Yes folks, it is still Christmas for a couple of days.

I need say nothing about A Christmas Carol which I haven’t said before. I read it every Christmas and it never fails to delight.

Dickens at Christmas contains several stories I’d never read before; I bought it when it was 80p for the Kindle. Oh dear. Take out A Christmas Carol, which is included in the collection, and the first part of the book could be re-titled The Worst Of Dickens. I couldn’t finish the extract from The Pickwick Papers but that’s not surprising as it was years before I could get right through the book. I struggled through The Chimes, was totally bemused by The Cricket on the Hearth and nauseated by The Battle of Life. There is so much ammunition here for people who ‘hate Dickens’: facetiousness instead of wit; the use of unnecessary description and twenty words where one would do; sentimentality; melodrama. And yet … You have to remember the audience these stories were written for: the readers of Dickens’ magazines. They wanted stories glorifying home and the angel of the hearth. They expected ghost stories, not necessarily pleasant, at Christmas. They loved to weep over a book. And there are so many flashes of Dickens’ genius. For instance, in the frightening story The Haunted Man there’s a section about the Tetterby family which could have come from one of his best novels.
it gets better )

Part of the original manuscript of Great Expectations. Photo BBC.

I wanted to watch this first episode because it dealt with Great Expectations, one of my favourite books. The Secret Life of Books is a strange title for this series, as I couldn’t see that anything particularly secret was revealed. The presenter, Tony Jordan, is a former Eastenders scriptwriter. It was refreshing not to have an academic or a member of the literati fronting the programme; Dickens was, after all, a popular novelist.

Jordan was good on Dickens’ serialisations, modern soaps and the art of the cliffhanger. It was telling when he read aloud the end of one episode, just as it appeared in Household Words, to have it followed by the ‘Dum dum dum’ of Eastenders, familiar even to people like me who’ve never watched it. The ‘secret’ or mystery was about the way the book ends. It was quite a thrill to see, even on television, the original manuscript. (How different now, when we write on computers and amendments erase the original idea for ever.) As is well known, in Dickens’ first draft the ending is bleak, in keeping with the rest of the novel. The published version offered a glimmer of hope for the future. Why did he change it? Jordan thinks it was not because ‘a friend told him to’ but because of the turmoil in his own life. By the time Great Expectations was published Dickens had separated from his wife and was under the terrible strain of keeping secret his affair with Ellen Ternan. One interviewee pointed out the similarities in the names ‘Estella’ and ‘Ellen Ternan’; all those ‘l’s and ‘t’s. Dickens worshipped Ellen the way Pip worships Estella and possibly by providing a happier ending for his hero he was seeking hope for his own situation? It’s as good an explanation as any, I suppose.

Unless Tony Jordan was interviewing someone or visiting Dickens’ one time haunts, there was a problem with visuals: far too many shots of modern London, flowers; anything, it seemed, which appeared before the camera lens. Why do programme makers think we’re all morons who can only stand a talking head for about one minute? Worth watching, though? Yes. ‘Arguably his best novel’. ‘it seemed effortless’. Shots of the marshland of Pip’s childhood. It made you want to read the wonderful book yet again.
The first card I’ve received with this slogan on the envelope.


News to me! But not to the Huffington Post. If you follow the link to A Christmas Dinner, you find the interesting blog Reading Dickens. Beware annoying ads.
So far this year, I’ve read one chapter.

*sighs* I know most people would rather read my accounts of bargain hunting than my carefully thought out book reviews.:-) Here’s what I got today.


This wood and tile tray. It will be useful for over-wintering cuttings indoors.£1.00.


Wedgwood Dickens centenary mug, 1970. My hero! I don’t know why people don’t clean things up before selling; the tray and mug look so much better now I’ve washed them.


Some startlingly orange-red gladioli which I’d never have in the garden. For a pound, they make a nice feature on the hearth.


Craft mags. Why so, you ask? Two or three weeks ago I got a *real* bargain. Some people were selling card making materials. While I was idly looking at them, the chap said, ‘You can have the lot for £4.00.’ What? Part of me was saying, ‘No! You can’t possibly start a new hobby!’ The rest of me said, ‘Leave that lot there for that money?’ The stuff filled two very large bags and weighed a ton. Looking at it later, I estimated well over fifty pounds-worth of goods. I resolved to try making some simple Christmas cards, which is why I’m looking for inspiration. Today I also bought a Robert Goddard book I haven’t read and the usual fruit and veg. Quite satisfactory.

Contrary to weather forecasts of an autumnal feel to the weekend, it’s now heat-wave hot!

