In snatched moments (between blog post preparations and some big Life Happenings to deal with) – I’ve been mentally running around trying to catch up with the current BBC Radio Dickens fest in honour of his bicentenary (thank goodness for iPlayer!). So many programmes to listen to! Every time I check the Radio Times or the BBC website, there seems to be a fresh crop.
I particularly enjoyed Frances Fyfield’s programmes on Radio 4 examining Dickens’s original manuscripts. I managed to catch the ones on The Mystery of Edwin Drood and A Tale of Two Cities – and was so moved by actor David Timson’s reading (direct from the original manuscript) of Sydney Carton’s supreme sacrificial moment, written, of course, to such superb emotional effect by Dickens (‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…’ Gets me every time…).
Those programmes led me to the V&A website to look at Dickens’s original manuscripts there. Spellbinding stuff!
Seeing what a tangle of words and crossings out Dickens’s final MS were (his compositors must have been superheroes!) I feel much better about the scrawls, scratchings out, and crazy trails of thought doing a merry dance around the page, that pass for my own creative writing endeavours! (Apparently, there were suspicions that Dickens used to deliberately leave all the muddle and crossings out, to make sure he got the best compositors assigned to his novels!) On the programmes, it was pointed out how amazing the sections are where there are virtually no crossings out (very often the dialogue) – so confidently placed on the page, fully formed. Dickens’s daughter Mamie reported that he used to act out his dialogue in front of the mirror first, and then write it all down. He must have had a remarkable ability to hold great chunks of his novels in his head before transferring them to paper.
Using the V&A website, it’s an entrancing experience to see the familiar words of Dickens’s novels in his own writing, to witness his mind at work – to spot the arresting little details that bring a sense of immediate human contact across the intervening years. On the Edwin Drood programme, Frances Fyfield and her guests were totally captivated by a coffee cup stain on the MS – a snapshot of a writer’s creative moment grounded in a small daily life detail.
Hearing Penelope Wilton read from Claire Tomalin’s recent biography of The Great Inimitable on Radio Four’s Book of the Week (still available on the archive) was also a real pleasure. I was so moved when Penelope Wilton reached the account of how that fiercely burning creative light went out. I was left feeling its loss in a very immediate way.
And yet, of course, that light still burns ever brightly in the brilliant works Dickens left us – without which my own life, for one, would have lost so many rich enhancements. I cannot overstate how much I love Dickens’s work and how much it means to me, how woven into my life his novels are.
It was wonderful to hear, on another recent Radio Four Book of the Week, Michael Rosen’s beautiful and moving account of the profound way in which Dickens’s novels have been interwoven in his own life, family and experience. As I began to listen to it, I quickly realised that I’d read the essay (from Stop What You’re Doing and Read This, published by Vintage Books) in The Guardian over the New Year – but it now seems to have disappeared from the Guardian’s web pages, due to its copyright for the piece having expired.
On TV, I gleefully enjoyed Armando Iannucci’s tribute to Dickens, Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens (an exploration of Dickens’s craft, revolving around the chosen text of David Copperfield). Apart from the other treats of the programme, it was fabulous to see someone do some detailed practical criticism of the text on screen – actually pointing to the words on the page, savouring how they work, the artistry and magic of their combination and construction. I remember from Iannucci’s previous programme on the BBC about Milton, he did the same thing. Joy of joys! Real, direct, in-the-moment practical criticism! A focus on the text! A rare thing on television, but Armando Iannucci demonstrated that, with the right, impassioned approach – it works on screen! I think I’m correct in thinking that, at one point in his life, Iannucci spent time researching for an intended PhD on Milton. Obviously, the passionate, insightful and enthusiastic literary scholar still burns in his spirit. Unleash it further please, BBC!
Dickens on Film explored the episodic nature of Dickens’s writing and its influence on the emerging art form of film. I hadn’t really thought before just how soon after the novels were written that the first film adaptations of Dickens’s work appeared (I think one dated from 1902). I discovered, alas too late, via the BBC Dickens page and Radio 4 blog that there had been a series of radio programmes (Dickens on Location) about places Dickens mentions in his novels. The Radio 4 Extra blog post about St James’ Church, Cooling on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent – scene of the opening of Great Expectations – makes for interesting reading.
I did manage to catch the first episode of The Mumbai Chuzzlewits and have downloaded the next two, as I knew I wouldn’t catch up with them before they dropped off iPlayer. There are some interesting behind the scenes ‘raw clips of the recording of The Mumbai Chuzzlewits in India’ on the production company’s website, as well as details of an upcoming documentary (7th – 11th February) on the BBC World Service, Dickens and India – Mutual Friends, in which writer Ayeesha Menon ‘explores India’s love affair with Dickens.’
I highly recommend a recent series of Radio 3’s The Essay (available to listen again on the December 2011 archive) The Writers’ Dickens in which authors talk about various aspects of Dickens’s craft and how he has influenced their own work. I particularly loved Tessa Hadley’s exploration of Dickens’s use of material objects; his rendering them alive with metaphor and meaning (it was a treat to wander around the House of Clennam in her company, and to relive the imagery, symbolism and sheer harmony of language, detail and meaning crafted by the masterful hand of Dickens, as he unfolds for us Arthur’s return to that precariously shifting family edifice). Oh, and watch out for Tessa Hadley’s comparison of Dickens’s 19th century, and her own 21st century, use of metaphorically charged mirrors! She makes an intriguing point. Alexander McCall Smith’s appraisal of Dickens’s skilled use of the serial form (also looked at in the light of his own experience of serialising the 44 Scotland Street stories) was equally enjoyable. A. L Kennedy was brilliant – and spot on – in her sensitive and deeply insightful analysis of that passionate, troubled, dark sense of ‘something is wrong,’ combined always with a faith in the possibility of human goodness and redemption, in Dickens’s work. She got right to the heart of Dickens, I thought. Justin Cartwright’s essay on Dickens and Christmas and Romesh Gunesekera’s essay on Dickens and ‘The Orphan Eye’ were also both gems.
Still to catch up on for me is The BBC World Service World Book Club discussion of Great Expectations, with biographer Claire Tomalin and actor Simon Callow – and, today, the Woman’s Hour drama, Dickens in London began its unfolding….
Begging to be read are the two fabulous Dickens biographies now gracing my shelves since Christmas day – the first Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens, A Life (published by Penguin) and the second by John Forster, Dickens’s close friend. Both are beautiful volumes to behold.
John Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens, The Illustrated Edition (published by Sterling) is a truly hefty tome, but is a thing of such utter gorgeousness that it’s more than worth the extra muscle power involved in lifting it down from the shelf!
Full of sumptuous illustrations – all visual gifts to gladden any Dickensian’s heart – it also unwraps like a tantalising pass-the-parcel, revealing hidden treats beneath each layer:
For a bevy of more Dickensian treats, the Dickens 2012 website is a hub of all the bicentenary activity – and Warwick University’s Celebrating Dickens website looks like a fascinating destination for further exploration…
And then, of course, most importantly of all – there are the novels! Once I’ve finished my re-read of Edwin Drood – my top favourite, Our Mutual Friend, calls…
After all that…and in anticipation of more to come…do I feel Dickensed-out? Not in the least! Bring it on! I’m like a kid in a sweet shop!