Friday, 6 January 2012

Miss Havisham, me, and Dickens.


"Do you know what I touch here?" she said, laying her hands, one upon the other, on the left side.
"Yes, ma'am." (It made me think of the young man.)
"What do I touch?"
"Your heart."
"Broken!"
She uttered the word with an eager look, and with strong emphasis, and with a weird smile that had a kind of boast in it.
I love Miss Havisham from Dickens's Great Expectations in the same sort of way that I love Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: within the melodrama, there is truth. Take away the absurdity and the improbability of the situation and there is a complete clarity. Miss Havisham is real. And this is why I love reading classics - the connection of us, me, today, to characters created hundreds of years before us. A two century barrier does not keep us and them apart. It has always been this way. There is comfort in that, this on going theme that has run through the hearts and minds of so many before us, and of course, before Miss Havisham. These thoughts, this 'psychology' was captured on paper with ink and gives us understanding and words to express what we couldn't or wouldn't. You're not alone. As James Baldwin said, "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." Miss Havisham is the embodiment of brokenness. No one stopped all the clocks like she did, not even Auden, but who out there didn't at some point want to opt out of life (physically or metaphorically) after a really bad break up?

Her pain turned cold and cruel, she was determined that vengeance was hers and she would repay (to paraphrase Tolstoy) and she wished to wreak havoc on mankind after a man wreaked havoc on her heart. Who has never felt that, not even for a moment?

But, she made it her calling. She turned the orphan, Estella, who she adopted to love (and this is a basic human need, I think, to love as well as to be loved) into her soldier. In the first encounter with her, she whispered to her, "Well? You can break his heart." She was out to destroy the way she had been destroyed. Miss Havisham is real: she is people's thoughts come to life (on page, at least). Her character represents the bitter, anger of a jilted lover that has become so twisted with it. There is no grasp on reality when someone suffers pain so completely. When all there is is pain and humiliation, who hasn't stopped the clocks?

Dickens is a genius for Miss Havisham alone, but I won't stop here! I finished Great Expectations yesterday morning and have begun David Copperfield. Allie wrote something a few days ago on Henry James that has stayed with me:
There is something incredibly comforting about sinking into a novel by an author you are beginning to love. Some aspects of the writing are still new and exciting, but the common themes and threads just suck you as the reader right in to the story.
This is exactly how I feel about Dickens. Whatever inspired me to write this post has long gone. His style, at first, isn't easy, but it becomes comforting. Dickens is Christmas and open coal fires, and he's a part of England as the Queen. It feels like connection with our history and culture, reading his words. I suppose, as Cassandra said, everyone is familiar with Dickens, even if one hasn't read a single word.  And reading through his major works, I feel the way Allie felt about The Portrait of a Lady (which, incidentally, I can't wait to read now!): I didn't know what David Copperfield was about when I started it, and I'm only about a hundred pages in, but it is both thrilling in its newness and soothing in its familiarity to curl up with. And I think this is what ought to be done with Dickens (though perhaps not Pickwick Papers, mark my words though I fill finish that) - curl up with it. This isn't a book to read at your desk for school, you take it to bed, or lie with it on your sofa in front of a fire with a hot mug of coffee and a biscuit. That's not to say it is always easy. I shared a quote on Twitter a few days ago from Great Expectations, a quote I'll live with for the rest of my life: "Her contempt for me was so strong, that is became infectious, and I caught it." It was like Miss Havisham - something I empathised with, though I would really rather not.

It's making me think of Anne Brontë again, as well. I am growing to love Dickens more and more with each chapter, and thoroughly enjoying working through his major works, but I didn't have this opportunity with Anne. A week of reading her two novels and it was all over. I won't have the feeling Allie describes with her. I'm sure I'll re-read Agnes Grey and Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but there is nothing new to sink my teeth into. With Dickens, I have eleven novels to look forward to. Which I am, and how! I just cannot begin to describe how much I love David Copperfield. Dickens makes me feel warm, which makes him the perfect winter read. I feel so lucky to be getting into Dickens and to have so much ahead of me.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for including me in this. :)

    I love how you described Miss Havisham. If my ninth grade teacher would have said a tenth of what you just did, I probably would have loved the novel!

