Do We Need to Read or Reread Every Book by Our Favorite Authors?

Do we need to read or reread every book by our favorite authors? What happens when we read (or reread) all of Dickens, Trollope, and the Brontes?

First, on rereading Dickens. I was doing well until I got to Hard Times.

hard times dickens cover.jpg.rendition.460.707Mind you, I loved Hard Times when I first read it, and it would be a masterpiece if anyone else had written it.  But Dickens’s best novels (Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend) are so exciting, vigorous,  unpredictable  and wildly comic that this reads like Dickens “lite.” Dickens does better when he writes long than when he writes short.

The plot is entertaining, if messy, but some of the objects of his satire–education, for instance–he has done better elsewhere (Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield).  But I am fond of the characters:    Louisa  Gradgrind, a young woman educated to care only about facts and then married off in a state of emotional shock to a dishonest factory owner, Josiah Bounderby;  Sissy Jupe, the abandoned daughter of an aging clownand is a failure of the Gradgrind educational system ; and Merrylegs, the circus dog who saves Louisa’s brother, Thomas.

Hard Times is amusing, it is stylishly written, and it is socially pertinent, yes.  Set in a factory town, it is partially an exposé of the exploitation of factory workers.  Dickens also satirizes education:  Mr. Gradgrind raises the intelligent Louisa and her dissolute brother Thomas on facts, and oversees a school educating children only in facts.  The moral:  If you’re raised on facts and have no education, you are a psychological mess.

Dickens always makes brilliant use of rhetoric.  In the first paragraph, the opening speech of Mr. Gradgrind,  he repeats “Facts”  five times and “principle”  twice.

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

Hard Times seems more suited to, dare I say it, high school classrooms.  The same with Tale of Two Cities, which we read in ninth grade.  Have you noticed how teachers so often pick the shortest books?

What is your favorite Dickens?

Golden lion of Granpere trollope 6Should I read all of Trollope?  Well, I am a Trollope fan.  I love his long novels, especially Can You Forgive Her? and He Knew He Was Right.  But I have not enjoyed his short novels.

Well, I recently embarked on  The Golden Lion of Granpere, set in France.  What kind of Victorian novel is set in France?  I wondered.  Not one I want to read, I decided.  There’s an innkeeper, and he doesn’t want his son to marry his niece.  But somehow this plot works much better in England!

It’s only 260 pages, and somebody will like it, but since Trollope lacks Dickens’s rhetorical brilliance and also needs space to develop his leisurely plots, his short novels seem blank to me!

Does this mean I like only long books?  No.

anne bronte tenant of wildfell hall 51Sp7PW34wL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Anne Bronte is a master of the short novel.  I recently reread The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. You will be relieved to know that I enjoyed it.

Although her style is not as poetic or striking as that of Charlotte or Emily, I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s feminist novel about the perils of romantic love. The frame construction reminds me of Wuthering Heights. We get to know the heroine, Helen Graham, through the narrator’s intense letters to a friend, and then through the diary she gives him to read, and then back to his letter. Helen, who says she is a widow, is actually one of the first “battered women” in literature: she has escaped from her violent husband and lives  in a secluded house with her four-year-old son, supporting herself by art.  And she is so passionate and wedded to her isolation that she reminds me very slightly of a female Heathcliff.

So it’s worth it to reread all the Brontes again and again!

Do you feel it’s necessary to read every book by a favorite author?

Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop

old curiosity shop dickens 6ec4c34b098945a4ac6efe5a4c954faeIt took me one and a half years to read Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop.  On Jan. 28, 2014, I blogged after 200 pages:

I love Dickens, but …couldn’t get past the wax works.

(The main characters, Little Nell and her grandfather, briefly travel in a caravan with Mrs. Jarley and help her with her waxworks show.)

I am a fan of Dickens, especially of his dark final novel, Our Mutual Friend.

But his fifth novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, is a strange blend of darkness and sentimentality.  It was  hastily scribbled for a literary magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock.

The good news:  The scenes, though plotless and often pointless, are extremely vivid.

The bad news:  The characters are caricatures. The portrait of the child heroine, Little Nell, is mawkish.  Little Nell was created out of Dickens’s excessive mourning for his wife’s 17-year-old sister, Mary Hogarth, who lived with them and who he claimed in a letter to his friend Forster “died in his arms.”  Dickens wore her ring for the rest of his life.

