Charles dickens

A tale of cruelty and imposture: The Fraud, by Zadie Smith, reviewed

‘Is this all that these modern ladies’ novels are to be about? People?’ So asks the bewildered author of Old St Paul’s, The Lancashire Witches, The Tower of London and three dozen other forgotten blockbusters stacked with costumed folderol. In Zadie Smith’s sixth novel, William Harrison Ainsworth disapproves, in 1871, of hiscousin-housekeeper, Eliza Touchet, reading a nameless story of dull village folk with ‘no adventure, no drama, no murder’. It can only be George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The Fraud alights briefly on this quarrel, as it does on many Victorian topics. Yet Smith’s triple-pronged tale of imposture and masquerade, public lies and secret truths, often reverts to fiction’s role either as

The joys of Radio 4’s Word of Mouth

I first heard Lemn Sissay talking about his childhood experiences on Radio 4 in 2009. At that time he was still fighting Wigan social services for sight of the official dossier on his years as a child in care, fostered at first and then dumped back in the system and institutionalised in care homes and then a remand home. Eighteen years of his life stored in an Iron Mountain data facility. He’d been asking for his files, the story of his life, since he came of age. It was not easy to forget that programme; the banal cruelties of the system and Sissay’s resolute dignity in talking about them. At

Dickens’s London is more elusive than the artful dodger himself

Is Dickens’s London a place, or a state of mind, or a bit of both? I used to ask myself the question all the time when I was literary editor of this periodical and our office in Doughty Street was a few doors down from the Dickens Museum, at no. 48, the house where he lived in the early days of his fame and where his beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died. The deputy lit ed, Clare Asquith, and I used to walk in those days before computers to the press, which was in Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell, the scene of Fagin’s lair. We’d pass Bleeding Heart Yard, where so much of

The best new year celebrations in literature

Literature presents many different ways of observing the new year. Much like real life, the options range from big parties to quiet stay-at-home gatherings… and existential crises. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Meg and Jo March attend a New Year’s Eve party at the home of their family friend Mrs Gardiner. ‘Down they went, feeling a trifle timid, for they seldom went to parties, and informal as this little gathering was, it was an event to them.’ This is the moment that Jo converses with Laurie for the first time and sparks fly as they watch the New Year’s Eve party from their shared point of refuge in a

Reworking Dickens: Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver, reviewed

Putting new wine into old wineskins is an increasingly popular fictional mode. Retellings of 19th-century novels abound. Jane Austen inevitably leads the way, with Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma, Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, and no fewer than four recent adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. Dickens, too, has been updated, with Michael Rosen’s Bah Humbug and Lorie Langdon’s Olivia Twist. Now Barbara Kingsolver pitches in with a contemporary version of David Copperfield. Her Demon Copperhead is a russet-haired, mixed-race boy from the backwoods of South Virginia. His father died before he was born and his mother, like many of the novel’s characters, is addicted to opioids, leaving

From Mrs Dalloway’s West End to Tolkien’s Middle-earth

Professor David Damrosch, the director of Harvard’s Institute for World Literature, fell in love with ‘a fictional realm that I’d never imagined’ in 1968. His English teacher, Miss Staats, gave him Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. This horizon-stretching Manhattan educator turns up again in another light towards the end of this book. A long-term girlfriend of Saul Bellow, Maggie Staats prudently said no when the novelist proposed to her. At this point, Damrosch has just told us that the hero of Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King remembers having ‘dreamed at the clouds from both sides’, so planting an idea in the young Joni Mitchell’s mind. You get the drift. Despite its

The year of living decisively: The Turning Point, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, reviewed

We tend to think of turning points as single moments of change — Saul on the road to Damascus or Bob Dylan performing with an electric guitar. The change is identified as a discrete moment for which there is a distinct before and after. But this is not always the case and, as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst argues, a turning point can trace a wider arc and evolve over longer periods. These turning points are clear only in hindsight once the details have softened and the ripples outward have stilled. His latest book examines one such period in the career of Charles Dickens, surveying the artefacts of his life to track his

