WHATEVER HAPPENED TO DESCRIPTION? (WITH A STORY ABOUT COGNITIVE POETICS)

I keep on telling my students that I very much want to supervise research on the diminishing use of description in contemporary fiction but nobody is taking the hint–or they do, but then they panic thinking of the technical difficulties a dissertation would entail. So here is more bait, see if anyone bites…

I don’t seem to have addressed here before directly the matter of description, although it is one of my favourite bugbears as a reader. I have mentioned often, I believe, my habit of casting actors as the characters of the fiction I read, as I am increasingly desperate that authors are abandoning description. I always have, besides, serious problems to imagine space at a reasonable scale, which is why reading stage directions is always a nightmare for me (happily Shakespeare didn’t use them…); also, why reading space opera is such a challenge…

So, now and then, I test the waters and ask my students whether they pay attention to how they visualize as they read, hoping perhaps that someone will show me a trick I don’t know. I see that they’re keen to discuss this issue but I have never found a proper way to address it in class. I don’t see myself teaching an elective course on description, either; it sounds a bit weird even to me.

So, as I often do in class whenever the bugbear overpowers me, I’ll cite Dickens. Here’s a favourite Dickensian description, that of 11-year-old Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, in this scene asking Oliver himself, then wandering lonely and forlorn on the London road, what is the matter with him:

“The boy who addressed this inquiry to the young wayfarer, was about his own age: but one of the queerest looking boys that Oliver had even seen. He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age: with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes. His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment—and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had not had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again. He wore a man’s coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back, half-way up his arm, to get his hands out of the sleeves: apparently with the ultimate view of thrusting them into the pockets of his corduroy trousers; for there he kept them. He was, altogether, as roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the bluchers.
‘Hullo, my covey! What’s the row?’ said this strange young gentleman to Oliver.”

The ‘strange young gentleman’ is rendered in a most vivid fashion, and as a reader I thank Dickens for helping me to activate my mental theatre in that efficient way. I do see and hear the Dodger, as I see and hear the rest of his characters.

Funnily, Dickens always published his fiction accompanied by illustrations (George Cruikshank produced 24 for Oliver Twist), which might even seem redundant in view of his florid descriptions. Illustration is today mostly confined to children’s literature though I see no reason why an adult should not enjoy it; at least I very much enjoyed recently the version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (is this YA?) illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell. I am, however, sadly ignorant of when and why illustration was abandoned in books for adults. Christopher Howse suggests that after peaking with Sidney Paget’s work for the Sherlock Holmes stories (in 1891 for Strand Magazine), “illustrations for adult books (until the quite separate development of graphic novels) sank into the weedy shallows of the pulp fiction market” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/children_sbookreviews/10465326/Why-dont-books-for-grown-ups-have-illustrations-any-more.html). In Norman Spinrad’s wickedly funny The Iron Dream (1972) budding artist Adolf Hitler never becomes the tyrant that terrorized the world but a second-rate pulp fiction illustrator getting a meagre living in California…

But I digress. I once heard Kazuo Ishiguro say that description has been diminishing in contemporary fiction because of the impact of cinema, as writers trust readers to supply their own images with just minimalist hints. I’m not sure, however, whether writers realize how annoying the job we have been entrusted with is. I am currently reading the sixteenth novel in the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian and I am still struggling to imagine his two protagonists with the clarity which Dickens provided for even his most minor characters. I know that Jack Aubrey has long blond hair and blue eyes, that he’s tall (but not how tall) and I learned yesterday that he’s verging on the obese as he weighs almost 17 stones (that’s 108 kilos). I know that his once handsome face and well-shaped body are now criss-crossed by a variety of scars after decades fighting the French and other assorted enemies. Yet I’m awfully frustrated that I don’t ‘see’ him as I ‘see’ the Artful Dodger. I checked Deviant Art and I found what I suspected: most illustrations are contaminated by the image of actor Russell Crowe in the film adaptation, Master and Commander. I tried to resist this by casting, following another reader’s suggestion, Chris Hemsworth as Jack (and Daniel Brühl rather than Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin). By the sixteenth volume, however, Jack is past forty and a very bulky man and, so, his face constantly shifts from Hemsworth’s to Crowe’s as I read, while I miserably fail to control my mental theatre. Ironically, if you know the lingo, O’Brian offers a brutal amount of information about any object that can be seen on Jack’s ships…

A student told me yesterday that she had tried the experiment of reading the same character description with a friend (in a contemporary novel). The results were completely different and she was wondering why this was so and whether, in the end, description really helps. She’s got a point, of course. Still, it does help to know that Harry Potter’s eyes are bright green (even though they’re blue in the films) and Voldemort’s red (green in the films…). Perhaps, in view of how much the adaptations have pleased readers, we might claim that Rowling and certainly J.R.R. Tolkien are powerful describers of place and character, no matter how different their post-Dickensian styles are (succinct in Rowling’s case, prolix in Tolkien’s). This is, I insist, a PhD dissertation waiting to be written.

The last time I found extremely detailed character descriptions in a novel this was in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). The protagonist and narrator Patrick Bateman obsesses about what everyone is wearing, seeing people through the lenses of the brands they sport. This, of course, is Ellis’ ironic comment on 1980s avid consumerist society but I wonder to what extent this is also a critique of character description per se as old-fashioned and even in bad taste. Yes, I’m arguing that description has been progressively abandoned because writers find it a) distasteful, b) a drag to write, c) manipulative of readers’ reactions, d) to sum up, bad writing. You should check now whether poorly written fiction carries more description than the more ambitious variety–and here I have just recalled how prejudiced I am against the fiction produced by writers with MAs in Creative Writing precisely because it overdoes description. I mean, however, superfluous description of detail such as the colours of every single flower in a vase, rather than the (for me) necessary details that present the features of a character’s face and body.

As serendipity will have it, I read yesterday a delicious short story by Colombian writer Juan Alberto Conde, “Parra en la Holocubierta” (in Visiones 2015, https://lektu.com/l/aefcft/visiones-2015/5443). He narrates the efforts of a team of specialists in ‘cognitive poetics’ to develop a device that allows readers to record what they imagine as they read. After audiobooks, here come holobooks… Conde very wittily suggests that if we could find a very proficient ‘imaginer’ of what writers describe, like his protagonist Parra, a whole new field of business would bloom around literature. If audiobooks allow adults to indulge in the childlike pleasure of having stories narrated to them, then holobooks appeal to our nostalgia for illustration.

Or, rather, they reveal the hidden truth about contemporary fiction: its reluctance to describe is leaving readers in need of visual interpreters, whether they are film adapters or… holobook readers. And then they say that science-fiction is mere escapism…

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HARRY AND OLIVER: AN EXAMPLE OF (UNCANNY) INTERTEXTUALITY

This intense Harry Potter period of my life seems never to end… I’m currently teaching Oliver Twist to my Victorian Literature class on the usual pretence that they have all read the book and can follow my analysis. Well. Since they need to learn how to write a paper, I explained to them what a conference is and why papers are written, taking the chance to publicise an oncoming event at my own university: a conference on monstrosity (December 2014, Las mil caras del monstruo, http://visionesdelofantastico2.weebly.com/) to which I have submitted a paper on Voldemort. Now, that caught their attention… and mine to their alertness. Three students actually waylaid me at the end of my lecture to demand that I teach again the Harry Potter elective… a tall order!

This is why I decided to use the last 15 minutes of my lecture yesterday to a) present the connections between Oliver Twist and the Harry Potter series, b) introduce students to the concept of intertextuality (first coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966). In the process I learned that the majority of students in class have read Rowling’s saga (and enough Dickens to follow me, good…). Also, that there must be something uncanny in the links between the two authors and the two characters because a girl student got goosebumps several times as I lectured (her physical reaction was certainly intense).

