Eoghan Harris

Thursday 21 August 2014

Eoghan Harris: Cherish Charles Dickens and chase those blues away

Eoghan Harris

Published 26/02/2012 | 05:00

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CHARLES Dickens, if still around after 200 years, would be living in Ireland for tax reasons, standing in for George Hook, doing Dail reportage like John Drennan and Miriam Lord, penning novels with characters like Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, and writing a weekly column in the Sunday Independent.

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Dickens started as a reporter, and never really resigned from the job. Like Con Houlihan in Croke Park, he studied the spectators as well as the match.

In a Paris morgue he records the expressions of spectators staring at the corpses as "looking at something that could not return the look".

Pat Rabbitte might note that Dickens, as a parliamentary reporter, found politicians prone to be pompous. Dickens also dispensed good advice to government ministers who get huffy at media criticism: "A man in public life expects to be sneered at -- it is the fault of his elevated situation, and not of himself."

My own favourite Dickens novels are not the big books like Bleak House and Little Dorrit so beloved of the BBC and English Lit. I prefer the five which make me laugh like a cat: Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son.

Claire Tomalin, Dickens' biographer, worries his novels are too long for the young generation. Surely not if they can wade through Harry Potter? But if you can't read Dickens at least download an audio. Because he is funny enough to banish depression and possibly combat cancer.

Even at 11 years of age, when I first came across the Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers, Dickens made me laugh out loud. Like he made four generations of my family laugh: my Fianna Fail father, my Old IRA grandfather and my Fenian great-grandfather.

Because the books I read as a boy had been through all their hands.

Dickens was only 25 when he wrote Pickwick Papers. And his comic genius did not wane with age. Ten years later, in Dombey and Son he sent up his Romantic contemporaries' fashionable posturings about Nature -- which still flourishes today in our own Organic Order.

So Mrs Skewton sighs: "Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a Swiss farm and to live surrounded by cows -- and china. We are so dreadfully artificial. I want Nature everywhere. It would be so extremely charming."

And in the same novel he skewers an approach to education we still meet in captains of industry, in the character of Mrs Pipchin, whose system of education was "not to encourage a child's mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster".

He got funnier with age. At 63, in Our Mutual Friend he created the imperishable ignoramus, Mr Podsnap, who reduces all artistic matters to the following simple formula: "The question about everything was, would it bring a blush into the cheek of the young person?"

The same novel is crammed with similar comic characters: "Mr and Mrs Boffin sat staring at mid-air, and Mrs Wilfer sat silently, giving them to understand that every breath she drew required to be drawn with a self-denial rarely paralleled in history."

Even the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood shows Dickens in flying form. Rosa is shocked to discover that Mrs Twinkleton does not read fairly: "She cut the love-scenes, interpolated passages in praise of female celibacy, and was guilty of other glaring pious frauds."

Here is Mr Sapsea in the same novel. "Miss Broptys being, young, young man, was deeply imbued with Homage to Mind. When I made my proposal she did me the honour of being so overshadowed by a species of awe that she could only articulate the two words: 'Oh Thou'."

But if Dickens could make you laugh, he could also make you cry. Sometimes at the same scene. Oscar Wilde defied anyone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing. But Daniel O'Connell was so devastated he threw the book from the window of his train

Dickens had a downside. He was afraid of adult women. Maybe that is why he is so sharp about the scary side of some spinster solitaires. Pip in Great Expectations observes Miss Havisham training Estella to be a bunny boiler. "Break their hearts my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!"

While Dickens could be funny about women as a writer, as a man he hadn't a clue. Miriam Margoyles, in her addictive audiotape, Dickens' Women hilariously recalls his shock when a childhood sweetheart he insisted on meeting after he became famous, turned up fat and minus most of her teeth.

Margoyles intones sadly: "Dickens never got over it." She pauses, and then adds with a briskness that brings the house down: "Actually Dickens never got over anything!"

Just as well. He also never got over the humiliation of being sent to work in a blacking factory when his father was jailed for debt. But it left him with a life-long feel for underdogs, including the Jews, the Irish and even the sexually excluded.

Unlike most writers of his day, Dickens did not demonise Jews as weak and contemptible. Fagin, in Oliver Twist, is a formidable figure. And Our Mutual Friend contains a sincere if sentimental appeal against anti-semitism.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Dickens was not inimical to the Irish. Moore's Melodies plays in the background of his books. And he respectfully recorded the speeches of Daniel O'Connell, who returned Dickens' regard -- except when he killed off Little Nell.

Dickens toured his one-man show through Ireland. Everywhere he played to enthusiastic audiences -- although Niall Toibin would not be surprised to hear that Dickens felt Cork had held back on the adulation. But modern Ireland is finally heeding him on family finances.

Here is Mr Micawber in David Copperfield on the household budget: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery." He was also sympathetic to the sexually marginalised. Little Dorrit has a moving scene with the lesbian Miss Wade, but done so subtly there is no fear of it bringing a blush to the cheek of Mr Podsnap's young person.

Dickens had good politics. He hates social injustice. But like Shakespeare, he had a horror of mobs masquerading as "the people". That is why A Tale of Two Cities refuses to romanticise revolution.

George Orwell, noting Dickens was no socialist, simply sees "the face of a man who is generously angry -- in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls."

Sunday Independent

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