For the past few days I’ve occasionally been leaving my quiet, rural retreat to join the crowds thronging the streets of Victorian London. I’ve been almost deafened by the continuous roar of noise around me, half choked and blinded by the sooty, smoky air. I’ve gawped at funerals, executions, fires, runaway horses and street accidents. I’ve eaten on the hoof, buying breakfast on the way to work and if I’m lucky getting a chop and a pint of ale for dinner. I’ve had to struggle to walk through the human traffic jams, dodged the wheeled traffic, avoided the eager traders and hawkers with their familiar cries. It’s been exhausting, smelly, dirty, overwhelming; but my goodness, it’s been living, in a city that never sleeps. Charles Lamb wrote, ‘I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much Life.’

Judith Flanders says that Dickens ‘invented London’. She means that what we think of as ‘Dickens’ London’, a place full of wildly eccentric people and improbable happenings, was in fact the real thing: ‘Much of what we take today to be the marvellous imaginings of a visionary novelist turn out on inspection to be the reportage of a great observer.’ Certainly, many of the incidents she records seem stranger than fiction. ‘In Dickens’ own time, the way that people lived was not Dickensian, merely life.’ The city was transforming itself at incredible speed. ‘Migration, particularly from Ireland during the Famine years towards the middle of the century, resulted in the eighteenth-century infrastructure of London being swamped by the huge mass of its nineteenth-century residents. Transport, sanitation, food distribution, housing: none could cope with the numbers pouring into the capital every day.’ No wonder that life was lived so much on the streets.
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Has anyone else been following the BBC 2 series The Tube? I saw the first three episodes and found it fascinating, if something of a PR job. My interest in what goes on underground started years ago when I saw a Look at Life film about ‘People who work when we’re asleep’. The tube, sewers, tunnels carrying cables, all caught my imagination. Later, I read Peter Laurie’s classic Beneath the City Streets and learned about the secret underground places. All this explains why I grabbed Peter Ackroyd’s London Under when I saw it at the library. Compared with his mighty tomes, London, the Biography and Thames, Sacred River, this book is novella-length at 182 pages but boy, is it dense.

There are a lot of facts in London Under but, this being Ackroyd, all are subject to imaginative interpretation. It’s always thrilled me to think of the thousands of years of history under your feet as you pace the streets of London. Each stratum below has a secret to reveal, with many more still to come. If you believe Ackroyd, most secrets are dark ones. The ground below us is described frequently as ‘the underworld’ and there are references throughout the book to Hades, the Styx, Pluto. Tunnel entrances are seldom called doors; rather, they are portals, immediately summoning up the image of moving into another world. Below ground it is literally dark, ‘pitched past pitch of black.’ as Ackroyd writes, channelling G M Hopkins. Dark also in its history of fear and death.

The dead, of course, are buried below ground and so in a sense always with us. Ackroyd quotes a passage from Night Walks in which Dickens imagined ‘how, if they were raised while the living slept … the vast armies of the dead would overflow the hills and valleys beyond the city, and would stretch away all round it, God knows how far.’ There are records of Roman deaths, plague pits (more fear and horror), bodies mutilated in apparent human sacrifice. The deeper you dig, the hotter it gets; no wonder so many writers have described these dark regions as ‘hellish’. Not just bodies but whole streets have been uncovered wherever excavation has taken place. When the Jubilee line was built, the architect said, ‘It’s chaotic down there, you just can’t believe what’s going on.’

The gods of the underworld seem very demanding types, always requiring sacrifice and propitiation. The places where now-hidden waters run may be sacred sites, or they may be destroyers, drowning the innocent and engulfing the streets imposed above them. Counters Creek passes the cemeteries of Kensal Green, Hammersmith, Brompton and Fulham, ‘perhaps out of atavistic attraction to the buried dead.’ Marc Isambard Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames is described as one of several attempts ‘to stay or undermine the deity of the river.’ The Thames exacted its toll of dead workmen as did the sewers when they were built, and the underground railway. The early locomotives had names, one of which was Pluto. This is the kind of thing Ackroyd finds significant, just as he sees connections which wouldn’t be obvious to other people. For example, a mausoleum and a temple were found underground at Southwark. ‘The buildings had been painted with red ochre, pre-dating the ox-blood tiles of the London Underground stations.’ Referring later to these tiles, Ackroyd says, ‘The association between the underworld and animal sacrifice has been maintained.’

My admiration for Peter Ackroyd should be well known but goodness, what a dark mind. He’s a man you somehow can’t imagine sitting peacefully in a garden but, like Dickens, endlessly tramping the streets of London and feeding off them. He ends here with ‘London is built on darkness.’ And by the way, don’t read this remarkable book if you suffer from coprophobia.

