We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The comfort of Dickens -- or Sandy Welch? · 6 May 08

Gentle readers,

Over the past few days I’ve managed to watch about a hour & 1/2 of a BBC 1998 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, a brilliant mini-series by Sandy Welch. I’m finding it very comforting. This may seem a strange assertion. Dickens or Sandy Welch’s take on him comforting? Yes.

What I derive solace from in this film are the kindly grotesques. The film suggests the world is filled with inherently kindly desperate or half-mad people. Everyone we meet is living a wildly eccentric existence, one not at all close to whatever the norm or usual or ordinary was asserted to be in Dickens’ time or today. The hero and heroine are locked up in solitude; those who seem most normal are on a quest for money.

This film does not differentiate the earlier Dickens from the later one as so many movies do—so that we get a sombre realistic approach for Bleak House say (as I recall one 1980s production took). I understand that approach for what is then highlighted then is the social criticism. Myself I think Dickens’s real core gift is fantasy, the fantastic and grotesque and it’s part of his terrain from beginning to end. The strained plots (which don’t come out of characters but are impositions) enable him to string along this vision for hundreds of pages. So I see little difference say between Nicholas Nickleby and Edwin Drood and feel they ought to be dramatized along the same terrains.

I don’t remember Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend enough to compare the film in any detail with Dickens’ book; I’m not even sure I finished it (though I remember the murderous jealousy of Bradley Headstone over how Eugene Wrayburn is willing to seduce Lizzie Hexam), but I thought the presentation of the family relationships of the characters, the deforming of these by desperate commercial relationships, the compensating Mr and Mrs Boffin, and the whole atmosphere of garbage, decay, death along the waters where what else is there to do in the end but drown just remarkable and powerful. Some of the scenes are ghastly gothic: as when the one-legged man Silas Wegg visits Mr Venus, whose business it is to save bits of corpses and put them together. I feel the film speaks to us expressionistically about today’s hard worlds. This 1998 BBC film is strong on the fantastic and grotesque, connecting it to materialism, the class system and erotic and familial life.

Today I did manage to reach Bradley Headstone (played by David Morrissey, one reason I’m watching it—as he plays Colonel Brandon in the 2008 Sense and Sensibility). I did see parallels in atmosphere and type character between this film and Sandy Welch’s 2004 BBC North and South (from Gaskell’s novel), especially the depictions of the heroines (Margaret Hale and Lizzie Hexam), but that could be the result of the typing in the Victorian novels themselves or typologies of characters in mini-series heroines. Keely Hawes who is Lizzie was Cynthia Kirkpatrick in Davies’ 1999 Wives and Daughters (also from Gaskell). Fred Vaughan who is Mr Boffin was Mr Chaffanbrass in the 1974 Pallisers, and George Graham, the master clockmaker in 2000 Longitude. Linda Basset, Abby Potterson, was Mrs Jennings in the 2008 Sense and Sensibility. Each carries the psychological baggage of their type from film to film.

I wonder if anyone else finds comfort in these sorts of grotesques.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Comfort? I find your views so fascinating, I didn’t look at this aspect before but I will.

    I must admit I find Dickens’ heroines very irritating. Oh, I have to admit first that shock I didn’t read the book. I bought the DVD because I love the actors and I build up my BBC Classics library.

    But I can’t get over Dickens’ inability to see women as 3dimensional humans as soon as they are in a relationship with a man. Bella’s change after she marries is for me horrible to watch, a shocking distortion. I wouldn’t let a daughter marry if I knew she’d turn into such a willing object of male volition and decisions afterwards…

    Jenny Wren and Mrs. Boffin are much more alive for me than the love interest heroines Lizzie and Bella, although Hawes and Friel do a wonderful job.

    I loved Hawes as love-deprived girl grown into a woman unable to love in Wives and Daugthers. Her humble, selfless Lizzie is very good, too, but…

    I wonder how Gaskell build such convincing male and female characters but Dickens was unable to see a pretty young woman as real human being and not only as perfect male wish fulfillment. I admit this mars my pleasure in Dickens’ books and adaptations, not as feminist but simply as reader.