    Sometimes I am saddened by the fact that when I finish an author's complete works I won't have anything left of the excitement...but then I remember I can read them again and instead of coming to them without any knowledge, I can rediscover why I loved them so much to begin with.

    You're making me so excited to read Dickens come February. I've struggled a bit with his work in the past, but the last three I've read (Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and A Christmas Carol) were all so wonderful that I have...great expectations for David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby (I couldn't resist the pun).

    Can't wait to see your thoughts on DC!

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    1. You're welcome :) And I'm glad you're excited, it is so exciting for me right now getting into Dickens and having so much to get through. I have to be honest though, I am slightly intimidated by the length of some of the novels. I'm wondering if a goal of 101 books for 2012 was a good idea... :)

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  2. Ahhhhhh!!!! I cannot wait to be where you are now, in February. Your enthusiasm is making me crave Dickens. You're right: he is coal fires and Christmas, and you're right: what was once difficult about him becomes comforting. I can't wait to sink into these novels. I might even eventually reread Oliver Twist.

    Love the quote by Holden!!

    (You know, Anne Bronte wrote poetry. And I strongly feel, if you haven't yet, you should check out Emily Dickinson.) :)

    * A two century barrier does not keep us and them apart. It has always been this way. There is comfort in that, this on going theme that has run through the hearts and minds of so many before us, and of course, before Miss Havisham. These thoughts, this 'psychology' was captured on paper with ink and gives us understanding and words to express what we couldn't or wouldn't. You're not alone. *

    You speak EXACTLY what I love about classics.

    You are such an awesome writer! You make me so excited to read. :)

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    1. Aw, thank you! Do you know which will be your first Feb Dickens? It's so exciting to pick one when you have a big list! :)

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  3. Yes! What Jillian said! And I too am now craving Dickens.

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    1. Yay! I cannot believe I ever thought he was rubbish!

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  4. For the love of all that's holy, I am so glad you are finally enjoying Dickens!
    You know how special he is to me and Great Expectations was a book that really touched me and made me reconsider my life. Although I focused more on Pip (wow, sometimes I felt as if Dickens described me instead of the English orphan boy, and I am not sure if this is something to be proud of) I always liked Miss Havisham, even when she was being cruel because, like you wrote, I can understand her; she is a very real character.
    This sounds pretty strange considering she is probably one of the most eccentric characters in all literature, but if you look beyond the absurdity then she is real and true.

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    1. Yes, I think this is the genius of it: that some of his characters are so extreme, but really so easy to identify with :)

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  5. Oh I love Miss Havisham, she's up there in my top ten favourite literary characters. The part about why you love classics is brilliantly phrased, thats exactly how I feel about them. I'm loving Dickens right now!

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    1. I think she's number one for me. Such a perfect character, I really do mean that. She's up there with the second Mrs. de Winter :)

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  6. Such a gorgeous post. I second everything Jillian said about it. You have a way with words and you manage to explain exactly why I love classics and why I love Dickens with only a few words. I'm so excited to read this one.

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    1. Thank you :) I'm looking forward to seeing what you make of it!

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  7. I'm planning on re-reading Tenant of Wildfell Hall with year as well. I love falling in love with an author like that. I remember my sadness when I realized I'd read everything Jane Austen wrote and would never again have the pleasure of falling in love with her for the first time again. Happy reading to you!

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    1. Thank you Amanda, same to you :) And once again, thank you for hosting this - you have done good work! :)

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  8. I recently read Great Expectations, I liked it a very lot also-I could not but help compare it to Les Miserables as both deal with an escape convict who "makes good"-of the two works, Hugo's is the most powerful, in my opinion

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