Guns in the Gallery, Simon Brett
Magnificent Obsession , Helen Rappaport
The Black Ship, Carola Dunn
The Fountain Overflows, Rebecca West
Prelude to Terror, Helen MacInnes
Hasty Death, M C Beaton
Chronicles of Carlingford: The Rector and The Doctor’s Family , Mrs Oliphant
The Old Wives’ Tale , Arnold Bennett
The Dream House, Rachel Hore
The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L Sayers
The Memory Garden, Rachel Hore
Faulks on Fiction, Sebastian Faulks
thoughts )
I chose the geranium icon today because red geraniums were Dickens’ favourite flowers.

Even Google has gone Dickensian for the occasion.

Find out what’s happening at Dickens 2012.

The Telegraph has a special Charles Dickens page. Ironic that there will be a wreath laying ceremony in Westminster Abbey today, when Dickens specifically requested that he be buried without pomp.

Spitalfields Life has some wonderful pictures this morning of Park Cottage, where Ellen Ternan lived with her mother and sisters.

Read a book. The Book People have some great offers on Dickens’ novels.

Dickens' birthplace in Portsmouth, the house with the plaque.

As is well known, Dickens died before he could complete his novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Last week I watched the new TV adaptation , which had the story finished by Gwyneth Hughes. It’s so long since I read the book that I couldn’t remember where it ended; no doubt that’s why it all seemed pretty seamless to me. The second part was more interesting than the first and with all the opium fantasies floating around you could really believe that Jasper wasn’t sure himself exactly what he’d done. I thought the stalking could have been more frightening and it was something of a cop-out to find at the end that Jasper was a bad man because his daddy didn’t love him. Aaah. Or possibly, Aaargh!

At the weekend I watched all six hours of the 1998 series of Our Mutual Friend, thanks to LoveFilm. It’s difficult to adapt such a long and complex novel for television and this was a good shot. It certainly kept me entertained. Peter Vaughan was superb as Mr Boffin as was David Bradley as Rogue Riderhood. Full marks all round for acting.

On one of my favourite blogs, Mary’s Library, Mary was writing about her continued failure to finish The Pickwick Papers. I struggled with it several times, always failing to get past the unbearable facetiousness of the opening chapters. Eventually I persevered until Sam Weller appeared and he was enough to see me through to the end. There are Dickens novels I enjoy so much that I actually worry that I may not have time to read them again but once was enough for Pickwick. Yet this is the book which made Dickens’ name, which shows how new and fresh it must have appeared at the time. Here’s a little poll to find out if it is bottom of everyone’s list.

[Poll #1811488]

Most people seem to have loved the BBC’s recent adaptation of Great Expectations but I was very disappointed because I felt much of the character of the book was lost. So I read the book again. Read it! I lived, breathed, absorbed it in every pore, felt as if I might be sucked right into its pages and disappear. Dickens must have been a magician. Every trick which the greatest of writers could exploit is here. I wrote briefly about it here and can’t really add much. When Armando Ianucci was talking about Dickens he said that no writer had ever got into a child’s mind the way Dickens did and he gave examples from David Copperfield. This reminded me of George Orwell saying that when he first read David Copperfield as a young boy, he believed the opening chapters had actually been written by a child, they rang so true to a child’s view of the world. Dickens used the same trick again in Great Expectations, so that we see Pip’s limited world through his own eyes.

The first person narrative creates the whole mood of the book. Watching the David Lean film again, I decided the reason it was more successful than the most recent TV adaptation was the occasional use of narration by John Mills as the older, wiser, sadder Pip which makes quite clear that he saw all along how bad his behaviour was towards Joe and deeply regretted it. As I’d only just re-read the book I was also able to notice how great chunks of the dialogue had been lifted straight from it. Of course Lean had to take liberties with the book: no Wopsle (no loss); no Orlick so a natural death for Mrs Joe; no fiancée or family for Herbert. Nevertheless it gives a truer picture of the book than the TV film which was so unsympathetic towards Pip.

Er, nothing on Saturday at all. So I’m very grateful to Cornflower for mentioning the lovely film The Bishop’s Wife, which I borrowed from LoveFilm. Cary Grant constantly beaming with radiant goodness is a sight to behold and he’s quite upfront about being an angel; no ‘Mr Miracle’ for his character. David Niven plays the bishop. I loved this film and enjoyed the ice skating scene so much I watched it twice. I can’t think why it hasn’t become a traditional Christmas film, like It’s a Wonderful Life. It would be nice to have my own copy, but the price is ridiculous.

