charles dickens


To speak about reality is nonsense. I’ve written about this before. I can’t think about it too much as I would lose my fucking mind. Your reality is what you experience, what you take to be the truth of the world; but what is truth? For example, consider how two people can experience an event in completely different ways. It could be something as mundane as a film. One thinks the film is really good, and the other thinks it is really bad. What is the reality? What is the truth? Is the film good or bad? How about how two people can witness a crime and yet one may describe the perpetrator as having blonde hair, and the other describe him as having brown hair? At one time people were convinced that the earth is square; that was their reality and yet we now, with just as much vehemence, believe differently. What’s more, I saw a documentary the other day in which a woman was convinced that her husband was rich; he told her he was rich, he lived as though he was rich. And yet he didn’t have a bean; he was catastrophically in debt. Likewise, you might be convinced that Africa exists; you have been told it exists, but what if you have never seen it, what if you have never been there?

The thing is, there is no objective reality; or if there is you don’t have access to it. Nothing you think you know about anything is safe. You have all seen The Truman Show I am sure. That is how the world is to me; I am always aware that everything about my experience is conjecture, potential, only possible; nothing is concrete. The reason that this is on my mind again is due to Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. It is hard to write about the book, and especially hard to write about a certain aspect of the book, by which I mean what it says about the nature of reality, without giving the game away. And yet it is central to one’s experience of the novel. So, with that said, I am not going to worry about spoilers and proceed as though you have all read it or have no interest in reading it [and therefore I can’t ruin it for you]. I will, however, make it clear when I am going to reveal the big secret, the twist, so that you can look away if you absolutely must.

Our Mutual Friend starts out as a dark tale of death, gold-digging and inheritance and, uh, pretty much proceeds that way throughout. A young man, John Harmon, is to come into a large amount of money, an inheritance from his rich but miserly father, but he drowns without claiming it, and so it goes to Mr Boffin, his father’s employee. One of the conditions of the inheritance was that John was to have married Bella Wilfer, a beautiful but essentially poor girl. Consequently, when John is found dead, and Bella’s prospects have therefore been compromised, the Boffin’s patronise the girl as a kind of recompense. Both the Boffins and Bella are classic Dickens characters, yet they are less predictable than many of his creations. Bella is charming and goodhearted [although she certainly knows the value of money], but what sets her apart from a number of Dickens’ other heroines is that she has a little more pluck, a little more spunk. Compare her, for example, to Little Em’ly or Esther Summerson and there is a marked difference; Little Em’ly is weak and a bit of a sap and Esther, although she exhibits greater strength, is almost oppressively kind and seemingly of an eternally sunny disposition. Bella, however, is not always grateful, not always cheerful; she is sometimes argumentative and will not marry for love but for money or status.

In terms of the Boffins, they are evidence of Dickens’ great genius for creating amiable and likeable characters. The truth is that they ought to be irritating; they ought to grate on you, and yet they do not. That is a talent; it is not an accident. However, while Mrs Boffin remains good-natured for the duration of the novel, her husband, as the narrative progresses, goes through a drastic, unexpected change. I do not know how other readers feel about it, but Mr Boffin’s change of heart, his development into a miser like his once employer, was one of my favourite aspects of the novel; it shifted Our Mutual Friend up a gear, gave it a momentum and tension that it would otherwise have lacked. One cannot help but be fascinated by the change, and what it will mean for the characters and the story as a whole. Boffin is also part of one of the great double acts in literature, with Silas Wegg, who he engages to read to him. Silas Wegg is a crippled ballad-seller, a conman and thoroughly nasty sort; his interplay with Boffin, both before and after his change of character, is hilarious.

