The Godfather: Peter Corris on the Victorians
I first read Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) at school when it was a set text. I was very impressed by it, answered a question on it in the exams and got a good mark, although I’ve long forgotten what I wrote.
At university, Hardy’s poems were set for English but not the novels. Dickens was the featured Victorian with Bleak House (1854) the text. I disliked it intensely and, urged to try others like A Tale of Two Cities (1859 and Little Dorrit (1857), I did so, but never warmed to Dickens.
I read a good deal of Hardy for enjoyment – Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), The Return of the Native (1878), Jude the Obscure (1895) and others – and decided that Hardy was the best of the Victorians.
The only other contender (apart from George Eliot, whom I found excessively serious) I thought was Trollope, and I read my way through the Palliser novels, probably influenced by the excellent BBC television series in 1974.
Forced recently to turn to e-books because of my poor eyesight (as I’ve written about in earlier columns), I tried several of the Victorians because they were free, where many modern books were expensive. I tried A Tale of Two Cities again, The Return of the Native and, on the recommendation of my friend Michael Wilding, Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? (1884). To my dismay I found them impossible to get into. This didn’t surprise me with Dickens but I found the verbal embroidery of both Hardy and Trollope tedious. The wordiness, the circumlocution. I recognised that my difficulty had something to do with the small amount of text I was getting per screen, which seemed to make reading almost a physical effort, but I was very disappointed.
Again, as I’ve reported, I’ve been forced to turn to talking books and to my great relief this renewed my pleasure in books. Recently I heard an interview on Radio National’s ‘Books and Arts’ program between Michael Cathcart and English novelist Will Self, who made the point that serious reading means immersing yourself in the language of the text, not just in the imagery and the narrative.
This made me keen to try some of the canon again, partly because as electronic versions of talking books they are cheaper and longer and therefore better value than more recent works, and partly because I wanted to see if this format would induce an appreciation along the lines suggested by Self.
I’d never read Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), although I’d seen the 1967 film and knew there was a remake now showing. A good place to start, I thought, and it was. I was delighted to find that, as rendered by the actor with what I took to be a west-country accent, the elaborations, asides and details I’d found boring when read at my snail’s pace came alive and nourished the book in a way I found unusual. All the ruminations on people’s appearance and motivations, all the descriptions of the countryside and the seasons and weather and the effects of the elements on the events and characters created a richly integrated world that was immensely satisfying. I found myself savouring phrases and expressions for their own sake as well as being aware of the part they played in the tapestry.
I’ll certainly read more Hardy (or have it read) and go back again to Trollope, but as for Dickens, I remember seeing sets of his proofs in London and noting how he added to pages that stopped short of the bottom by hand because he was being paid by the line. This set up a scepticism about him I doubt I’ll ever overcome.