Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bleak Houses and Little Houses on the Prairie

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, an author whom I have both loved and loathed.  I first fell in love with A Christmas Carol, the pathway of many people into the work of Dickens.  I wonder how Dickens would feel if he came to us today, and we told him of the popularity of that work.  Would he say, "Great!  I'm just happy someone is still reading my work.  It was hard enough to get readers and keep them during my day."  Maybe he would say, "Hey, I'm owed some royalties.  But what else is new?"  I've often wondered if he would say, "But I worked so much harder on works that I'd prefer you consider my masterpieces!"

I've read many of those masterpieces, but there are huge gaps in my Dickens reading.  I've read Bleak House, but only after I tried to slog through it several times before the year I finally finished it.   It's one of many classics where I can recognize the art and the mastery, while being exhausted by it.

I much prefer Hard Times.  It seems like the perfect Dickens work to me, with its scathing criticism of industrialization, education, and the plight of the poor.  I hated Great Expectations.  I felt guilty about that, until I read this great article that explores myths about Dickens in the Sunday The Washington Post.  The author says that "it has always seemed odd to me that teachers think Great Expectations is a good novel for young adults. Just when they are embarking on their adult lives, we give them this story that says: You will never fully comprehend the most important events in your life while they are happening. Any plans you make will not work out — and you may grow up to be a jerk. If you are lucky, however, a series of traumatic events will wake you up and show you how insufferable you have become."

I also love Oliver Twist.  Sure, there's that unfortunate musical that makes it look like being an orphan boy in Victorian London would be a fun romp.  But go back to read the book.  Again, Dickens shows us the precariousness of life in Victorian London.  And this book shows the plight of women, in some poignant ways.

Dickens is one of those authors whose personal life might impact our opinion of him.  He had a wife, but he took up with an actress.  He separated from his blameless wife who had borne him 10 children.  I know that many academics would tell us that it's not fair to judge writers by modern standards or by our own morality, but I don't always agree.

If you want a celebration of Dickens, I loved this NPR piece this morning.  The audio will be up shortly, but you can read the transcript now.

Today is also the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the first author whom I loved completely.  I have written about the impact of her Little House series before, so I won't belabor the biographical details or my own fascination with/yearning for homesteading.

The biographical piece of her life that jumped out at me this morning was that she didn't start writing until she was in her 60's.  I felt this odd surge of hope.  We're surrounded by stories of people who lose their jobs when they're in their late 40's or 50's, and we hear about how dim their chances are of ever getting full-time work again.

Yet there are plenty of alternate stories of people who make a profound switch at midlife or early old age.  It's never too late to reinvent ourselves!

Or, as another British Victorian writer, George Eliot, would remind us, it's never too late to become the person you were meant to become.


Kathleen said...

Kirstin, I love reading about how you connect (or don't!) with certain authors. Loved the summary quotation you chose from the Jonathan Grossman article! Exactly! That is, the summary rings true to me about what happens to people in life sometimes. Oh, that we would all wake up in time! I liked the Orwell quotation in the article, too, summing up Dickens as saying, "If men would behave decently, the world would be decent," which, of course, is true, and beyond platitude in the difficulty of making that happen! I liked how Grossman honored that in Dickens, who shows us the moral complexity in humans, the circumstances that get in the way of people's decency, etc., all with so much compassion and creating, sometimes, an urgency in us to stand up to injustice or evil and say no.

Shefali Shah Choksi said...

Maybe it's time to revisit dickens? how about reading one with our book club?

Hannah Stephenson said...

I totally agree with you about Bleak House. I kept thinking, "Ugh..." I couldn't get through it...

Oliver Twist is fun, definitely! Aunt Betsy (sp) is great.

I didn't know that Laura Ingalls Wilder started writing later in life...that is wonderful, somehow...

Kristin said...

Thank you all for dropping by and commenting.

Shefali, after the slog through Michener's "The Source," I think our book club would be wise to NOT consider Dickens :)