What Larks! Shakespeare and Dickens

19. Jan, 2012

Photo by Christoph Mueller www.muellerchristoph.com

Although I’ve devoted most of my life to Shakespeare, Dickens was my first literary love, and provides my earliest bookish memory. It must date back to around 1940, when I was ten years old, a primary school child in Yorkshire. I remember spending much of a weekend sitting behind a sofa reading The Pickwick Papers to myself, constantly erupting into laughter and giggles, to the complete bemusement of the rest of the family. It was a pretty well bookless home, and I’ve no idea where the copy I was reading came from. But I do remember afterwards that a friend of my father’s, the editor of the local newspaper, offered to sell us a set of the novels for £5, and I suppose my father must have bought it for me.

Since then I’ve read, and sometimes re-read, all the novels and much of the miscellaneous prose, and enjoyed them in a variety of ways. I remember writing an essay on Dickens and the drama when I was an undergraduate. In it I made much of the theatrical quality of Tulkinghorn’s melodramatic death: ‘Mr. Tulkinghorn’s time is over for evermore, and the Roman pointed at the murderous hand uplifted against his life, and pointed helplessly at him, from night to morning, lying face downward on the floor, shot through the heart.’

Joining the RAF for my National Service I packed Nicholas Nickleby in my knapsack along with Keats’s poems as consolatory reading. When I became a schoolteacher I often read extracts from the novels to my pupils. Sometimes I drew on the anthology compiled by the actor and playwright Emlyn Williams for his dramatic readings. Again Pickwick came in especially handy – the skating episodes were great favourites – useful particularly for Friday afternoons when I no less than the pupils was too tired for clause analysis and parsing and comprehension exercises. And more seriously I taught the whole of Great Expectations for their Ordinary Level exam, reading it aloud with them, to the greater pleasure of some than of others.

When I became a university teacher, though I never lectured on Dickens I gave tutorials on some of the novels. Once the BBC invited me to record a conversation about one with Edward Blishen, then a popular broadcaster and autobiographer, and again I chose Great Expectations. I suppose this has to count as my favourite, though over the years I have continued to read unsystematically through the canon, especially for my winter reading, sometimes at the same time as a friend has been reading the same novel, for the sake of sharing the pleasure. And of course I have often seen films and television dramas based on Dickens. James Hayter seemed a definitive Pickwick in the 1952 film; just to read its cast list, which includes such great performers of the past as Donald Wolfit, Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Baddeley, Hermione Gingold, and Kathleen Harrison is to be reminded of the wonderful opportunities Dickens gives to character actors. Now Simon Callow – a joyous Micawber on television – follows in Emlyn Williams’s footsteps – and, of course, in those of Dickens himself as a solo reader.

I have read biographies – Edgar Johnson’s, and very recently Clare Tomalin’s, as well as her book about Ellen Ternan. I supervised a Ph. D. dissertation on Dickens and Shakespeare, by Valerie Gager, published by C U P, which reveals well over a thousand quotations and allusions. Writing about Shakespeare in the nineteenth century in my book Shakespeare: For All Time (2002) I discussed the performances of The Merry Wives of Windsor that Dickens organized (and took part in – as Justice Shallow) in the hope of establishing Sheridan Knowles as curator of Shakespeare’s Birthplace. I have used extracts from the novels and the essays – especially from Sketches by Boz – for party readings, and I’ve taken part in readings, most recently a jovial pre-Christmas occasion when a group of us read the whole of A Christmas Carol, fuelled by mulled wine and hot sausages. And on a visit to New York last year, I had the pleasure of examining the precious original manuscript of the book, marvelling at the sense of a creative mind working at white heat revealed by the author’s cancellations and interlineations and substitutions. So far as I know, no one has ever undertaken what would admittedly be the heroic task of trying to trace his creative processes by unravelling them.

Dickens can be sentimental, diffuse, sententious, preachy, muddly in his plotting, overlong. But I value him for the abundance of his imagination, the variety and warmth of his characterization, his inconsequentialities, digressions and irrelevances, the resonance of his prose, the vitality of his dialogue, the piquancy of his observation, his depth of human feeling. When all is said and done, for me he’s second only to Shakespeare.