Yesterday I watched the second episode of the new Sherlock. I hadn’t a clue what was going on in last week’s A Scandal in Belgravia but last night’s episode did have a story line you could follow, thank goodness. I don’t really like Holmes out of London, though, nor do I go for conspiracy theory drama.

Heads up: David Lean’s Great Expectations is on TV this afternoon for you to record and watch later. I watched it again the other day and plan to write about it for tomorrow’s Dickens on Tuesday.

Whether it’s Mary Portas stomping up the high street, Jamie Oliver serving school dinners or Mrs Moneypenny trying to get people to be more frugal, no one just does anything these days, they are always ‘on a mission’ to do something. So, according to last Saturday’s Telegraph Review, Armando Ianucci is ‘on a mission’ to rescue Dickens. From what, you may well ask? The heritage industry, it turns out.

So yesterday evening I watched Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens. Armando is a clever chap and quite capable of giving an hour’s lecture on Dickens and why he enjoys his books so much. This being television he naturally was not allowed to do any such thing but had to wander around different locations, chuck books on the beach (tsk!) and interview people with little to say to the point. Armando’s argument was that Dickens is an essentially contemporary writer, with much to say that remains relevant. He was also ‘our greatest comedian’, still influencing comedy. Fair enough, but the rest of the programme was pretty pointless. I still enjoyed it, simply because I like to hear people discussing Dickens.

By writing this today I have unwittingly taken part in a ‘Dickens’ Tuesday’ challenge: see here.

“The premise is basic: every Tuesday in January (there are 5 Tuesdays) post something about Charles Dickens. It can be a book, short story, or film review. It could be about his life. It could even merely relate to his time period. Basically just have something relevant about Charles Dickens in your blog post (heck, it could even be a rant about how much you hate Charles Dickens). On his birthday, Tuesday 02/07 there will be a big wrap-up! “

Meanwhile, as a result of my disappointment with the TV adaptation I’m reading Great Expectations again. I see I last read it in 2009, so I’m about ready for a re-read.

Photo from The Telegraph

Great Expectations is one of my favourite books so I’ll naturally want to see any adaptation going and also be hyper-critical of it. A new series ran for three consecutive evenings on BBC 1 this week. Was it good television? Absolutely. I was glued to the screen and each hour passed in a flash. Did I like it? Not much. It wasn’t so much a film of the book as an interpretation of it, one which made everything obvious in case the viewer didn’t get it (Orlick’s hatred of Pip, for instance) and hinted at things previously unimagined (Jaggers’ relationship with Molly).

As I said, it did make good television but I can’t understand the need to change a story which is already pretty nearly perfect. There’s quite enough going on in the book without making things up, like Herbert Pocket cut off by his family and being friendly with Wemmick. Then there’s what was left out. Joe Gargery was rather modern, not touching enough (where was his devoted nursing of Pip?) and although at the end he did say, ‘Always the best of friends’, we never got the one thing everyone remembers: ‘What larks, eh Pip?’ Poor Wemmick had even lost his Aged P.

Only David Suchet’s Jaggers came near my imagining of any of the book’s characters. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the Pip of this production until he nurses Magwitch at the end. Estella was neither beautiful nor proud enough. Gillian Anderson’s Miss Havisham looked stunning but seemed so mad that one couldn’t imagine Jaggers thinking her rational enough to take legally binding decisions or to manage her own money. Then there was the unjustified suggestion that she killed herself. Heigh ho, they did choose the happy ending of the two Dickens wrote.

I very much enjoyed the TV series of 1999 (blimey, that long ago?), the one with Charlotte Rampling as Miss Havisham. So good I watched it twice. The trouble is that the definitive film was made over seventy years ago and nothing ever betters it.

Nothing to say about this except that it’s the best Christmas story ever written. The only fault I can find with it is that Dickens uses Scrooge to promote his own anti-sabbatarian views, which is out of character. So here’s a poll to see how much other people like the book.
[Poll #1804157]

This book was my mother’s. I kept it because I hadn’t read it and especially because she’d written inside, ‘A favourite book’. Susan Hill’s short (seventy nine pages) story is told by Fanny, looking back to the Christmas when she was nine and her father rector of a country parish in Dorset. “There is no one else left who remembers.”

