Tag: Dickens

Top Ten Films

Have I really never done this post before? OK, then…

  1. Les Miserables, dir. Tom Hooper. This is the one with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman and (mmm) Eddie Redmayne. The first time I saw it I was so wonderstruck I nearly walked in front of a taxi. The music is a cut above that of most musicals, the story is an acknowledged heart-breaker, and I will never see a better Marius than Eddie Remayne, though I admit he is not really a singer.
  2. The Return of the King, dir. Peter Jackson. This film has a gazillion endings, and they are all perfect, and then comes that most wonderful of songs, Annie Lennox’s “Into the West”. There are things Jackson gets wrong (*side-eyes Faramir’s truncated character arc), but in essence the film captures the heart of the books in a way that’s sadly rare for book-to-film adaptations.
  3. The Fellowship of the Ring, dir. Peter Jackson. You can see how this list is going to go down, can’t you? (Though the Hobbit films are an abomination against all that is good and holy.) I love the lightness of Fellowship, our introduction to hobbits who are still (relatively) carefree, the character dynamics of the Fellowship which we don’t see in later films. Fellowship is still an adventure. They’ve yet to slog through the battlefields of the second film in the trilogy…
  4. The Two Towers, dir. Peter Jackson. This is really only here for completeness’ sake: Towers is my least favourite book in the trilogy just as it’s my least favourite film of the three. Helm’s Deep bores me. Frodo and Sam walk through the same carbon-fibre set of rocks about a zillion times. Andy Serkis’ Gollum, though, is a masterpiece.
  5. Stardust, dir. Matthew Vaughn. Stardust is based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, so naturally it is secretly sexist. (It’s totally OK to kidnap an injured woman if she turns out to be your True Love.) But, oh, how delightfully fluffy this film is! Its Fairyland is wild and dangerous and strange but not too strange, and it’s full of everything you want to find in Fairyland: princes and witches and weird bloody necklaces and desperate horseback rides and magical markets and epic landscapes, unscrupulous merchants and captive princesses and sky pirates and Babylon candles. It’s funny and magical and I love it with all my fannish heart.
  6. The Matrix, dir. the Wachowski sisters. I like The Matrix because it is cool. That is all. I love the cyberpunk aesthetic. I think bullet time looks awesome. I like the way the hackers’ handles all have deeper meanings. The soundtrack is perfect. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss both look very attractive in their badass cyberpunk outfits. And the film manages to pull off “and the World was Saved by Love” with style.
  7. Cloud Atlas, dir. the Wachowski sisters. Cloud Atlas was controversial among the critics, but I was already a fan of the novel, so I was halfway there. I came out of the cinema after watching Cloud Atlas feeling like I did when I finished the book: like I’d glimpsed some overarching structure to the universe, that there was some ambitious and elusive truth amid the disconnected flashes of experience that make up all our histories.
  8. The Social Network, dir. David Fincher. The Social Network is carried by Jesse Eisenberg, an astonishingly high-energy actor who specialises in making arseholes supremely watchable. Plus, the screenwriter is Aaron Sorkin, he of The West Wing, and the film zings with his swift, intelligent, witty dialogue.
  9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dir. Russell T. Davies. This is my favourite Shakespeare adaptation: gloriously camp and colourful, diverse and carnivalesque, a flash of bright left-wing hope against the thunderclouds of Trump and Brexit and irreversible climate change. I cried at the end, so defiantly triumphant was it.
  10. The Muppet Christmas Carol, dir. Brian Henson. YES, I am a grown English student and I still watch this every Christmas (much to the disgruntlement of my sister, who is naturally much cooler than I am). It’s so Christmassy and delightful! And is surprisingly faithful, in story and in spirit (no pun intended), to Dickens’ original.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Classics

