“Indicting Charles Dickens”?

From The Sharp Side, a post “indicting Charles Dickens”:

This Space is shocked to learn that Dickens was an advocate of genocide. In fact the novelist’s wish to see Indians wiped from the face of earth was perfectly consistent with his lifelong racism. In his massive Dickens biography Peter Ackroyd acknowledges but softens the relevant material (just as Ackroyd’s biography of Sir Thomas More passes lightly over the astonishing reality that More imprisoned and brutalised religious dissidents at his Chelsea home).

It’s interesting just how much the sentimental popular image of Dickens is at variance with the realities of his life. When the standard biographical introduction to the Penguin English Library editions of Dickens’ novels used to assert of his wife Kate that she was ‘a shadowy, slow person’ who ‘had never suited his exuberant temperament very well’ it simply reproduced the version which Dickens orchestrated in his lifetime. He fathered ten children on her but she was never really his type. Just how effectively Dickens controlled his public image is revealed in Claire Tomalin’s illuminating and entertaining investigation of his secret life.

What should most concern us now, of course, are Dickens’s crimes against literature. His use of exclamation marks, say – scattered like sugar across the marzipan treats of anagnorisis and peripeteia. Worst of all, perhaps, is what he did to his finest novel, Great Expectations. Here, the whimsy and the sentiment are held back and Dickens delivers a dark, troubling study of delusion and obsession. But when his friend the hack bestseller writer Edward Bulwer Lytton deplored the unhappy ending, Dickens rushed to make amends. In place of the bleak and desolating original, Dickens substituted a trite romantic coincidence and the serene reassurance of closure. Of this cop-out new ending he wrote, ‘I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.’

I don’t have time for an extended response (maybe on the weekend, though my ‘must get done’ list is terribly long!). But, just quickly on the issue of “crimes against literature,” I will just say that I think the revised ending of Great Expectations offers only the most ambiguous promise of ‘closure,’ and its tone and imagery seem to me to improve on the fairly blunt, abrupt first try.

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