My local library recently added a set of movies to its collection: BBC productions of the novels of Charles Dickens. I have never been much of a fan of Victorian English literature. It's always struck me as so, well, English in its stuffiest sense. The convoluted language is frequently opaque, not seeming to be anything that a real person could have actually said. Take this line from Thackeray's Vanity Fair: "Mofy! is that your snum? ... I'll gully the dag and bimbole the clicky in a snuffkin."
Now what am I supposed to make of that?
But Dickens has always been the exception. As an undergraduate, I marched through several of Dickens's novels and largely enjoyed them, mostly because I stood in awe of the author's ability to juggle and nurture many disparate characters in a manner that made me care about each one of them. I also found Dickens's language more fanciful than daunting. When his characters speak, I am charmed because they are so earnest in their assertions. Take this scene from "Martin Chuzzlewit," where the poor but loquacious Mrs. Gamp, satisfied with so little, extols the pleasures of a simple meal garnished with a fresh cucumber: " 'Ah!' sighed Mrs. Gamp, as she meditated over the warm shilling's-worth, 'What a blessed thing it is ... to be contented! ... I don't believe a finer cowcumber was ever grow'd. I'm sure I never see one!' "
And so began my reacquaintance with Dickens via these wonderful dramatizations. But I had an ulterior motive: to introduce my son to this most accomplished of British authors. We began with "Hard Times."
Here was the scene in our home: Anton sitting on the sofa with his bowl of popcorn, and I in the rocker with my laptop. The TV screen flickered before us. As I mentioned, a Dickens novel is populated by many personalities, and it takes a while to get them all straight. As we watched, I followed the plot synopsis on my computer, allowing me to make running commentaries for my son's – and my own – benefit. "That's Thomas Gradgrind," I intoned. "He's a rather stern father, and his kids suffer for it. And that girl is Cecilia Jupe. She's the daughter of a clown and is light-hearted and sentimental. You follow?"
Without taking his eyes from the screen, Anton nodded. I wondered how much he was really grasping, but my doubts were assuaged a short while later when I tried to speak and my son shushed me. "Wait, Dad," he said, holding up a hand. "I want to hear what Mr. McChoakumchild says to his students." And so it was clear that my son was hooked because he began to request the Dickens films one after the other: "Great Expectations," "Bleak House," "Nicholas Nickleby," – a cornucopia of characters with such wondrous names as Tom Pinch, Bitzer, William Guppy, Daniel Quilp, Mr. Chuckster, and Ebenezer Scrooge.
I don't think Anton got all of the language, but it is a tribute to the craft of literature that one does not have to comprehend every word to follow a story. It's the way these things are presented and their context that render a sense of what precisely is going on, such that when, in "The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit," the young servant boy, Bailey, announces to the guests of Mrs. Todgers's boarding house, "The wittles is up!" the ensuing descent of the crowd to the dining hall leaves no doubt as to what he means.
One of the most gratifying (and humorous) things about our adventure is how certain passages have crept into my son's language simply because they tickled his fancy. Just the other day I steamed an artichoke, one of Anton's favorite treats. When I set it down before him he beamed and conjured his best cockney accent. "I don't believe a finer artee-choke was ever grow'd," he gushed. "I'm sure I never see one!" And then, after his repast, "Please, sir," he said, "I'd like some more."
"What!" I howled, not missing a beat. "You want more?"
And so I gave him more – of Dickens, that is, and we continue to roll along through "The Old Curiosity Shop," "David Copperfield," "A Tale of Two Cities." So much to do, and an entire summer ahead to complete our good work. And when we have seen all of these stories, we will have come so far from the first one that it will be necessary to do it all over again.
What a pleasant prospect.