Great Expectations voted readers’ favourite Dickens novel

October 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Orphan Pip’s rise through society thanks to his mysterious benefactor wins poll by comfortable margin

Great Expectations

Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt and Anthony Wager in David Lean’s 1946 film of Great Expectations. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

The author himself might have preferred David Copperfield, but Guardian readers have voted for Great Expectations as their favouriteCharles Dickens novel.

Pip’s adventures won 24.9% of the reader poll, well ahead of the second-placed Bleak House with 16.9%. David Copperfield, which Dickens called his “favourite child”, was third with 9.2% of the vote.

From its famous opening in the graveyard, when the orphan Pip first encounters the shackled convict Magwitch, “a fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg”, through his meetings with the bitter Miss Havisham and the cold Estella, and his rise through society thanks to a mysterious benefactor, Great Expectations is, said voter gavinscottw, “not only – as others have observed – formally the most ingenious of the novels – but perhaps Dickens’s most morally angry work”.

Others were less impressed by the novel, and put its popularity down to the fact that “people are made to read it in school, so it’s the only one they’ve read”, said VaneWimsey, an Our Mutual Friend supporter. “It’s sooo thin and long-drawn-out. And Estella is just plain nasty. Don’t know what Pip sees in her. First crush, maybe … great love of anyone’s life, no way.”

Great Expectations’ place on school reading lists can’t be the only reason for its triumph, however, with the school perennial Oliver Twist only picking up 4.6% of the readers’ votes. Pip’s place in readers’ affections was also attributed to the wealth of film and television adaptations which have been made of the novel over the years. A new version from BBC One starring David Suchet as Jaggers, Ray Winstone as Magwitch and Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham is out for Christmas, and a new film adapted by One Day novelist David Nichollsstarring Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch is due to start shooting shortly.

“I suspect that’s one reason why Great Expectations is such a popular novel. Readers grow up with it,” wrote Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in the Guardian. “It’s probably also why so many of them sympathise with Pip, whose narrative voice involves the perspective of a wide-eyed child coming up against that of his wiser, sadder adult self. Anyone who first reads the story as a child and returns to it in later years is likely to feel a similar mixture of nostalgia and relief. But it isn’t only individual readers who have grown up with Great Expectations. Our culture has too. Dickens once claimed that David Copperfield was his ‘favourite child’ and that Great Expectations was a close second. It’s no coincidence that both novels are about how easily children can be warped or damaged, but of the two it is the shorter, sharper Great Expectations that has aged better.”

Despite a glowing user review from Jane Smiley, which saw the Pulitzer prize-winning author call it “one of my two or three favourite novels of all time”, praising its “magical” prose and “perfect blending of story and style”, Our Mutual Friend only picked up 6.5% of readers’ votes. “Where’s the love for Our Mutual Friend?” asked voter VaneWimsey, describing the author’s final complete novel as “the great masterwork of Dickens’s maturity”.

The least popular Dickens novel was, unsurprisingly, his unfinished final work The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with 0.8% of the vote, narrowly behind Martin Chuzzlewit (1%), The Old Curiosity Shop (1.2%) and Nicholas Nickleby (1.8%).

Your favourite Dickens novels: the result in full

A Christmas Carol 7.4%
A Tale of Two Cities   8.7%
Barnaby Rudge  4.6%
Bleak House 16.9%
David Copperfield   9.2%
Dombey and Son 1.9%
Great Expectations   24.9%
Hard Times   2.9%
Little Dorrit 3.6%
Our Mutual Friend   6.5%
Oliver Twist   4.6%

Martin Chuzzlewit 1%

Nicholas Nickleby   1.8%
The Mystery of Edwin Drood 0.8%
The Old Curiosity Shop 1.2%

 –, Monday 3 October

Categories: Uncategorized

What’s your favourite Charles Dickens novel?

September 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, in contemplative pose. Which is your favourite Dickens? Photograph: Hulton Archive

We’re on the hunt for our readers’ favourite Dickens novel. We’ve asked a line-up of distinguished Dickens enthusiasts for their opinons. See which ones William BoydSimon CallowKathryn HughesJohn Mullan,Michel FaberDJ TaylorRobert Douglas-Fairhurst and Philip Hensherlike best. Or listen to our books podcast to hear from Colin Thubron, Andrew O’Hagan and Malorie Blackman, among others. Now it’s over to you – vote in our poll and have your say in the comments.

 7.4% A Christmas Carol
 8.2% A Tale of Two Cities
 0.8% Barnaby Rudge
 18.6% Bleak House
 10% David Copperfield
 1.7% Dombey and Son
 25.2% Great Expectations
 2.9% Hard Times
 3.3% Little Dorrit
 7.6% Our Mutual Friend
 4.6% Oliver Twist
 1.3% Martin Chuzzlewit
 1.8% Nicholas Nickleby
 0.9% The Mystery of Edwin Drood
 1.3% The Old Curiosity Shop
 4.4% The Pickwick Papers

Great Expectations

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

  • Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt and Anthony Wager in David Lean's 1946 Great Expectations

Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt and Anthony Wager in David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations. Photograph: Allstar

Great Expectations (weekly serial, December 1860-August 1861)

According to George Orwell, the biggest problem with Dickens is that he simply doesn’t know when to stop. Every sentence seems to be on the point of curling into a joke; characters are forever spawning a host of eccentric offspring. “His imagination overwhelms everything,” Orwell sniffed, “like a kind of weed.”

That’s hardly an accusation that could be levelled against Great Expectations. If some of Dickens’s novels sprawl luxuriously across the page, this one is as trim as a whippet. Touch any part of it and the whole structure quivers into life. In Chapter 1, for example, Pip recalls watching Magwitch pick his way through the graveyard brambles, “as if he were eluding the hands of the dead people, stretching up cautiously out of their graves, to get a twist upon his ankle and pull him in”. Not until the final chapters do we realise why Pip is so haunted by the convict’s apparent reluctance to stay above ground, but already the novel’s key narrative method has been established. To open Great Expectations is to enter a world in which events are often caught only out of the corner of the narrator’s eye. It is a world of hints and glimpses, of bodies disappearing behind corners and leaving only their shadows behind. Whichever of Dickens’s two endings is chosen, it’s hard to finish the last page without thinking of how much remains to be said. Of course, none of this occurred to me when I first read Great Expectations as a child. In the 1980s this story of class mobility and get-rich-quick ambition resonated with all the force of a modern parable. The revelation that there was another story behind the one I was enjoying was as much a shock to me as it is to Pip, but that only increased my admiration for a novelist who treats his plot rather as Jaggers treats Miss Havisham in her wheelchair, using one hand to push her ahead while putting “the other in his trousers-pocket as if the pocket were full of secrets”.