In addition to Silas Wegg, the book is populated, as you would expect, by many memorable supplementary characters and storylines. However, what is novel about them, in terms of the author’s oeuvre, is that many of these stories are sad or depressing and many of the minor characters are villains or at least morally dubious. Our Mutual Friend is, in my opinion, Dickens’ darkest work. Take Bradley Headstone [great name!], a schoolmaster who becomes obsessed with another beautiful but poor girl, Lizzie Hexam. His infatuation is genuinely creepy, and ultimately ends in attempted murder. Then there is Rogue Riderhood [another great name!], a man whose employment is to drag corpses from the river and rob them of valuables before turning them over to the authorities. He too gets embroiled in a murder plot. Even the more lighthearted scenes, even the characters who one assumes are meant to provide comic relief, are shot through with misery, are entangled in horrific situations. An example of this is Jenny Wren, a crippled teenager who treats her alcoholic father as though he were her child. I mean, bloody hell. Suicide, blackmail, double-crossing, plots, murder, violence, deformity, gold-digging…Our Mutual Friend has it all.

And so we come towards the end of the review; and here be serious spoilers. As one approaches the conclusion of the novel one asks oneself, Will Dickens’ buck the trend of an entire career and wrap up his narrative without a happy ending? Will his message be that the world is an awful, bleak and terrifying place? No, of course not! And that is almost a disappointment, because the turn-around seems a bit forced. Dickens spends most of his novel showing us the dark side of life, and went so far into it that the only way to come back was abruptly. Remember that Boffin is meant to have become a miser, and that Bella will not marry a poor man; from this position it seems impossible to forge a happy ending. The way that Dickens does this is for it to be revealed that Boffin was never truly a miser, that he was pretending, and for Bella to abandon her principles and fall for a man below her own station. This man, John Rokesmith, then turns out to be the presumed-drowned John Harmon. Yep. So, basically, John Rokesmith-John Harmon set up his own girlfriend in order to be sure that she will marry him for himself and not for money, and Boffin was in on this plot.

The most troublesome aspect of this plot is Bella’s reaction. She takes the revelation in her stride, she almost approves of the plan. I find that hard to swallow. She has been manipulated. To return to my opening paragraph, her conception, her understanding of the reality of the world has been shown to be false. She thought Harmon dead, she thought her lover to be poor, and she thought her patron to be a miser, and yet none of these things turn out to be the case. Most people would, understandably, be upset about being played with in this manner, and all in order to prove to themselves that you’re not actually a heartless gold-digger! I don’t know what else to say about all that, and I certainly cannot defend it; all I can say is that while I would not have made the choices that Dickens himself did, would have preferred the book to conclude in a different way, Our Mutual Friend is still a truly great read, a ten-out-of-ten novel; it may even be his best and that is some accolade.





[FRANCE, 1913-27]


“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”


[RUSSIA, 1869]


“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”




“Our winters are very long here, very long and very monotonous. But we don’t complain about it downstairs, we’re shielded against the winter. Oh, spring does come eventually, and summer, and they last for a while, but now, looking back, spring and summer seem too short, as if they were not much more than a couple of days, and even on those days, no matter how lovely the day, it still snows occasionally.”


[RUSSIA, 1880]


 “I love mankind, he said, “but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.” 


[ENGLAND, 1852-53]


“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies.”


[GERMANY, 1924]


“He probably was mediocre after all, though in a very honorable sense of that word.”


[ENGLAND, 1947] 



[ICELAND, 1934]


“It was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry. He could not understand why such people had been born. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry” he would say.”


[CHINA, 1868-1892]


“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.”  


[ITALY, 1958] 


“As always the thought of his own death calmed him as much as that of others disturbed him: was it perhaps because, when all was said and done, his own death would in the first place mean that of the whole world?”


David Copperfield is Dickens’ great nostalgic sigh of a novel. It is, we are told, his most personal, the one he cherished above all his others; it is also one of his most highly rated – Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf were fans – and most loved by the general public. It is, this being Dickens, who is for my money the greatest English novelist of all time, very good, of course. Yet, I couldn’t quite fall for it in the way that I have done with many of his other works. While reading it I felt a little bit like one of those guys who doesn’t think Angelina Jolie is super-hot: no matter how much everyone tells you how incredibly beautiful she is, for some reason you just can’t see it, you think she’s merely alright.

