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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dickens & the working class

I'm convinced unless I hear otherwise that of all the 19th-century British writers Dickens had the most sympathy and empathy for and the best understanding of the working class. Yes, he's sentimental, and yes his characters are assemblages of extreme characteristics, each is a type with a bunch of tics, and yes, his novels are crammed with peripheral characters few of whom have any depth (though all have presence, and life) and yes he can be quite polemical and even at times contemptuous of extreme poverty, squalor as noted in previous post - but he's the only one of the Brits of his era to write of the working class from the inside - he really knew these people and cared for them. It's obvious he'd much rather go out for a drink with Mr George the trooper than with Mr Turveydrop or Mr Jarndyce. I'm thinking of some of the scenes I read last night about Mr George, an old army guy, and his shooting gallery, and his custodian and helper at the gallery, Squod (Phil?) - the very lovely moment when George describes his rural childhood and reflects that he could still identify all the birds by their call and climb all the trees, and Squod is in wonder; they have such friendly and warm relationship, no condescension, no exploitation, no high expectations or pretensions - Dickens really takes the time to build out these two characters - and it's true for so many across Bleak House - the domestic servants, the poor orphan kid (Joe?) who lives pretty much by his wits, many others who make only brief appearances - but all of them are sympathetic characters, unlike the uppers and, even worse, those like Mr Turveydrop who aspire to be "uppers" - to most other 19th-c British writers the working class is at the periphery of their novels (Hardy maybe an exception here), they're servants that help the plot along. With Dickens, the class lines are distinct - Esther in Bleak House is clearly not of the working class, even tho she has no name or fortune, as is clear her dismissal of Guppy, sensing that he is clearly "beneath" her even tho though there's no reason that should be so - but the working-class characters have a life. Dickens doesn't dwell on back story; he brings his characters to life in the present. His powers of observation or recollection (or invention) are so profound, though, that his characters are defined by their surroundings: the shops, factories, streets, offices, places of amusement all are sharply delineated and filled with detail - they help establish the characters that inhabit these spaces, the spaces are almost at times like characters themselves. 

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