I suspect that’s one reason why Great Expectations is such a popular novel. Readers grow up with it. It’s probably also why so many of them sympathise with Pip, whose narrative voice involves the perspective of a wide-eyed child coming up against that of his wiser, sadder adult self. Anyone who first reads the story as a child and returns to it in later years is likely to feel a similar mixture of nostalgia and relief. But it isn’t only individual readers who have grown up with Great Expectations. Our culture has too. Dickens once claimed that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and that Great Expectations was a close second. It’s no coincidence that both novels are about how easily children can be warped or damaged, but of the two it is the shorter, sharper Great Expectations that has aged better.

Few works of fiction have enjoyed such a lively creative aftermath. Peter Carey has rewritten it in Jack Maggs. Television shows from The Twilight Zone to South Park have echoed it in ways that range from loving homage to finger-poking parody. Even the title has settled in the public consciousness, with shops such as “Grape Expectations” (wine) and “Baked Expectations” (cakes). It’s hard not to be fond of a novel that so perfectly reflects its author’s restless, rummaging imagination.


 Sketches by Boz

by DJ Taylor

Caricature of Charles Dickens, 1868

Caricature of Charles Dickens, 1868. Photograph: Leonard De Selva/CORBIS

Sketches by Boz (1833-1836)

Originally written as newspaper journalism, collected in two volumes published by John Macrone in February and November 1836, with illustrations by George Cruikshank, and nearly titled “Bubbles from the Brain of Boz and the Graver of Cruikshank”, Sketches by Boz is the public record of Dickens’s apprenticeship. The early pieces, as he later pointed out, “comprise my first attempts at authorship”. By the time of “Vauxhall Gardens by Day”, written in October 1836, The Pickwick Papers had reached its eighth number and a meteoric career had taken flight.

Read in the order they were written, the Sketches consequently give off the terrific air of a newly minted talent discovering what it can do. While the opening tranche of “tales” derive from the work of forgotten contemporary humorists, the pieces of London reportage that he began to contribute to the Morning Chronicle in autumn 1834 (“Gin Shops”, “Shabby-Genteel People”, “The Pawnbroker’s Shop”) are like nothing else in pre-Victorian journalism: bantering and hard-headed by turns, hectic and profuse, falling over themselves to convey every last detail of the metropolitan front-line from which Dickens sent back his dispatches.

As he itemises the contents of the pawnbroker’s shop (“a few old China cups; some modern vases, adorned with paltry paintings of three Spanish cavaliers playing three Spanish guitars; or a party of boors carousing: each boor with one leg painfully elevated in the air by way of expressing his perfect freedom and gaiety …”) you sense that Dickens barely knows how to stop. It is the same with Miss Amelia Martin in “The Milliner’s Mishap”, eyeing up her friend’s wedding breakfast (“pewter-pots at the corners; pepper, mustard and vinegar in the centre; vegetables on the floor”) – a world so vivid and variegated to the person writing about it that there is almost too much to set down.

By the time of the final sketches (“Our Next Door Neighbours”, “The Tuggses at Ramsgate”) Dickens had begun to stake out the lower-middle-class interiors that critics were already marking down as his special subject. Meanwhile an admiring gang of early Victorian novelists stood ready to take their cue. Reading “Shabby-Genteel People”, for example, one can almost see Thackeray (who shortly afterwards was to write his own shabby genteel story) making notes in the background.


Our Mutual Friend

by Philip Hensher

Steven Mackintosh in BBC TV's Our Mutual Friend.

Steven Mackintosh in BBC TV’s Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend (monthly serial, May 1864-November 1865)

Dickens’s last completed novel is a marvel of play-acting and posturing, of taking on roles through delusion, calculation and ambition. I’ve come to think of it as a sort of late-period masque, where the roles and disguises that John Harmon and Boffin consciously assume exaggerate the more ordinary play-acting and pretence that we all engage in. The Veneerings’ awful dinner parties, or the love affairs where both participants wonder whether they are quite up to the mark, or the Lammles’ getting married in the misguided belief that the other has money – these are all wonderful, extreme examples of what the sociologist Erving Goffman was later to call “the presentation of self in everyday life”.

It’s a novel commonly described as flawed, but I guess it’s the Dickens novel I love best, and come back to most frequently. It’s said to be highly artificial – Henry James remarked, on its first publication, that he had never read a novel “so intensely written, so little seen, known, or felt”. The details of the plot, it’s true, are elaborately implausible. But the individual characters are shockingly recognisable – the scenes between Mrs Wilfer striking postures and her debunking daughters, for instance. There are a hundred Podsnaps who will explain climate change over London dinner tables tonight, with a sweeping gesture of the arm. Dickens’s genius for human observation at its quickest reaches a kind of pinnacle with the young man who tries to exercise his French and says “Esker” at a Veneering dinner, says nothing more and never reappears. But he will live forever, and we all know someone just like him.

It’s so full of the river, and the sense of the city, and a huge stretch of London society, and so grand in its vision that perhaps we forget how gloriously funny it is – the Boffins deciding to go in for history, and buying a big book (“His name is Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire”) or the captivating Lady Tippins (“You wretch!”), or Mrs Wilfer, after placing Bella in the magnificent coach of the Boffins, continuing to “air herself … in a kind of splendidly serene trance on the top step” for the benefit of the neighbours.

I love the bold sentiment, the pathos and the drama; I even love the kid who dies whispering “A kiss for the boofer lady”, because you might as well swallow this magnificent novel whole. And best of all is the exuberant, light-hearted moral conviction of the last page, as Twemlow at the very end shows his steel. Wagner said that the whole spirit of the English people was contained in the first rocketing eight notes of “Rule Britannia”. But then he probably hadn’t read Our Mutual Friend.


 Bleak House

By Kathryn Hughes


‘Dickens never wrote better’ … Gillian Anderson (left) as Lady Dedlock and Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther in the BBC serial of Bleak House, 2005. Photograph: BBC/Mike Hogan

Monthly serial, March 1852-September 1853
Dickens wrote his ninth novel at that perfect hinge in his career when he was finally able to channel his creative exuberance into a sustained and sophisticated piece of narrative art. All the usual fun is here, but it’s in the service of a sustained moral inquiry into the evil that manmade systems do to the people they’re supposed to help. I think it’s Dickens’s best book and, given that it’s all about Chancery, I’d like to call expert witnesses. So here they are, the very unalike GK Chesterton and Vladimir Nabokov, both of whom agree that Dickens never wrote better.

There’s that extraordinary opening, describing a murky November day in London where there is “as much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be so wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill”. It’s an extraordinary image, stretching and collapsing time in the outrageous notion of a prehistoric monster let loose in legal London. Anyone who thinks that the high Victorian novel is a synonym for plodding realism really ought to read this top-hatted version of Jurassic Park.

They should read Bleak House too if they’re convinced that omniscient narrators are the only kind you find in novels of the 1850s. To be sure, Dickens has one of these, an all-seeing, weighty cove who can hover over roofs and barge through walls and show us all the characters from Jo the crossing sweeper, to Miss Flite in her birdcage lodgings, to Mr Bucket, the inscrutable detective. But there’s another narrator too: Esther Summerson, as slippery and blind as any postmodern trickster. The two narratives wind round each other like a double helix, generating new kinds of mysteries between them.

