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda… Soon, Trollope would be conceptualizing his novels explicitly as two- or three-volume affairs. My Oxford World Classics edition of Barchester Towers retains its two-volume pagination; it runs from 1 to 271, and then from 1 to 280. Toward the end of the second volume, the author begins to make asides about having to reach a certain page count.
In the age of offset printing, the long novel is more heterodox. Not much unites Moody and Marías and Mantel, other than the fact that they are currently stacked half-read on my nightstand. (There’s nothing like the birth of a child to foreground the sheer length of a book in one’s mind.) To yoke these writers together is thus to risk several kinds of reductionism. Most importantly (and speaking of Trollope): one doesn’t want to conflate geometric greatness with the aesthetic kind. Some of the best novels I’ve read recently are shorter than American presses tend to publish. (In the Spanish-speaking world, in particular, the short novel seems to have thrived in a way it hasn’t Stateside. A parallel essay may be warranted). Still, the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.
Publishers’ willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney’s may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher’s bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it’s been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency.
To be even more crassly economic, in the slog of the Great Recession, the long novel offers readers a compelling value proposition. One may revile all the works of William T. Vollmann, and admire those of the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, but even at 55 bucks, Imperial (1344 pp) offers a wildly higher hours-to-dollars ratio (it’s roughly one-to-one) than The Beauty Salon (72 pp). (Well, Imperial isn’t actually a novel, but it feels weird to discuss long books and exclude Vollmann’s megaliths.) To put it another way: Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men (102 pp) will cost you about as much as a trip to the local multiplex, and last about as long. And let’s not forget that publishers can charge more for a long book than a short one. This helps explain why the Harry Potter novels kept getting longer and longer… On the other hand, barring a guarantee of Potter-like sales, publishers hate big books, as Cohen learned the hard way. They’re expensive to print, to ship, and to warehouse. And, to compound the problem, reviewers hate long novels. How much easier to say of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (288 pp) than of, say, Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1191 pp), “It’s so good I had to read it twice.”
For a deeper explanation of the long novel’s enduring health, we have to look toward something harder to quantify: the construction of the reader. The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles” (Some will object here that lugging Infinite Jest on the subway is more a way of saying, “Look at me!” But surely matters of style, and of gender, are at play here; no one levels the same charge at readers of Marguerite Young.) The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically. Think of The Original of Laura, or of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or of New Directions’ editions of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, or Anne Carson’s Nox (actually more of a scroll), or Robert Walser’s Microscripts.
At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader. In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival; just as the audience shapes the writer’s habits, the writer, by the demands she chooses to make on her imaginary readers, calls her audience into being. One of the underappreciated things about Franzen is that he writes as if the novel still (as Benjamin Kunkel puts it) “dominate[s] the landscape like a mountain range.” And lo and behold, there he is on the cover of Time!
One doesn’t want to draw a veil over the various corporate machinations that made that possible. At the end of the day, though, a large number of readers are, like their 19th Century antecedents, currently reading and thinking about and talking about a work of fiction whose physical dimensions signal a corresponding largeness of intellect and spirit. Surely, we can agree that that’s a good thing. For amid all the debatable, slippery stuff about our evolving consciousness, the relationship between the novel and a certain quality of attention appears to be inescapable. Whether in long or otherwise demanding books, or in long or otherwise demanding sentences, or in prodigious subtleties of perspective, writers of the 21st century continue to seek out an audience possessed of that attention. And, in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.
Hiking is the only form of exercise I actually enjoy. Luckily, I live a mile from the San Gabriel mountains with their tangle of steep trails. In the last year, as I’ve hiked, I have begun listening to stories and novels on my iPhone, and this has transformed an enjoyable pastime into a deep pleasure. Recently I described my new habit to another novelist, who recoiled, shaking her head. “I’m a firm believer in the imaginative space created by the printed page,” she said.
So what about the imaginative space created by the audible page?
Of course, sitting and reading, lying down and reading, chaise lounging and reading are lovely; the body is still, eyes scan the page, the brain avails itself of the printed words, interior worlds bloom. Scientists tell us that, when reading, we have the same, if muted, responses to described or dramatized experience as we do to the real thing. Muscles tense. Hearts pound. Tears well.
