Saturday, February 04, 2006

Eight Ways in Which the BBC Miniseries Has Inspired Me Not to Read Charles Dickens' Bleak House

I have a confession to make. For all the many Victorian (and slightly pre- and slightly post-Victorian) authors that I've read and enjoyed, Charles Dickens, that quintessential chronicler of English life in the mid-19th century, is one whose charms have consistently eluded me. Once I realized that relatively light entries in his bibliography such as A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities were boring me to death, I figured I'd give Dickens a wide berth. I find him sentimental and theatrical. He consistently chooses caricature over character, and his plotting is moralistic and predictable.

This week I made my way through the BBC's most recent and critically acclaimed version of Dickens' gargantuan Bleak House, starring Dana Scully and Suki Macrae-Cantrell. Unsurprisingly, the miniseries is fantastically well-made. The performances are engaging, the set design is impeccable, the cinematography is intriguing (although occasionally overdone. Still, it's nice to see a director realize that the fact that they're telling a period story shouldn't necessarily restrict their visual choices), and, as someone who hasn't read the book, the adaptation seems generous and faithful. Earlier this week, after watching the first few installments, I was mulling over the idea of picking up a copy of the book simply to see what happened next. It was my general distaste for Dickens that stayed my hand, and having completed the miniseries, I know that I made the right decision. Granted, I haven't read the book and it's possible that many of my complaints about the story and the characters should be leveled at Andrew Davies, but so many of my problems seem so quintessentially Dickensian that I suspect this isn't the case.

In no particular order, then, these are the reasons I will not be reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House:
  1. Even a reader unfamiliar with Dickens' more substantive novels knows to expect comic relief characters whose personalities can be summed up with a funny name and an unusual affectation. In all fairness, it does seem that Davies has gone to a great deal of trouble to minimize the roles of these characters in his version of Bleak House. I have no doubt that in the original work, characters like Mrs. Jellyby, who ignores her husband and children in favor of missionary work in Africa, Mr. Turveydrop, the mincing and effete dancing instructor, and the doctor who seeks to impress his guests by reciting the pedigree of his wife's former husbands, had far more prominent roles in the story. Davies reduces their appearances to a bare minimum, but there is one caricature whose presence is critical to the plot, and in the visual medium we can't help but notice that the person whom Dickens treated as laughable and pathetic is actually a human being, deserving of our respect.

    I'm speaking, of course, of Guppy, the law clerk who falls in love with Esther and uncovers her pedigree. A nervous, fidgety individual given to mimicking the behavior of polite society without truly understanding its codes and subtleties, Guppy is clearly supposed to be a figure of ridicule. When he proposes to Esther, we're meant to be appalled--how could a cultured, well-bred young woman like Esther Summerson even think of connecting herself to a social nobody, an upstart like Guppy? But the truth is that for all his social awkwardness (and in spite of a brief and ill-advised period stalking Esther), Guppy may be the most intelligent, ambitious, and pro-active sympathetic character in the novel. He has an inquisitive mind, a keen wit, and enough street smarts to work out how best to apply these qualities. While Esther idly wonders about her ancestry, Guppy actively investigates it and discovers a way to use that ancestry to better Esther's lot in life. It's true that Guppy is indirectly responsible for Lady Dedlock's death, by giving her the news that forced the unhappy lady off the ledge she'd been teetering on throughout the story, but in his actions on her behalf Guppy is tireless and indefatigable--when he fails to procure the letters, Guppy races to warn Lady Dedlock of his failure, anxious to assure her security. Guppy's actions, in short--his intelligence, his willingness to take action, his basic decency--would mark him out as a romantic hero if Dickens hadn't forced him into the form of clown. The character chafes against its creator's restrictions, and with an actual human being filling the character's shoes it's hard for the audience not to notice the dissonance between what the author's snobbery sees and what's actually on the screen.

    But of course, Guppy can't be allowed to walk off into the sunset with even a partial victory. The story's close sees him articled as a lawyer and about to open his own firm, but Dickens can't resist the urge to twist the knife one last time. Despite his previous rejection, Guppy returns to seek Esther's hand in marriage one more time, this time in the presence of his star-struck mother, who flies into a rage when her son is refused. For his efforts on Esther and Lady Dedlock's behalf, for his ability to better his own lot in life, Guppy is ridiculed and humiliated by his creator, when his only crime is to be socially awkward.