The plot of The Old Curiosity Shop, such as it is, is the disturbing flight of Little Nell and her grandfather.

Little Nell, a very responsible 13-year-old child, takes care of her gambling Grandfather, the owner of the Old Curiosity Shop. He has been bankrupted by a savage dwarf, Quilp, and is now imprisoned in the shop.   Quilp has a weird fixation on Nell, whom he repeatedly terrifies by teasing her with the question if she will be his next wife.  (Quilp does have a pretty wife.)  Nell and her grandfather go on the lam.  They take refuge with kind people along the way, and, most interestingly, with showbiz types, including a pair of Punch and Judy puppeteers and Mrs. Jarley, who owns a waxworks display.  Quilp tries to track Nell and her grandfather, but fortunately the Single Gentleman is also looking for them.  Who will find them first?  Quilp or the Single Gentleman?

Quilp, nell, and grandfather 4The most sympathetic and interesting character is Richard Swiveller, a friend of Little Nell’s dissipated older brother.  Swiveller, though easily manipulated, and placed by Quilp as a clerk to a corrupt lawyer, Sampson Brass, and his tougher, smarter sister, Sally Brass, is very kind and has a good sense of humor.  Dick Swiveller helps an orphan child, who is a kind of shadow of Little Nell, and  nicknames her the Marchioness.  The Marchioness, the Brasses’ maid, has been imprisoned in a kitchen and starved, and Swiveller sends out for food and teaches her to play cards.

The novel ends with several deaths.  I won’t tell you whose, but it really is monstrous.

Fortunately my favorite character survives.

Aldous Huxley said it best when he criticized Dicken’s “really monstrous emotional vulgarity.”

The history of Little Nell is distressing indeed, but not as Dickens presumably meant it to be distressing: t is distressing in its ineptitude and vulgar sentimentality….  Mentally drowned and blinded by the sticky overflowings of his heart, Dickens was incapable, when moved, of recreating, in terms of art, the reality which had moved him, was even, it would seem, unable to perceive that reality.

I love Dickens, but this one is a disappointment.

In his later novels, Dickens  develops some of the character types from The Old Curiosity Shop into slightly more rounded, sympathetic characters, i.e., the malicious dwarf  is transformed in David Copperfield into  Miss Mowcher, the coy but essentially kind dwarf manucurist, and Little Nell becomes Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend, a smart, saucy, crippled child who takes care of her drunken father and supports them as a dolls’ dressmaker.  Jenny takes no nonsense:  her alcoholic father is more manageable than Little Nell’s addicted gambler grandfather.

Jenny Wren and her alcoholic father.

Jenny Wren takes no nonsense from her alcoholic father.

Nancy in Dickens’s Oliver Twist

“Nancy,” a pencil study by Charles Pears for Oliver Twist (1912).

I love the long, ambitious, intricately-structured novels of the nineteenth century.  And I am an ardent admirer of Dickens, whose novels are dark social satires, yet are also comedies and sentimental comfort reads.

I have read so much Dickens–my favorites over and over–that I superimpose his dark foggy smoky London on the modern city.  Wandering around Bloomsbury to find the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street, I felt like one of Dickens’s purposeful, domestic females, my British Museum bag slung over my arm instead of a marketing basket. (Perhaps I was thinking of Esther Summerson or Little Dorrit.) And a-marketing I did go, because  I purchased books in the museum shop.

oliver twist dickens everyman 9780679417248_p0_v1_s260x420But I recently reread Dickens’s superb second novel, Oliver Twist, and I have been thinking of Nancy, a clever but undomestic female character.  Nancy, a prostitute raised by a gang, eventually saves the orphan OliverTwist from a life of theft,  burglary, and violence.  Fagin, “a Jew” (yes, the nineteenth-century stereotype), is an elderly gang leader who trains children to pick pockets.  He takes special pride in his attempts to corrupt Oliver, who, though raised and starved in the workhouse, is a naturally sweet boy, and, indeed, we later learn that Fagin has been paid to turn him into a criminal by a not-so-gentle gentleman..

Nancy’s loyalties are complicated, and when Oliver escapes from Fagin, she helps the gang track him down.  But when he escapes the second time, after he is shot during an attempted burglary organized by others,  Nancy has a bad conscience.   She contacts Rose Maylie, who with her aunt has rescued Oliver, and passes on information that the gang plans to kidnap him

Nancy is a a victim of Battered Woman Syndrome, though that is probably not how Dickens thought of her.  Her boyfriend is Sikes, a criminal who abuses and beats her, and poor Nancy, who has no one else to love, insists on returning to him, despite Rose’s pleas.  When Sikes learns she has betrayed him, he murders her by beating her with his pistol.