Anyone too who likes to trot out that old line about Dickens not being able to do psychology, or women, or both, should try Bleak House. In Esther Summerson, the little busybody with the jangling keys and the plain face, he created an uncannily accurate portrait of how sanctimoniously awful someone with low self-esteem can be. Once you realise it’s OK to want to slap Esther around a bit, she becomes a wonder of psychological observation. Brilliant too is Caddy Jellyby, the neglected daughter of the “telescopic philanthropist” Mrs Jellyby, who is more interested in helping the African tribe of Borrioboola-Gha than attending to her adolescent daughter. Caddy’s fierce sulkiness, her miserable habit of hating the ones she loves the most, and her sweet redemption through love to an equally scarred child, Prince Turveydrop, strike me as absolutely real.

Of course there’s nothing new about Dickens being able to create wonderful characters. The difference here is that, while Harold Skimpole, Mr Tulkinghorn, Krook et al fizz with bright particularity, their job is to service the story – in Dickens’s earlier novels the endless cameos tend to derail the narrative. Bleak House represents the author at a perfectly poised late-middle moment in his extraordinary art.


Hard Times

by Michel Faber

Timothy West and Patrick Allen in ITV's Hard Times

Timothy West and Patrick Allen in ITV’s Hard Times. Photograph: ITV / Rex Features

Hard Times (weekly serial, April 1854-August 1854)

Facts and figures. In 1978, when I was 17 and in my first year at university, I read approximately 3,500 pages of Dickens. I’ve not revisited any of his novels in the 34 years since, except A Christmas Carol and Hard TimesA Christmas Carol because I wrote a foreword for it, and Hard Times because there was something unDickensian about it that intrigued me. Set in a northern mill-town rather than Dickens’s usual London, Hard Times tackles politics in an uncharacteristically rigorous fashion, bringing it closer to Disraeli’s Sybilthan Pickwick Papers. Dickens seizes on utilitarianism – a philosophy most of us recognise as benign and socially progressive – and vilifies it as a great evil that poisons the human spirit. He expresses his loathing for trade unions, too. It’s all rather problematic, but Dickens just about pulls it off through sheer force of will, creating those unforgettable (and weirdly Kafkaesque) schoolroom scenes in which zombie-like pupils spout verbiage like “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive.”

My affinity, as a novelist, with Dickens has been overstated. I relish the way everything in his prose pulsates with life force, and I’m in debt to him every time I invest inanimate objects with uncanny animism. But his female characters annoy me. Not the grotesque ones – Miss Havisham, Mrs Micawber and other delicious monsters. It’s the nubile, noble heroines I find irksome. Their vapidity and sexlessness is often attributed, by pundits whose acquaintance with Victorian literature is scant, to the moral climate of the era. Yet other Victorian authors managed to sneak eroticism into their work, and if Dickens had put his titanic talents to the challenge of sublimated sex prose, he could easily have out-porned Bram Stoker. He just didn’t want to.

Which brings me to another reason for recommending Hard Times: it contains the closest thing to a real, complex woman in Dickens’ s fiction. Louisa Gradgrind may be as neutered as the rest of his heroines, but she’s aware of her passionlessness, and blames it on the repressed upbringing she’s been subjected to. In Great Expectations, Dickens created a femme fatale, but Estella is icily secure in her fataleness. Louisa remains achingly vulnerable, a cold fish who longs to be a warm mammal.


The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit

By William Boyd

Drawing of Charles Dickens, with wife and sister-in-law

‘I think that Chuzzlewit is in a hundred points immeasurably the best of my stories’ … a drawing of Dickens with his wife and sister-in-law by D Maclise, 1843. Photograph: Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

Monthly serial, January 1843–July 1844
Martin Chuzzlewit was Dickens’s sixth novel, serially published in 1843-44, and, compared to its great predecessors was something of a flop, much to Dickens’s surprise and chagrin. He was mightily pleased with the book – “I think that Chuzzlewit is in a hundred points immeasurably the best of my stories” – and couldn’t understand its comparative failure (at its height it sold 20,000 copies a month whereas The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby sold 40-50,000, for example).

In fact the novel is somewhat strange and uneven. Martin himself, the eponymous hero, only appears in about a fifth of the book, there’s a whole section that takes place in America that is the most heavy-handed satire, the lapses into romantic sentimentality are toe-curlingly coy and was there ever such a bland pair of lovers as Martin and Mary?

However, Chuzzlewit is, I believe the most sheerly funny of all Dickens’s novels and the comic characters and scenes are written with a vigour and brio which is the equal of anything else in his oeuvre. I would go so far as to claim that, in Chuzzlewit, you find the most sustained passage of comic writing in English literature, namely chapters eight and nine when the Pecksniff family go to London. These 40 pages are written with a textured brilliance of detail and are also replete with the richest comedy – a coming together of style and humour that is unmatched in all his other novels. You will laugh out loud at Martin Chuzzlewit – the comedy travels effortlessly across the 170 years since it was written – and for that reason alone it deserves to be ranked among the greats.


The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

By Simon Callow

Jamie Bell in the film of NICHOLAS NICKLEBY 2002

‘Nicholas is very close to a portrait of the artist as a young man’ … Jamie Bell in the 2002 film, Nicholas Nickleby. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar/Cloud Nine

Monthly serial, April 1838-October 1839
Dickens started writing Nicholas Nickleby only a year after Pickwick, as part of that astonishing trio of novels (of which the middle one was Oliver Twist) that he knocked off in a breathless 18 months, and it partakes of the same ebullient energy and free-wheeling inventiveness as the earlier book. I was initially attracted to the book for obvious reasons: I was an actor, and the glorious celebration of the theatre, not just in the episodes concerning Vincent Crummles and his troupe of down-at-heel showpeople but in the whole form and structure of the book, exhilarated me, and it still does. Despite the bleak and terrible realities Dickens describes – the savagery of the regime at Dotheboys Hall, the depravities of Sir Mulberry Hawk and the implacable destructiveness of Ralph Nickleby – it has the sweep and gusto of a great melodrama. The stage management of events is pretty shameless, but it’s as enjoyable as a 1930s Hollywood movie. Dickens’s irresistible compulsion to create whole parades of unforgettable grotesques and his magnificent crusading rage against injustice all keep the pages turning.

The central character has often been criticised as being merely functional, but it seems to me that Nicholas is very close to a portrait of the artist as a young man: his passion, impulsiveness, somewhat exaggerated notions of gallantry, occasional priggishness and big embracing spirit are so much shared with his author (who at this stage of his life frequently had to take to horseback in order to work off his undischarged surplus of élan vital) that reading the book puts us in very close proximity to the young Dickens. And in Mrs Nickleby, he has created a savage and wildly funny portrait of his own mother. Dickens’s feelings about her were dark and complex: she tried to overrule John Dickens when he withdrew his son from the blacking warehouse in which the 11-year-old Charles languished, and he never forgave her for that.

