There is something about Nineteenth Century Novels that I always find intriguing. As a young university student, they were required reading and I found them over written, moralising and full of characters that bland and two dimensional. But with the Nineteenth Century Novel I felt I was stuck in a quagmire.
That is until I read Wuthering Heights.
Moors, love, cruelty, orphans, storms, broken glass, scratched names, ghosts. Wuthering Heights smashed all my preconceptions and gave me fresh eyes. It still does and gets better with every read. Now, I try to read a Nineteenth Century Novel every year. There is another lure , aside from the writing, the characters and the free time travel, there is the delicious taboo. As Mark Lawson wrote in The Guardian in his great article Timeless taboo, why 19th Century Novels still appeal to film makers:
Fiction is driven by friction and taboo but, in most parts of contemporary society, we have created a society in which there are few obstacles to people doing what they want or being with the person they desire. Numerous traditional narrative triggers – a sexual secret, the threat of bankruptcy, a spell in prison – now result in no more than a few months’ embarrassment, an expensively maintained anonymity injunction or a tearfully confessional TV interview…
Give me a fictional nineteenth century any day.
Image of Cathy from Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.
In a haze of editing, I finally ( and sadly) finished Claire Tomalin’s brilliant biography of Dickens. Not usually being other than a fiction reader, I was completely swept up in the wonderful portrayal of Dickens – and if I could basically sum up as a wonderful man if you were poor/orphaned/ his friend/daughter or mistress or a distressingly callous man if you were his wife and sons. But what Tomalin gives best of all is a thorough light and shade of a man who was complicated, portraying all his faults along with his feats with equal measure, which makes an exhilarating read. She loves her subject with a clear eye and is free from the sycophantic rapture that sometimes occur when a biographer falls in love, as it were, with their subject.
My favourite chapter, The Bebelle Life, detailed all the wonderfully researched life of Nelly Ternan and Dickens and the possibility of their child. Tomalin research is so absorbing and the pages just fly. It is a chapter that stands somehow alone, like a brilliant aside – filmic, dramatic and suspenseful. It would make the perfect film, I thought. Little did I know, after some quick research, that Tomalin’s previous book on the same subject, The Invisible Woman is currently in post production, with none than Ralf Fiennes directing and performing as Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly.
It is always intriguing to me to discover the writing process used by writers. I know a few readers who feel that to know a writer’s process is to take away some of the suspension of belief, like telling the technique behind a magic trick, but to me it shows the magic.
In Claire Tomalin’s biography, there is a wonderful list of working notes for Dickens’ Great Expectations. I am not exactly sure why this peek behind the scenes gave me a big thrill – seeing a mind at work, the great narrative cogs working, and a simple jotted hand-written list ready to be dressed with the story – at once familiar and surprising. For it is like any writers quick wonderful jottings, captured before another thought makes the others flee.
Great Expectations was published in weekly instalments, yes you read correctly, WEEKLY instalments from October 1860 to June 1861, and is book I am looking forward to starting again. The recent mini-series had such a beautiful Pip, I could no longer find him in my own mind.
On Dicken’s list goes like this:
Estella, Magwitch’s daughter
Orlick – and Pip’s entrapment – & escape
To the flight
Struggle – [deleted words]
drowned – Magwitch rescued
by Pip. And
It reads like a poem, simple and beautiful, with the strange spacing, breath-like and fast, making it feel like it is forming in our minds for the first time. What a great comfort to discover Dickens at this time and to know that the Inimitable had a love of lists.
Image: Pip and Joe Gargery by Felix O C Darley 1860