So here we go. Intertextuality, a notoriously wide-ranging term, replaces the old-fashioned idea of ‘influence’. It is, despite the looselessness of its meaning, very useful to discuss how texts keep a dialogue with each other, which can be more or less willed, more or less direct. Some intertextuality is explicit (James Joyce’s Ulysses), some implicit. We can see this for Oliver Twist as well: Terry Pratchett wants us to see at first sight that his novel Dodger connects with Dickens’s work, Rowling is not particularly interested in establishing a connection but this is visible enough and very strong at some points. Uncannily so.

Of course, as a student pointed out yesterday, the list which follows might simply be pure coincidence. Or have just dubious value, I’ll add. Precisely, it was my intention to alert students to the fact that intertextuality tends to be extremely subjective, hard to prove persuasively, and always open to criticism.

Now, consider (sorry about the spoilers):

*Harry and Oliver are orphans. They both spend a miserable childhood, which includes a stay with unsympathetic pseudo-parents (the Dursleys, the Sowerberrys) with a particularly nasty foster mother. They’re both bullied in this foster home by an older boy (Dudley, Noah).
*The trope of the mother’s death is displaced in Harry Potter to Tom Riddle’s birth, the difference being that Merope Gaunt lets herself die after giving birth. Both Agnes (Oliver’s mother) and Merope become pregnant by men who keep with them a relationship beset by problems (Oliver’s father actually seduces the poor woman and tricks her into a false wedding, no matter how much he loves her; Merope bewitches Tom Riddle Sr. with a love potion).
*Both Oliver and Harry are protected by their dead mother’s blood: Harry literally and also in the person of his unkind aunt Petunia; Oliver by his much kinder aunt Rose Maylie, who saves him from his life of crime and the persecution of the main villains.
*Harry and Oliver are roughly the same age (11) when they leave behind their known environment for a new world of which they know nothing: the world of wizarding and the world of crime, respectively. I might argue that Fagin is a wicked version of Dumbledore but I’ll let that be…
*Both James Potter (Harry’s father) and Oliver’s father, Edward Leeford Sr., are characters with moral flaws: James used to be a bully at school, as his victim, Snape, reveals; Leeford was quite dishonest about his marital situation with Agnes.

Here comes my favourite bit: Mr. John Brownlow. This is a rich bachelor gentleman, with a London establishment of his own, and the closest friend of Oliver’s dead father. When after many incidents Rose puts Oliver again in touch with him, Mr. Brownlow ends up offering Oliver a happy home and adopting the boy. The moment I named Sirius Black my students understood that he is Brownlow’s equivalent in the Harry Potter saga, with a difference: he dies too soon, too cruelly. Essentially, once he is rescued from Fagin and Sykes’s hands (thanks to Nancy, another Lily Potter sacrificial figure), Oliver has no role in his own story, except that of offering forgiveness. In contrast, Rowling forces his boy to face his arch-enemy alone, once he’s lost his protectors (Sirius but also Dumbledore, Snape). Dickens, always a sentimental man regarding children, would have been horrified at her cruelty. I am.

Finally, both Oliver and Harry make me wonder about their goodness. Dickens defended himself from criticisms against Oliver’s idealisation claiming that the boy represented a ‘principle of good’ beset by evil. There is a wonderful scene in which Nancy throws a tantrum, full of rage against Fagin’s physical ill-treatment of the boy; her point is that Oliver will soon become a degraded criminal, there’s no need to add abuse to this. Shortly after this explosion, however, Fagin tells Monks, Oliver’s arch-enemy, that the boy is impossible to train for a life of crime as he has nothing to scare him with. Harry seems, likewise, impervious to the attraction of the dark side, no matter how often Voldemort insists that they’re quite similar. In both cases the reward for this triumphant inner goodness is a happy (middle-class) family life with the difference, as I have noted, that the child Oliver is rescued by others from evil (imagine a nice aunt Petunia helping a stable Sirius raise Harry), whereas Harry must grow up and rescue himself.

The goosebumps of the girl student and the wand watching my back as I write (Sirius’s of course) suggest to me that other operations apart from rational intertextuality are at stake in this kind of connection. Most likely, I need Jung’s collective unconscious and not Freud’s idea of the uncanny to explain them, though there’s something truly uncanny at work. Brownlow, based on a well-known Victorian philanthropist of the same name (secretary to the Foundlings Hospital Dickens knew so well) suggests that something resonates in us when we read about unprotected children. I firmly believe Freud was too focused on the little and big dramas of the patriarchal nuclear family to note other figures we set much store by, and which, somehow, Brownlow (adoptive father) and Sirius (godfather) embody. Dickens understood this, by the way, much better than Rowling, which is why he paid homage with his fictional character to the man employed in real life to protect abandoned babies.

I’ll keep on thinking about that. You, too.

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THE MANY LIVES OF THE ARTFUL DODGER

I have finally read Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (2012), a novel oddly marketed as young adult fiction and, yes, closely related to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I was going to write a post specifically on it but, when checking Wikipedia for more information (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodger_(novel)), I’ve come across a strange literary phenomenon: the recent resurrection of Jack Dawkins, a.k.a the Artful Dodger.

Dodger has appeared, according to IMDB, on 28 occasions on the big and the small screen, the earliest in 1912. As Wikipedia claims, the first volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), placed the Dodger in 1898 London, as Fagin’s successor in the business of running a gang of boy thieves. He must have been in his late 70s…

There is, though, a considerable time lapse between that glimpse of the Dodger and The Further Adventures and Life of Jack Dawkins, Also Known as the Artful Dodger by Alan Montgomery (2010). This has left no trace among Amazon readers, a sure sign of its low impact. Tony Lee published next Dodge & Twist: A Sequel To Oliver Twist (2011), which, despite being also little noticed is now, as IMDB confirms, in development as a film. In Lee’s story, a ruined Oliver and his former pal Dodger conspire together to steal the Crown Jewels (?). Then came Pratchett’s Dodger (2012) and Jack Dawkins (2013) by Charlton Daines, with a handful of positive comments on Amazon. Also in 2013 James Benmore published another Dodger, which, like Daines’s, imagines an adult Jack returned from Australia. Benmore’s novel has 22 five star reviews on Amazon.uk: either it is truly attractive or the author has 22 very good friends.

Both US and UK Amazon readers award Pratchett’s Dodger a 4,5 star rating (out of 5). The very negative opinions are about one dozen in total and include a terribly cruel voice. Pratchett is suffering from the worst possible form of Alzheimer’s disease, which makes any new book a little miracle. A displeased reader, however, has the bad taste of attributing the novel’s faults (in his view) to the muddled thinking caused by the disease. He even has the gall to call for the author’s retirement…

Dodger is a quite competent piece of ‘historical fantasy’ (the author’s own label). He stretches historical chronology quite a bit by having Queen Victoria already on the throne although Oliver Twist started publication in 1836 when her predecessor William IV still lived. Charlie Dickens, the street-wise journalist, could hardly have got his inspiration for his Dodger from the Dodger he meets in Pratchett’s London. Still, this doesn’t matter. Pratchett concocts a heady, delicious brew which I truly enjoyed. There is a scene when Dodger is measured for a suit by tailor Izzy when I had the funny feeling of believing I was reading a Dickens novel.

Also present in Dodger are Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Mayhew, Mr. Tenniel and even Sweeny Todd (in a very attractive character rewrite). And two discoveries: philanthropist Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts and Joseph Bazalgette, the civil engineer that tidied up London’s sewers. For Dodger, you see?, is a tosher here –a sewer rat, or scavenger. Pratchett explains that he actually got his inspiration from reading Mayhew’s massive London Labour and the London Poor (1861-2, four volumes), where toshers appear. Dickens himself was well-acquainted with Mayhew, both the gentleman and his work.