The young women, in the book, alas, are both inspid and lachrymose. There is in fact a pressing and permanent tension between Nicholas Nickleby‘s carnival spirit and its morbid sentimentality, a tension highly characteristic of the nascent Victorian era in which it was written, and one that was central to Dickens himself; he never quite resolved it to the end. But for the most part the book is a kind of corybantic frieze of all-too-human mankind, its characters parading unforgettably past us, insinuating themselves permanently into our imaginations, populating our mental landscapes. Its spirit seems to hark back, past Shakespeare, to Chaucer, enabling Dickens to embody something quintessentially and irrepressibly English.

Simon Callow’s Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World will be published by Harper Press in February 2012.

Dombey and Son

By John Mullan

Charles Dickens giving a reading

He is in among his characters, cajoling and admonishing … Dickens giving a reading. Photograph: Alamy

Monthly serial, October 1846-April 1848
“What was a girl to Dombey and Son!” Despite its intransigently masculine title, Dombey and Son is the one Dickens novel apart fromBleak House with a heroine, Florence Dombey. And Florence, made courageous by the death of her mother and the neglect of her proud, rich father, is an altogether sprightlier protagonist than dutiful, grateful Esther Summerson.

Mr Dombey, her father, is one of Dickens’s emotionally cauterised men of wealth and power, rich in worldly appurtenances and poor in any concession to humanity. He thinks that he sits on top of society, but in fact he understands little about the commercial forces that have made him and will destroy him. The great power in Dombey and Son is that of the railways. An early chapter gives an unforgettable description of the building of the railway – a kind of “earthquake” that has hit Camden Town. Later chapters reveal a nation transformed by and utterly enamoured of this new power. “There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views … There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.” Trains are crucial to the elaborate plot.

Like all great Dickens novels it has really satisfying baddies. Major “Joe” Bagstock, one of those who predates on the loftily oblivious Mr Dombey, is a sinister, blue-faced old soldier with the disconcerting habit of talking of himself in the third person to an invisible confidante. “He’s hard-hearted, Sir, is Joe – he’s tough, Sir, tough, and de-vilish sly!” Devilishly, he arranges the marriage of Dombey to his rival in hard-grained pride, Edith Granger. It is a marriage made in hell, and the description of the wedding, like the decription of Paul Dombey’s christening earlier, is one of those unforgettably terrible and comic Dickensian set-pieces.

The novel’s big villain is Dombey’s “manager” (and rarely has so much nastiness been coaxed from that word), the “dainty” Mr Carker. Carker, Dombey’s “Grand Vizier”, has wonderfully white teeth and a smile that never extends beyond his mouth. He is the loyal apparatchik who would love to destroy and replace his master. “His manner towards Mr Dombey was deeply conceived and perfectly expressed. He was familiar with him, in the very extremity of his sense of the distance between them.” Those on the lookout for sentimentality will be able to find it, but in fact the novel is remarkable for its attention to failures of feeling. “What do we live for but sympathy!” exclaims the monstrous Mrs Skewton, who pimps her daughter to rich men looking for a trophy wife. Dombey is half-glimpsed in grief after his son’s death in childhood, but must dignify his feelings by hating those of others. Anyone else displaying grief becomes “a bidder against him”.

Dombey treads proudly towards his doom with the author’s unheard warnings ringing in his ears. Dickens is in among his characters, cajoling and admonishing. As ever, he energetically escapes the confines of literary decorum. Dombey and Son has all the satirical indignation of his early fiction – but new shades of darkness and a new narrative complexity. Halfway through his career, it was his first great novel. David Copperfield came next., Friday 23 September 2011 

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Joanna Trollope to rewrite Jane Austen

September 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Author of The Rector’s Wife plans modern-day ‘conversation’ with Sense and SensibilityJoanna Trollope and Jane Austen

‘She is a great: I am a good’ … Joanna Trollope and Jane Austen. Photograph: Rex/Hulton Getty

From Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy to Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightley, Jane Austen created some of the most enduring romances in literary history. Now, publisher HarperCollins is hoping it has dreamed up another marriage made in heaven, commissioning Joanna Trollopeto write a contemporary reworking of Austen’s novel, Sense and Sensibility.


The pairing is the first in a what the publisher has dubbed a “major” new series, in which it will team modern authors with Austen’s six novels, asking them to reimagine the books in a contemporary setting. The project is the latest addition to the current vogue for Austen remixes, which have ranged over recent years from the unexpected success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombie mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to erotic fiction author Mitzi Szereto’s X-rated Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts.


Trollope, whose novels of everyday relationships and emotions have garnered her comparisons to Austen in the past, will publish her take on Sense and Sensibility in autumn 2013. She said the novel would be “not an emulation, but a tribute”.


“This is a great honour and an even bigger challenge,” said the author ofThe Choir, A Village Affair and The Rector’s Wife. “It’s a hugely exciting proposal to attempt the reworking of one of the best novels written by one of our greatest novelists. This is a project which will require consummate respect above all else.”


HarperFiction publishing director Louisa Joyner said the two novelists “share an extraordinary ability to combine heart-rending plots with a social acuity which has powerful resonances for contemporary audiences”. She came up with the idea for the series after reading a comparison between Trollope and Austen – Trollope herself has said that “comparisons with Jane Austen make me twitch. She is a Great: I am a Good – on a good day”.


“TV adaptations of Austen all focus on one reading of her: they are all about the romance. But actually she was such an acute social commenter – and economics were such an important part of it,” said Joyner. “I couldn’t help thinking about all the contemporary resonances, [and I realised that] taking the bare bones of the story, and seeing where a contemporary novelist would get to would be fascinating – like refracting the novels through a prism.”


Joyner describes the new series as a “conversation” between Austen and today’s novelists. “I am imagining all sorts of reactions, everything from amazed to unhappy and everything in between,” she said. “What is very exciting is that people have that strength of feeling about a novelist. This is no attempt to better her. It’s a respectful conversation, and if it ends up with people talking more about Austen and Trollope, then that’s a good thing. It’s not a competition. It is a literary celebration, and all debate is good.”


Meanwhile, John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London, said the project was part of “a time-honoured literary genre”. “in the 18th century they used to call it imitation,” he said. “It’s an old tradition – Pope did Horace, Dr Johnson did Juvenal, now Trollope is doing Austen … I think it’s fine. It always works best if the people who enjoy it most know the original – that’s the test.”


HarperCollins is currently in talks with other “authors of global literary significance” about the remaining five Austen novels. Joyner would not comment on suggestions that Stephen King might produce an interesting take on Northanger Abbey, or that an Ian Rankin crime twist to Emma could prove fun.


 –, Tuesday 13 September 2011

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Falser Words Were Never Spoken

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

IN a coffee shop not long ago, I saw a mug with an inscription from Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

At least it said the words were Thoreau’s. But the attribution seemed a bit suspect. Thoreau, after all, was not known for his liberal use of exclamation points. When I got home, I looked up the passage (it’s from “Walden”): “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Now Thoreau isn’t quite saying that each of us can actually live the life we’ve imagined. He’s saying that if we try, we’ll come closer to it than we might ordinarily think possible. I suppose that the people responsible for the coffee mug would say that they’d merely tweaked the wording of the original a little. But in the tweaking, not only was the syntax lost, but the subtlety as well.

Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like … a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.

When you start to become aware of these bogus quotations, you can’t stop finding them. Henry James, George Eliot, Picasso — all of them are being kept alive in popular culture through pithy, cheery sayings they never actually said.

My favorite example of the fanciful quotation is a passage that’s been floating around the Internet for years. It’s frequently attributed to Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, and said to be an excerpt from his 1994 inaugural address.

“Our deepest fear,” the passage goes, “is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. … As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Picture it: Mr. Mandela, newly free after 27 years in prison, using his inaugural platform to inform us that we all have the right to be gorgeous, talented and fabulous, and that thinking so will liberate others. It’s hard to imagine it without laughing. Of course, it turns out it’s not actually an excerpt from this or any other known address of Mr. Mandela’s. In fact, the words aren’t even his; they belong to a self-help guru, Marianne Williamson.

Thoreau, Gandhi, Mandela — it’s easy to see why their words and ideas have been massaged into gauzy slogans. They were inspirational figures, dreamers of beautiful dreams. But what goes missing in the slogans is that they were also sober, steely men. Each of them knew that thoroughgoing change, whether personal or social, involves humility and sacrifice, and that the effort to change oneself or the world always exacts a price.

But ours is an era in which it’s believed that we can reinvent ourselves whenever we choose. So we recast the wisdom of the great thinkers in the shape of our illusions. Shorn of their complexities, their politics, their grasp of the sheer arduousness of change, they stand before us now. They are shiny from their makeovers, they are fabulous and gorgeous, and they want us to know that we can have it all.

Brian Morton, the director of the graduate program in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, is the author of the novels “Starting Out in the Evening” and “Breakable You.”

By BRIAN MORTON – Published: August 29, 2011

Categories: Uncategorized

One Day: the best novel ever – or a tedious schmaltz-fest?

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

David Nicholls’s acclaimed novel, tracking the 20-year friendship of Dexter and Emma, has sold more than a million copies and the film version is previewing in American cinemas. Two Telegraph writers reveal their passionate – and polarised – views on whether the book lives up to the hype.

Bryony Gordon, left, wanted to burn 'One Day'. Iain Hollingshead, right, found it heartbreaking - and very, very amusing - One Day: the best novel ever – or a tedious schmaltz-fest?

Bryony Gordon, left, wanted to burn ‘One Day’. Iain Hollingshead, right, found it heartbreaking – and very, very amusing Photo: CLARA MOLDEN

‘The greatest literary love of my life,’ says Iain Hollingshead

When I finished One Day, red-eyed in the early hours of a spring morning, I don’t think I read another novel for a couple of months. To have done so would have felt like a betrayal of the greatest literary love of my life.

Extreme? Yes. But David Nicholls’s third novel arouses polarising emotions. Despite remaining in the bestseller charts for more than 18 months, its 856 reviews on Amazon include 102 one-star refuseniks. The characters are unlikeable, they say, the plot clichéd, the ending a blessed relief.

They’re entitled to their misguided opinions, of course. But anyone with half a soul – sorry, Bryony – knows that One Day is the best British novel of the past 20 years.

Of course, a million people haven’t bought One Day for its clever structure. But it does allow Nicholls to romp through 20 years of the characters’ lives, from their last day at university to their early forties, the ever more curious reader trying to work out what went wrong and right in the intervening 364 days.

The detail of twentysomething life is pitch perfect, the post-university listlessness, the random travelling, the bad dates, the awful jobs, the misguided, scatter-gun ambition. And just as you’re happily gorging on this nostalgia fest, the reality of genuine grown-up life begins to bite: weddings, children, breakdown, divorce. It is, as Tony Parsons aptly puts it, “a brilliant book about the heartbreaking gap between the way we were and the way we are”.

One Day is undoubtedly heartbreaking. But it is also very, very amusing. Nicholls is one of the few writers billed as laugh-out-loud funny whom you’ll have difficulty reading in a public place. He is a master of irony, the genius of the set piece, a writer equally appealing to men as to women.

And yet this comedy never detracts from the two characters at the heart of the story. Dexter Mayhew, the public-school layabout turned minor television star, the embodiment of Nineties’ excess. Emma Morley, frustrated writer, Mexican restaurant waitress and teacher. Some critics have found them by turns arrogant, whiny and in urgent need of a kick up the backside, but Nicholls achieves the impressive feat of making them both everymen without resorting to stereotype.

It’s a very middle-class tale, of course. But what is wrong, after all, with having such a bright mirror held up to our own lives for once, instead of those of, I don’t know, vampires or the Nazis? We all know an Emma. Some of us know rather too many Dexters, a man who “had always expected Emma to be there, a resource he can call upon at any time like the emergency services”.

It is this will-they-won’t-they friendship that has turned the book from a hit into the super-league. It’s been done before, of course, most notably in When Harry Met Sally. But there is a whole new generation (I’m right in the middle of One Day’s 20‑year demographic) for whom the lines between friendship and relationships are blurred. Shared university corridors become shared flats. Friends become lovers and, sometimes, friends again. The luckiest ones end up marrying their friends.

One Day is hilarious, moving and relevant. It is also culturally astute, referencing everyone from Nina Simone to John Smith. On first entering Emma’s university bedroom, Dexter knows “with absolute confidence that somewhere in amongst the art postcards and photocopied posters for angry plays there would be a photograph of Nelson Mandela, like some dreamy ideal boyfriend”.

But perhaps more than all this – and without giving away the ending – it’s a warning, a rallying cry against atrophy, against procrastination, of putting life off in the hope that, one day, it happens to you.

Nicholls opens his book with a extract from Dickens’s Great Expectations. “Imagine one selected day struck out of it [life] and think how different its course would have been. Pause, you who read this, and think for a long moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on that memorable day.”

Go on, Bryony. Carpe that diem, and give it another read.

‘I almost threw it in the pool,’ says Bryony Gordon

I have never before wanted to burn a book, and I was once forced to read Coleen Rooney’s Welcome to my World for work. But One Day left me in such a state of profound irritation that I almost threw it in a pool. The only reason I carried on until the bitter end was because I was on holiday and had exhausted all other reading options.

“Why have you got a perma-snarl on your face?” my companion asked me, as I lay there grimacing at the latest chapter of Dexter and Emma’s tedious adventures.

I read obsessively but am not a literary snob; I’ll happily devour a Jackie Collins or Jilly Cooper. So my dislike of One Day is nothing to do with its lightness. Nor was it because it had been hyped to the hilt by the time I read it. I picked One Day up at Gatwick airport early in 2010, drawn in by its bright orange cover which said: “I am a perfect, brainless beach read – buy me!” So I did, a decision that would teach me once and for all never to judge a book by its cover.

It makes little sense to me that any sentient being would read One Dayand do anything other than gag; it is the literary equivalent of a box of doughnuts followed by a bag of Haribo, finished off with Cadbury’s Celebrations.