    Cynthia is much more interesting than Lizzie, and I really want to know what happens to her and what she will decide to do next. A real stumbling block for me.

    The world of Dickens is indeed a Gothic distorted dreamscape with deep shadows and strange transitions. Sometimes it reminds me of the Expressionist film Dr. Cagliostro . The film does not exaggerate the visual effects, a good decision, but there are definite bright and shadowy areas, some jagged corners and strange angles.

    The dust mountains, the nightly Thames, Jenny Wren’s workshop, the police station come alive, the labyrinth when Headstone follows Eugene. Very impressive. Much more so than the bright scenes.

    It’s a pity I didn’t read the book before. I should have.

    Sorry if I sound incoherent. I think I will watch the film again.

    What do you think about Martin Chuzzlewit?
    Lila    May 7, 2:02am    #
  2. Dear Lila,

    When I say I find comfort in the grotesques of this film (and by extension through memory) of Dickens’ texts, I set aside his presentation of women. While the last time I read (really listened to an unabridged text read aloud expertly by David Case), Dickens' Bleak House, I found myself able to enter into aspects of Esther Summerson’s values and personality (I liked her), but by and large I find his women impossible. They are most of the time exaggerations which are not easy to forgive since they show his real uncomfortableness with female sexuality of any overt kind (and thus fulfillment), his hostility to women having individual lives on their own, his failure of imagination with respect to their daily lives.

    But as I suggested on a Dickens list yesterday (and have on Trollope-l countless times), Dickens does not create real people most of the time. His gifts and power lie elsewhere: I really think he's a gothic novelist who finds his visibilia from the detritus and miseries of lives dominated by capitalist non-ethics (I'll call them).

    I headed this blog “or Sandy Welch’s” because I’m not sure what I feel as I watch ought to be attributed mainly or even in a minor way to Dickens. His text is the source and counts, but (since you bring this novel up) I know I gave up reading Dickens's novels after I came to a chapter in Martin Chuzzlewit where it seemed to me Dickens was ridiculing and mocking a vulnerable man, at least stooping to please his coarser natured readers. I couldn’t take it and put the book down. Since then I have listened to Dickens read aloud (by David Case), but not sat down to a long novel by him and read it. I also have little tolerance for the kind of pious exemplary character Dickens also includes in his novels (George Eliot too): they don't make me feel happy but irritate me as meretricious and bad for people as purveying false hopes.

    I take comfort in the grotesques of this film because they fill the world of the story, and as I recall the grotesques in Dickens often do too. And in real life what we meet continually are performances by people where they present themselves as utterly conforming easily to most social norms, no matter how hard to meet or miserable they may make them. It’s an intense relief to see the inner life of people put before me, for then I don’t feel so alone or even particularly unusual.

    The movie made me want to see more similar type adaptations (the intermediate adaptation) by Sandy Welch. I have recently (in the past few years) read Dickens's travel book on America and some of his short ghost tales. If I had time I would try a book like Nicholas Nickleby, but I might not get through it. Dickens' letters could really reawaken my respect and sympathy for him (when I see him quoted in his letters I am usually very impressed and like what I am reading), but the volumes are so large :).

    Elinor    May 7, 8:33am    #
  3. Out of curiosity, have you seen Doug McGrath (the Paltrow Emma writer/director)’s version of Nicholas Nickelby? I rather like it, though I’m still trying to find a copy of the book to see how the film differs in the end (I’ve read about 100 pages into it, but then had to go back to school and return the book to the library).

    Also, do actors carry psychological baggage for the audience if they (the audience) are unaware of the actor’s previous roles? And if the audience has seen later roles, does that carry backwards?
    I. Miller    May 7, 5:46pm    #
  4. “Read your blog. I agree with you. I don’t remember the earlier Bleak House well though if it aired in the US I probably saw it. I personally have never seen the differentiation of early Dickens and late Dickens as progress in the direction of realism. In fact I’ve argued with folks in the group on several occasion when they’ve objected to some event or character as “unrealistic”. Dickens is not primarily a realist. Period. He is a social critic, but he’s most likely to get his point across by gross exaggeration of what he is criticizing.

