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Too Great Expectations: why Dickens is overrated


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Charles Dickens was born 206 years ago today, and what a 206 years it's been.

Charles Dickens


Popular even in his own lifetime (something which not many artists can say), he wrote over a dozen novels, numerous short stories, several plays and even some non-fiction texts. He founded a home for "fallen women", fathered 10 children, travelled widely across Britain and America, and even found time to cheat on his wife.

And he's been no less busy since dying in 1870. His books are some of the most well-known in the English canon, inspiring dozens of adaptations on stage and on screen. There are several museums dedicated to his memory. There was a briefly-lived theme park in Kent. Through the UK National Curriculum, almost everybody has read some Dickens in their lifetime. The man can seemingly do no wrong.

Except, he can. Because Charles Dickens is one of the most overrated writers in the English language.

I know. I'm an English Literature graduate. I'm studying for a Master's. I teach the aforementioned National Curriculum. I should be enthusing over his wit and humour, his characterisation, his ability to capture conversations. I, like the rest of the population, should be naming his books as some of my favourite, declaring them works of genius. Yet, for so many reasons, Dickens has always been one writer I just cannot get on with.

Still from Oliver Twist - What's funny about orphans and child criminality?

Firstly, his celebrated wit has never once made me laugh & and I'm somebody who actually finds sections of Wuthering Heights genuinely amusing. Perhaps much of it is lost in translation, but what I find is that his characters are often 19th-century versions of a Little Britain stereotype. Where the latter has often been sniffed at, for some reason, Dicken's bizarrely-named characters have been celebrated for centuries. Were he writing now, there would be smutty jokes and winks at the camera galore, not unlike Mrs Brown's Boys, a TV show I have also just never understood. What's more, how people can find books about orphans, disease, abuse and child-criminality amusing simply baffles me. If I wanted that kind of entertainment, I'd flick EastEnders on and save myself a lot of time.

And on that note, the coincidences and convenient occurrences in his books are more akin to a soap opera than anything else. Everybody is related to everybody else, like a Victorian Mitchell family, making 19th-century England appear as if it had a population of around thirty instead of almost 30 million. Often, the novels take a third act twist when secret family connections are revealed, changing the characters' fortunes for better or worse as a result. The relevance of characters to the plot is also frequently confusing: a character who appeared on page one, only to vanish by page 4, suddenly re-appears on page 201 in a completely different setting, and not only are we supposed to remember who they are, but we're supposed to belief they are of Vital Importance to the plot. Given the way in which Dickens usually published his novels - piecemeal, instalment by instalment, not unlike modern soap operas - it's a miracle any of his readers could ever keep up.

Still from Great Expectations - Why is everybody related to everybody else?

Perhaps some of the problems with his work is a result of the episodic nature of his publication. He was often paid by the line, making those lengthy, wordy, convoluted descriptions vital to his earning a decent wage, but ultimately distracting from the main storyline. The way the stories lurch from crisis to crisis can also be explained by his needing to keep his readers gripped, finishing each episode on a cliffhanger so that they would come back for more next time. It's a classic story-telling technique, but it doesn't make for great literature. That's simply not how novels - aside from Dan Brown's - function: they don't drift on for a few chapters before leaving the characters in some state of distress, which is swiftly resolved on the very next page. Calling them great literature is an insult to so many beautifully and carefully crafted texts. A further complication of this style of writing is the inconsistencies it introduces into the text. At times, Dickens was known to change plots or characters according to the reception they'd received in earlier instalments, responding to the wishes and desires of his readers. When Harry Potter and the Cursed Child seemingly drew upon fanfiction and readers' desires, it was called wish-fulfilment. Apparently, when Dickens did it, it was art.

What Dickens has going for him is the sheer quantity of texts, yet even this is not unique. Trollope, Thackeray, Gaskell all published a similar amount and more, but these aren't the writers who get a BBC six-part adaptation every other Christmas. Dickens now seems to be popular simply because he's popular: an Oliver Twist mini-series will pull in more fans because we know it so well, and we like the familiar. In this respect, he's a little like Shakespeare, but he too has contemporaries who have been criminally overlooked. Where are the Hollywood adaptations of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II or Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey? Perhaps the biggest tragedy of overrating people like Dickens and Shakespeare is how it forces all of these equally valuable texts and authors into the shadows. In 2018, isn't it time we looked beyond these big-hitters and searched for those other voices?

So, today I won't be lighting 206 candles and raising a glass to the man himself. He's had quite enough of that. Instead, I'm going to be curling up with a cup of tea, a few biscuits and reading something different, something new. You never know - I might even find something to laugh about.

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