Even though Pratchett is undoubtedly Dickens’s disciple, if not living reincarnation, he corrects the master’s appalling anti-semitic bias by totally recycling Fagin. His Solomon Cohen is not a criminal but a refugee who has fled not one but many pogroms in Eastern Europe. He makes a living by repairing delicate mechanisms, the clockwork fancies of the very rich. He has good sense and good connections, from which Dodger benefits. Cohen is a more than a heavy hint that Dickens’ needn’t have linked Jewishness and criminality though, of course, if Fagin had been as generous as Cohen, Oliver’s story would have no point.

This leads me back to my own point: why Dodger? Sweet Oliver Twist is found to be too self-righteous, his story too sentimental. We prefer instead the Dodger’s in-your-face cool –who can forget his speech to the judge that condemns him to be transported for life (which Dickens seems to have borrowed from a real-life boy)? In Pratchett’s version there is not even an Oliver and the only focus is the picaresque adventure that Dodger’s life is. Or struggle for survival, probably the same. No rich Mr. Brownlow for him, though Pratchett does rescue, after all, the Dodger, by means of much more powerful gentlemen –maybe this is what has irritated a few readers. And maybe what won my heart is that Pratchett supposes Dodger deserves being rescued from extreme poverty because, practically out of instinct, he does the decent thing: rescue a battered wife from an appalling marriage. Poor Nancy, if only she’d been so lucky.

Sir Terry asks his readers to read Mayhew’s oeuvre –now waiting in my Kindle. What a challenge for a teacher of Victorian Literature.

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LEARNING TO BE LESS AFRAID OF THE NARRATOR…

This post is, particularly, for our second-year Victorian Literature students who must be this week hurrying up to finish their paper proposals and thus meet the 18th November deadline. They have been asked to write a paper (1,500 words with three secondary sources) on the narrator(s) in either Oliver Twist or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I know from experience that this is for them quite a difficult task as understanding the role of the narrator presents many problems at this stage of their Literary education.

This is because too often fiction is taught as if only the plot and the diverse themes each text deals with mattered, that is, as if how the text in question is built mattered less (or nothing). This is by no means the case. Actually, learning how s story is narrated is a top priority for any aspiring writer and it should be similarly important for university-trained readers.

I’m going to do something a bit odd here, basically recycle my article “The Narrator as Threshold Concept: Comparing Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the English Working Classes in 1844” (in Reading Between the Lines: Discussing Narration in the Literature Class, eds. A. Monnickendam, D. Owen and C. Pividori, 2013 –see my website for the complete text). This article describes the experiment I ran last year by which I invited my previous Victorian Literature students to become aware of the narrator’s role comparing not two novels but a novel and an essay. It worked nicely but not without contradictions, as I ended up developing a set of exercises that I have finally not used again, afraid that they were too ‘secondary school.’

Anyway, as I explained in the introductory segment, Jan Meyer and Ray Land have changed the face of higher education pedagogy by developing their ‘Threshold Theory.’ Their idea is that students necessarily encounter ‘threshold concepts,’ that is, portals that open “a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (2003: 2). They only mention ‘signification’ (2003: 3) and ‘irony’ (2005: 374) as threshold concepts in Literature.

Gina Wisker offers a longer list (2008: 13), including the social context and construction of texts and language, intertextuality, the reading process and critical literacy, representation and signification, ideology, and enquiry and research. Together with Gillian Robinson, she explains that Literature students too often believe that “art is the copy of the real world” (2009: 323). If you put two and two together, you can easily see that a major threshold concept students need to grasp is the narrator’s role as the lynchpin around which art (=Literature) offers a particular representation of the real world. Funny how that is not included in Wisker’s list, which does include much more sophisticated items –or maybe that’s why. We tend to overlook the obvious.

Students were quick to get the idea that the person called Charles Dickens is a much more complex entity than the author Charles Dickens, and also to understand that the narrator in Oliver Twist is a mask (or series of) that author-Dickens assumes. In Brontë’s case it is perhaps easier to understand that the narrator is not the author, much less the real Anne Brontë, as she chose to narrate The Tenant of Wildfell Hall through two fictional characters: a man (Gilbert) and a woman (Helen). So, last year we got a very nice crop of papers dealing with the narrator, although it took a while to refine the proposals into workable, adequate foundations. I have checked the post I wrote back in February: only 6 out of 48 papers were a fail. Good!

Now we’re back to square one, logically, as classes are new no matter how old the experience of the teacher is. I got this question: can I discuss motherhood in Brontë’s novel? No –you can discuss how motherhood affects Helen as a narrator in the later part of her diary. Or: can I discuss alcohol in Brontë’s novel? No –you can discuss how fear of alcoholism conditions the opinions voiced by the female narrator, Helen. In Dickens’s case, you may contradict Karin Lesnik-Oberstein’s theory that this is the narrator’s tale (and not Oliver’s), perhaps explain that narrator-Dickens seems to be a variety of narrators in this text and not a unified construction (hence the inconsistency between sentimentality and the harsh social critique). And so on…

Students’ difficulties are complicated to manage, as one feels tempted to change tack, abandon the idea of the narrator and go back to the more habitual approach. Oh, yes, let’s discuss motherhood, alcoholism, the workhouse, the justice system. Yet, those very same difficulties seem to confirm that it’s in matters like this (yes, the narrator’s role or any other ‘threshold concept’) that students need to work. And teachers, indeed.

I miss more and more a subject which teaches us all the basics of storytelling from a writer’s perspective –not necessarily creative writing, or literary theory (narratology included). I mean, rather, a practical subject that would put students and teachers before the blank page and forced us to make the authorial decisions that result in this or that narrator. Wishful thinking, of course, given the rigidity of our degree structures.

My sources:
Meyer, Jan and Land, Ray 2003: ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines’. Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses, http://www.tla.ed.ac.uk/etl/docs/ETLreport4.pdf
——— 2005: ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (2): Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning’. Higher Education 49: 373-388.
Wisker, Gina August 2008: ‘Connotations and Conjunctions: Threshold Concepts, Curriculum Development, and the Cohesion of English Studies’ (report). The Higher Education Academy: English Subject Centre, http://www.english.heacademy.ac.uk/explore/projects/archive/general/gen2.php
——— & Gillian Robinson 2009: ‘Encouraging Postgraduate Students of Literature and Art to Cross Conceptual Thresholds’. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 46:3: 317- 330.

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INFINITE LAYERS TO THE CAKE: SOMETHING ELSE ON OLIVER TWIST AND THE DEATH PENALTY

Re-reading for the umpteenth time Oliver Twist I finally paid attention to something I’d ignored in the prologue by Philip Horner to the Penguin Classics edition (2002). This refers to Dickens’ publicly expressed opinions on capital punishment and how they should colour our reading of Fagin’s paradoxically unseen public execution.

Intriguingly, both Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray attended the hanging in 1840 of one François Courvoisier, a valet who had murdered his aristocratic master. Anticipating Foucault’s seminal Discipline and Punish, Thackeray gives a very direct testimonial of the loss of effectiveness of public executions. He describes in his article “Going to see a man hanged” (http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/courv.htm) how the 40,000 members of the crowd enjoyed the proceedings as a grim holiday. Deeply shocked by the scene, Thackeray closed his eyes and thus missed the prisoner’s actual death. When he writes that “I came away down Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done,” he sounds as appalled by the callousness of the crowd towards Courvoisier’s ugly punishment as by the state’s cruel assassination of a citizen. Do read the whole text, it is certainly a magnificent chronicle.