As with all of Dickens’ novels there is much in David Copperfield to admire, and much, actually, that sets it apart from the rest of oeuvre. Perhaps the reason that this novel is so highly rated by other writers and critics, in particular, is that it is his most beautifully written. There are passages in the book, lyrical passages, that genuinely moved me; there is an elegiac, Proustian, quality to the writing, which is something, I must admit, I wasn’t even sure he was capable of. I have been moved many many times by his work previously, but on those occasions it was the characters that drew an emotional response from me. I wish I had bookmarked some of my favourite passages, but unfortunately I didn’t. However, here is a lovely line I found at random:

As the elms bent to one another, like giants who were whispering secrets, and after a few seconds of such repose fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms about, as if their late confidences were really too wicked for their peace of mind, some weather-beaten, ragged old rooks’ nests, burdening their higher branches, swung like wrecks upon a stormy sea.

It is fair to say that some readers find the abundance of zany, eccentric, or larger-than-life people in Dickens’ novels tiresome. I am not one of those. The man simply had an immense talent for creating memorable characters, some of whom are as immortal as Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Ahab and so on. The big deal is that those were all thought up by different writers; Dickens – one man, one writer – created a whole bunch of them. In any case, David Copperfield houses much fewer of these sorts of people; the characters are, to my mind, far more understated, more [and this seems to matter a lot to some of you] real. This may go some way to explaining why I did not enjoy it quite as much as, say, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend or Great Expectations. I spoke about flat characters in my Gravity’s Rainbow review, so I don’t want to repeat all that here, except to say that flat to me doesn’t mean unrealistic, rather it means dull or not engaging. Truth be told, I found quite a few of the characters in this book boring or slightly irritating, people like Peggotty, who is very good and very lovely and well written and all that jazz, but who simply did not hold my interest.

This neatly leads me on towards my biggest issue with the book, which is that I just could not take to David himself. As previously stated, I struggled with Bleak House’s Esther, the only other Dickens first-person narrator, but I at least found her intriguing, or interesting. David, aside from his wonderful prose, is, bafflingly for a narrator, a kind of void; he lacks a strong personality. I came out of the novel knowing almost nothing about him as a man, aside from numerous biographical details. For much of the novel, he seemed oddly distant from the action, was, so to speak, standing apart, in a corner while the action took place. I did wonder whether that was Dickens’ point, that David Copperfield is about how someone sees their life and the people who played a part in it, that it isn’t meant to be a portrait of the narrator; maybe he was trying to say something about the functioning of one’s memory, how it relegates you to a position of observer. If that is what Dickens intended then his book is a success. But the damn thing is called David Copperfield, so if we don’t get to know him that counts, at the very least, as false advertising.

I must confess that the little of David I did get to know I found pretty objectionable. Of course, one doesn’t need to like a narrator, but I couldn’t shake the feeling, what with him being to some extent a stand-in for the author, that I was meant to. It’s strange, because one of the things I most like and enjoy about Dickens is his open-heartedness, his warmth, his, yes, sentimentality. However, David, although absolutely sentimental, isn’t particularly warm or open-hearted; in fact, I found him pompous and judgemental. I don’t think that was intentional. I guess much of that can be put down to a paradigm shift; which is to say that things that were acceptable, or expected, during Dickens’ time are less so now. I’m referring to things like his reaction towards his workmates early in the book, which is sneering and rather unpleasant, and his thoughts and behaviour towards the fallen Little Em’ly. The whole storyline concerning her got right on my tits. She leaves her intended to be with a man who she loves, and it, ultimately, ruins her. Dickens, via David, almost appears to believe that she got her just desserts. I found that surprising. Yes, paradigm shift and blah blah blah, but Dickens always struck me as a morally forward-thinking writer, it’s one of his most admirable qualities, and yet in David Copperfield he doesn’t come across that way at all.

