Dickens and me

Apparently, a short 200 years ago Charles Dickens was born. This has prompted all manner of hoopla, including Prince Charles cutting a birthday cake at the Dickens Museum (although the recipient was hardly in shape to partake) and Ralph Fiennes reading from Bleak House at Westminster Abbey.

I must confess that Bleak House is the only Dickens novel I have ever read, but I maintain that it was hardly a slacker task. In first year university, my English course was titled Poem, Play and Story. It was a survey course of –you guessed it– a combination of literary genres. The poem part was from the Norton Anthology of Verse, the play part was weighted heavily (not that I’m complaining) on Pinter and O’Neill, and the story portion was all examples of novels from the 18th and 19th century.

Robinson Crusoe may seem innocuous to those of you who only read the Classic Comics version, but it is not something that anyone sane would bring on a beach holiday. I was very grateful to get through it prior to the midterm exam, confident that it would be all downhill from there. That’s until I went to the bookstore to buy the next novel on the list.

Since it had been on the shelves for going on 122 years, fortunately Bleak House was available in paperback. If not, it would have weighed about 15 pounds with a price tag to match. The paper version was four inches thick and about 950 pages long. As you may know, most of Dickens’ writing was originally published as serials or printed soap operas. Bleak House is clearly one such example.
When you are paid by the word, there is little incentive to tighten up your story line. This is why very little happens in the first 925 pages of Bleak House except the introduction of a bazillion characters that are almost as hard to keep straight as in War and Peace (not that I’ve actually read it – apparently it has something to do with Russia).

Anyhow, our professor decided that Bleak House would be a fine candidate for our end of semester exam. I guess the Classic Comics people figured no one would buy a 200 page comic, which meant I had to slog my way through the actual book over the Christmas holidays. I set myself a quota of 200 pages a day. I do remember that the last 50 pages were almost enjoyable, possibly due to the ‘hitting your head against the wall’ factor, and at the risk of spoiling things for the rest of you, everyone does not live happily ever after.

Unbelievably, almost 40 years later I still own the noxious book which must have moved with me about 15 times. It still has some life in it as a great doorstop or as a cure for insomnia, and can be on its way to you for only a small cost of about $75 in postage.