Dickens, Horner informs us, first manifested his negative view of capital punishment in a letter of 1845 to Macvey Napier, editor of the prestigious Edinburgh Review. Do read the letter (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25854/25854-h/25854-h.htm) and see how for Dickens the death penalty “produces crime in the criminally disposed, and engenders a diseased sympathy—morbid and bad, but natural and often irresistible—among the well-conducted and gentle,” as all feel its fascination. Dickens also worries that the rabble that attends executions may be tempted to read them as martyrdom rather than exemplary punishment and, so, glamorise crime. Gentlemen are supposed to feel horror, though Thackeray and Dickens were actually among the pioneers to turn the tide against public executions, and not really representative of their (professional) middle-class background.

Horner mentions in passing a set of letters to the editor on capital punishment that Dickens wrote in 1846, as he revised Oliver Twist. Have a look at:

http://home.earthlink.net/~bsabatini/Inimitable-Boz/etexts/dickens_on_capital_punishment.html.

and read Beppe Sabatini’s extensive analysis. Basically, as he says, “Dickens had become more conservative on Capital Punishment, and changed his stand from demanding total abolition (1846) to advocating private executions (1849).”

Returning to the theme he had failed to develop for Napier’s Edinburgh Review, and in view of the popular craze for a series of executions, Dickens finally published his opinions in the Daily News after his own very brief editorship. The letters, which amount to more than 13,000 words, are quite a substantial consideration of the matter, although, essentially, they expand on the arguments advanced to Napier. Dickens writes “in no spirit of sympathy with the criminal” but believes that “a firm and efficient stand may be made against the punishment of Death.” He disputes vehemently the reality of last-minute repentance and religious reformation, questions the right of the state to kill, and, a well-known argument today, prefers that “hundreds of guilty persons should escape scot-free” rather than kill a single innocent by mistake.

The second letter refers directly to Courvoisier’s execution. Like Thackeray, he describes an “odious” mob: “No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes.” In the third letter, Dickens insists that the gallows is no deterrent at all, whether the crime is impulsive or deliberate. Stopping to consider what he calls hate crimes, and we call domestic violence, he claims that the threat of the gallows is by no means women’s ultimate defence but even “that which lures and tempts him on.” Dickens further argues that since executions are no good to prevent crime, they should be stopped. With impeccable logic, he rejects the eye-for-an-eye argumentation, claiming that if we obey the Mosaic law in this, perhaps “it would be equally reasonable to establish the lawfulness of a plurality of wives on the same authority.”

In 1849, after attending a second execution, that of Frederick and Maria Manning, Dickens wrote two more letters, in this case to The Times. In the second he defends for the first time, private rather than public execution “within the prison walls.” Sabatini explains how the report of the Royal Commission (1864-6) “leading to new legislation in 1868” which ended public executions borrowed some arguments from Dickens himself. The last persons executed in Britain (always by private hanging) were murderers Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans, in 1964. The death penalty, Wikipedia confirms, “was abolished in all circumstances in 1998” all over Britain. Just yesterday.

Dickens finished Oliver Twist in 1839, before he attended Courvoisier’s hanging. Now I need to think why he showed in this novel a negative attitude regarding the application of the death penalty to Fagin (as it is obvious from the fact that his execution is not narrated) whereas, in contrast, he imagined for the murderer Sikes an accidental public hanging in the course of his getaway. Fagin, remember, has killed none but clearly prompts Sikes to kill Sikes’ own disloyal girlfriend Nancy and is condemned as an accessory to the crime.

Is this a case of poetic justice? Or is this, rather, hypocrisy? Let the novelist do what the judge should never do…

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BETWEEN THE NOVEL AND THE ESSAY: THE FALL OF BARCELONA, 1714

I was showing my city, Barcelona, to a friend from Madrid almost 20 years ago and when I explained that the Ciutadella (the Citadel) had been built to humiliate the city inhabitants after the Castilian takeover of 1714, he asked in surprise, “What do you mean ‘Castilian takeover’?”. Gosh, did I get that wrong at school? Don’t they teach the same history in Madrid? Surely, I thought, that was 300 years ago and there’s no need to conceal the way things were, not even in Madrid. I must laugh today at how naive we, Catalans, are. And I in particular.

I realised of course that I had been given a very sketchy view of what did happen back in 1714 so eventually, perhaps 5 years ago, I read Josep Maria Torras i Ribé’s La guerra de Successió i els setges de Barcelona (1697-1714) (1999), an academic essay that fell into my hands absolutely by chance (destiny!!). I found the book excellent despite its density (or because of it), and I did wonder why, for all our militant nationalism we had no Catalan War and Peace to tell the same sad events to the world. No such luck, whatever this says about us (or about the fact that only the Russians have managed to produce grand Literature of that kind).

On the very same day when the Minister of Education, José Ignacio Wert, proclaimed the need to ‘españolizar’ Catalan children (10 October 2012), Catalan writer Albert Sánchez Piñol published his first novel written in Spanish, Victus, precisely the story of that terrible siege of 1714. Or so I thought. Lured by the memory of Torras i Ribe’s captivating essay I read Victus‘s five-hundred odd pages in a few feverish evenings –an easy task as the book is a picaresque novel seemingly mostly interested in making adventure out of misadventure.

Until today I didn’t know that one of the two current Esquerra Republicana MPs at the Spanish Parliament, Alfred Bosch, had published in 2008 a trilogy based on the same events, known simply as 1714. For whatever reason, Sánchez Piñol and Bosch have decided on a similar narrative tone and subgenre instead of going for Tolstoi’s throat. Yet, I’ve read blog posts and newspaper reviews calling Victus a great novel. Myself, I lost interest in Victus and respect for Piñol when I read the protagonist Martí Zuviria exclaim ‘guau’ (really), which I doubt was part of a young person’s vocabulary around 1700. I loved his atmospheric La pell freda, which is why I got increasingly annoyed to see my hopes dashed by Piñol’s pseudo-Eduardo Mendoza product (and I love Mendoza!).

Obviously, there’s no rule stating that you can only write great historical novels about your own nation –there’s much dispute to begin with about whether Walter Scott accomplished that. What worries me is that this is a novel in Spanish, the first one about these events, and, as such, it does have an immense didactic value to teach readers like my friend from Madrid what did happen here in Barcelona. The light tone does not conceal the horrors of the siege but the sadness and indignation that Sánchez Piñol elicits are skin-deep in comparison to what Torras i Ribé’s essay got from me. Reading a historical novel in the city where the events happened is an intensely emotional exercise, as it’s easy to imagine yourself in the place of those other fellow citizens. This is why I can’t accept Sánchez Piñol’s decision to turn this tragedy into mere picaresque adventure.

This semester some of my students have been working on a comparison between Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the English Working Classes in 1844. Their conclusion has been, inevitably, that although Engels produces a much more detailed portrait of the horrors faced by the English poor only those interested in History will read his essay. For the majority of readers (and even non-readers) poverty will be for ever best represented by little Oliver. What a joke this is (and remember how I love Dickens). Well, I thank Piñol for teaching me about General Villarroel –the Castilian hero who tried to defend Barcelona– but I’d rather not have Martí stand for all those who saw Barcelona fall.

Nothing I can do about it, of course, except write my own novel. Being talentless for that, this blog post will have to do. Do read Torras i Ribé. And guys at TV3: what are you waiting for, for God’s sake? Or are you afraid of antagonizing those who will swear there was never a Castilian takeover?

MORE ABUSED WOMEN… IN NOVELS BY MEN

An MA student, Rubén, asks me to supervise his dissertation on Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road –a novel I promised myself not to touch ever after seeing the film adaptation (because of its very ugly plot). Yet, what can I do? I like his proposal to consider 1950s masculinity and so… I must read Yates. Another student, Diana, an undergrad, has asked me to work on the representation of love in contemporary fiction for her BA thesis. Since she’s in Dublin as an Erasmus student, I have persuaded her to focus on an Irish author. After some searching, we’ve fallen in love with Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1997). I read the two novels back to back over the weekend and I come to the conclusion that we don’t choose books: they seek us out (to help our reading lists cohere).