There are, however, still some great characters in the book. Uriah Heep is the most famous, and justly so. His physical appearance, his verbal tics are brilliantly imagined and written. But, once again, I would say that David’s immediate response to him, which is one of suspicion and dislike, perturbed me a bit. Of course, he turns out to be right in his judgement, his negative appraisal, in the end, but I couldn’t help but think he was judging Uriah not on his qualities, or lack of them, as a human being, but rather his status. In any case, Aunt Betsey and Mr Dick are two other memorable creations, and all of their appearances are a joy.

A joy, also, are numerous scenes or episodes throughout the novel. It seems, from the reviews I have read, that many people do not find much to praise in the opening section that features David and his mother, but I did. I found their relationship entirely believable. Furthermore, I was particularly smitten with David’s school days and, later, an awesome chapter in which he gets drunk with some friends. Indeed, this drunk scene is the best description of drunkenness I have ever read, and it was one of the few times I warmed to David. My favourite section of the novel, however, was David’s and Dora’s courtship and marriage. Women, I imagine, might hate Dora because she’s the kind of girl women typically can’t stand i.e. she’s impractical, otherworldly, cute and child-like. As a man, I loved her. She charmed me entirely. The tragic nature of the relationship – that, really, they were ill-suited, despite their love – was heartbreaking, particularly Dora’s acknowledgement of her own failures as a wife. Truly, all that killed me. In fact, I’m feeling emotional just thinking about it. But, then I’m sentimental too. And, I guess, that, that parts of this book still managed to floor me, even though it is not at all my favourite Dickens, is further evidence of the author’s colossal genius.


Ok, let’s get this out of the way, let’s talk about Esther. There’s no denying that she is, initially, about as likeable as the organiser of a kitten-killers convention. As most people are aware, Bleak House alternates between Esther’s 1st person account of events and an omniscient 3rd person narrator. The opening chapter, with that famous description of London fog, is a candidate for the greatest beginning to any novel ever. Five pages in and I was pretty much madly in love. And then she poked her head over the trench and my face immediately went into spasm, as though someone had popped a mega sour sweet into my gob. Yet, Esther is perhaps more interesting than some give her credit for [I’m looking at you Charlotte Bronte]. Her instant [un]appeal is based on her apparent saccharine sweetness, her overwhelming mimsiness; Esther appears to adore everyone, see the best in everyone, find everything charming and delightful. Now, we all know that life ain’t always charming and delightful, it is quite often a hard kick in the bollocks; nor are people always well-intentioned. We know this, but Dickens knows it too of course.

Part of Esther’s role in the novel is to provide a contrast; she may be almost unrelentingly of a sunny disposition, but it is possible that without her the book would be too caustic and miserable because, make no mistake, Bleak House is pretty dark. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make her less annoying. Indeed, there is something intriguing about people’s [and I include myself in this] reaction towards characters like Esther. Why are happy, optimistic characters so unbearable for some of us? The response is often that they are unbelievable, unrealistic, but, I’d wager, most of us know an Esther. Ok, maybe not someone so endlessly perky, but someone like her; people like her undeniably exist, and, yeah, they annoy me in real life too, but that is my hang-up, it can’t, or shouldn’t, be used as a stick to beat Dickens with.

In any case, when judging Esther it is worth remembering her situation. She begins her narrative with an admission that she was ill-treated as a young child, had only a doll for a friend. A stern and loveless upbringing is bound to have a profound effect upon you. In Esther’s case one could suggest that it creates an intense gratefulness for anything that she can interpret as kindness or goodheartedness. Not only that, but she is rescued from a potentially awful and terrifying future by a guardian, Mr Jarndyce, is given a home and shown affection. Wouldn’t someone in such circumstances be on their best behaviour? Wouldn’t they also want to overlook any potential faults in the significantly more pleasant people who now inhabit her world?