She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself, with difficulty, on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief — Rose Maylie’s own — and holding it up, in her folded hands, as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.

illustration of Nancy and Sikes murder oliver dickens 38

An ngraving for Oliver Twist by F. W. Pailthorpe for the 1838 three-volume Richard Bentley (first) edition.

Dickens was sympathetic to prostitutes and fallen women, and often wrote about them:  I thought of Little Em’ly in David Copperfield.  He also  contributed money to Urania Cottage, a home for the reclamation of London prostitutes.  But, as the  article on “prostitutes and fallen women” in the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens points out, not all Victorian readers were as forgiving as Dickens.

[Nancy’s) terrible murder, a scene which engaged Dickens’s intense imaginative commitment during his public readings in the last year of his life, can be construed as the punishment of a whore, whose good intentions and good works cannot save her.  For the modern reader it invites another interpretation, as the rendering of the violence men do to women through direct acts of physical brutality and through the kind of sexual relationships and fantasies epitomized by prostitutes where men hold the money and the power.

This is such a remarkable novel: the characters are vivid, the plot is unusually taut, and it exposes the inhumanity of the workhouse and the perils of the London streets.   Not, of course, as good as David Copperfield, which treats similar themes, but a very good read.

My Horse Came in Second, Russian Translators, & Did Dickens Meet Dostoevsky?

Golden Soul

Golden Soul

Isn’t Golden Soul gorgeous?

We got home just in time to watch the Kentucky Derby. Every year it starts when–5:25?–and I watch the horses and jockeys and pick my winner.  I picked Golden Soul minutes before the Kentucky Derby started.

He was such a long shot that everyone thought I was being stubborn for no reason.

“I like a long shot,” I said.   “I just think he’s the most beautiful horse.  I don’t care if he wins or not!”

He came in second!

Hurrah, Golden Soul.

Now if only I had bet–there’s win, place, or show–I could apparently have made some serious money!


war-and-peace-briggs-bigI am reading War and Peace for perhaps the seventh time.

I am delighted by Anthony Briggs’s wonderful 2005 translation, and recommend it to those of you who are making the difficult choice of which translation to read.  Of course I have also enjoyed the Maude, the Constance Garnett, and the Pevear and Volokhonsky, so it’s safe to say I’m not fussy.  (Or is there a bad translation of War and Peace somewhere?)

At my house the general opinion is that reading War and Peace may save my mind from the internet.   Blogging is bad enough, they think, but far, far worse is Twitter.

“I don’t get it.  You’ve read War and Peace six times and now you’re on Twitter?”

Am I on Twitter?  I don’t know my Twitter address.  (Far more likely that I’m on  War and Peace.)

If you don’t believe I prefer Tolstoy to Twitter, let me tell you that I even love his shorter works.  You think Tolstoy’s Resurrection is bad?  Try me.  I’ve read it and will be happy to read it again.

Hadji Murat by tolstoyMany novels and stories by Tolstoy have been translated in recent years to great acclaim.  When Oprah chose Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina for her book club, no one thought anybody would read it.  May I just say that my book group, who aren’t always reading Tolstoy, read and loved it?

In the March/April edition of of Humanities,  Kevin Mahnken interviews Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky about their translations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  They have finished Tolstoy’s major works: Hadji Murat was the last they translated.

The married couple’s process is interesting:  Volokhonsky, who is Russian, translates the Russian word for word, and then Pevear, who is American, smooths it out into literary English.

They started with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, because they thought a new translation was needed to convey the humor and irony.

The couple are thinking about translating Turgenev: I hope they do.


Naiman_Commentary_336746h Dickens and DostoevskyIn the TLS, Eric Naiman’s article,  “When Dickens Met Dostoevsky,” will divert both Dickens fans and Dostoevsky fans.

Did Dickens meet Dostoevsky?

Naiman begins his article, which actually reads like a mystery:

Late in 2011, Michiko Kakutani opened her New York Times review of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens with “a remarkable account” she had found in its pages. In London for a few days in 1862, Fyodor Dostoevsky had dropped in on Dickens’s editorial offices and found the writer in an expansive mood. In a letter written by Dostoevsky to an old friend sixteen years later, the writer of so many great confession scenes depicted Dickens baring his creative soul…

But it seems that no one quite knows where this letter is.  Hmmm.  Was it a hoax?

