Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Charles Dickens - Our Mutual Friend (1865); Hard Times (1854)

As I may have mentioned previously, though a rabid fan of Victoriana I’m not a huge admirer of Dickens (I suspect I’ve been made bitter by his ascendance over his worthier and far more interesting colleague, Wilkie Collins). Having said that, however, his work always makes for worthwhile reading, even when it infuriates. Of course, the Victorian style of the episodic novel doesn’t necessarily lend itself to consistency in writing, and this, to me, is one of Dickens’ biggest flaws. However, my biggest gripes with Dickens are his characterisations, and the didacticism of his politics and sanctimonious moralising. Neither of the two volumes in question here are free of these flaws, but this is by no means to condemn them (as I would, for example, Oliver Twist).

Some of Dickens' works which have some of the most amazing characters and moments – of those I’ve read, I think of Great Expectations, in particular – also have some of the most infuriating (Joe, Magwitch & Wemmick). While Dickens was a progressive for his time, and did excellent work as an advocate for social justice reform in Victorian England, his class and gender politics (particularly disappointing given his own unusual household arrangements) remain highly problematic for the modern reader. In pursuing these prejudices even while critiquing social practices, his novels have a tendency to reify these values into flat characters who are made up of nothing more than idealised and stereotypical values. But at the same time Dickens’ gift for caricature, his sharp social observation, and his occasional prose passages of great beauty and originality, mitigate these tendencies.

How does all of this play out in OMF and HT? The first was my favourite of the pair – probably, indeed, my favourite Dickens (thus far) after Bleak House. HT, in contrast, is more interesting than gripping – but interesting, and unique in Dickens’ oeuvre, it certainly is. Both of these are later works, and it shows – they demonstrate both complexities and stylistics which are absent in earlier novels.

OMF, like Bleak House, takes as its central pole a legal process – in this case, the will of the miser Old Harmon, who made his fortune in the dust trade. Various characters become involved in the horse-trading and identity shifts and concealments which ensue. These include the young John Harmon (and his mysterious doubles), presumed drowned in the Thames (the Thames itself is really the central character of the work, along with, more generally, the dark and noisome city in which it is embedded – of all of Dickens’ works this is perhaps the most a novel of London); Mr Boffin, a working-class dustman to whom the fortune reverts, with unfortunate consequences for his open-handedness (and his contrasting employee, the scheming & unscrupulous Silas Wegg); Bella Wilfer, determined to marry into riches for their own sake, but with a heart of gold which may yet prevail; the Veneerings and the Lammles, odious and opportunistic socio-economic climbers; and Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie, who make their living finding corpses of the drowned in the aforementioned river.

As will be evident from this description, the two central themes here are the instability of riches (and of identity, both in relation to wealth and otherwise), their corrupting effect, and the unfortunate consequences of attempts to cross the class barrier; and decease and decay, both in the deaths, natural and unnatural, which take place over the course of the novel, and in the rubbish which silts the Thames (while at the same time the contrasting symbolism of water as baptism and rebirth is employed), and the dust-heaps on which the contested Harmon fortune was made. These latter, along with other examples such as the trade of Gaffer & Lizzie Hexam and that of Mr Venus the taxidermist, provide the symbolic and actual connection between these two concepts – which we might describe as ‘filthy lucre.’

This is a very dark novel, and I deeply enjoyed the gothic aspects of the plot, which are reinforced by Dickens’ very frequent Biblical allusions (which, of course, tend back to the much-neglected Biblical teachings fulminating against wealth and reflecting on its transitoriness, as part of the transitoriness of the human condition, as well as emphasising another characteristic Dickensian theme present here in spades, the visiting of the sins of the patriarch upon the head of the child). On the religious note, Dickens presents here a character, Mr Riah, who is a kindly and sympathetic Jew who owes a debt of obligation to the rapacious and antisemitic Christian Mr Fledgeby which he pays by serving as a stereotypical front for his moneylending business. This character, it seems, was purposefully created in order to allay the hurt that was felt in regard to the antisemitism perceived in the character of Fagin (and in writing thus, Dickens was charged with creating a one dimensional character of the opposite type, an accusation which contains some justice without being wholly accurate). In Riah’s sometime protégé, the disabled child-woman and dolls’ seamstress Jenny Wren, Dickens has created perhaps his finest character (although I am torn here thinking of Miss Havisham). In the latter part of the novel, as betrayal, passion and murder begin to play an ever greater part in the twisted complexities of the unfolding plot, we move almost into the realm of the sensation novel, a development which I found anything but displeasing.