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, and so it retains a special place in my heart. It’s sprawling, melodramatic, often sentimental, sometimes angry, and altogether wonderful. And it features one of Dickens’ most spirited heroines: Lizzie Hexam.
  2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. I also love Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but Pride and Prejudice takes the crown because of Elizabeth’s spirit, and because Jane and Bingley are simply charming.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. This is a remarkable novel that smushes together Dickensian caricature and Gothic menace. Threatening, ponderous, hypnotic.
  4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Every politician should read this. It’s a stark warning about the consequences of social isolation, the folly of oppression, and the perils of hubris.
  5. Paradise Lost – John Milton. Milton’s verse is a revelation (hah): resonant, spirited and grand, and surprisingly accessible to a modern reader.
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Much like Titus Groan, this is a novel that draws you into its melodramatic world and won’t let go: a lush and richly described work full of foreshadowings and pathetic fallacies and moustache-twirling villains.
  7. Evelina – Fanny Burney. Burney was a sort of proto-Jane Austen, and her first novel is her best: an epistolary tale of a young woman in London for the first time, it combines social comedy with, um, high melodrama. (There is definitely a theme to this post.)
  8. The Tempest – William Shakespeare. My favourite Shakespeare play varies wildly depending on the version I’ve seen most recently. But The Tempest is definitely up there for its elegiac tone, and the way its action takes place in strange boundary states, between the sea and the land, between the city and the wilderness, between life and death.
  9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad. I’ve only read this once, at university: but I loved the lush menace of Conrad’s writing, the gathering sense of dread as we advance along the Congo.
  10. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory. I’m a sucker for Arthurian stories, and though Malory’s Arthurian cycle was by no means the first version of the Once and Future King’s story (or the best), it’s certainly been one of the most influential on Western literature.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

My Top Ten “Gateway” Books

  1. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. As with, I suspect, many other people, The Hobbit was my gateway into The Lord of the Rings, a book that, almost uniquely, sits deep in my psyche. And so it was a gateway, too, into a fandom and a way of writing and thinking and into a shared code of story.
  2. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. This was my gateway into feminist thinking, and into serious, weighty literary criticism in general. It showed me what you can do with criticism, the anger you can wield with it and the worlds you can create.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. A gateway into the Gothic, a mode which holds so much interest for me, deep and dark and ambiguous and strange.
  4. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. This was the book that made me realise that postmodernism is actually pretty cool, definitely more cool than Modernism.
  5. Havelok the Dane – Anonymous. Havelok the Dane is a thirteenth-century narrative poem about, er, a Dane called Havelok who…invades Britain or something? I can’t even really remember what happens in it. Anyway, I read this a couple of weeks before I started at university, in a vague panic because I didn’t get the reading list when I was supposed to get it, and just being utterly enchanted because it was so Tolkien-y and fairy tale-esque. And it was that that made me choose to study Middle English instead of Old English in my first year, so I got to read lots of other wonderful works like it, including several Arthurian romances, and overall I had a great insight into a literary period that doesn’t get studied very often.
  6. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This was my first graphic novel, and I couldn’t really have asked for a better introduction. It’s punchy and fearless and full of emotional truth.
  7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. So this was my gateway into proper grown-up fantasy, really: fantasy in which worldbuilding is metaphor and metaphor is worldbuilding, in which our world is always half-glimpsed in the strangenesses of another one.
  8. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I was quite lucky that this was my first Dickens novel: it’s sentimental and sprawling and right up my street, and it’s why I continue to read Dickens novels. (To be fair, there’s only been one real dud among the ones I’ve read.)
  9. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. This made me properly want to go to university and study things in dusty old libraries.
  10. Steampunk Your Wardrobe – Calista Taylor. I mean, I still haven’t made anything from this book, but it was my first steampunk reference book, so to speak. I now have three, and intend to collect lots more!

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: David Copperfield

This review contains spoilers.

Famously, David Copperfield was Dickens’ favourite of his novels. Possibly equally famously, it’s quite recognisably autobiographical.

Conflating these things is dangerous, of course. And just because some things in the novel are autobiographical doesn’t mean all or most of it is. But I couldn’t help reading it in the light of Claire Tomalin’s biography Dickens: A Life, which I read the Christmas before last, and specifically in the light of the fact that Dickens was, to put it crudely if punningly, a bit of a dick.

So. David Copperfield is narrated in first person by its eponymous hero, whose early childhood is as elysian as all remembered childhoods are; he lives with his adoring mother (widowed on the eve of his birth) and an equally adoring female housekeeper, Peggotty. That’s until his mother marries the odious Mr Murdstone, who turns out to be emotionally abusive and financially grasping. He sends David away to school, and then, after the narratively inevitable death of David’s mother, to work in a bottle factory. Oppressed by this life, David flees to the doubtful embrace of his fearsome aunt Betsy Trotwood, who takes him under her wing, sends him to a decent school and generally sets him on the path of genteel, middle-class poverty.

