Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Family Dickens

I've been pondering this, and (I daresay) coming up with some rather obvious thoughts -- the idea, in other words, that Dickens' huge contemporary fame was based on him as a family entertainer, not just suitable and diverting reading for the whole family, but in some sense reflecting the family to itself, both reinforcing and interrogating the values of 'family'. But having made that, perhaps, over-obvious point, I'm thrown back on the reflection that Dickens seems remarkably disinclined to actually represent a straightforward, vanilla, honest-to-goodness to family. I was re-reading Nicholas Nickleby when it struck me: this is CD's third novel, and fourth published book; and yet it is the first to portray an actual family, and a notably (to use the modern idiom) disfunctional one at that. The Pickwick club is a sort of benign alter-family, in which the lack of blood ties is exactly what enables everyone to get along so splendidly; Fagin's gang is a sort of mirror-universe version of the same thing. Early Dickens is full of boarding-houses, prisons and workhouses, alternate groupings of human beings that are kibbutzic, or anti-kibbutzic, as rival models of 'the family'. In David Copperfield, family is what is taken away, and which one replaces with friends (schoolfriends, say) on the road to replacing it with a wife and children of your own -- a fair approximation of many people's relationship to 'family' of course, although one which the novel stymies by killing off Dora in the process. Bleak House tropes 'family' as a horrible entangling lawsuit, and ranges promiscuously through variant models. Scrooges lives alone, before financially 'adopting' a stranger's family; in Tale of Two Cities and Little Dorrit family is the medium through which ancestral shame and guilt as passed to the present. In The Old Curiosity family is weirdly attenuated to incapacitated grandfather and grand-daughter; and in Dombey and Son CD wrote a novel that was in part a critique of precisely that attenuation -- the logic that says 'the only people who matter in this family are me and my first-born son'. There are, of course, lots of novels about lots of hidden, secret family relationships that CD's plots laboriously bring to the surface, but that is in itself a sort of critique: saying that what is, in life, almost unmissably present, day-by-day, in your face (often too in your face, as many people struggle to cohabit in a space too small for them) in art becomes so cunningly hidden away that it takes a 1000-page novel to bring it to light.

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