The novel displays some of the typical faults of Dickens’ work mentioned above. Some characters here, in particular his women, are far too saintly to be believable and the unsatisfactoriness of their saintliness is thrown into sharp contrast by the fascinating minor characters. Dickens’ mixed feelings about class, and its instability in the Victorian milieu, are evident inasmuch as, on the one hand, parvenus are condemned and we are shown how the lower classes will never feel at home in the upper social echelons – indeed, they are gently ridiculed, as in the (nonetheless very sympathetic) character of Mrs Boffin – and that we should admire them for the virtue of rejecting charity, as in the case of Betty Higgs – while on the other, mixed class marriages are admitted as acceptable. There are numerous scenes which appeal to the extremely overblown Victorian sense of sentiment (as Wilde put it, ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”) and the plot itself is impossibly intricate (and, typically for the time, makes liberal use of coincidence) – although inasmuch as it is so, it washes over the reader like the lapping tidal shifts of the Thames – and in being so, it is highly taxing on the suspension of disbelief, as for example in Mr Boffin’s shift from generous spirit to miser and back again.

Stylistically, in the earlier parts of the work, we encounter some of Dickens’ most gorgeous and original passages, descriptive and metaphorical, but as the work progresses descriptions become more stock and the writing more functional – although this may be due, on the one hand, to the pressure of the episodic form, and on the other, to Dickens’ involvement in the Staplehurst Rail Crash during the writing of the novel (he had the manuscript with him in the rail-car), which seems to have caused him a great deal of psychological trauma (criticism of the systems which allow rail crashes to occur makes a brief appearance in the novel).

One of the most relevant concerns for the present moment which OMF gives us is, as part of its examination of the various aspects of the ephemeral nature of wealth, the criticism of market speculation, both literal and as it is found in human relationships (for example, in the newly-prosperous Mr and Mrs Boffin’s search for an appropriate orphan to adopt). HT also deals with concerns which remain highly relevant both in their resemblance and their dissimilarity to the contemporary moment, in its examination of industrialisation and its discontents.

A far less satisfactory novel, but one which remains fascinating for the social moment that it depicts and the ambiguities in the authorial stance, HT, unusually for Dickens, is not set in London. Instead, the action takes place in the fictional Coketown, an industrial mill-town which Dickens partially based upon Preston. Again unusually, the novel is short (originally published episodically, but in shorter sections than his other works) – only 235 pages in my Wordsworth edition (as opposed to the 800-odd of OMF). Dickens apparently wrote the novel in the hope of boosting the sales of his weekly periodical, Household Words, and this was successful, though in the event it was not well received critically. The novel is in essence a didactic critique of the industrial system which had been in the process of transforming Victorian England (Dickens had been horrified by visits to Manchester factories), and at the same time – and here equated with it – of the doctrine of utilitarianism (intertwined with the new science, if such it may be termed, of Political Economy), understood by the authorial voice not as a particular approach to happiness but rather as an inherently exploitative reduction of the human (and hence human dignity) to the level of the unit of labour and the bureaucratic account. In making this critique, Dickens also attacks the laissez-faire capitalism (hypocritically enabled by government at the behest of the rich and powerful, as he notes) which was also a feature of the time and which, though it was a theory and practice which already had a solid history by Victorian times, was transforming with the rise of industrial technology and practices. Another central and related concern is education – Dickens targets education by rote learning, the cramming of facts and figures deprived of meaning or context into the heads of pupils (by teachers who have only recently graduated from such methods themselves, and know no others – such a figure is Bradley Headstone in OMF, and he also comes to grief as does Louisa Gradgrind in HT).

If you think that all of these issues sound extremely contemporary (consider for example the debates of recent decades over the ethics of globalised industrial production and labour conditions, the smashing of labour power by conservative governments, the growth of Kafkaesque bureaucratic-administrative procedures of power and surveillance by governments who claim free markets as an unchallengeable secularised religion, or the ‘culture wars’ over education in areas such as history, literature and language acquisition), you wouldn’t be wrong. In this sense we can see one of the things about the Victorian era which gives it a part of its endless fascination, for me at least – for us (post)moderns, to examine the period is akin to recognising ourselves through a distorted mirror.