Dickens without Notes

I am reading the Vintage edition of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend.

Our Mutual Friend DickensI bought it because of the beautiful cover and the introduction by Nick Hornby. If you are a notes aficionado, however, you’re out of luck:  there are no notes.  But that hasn’t made the slightest difference to me, because I am on my fourth reading of the novel, and I am enjoying it so much more than when I dutifully perused every note that I am not sure this isn’t the best way to do it.

If you aren’t constantly checking the endnotes, you notice patterns you might not otherwise perceive.

For instance, many of the characters in Our Mutual Friend have doubles.

"The Boffin Progress" by Marcus Stone

“The Boffin Progress” by Marcus Stone (Mr. and Mrs. Boffin)

Literacy is an important issue.

And a fortune deflected has a domino effect on a huge cast of Londoners.  After the supposed murder of a rich dustman’s heir, two of the dustman’s employees, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, inherit.

The financial corruption starts with the discovery of the body supposed to be John Harmon’s:  it is actually his double’s.  Gaffer Hexam, the waterman who found the corpse in the Thames, is paid a fee for it by the police; Gaffer’s doppelgänger and ex-partner, the dishonest Riderhood,  tries to sell out Gaffer for a reward by claiming Gaffer is the murderer. After Gaffer’s death, the accusation leaves a stain on the character of his beautiful daughter, Lizzie, and his son, Charley.

And literacy is tangled up with all of this:  when Riderhood tries to collect the reward, he insists that two lawyers “take down” his account of Gaffer’s alleged murder of John Harmon:  he believes writing will protect him.  Lizzie makes sacrifices to send Charley to school, against the wishes of her father; later, two of Lizzie’s aspiring boyfriends want to educate her, and they are each other’s doubles: languid but good-natured Eugene Wrayburn, and intense, violent Bradley Headstone.

After the innocent, illiterate Mr. Boffin, the Golden Dustman, inherits the fortune, he becomes obsessed with books.  He buys a set of Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and hires a one-legged balladmonger and fruit stall owner, Silas Wegg, to read aloud to him in the evening.

Wegg is semi-literate, and there is much comedy as Wegg reads the verbose Gibbons.  Wegg pronounces Polybius as Polly Beious, “supposed by Mr. Boffin to be a Roman virgin.”

"The bibliomania of the Golden Dustman,"  by Marcus Stone

“The Bibliomania of the Golden Dustman,” by Marcus Stone

When the money begins to corrupt Mr. Boffin, he goes to bookstores with his informally adopted daughter, Bella Wilfer, and asks her to pick out all the books about misers.  His corruption actually improves Bella:  she realizes how ugly her own obsession with money has been.

The one-legged Wegg’s double is Jenny Wren, the doll’s dressmaker, a 13-year-old crippled girl who sews doll clothes for a living and takes care of an alcoholic father.  She is eccentric, sharp-tongued, witty, and absolutely principled:  she calls herself “the Person of the house” and her father her “child”; she  insists that he hand over his wages, and sends him to a corner or his room if he has  spent them.  Her back is crooked and she has trouble walking, but she is very brave, and her friendship with Lizzie, who comes to room with them, softens her.

A great book, one of my favorite Dickens!

Ramblings about Dickens and Literacy: Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend Dickens

My new paperback of Our Mutual Friend: I’ve worn out two.

Bored by a few 21st-century novels that turned out to be not quite great literary fiction, I have turned to the classics.

Specifically, to Dickens.  I mean, what contemporary writer is better?

That’s a tough one.  Perhaps Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Nicola Barker are his equals.

But you have to read Dickens anyway.

In my teens I devoured Dickens. David Copperfield changed my life.  It made me see the mix of grotesquerie and vulnerability that characterized people I loved.

I simply couldn’t resist a man who said,

“Barkis is willin’.”

(Married at 19!  Well, that was silly, Ms. Mirabile.)

I sent a copy of David Copperfield to a friend in a mental hospital whose parents had her committed for lesbianism (it took exactly three signatures, her parents’ and a family doctor’s, to commit her for what was then considered a mental illness).   My friends and I, furious and sad, talked to  a free lawyer who agreed to visit her and tell her her rights.  She called us from a pay phone and said they were watching her all the time now.  She said I shouldn’t send her any more books.  Reading was considered anti-social, so she had to play cards and wait till she was out (but not”out”) a year later to read Dickens.