If I am seated or reclining and still, I much prefer reading the printed page. Being read to is too passive an activity, I’m apt to get restless or, worse, fall asleep.
Walking, however, my listening capabilities are enhanced; simple physical activity, I believe, sharpens concentration by occupying the senses just enough to allow a purer attention to the narrative.
In this sense, walking is like doodling and knitting, which busy the hands and free the mind. (I always wondered why my grandmother loved to knit as she watched TV.) When hiking, I’m watching my step, I’m noting wildflowers, poison oak, the view; I’m keeping an eye on the dog, looking out for snakes; meanwhile, my deeper attention is engaged with the story leaking from my ear buds.
I have listened to news podcasts, and interviews, but these tend to make me mutter and twitch. Narrative and walking—as Chaucer knew—are a fortuitous match. They twin beautifully; listeners follow the plot, the thread, the branching path. Words and heartbeats, sentences and breaths, steps and plot align in ever new, complementary rhythms.
And there is another result: the landscape becomes festooned with fictional memories.
I remember, always with a pang, exactly where, on the trail, Katherine Mansfield’s valiant, plucky fly finally succumbed after his fourth bath in ink. A series of uphill switchbacks evokes the astonishing description of a young man’s madness in Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” read sentence by perfect sentence by Mary Gaitskill:
Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees.
I don’t remember where I read the physical books I read. I must have read them somewhere—in bed, on the couch, in chairs about the yard.
On the other hand, I recall precisely how I climbed up and down a steep fire road as the Earnshaws and Lintons moved back and forth between Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. And right where the road curves behind the mountain, I became so maddened by Catherine Linton’s hysteria—today, she’d rate as borderline—that I pressed pause and stamped down the mountain in far preferable silence. (I recovered and later listened to the end, although I will always associate the book with a certain prickling of irritation—whether at the dry dusty summer heat of the hike or Nellie Dean’s meddling.)
A rocky switchback on a different trail recalls “Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer,”Witold Gombrowicz’s obsessive stalker who responds to insult as most of us respond to tender endearment. That madman shares those uphill miles with the more benignant huffing and sputtering Mr. Panks—not to mention the debtors prison and the Office of Circumlocution, the mild Mr. Clennam, the sweetness of Little Dorrit, the Madoff-like ruin of Mr. Merdle—40 hours of hiking with Little Dorrit claims a broad swath of ground.
At the gates of an old estate I wept at the last paragraphs of Alice Adam’s “Roses, Rhododendron.” By a one-mile marker, I wept as Tobias Woolf read Stephanie Vaughan’s “Dog Heaven.” And here in my own neighborhood, a green-tiled house is inextricably tied to the moment when, on a quick walk, I listened as Michael Henchard, bedeviled by rum at a country fair, sold his young wife (and child) to the highest bidder in the very first chapter of The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Thus, miles are walked, books are read and the landscape is littered with dialogue and description, desolation, striving and love. Literary moments are overlaid on views, scattered along the trail, and hung like ornaments on the rocks and bushes, the slow clouds and darkly gesticulating trees.
Jess Row’s first book, The Train to Lo Wu, a collection of short stories set in Hong Kong, was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemignway Award. In 2007 he was named a Best Young American Novelist by Granta. He is currently at work on a new collection of stories and a novel set in Laos during the Vietnam War.I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my favorite books read in 2007 were Little Dorrit and Daniel Deronda. But almost as much fun as the novels themselves were the copious endnotes (in the Penguin and Modern Library editions, respectively). I wonder: in a hundred years, will any novels from our era get the same treatment? And if so, what will the endnotes “say?”Other favorites: David Means’ The Secret Goldfish; Cees Nooteboom, Lost Paradise; Leonard Michaels, The Collected Stories; Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases; Nadine Gordimer, Beethoven was One-Sixteenth Black; Han Shaogong, A Dictionary of Maqiao. I was also introduced this year to the anthropologist and cultural theorist Michael Taussig, whose Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses was probably the book I carried around the longest (and still haven’t finished).More from A Year in Reading 2007