    Elinor    May 8, 5:47am    #
  5. “The question of how realistic Dickens was in his writing is one that just about every well-known critic has weighed in on, as well as many not so well-known. The question has many answers because his grasp of reality (both social and individual) was unequalled, but his means of expressing the complexity of what he saw so well was not the photographic, or even orderly, style usually associated with realism.

    Elinor    May 8, 5:49am    #
  6. From Andrew G, listowner of Inimitable Boz @ Yahoo:

    “This reminded me of the content of chapter 55 particularly. The very core of grotesqueness is the illustration at the conclusion of this chapter – where the sexton is showing Nell, what is in effect a well, in the depths of the church crypt – a very inconvenient place to put one by the way.

    The way the sexton and Nell view this gloomy pit is that it is a more like a place of burial place or tomb. The sexton states that it was dug more with this in mind than that of a practical source of water…

    ”’Look in,’ said the old man, pointing downward with his finger.

    The child complied, and gazed down into the pit.

    ‘It looks like a grave itself,’ said the old man.

    ‘It does,’ replied the child.

    ‘I have often had the fancy,’ said the sexton, ‘that it might have been dug at first to make the old place more gloomy, and the old monks more
    religious. It’s to be closed up, and built over.’

    The child still stood, looking thoughtfully into the vault.

    ‘We shall see,’ said the sexton, ‘on what gay heads other earth will have closed, when the light is shut out from here. God knows! They’ll close it up, next spring.’

    ‘The birds sing again in spring,’ thought the child, as she leaned at her casement window, and gazed at the declining sun. ‘Spring! a beautiful and happy time!’”
    http://charlesdickenspage.com/illustrations_web/ The_Old_Curiosity_Shop/The_Old_Curiosity_Shop_54.jpg

    The contrast of the girl, who appears to be dressed in white, with the dark Gothic-like crypt and well are startling to say the least.

    The sexton prophesies that by the time of next spring, other gay heads will be enclosed beneath the earth – however Nell does not think of darkness and gloom but of birds singing at the coming of spring – death to her is a prospect of the beginning of a new life.

    Andrew Gates”
    Elinor    May 8, 5:51am    #
  7. Dear Andrew,

    What a beautiful passage. It seems to me you have touched the heart of one of Dickens’s successful techniques—he works symbolically. His symbols though are not the picture or an idea (turned into some sort of visibilia or character which becomes allegory as the character or thing is trotted through a story), but an incident laid out before us through interacting larger-than-life presences. People tend to remember these little sayings of particular characters; they seem to me fragments from moments of charged symbolism.

    Bob, realism is a vexed term and is often taken by the common reader to mean a license to criticize the work from the standpoint of diurnal probabilities and common-sense (as it’s called) or commonplace psychology (even when it’s supposedly so deep because about what doesn’t emerge in open social life), and it’s in this area of psychological presentation that Dickens leaves many readers unsatisfied—particularly when it comes to his women. In his later novels he did attempt to make his fiction conform to these social norms. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of this as many storytellers (to use an older term for novelists) evolve stories out of the psychology of the characters (that’s what Henry James meant when he said a character is the story and vice versa) and I think Dickens strains to make long books when it comes to the story; he makes a long book through fantasias of words. I want immediately to qualify this by saying the narrators of Bleak House (the last one I read) are more in the vein of psychological realism and narrative control (both the highly sardonic omniscient narrator and Esther Summerson, albeit she is idealized).

    Elinor    May 8, 6:03am    #
  8. In response to Ian,

    You make a good objection (in effect). Yes I think that psychological baggage works backwards. So I had not to my knowledge seen David Morrissey act in anything, but when I was told he was Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend I was not surprized at all: the unhandsome,intensely passionate, repressed presence includes the same terrain as Davies’ conception of Austen’s man of sensibility. And I’ve worked backwards before.