Still reeling from the impact of Nancy’s death in Oliver Twist when read aloud in class (just imagine Dickens reading that in public, as he did on his famous farewell tours), I’ve had to face something not so different in Yates’s sickening portrait of American 1955 suburbia and in Doyle’s stark portrait of Dublin’s working-class life in the 1980s and 1990s. The three texts have male novelists consider the plight of abused women, though, of course, the specific nature of the abuse and the social condition of the woman in question is very different. Also, the narrative technique.

Dickens, who could report with such chilling effect the death of a real young woman in one of his sketches (as I commented on), turns Nancy’s murder at the hands of her pimp, Sikes, into something lurid. It seems that the stage adaptations of the novel further sensationalised Nancy’s death, making the scene far longer for the audience to hiss the villain to their content. I do puzzle about why Dickens chose this ugly scene as a set piece for his public readings, 30 years after he wrote it. I just fail to see how the philanthropist that worked to rescue prostitutes from the streets could also be the performer who made piles of money out of Nancy’s death. It seems cruel to me. Still, I know his on her side.

Yates’s novel is that kind of text whose outstanding literary qualities you can easily miss if you focus on the asphyxiating suburban lifestyle it portrays –that this novel made me physically sick is, I believe, an indicator of its effectiveness. Although no academic work has, seemingly, reflected this, Yates anticipated by a couple of years Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) with the heroine April Wheeler. The novel, narrated in the third person, has however this odd problem: it is mostly focalised through the point of view of her husband Frank, quite the average 1950s conformist. He is abusive in the sense that a good deal of the novel deals with his attempts to tame depressive April into being a happy wife, including a ferocious battle over their third child, which she wants to abort. Yet, I can’t tell whether Yates is on his or her side and I very much suspect that many rightwing, pro-life activists might find much to admire in this sad American tragedy.

Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors is the kind of novel that makes you say that stupid thing: ‘My God! How could this male novelist use a first person female narrator so convincingly?’ Stupid since the novelist’s job description includes necessarily a capacity for empathy with any character. Yet, Doyle’s narrative technique is certainly very impressive. Poor Paula Spencer is particularly convincing as an example of how love is most of the time self-delusion, and also in her difficulties to come up with a coherent memoir of her life as a battered wife. Just as Dickens will not justify the behaviour of villains like Sikes, Doyle refuses to justify Charlo’s –which to me is quite right. Some people (whether men or women) are rotten apples and we need to protect their victims before we think of treating them as victims.

As happens, one of my favourite novels is Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), as I admire very much Ellis’s ability to write a first person narration focused on a horrific killer (of women and men, even animals). I have also read with great pleasure Jonathan Littell’s faulty but enticing first-person portrait of a Nazi officer in The Kindly Ones (2006). I don’t know, however, whether I could put up with a story about couple-related abuse narrated by the abuser (man or woman). I don’t even know whether this would have the desired effect of shaming abusers or whether it would rather, as often happens with the news, generate copycat abuse.

Do read Yates and Doyle and consider. Also Dickens, always and ever! (And thanks Rubén and Diana, for the joy of supervising exciting academic work).

AN EARLY PORTRAIT OF GENDER-RELATED VIOLENCE: DICKENS’S SKETCH “THE HOSPITAL PATIENT”

I read with my class the interview in Oliver Twist between the whore Nancy and the lady Rose –both 17-year-old girls separated by a social abyss. Dickens speaks through each girl’s mouth, first to claim (through Nancy) that it’s not inborn malice but the bad luck of finding yourself in an appalling environment as a child that leads to prostitution. Then through Rose’s lips he impresses on Nancy the idea that any prostitute can be ‘saved’, as long as she’s willing to fight for herself (and show repentance for her sin… yes, so typically Victorian). Despite Rose’s perplexed tears, though, Nancy decides to return to her pimp, the brutal Sikes, to be, as she somehow foretells, murdered by him. She just can’t leave him. Or won’t.

Dickens was accused of being untruthful to human nature in making Nancy so defenceless –or, as we’d call her today, so emotionally dependent on her abuser. He lashed back in the 1841 preface to the novel claiming that Nancy’s plight was true enough. He could do no more, lacking the contemporary research on domestic abuse that so well explains why a victim will not abandon her victimiser, not even at the risk of dying. Women like Nancy, used to being abused and exploited from early childhood, end up believing that violence (physical or psychological) is a natural part of human emotional life and even confuse abuse with an expression of love.

One of Dickens’s most poignant sketches is, precisely, “The Hospital Patient” (1836) –which might well be the foundation for his assertion that Nancy is ‘true’ to life. Curious about a street crowd, Dickens reaches a police station where a “powerful, ill-looking young fellow” is being questioned “on the very common charge of having, on the previous night, ill-treated a woman, with whom he lived in some court hard by.” She’s dying in a nearby hospital and, with the police’s permission, Charles the inquisitive young journalist accompanies the magistrates to doublecheck the prisoner’s identity (there were witnesses) –and face, as he knows, a horrific scene. Thus they find the girl: “Her face bore deep marks of the ill-usage she had received: her hand was pressed upon her side, as if her chief pain were there; her breathing was short and heavy; and it was plain to see that she was dying fast.”

When asked to identify her murderer, the victim bursts into tears and claims she injured herself: “He didn’t hurt me; he wouldn’t for all the world. Jack, dear Jack, you know you wouldn’t!” Dear Jack, taken by surprise, starts sobbing –if you believe that. The dying girl assures him that ‘they shall not persuade me to swear your life away. He didn’t do it, gentlemen. He never hurt me.’ Her last words are of repentance (‘I hope God Almighty will forgive me all the wrong I have done, and the life I have led’), followed by a blessing for Jack and love for her poor, disappointed father. Dickens closes the sketch simply with her death, no comments added. It is understood that ‘dear Jack’ will be, anyway, hanged as his neighbours witnessed the attack and her testimony was just a formality.

One can always suspect that Dickens, so fond of sentimentalism, added tears to the already tearful scene and, perhaps, those words of repetance. Yet beyond all this claptrap there lies a truth which he describes as “very common,” at least among low-lives like Jack (Sikes’s predecessor) and his victim (Nancy’s). J.S. Mill later clarified in his The Subjection of Women that middle- and upper-class Victorian ladies were also subjected to all kinds of abuse (Anne Brontë had already made the point in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). What is surprising is why it has taken us so long to react.

By the way, my class and I agreed that in that interview the less credible character is Rose, the lady. Her hands, joined as if in prayer, and her abundant tears when begging Nancy to reconsider her choice seem fantastic –yesterday and today. So far I haven’t found in the Sketches any evidence that angelic ladies like Rose existed -except in Dickens’s imagination.

CHARLES AND MARIANO JOSÉ: A ZEST FOR (CITY) LIFE

A ridiculous moment in Dickens’s ‘paper’ (as he calls them) on a charity dinner in his Sketches by Boz (1836-37) provokes a strong sense of dèja vú. Soon I identify it with a memory of reading Mariano José de Larra’s articles back when I was a secondary-school student and again as an undegrad. Suddenly, I feel very thankful towards those who decided that I was mature enough to read Larra at 15, for that is a fond memory. As fond as that of later enjoying at 19 the whole collection of his 200 articles (within that massive survey course I mentioned two posts ago).

