I recently wrote a feature on Charles Dickens as the author celebrated his 200th birthday on 7 February 1812. Now I ‘m not an expert on the man who is frequently described as the UK’s second best writer (Shakespeare darlings), but researching and writing about such a great Victorian was a really interesting experience.
Like many people my own relationship with Charles Dickens didn’t really get off to a great start. At age 11 we were given Oliver Twist as an English set book by a unispiring English teacher with a fondness for knuckle rapping. Thinking about the prose we were reading was just not encouraged and the (seemingly) hours spent reading the book out loud passed with the rapidity of a mogodon laced snail doing a marathon. I imagine many people of my vintage have shared the experience.
My Dickens epiphany was when I read Hard Times as part of an Open University course. Of course I was a bit older by then and had developed a taste for 19th and early 20th century genre fiction authors like MR James and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so the denser nature of Dickens’ Victorian prose wasn’t quite so daunting. Gaining an insight into how books were consumed at the time they were written, as magazine serials much like modern soap operas and having a fuller understanding of both the period and the social conditions Dickens was highlighting made me realise how important he was as both an author and a social campaigner.
Over the years I have read a number of Dickens’ novels and short stories with varying degrees of pleasure. After writing my piece for the Philatelic Bulletin to coincide with Royal Mail’s recent stamp issue my interest in reading more Dickens was piqued so I took Great Expectations to the Cape Verde Islands, instead of my usual Swedish noir or historic romp.
I won’t spoil anything by giving the plot away, but I was immediately struck by the very dark Gothic opening as Pip encounters the convict Magwitch in the graveyard where Pip’s parents are buried. David Lean really nailed this in the opening of his 1946 film adaptation.
Though I do feel Lean’s vision has been slightly influenced by the grave robbing scene in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, you can see how Lean must have influenced Terence Fisher’s Hammer Horrors. Of course the other great Gothic set- piece is Miss Haversham’s house with the rotting remnants of her aborted wedding breakfast. This clip from Lean’s adaptation features the divine Jean Simmons as Estella and some amazingly dark and atmospheric lighting.
I’m glad I re-aquainted myself with the world of Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham, not least because it gave me the opportunity to revisit Lean’s splendid film adaptation, so I might take Mr Pickwick and his Papers to Rhodes, lets see.