  2. For a while, it seems that Bleak House is blessed in its selection of villains. Mr Tulkinghorn in particular is both atypically handsome and polite and refreshingly pragmatic. Around the story's halfway point, however, Tulkinghorn descends into such nonsensical Evil Overlord behavior that I remarked that it was a shame that the actor chosen to portray him didn't have a mustache to twirl. Why does Tulkinghorn go back on his promises to Sergeant George and Mademoiselle Hortense? Why does he torment Lady Dedlock instead of leaving well enough alone as he originally says he plans to do (for the life of me I can't understand what the back-and-forth about Rosa the maid was all about--unless it was a power game between Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock) when they both know that he has no intention of exposing her to Sir Leicester? A smart man--which Tulkinghorn evidently is--would understand how unwise it is to create new enemies, and he would certainly live in a world in which the devaluation of his word would be a serious hindrance to his ability to do business. The only reason for this irrational behavior--which even Tulkinghorn characterizes as irrational, saying that he does these things "because [he] can"--is that Dickens wants us to hate a character which he had previously painted as carefully amoral, and that he wants said character dead and lacks either the skill or the patience to create a compelling, rational reason for someone to murder him. It's a waste of a fine villain, not to mention poor and embarrassing plotting.

    The less said about the disgusting and increasingly boring Smallweed, the better, except to say that surely Davies could have found some way to drastically reduce Smallweed's appearances in the second half of the mini--he shows up in every single episode towards the end and does the exact same thing in each one--act disgusting, berate his sedan-chair carriers, and demand that he be 'shaken up'.

  3. Even the straight, sympathetic characters don't always act in a way that is entirely human. John Jarndyce is supposedly an intelligent, worldly man, so could someone please tell me why he tolerates and even supports an amoral snake like Skimpole for even five seconds? Beyond, that is, the fact that the plot requires that Skimpole have ready access to Richard and the opportunity to sell out Jo. And why, oh why, do strays, waifs, small animals, and cartoon birds constantly gravitate towards Esther? She's a nice person, to be sure, but the way in which minor characters cast their problems in her lap after ten minutes' acquaintance and then hold her up as a model for everything good and pure in the world is somewhat baffling.

  4. The narrative consistently ignores complex and interesting character dynamics for the sentimental and the obvious. I can't be the only person who walked away from the miniseries curious about the future of Rosa, the village girl whose prospective father-in-law takes her away to be educated as a proper young lady. How will this former maid fare as the employer of maids, and will she be able to win over either her well-bred future sisters-in-law or her fiancé's formerly coarse parents? And what about Sergeant George, who obviously isn't happy about being allowed to return in shame to the site of his youthful indiscretions? Does he really want to spend the rest of his life in his mother's lap, and what about his no doubt fraught relationship with his now successful brother? It's possible that in the original work, Dickens acknowledges these complicated relationships, in which case I would really like to know what possessed Davies to ignore them in favor of more disgusting antics from Mr. Smallweed, but somehow I doubt that Dickens was ever genuinely interested in exploring any relationship that couldn't be easily summed up and categorized.

  5. Five minutes after meeting Esther and Lady Dedlock, a child would be able to work out their relationship. Five minutes after that, that child's younger sibling would be telling you how things were going to work out for Lady Dedlock. And lo! The plot, and the 'mystery', really are as predictable as all that.

  6. And while we're on the subject of the fate of Lady Dedlock, can I just point out that every single person in her life forgives her for what she did and the poor woman still ends up dying for her sins? I know that it's not entirely fair to blame Dickens for being a) a product of his time, and b) overly fond of melodrama, but in a sea of predictability, would it have killed him to make a slightly unusual plotting choice?

  7. When something as exciting as a murder actually takes place, the murderer is conveniently an annoying Frenchwoman. Gosh, isn't it nice when unpleasant foreigners kill off evil people so that decent English folk don't have to bother? Not to mention that the murderer is considerate enough to attempt a ham-handed frame-up, which naturally ends up providing evidence for her own guilt in the crime. I really do think Lady Dedlock ought to have sent Mademoiselle Hortense a fruit basket.

  8. The moral of the story, Dickens' so-called social commentary, can pithily be summed up as 'The legal system is broken. It swallows up money, property, and lives and shits out only more work for increasingly unscrupulous lawyers--never any justice. And therefore, we good English citizens who care about our own fate and that of our country should... leave it alone. We should go on with our lives without ever doing anything so coarse as going to court, because obviously we're all good upper-class people of means who will never end up in a situation so unsavory that we have to appeal to the law for justice and for the means to continue our lives in comfort and dignity--that's just a chump's game, and will leave us dying of consumption.'
For all its impressive performances and production values, I came away from the BBC's Bleak House curiously unsatisfied. It's a collection of alternately interesting and frustrating parts that come together into no whole at all. The story tries to be a morality play, a mystery, a character study, a romance, and a melodrama, and fails at every attempt. I realize that it is profoundly unfair to judge a work based on a secondary interpretation of it, but for the time being, I see absolutely no reason to give Dickens the benefit of the doubt.

6 comments:

Sherwood said...

