Posted tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

Life imitates art

December 23, 2008

Over recent weeks I have been watching the BBC’s serialisation of the novel by Charles Dickens originally published in 1855, Little Dorrit, adapted by Andrew Davies. It was wonderful timing. Just as the financier Bernard Madoff was seen in the TV series to have been a complete fraud, so at exactly the same time the real-life Merdle was arrested in New York – or was that the other way round?

Dickens was partly motivated in writing the book by what he saw as the unacceptable relationship between the key financial institutions and their directors in the City of London and the government, which appeared unwilling or unable to regulate the sector and protect investors and ordinary citizens. And this theme was repeated a couple of decades later by Anthony Trollope in his great novel, The Way We Live Now, in which the financier Melmotte is also found to have built up a fraudulent house of cards.

Both novels describe developments in economics and business which are remarkably close to what we have recently been witnessing in 2008. There are no doubt aspects of the current global financial crisis that are new, or are peculiar to our own era. But the basic issues are not new, and have been around before. The trick now is to ensure that, some 100 years from now, there will not be another re-run of such events. Or at least that the world is better prepared for it.

But maybe another conclusion to draw (as was done also in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper) is that the great Victorian novels can teach us a lot about society, trade and politics.

In praise of Victorian fiction

August 28, 2008

I have recently gone back to reading some of the novels by Anthony Trollope. I read many – maybe most – of them just over 20 years ago, and I recently decided that the time was right to re-read some of my favourites. Trollope was an interesting author. After a very difficult childhood he eventually worked for the Post Office in Ireland, and during that time is thought to have invented the pillar box – the cylindrical post box that became ubiquitous in these islands. But he also started to write novels, and in the period that followed he became one of the most prolific Victorian novelists.

I am interested in Trollope because he was fascinated by ideas and how people with complex characters and complex lives could give effect to them. Partly because of his experience of his very lively mother (also a writer, and with whom he had a difficult relationship), many of Trollope’s strongest characters are women, and often they are women trying to achieve a degree of autonomy and respect in a society where that was not the norm.

Trollope does not quite have the exuberant style of Charles Dickens, or the romantic insights of Jane Austen, or the mystery of Wilkie Collins, or the gritty portrayal of working class society of Mrs Gaskell – but he does have the ability to demonstrate the tensions and complexities of Victorian society, and there is something honest about his writing.

But more generally, I find that reading Victorian fiction doesn’t so much transport me back into history as tell me something about how we became the kind of society we have become. The great Victorian writers of fiction were important as analysts of social conditions and campaigners for solutions. Much of what they described and the ideas they allowed their characters to debate would still be relevant today. It seems to me to be right that Victorian fiction deserves to be read widely in this 21st century.

 

[I am delighted that there is a whole blog site on Victorian literature]