I am not a huge Dickens fan. Of the great Victorian novelists I prefer Eliot, Thackeray, the Brontes and Trollope over Dickens. Philip Larkin said it for me:-
I should like to say something about this 'irrepressible vitality', this 'throwing a fresh handful of characters on the fire when it burns low', in fact the whole Dickens method - it strikes me as being less ebullient, creative, vital, than hectic, nervy, panic-stricken. If he were a person I should say 'You don't have to entertain me, you know. I'm quite happy just sitting here". This jerking of your attention, with queer names, queer characters, aggressive rhythms, piling on adjectives -seems to me to betray basic insecurity in his relation with the reader. How serenely Trollope, for instance, compares. (1)
That crammed, teeming quality of Dickens - the never letting up - along with the melodrama, sentimentality and the coy saint heroines - puts me off reading him. I am happy though that there are so many adaptations. Dickens was a great creator of character and scenes, and his wardrobe of carnival masks makes for a fine Victorian resource, like the converted warehouses and rescued railway stations in British cities.(2)
Like most people I was really taken with the Great Expectations adaptation, especially the first two episodes, which were atmospheric and intense. The third episode was a bit rushed. There were so many plot pieces to bang into place and some, eg that Mr Jaggers' housekeeper was Estella's mother, were skimped. All in all though, I found it engrossing, but then I don't have strong feelings about the book, unlike Howard Jacobson, who complains that they missed out the comedy (which is half of Dickens) and that the whole thing was a travesty of Jacobson's own interpretation.
It is always risky to watch the potential pig's ear that someone is going to make out of your silkiest purse. I remember being furious at a scrappy Daniel Deronda a few years back. If you are not so engaged, though, arguing about how characters and scenes are presented is part of the fun. So I enjoyed Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham (3) and her appearance with the props of an emo video - bridal veil and the wicked fairy quality - a version of Kate Bush jilted. That made her house a place of bad magic, and Pip's love for Estella an enchantment like that of the palely loitering knight in the thrall of the Belle Dame Sans Merci. I agree with those who said Estella wasn't beautiful enough. You can get away with a moderately nice-looking Elizabeth Bennet, say, or Esther Summerson in Bleak House, as they are women of character and their words and actions make them attractive, but Estella has nothing to say except what a cold-hearted screwed up bitch she is, the kind of a woman a smart guy would not touch with a bargepole. She should be as lovely as a star, able to stagger men, and she wasn't.
Ray Winstone as Magwitch the convict. - no, I don't think he was a ham. If you were going to have anyone menace you in lonely marshes, he'd be the man, and in his later scenes he was given some humour and dignity, which he did well with his little eyes and ugly face. In a work though where the theme is snobbery, they missed the chance that he was in his own way a snob. It's in this speech in the book:-
And then, dear boy, it was a recompense to me, look'ee here, to know in secret that I was making a gentleman. The blood horses of them colonists might fling up the dust over me as I was walking; what do I say? I says to myself, 'I'm making a better gentleman nor ever you'll be!' When one of 'em says to another, 'He was a convict, a few year ago, and is a ignorant common fellow now, for all he's lucky,' what do I say? I says to myself, 'If I ain't a gentleman, nor yet ain't got no learning, I'm the owner of such.
Also, they didn't get round the howler that Magwitch could swim from the prison ship to shore with a hefty piece of iron chain around his ankle. Dickens' contemporaries bathed rather than swam, so they overlooked the impossibility at the time, but there's no excuse now.(4)
My favourite performance was that of Harry Lloyd as Herbert Pocket, with his sweet, light-hearted decency.
Another BBC shot at Dickens is Radio 4's Classic Serial production of Martin Chuzzlewit. It's called The Mumbai Chuzzlewits and set in modern day Mumbai amongst a Catholic community. It works well. The extended family plottiing against each other makes sense in that setting, as does the theme of hypocrisy versus true virtue among church going Christians. The Pecksniff figure (called "Pinto") (Rajit Kapur) hits the right note, with his little deprecatory laugh, that makes you want to strangle him. The old patriarch, Martin Chuzzlewit (Roshan Seth) is a delight, complaining about being served peasant food (dahl instead of gruel or slops), and angry at his own unjust autocracy which has brought him such sadness. Young Martin (called "Mickey") goes to Dubai rather than America as in the original and there meets misery among the immigrant workers.
One slight problem - in Victorian novels plots depended on miscommunicating (suppressed letters) and lack of information (missing heirs), so in this version they had to cobble up a bit of unlikelihood about why Mickey and his sweetheart Mary cannot email or text each other.
The first episode was preceded by an essay on the place of Dickens in India. In order to make an Anglophonic and Anglophiliac civil servant class, education policy under the Raj included much English literature. It was taught in Indian universities before it got onto the Oxbridge syllabus. Dickens is still taught, still well known there, and his hypocrites, arrogant rich merchants and half-starved underclass in crowded cities are recognisable as part of India.
Another piece of Dickens was Amando Ianucci's Tale of Charles Dickens. Whatever the thesis - damning the literary critics (why? - there have been brilliant ones) - it did the trick for me by having various people read out chunks of Dickens, and enjoying his inventive imagery. I really was persuaded that I would re-read him some time.
(1) Letters to Monica
(2) The late Christopher Hitchens had evidently not read Dickens recently and slyly makes a virtue out of being a little uninformed about his subject. "You can forget that sense of guilt you have. The one about being not quite sure which character is from which book. None of us really knows, and there is no shame in it. Probably Dickens himself wasn’t certain much of the time."
(3) Gillian Anderson in very good at embittered Victorian women, whether it's Lady Dedlock in Bleak House or Mrs Castaway in The Crimson Petal and the Rose. She suggests secret or semi-secret suffering that is deep and unalterable.
(4) I filched this from John Sutherland's Can Jane Eyre be Happy: More Puzzles from Classic Fiction. Sutherland also points out that although Magwitch as a Lifer returning from the Australian penal colony was supposed to have commited a capital offence, Pip and his friends aren't prosecuted for aiding and abetting the offender.
Update:- the last episode of The Mumbai Chuzzlewits was disappointing, full of Hollywood cliches. "You must fight for her." "You're coming if I have to make you." "Why don't you get out of our lives?" The best bit was old Martin Chuzzlewit snarling at his sardonic doctor, and even that is an old trope, the crusty elderly gentleman.