One of my favourite ‘cut and come again books’ into which I dip when I have a spare few moments is Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing. Each chapter conjures up memories of my own reading life and I often find myself thinking ‘just like me’. I do have to admit however that I have never actually read one of Dickens’ novels while seated behind a sofa. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything behind a sofa. I’ve always lived in houses where sofas stood flush against the living room wall. But, be that as it may, in the chapter headed Great Expectations behind the Sofa Hill does admit to having the same three favourite Dickens novels as my own.
[I]t is time I went back to Little Dorrit. Is it the best? I sometimes think so. Then again, I change my mind. Bleak House is the greatest of all the novels. But Our Mutual Friend has, I think, absolutely no flaws, and there is something about its description of London’s river at its blackest, most secret, most terrifying, and the low life that lurked about its quays and alleys and pot-houses, that takes me back to those Michaelmas terms, and the chill mist drifting off the Thames.
And, with Anne Shirley, I want to exclaim at the finding of a kindred spirit.
Which is the greatest? I couldn’t possibly say but, while I love most Dickens, it is these three to which I find myself returning time after time. If not to read the entire novel then to comfort myself with favourite passages or to spend the evening in the company of a much loved character such as Arthur Clennam, or Mr Wilfer.
While I love most of them, you will have noticed. And again Susan Hill and I walk hand in hand. My husband, she says, is welcome to laugh at Pickwick because I never could…
Me neither, me neither.
However, one of Ms Hill’s pronouncements has given me pause for thought.
In the silly game of which authors to throw overboard from the lifeboat and which one – just one – to save, I would always save Dickens. He is mighty. He is flawed. His flaws are huge but magnificent – and all of a piece with the whole.
Could I really save Dickens at the expense of Shakespeare? Could I manage with just Shakespeare if there was no Dickens to add narrative variety? The question has been tormenting me all day, much to the puzzlement of the friend with whom I had lunch, who pointed out that unless I was extremely unlucky it wasn’t a decision I was ever likely to have to make. Well, I know that. But what if I did? Sometimes the most unlikely things do happen, otherwise they wouldn’t be simply unlikely, they would be impossible.
Which should I choose? I’m going to fret about this all night. Be blowed to questions of international finance and political and banking corruption. Let’s stick to the really important dilemmas in life.