When she got out of the hospital, she became a huge David Copperfield fan.  She chortled over Peggotty and Barkis.  And wasn’t it sad about Little Em’ly?

My  first husband wouldn’t read Dickens, but he liked the Micawber scenes (W. C. Fields?) from an old movie of David Copperfield.

He liked to be dramatic in public.  When I said good-bye to him after a lunch at the Burger Palace, he would clap me against the wall outside and proclaim for passers-by, “You’re always leaving me!’  Then I would mutter,  “I will never desert you, Mr. Micawber.”

He was easily amused.

My favorite Dickens novel?

Bleak House.

But “Dombey and Son is also pretty good,” a friend and I agreed.

Our Mutual Friend is a masterpiece.

In the introduction to the Vintage edition of Our Mutual Friend, Nick Hornby says he prefers David Copperfield  and Great Expectations.  But he admits to the genius of a scene in OMF in which a semi-literate owner of a fruit stall, Weggs, struggles very funnily to read  aloud The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire to  the wealthy, illiterate Mr. Boffin, the Golden Dustman.

I’ll quote Hornby because he’s so articulate.

  “Dickens is on sensational comic form here:  there are great one-liners, fantastically complicated set-pieces, characters whose peculiarities and weaknesses are sufficiently surreal as to intimidate any real human from attempting to portray them on screen…”

There are many ways to interpret Dickens.  I read OMF in 2010 as a book about money.  It is a book about money.  But this time I am reading it as a book about literacy.  It is a book about literacy, too. Literacy and money are all tied up together, but the aspiring illiterate are sometimes better than the snobbishly corrupt literate.

The main plot, the money version, of Our Mutual Friend proceeds like this:

My constant companion on bicycle trips, Summer 2010

My constant companion on bicycle trips, Summer 2010

John Harmon, the heir of a rich, miserly dustman, is ostensibly found dead in the Thames.  The body is retrieved by Gaffer Hexam, a waterman who earns a fee from the police for recovering corpses from the river. John is actually alive, as we learn shortly, but, meanwhile,  a naive married couple, former employees of the Dustman, inherit the valuable dust heap in his absence:  Mr. Boffin, now known as the Golden Dustman, and his sweet wife, Mrs. Boffin, become preys of swindlers and social climber. When the Boffins offer a reward for John’s murderer, Gaffer’s ex-partner, Riderhood, vengefully claims Hexam was the murderer.  But Hexam is found dead in the Thames.

Literacy is an extremely important issue in Book I of Our Mutual Friend. Literacy divides the Hexam family:  Gaffer Hexam is illiterate, though he prides himself on knowing what the different police posters say attempting to identify dead bodies; but is furious that his son, Charley, can read.  His beautiful, smart, illiterate, diplomatic daughter, Lizzie, makes sure Charley gets an education, but insists that he not say much about it.  Stay illiterate and you’ll be stuck being a waterman, and so she helps him.  As for herself?  She doesn’t learn to read because she loves her father so much.

Mr. Boffin, the Golden Dustman, also struggles with illiteracy.  He hires Wegg, a man with a wooden leg who keeps a fruit stall, to read aloud The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he bought, thinking it was about the “Rooshan” empire.

He is terribly excited about finding a reader.

“I shall have no peace of patience till you come.  Print is now opening ahead of me.”

Illiteracy can be a disadvantage.  For Lizzie’s brother, Charley, now at school, it has become a class issue:  he is embarrassed by Lizzie’s illiteracy.  He also finds her in low circumstances, renting a room in the house where brilliant, crippled Jenny Wren, a doll’s dressmaker, lives.   Lizzie and Jenny are great friends:  Lizzie is one of those rare people who can see the good in a strange person.  But upwardly mobile Charley wants everything to be conventional. Convention makes him comfortable.

Later,  Eugene Wrayburn, a lawyer without work who is in love with Lizzie,  wants to hire someone to teach Lizzie and Jenny to read.  Clearly, he feels illiteracy divides them.  Lizzie declines at first, knowing that literacy can be used to give you control over your world, or to give control of your world to someone else.  But she accepts Eugene’s offer after Bradley Headstone, Charley’s teacher, decides he wants to superintend her learning.

I will have  more to say about this as I go on.  I’ve finished Book  I and am into Book II.  Look for other installments.