That’s why they are called classics
The monumental achievements of the 19th- century novelists will never be equalled, writes Peter Craven
WHEN I was a young man it bored me that anyone would expect me to read a 19th- century novel. If there was any way I could circumvent Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen, I would. It wasn’t that I didn’t realise, at some level, that these works were great, but the glow they had was like the glow of childhood: lost, embarrassing, overexposed.
Well, young fools are great fools. I should have borne in mind the wonderful remark of New York critic Lionel Trilling, speaking of his early experience of ( those very different works) the masterpieces of modernism, I bored them’’. Sometimes, after all, it’s literature that rejects us because it decides we’re not up to it.
In any case the 19th- century novel is so far from being boring that if childhood has anything to do with the question, it’s not that the novels of the Victorians ( and such predecessors as Austen) represent the things of childhood’’, to use St Paul’s phrase, but that they represent the lost childhood of the world, the golden age when there seemed to be an exact fit between word and thing and ( more particularly and more strictly) where beauty of articulation, sheer style, were in step with the ability to tell a story that gripped the mind as the most riveting yarn in the world.
Why, after all, does every young girl with green hair and metal in her face find Pride and Prejudice just as compelling as her grandmother does? It’s partly the fact that the romance of Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet is executed with a brilliant pace and command of tempo: the book is the Platonic idea of what lies behind Mills & Boon and the plot is so superbly turned that it ( and the other Austens) have an absolutely perennial popularity that can allow a large number of readers to take up residence in the mansion that constitutes Austen’s house of fiction. ( It’s not uncommon for fans to reread all her books every year.)
Yes, but the depth of the appeal goes beyond yarn telling and stereotype. Pride and Prejudice or Emma may activate some of the same archetypes as Mills & Boon romances, but they have at the same time a wholly different sense of reality.
When we read Austen we understand why Edmund Wilson could call her the most Mozartian of writers because, as with Mozart, we feel that the truest thing in the world is being expressed through what might otherwise be a trifling entertainment.
The Victorians were no mean hands at entertainment but think of how they transfigure their populism. The greatest detective story ever written ( because it is a work of art) is Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone , and you can make comparable claims, apropos the thriller, in the case of The Woman in White . But look at what Collins’s friend Dickens made of the novel of dark and blighted pasts and tangled contemporary shadows in a book such as Bleak House .
You may want to qualify your sense of Dickens by saying that he’s a sentimentalist or a cartoonist, but even if you think the charges stick it must help a bit that he is, after Shakespeare, the greatest master of English dialogue ever.
And think of the devastating critique of the fog of the law and the desolation it brings that Bleak House effects.
Everyone who watched the recent BBC dramatisation by Andrew Davies with Charles Dance at his most angular and sinister as the lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn, and Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, would have got the strongest glimpse of what the novel gives with abundance: a densely imagined world, wildly stylised but with the reality of a vivid dream that recapitulates at every point both the world we know and a world that can only be conjured fantastically.
One of the odd features of our own J. K. Rowling- reading world is that we still walk ( the Harry Potter names are a give- away) in the footsteps of a giant such as Dickens. And the strange thing is that if you make the effort ( and, yes, it can be a difficult pleasure, like love or work) then the rewards are ravishing.
The great glory of the 19th- century novels is that they have the immediacy and the momen- tum of great film or television once you crack the code of their language. And it’s a world presided over not by hacks but by John Fords and Alfred Hitchcocks and Orson Welles- like geniuses who were free of the studios and could make their masterpieces. Or — if you want a more precise parallel to the consciously artistic novels of Flaubert and Turgenev, Conrad and James — to the films of Visconti or Bergman or Scorsese.
That’s the thing about the 19th century that shines back at us. There will never be better novels than Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary or Portrait of a Lady or Crime and Punishment .
Remember what the 19th century achieves when it goes up a notch ( if that’s possible) from Dickens. Remember Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was blatantly influenced by him. Think of the cat- and- mouse game between the detective Porfiry and the highly sympathetic ( indeed Hamlet- like) young murderer Raskolnikov. Or the moment when he says to Sonya, the prostitute who is one of the purest characters in literature, I killed myself, not the old woman.’’
Awe is an appropriate response to the dazzling and sinister and wildly black comic evocation of terrorism in The Possessed and to Stavrogin, with his mask- like face embracing a darkness in which he scarcely believes.
Then there’s The Brothers Karamazov and the moment when the monk Zosima bows to the ground in the presence of the turbulent man Dimitri because he will suffer so much.
Think of the way the whole of Karamazov is constructed like a detective story that is