Furthermore, I believe that there is evidence that Esther is not quite as goody-goody as she appears to be at first glance. She does criticise people, but she does so in such a passive-aggressive way that it is easy to miss. Take her response to Mr Skimpole [who is, incidentally, one of the greatest characters in the history of fiction]. Early in the novel he asks her to pay a debt for him, and she excuses this behaviour as the innocent behaviour of a child. Now, I was close to trying to use the pages of the book to slit my wrists at this point. How could you possibly interpret someone asking a poor person, who has so little money of her own, to pay a debt as an act of innocence? It’s quite the opposite, of course. That Esther is seemingly incapable of seeing the act for what it is, and the man for who he is, is infuriating. But, then, about a 100 pages later she says something along the lines of maybe Skimpole isn’t a perfect child, an innocent, maybe he just wants to convince people he is in order to avoid responsibility for his actions. Fucking yes! That’s exactly it! She immediately adds something like, of course I’m wrong, he is a perfect child no doubt, but the cat is already out of the bag; she has given us a glimpse of what she really thinks.

Now, lets talk about the wackness, the flaws, the shit, because there is more of it than I expected. I explained what a boom moment is in my Infinite Jest review, but I’ll reiterate it here for those who missed it. It is when a boom mic becomes visible during a TV show or film, thereby reminding you that what you are looking at isn’t real and has been staged. It is, for want of a better phrase, a breaking of the spell. And boom moments in literature work in the same way. It is when the author does something so senseless or stupid or naff or irritating that it draws you back, brings you back into the room, and makes you aware of your surroundings, your aches and pains or whatever. Of course, generally speaking, Dickens is about as subtle as being fisted by Lady Gaga, but, still, even by his own standards, there are some pretty big boom moments in Bleak House.

The most glaring examples, for me, were the times Esther and her gang of bozos would randomly drop in on a poor family to, er, sympathise, or some shit. The problem with these scenes is that they are so incredibly heavy-handed; although they serve the purpose of introducing new characters I still felt that the scenes themselves were clumsy and badly executed; I felt that they were written primarily to enable the author to point and say look at these poor people, aint it terrible how they live! And, yeah, it is terrible, and, yeah, fair play to the man because he was one of the few, certainly the most popular, writers to highlight the plight of the working/under class. But that doesn’t make it good literature, and you’d expect better from a genius, which Dickens undeniably was, because he could have made the same point[s] in a more subtle manner and introduced the characters a little more seamlessly. There’s no doubt about it, his moralising, his satire, is of the sledgehammer kind; you’re not forced to work to tease out the meaning, for Dickens bludgeons you over the head with it and leaves you for dead.

Bleak House is often written or spoken about as the quintessential London novel, and, as i know the place well, I might be in a position to to say whether this is the case. Certainly, the grime and the poverty evident in Dickens’ novelistic world could be considered part of the capital experience, but that could equally be said of anywhere. Nabokov, that famous Londoner, wrote that Bleak House has nothing to tell us about London at the time it was written; that the book doesn’t serve as a kind of social commentary. I don’t know if that is the case, for I know very little about London during Dickens’ time. However, I’d say that matters little as a writer doesn’t have to have journalistic inclinations to be able to capture the essence of a place. One could say that what Dickens gave us is a fantasy London, his London, much like Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses. Dickens’ success as a writer, and Joyce’s too, is to make you believe in his world, is to convince you that the book encapsulates something of the essence of a place even if it what you’re reading doesn’t actually resemble the reality of life at that, or this, time.

However, having said that, I did see some of what I hated about the place in what Dickens wrote. Whether those things I hated are particular to that great city, well, I don’t know. Certainly, they were particular to my experience of it. What I’m talking about is the sense of self-importance; almost everyone I came across thought that they were doing something significant or were on the cusp of something significant. Dickens’ city isn’t full of scenesters and hipsters, models, and musicians, like mine was, but many of his characters appear to share the same belief that I encountered in many of the people I met there. Furthermore, probably the defining aspect of my time there was the understanding [and it didn’t take me long to acquire it] that everyone would crawl over your still-twitching carcass in the pursuit of their own wants and desires; and that attitude is definitely apparent in Bleak House in a large number of the cast [Esther and her pals aside]. Also, Skimpole struck me as particularly London-esque character. God, I met loads of Skimpoles; y’know, people who are essentially wasters, but like to clothe this lazy, self-serving, attitude in pseudo-poetic hippy-ish ramblings as though having a soul too delicate for this world excuses everything and gives them a right to lay about doing fuck all.