That a man as intelligent as my colleague Iain – a man with a first in history from Cambridge (or so he tells me) – could be reduced to tears by this schmaltz-fest leaves me deeply concerned for his fiancée. How he will help her through childbirth or even the simple task of assembling shelves, I have no idea. And if I am resorting to stereotypes then I do apologise: it is hard not to when talking about One Day.

Dexter and Emma are a couple so clichéd they seem to have been created in a chemistry lab with bromide. Dexter is supposedly charismatic and attractive to all, while Emma is the slightly frumpy, but clever girl who wants to save the world, preferably while falling in love with Dexter, who is busy turning into a TV presenter and cavorting with hot girls.

Dexter loves Emma, yet only as a friend. But – and there is a spoiler alert here – eventually he falls for her, though only once she has undergone a butterfly-style metamorphosis, and he has crashed and burned as a washed-out divorcé. Perhaps this is why so many men enjoy One Day – it gives them hope. You can act like a pig, because one day you can fall back on that clever bird from university.

I could find nothing likeable about Dexter or Emma – Emma, in particular, was only ever a page away from exploding in smugness. The whole thing seemed to be cobbled together from Nineties’ dramas such as This Life and Cold Feet, and it is no surprise to learn that David Nicholls used to write for the latter.

Perhaps I am a cold-hearted hag. Or maybe I’m professionally jealous.

By Iain Hollingshead and Bryony Gordon- 06 Aug 2011

Categories: Uncategorized

The rise and rise of Brontëmania

September 11, 2011 Leave a comment

The Brontës are often dismissed as up-market Mills & Boon. But with the release of two films this autumn, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, they look set to rival even Jane Austen in the public’s affections.

View from the Parsonage, Haworth

View from the Parsonage, Haworth. Photograph: Denis Thorpe

Ours is supposed to be the age of instantaneity, where books can be downloaded in a few seconds and reputations created overnight. But the Victorians could be speedy, too, and there’s no more striking example of instant celebrity than Jane EyreCharlotte Brontë posted the manuscript to Messrs Smith and Elder on 24 August 1847, two weeks after the publisher had expressed an interest in seeing her new novel while turning down her first. Within a fortnight, a deal had been struck (Charlotte was paid £100) and proofs were being worked on. In the 21st century a first novel can wait two years between acceptance and publication. Jane Eyre was out in eight weeks, on 17 October, with Thackeray and Leigh Hunt among its early admirers. By early December, with the first edition shortly to sell out, Charlotte was preparing a preface for the second. By February a stage play based on the book had opened at the Victoria Theatre in London.

It was the story that gripped people – Lowood school, Jane’s governessing, Mr Rochester, the mad woman in the attic, destitution, rescue and happy redemption (“Reader, I married him”). But the word-of-mouth success was also hastened by Charlotte’s use of a pseudonym: Currer Bell. Speculation about the mysterious author’s identity and gender began at once, and reached fever pitch in December with the publication of works by Ellis and Acton Bell – Wuthering Heightsand Agnes Grey respectively, novels accepted by a different publisher a year earlier but which had been gathering dust until the success of Jane Eyre spurred him into action. With all three books out, Charlotte broke the news of her authorship to her clergyman-father, Patrick. Elizabeth Gaskell‘s biography records the following conversation:

“Papa, I’ve been writing a book.”

“Have you, my dear?”

“Yes, and I want you to read it.”

“I’m afraid it will try my eyes too much.”

“But it is not in manuscript: it is printed.”

“My dear! You’ve never thought of the expense…!”


As suspicion grew that Currer, Ellis and Acton were really one man writing under different names, Charlotte decided to come clean to her London publisher and, with Anne accompanying her, walked through a rainstorm to Keighley to catch a night train (with a change at Leeds) to London, where she made her dramatic revelation next morning: “We are three sisters.” Emily, who had stayed at home, was outraged: she had wanted to remain invisible and felt betrayed by Charlotte. Meanwhile, their brother Branwell was drinking himself to death after the collapse of his love affair with an older woman called (a gift of a name) Mrs Robinson. He died in September 1848. Emily followed three months later and Anne five months after that.

Charlotte liked to pretend that nothing much happened to her and her family, speaking of “the torpid retirement where we live like dormice”. And it’s true that not every year was as eventful as that which followed the publication of Jane Eyre. But there was nothing torpid about the Brontës’ approach to writing (night after night, once their father had wound the clock and retired to bed, they scribbled away at the dining table) or about their determination to succeed. They worked hard, read widely, taught, travelled, looked after their savings (investing some of it in the railways), and were independent-minded in their ideas about society and politics, not least about the place of women. “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” the poet laureate Robert Southey told Charlotte when she sent him her poems, but she and her sisters efficiently made it their business. The morbid caricature that developed in the wake of Gaskell’s biography – with Haworth depicted as a remote and sinister spot, and the Parsonage as a gloomy hideout for a trio of unworldly spinsters – is largely nonsense. The Brontë letters (most of the surviving ones Charlotte’s) are sharp and sometimes funny. Their novels, caricatured as romances set on rugged moors, are full of insights into the social conditions of the day. And their lives, though short and touched with tragedy, were fascinating.

The public were enthralled from the start. Curious visitors began turning up in Haworth once the truth about Jane Eyre’s authorship got out, and the numbers grew with the publication of Gaskell’s biography two years after Charlotte’s death in 1855. Some came from as far as America. Local shops cashed in, selling photos of the family. Patrick took to cutting up Charlotte’s letters into snippets, to meet the many requests for samples of her handwriting. Charlotte was the sister everyone wanted a piece of; the reputations of Anne and Emily took longer to develop. But the books kept selling and groupies kept coming to gawp. By 1893 aBrontë Society had been formed, and a small museum opened two years later.

To Henry James, trying to make sense of the continuing popularity of the Brontës 50 years after Charlotte’s death, this “beguiled infatuation” with their lives was an unfortunate distraction. The story of their “dreary” existence (“their tragic history, their loneliness and poverty of life”) had, he said, supplanted the achievement of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The flames of Brontëphilia, set alight by Gaskell and fanned by adoring admirers, had destroyed critical appreciation of the books themselves. FR Leavis seemed to prove James’s point, when he excluded the Brontës from his Great Tradition, on the grounds that Charlotte’s was only “a permanent interest of a minor kind” and thatWuthering Heights, though “astonishing”, was “a kind of sport”. To a certain kind of male critic, the Brontës’ fiction was little more than upmarket Mills & Boon.

James might be surprised to find that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heightsare both widely read and critically esteemed today. There’s been no let-up, either, in attempts to translate them into different media: theEnthusiast’s Guide to Jane Eyre Adaptations website lists 25 since the 1980s. New film versions of both novels are appearing this autumn: Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (with a screenplay by Moira Buffini) was released on Friday, and Andrea Arnold’s version of Wuthering Heights will follow in November. Still, the issue James raised back in 1905 remains pertinent. Is our infatuation with the Brontës more to do with their lives than with their work? How to explain their enduring popularity?