Lockdown might bring the Dickensian Christmas back into fashion

I feel like a prisoner, making daily marks on the cell wall to chart the approach of freedom. But will it be freedom, or will we be on parole, obliged to wear a tag and subject to re-incarceration at authority’s whim? Such thoughts do not encourage equanimity. On that subject, I remember a delightfully splenetic political column by the late — alas — Alan Watkins, published a generation ago. As Christmas approaches, even the most acerbic hack feels obliged to relent and sound a little more like Fezziwig, a little less like Scrooge. Perhaps because he was never given to excessive astringency, Alan did not relent. He was complaining about

Victorian novels to enjoy in lockdown

It’s the perfect opportunity to crack open those classics of 19th-century fiction you’ve always been meaning to read, and I am here to offer some recommendations. But there’s an immediate problem. Do I gesture towards the blindingly obvious? Or do I recommend a variety of obscure and arcane titles? The former strategy is liable only to insult your intelligence — of course you already know Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are worth reading — whereas the latter runs the risk of merely putting you off and making me seem pretentious. There is, though, a third way. What did the Victorians themselves reckon were the great authors of their age? The

All the world’s a stage: this election has echoes of Shakespeare and Dickens

The Christmas election has unfolded like a series of mini-dramas from panto, Dickens and other popular classics. Boris has come across as a Dick Whittington figure, already twice mayor of London, and hoping to establish his seat in the capital on a more permanent footing. Jeremy Corbyn resembles Mother Goose flinging sugary treats at gullible children. And Jo Swinson has clearly been reading Cinderella (and believing every word of it). Swinson positioned herself as the long-suffering drudge who must tidy away the mess left by the Ugly Sisters, namely the Tory and Labour parties. In the story, Cinderella ends up as a princess (‘I’m standing to be your next prime

The treasures to be found mudlarking by the Thames

The 1950 B-film The Mudlark tells of an urchin who ekes out an unpleasant existence scavenging the slimy Thames foreshore. He finds a coin bearing the head of Queen Victoria, and creeps into Windsor Castle to see the sequestered sovereign for himself. Through sheer goodhearted pluck, he succeeds where sophisticated politicians have failed, appealing to the Queen’s feelings and reawakening her sense of public duty. Modern mudlarking is a hobby rather than a necessity, but chance finds of apparently insignificant items can convey powerful emotions. Over 23 squelchy years, Lara Maiklem has amassed a battered and stained collection of everyday things turned talismanic by time and immersion. The Thames is

The Spectator’s original verdict

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë,  reviewed 18 December 1847 An attempt to give novelty and interest to fiction, by resorting to those singular ‘characters’ that used to exist everywhere… the incidents and persons are too coarse and disagreeable to be attractive, the very best being improbable, with a moral taint about them, and the villainy not leading to results sufficient to justify the elaborate pains taken in depicting it. Bleak House by Charles Dickens, reviewed 24 September 1853 Bleak House is chargeable with not simply faults, but absolute want of construction. A novelist may invent an extravagant or an uninteresting plot — may fail to balance his masses, to distribute

Bah, humbug!, Tiny Tim

Here we go again. Partridges in pear trees. Lovely big Christmas turkey. The Queen’s speech. And then, at some point during the Yuletide season, some version or other of Dickens’s ghost story A Christmas Carol. This year’s glut of Scrooge stories includes the Old Vic’s major production starring Rhys Ifans (reviewed by Lloyd Evans in last week’s Spectator) and Michael Rosen’s retelling of the tale, Bah! Humbug! There is a new film, The Man Who Invented Christmas, featuring Christopher Plummer as Scrooge and Dan Stevens, he of Downton Abbey fame, as Mr Dickens himself. It plots the months running up to the publication of A Christmas Carol in Yuletide 1843.

