It’s that time of year – Dickens on every channel. You can’t have Christmas without Charles D. I grew up as a child thinking there was something wrong with me because I didn’t like Dickens (preferred cowboy stories in pulp fiction) and that one day I would have some kind of conversion experience, but it has never happened. If I got gripped by the BBC version of Bleak House it was because of the production, not the story.
I can get through Dickens on film but have never read a book, so everything I say here is based on adaptations. Hardly fair, but perhaps it helps me to see the problem whereas, deep in the prose (and I have no doubt it is very good prose indeed) I would lose a broad view of the story.
It is a truism of Creative Writing (the dogmas of which have only really been formulated in the past fifty years) that All Characters Must Change and in Dickens they don’t. Circumstances change but, even as they do, the good remain good and the bad, bad.
Suddenly I’m wondering about Richard Carstone, the ward of Jarndyce in Bleak House. You want to like him but his weakness of character sends him to the bad. Is that a change? No, actually it isn’t. There are signs of his inconstancy at the start and when Ada falls in love with him, you’re thinking, ‘No, no, noooo.’
It’s because characters don’t change that Dickens can seem two-dimensional. It’s all about character traits and not about character itself, the real person. Dickens’s characters fall into three types: the good, the bad and the peculiar. The hero, of course, is always good. It’s the kind of goodness that is never challenged. Nothing that happens to David/Nicholas/Pip makes him a fundamentally different person. Pip shows growth of character and realisation of fault in Great Expectations, but does that amount to change? It’s probably the closest Dickens came to it, and why it is his most popular novel. For the rest, the good remain good, the bad, bad, providing us with sentimental stories that are the Christmas puddings of literature.
Now that’s a bit peevish of me, given that Dickens is globally loved so long after his death. Perhaps I should be advocating we give up the Creative Writing pseudo-psychological dogmas and start coming up with stories where the good guys win against the bad, where the characters are vividly drawn and have names like Magwitch or Tulkinhorn, who you can follow through a massive book without any trouble or having to take notes. But, but, but… In the end I am the judge of my own taste and know that I can happily knit through Dickens whereas other stories demand my full attention, have plots that are thrilling, and make you short of breath with concern for the lead character.
To stick with film… Take, for instance, the Jack Nicholson character in ‘As Good as it Gets’. Melvin Udall starts off a foul misanthrope who cannot bear his fellow humanity. He hates dogs and has never done a good deed in his life. As in any Dickens novel, events happen to him in quick succession, but these events are precisely tied in with his character, starting with him having to look after his gay neighbour’s dog. It’s forced on him and it begins his change into a balanced, functioning – loving – human being. Then there is the Dustin Hoffman character in The Accidental Hero (in the US, Hero). A down and out, he watches a plane crash and rushes towards it. Because we’re all basically good, we think he’s going in to rescue people but no, he’s going in to rob the dead. But he, too, is basically good and against his better judgement ends up saving a life. Then events conspire against him and the credit goes to someone else (Andy Garcia). In this film, two characters change and its wonderful to mark the subtle nuances of metamorphosis. I could watch it over and over.
To be fair to Dickens, however, it should be said that he wrote under constraints most novelists would find intolerable. To write for serialisation, and to be still writing as the first episodes are published, means you do not have the luxury or liberty for story development. I think psychological stories take a great many drafts. They go deep and have three-dimensional repeating motifs. More than a character with a loopy name like Skimpole saying every time he appears, ‘I’m a child, a very child’, it has themes set up in the beginning that build and develop with every repetition right through to the end, themes that it is up to us, readers or watchers, to note. (Passive readers/viewers won’t notice them, but will enjoy their effects just the same).
So, happy Christmas, everyone, and bring on A Christmas Carol (in which, I realise, the character of Scrooge does change, but it’s still sentimental for all that).