Dickens Update

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3As I promised at the weekend, a quick post to catch up with the Dickens course.  A very quick post, because as is the case with most (all?) online courses, and probably most others too, the suggested time needed each week to complete the work set is ridiculously underestimated.  I think it was advertised as three to five hours a week.  You can double the top of that estimate easily.  Not that I mind that, I just think courses should be more open about the necessary commitment, although they are probably wary of the numbers that would enrol if they were upfront about the hours.

I was talking about this with my Shakespeare group, yesterday.  We are studying Love’s Labour’s Lost and you will remember that the play starts with the King of Navarre and three of his Lords vowing to study for three years while they live a life withdrawn from almost all other society.  The idea isn’t Shakespeare’s own.  There really were such Academies in France at this time, drawing their inspiration via Renaissance Italy from those of Ancient Greece. Within moments, however, the King is forced to recognise the sheer impracticality of the idea.  Life imposes itself.  He cannot neglect his other duties. I know how he feels.  Finding ten hours in a week that is made up of 168 of the darned things (169 this week!) sounds as though it would be a doddle. Until, that is, you try to do it.

Anyway, I have got some of this week’s work out of the way.  We have moved on from considering the role of the city for the moment and are thinking about the extent to which you can legitimately see Dickens own biography in his writing. I am not going to rehearse the well worn arguments about biographical interpretations of a writer’s work.  I can see points in favour of both those who say never and those who say always.  I suppose my position is that most of us make decisions every day based on what we have experienced in the past and I can’t see why a writer should be any different, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t make an active decision not to reflect those experiences in their writing.  I am probably in the sometimes camp.

What I do have a problem with, however, is those biographers who make inferences about their subjects with no evidence whatsoever and then present it as a fact.  My favourite example of this comes from a biography of Christopher Marlowe.  I had been having problems with the writer from the beginning of the text but when, talking about Marlowe’s reaction to the work of a Cambridge contemporary, he claimed if Marlowe read this, he was amused I finally exploded. If Marlowe read this, I think he might have been amused, I might just about have coped with, although I would have preferred him to tell me on what grounds he thought the playwright was so tickled.  I would actually have liked something along the lines of Marlowe read this and we know he was amused because we have his authenticated copy of the book and in the margin he has written ‘I am amused’.  That, however, would be crying for the moon.  The trouble is, of course, that once you hit a statement like this, one for which there is no real evidence, you begin to question all the other statements that have been presented as fact.  I know that biographers have to be prepared to make inferences from evidential material and we as readers have to be prepared to weigh the value of such inferences, but sometimes the writer goes to far.

So, I think I am going to take my Dickens cold and not worry about what is or isn’t biographical.  They are cracking good stories and for me that is ultimately what matters.


12 thoughts on “Dickens Update

  1. Have you read Dickens’s turn-of-the-year story “The Chimes”? Better at New Year’s than at Christmas, I must say, because all must be jollity or recovered jollity at Christmas, and of course the traditional (if longer) “A Christmas Carol” leaves more of a feel-good sensation for Christmas, when all is said and done. But “The Chimes” is a good, bracing story for starting a new year out. I had never heard of it until another blogger recommended it Good luck with your course, I hope you enjoy it and feel you’re getting something out of it by the end of it..

    1. I don’t know it, SO.. I must look and see if it’s in my collected short stories. You know me and short stories, I only read them when I’m forced to, so I’ve only looked at the ones which were set for the course so far.

  2. Glad to hear that you’re enjoying your course, Alex, even if it is somewhat time consuming. I suppose in was inevitable that there would be a biographical component but given that it’s been done to death I imagine the city module was much more interesting.

    1. I’ve been surprised at which biographies have been referred to and which not. It seems that Ackroyd’s (which is the only one I knew about before I began the course) is not in fashion. Maybe it reads too easily to be considered academic 🙂

  3. For a moment I forgot about your Dickens class and was wondering how you knew about my cat Dickens who is becoming increasingly resistant to taking the tiny pink pills we had to start giving him a couple weeks ago for an overactive thyroid! I am glad your Dickens doesn’t have anything to do with pink pills and thyroids though I suppose there could be an applicable metaphor in there for the biographical issue. I like my Dickens stories cold too, there is plenty going on without dragging in the author’s biography!

    1. You would have to pick and choose so carefully which bits you thought were biographical, wouldn’t you, Stefanie. Some of those characters can surely only have come from the imagination – at least I hope so.
      Tell Dickens The Bears say to take his medicine like a grown-up cat and not a wimpy kitten. They can talk, any pill of whatever colour would have to be wrapped up in honey and buried in cake to get them to take it.

  4. I follow online courses and find them extremely time consuming. I agree with you. As to biographers, they are like scholars: they try to fill in gaps sometimes. They have even inveted shadow writing in Jane Austen’s novels. Then some biographers are good and other rather less and others yet absolutely crap. And things changes according to times… The question ws probably “was Dickens using elements of his own biography in Oliver Twist and David Copperfield?” “what about his wife, sister-in-law and Ellen Teran described in the women he wrote about?” One canot escape one’s story and works with it when writing, but one can also twist the reality and make a good yarn out of it…

    1. What has been interesting has been comparing the openings of five different biographies. It is perfectly possible to tell just from the first few paragraphs what line the writer is going to take and how sympathetic or otherwise they are going to be to both Dickens and his family.

  5. Echo your frustration with biographers who use this approach – it seems to be a very lazy form of writing. As you say, why not prove what they are surmising? I gave up on Alison Weir’s bio of Elizabeth of York because she insisted on using phrases like “Elizabeth must have thought…” I know there was a dearth of original material but I didnt want to know what this woman must have thought, I wanted to know what she did think.

    1. Precisely, Karen. And to be told what Marlowe did think when the writer doesn’t even know whether he saw the work or not just adds insult to injury.

      1. Glad you are finding the course interesting. I wonder if Dickens is a l subject biographers will always take sides on? I have the Peter Ackroyd and Claire Tomalin biographies on my eternal TBR list but never quite get round to them. The literary biography I have enjoyed most fairly recently was Hilary Spurling’s account of the life of Pearl S Buck. Spurling succeeded in showing Buck as a fascinating and intelligent character, perhaps an imperfect novelist but one who had presented one culture to another in a way no other novelist has.

        1. I was surprised to find that neither the Ackroyd nor the Tomalin biographies were on the reading list, Ian and neither have they been referred to. Perhaps they are seen as being too populist and not academic enough. I think you’re correct though when you suggest that biographers tens to ‘take sides’ when it comes to Dickens, especially where his relationship with women was concerned.

Your thoughts are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s