When I google Dickens and Larra together, though, I come up with very little. There’s a trivial article on Christmas dinners –mentioning Dickens’s tale A Christmas Carol and Larra’s acerbic report on overeating and bad table manners, “El castellano viejo.” Google Scholar throws up a couple of references to Lluís-Albert Chillón’s Literatura i periodisme: Literatura periodística i periodisme literari en el temps de la post-ficció (UAB/UJI/URV, 1999). It looks very interesting. As MLA returns zilch when I check “Dickens and Larra”, my guess is that Chillón’s might be the only volume where both writers are mentioned, even together in the same line, as (outstanding) practitioners of literary journalism.

WordReference tells me, as I suspected, that there’s no English translation for ‘costumbrismo’ though, very clearly, from a Spanish perspective (like Chillón’s) it’s easy to see that this is what Dickens produced in the Sketches. I marvel at how many of the characters and observations that later appear in his Oliver Twist are to be found in the Sketches: from the pompous parish beadle to the brutal ruffian with a dog, passing through the nightmarish suffering of the condemned at Newgate (and I have just read the first third). It’s really fascinating to see how Dickens used similar material for literary journalism and for literary fiction within the short span of a couple of years.

Larra (1809-1837) wrote a mediocre historical novel, El doncel de don Enrique el Doliente, which follows from his play Macías. He was more in the line of Walter Scott (1771-1832) than of Dickens (1812-1870). The dates show how, although he was Dickens’s contemporary, Larra belongs somehow to a previous literary generation, that of the Romantics, at least as a fiction writer (that’s 19th century Spain for you…). As a journalist, he’s indeed Dickens’s peer, though, as you may notice, he died the very same year Dickens finished the Sketches.

I still remember my brilliant secondary-school Spanish Literature teacher telling us cooly, with that glint in her eye, that Larra (the idiot!) shot himself dead minutes after his lover demaned that he returned the letters written during their adulterous (on both sides) love affair. He was only 27. His 5-year-old daughter, by the way, was the first to see the body (so much for having guns around the house, and for Romantic suicide). The Museo Romántico of Madrid stil exhibits the very pistol Larra used –a shocking sight!

On a trip to lift up his recurrent depression, Larra visited London in 1835, yet he never met Dickens, as ‘Boz’ was still a nobody. A pity, they would have liked each other. And I realise that this is what the dèja vú elicited: the memory of feeling as a very young reader that I liked Larra, in the sense that I liked the brain (or mind?) producing that writing as much as I like today Dickens, and for similar reasons. Here are two young men –Boz, Figaro– both very clever observers of their reality, which they portray under a stark light with a mixture of wryness and compassion. They both transmit an immense zest for life and an immense keenness on their task as recorders of the urban landscape that they daily examined. They do care.

Now that I’m 30 years older I can understand that whereas Dickens could cope with marital unhappiness and the ugly underside of English Victorian reality to die a most famous author at 58, Larra could not. His despair at Spain’s backwardness –not just Dolores Armijo’s rejection– was too much. That he chose to die by destroying his own brain says it all. How very Dickensian, in an odd sense.

Maybe one day someone will write one of those now fashionable novels or plays in which famous figures of the past meet and we’ll have young Boz and Figaro be amazed at each other, as I am at both.

OLIVER’S BASTARDY: BEYOND THE WORKHOUSE AND INTO THE LAW

Typically, there comes a point when after reading a particular book six or seven times, a new angle opens up and I wonder how come I’d missed that. In the case of Dickens’s Oliver Twist perhaps this has much to do with having overlooked the details of the rocambolesque explanation of the connection between the poor orphan Oliver and his wicked stepbrother, Edward Leeford a.k.a. ‘Monks.’

As Mr Brownlow explains (SPOILERS AHEAD…), Leeford Sr. was married off by his greedy family at the tender age of 21 to what was indeed in Regency times an old maid: a 30-year-old rich heiress. The offspring of the ill-fated marriage was Edward, apparently born wicked because of his parents’ unhappiness. Edwin Leeford not only separated from his wife, but also disowned this elder son for his bad behaviour, at least nominally, not quite legally. The said Edwin then seduced pretty teen Agnes, befuddled her with the excuse that a big secret prevented him from marrying her, and made her pregnant with Oliver, never disclosing that he was already married. Then he fled to Rome, corroded by guilt, to elaborate a plan to, presumably, become a bigamist. Instead, he died and his evil first wife took the chance to destroy a second will in which he acknowledged the existence of Agnes and her bastard (not yet born). This revengeful harridan also told Agnes’s father what a bad girl his daughter was, which brought about her disgrace and her untimely death in childbirth at Mudfog’s workhouse. Monks, learning that the bastard had survived, concocted a strange plan with his buddy Fagin to turn him into a criminal and, if possible, do away with him. Strange, very strange.

The fact that Oliver is illegitimate is hardly concealed in the novel. He gives Noah Claypole a serious beating up for suggesting that Agnes was less than pure and it’s all through quite clear that Oliver can’t name his father. What I had missed is Mr Brownlow’s cornering of Monks until this very poor example of an elder brother accepts sharing what little is left of Edwin’s legacy with Oliver (6,000 pounds). I can’t check Susan Zlotnick’s article “’The Law’s a Bachelor’: Oliver Twist, Bastardy, and the New Poor Law” (Victorian Literature and Culture, 34:1, 2006), nor Laura Schattschneider’s “Mr Brownlow’s Interest in Oliver Twist” (Journal of Victorian Culture, 6.1, 2001) because that would cost me 60 euros –too much to prepare my seminar for tomorrow and satisfy my curiosity. The free access article by Dorothy L. Haller, “Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England” (http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1989-0/haller.htm), however, informs me that although previous to 1834 fathers of illegitimate children had to support them, fear that single women would commit perjury against ‘innocent’ men, led to the Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law of that year. By this, “All illegitimate children (…) were to be the sole responsibility of their mothers until they were 16 years old.” If Agnes had survived, being unable to support her child, she would anyway have ended up in the workhouse with him. This blatant injustice was overturned in 1844 (see also for free, http://www.workhouses.org.uk/poorlaws/newpoorlaw.shtml#Bastardy)

Yet, this is not quite my point. The fact is that through Brownlow (who, remember, adopts Oliver once he’s proven to be a good boy), Dickens defends the right of illegitimate children to be granted equal rights as regards their father’s inheritance. A peculiar website on genealogy (http://www.british-genealogy.com/forums/showthread.php/72235-Illegitimacy-and-inheritance) explains that in 19th century England (not Scotland) “a child who was born illegitimate had no inheritance rights” unless a) the parents married after its birth (without committing bigamy, of course), b) or the illegitimate child would be “provided for in a legal settlement” or “bequeathed a legacy in a legally valid will.” The latter was indeed the case with Oliver, though as Edward’s mother destroys his father’s second will, Monks can very well keep the whole inheritance for himself, as I understand. Only Brownlow’s bullying and the threat of being reported as Fagin’s accomplice in Oliver’s abuse does the trick.

This defence of the bastard –together with that of Agnes as a fallen woman, and of Rose as the collateral damage of that fall– is, now that I think about it, as sensational as Anne Brontë’s defence of Helen as a runaway wife in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I might be totally mistaken in thinking this is not a central issue in Oliver Twist-related bibliography but I certainly had missed it. My apologies to my previous students… it just scares me to think that what other elephant in the room I’m missing.

1844 AND 1902, OR BETWEEN ENGELS AND LONDON: WHAT GOOD IS CAPITALISM?

NOTE: This post was written on 26 July

Preparing for my Victorian Literature subject next semester –in particular for Oliver Twist– I read back-to-back Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (published 1845 in German, 1887 in English) and Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1902). Each is a fascinating account of the stay of the author (complete with proletarian disguise in London’s case) among ‘the other half’ as Jacob Riis would put it, or the other ‘nation’ in Benjamin Disraeli’s lexicon. I’ll grant that I have not read these books just to better understand what Dickens fictionalised in Oliver Twist (1838) and then again far more bleakly in Hard Times (1854), but to find some kind of spurious comfort in the idea that rich Victorian Britain failed worse than current poor Spain in protecting her weakest.