The fact there were three of them may be part of it. It’s not just that the phenomenon of three siblings who all published poetry and fiction seems extraordinary (which other family can boast as much: the Sitwells?), but the number itself has a mythic or folkloric appeal: the three Fates, the three Furies, the three witches in Macbeth, the three daughters of Lear, the three bears. For some, the idea of these “three weird sisters” (as Ted Hughes called them, borrowing from Shakespeare) weaving their magic together is sinister in its resonance – the stuff of Grimm fairytales. For others, their encouragement of each other is as inspiring an image of sorority as the Sister Sledge song: “We are family, I got all my sisters with me.” (Though they hadn’t, Maria and Elizabeth having died in childhood).

More important is that the Brontë story remains unfinished; they may have been dead for more than a century and a half, but important new discoveries are still being made. Juliet Barker‘s magisterial 1994 biography ran to 1,000 pages. The revised edition, recently published in paperback, adds 150 more, in order to include finds such as a letter from Charlotte describing her wedding dress (“white I had to buy and did buy to my own amazement – but I took care to get it in cheap material … If I must make a fool of myself – it shall be on an economical plan”). An authoritative edition of Charlotte’s letters has also appeared in recent years, and the extent to which she edited her sisters’ poems – censoring and rewriting them – has begun to be understood. The holy grail for Brontëites would be the discovery of the manuscript that Emily might or might not have been working on when she died.

In its absence, some have suggested that Charlotte wilfully destroyed it, either from embarrassment at its sensational content or envy of its power. This looks no more plausible than the theory (first aired in the 1860s) that Branwell was the real author of Wuthering Heights. Prolonged exposure to Brontëana can cause Brontëmania, it seems. Certainly Brontë scholars have been prone to flights of fancy down the years, and Lucasta Miller, in her book The Brontë Myth, has fun with their wilder ruminations. In 1936, Virginia Moore misread the handwritten title of Emily’s poem “Love’s Farewell” as “Louis Parensell”, and developed the theory that Louis was Emily’s secret lover. For good measure, she threw in the claim that Emily was also lesbian, an idea later developed by Camille Paglia. A less whimsical hypothesis is offered by Katherine Frank, whose biography Emily Brontë: A Chainless Soulattributes Emily’s alleged mysticism to “what, in reality, was her anorexia nervosa” (“By refusing to eat she seized control of the only thing which was malleable: her own body”). Such theories are impossible to prove, but they’re part of the fun of the game. And they’re another reason for the classic status of the Brontës, as writers whose lives and work are ever open to new readings.

Hardcore fans need solid bricks as well as airy postulations, and Brontë enthusiasts are fortunate in this respect: they have the Parsonage. Virginia Woolf visited it in the days when it was privately owned, noting the upright gravestones in the churchyard “like an army of silent soldiers”, and when it opened to the public in 1928, thousands clamoured to get in. An average of 70,000 visitors come each year – in 1974, after Christopher Fry’s television play The Brontës of Haworth, the figure reached 200,000. The relics and artefacts on display include the sofa on which Emily died, the cloth pouch in which Patrick kept his pistol, a lock of Anne’s hair from when she was 13, Branwell’s paintings, the collars of the two family dogs, Keeper and Flossie, and assorted items belonging to Charlotte – a black lace veil, curling tongs, hair clips, stockings and tiny boots.

The temporary exhibition space is currently devoted to Patrick, and the gift shop offers the usual fare – mugs, coasters, keyrings and fridge magnets. In town Ye Old Brontë Tea-Rooms vie for custom with a café called Villette. Beyond, well signposted, is the walk to Top Withens, said to have inspired the setting of Wuthering Heights, a stiff uphill hike of three and half miles. Emily might not care for the wind turbine in the distance, and when I walked there last month there were men shooting grouse, which as a lover of birds and animals she might not have cared for either. But there are few more exhilarating literary treks.


More academic-minded devotees have the journal Brontë Studies, which has been running since 1895 and has just increased its output to four issues a year “in response to the mushrooming global fascination with the Brontës’s work and all aspects of their lives”. The country most often cited as evidence of this global fascination is Japan. Jane Eyre andWuthering Heights are taught at school; the new film version of the former has a Japanese-American director, and adaptations of the latter include a 1988 Yoshishige Yoshida movie set in the Tokugawa period. After the earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster in March this year, the Parsonage suffered a decline in Japanese visitors but they’re now beginning to return. I’ve heard it suggested that, as a population used to small living spaces, they feel at home in the Parsonage (as they wouldn’t at Knole or Newstead Abbey), and find nothing implausible in Charlotte’s plan to set up a school with six boarders within its modest confines. Whatever the reason, of British cultural icons, only David Beckham and Shakespeare are better known in Japan.

Not that there’s anything new about the Brontës’ global reach. Within a year of Charlotte’s death, Die Waise von Lowood (The Orphan of Lowood, a German version of Jane Eyre), was being staged in New York. The French have always been fascinated, too (a 1970s film Les Soeurs Brontë starred the Isabelles Adjani and Huppert). And then there’s Chekhov: according to his biographer, Donald Rayfield, Chekhov read about the Brontës in a biography by Olga Peterson (probably a Russian married to an Englishman), and almost certainly had it in mind while writing The Three Sisters a few years later. When Katie Mitchelldirected the play a few years ago, she highlighted the connections, the most overt being the presence of a wayward brother (Andrei/Branwell). For a new adaptation for Northern Broadsides I’ve pushed the parallels further by setting the play in Haworth – a wacky venture, you may think, except that many of the themes of Chekhov’s play (work, education, marriage, the role of women, the rival claims of country and city) were ones that also preoccupied the Brontës.

The roll-call of writers who have re-imagined their lives or their work is staggering: Aldous Huxley (who worked on the screenplay of the 1944 film of Jane Eyre, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine), Daphne du Maurier, May Sinclair, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, Lynn Reid Banks, Fay Weldon, Emma Tennant and many more. Then there are the film directors (Buñuel and Zeffirelli) and the actors (Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, Raph Fiennes, Susannah York, Juliette Binoche). Monty Python came up with a semaphore version of Wuthering Heights, the novel that also gave Kate Bush her debut single. Operas and ballets have flourished, too. When Howard Goodall and I collaborated on a musical ofWuthering Heights in the 1980s, four other versions were doing the rounds; Tim Rice’s Heathcliff, starring Cliff Richard (a spectacular piece of miscasting), was the one that got staged.

This ceaseless activity around Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights shows that Henry James needn’t have worried over their neglect; on the contrary, they’ve hogged attention that might productively be given to other Brontë novels, not least Villette. His idea that the Brontës’ lives were uniformly “dreary” also seems ridiculous now that individual biographies of the family have multiplied. To Gaskell, her “dear friend” Charlotte was the heroine, with the rest of the family – eccentric Patrick, masochistic Branwell, pious Anne and violently mystical Emily – left in her shadow. But for latter-day Brontëites, the story isn’t of one genius, or even three, but five, with Aunt Branwell and the long-suffering servant Tabby in supporting roles.