Finally, it was only in London where one could walk the length of one street and find the richest people imaginable at one end and the poorest at the other. Those extremes of situation, the disparity between social classes living so closely together, has only ever struck me in London, nowhere else, and Dickens captures that in his book. Of course, the evils of money and money-chasing is one of Dickens major themes in Bleak House, as is people who live with a sense of entitlement.

Speaking of themes, I haven’t encountered anything less likely to make me want children, less optimistic about the parent-child dynamic, since Eraserhead. There isn’t a parent-child relationship in Bleak House that isn’t dysfunctional. The richer characters all neglect their children or abuse/use them in some way. On that, there is a very funny scene when a lady, whose name escapes me, explains how her children all willingly give their pocket money to charity, when in fact it is made clear that the mother forces them to do so and they couldn’t be more resentful or unhappy about the situation. Dickens deals with the poorer characters less savagely, and yet there is very little joy in their relationships with their children either. In one instance a mother wishes her child dead because she pities the situation it will grow up in; in another passage a baby actually dies; and, although her circumstances improve, a young girl, Charley, is left to fend for herself and her brothers when the father of the family kicks the bucket. The only reasonably happy family in the book, funnily enough, is the one put together by Jarndyce [a sort of foster family, if you like], when he becomes the guardian of Esther and takes Ada, his niece, into his home. He also takes Richard in, a character who I liked very much, perhaps because he reminded me of myself. Richard can’t stick to anything, can’t seem to find his feet. He is for a while engaged to Ada, even though they are cousins. Which is cool and all, even though their children would probably end up looking like The Thing.

All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.

The above is what Nabokov had to say about Bleak House. Now, Vlad was a picky bugger, and that is some high praise, right there. So, the book must be good, right? Joyce also spoke about his admiration for the great man, and I saw plenty of Ulysses, in particular, in Bleak House. Not only superficially, as a large novel about a major city, but stylistically too. In fact, there is a lot in the book that pre-empts what the famous modernists are praised for. Take page 147, where Dickens writes something like, Why, Mrs Piper has a good deal to say, chiefly in parenthesis and without punctuation and then proceeds to write a paragraph in that style. Then there is the playing around with first and third person narrators; and the rambling nature of the thing, the seemingly disconnected episodes. And surely Pynchon is a fan, because Bleak House reads like his wet-dream. Funny names? Yep. Long, complex? Uh huh. Technical language? Yeah. Crazy-zany characters? Indeed. And this is without even mentioning the police procedural aspect, which Dickens is credited with making popular. In fact, Bleak House is so forward-looking that you could probably mistake it for Thomas Edison from a distance.

As I near the end of my review I’d like to give praise to Dickens’ wonderful cast of supporting characters. His world is populated by oddballs and Bleak House is inhabited by some of his most memorable and amusing. My favourite is Mr Turveydrop, who is obsessed with deportment, and considers himself to have been patronized by the Prince Regent, despite clearly coming from a somewhat lowly background. And what about the Frenchwoman Hortense? Yes, I was very much taken with her; she is a spiteful, catty, broad who eventually sees Mr Tulkinghorn get his comeuppance. In a novel with quite a few prissy women she was the proverbial breath of fresh air. I’ve read that some people find this abundance of eccentrics tiresome, but that, to me, is almost like complaining about having too much money or getting too many blowjobs.

Closing statement  

Roberto Bolano, in 2666 I believe, wrote about how people are often drawn to the perfect novels, books like Madame Bovary, but that the better, or certainly more satisfying, works are the less lauded ones, the [mostly] longer, darker, and messier novels [often by the same great writers]. As I recall he actually listed a few titles, and he didn’t mention Bleak House, but you could certainly add this book to the list. No, it isn’t as tight and flawless as Great Expectations, but it is more ambitious, experimental, and perhaps more human.