I think David is supposed to be a sympathetic, nay laudable, protagonist: fair-minded, right-thinking and generally well-intentioned. Mine is a resistant reading, then: I found him, like his creator, a misogynist pig.

David Copperfield is in part a kind of relationship sandbox for its hero: it’s full of couples who are functional or dysfunctional in various ways which, conveniently, David gets to witness and in some cases take part in, so he can learn for himself What Makes a Good Spouse. Although David’s assumptions about these relationships aren’t always correct, I think they are supposed to be reasonable assumptions from the evidence he has – and, for reasons I’ll go into later, I think whether they’re reasonable is as important to Dickens as whether they’re right. This is important because David is judgemental, unsympathetic and, usually, contemptuous about the relationships he witnesses.

So. The functional relationships in the novel (spoilers, obviously):

  • Mr and Mrs Micawber – Mr Micawber, David’s landlord during the time he works in the bottle factory is terrible with money and constantly in debt. Mrs Micawber’s family have disowned her for marrying him, and they are constantly having children they can’t afford to feed. This should, according to most narrative logic, be a disaster. In fact, Mrs Micawber is devoted and forgiving – not uncomplainingly so, which would be sickening, but in a kind of pragmatic, bustling way that speaks of a genuinely robust relationship despite their incompetence with reference to accepted financial social codes.
  • Peggotty and Barkis – another relationship that seems based in comfortable companionship rather than romantic devotion. We don’t actually get much of a look at this relationship, which is surprising given how important Peggotty is to David.
  • Agnes and David – Agnes is the person David ends up with at the end; she is, of course, radiant, angelic, intelligent, emotionally competent and patient. Although this reads like an idealised relationship, I think it’s actually supposed to be more friendship-based than David’s other entanglements.

And the dysfunctional relationships:

  • Doctor and Mrs Strong – Doctor Strong is David’s teacher at the school his aunt sends him to. Everyone (meaning David and Aunt Betsy’s alcoholic lawyer Mr Wickfield) thinks Mrs Strong is in love with her cousin, Jack Maldon. Not having an affair or anything; just in love. David is horrified that she should have socially unapproved feelings, notwithstanding the fact that she is much younger than her husband, who seems to be more of a father figure to her in that creepy Victorian paternalistic way. David and Mr Wickfield turn out to be wrong.
  • Mr Murdstone and David’s mother – obviously, being David’s mother’s second husband, Mr Murdstone is emotionally abusive, because women marrying again are always monsters or mistaken, even though marriage often gives women the social status and/or finances they need to survive.
  • David and Dora – a particularly shitty one. Dora is David’s first wife (men not being subject to the same rules re remarriage). She is described pretty much entirely in terms of how David sees her: enchanting, pretty, tinkly-laughed, frivolous. She turns out to be totally useless at being a wife: she can’t manage servants or do the accounts or support David emotionally, for the very good (though unacknowledged by Dickens) reason that she’s been taught to be ornamental all her life and has never had to apply herself to anything. No wonder she’s confused. In any case, just as David has learned his lesson she dies of feebleness, apparently, leaving him free to select someone more worthy. Oh, and she asks David to call her “child-wife”, which, eww.
  • Em’ly and Steerforth – this one is the worst. Steerforth is one of David’s friends from school, so devilishly handsome and charismatic that even David wants to sleep with him a little bit. Em’ly is a fisherman’s daughter, the niece of Peggotty’s brother, who David meets as a child and is, even into adulthood, bewitching, charming, and (fatally) flirtatious. She is seduced by Steerforth, and at a stroke her life is ruined: her fiance leaves her and she’s renounced by everyone who once knew her. I’ve no doubt that this is an accurate representation of what might happen to a fallen woman of her class; but neither Dickens or David seem to have an ounce of sympathy for her, who was almost certainly promised marriage by Steerforth (which of course he did not intend to provide), and who’s been damned by an act that men could do with impunity. Look at Tess of the D’Urbevilles, after all, about a woman of a not dissimilar social class living in similar times under similar circumstances: Hardy has more sympathy for his heroine in one page than Dickens and David have in the entire book. David at one point muses that it might be better for Em’ly to be dead than ruined.