Well, that makes two of us. Though I love 19th C literature for the most part, the taste for Dickens has always eluded me, and for much the same reasons you state: caricature and hammer-head 'message.' The novels show, more than any other of my favorites, the downside of publishing in serialization, but mostly it's the single-trait caricature that makes them so boring. There have been the occasional detail to catch my eye, like the jet beads of I think it was David Copperfield's Evil Aunt, but for the most part, the subtlety that Elizabeth Gaskell finally learned late in her career utterly eludes Dickens. (It's also interesting to me that though he fostered her career, as soon as she started writing about real problems and not nice lady subjects, he turned on her.) Dickens seems to have been incapable of the human insight and eye for detail of something like Wives and Daughters.

Farah said...

I'm not a fan either. Hard Times finished off what little liking I had for Dickens.

He is a good cartoonist, and when there are hundreds of characters you can avoid the absence of depth by enjoying the lightening quick pencil sketches, but his morality is that of the ex-poor boy desperate both to show compassion but anxious that he will be identified with the poor rather than with his "natural" level (hence there is always someone whose inner middle-classness shows through the dirt).

The first time I read Barchester Towers and came across Trollope's reference to the "journalist and author, Mr. Sentimental" who upturned everything and then forgot all about the consequences of his actions, I hooted with recognition.

If you must *watch* Dickens, then the RSC version of Nicholas Nickelby directed by David Edgar. He turns Dickens into what Dickens ought to have been but never quite manages...

Brixtonbrood said...

Hard Times is what did it for me as well - as far as I can see his take on labour relations is simlar to your version of his take on the legal system - "ooh, it's so terrible that the workers are being oppressed, but heaven forbid they should actually organise and unionise in an attempt to defend themselves". Maybe someone who knows more than I do about Victorian labour relations (e.g. anything at all) could defend the Stephen Blackpool story, but for me it was a political and artistic disaster.

Abigail's Mom said...

Friends, I feel compelled to come to Dickens' defence.

It helps, I guess, that my first encounter with Dickens was Great Expectations and that I read it when I was 13. (I very much enjoyed it then and Tale of Two Cities when we read it in High School, but I never became a real Dickens fan and haven't returned to him as an adult.)

OK, my point: Dickens' importance on the social/political level is that he brought important issues to the fore and made them the subject of popular, public debate. He may not have offered solutions, but he forced others to do so.

Give Dickens credit for seeing injustices and making others to see them as well! And, bear in mind that this is often all a popular writer can do.

KatieMorris said...

Well. You obviously don't like Dickens, never have liked Dickens and have no intention of ever liking him. I did enjoy your critique of the mini-series, and will defend to the death your right to your opinion while admiring the eridite way you express it. But I adore Dickens. Like "Abigail's Mom" I read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities (my especial favourites) when I was a teenager and found him very ahead of his time. I love his characterisation, and his sentimentality and his great storytelling. And his social awareness. And I was totally enthralled by the television series. The acting was top rate and it was so very . . . . British.

However, please please carry on with your incisive criticisms. They are most enjoyable and even if I don't agree with you, I like reading anything that is so well written and entertaining. Thanks for this one.

Bethany said...

Your criticisms of Dickens are generally great, but I have to defend him a little. Guppy is NOT an admirable character. He wasn't helping Lady Dedlock out of kindness--he was blackmailing her. The actor who played him seems to have softened him a bit, perhaps in hopes of adding some ambiguity to a character who otherwise would have been simply hateful, hypocritical and self-righteous. As for Esther's refusal of him: it wasn't an issue of snobbery. Esther was an impoverished woman of illegitimate birth with no real family to care for her, and was entirely living off of the kindness of distant relations. Esther had a serious inferiority complex, and the reason she refused Guppy wasn't because she thought she was better than him, but because she thought she was worthless and a burden. This is clearer in the book. She felt she was only fit for a life of service, helping others as a ladies' companion or governess. I have to agree in general that at the beginning of the novel, when he seems like a more admirable character, Dickens treats him shabbily. Unfortunately, he's not the only one to portray the unattractive/unappealing's feelings as comical.

As for some of the issues you felt were overdetermined, such as Esther's sainthood and Lady Dedlock's fate: these are issues that I don't think we can fully appreciate outside of Dickens' cultural context. Lady Dedlock's lies and indescretions are really not very problematic today, but would have utterly condemned her as a villainess in Victorian England, so making her so overwhelmingly sympathetic was a bolder stroke, and her husband's forgiveness very poignant. That said, it's true Dickens seldom has much subtlety or shading, which grates on me, too. Ether's sainthood and ultimate fate was Cinderella-ish with the wish-fulfillment of the downtrodden that so many read literature for because it's so rare in life, but Jane Austen does it a hell of a lot better.

I'm not sure what was going on with the battle of wills between Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock vis a vis the maid, but I think it may have been an artifact of the serial writing and publication of the novel--Dickens ends up with loose ends he added for the purposes of suspense and then dropped as the story went in a new direction for Dickens a few installments down the line (Dickens typically wrote his novels in 20 parts).

Thanks for all your great insights--I've really been enjoying your blog!

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