A Bridge too far

In the year since it opened, the Bridge has given us the following: a harmless Karl Marx comedy by Richard Bean; a modern-dress Julius Caesar with Ben Whishaw playing Brutus as a frowning existentialist; a dreary rustic soap opera written by newcomer Barney Norris; and an enjoyable NHS romp by Alan Bennett. Not quite the string of triumphs everyone had expected from Nicholas Hytner who used to produce two dozen shows a year at the National but now manages one every three months at his bankside garret. Time on his hands. But not enough to script-edit the efforts of fashionable wags like Martin McDonagh whose silly, mean-spirited skit about Hans

An age of paradox

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us … in short,’ as Charles Dickens famously told the first readers of A Tale of Two Cities, it was a period very much like their own. Dickens was right. John Stuart Mill once claimed that the two great ‘seminal minds’ of the period were Coleridge and Bentham, and in that brilliant yoking of opposites — the warm, creative current of Coleridgean thought and the

What drama

One sphere that podcasts have so far not much penetrated is drama. is itching to develop its own brand but so far has limited itself to producing audiobooks read by a galaxy of stars. Recording plays is expensive, requires an understanding of studio techniques and a cast of actors who have learnt how to play to the microphone, not an auditorium. Only the BBC has as yet the necessary experience and resources, with its own repertory company and team of spot-effects experts and sound designers. We can only hope that stunts like The Biggest Weekend — the BBC’s attempt to put on a Glastonbury experience for the masses, with

Long-distance walking

Long-distance walking is all the rage these days. There are all-nighters staged by charities, for instance the annual MoonWalk in London, which raises funds to fight breast cancer: participants of both sexes walk marathon and half-marathon routes wearing bras. The outfits might have changed, but when it comes to foot-slogging, long-distance has a long history. Charles Dickens liked a nocturnal ramble. He did it to combat sleeplessness, and on one particular night in October 1857 walked the 30 miles from his house in Tavistock Square to his country home in Kent. In the essay Night Walks he describes passing Bethlehem Hospital (the psychiatric institution from which we get the word

Water, water, everywhere | 28 March 2018

‘Ding, Clash, Dong, BANG, Boom, Rattle, Clash, BANG, Clink, BANG, Dong, BANG, Clatter, BANG BANG BANG!’ is how Charles Dickens transcribes the sound of 1,200 men building the first iron-clad frigate Achilles at the Royal Dockyard, Chatham, in the 1860s. A Chatham boy, Dickens lived to see — and hear — the age of sail turn into the age of steam, when the creak of ropes, the flap of canvas and the ding of bells gave way to the hiss of steam, the chug of motors and the shriek of whistles. As soundscapes go, both strike the modern imagination as more musical than the roar of road traffic. So they

The only word that hurts

It is hard to be honest about anorexia. The illness breeds deceit and distortion: ‘It thrives on looking-glass logic. It up-ends your thoughts, turns bone into flesh, makes life unlivable, death seem glorious.’ In her first book, the literary critic and art historian Laura Freeman is determined to tell the truth about her recovery from the illness that ravaged her adolescence and early adult life. The result is the reverse of a misery memoir. Freeman’s celebratory book is about getting better and learning to savour life again by doing what she most loves: reading. Freeman was diagnosed with anorexia when she was 15 and had already been ill for two

Festive feast

Maximum Victoriana at the Old Vic for Matthew Warchus’s A Christmas Carol. Even before we reach our seats we’re accosted by bonneted wenches handing out mince pies. Merchants in top hats roam the aisles proffering satsumas, which they call, with accurate Victorian incorrectness, ‘oranges’. The guts of the theatre have been ripped out for this show. A slender catwalk stretches 40 yards from the rear of the stage to the farthest wall of the auditorium, with the seats gathered around this runway in odd little clumps. The narrow performing area leaves no room for scenery, so Dickens’s London is suggested by dozens of oblong lanterns dangling overhead, like mini-Tardises, all