For Dickens, the secret to a successful relationship seems to be equality: equality of intelligence, age and social standing. It takes David the whole novel to learn this.

This is important because in a wider sense the novel is about David finding out who he is supposed to be and where he is supposed to fit in the world. Just as he tries out different relationships through his social circle, he tries out different roles in life: manual labourer, lawyer, writer, breadwinner, unmasker of villains. It’s significant that, at the end of the novel, a ship heads for Australia, to the new society taking shape there: it carries the Micawbers and Em’ly with her uncle, people who no longer have a place in England’s body politic. And what I think is meant to be a particularly existentially terrifying moment comes when David, during some research for his writing, visits a model prison, again towards the end of the novel. There he finds Uriah Heep, a particularly odious specimen of humanity who has throughout the novel been blackmailing Mr Wickfield, taking advantage of his alcoholism to gain power over him; Uriah’s famous refrain is, “I’m very umble, sir,” when of course he means nothing of the sort. Also in the prison is Steerforth’s manservant, ostensibly arrested for petty theft, although narratively he is obviously in prison for his role in Em’ly’s seduction. The manservant’s schtick is respectability; the kind of disapproving correctness (so I imagined) you get off waiters in expensive restaurants. Both are commended by the prison guards as model prisoners; though we, and David, know they are anything but. They are actors, taking advantage of the role society’s marked out for them and playing it so very perfectly that it becomes subversion. And they are dangerous because they know their power; and they are terrifying because they are absolutely products of their society.

My point is that, in a wider sense, David Copperfield is a novel about the body politic, and where people fit, correctly, into it. That’s why, after all, it’s so important that David marry the right person; because marriage and the nuclear family is the cornerstone of England’s bourgeois body politic in Dickens’ time. And that’s why it’s important that the women of the novel aren’t really characters in their own right (the exceptions are the delightfully proto-feminist Betsy Trotwood, who dresses masculinely and refuses to marry, and Peggotty, who exists, it seems, to serve David); they’re ciphers, seen only through David’s eyes, existing only insomuch as they affect the men around them. (Poor Em’ly’s fiance! His heart is broken and he will never marry now! Never mind that Em’ly is considered worse than dead by her society.) In Dickens’ society, women exist only for men: to uphold and serve the body politic and allow men to learn and have stories and actual lives. In Dickens Land, a woman will only ever be a supporting character.

Top Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I think this is actually already a TV series – I mean, I doubt there’s a single Dickens novel that isn’t – but I haven’t managed to get my hands on it. It’s almost a truism to observe that Dickens is perfect for a TV series’ episodic, sprawling structure – certainly Our Mutual Friend needs more space than a film can give it.
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. I had to think about this one a bit (and it’s never going to happen in any case, the Tolkien Estate being notoriously tight-fisted with the rights), but it’s an episodic narrative with a vast cast of characters and a number of narrative strands. It would be like Game of Thrones but without all the rape.
  3. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. I cannot imagine any TV producer being brave enough to take on Perdido Street Station, with its particular brand of squicky violence and unromanticised reality, but I wish they would. The pulpy plot elements, the rambly narrative, the overbearingly Gothic-steampunk city of New Crobuzon? Yes, yes, yes.
  4. Saga – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I don’t know why, I just think the high-speed zaniness of the graphic novels would transfer well to TV. (Maybe like Doctor Who but without all the sexism?) It makes a lot of play with different kinds of pop culture and the role they play in public dissent, too, which would be interesting to consider in a TV show.
  5. Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon. Obviously, there’s a lot in Pynchon that couldn’t be captured visually, but that’s the case with pretty much everything else on this list too. But I can see a TV version of Bleeding Edge playing out like Dirk Gently, almost.
  6. Paradise Lost – John Milton. What? Paradise Lost would look fantastic on TV, all fire and brimstone and war in Heaven, and it has some pretty compelling characters too. If you can have Shakespeare on TV, you can have Milton.
  7. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. Yes! It would be like Firefly but with aliens and fewer guns.
  8. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. I just read this, and it would make a terrible film but a great TV series (though I suppose it’s quite short). You could do a lot with the city of Palimpsest itself, and intertwining that with the characters in the real world would work really well on TV.
  9. Robot Dreams – Isaac Asimov. You know what would be good? A Twilight Zone-style anthology series featuring Asimov’s short stories, which all have that kind of conceptual twist you got in Twilight Zone episodes, when it turned out the person narrating the story was dead or something. Obviously, not that tone of twist, but structurally it’s the same thing.
  10. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. All the Regency society manoeuvrings are like a soap anyway. It would just have dragons in it too.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I Read Before I Was a Blogger

