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Reading Like a Victorian

Posted
28th July 2023
in blog, blogsNnews, People

Here is Susan Hill on Charles Dickens:

‘He is mighty. His flaws are huge but magnificent – and all of a piece with the whole. A perfect, flawless Dickens would somehow be a shrunken, impoverished one. Yes, he is sentimental, yes, he has purple passages, yes, his plots sometimes have dropped stitches, yes, some of his characters are quite tiresome. But his literary imagination was the greatest ever, his world of teeming life as real as has ever been invented, his conscience, his passion for the underdog, the poor, the cheated, the humiliated are god-like. He created an array of varied, vibrant, living, breathing men and women and children that is breath-taking in its scope ( ) His prose is spacious, symphonic, infinitely flexible. He can portray evil and create a menacing atmosphere of malevolence better than any other writer ( ) He is macabre, grotesque, moralistic, thunderous, funny, ridiculous, heartfelt.’ Howards End is on the Landing, Profile Books 2010.

I do agree with Susan Hill – I really do. So why have I read so little Dickens? I read Great Expectations for ‘A’ level – or was it ‘O’ level? Edwin Drood for a book group, and Bleak House because I wanted to. But why not more?

Thinking about it, its the sheer size of the books that I find off-putting. I’ve picked up my Vintage paperback copies with their lovely illustrations and thought – Oliver Twist, that’s 415 pages, Barnaby Rudge, a hefty 720, Dombey and Son, a mind boggling 848. How can I find the time to read SO MUCH? And I put the book back on the shelf…

It was a combination of talking to one of our lovely visitors and an idle wander through the resources of Dickens Journals Online that prompted me to think about how Dickens’ contemporary audience would have first read his stories. They read them in short instalments, mostly published monthly in his magazines Household Words or All the Year Round. Each instalment was teasing, introducing characters and action over a period of time so it was possible to reread and savour. Each instalment ended with a cliffhanger which left Victorian readers itching with anticipation to know what happened next. The books were delivered in tantalizing mouthfuls of story not presented in a great over-facing banquet.

So I started to read Our Mutual Friend (822 pages in my copy!). I divided it into its monthly parts and I’m rationing myself to one every fortnight. I know – not fully authentic but the itch to know what happens next is a strong one. Dickens’ extraordinary craft is so apparent in this instalment reading – he introduces his principal characters over four months in Our Mutual Friend. How will he draw together the disparate threads of his narrative? There’s time to linger over his descriptions of place, laugh at his wonderfully funny set pieces and marvel at his sure grasp of such a winding plot. For me, its’s a reading revelation.

It has made me re-evaluate his mentorship of the emerging writer Elizabeth Gaskell. He knew how to engage his audience. He knew how to write a story. There was a lot to be learned from him. And have I convinced you to try reading like a Victorian?

Lesley, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House


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Elizabeth Gaskell 1863