Branwell remains the hardest to warm to: the poems and paintings reveal no great talent, the drinking and sponging make him look like a Dylan Thomas prototype, and even in his misery he sounds theatrical. His lasting significance is as a rough model for Heathcliff, for Arthur Huntingdon (in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), and even perhaps for Rochester. His sisters took great pains to hide their publications from him; when in his cups Branwell had a loose tongue, and they didn’t want the secret getting out. There was a kindly motive, too, a wish to spare him upset and jealousy: as the indulged only son, the would-be poet who once sent his verses to Wordsworth, he would have been crushed to find his sisters succeeding where he had failed. But did they spare him? Letters and packages from publishers were sent to Charlotte at the Parsonage. At least one of them was already open when it reached her. Might his downward spiral have been hastened by learning what they had achieved?


Time has been kinder to Patrick. If his early journey – from a two-room cabin in County Down to St John’s College Cambridge – was remarkable, so was his career in Haworth, where he campaigned fiercely for better education, health and working conditions for the poor. Sanitation was a particular obsession: with no drains or running water, disease was rife – the average life expectancy in Haworth at that time was 28.5 years. By those standards, Branwell, Emily and Anne (dying at 31, 30 and 29 respectively) did well, and Charlotte (38) even better. Patrick, whose health had been a constant worry to his children, survived them all, living on into his 80s.

Anne, too, has come out of her shadow. Agnes Grey may be a slight work (albeit one with a memorable passage on the power of poetry to promote empathy), but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is bold in its use of a twin narrative and ahead of its time in portraying a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. It’s miraculous how Anne, single and in her 20s, could intuit so much about the burdens of wifehood (“to wait upon her husband and amuse him and minister to his comfort in every possible way”) and you wonder how much else in life she would have been wise to, given longer. Accounts of the Brontës’ deaths emphasise their stoicism, but Anne’s thoughts on the subject – written shortly before she died in Scarborough – are notable for frustration as well as acceptance: “I long to do some good in the world before I leave it. I have many schemes in my head … [and] should not like them all to come to nothing, and myself to have lived to so little purpose.”

In the end, whatever Anne’s achievement, we come back to Charlotte and Emily. Choosing between them is one of those standard questions – like “Cat or dog?” or “Lennon or McCartney?” – which is supposed to be revealing of one’s personality. At present Emily is the more revered, and to say that Wuthering Heights is structurally flawed, or that Cathy’s “I am Heathcliff” sounds melodramatic compared with Jane’s claim to be Rochester’s equal, is to risk accusations of heresy. But are the differences between Emily and Charlotte as wide as they appear? True, it’s doubtful whether Emily would have said (as Charlotte did to her friend Ellen Nussey) that respecting someone before marriage is more important than loving them, and that passion “is no desirable feeling”. But Charlotte’s fiction didn’t agree with these sentiments either: Jane respects St John Rivers but because there’s no passion she won’t marry him. Equally, though the sadistic violence in Wuthering Heights is more extravagant (with Heathcliff – “a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man” – the abused child turned abuser), Jane Eyre is also full of cruelty, with Jane mistreated by her aunt and at school and then tormented by Rochester, who takes pleasure in rousing her jealousy – a trait somewhat underplayed in the new film.

What’s easily forgotten is how radical both women seemed to their contemporaries. Wuthering Heights drew the more vehement reviews, prompting one critic to wonder, “How a human being could have attempted such a book without committing suicide” and another to complain: “There is not in the entire dramatis personae a single character which is not utterly hateful.” But Jane Eyre was also attacked for its “coarseness of taste”, “total ignorance of the habits of society”, “heathenish doctrine of religion” and possible links to the Chartist rebellions and revolutions in Europe.

In reality, Charlotte’s politics were far from revolutionary: “Insurrections and battles are the acute diseases of nations,” she said. But she was scornful of “the standard heroes and heroines of novels” and unimpressed by Jane Austen, dismissing Pride and Prejudice as “a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but … no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck”. It’s spirited stuff, like a boxer mouthing off before a big fight. But Charlotte’s purpose wasn’t to attack Austen so much as draw attention to their differences. And though there’s currently a view, prompted by movie adaptations, that Charlotte and/or Emily are about to replace Jane Austen in public affection, there’s surely room in the world for all of them.

What is pleasing about the new films is that they highlight overlooked aspects of the novels. No one goes to the Brontës for humour, for example, but it’s there in the banter between Jane and Rochester, andMoira Buffini‘s screenplay brings it out. Still, excitable talk of a Brontë revival is beside the point, because the Brontës have never gone away. Elizabeth Gaskell has a memorable image of the three of them circling the Parsonage dining table at night, reading and discussing their work. They stopped their circling a century and a half ago, but the readings and discussion will never stop.

Jane Eyre is on general release in the UK. Wuthering Heights will be released on November 11. Blake Morrison’s We Are Three Sistersopened at the Viaduct Theatre, Dean Clough, Halifax, and tours throughout the autumn: details at

 –, Friday 9 September 2011




Categories: Uncategorized

Man Booker prize 2011 shortlist

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Judges have revealed the six novels left in contention for this year’s prize. Find out what they’re about – and what our reviewers thought of them

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Barnes tackles the disappointments of ageing, the slipperiness of memory and the intensity of youthful experience, as narrator Tony remembers his brilliant schoolfriend Adrian and his difficult first girlfriend Veronica. The bequest of a diary puts all his comfortable certainties into question.
Read the Guardian’s review

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
Birch’s 11th novel, also longlisted for the Orange, is a brilliantly vivid recreation of the 19th-century London docks and a doomed expedition to the South Pacific to capture a ‘dragon’ for the charismatic naturalist Jamrach. Birch combines precise historical detail with epic themes of wanderlust and survival.
Read the Guardian’s review

Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers
Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired killers on the American west coast in 1851, during the Gold Rush in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Caught in a cycle of inflationary violence, Eli begins to wonder if there’s not an easier way to make a life, in a Western that explores humanity in the face of huge economic and technological change
Read the Guardian’s review

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Canadian author Edugyan’s second novel begins soon after the fall of Paris in 1940, when jazz trumpeter Hieronymous Falk is arrested in a cafe. He is never heard from again. Just 20, he was both a German citizen, and black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero’s bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin.
Read the Guardian’s review

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
The epidemic of teenage knife crime is the backdrop to this debut, in which an 11-year-old Ghanaian boy turns detective after witnessing the aftermath of a murder on a London estate. Voice is all in a novel that offsets adult realities with the innocent argot of small boys.
Read the Guardian’s review Read the Observer’s review


Snowdrops by AD Miller
Miller, a former Russian correspondent of the Economist, tackles Putin-era corruption in this assured debut. The narrator, an English lawyer living in Moscow, finds his morals compromised when he becomes entangled in a shady property deal.
Read the Guardian’s review
Read the Observer’s review




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