Sunday, January 22, 2017

`Outside Is the Calm Measureless World'

Philip Larkin is reading Great Expectations in 1951 when he writes from Belfast to Monica Jones that the novel’s “`irrepressible vitality’, this `throwing a fresh handful of characters on the fire when it burns low’, in fact the whole Dickens method -- it strikes me as being less ebullient, creative, vital, than hectic, nervy, panic-stricken” (Letters to Monica, 2010). I was a sucker for the “whole Dickens method” as a boy, and that may be the perfect time to read him, when we can still fall for undiluted sentiment and slapstick. If pressed to read one Dickens novel today, it would be his first, Pickwick Papers, and largely for the language. (The reason we can't stop reading Wodehouse.) Remember Alfred Jingle on the coach ride early in the novel:

“`Heads, heads - take care of your heads’, cried the loquacious stranger as they came out under the low archway which in those days formed the entrance to the coachyard. `Terrible place – dangerous work – other day – five children – mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash – knock – children look round – mother's head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in – head of family off – shocking, shocking.’”

That still makes me laugh but a little silliness goes a long way, and much writing is age-specific. Dickens, like Hemingway, is ideally read by children and teenagers. The strokes are broad, as are the humor and the emotional string-pulling. I admire Dickens’ linguistic energy but his stories, like Dostoevsky’s, are best read early when their ham-handedness is less likely to bother us. Larkin goes on:

“If he were a person I should say `You don't have to entertain me, you know. I'm quite happy just sitting here.’ This jerking of your attention, with queer names, queer characters, aggressive rhythms, piling on adjectives - seems to me to betray basic insecurity in his relation with the reader.”

Larkin might be describing the novels of Pynchon, Heller, Vonnegut and the rest of the cartoon crew. Adults want something more substantial than Dickens, and Larkin proposes it:

“How serenely Trollope, for instance, compares. I say in all seriousness that, say what you like about Dickens as an entertainer, he cannot be considered as a real writer at all; not a real novelist. His is the garish gaslit melodramatic barn (writing that phrase makes me wonder if I'm right!) where the yokels gape: outside is the calm measureless world, where the characters of Eliot, Trollope, Austen, Hardy (most of them) and Lawrence (some of them) have their being.” 

Larkin allows plenty of room for dissent. I can’t abide Hardy’s novels or a single word written by Lawrence. And Larkin -- who once asked "Who is Jorge Luis Borges?" -- sticks exclusively to English writers.


sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you for the quotation from Larkin. I have found that it's true that Dickens taught me how to be a careful reader--when I was a teenager. The relatively miniature range and scope of his characters provide an ideal introduction to the great world of the Victorian novel. I came down on the side of Trollope by the time I was older, but will always cherish Dickens for populating my adolescence with fine reading.

Stephen Jarvis said...

I was delighted to see that you mentioned Jingle, from The Pickwick Papers. You might be interested in taking a look at my novel Death and Mr Pickwick, which was published in 2015 by Random House. It tells the story behind the creation of The Pickwick Papers - and, in particular, there is a part which explores the origin of the Jingle quote you mention. There is also a very active facebook page for the novel at

Best wishes

Stephen Jarvis