    Each person watches the movie individually as he or she watches. If it is that you have never seen or heard of this actor before, they do come with a fresh presence. In a paper I researched for an essay published in Studies in the Novel (it’s on the website in “Reviewer’s Corner” and is called “Taking Sides”) I discovered it’s almost de rigueur to chose an actress who has never played a major role in a high status costume drama for the chief-princess or heroine role. A new presence which does not carry over the dream baggage of the viewer’s other cult favorites is wanted.

    But I rather think that for the most part we do get to know something of the more famous actors and actresses. We don’t live in a complete vaccuum. There are the ads which connect the actor to a previous role. Nonetheless, I now see Jennifer Ehle playing Elizabeth Bennet in the 1995 P&P differently since I watched as a sexy blonde in an apparently far more typical role for her, the cool promiscuous heroine of The Camomile Lawn. Now I think Davies and his crew chose two stars who had strong sexualized and transgressive roles for the Austen movie in order to change the way people see Austen’s book: it’s common to see her as a spinster who wrote books without sex (as in a famous essay “Why is there no sex in Jane Austen”). Ehle as a choice was indeed the counterpart to Firth. So now when I watch the 1995 P&P again, I’ll watch her anew.

    Elinor    May 9, 1:53pm    #
  9. Aargh! Thwarted. I was riveted by the end of Part 2: David Morrisey is brilliant as Bradley Headstone. The continual darkness of the scenes is superb. Well, Side B of the new DVD (bought from Amazon.com, not Amazon marketplace) will not play. I’ve asked for a refund. I felt like crying.

    Elinor    May 10, 8:02pm    #
  10. Bummer about the DVD. Hope you get a chance to finish it soon.

    I’m not sure what I think about baggage – I haven’t analyzed my watching of particular actors that closely. However, I do know that some kind of connection is there – because I do consciously seek out and watch other work by actors I enjoy in films.
    Ian    May 10, 9:44pm    #
  11. A few more words on this film to Ian and anyone else reading this blog and the comments. As far as I’ve gotten it seems to me just about the best film adaptation of Dickens’ I’ve ever seen—not that I’ve seen all that many. If I were teaching literature (which I don’t get any chance to much nowadays), I would certainly show some of this film. David Morrissey’s performance of Bradley Headstone is nothing less than terrific, and for me (and if you read film studies other viewers do this) much deepens my understanding of how we are take the generosity of spirit of Brandon as well as his uptight rigidness (in Davies' movie, not Austen's book).

    I had gotten myself a second older one when I got this Sandy Welch film: Oliver Twist written by Alexander Baron, with Eric Porter as Fagin, also available in a pink-colored BBC package. As with Austen, new versions of film adaptations from Dickens’s books do not necessarily wipe out the previous from the marketplace. I’m interested in this one because of Baron.

    Who’s he: a socialist Jewish writer once very well known and respected; he used to write these screenplays for BBC productions (mini-series). His books include a once famous and respected WW1 novel, From the city and from the plough, a book of the 1930s, Franco is Dying and a powerful private tale called in the US (the titles of his often differ depending on whether they are printed in the US or UK), There’s No Home.

    What’s the connection beyong this: Baron’s film is said to be dark and strong on social criticism. As Ian knows, Baron is the writer of the 81 S&S where the social scenes (and bitterness) of Austen’s book is done justice to; he also actually gives us a sense of the personalities of the servants and shows at least Mrs Dashwood (and occasionally Elinor and Edward) showing an awareness and appreciation of them as human beings. Baron's Elinor says the gardiner’s art is like her own in drawing; they are fellow artists (this to Baron's Edward).

    Cheers to you, Ian, I'll come back on romanticism, verbatim quotation and abbreviation, and Austen under the Sense and Sensibility blog tonight or Wednesday -- we'll be gone on a trip for three days starting Monday :)

    Cheers to all,
    Elinor    May 11, 8:02am    #
  12. As an interesting note, Baron also wrote an episode (A Scandal in Bohemia) of the Granada Sherlock Holmes adaptations starring Jeremy Brett, which I like very much. Someday, I hope to see what he did with Sense and Sensibility – and perhaps with Oliver Twist, which I also enjoy.
    Ian    May 14, 12:08pm    #

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