Again, however, in taking on his role as social reformer Dickens remains a conservative at heart. The narrative concerns Josiah Bounderby, a ‘self-made man’ (or so we are led to believe) and manufacturer with endless contempt for those who have not managed to raise themselves up by their bootstraps (again, a familiar figure in the modern context, particularly in terms of the strength of the Horatio Alger myth, with its convenient concealment of systemic factors and its equation of wealth with industry & hence morality, in the USA and the Anglophone world more generally). Bounderby is the boss of Gradgrind, a schoolteacher who has brought his own children up to reject all fancy and all emotion and to worship fact and reason. Meanwhile, Mr. Sleary’s travelling circus is set up as the positive antithesis of these exploitative, self-satisfied, cruel and unempathetic figures. In creating a further foil for these, we are given Stephen Blackpool, a downtrodden and deeply moral factory worker, and Rachael, a woman whom he loves but can never marry on account of his previous marriage to a woman now become a violent alcoholic. Dickens takes this opportunity to expound upon the hypocrisy of marriage laws in the era, whereby divorce could only be attained either through annulment or a private bill in parliament, and thus was available solely to the very rich and well-connected – this would change three years after the publication of OMF with the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act.

Like many of Dickens’ other characters, Stephen and Rachael are little more than ciphers of morality, rather than well-rounded characters; Stephen’s despair has more than a whiff of Hardy (and, as in OMF and in Hardy, we find an overt Biblical allusion in the titles of the three volumes – Sowing, Reaping and Garnering). And like those other characters, they are not to be allowed a happy ending but must redeem themselves either through death, or through patient acceptance of suffering as one’s lot. The really interesting aspect of this pair, though, is the way in which they reveal Dickens’ ambivalence about the conditions of labour in England, and their relationship to the class system. On the one hand, the upper classes as well as the up-and-coming bourgeoisie and capitalists – such a feature of the period – are depicted as hypocritical and morally corrupt. As well as Bounderby and Gradgrind, the upper-class James Harthouse, corrupter of marriages, and the influence he exerts upon Tom Gradgrind, exemplifies this – Tom is in many ways a similar character to Charley Hexam in OMF, an upwardly mobile young man who is quite prepared to sacrifice his sister upon the altar of his own socio-economic advancement.

But before we conclude that Dickens’ sympathies lie entirely with the miserable and inequitable conditions of the working classes, we must examine his condemnatory depiction of unions and labour solidarity. Slackbridge, the trade union leader, is painted in extremely unattractive lights as an outsider, a trouble maker, dishonest and on the make; and because of a promise Stephen has made Rachael not to get involved in any politicking related to labour, he is condemned by Slackbridge and cast out by his fellow workers (interestingly, the reason for this promise – the rage Stephen feels over Rachael’s sister past loss of her hand in an industrial accident, and Rachael’s injunction to ‘let such things be, they only lead to hurt’ – was cut from the published text). It has been suggested that in having class harmony as his ultimate social goal, Dickens was unable to provide either a meaningful solution to the workers’ problems, or an optimistic conclusion, and this is seen in his failure to propose any better measures for addressing the concerns he raises than employers choosing to treat their labourers better by seeing that, morally, they should do so.

As well as the character problematics mentioned above, we have here – again as is typical in Dickens – more than one unrealistic change of heart as the events of the novel conclude. Perhaps the most interesting character here, though, and an unusual woman in Dicken’s novels (even if not granted a happy ending) is Louisa Gradgrind, who agrees to a loveless marriage to Bounderby for purely rational reasons, according to her inculcated utilitarianist lights, before almost falling into the arms of a seducer when emotion, or fancy, begin finally to rebel; passing this test of morality, Dickens allows her at least to physically escape her marriage. But her strange façade, and her later, somewhat quixotic alterations, make her one of Dickens’ more interesting characters (a later echo is found in OMF, in the person of Sophronia Lammle).

As in so many cases, Dickens knows what he doesn’t like, but, apart from moral purity and submission to the natural order of society which can be discerned beneath the distortions of inequality – mixed, to be sure, with the more comical aspects of the working class and its pursuits – he is not sure exactly what he does. Where OMF is a novel which displays some of his flaws while giving the reader a final taste of a writer with literary powers in full flight, HT remains, if not socialist, certainly sullen and didactic, but nonetheless one which combines Dickens’ own social commentary with a demonstration of the classic ambivalence of the Victorian reformer; and threads this together with a narrative in a way more successful than, for example, the earlier Oliver Twist. Both of these are late works, drawing on archetypes, suffused with social and personal melancholy, even tragedy (despite lashings of Dickens’ characteristic humour and personal optimism), and opening up panoramic socio-cultural buffets which they are not always able to resolve into digestible morsels. Exactly herein, however, lies not only the frustration of the reader of these works, but also the pleasure.

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