Monday, January 18, 2010

The Year of Dickens, George Eliot & the Pop Fiction Front

Last year was the year of Dickens. It started with Drood, Dan Simmons’ novelistic re-creation of the last five years of Dickens’ life, as narrated by a jealous and vindictive Wilkie Collins. This blockbuster was over-long, but brilliant and exciting, and put me in the mood to read Dickens. I reread Bleak House, a masterpiece, and Little Dorrit, a pretty good but not great Dickens. I must admit that LD was exhausting. Little Dorrit as a character is one-dimensional and cloying, as opposed to the complex, humorous, and sensitive Esther Summerson of BH. Both do good, and I especially love Little Dorrit's relationship with Maggie, but Esther, also an amateur social worker, is deeper and more fully realized. There are many parallels between LD and BH that struck me because I read them so close together, but I was grateful to finish LD after five months. Sadly, I'm no longer a Dickens person. I love BH and Our Mutual Friend, but have no intention of reading any of the others for some time after my 2009 Dickens Marathon.

(N.B. By the way, does it strike anyone else that dovegreyreader is the Esther Summerson of bloggers? This is kind of a crazy thought, but doesn't she strike you as a Personality Who Is Also Kind? I haven't analyzed other bloggers in terms of Dickensian character. I don't know why this came to mind.)

This, I’ve decided, is the year of George Eliot. I found a nice Penguin of The Mill on the Floss at a book sale. Always fascinated by the strange things people mark in books, I can only be thankful this reader dropped her course or threw away her pen after three pages. On the first page, the reader underlined: “Just by the red-roofed town the tributary Ripple flows with a lively current into the floss.” Then she underlines, “And this is Dorlcote Mill.” On the next page, it’s “Now I can turn my eyes towards the mill again and watch the unresting wheel sending out its diamond jets of water.” Preparing for a paper on place in Eliot?

So I’m starting Eliot tonight, after a period of five or six years of reading other 19th-century authors, especially Trollope and Oliphant. I’m very excited about reading Eliot again. Middlemarch was the first long Victorian novel I read, after exhausting all the medium-length Thomas Hardys. It was so much better than Gone with the Wind, I thought enthusiastically. (I had spent a week reading GWTW as a high school student,) Well, a different period, of course, but in my system of cataloguing both counted as LONG books. I’ve read Middlemarch three times, the first time after it was recommended by an older literary friend who had a great influence on me. Eliot’s sentences are serious, clear, and gorgeously crafted. Her style is a rest after Dickens’ baroque rhetorical figures, impudent, stylized dialogue, and constant humor.

I can’t wait to read about Maggie and Tom.

ON THE POP LITERARY FICTION FRONT: Gail Godwin’s Unfinished Desires is beautifully written but also has all the ingredients of good pop. This addictive, fast-moving novel concentrates on the social intrigues and power politics of a Catholic girl’s school in North Carolina of the ‘50s, jumping back and forth in time and alternating viewpoints of nuns and students. (If you attended a Catholic school, you won’t want to miss this.) The premise is that Mother Ravenel, the former headmistress and an alumna of the school, has been commissioned in 2001 by alumnae to write its history. The novel is dominated by a ninth-grade class of Machiavellis who even managed as sadistic sixth graders to drive away a lay-teacher who’d thrived there for 20 years. The individuals are fascinating and this is the kind of book you can pick up and lose yourself in for a couple of hours at a time. Godwin is an energetic writer with a gift for delineating strong southern women. She is also very interested in the religious life, as her fans know.


Vintage Reading said...

I'm going through a Victorian phase right now and planning a re-read of The Mill on the Floss this year, too. I'll be looking out for your thoughts.

Danielle said...

I didn't realize that Drood is narrated by a vindictive Wilkie Collins. Poor Wilkie--I'm sort of fond of him. For some reason I find him easier going than Dickens (maybe it's the sensationalist aspect that appeals to me). Last year Bleak House was supposed to be my winter read, but it got set aside a third of the way in. I was looking at it sitting on the shelf under my night stand just this afternoon thinking I wonder if I could pick it up and just continue on without starting from the beginning? And I recently bought Little Dorrit, too. Interesting comparison. Maybe I'll read them back to back, too. :) (though maybe not as I am well into A Man of Property! Yay). I always love your insight into the characterizations of novels! And I loved Middlemarch--I think it might have been the first really long Victorian novel I read, too. It's one I really need to reread as I am sure I didn't get it all the first time around. Have fun reading George Eliot!

Frisbee said...

i'm so glad you love George Eliot. We'll be able to swap comments! I found my old Riverside copy of The Mill in the Floss and only underlined one thing in the whole book. Whatever my thoughts were I kept them quiet.

Danielle, I really prefer Wilkie Collins to Dickens, too. This was not always the case, but Collins is newer to me. Drood is fun--Wilkie is such a good narrator! But he's also crazy and hallucinating. This is an enjoyable book,

Bleak House is a wonderful classic, but, like you, I read it over a period of months. I'm sure you CAN pick it up again and keep reading. Nabokov has a brilliant essay on Bh in his lectures on English literature, which I turned to when I lost inspiration. BH used to be my favorite book,. I
loved the first half of Little Dorrit and then got bogged down. I spent four months reading it. But there are people who swear by Dorrit, and I haven't seen the PBS production yet.