  1. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m currently re-reading this, and I think one of the things I love about it is how autumnal it is: that gentle, gorgeous sadness.
  2. Going Postal – Terry Pratchett. Or, all the Discworld books. Going Postal is one of my favourites, though: I’m fascinated by showmen, and if Moist is anything he’s a showman.
  3. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. Apocalyptic and vast, a story of truths half-told, of men in black and way stations and mutants under mountains: in many ways this is just perfect fantasy. I’ve never read anything like it since.
  4. Sabriel – Garth Nix. I read and re-read this, and its sequels Lirael and Abhorsen, endlessly. It’s got an awesome heroine, a sarcastic cat, a vast and wonderful library (in Lirael), and an invented world with a lot of depth.
  5. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, which I read when I was in school: I fell in love with its sprawling sentimentality.
  6. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. Another novel that features libraries: its main characters track down Dracula through a paper trail of pamphlets and books from across time. It made me want to go to university; not that I hadn’t wanted to go before, but this made me want it concretely.
  7. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams. Dirk Gently is one of the great comic creations of English literature: irreverent, off-beat and ironical.
  8. Persuasion – Jane Austen. Another wonderfully autumnal novel: I read it for my A-level course, and it was just so rewarding to study.
  9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling. This was the first Harry Potter book I read (don’t ask) and I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since. I think it strikes a great balance between worldbuilding and plot, a balance that the later books don’t ever really achieve.
  10. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman. I just really, really loved the idea of daemons, and the fact that it was a huge, dense book to get stuck into. Reading it back now, it’s also full of quite complex ideas about science and metaphysics and philosophy.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I Recommend Most Often

  1. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel. Station Eleven is SF for book club readers (which sounds a good deal less positive than I meant it to). It’s an inoffensive and quietly touching book, and its focus is on people not setting.
  2. Sabriel – Garth Nix. I have had something of an awakening to just how good the Old Kingdom books actually are in recent years: strongly-characterised heroines who are moral but strong, subtle sex positivity, really solid worldbuilding and a sarcastic cat. In a publishing scene awash with high fantasy that can often barely summon up a female character not defined by romantic relationships, these are a breath of fresh air and I’m so grateful to have grown up with them.
  3. Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett. Does this really need saying? Pratchett’s books are an Old Favourite: humane and funny and so lovely to return to like a comfort blanket and I’ve met very few people who don’t like them.
  4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Everyone should read this. Everyone. Firstly because it’s nothing like popular culture tells you it is. And secondly because it is a warning about the perils of forgetting the dispossessed and the downtrodden, the terrible power of the disenfranchised.
  5. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. I don’t recommend this as often nowadays, but I used to plug it to absolutely anyone who would listen. I still think the first three books are astonishing, understated, fresh pieces of epic fantasy; my love for them is just a little tarred by the bloat of, especially, Wolves of the Calla and The Dark Tower.
  6. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I have a special place in my heart for Our Mutual Friend, and I always recommend it to people asking about Dickens. This is probably a bad idea, since it’s a sprawling, dense novel which I imagine turns a lot of people off. But I can’t help it: it is my fave.
  7. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. I do hesitate to recommend this sometimes: I think it’s a book that only certain people will like. But if I think you are certain people? Then I will recommend the heck out of it.
  8. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Yes: it is an academic tome. Yes: it was first published thirty years ago and is extremely very hectoring and feminist-ragey. But I maintain that absolutely saved my life in university and every English student should read it and it is totally badass and awesome.
  9. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. I read this only quite recently and have therefore had limited time to recommend it; but it is a breath of goodwill and hope in a post-Brexit, terror-scarred, shifting-to-the-right world.
  10. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. A book whose relentless optimism about the power of community bears down on the horror of German-occupied Guernsey and flattens it. Just universally agreeable.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)