Reading Engels’ thorough account of the misery brought about by the first tides of the Industrial Revolution I have a feeling not dissimilar from what I felt when reading Roger Casement’s Congo Diary (1902) and comparing it to Heart of Darkness (1897): I’m quite annoyed that not even the best Victorian fiction was up to the task of representing the horrific reality of the poorest, whether in central England or Africa. It irks me that in Oliver Twist Dickens can so rely on a shameless sentimental plot to save the angelic Oliver from a worse-than-death fate. Likewise, it irks me that Conrad’s prose poem focuses on Kurtz rather than on his victims. Then I pause to think that Dickens, not Engels, has left us the most vivid portrait of the tyrannical abuse that the workhouse system heaped on the poor. Again likewise, Conrad, not Casement gave us the most crushing portrait of colonialist greed. Yet, and this is a big yet, for a moment I’m tempted to simply drop Dickens and teach Engels –not to worry, I’ll just use Engels’ criticism of the workhouse as a bitter side dish.

Jack London was roughly the same age as Engels (around 25) when he reported on the horrors of the East End, where tomorrow the 2012 Olympic Games will finally allow the Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, to chuck out the proles and make room for gentrification. Engels and London, both foreigners curious about the richest empire of their time, found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer squalor they met. Engels was writing at a time when children could still be employed up to 10 hours a day (there was no state-sponsored primary education until 1871); he wonders how far the degradation of human life will go in an England subjected to periodical economic crisis. London visited his namesake city almost 60 years later, at the time of Edward VII’s coronation, to report on the effect of that terrible squalor on subsequent generations. He stresses that this is a prosperous time for Britain; still, the systematic abuse that Engels described prevails with little improvement.

Surely I’m not the first reader to be upset by London’s last chapter, in which he wonders whether “Civilization [has] bettered the lot of man”. He compares the Inuit folk of Alaska, a “very primitive people” who are “healthy, and strong, and happy” except at times of occasional famine with the citizens of London’s East End. His conclusion is that whereas the Inuit suffer only in “bad times” East Enders “suffer from a chronic condition of starvation.” He notes that “each babe (…) is born in debt to the sum of $110. This is because of an artifice called the National Debt,” which rings a bell here in Spain. London is sharp: “Since Civilization has failed to give the average Englishman food and shelter equal to that enjoyed by the Inuit, the question arises: Has Civilization increased the producing power of the average man? If it has not increased man’s producing power, then Civilization cannot stand.”

Indeed, it doesn’t –just replace ‘Civilization’ for ‘Capitalism’ and you’ll see how 110 years later, although the extreme squalor is gone from the streets of Western Europe (at least, I assume so), the same truth stands: not even the richest countries in the world, whether the United States or China, can prevent their poorest citizens from suffering much –indeed, they don’t care. Here in Spain we were satisfied, believing we had managed to strike a happy medium but, sadly, this has proved as delusional as the idea that Victorian Britain got ‘Civilization’ right.

TERRY AND CHARLIE: THE (VICTORIAN) CONNECTION SURFACES

I must thank my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter, for inviting me to overcome my prejudice against the colourful covers of Terry Pratchett’s novels and kicking me head first into the Discworld. 17 years and 39 novels later I can only say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you…’ for so much literary pleasure. As happens, I have just started supervising a PhD dissertation on Pratchett (by Rosa María Moreno), thus breaking the rule that treasured authors must be kept just for pleasure.

Rosa María’s focus are five of the best novels and, in particular, how humour is constructed in them. Pratchett is a superb writer of comic fantasy and one of the best-kept secrets of English Literature, in view of the little academic attention he has received (talk about prejudice…). All his novels reach systematically the top of the best-selling list in the UK but I know very few academic readers of his work, if any, and just a handful of fans (Rosa María among them). There’s a book-length monograph about him called Accused of Literature and that seems to be the problem: that calling Pratchett a literary author sounds pretty much like an accusation. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching the 25th Discworld novel, The Truth (still my favourite) and his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, though I must acknowledge that Pratchett’s dense web of allusions (he’s a very sharp satirist) make reading his novels a hard task for many students. This is one of the paradoxes of popular fiction in the university classroom –Joyce ends up seeming more accessible… (right, Rosa María?)

The reason why I’m writing this posting is sheer serendipity. I have just gone through Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, with the usual immense pleasure I find in reading his work. One of my colleagues, Néstor, saw the copy on my table and he launched into enthusiastic praise of Dickens. We both agreed that a) a non-native learner of English can only fully appreciate Dickens after reaching 40 (sorry, students!) and b) there’s none like him to portray eccentricity and absurdity (Becket is just a would-be-Dickens…).

Then I read Pratchett’s latest paperback, Snuff, and something clicked: hang on, this is Dickens, passed, yes, through Tolkien and Monty Python. I have never doubted that Pratchett’s chaotic Ankh-Morpork is Victorian London and I have always found something endearingly Victorian in the Discworld’s reluctant yet wide-eyed embrace of new technology. Yet, as Pratchett is otherwise very up-to-date in his social criticism, I had missed the Dickens in him (silly me, all that talk of justice and injustice!).

To my immense surprise (and, yes, pleasure) Pratchett himself has pointed out the obvious: his next hardback, due September, is called… Dodger!, and yes, it has Charlie Dickens in it, together with all those other Victorian eccentrics. I’m teaching Oliver Twist again starting next September and I do know it’s going to be a long summer, waiting for the master to see what he’s done with the master in Dodger. I’m sure indeed that Dickens would have enjoyed reading any of Pratchett’s books.

Two more things. The Discworld series has been narrating over the years the progressive inclusion of ‘ethnic’ minorities other than human in Ankh-Morpork’s society. The police force, its most symptomatic example of integration, already boasts among its ranks a werewolf, a troll, dwarves and, indeed, Igors and vampires in its ‘CSI’ team. Snuff is all about Commander Vimes’s heroic fight to have goblins acknowledged as full citizens. And, yes, also by sheer serendipity I have just read George MacDonald’s Victorian classic for children, The Princess and the Goblin (1872). I do know that goblins are much older creatures, possibly our guilty memory of the Neanderthal we exterminated. Yet, reading MacDonald’s callous presentation of the goblins as pure monsters, I realised even with more clarity how Pratchett is following Dickens’s wake in undoing Victorian (and indeed post- or neo-Victorian) prejudice. Perhaps the telling difference is that sentimentalism is (almost) gone. Um, well, instead of Little Nell you get a goblin girl move Ankh-Morpork’s high society to tears… with a harp.

To finish: Pratchett has Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages, which is why, I’m sure, his last eight novels or so, are much darker (or maybe the world is to blame for that). Also, why each new book is so precious to us, fans. Let’s then, look forward to Dodger.

RISING UP TO THE CHALLENGE: IS MAKING THINGS HARDER THE BEST WAY TOWARDS IMPROVEMENT?

I am now part of a team of UAB and UB Literature teachers grouped together in an ‘MQD’ project (‘Millora de la Qualitat Docent’ = Teaching Quality Improvement). Our aim is improving our methodology by focusing on the narrator when teaching Literature. This is the reason why we decided to ask students to write their critical papers for Victorian Literature (second year) either on the narrator in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist or Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, novels that I have already mentioned here.

The process of writing the paper has been quite hard, as we expected, for our students. Many had difficulties understanding what we meant by asking them to focus on the narrator, used as they are to focusing on textual and contextual aspects, from the characterisation of a particular figure to socio-historical issues. Luckily for us, even though we didn’t plan this beforehand, the two novels contrast nicely as regards the narrator, since Dickens’s is famous for its overbearing third person narrator, whereas Brontë’s –technically an epistolary novel– is a first person narrator that mixes a diary written by a woman with letters written by a man. This helped us, as we could always appeal to this contrast when explaining how each novel is, at heart, the result of a collection of choices made by the author about how to narrate it. I think we also got very lucky in that the academic articles selected to boost class discussion (Karín Lesnik-Obertsein’s on Dickens and Carol Senf’s on Brontë) were quite productive in content and as models for our students.