The delight of this book is in the detail; everything is lovingly described. The snow ‘like goose-down’, Fanny’s Christmas present of a muff ‘like being close to the warm body of some still-alive creature’, the ‘Christmas table with its snow-white cloth and twinkling glasses’. For my taste, Susan Hill overdoes this with constant repetitions of words: the curate’s ‘new, new wife’; the ‘wild, wild open place’; the 'orange, orange tangerine’. There are too many of these to count, along with expressions like, ‘Yes, oh yes’, ‘A happy Christmas to you! Oh, a happy Christmas!’ I found this irritating. (I’m now reading A Christmas Carol and notice that Dickens uses this device: "The grocers! Oh, the grocers!" but only once.) Lanterns Across the Snow is a charming description of a nineteenth century Christmas, which doesn’t neglect the less fortunate villagers. It would be perfect reading for Christmas Eve. On the other hand, for me it doesn’t beat the Christmas chapter in Alison Uttley’s The Country Child.

Visions of England , Roy Strong
Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling
Have I got Views for You, Boris Johnson
Dead Man’s Folly, Agatha Christie.
Malcolm Saville, a Friendship Remembered, Viv Turner
Lone Pine London, Malcolm Saville
The Secret of the Gorge, Malcolm Saville
Charles Dickens , Claire Tomalin
Rewards and Fairies, Rudyard Kipling
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Parts of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd
Charles Dickens, Ladybird Adventures from History by L du Garde Peach
Agatha Raisin As the Pig Turns, M C Beaton
a few thoughts )

Here's a little idea from Simon at Stuck in a Book.

1. The book I'm currently reading: on the Kindle, David Copperfield and Rewards & Fairies, both re-reads.
2. The last book I finished: Dickens by Claire Tomalin
3. The next book I want to read: Mourn not your Dead, Deborah Crombie
4. The last book I bought: the Claire Tomalin
5. The last book I was given: can’t remember!

John Forster, Dickens’ best friend and appointed biographer, published the first volume of his Life in 1872, two years after Dickens’ death. Earl Russell wrote to him, ‘I shall have fresh grief when he dies in your volumes.’ Yesterday evening, approaching the end of Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens, A Life I got as far as the death and found myself in tears, just like the people who had known him when they read Forster’s great work of love and tribute. I often cite Middlemarch as my favourite book, I re-read some of Jane Austen’s novels each year, yet I still regard Dickens as our greatest novelist and am moved by the extinction of the spirit which produced books I love so much.

Next year will be the bi-centenary of Dickens' birth and we can expect further publishing flurries. The question is: how many biographies do we need? Hilary Mantel writes that ‘Claire Tomalin is the finest and most disinterested of biographers.’ For ‘disinterested’, read ‘cool’. According to Craig Brown she is ‘the most empathetic of biographers’, another judgement I disagree with. This biography is thoroughly researched and does justice to Dickens’ astonishing energy.
‘(he) packed so much into his life (from 1852-54) that it is hard to believe there is only one man writing novels, articles and letters, producing A Child’s History of England, editing, organizing his children’s education, advising Miss Coutts on good works, agitating on questions of political reform … travelling, acting, making speeches, raising money and working off his excess energy in his customary twelve-mile walks.’
Just to consider that by the time he was twenty five this scarcely educated man had published The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, bought a house and married gives some idea of the pace he was to live at. The wonder is not that he was burned out at fifty eight but that he lasted so long.
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The C Word

Oct. 17th, 2011 04:17 pm
Yes, already. Over the weekend [ profile] huskyteer and I went to look at the Christmas wonderland at the garden centre. We shrieked over some of the merchandise on offer but the things which made us go ‘Eeuw!’ rather than ‘Hee!’ were *plush reindeer heads*. Yup, sad decapitations to fix on your wall in an old-time yuletide spirit. Some of the displays were nice, though. I’ve always had a weakness for little light-up village scenes like this one.

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I’d enjoyed my recent re-read of The Warden and Barchester Towers so I got another free download, of Trollope’s autobiography. He made it clear it was to be published only after his death but it contains no startling revelations. I admit I found it hard going. The early part of the book is almost a misery memoir about the hardships of his early life and his dissolute habits as a young man. Just what these bad habits were, apart from getting into debt, he doesn’t say. His lucky break was of course landing a job in the Post Office; very lowly at first then rising to considerable responsibility. This perhaps explains his otherwise bizarre opposition to the introduction of civil service entry exams. From the start he intended to be a writer and set about it in a very businesslike way. It’s this page and penny counting which has in the past brought scorn upon him from those who prefer artists to starve. As he says, he couldn’t have lived off his pen alone, so needed to find a way of writing while working. And did he! He wrote on coaches, on trains, on ships, he wrote every spare minute he had in order to keep up the daily word count he’d set himself.

When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied.

I had long since convinced myself that in such work as mine the great secret consisted in acknowledging myself to be bound to rules of labour similar to those which an artisan or a mechanic is forced to obey.

I think other prolific and successful writers such as PG Wodehouse would have agreed with that.

not Trollope
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