Thursday, July 27, 2023

Quote of the Day (Zadie Smith, on the ‘Tiresomely Gigantic Influence’ of Charles Dickens)

“Hanging over all this anxiety [about writing a historical novel set in Victorian England] was the long shadow of Dickens. To be my age, bookish, and born in England was to grow up under that tiresomely gigantic influence. Dickens was everywhere. He was in school and on the shelves at home and in the library. He invented Christmas. He was in politics, influencing changes in labor law, educational law, even copyright law. He was the original working-class hero—radiant symbol of our supposed meritocracy—as well as a crown jewel of the English Heritage tourist industry….He was also everywhere I wanted to be: in the theatre, in Italy, in America. Televised versions of his books were on rotation—there is a case to be made that Dickens is the reason that we have prestige-TV miniseries in the first place —and he was in the goddam Muppets and all over Hollywood, in conscious adaptation and unconscious theft. I personally read far too much of him as a child, and though I grew up to have all the usual doubts and caveats about him—too sentimental, too theatrical, too moralistic, too controlling — I was also never able to get out from under his embarrassing influence, as often as I’ve often wanted to….There didn’t seem to be a nineteenth-century pot he didn’t have his finger in.”— English novelist, essayist, and short-story writer Zadie Smith, “On Killing Dickens,” The New Yorker, July 10 and 17, 2023

The comic upshot of Zadie Smith’s anxiety over the influence of Charles Dickens was that she ended up making him a character—and a not-insignificant one—in her upcoming book The Fraud.

Yet, even as Smith fretted about viewing the Victorian Era through the lens of the astonishingly prolific author, she seemed never to have considered how Dickens wrote about times other than his own.

In other words, Dickens got around to writing historical fiction almost two centuries before she did.

Well, that first attempt is largely forgotten these days—and maybe Dickens would have been glad about that. Barnaby Rudge was, according to the late great editor Robert Gottlieb, in a 2012 piece for Publishers Weekly, “a tired and tiresome historical novel that the young Dickens kept putting off writing until contractual obligations forced him to finish it.”

But not too many people know anything about the subject of this 1841 novel: a 1780 outbreak of anti-Catholic sentiment in England that became known as the Gordon Riots. If his book sends interested readers out for literature about this incident, maybe all wasn’t lost for his labor.

Dickens’ other attempt at historical fiction was considerably more successful, at least commercially: A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens felt a powerful influence of his own as he labored over it: Thomas Carlyle’s epic history, The French Revolution. But, if Dickens was intimidated by that prospect, the finished product doesn’t betray that sense.

Maybe there’s a lesson in that for Ms. Smith. Just have at it…


Peter Quinn said...

I read "Barneby Rudge when I was researching "Banished Children of Eve," a novel that centers around the New York City Draft Riots of 1863--in many ways the equivalent of London's Gordon Riots. Barney Rudge is a truly terrible novel. The only reason to read it, I think, is to be comforted by the realization that even a great writer can write a terrible book. On the other hand, I've always loved "Tale of Two Cities." It was the first historical novel I ever read. I read it at a shockingly young age. Much of it went over my head, but much didn't. It made a permanent impression.

MikeT said...

It sounds like you agree wholeheartedly with Robert Gottlieb about "Barnaby Rudge," Peter. I guess this is to Dickens' career what ACROSS THE RIVER AND INTO THE TREES was for Ernest Hemingway's! Thanks for the post!