Students were asked to submit a proposal mid-term, with a title, an abstract and quotations from three sources. This they did, with many difficulties, as I say, particularly as regards formulating a thesis. To my surprise –and that of my colleague in this subject– there is not a direct correlation between the quality of the abstracts and that of the final paper. Mainly, in quite a few cases, bad proposals led to very good papers, which is mystifying enough… In the end, students submitted 48 papers, of which I asked for re-writings in 23 cases due to editing problems (the content was acceptable but presentation matters had been approached with quite a cavalier attitude). I have failed finally only 6 papers… though I believe I’m quite a demanding teacher (maybe I’m not?).

So, my conclusion is that when a teacher poses a challenge students feel compelled to rise up to it. Ergo: I need to make things not necessarily more difficult but indeed more demanding (first year students, be warned!). I must say I have worked very hard to help students progress but they have made an effort, in some cases an impressive one. This must be acknowledged. I even emailed all of them to congratulate them, ask them to please remember the lesson learned with the paper and wish them good luck in the third year.

What I simply can’t understand is why NOBODY has answered that message… Maybe that’s my next challenge…

POST OLIVER TWIST: NOT THE BEST CHOICE BUT A GOOD CHOICE NONETHELESS

Having taught several times Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations I had serious doubts that Oliver Twist would be a satisfying text to teach, being, as it clearly is, inferior to this other novel. Why change the syllabus, then? The usual: my colleagues’ worries that Great Expectations is too hard to grasp for second-year students (yes, a patronising judgement, perhaps). Also, Oliver is reasonably short, though I am sure my students would dispute this claim. We agreed to give it a try and, fine, it’s worked reasonably well. Considering, of course, that possibly one third of our two classes did not have the book… and just listened to us babbling about it non-stop.

I must say that much of the satisfaction I’ve found in teaching this novel comes from my colleague David Owen’s decision to apply for an MQD (‘better teaching’) grant, which he received; so did we as part of his group. The idea is that in order to improve our Literature teaching we are to focus on the narrator (whenever we teach fiction, of course), which will supposedly give our courses more coherence. This has certainly helped in Oliver Twist’s case, particularly in contrast with our current novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as Dickens’s novel is a third person narrative in his typical flamboyant style whereas Tenant has two main first person narrators, in the style the Brontë sisters seemed to prefer. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein’s excellent article “Oliver Twist: The Narrator’s Tale” has provided not only a good model students can follow when writing their own papers but also valuable insight into the problem of why/how the protagonist of this book hardly deserves the name of ‘subject,’ being as he is mostly absent from the text.

Nonetheless, I miss Pip and Estella and, indeed, Miss Havisham in her tattered wedding dress. Every time Oliver opens his little mouth to speak in that impossibly sentimental language no living child has ever used, I think of little Pip’s tale of how he was scared stiff by the presence of that ogre in his native marshland… Oddly enough sunny Mrs. Maylie and her adoptive daughter Rose seem to mirror Miss Havisham and her own adoptive child Estella, a much murkier pair. They would heartily despise the Maylie women for being sentimental fools, which makes me wonder what happened to Dickens between 1837, when Oliver was imagined and 1860, when Pip was.

So, dear students, if you read this, just enjoy Great Expectations next summer. Perhaps, in the end, the best praise I can offer to Oliver Twist is saying that, if you loved it, happily for you there’s plenty of much better Dickens to enjoy.

IF I WERE CHARLOTTE DICKENS… (HOW I’D REWRITE OLIVER TWIST)

I don’t particularly favour the fashionable type of novel that attempts to update a classic by adding to it (the sequel to Pride and Prejudice by Emma Tennant, Pemberley), by paying homage (Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip), or by radically rewriting it (Ben Winters’s Android Karenina). If you want to tell a story, find your own topic.

However, yesterday, in the middle of lecturing on Oliver Twist, it suddenly occurred to me, and so I told my students, that it would be great to rewrite Dickens’s novel as the story of Rose Maylie’s failed attempt to rescue Nancy from prostitution and from her sick addiction to Sikes. Dickens’s imaginary sister Charlotte – I’m thinking here of Virginia Woolf’s imaginary Judith Shakespeare– would be up to this task, I’m sure, possibly following Elizabeth Gaskell rather than her own namesake Charlotte Brontë. Our 21st century Sarah Waters would, no doubt, in view of her spicy pseudo-Victorian fiction, like the sexy Tipping the Velvet, rewrite Rose and Nancy as two passionate, romantic Victorian lesbians. Now, that’s something I’m sure even Dickens would like to read…

As I explained to my students, mostly young women who are receiving my feminist tirades with more eagerness than I’ve met in recent years, Dickens was very deficient at writing female characters. His imagination, in the grip of his misogyny and of his obsession with his dead teen sister-in-law Mary and other women he loved (not his wife Catherine), seemed only capable of creating bland heroines like Rose Maylie. Yet, he did better with the bad girls. With Nancy, this poor thing unable to escape victimisation since the devious Fagin traps her in childhood, Dickens manages to create quite a heroine or, rather, a hero, as I mean not only that she is a main female protagonist but also that the heroic acts in the novel fall completely on her shoulders. Rose does nothing but believe in Oliver’s innocence against all evidence simply because he looks positively angelic; she tries to sacrifice herself and Harry Maylie’s happiness because of her obscure birth, but, essentially, she is just a good girl. Nancy, and this shows Dickens’s boldness, is first just one of Fagin’s gang, even becoming Oliver’s very public, cheeky kidnapper. Yet, seeing how his ill-treatment recalls so harshly her own by Fagin –which led her to prostitute herself possibly just aged 12- she relents and becomes the boy’s only champion in the underworld. As every Dickens fan knows, her moral choice to help Oliver by revealing Fagin’s plotting to the boy’s protector, Rose, costs Nancy her own life, in that famous murder scene that Dickens used to perform with such manic glee.

My favourite moment in this novel, and the inspiration for the rewriting I’ll never produce, is that scene in which Rose, supported by Mr. Brownlow, subtly but firmly offers to help Nancy by retiring her from criminal life. Rose wants Nancy, above all, to abandon Sikes but, like many abused women still today, whether they are prostitutes or not, she is too emotionally dependent to abandon her abuser… and so she tells Rose, in full consciousness of her predicament. Dickens was criticised for this, as he seemed to force the situation and withdraw from poor Nancy the reward she deserved. Yet, to my mind he made a realistic narrative choice, characterising, besides, Nancy as a reluctant (anti)-hero rather than as a full blown heroine like Rose, who does get her Harry. Of course, it is interesting to note that, whereas Rose is generous and open to doomed Nancy, her own adoptive mother, Mrs. Maylie, almost brings total unhappiness to Rose’s life by denying her her son’s love, as Rose is nothing but a nameless orphan until the mystery of her origin is solved together with Oliver’s. That she chooses to welcome and help Nancy must have sounded truly radical in 1837. Still today.

Rose and Nancy, the imaginary novel by the imaginary Charlotte Dickens, might perhaps rank high in a gallery of best unwritten Victorian fiction, together with other ghostly novels like The Angry Child Inside Me, a rewriting of Wuthering Heights in Heathcliff’s own words written by the imaginary Charles Brontë, or Wildness Calls by Oscar Stoker, in which Jonathan leaves Mina for Dracula to become a fulfilled Transylvanian count.

Add your own… !