Monday, June 14, 2010

Dickens, The Marshland, and Suspense

by Julia Buckley

My son just completed his first year of high school. I was eager to hear how he liked high school English, but to my disappointment he was underwhelmed by the class for most of the year, and he was not a big fan of any of the literature that I had predicted he would love.

Not a fan until, that is, his final book–Charles Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS. This book he liked, and I think he fell in love with Dickens’ style. Not every young person in the 21st century understands Dickens’ humor, so I was pleased when Ian told me he thought this was a very funny book.

It is a funny book; but when I picked it up again and re-read the first few chapters, I was amazed anew at Dickens’ gift for setting a scene and for creating a sense of mystery.

Here is his description of the marshes, where the main character, Pip, lives:

“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana, wife of the above, were dead and buried . . . ; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low, leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

‘Hold your noise ’ cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. ‘Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat ’ “

So begins a very mysterious and circuitous tale which does in fact contain a significant mystery. Dickens knew how to draw in his reader from the start, and an escaped convict confronting a small child in a graveyard on the gloomy marshes is a real attention-getter.

Later Pip brings the escaped prisoner some food that he is compelled to steal from the larder of his own sister and caretaker, a cruel and cold woman who is almost as frightening as the convict. Here again Dickens uses the marshland setting as a vehicle for creating mystery:

“It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spider’s webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village–a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there–was invisible to me until I was quite closer under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks [prison ships].

“The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me. This was disagreeable to a guilty mind . . . . “

I love the way that Dickens links the marshes and the fog with the guilt and terror of the boy. I think it might behoove me to spend the summer studying Dickens as a writer: his style, his plotting, his settings, his dialogue, his descriptions.

Writers of mystery should of course look to writers of mystery, but they should also look to the acknowledged masters of the writing craft, and Dickens is one great example.

Thanks to GREAT EXPECTATIONS, my son is actually planning to read another Dickens novel on his own. That is the sign of great writing–a story that can capture the hearts of a fifteen-year-old boy and a 45-year-old woman.

Photo of Inch Abbey on the Marshlands from here.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Ah, Dickens! He was, is and always will be my favorite of the classical European writers, though I didn't discover him until my freshman year in college. I've read nearly everything of his I could get my hands on. I even went to a Halloween party one year as Miss Havisham. As always, Julia, a beautiful post.

G.M. Malliet said...

I read straight through all of Dickens in my early 20s - I loved him. Tale of Two Cities is a fantastic book, and probably my favorite of his.

Thanks for the memories.

Cricket McRae said...

Lovely post, Julia. My first experience of Dickens was Bleak House. That one almost put me off the rest, but then I discovered Great Expectations and was hooked.
Hearth Cricket

Julia Buckley said...

What a great Halloween costume, Sue Ann! You must have had lots of fun putting it together. Where did you find the moldy old wedding gown?

GM, it's funny, because a youngster at my graduation party told me, in all seriousness, that T of TC was terrible and boring and that Lucy Manette's character was flat. I guess you have to grow into your appreciation. :)

They teach Bleak House at my school, and I agree it's not the best way to go to make people fall in love with Dickens. Although I love the name Mr. McChokemchild--isn't he in that book? :)

Darrell James said...

Julia- Thanks for taking us on a revisit of Great Expectations. It was always one of my favoites. I wouldn't fret too much about your sons disinterest in high school English and literature. As an avid reader, I still despised reading "assignments" (An authority thing I suppose.) I would reccommend Jules Verne's Mysterious Island to him. It was my absolute favorite at that age.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Julia, I found an old torn wedding gown in a thrift shop and dirtied it up.

Gin, my favorite is also Tale of Two Cities.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I love Dickens too. He was also interested in mysteries..."Mystery of Edwin Drood."

Alan Orloff said...

Maybe I should put some Dickens on my TBR list. Not sure I've ever finished one of his books, but I did see the movie Oliver! when I was about ten. Does that count?

Julia Buckley said...

Darrell, I'll have to put that on our next library list.

Sue Ann--I love it! What a classy costume.

Elizabeth--wasn't DROOD unfinished?

And Alan, I don't think the musical Oliver really gives you any taste of Dickens. I recommend DAVID COPPERFIELD, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, or NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.

Kathleen Ernst said...

It is a real gift to write in a manner that can appeal to a diverse group of readers. Thanks for the reminder of how a master accomplished just that!

Alice Loweecey said...

I love Dickens. He's one of my two inspirations (the other is HP Lovecraft). BLEAK HOUSE and OUR MUTUAL FRIEND have so many well-written moments and memorable characters, it's hard to list them all. Excellent post.