Call it an act of heresy but I’m abandoning this. I’ve got to page 600 which means I’ve only another 150 pages to go but I’ve completely lost interest. The characters are too one dimensional and you can see the plot coming as if it’s daubed in road marking paint. I’ve read all of Dickens’ novels except the early ones and mostly loved them except for Tale of two Cities and the reason I’d never read this was I believed, mistakenly, it was another early one. However it reads like an early one, so I wasn’t completely mistaken. By which, I mean it’s lathered with sentimentality.
It was Dickens’ favourite of his novels which I find odd and doesn’t say much for his critical faculties but explains to me why he never quite excised the sentimental strain in his writing: he simply couldn’t see it. Because the sentimentality is like a sickly sweet smell on virtually every page of this novel. Perhaps because of its autobiographical nature he enjoyed writing this a bit too much. When an author gets carried away with the delights of his own story perhaps the inner editor goes into abeyance.
It doesn’t begin well. David as a character reminded me of the AI in Stephen Spielberg’s film of the same name, except, unlike the AI, his programming as irreproachable child never falters. We’re presented with a moral universe of absolutes. There’s no nuance. Mr and Miss Murdstone are pantomime baddies, as lacking in subtlety as their name suggests; Peggoty, his nurse, is a paragon of virtue. David, as child, isn’t any kind of child I recognise. He’s never mischievous or unruly. Cruelty has no meaningful effect on his character. He’s never capable of irrational response – good people after all can still be highly irritating and bad people fascinating and especially authoritative. But only good people have authority for David which basically means he will never develop much as a character, which he doesn’t. David is a neutered foolproof moral touchstone. The novel throughout has a pantomime binary moral system. A character, with one or two exceptions, is either wholly good or wholly bad. So, the first 100 pages were a bit of a struggle for me. I found Peggoty and the evil Murdstones tiresomely predictable. It was therefore a massive relief when the morally ambiguous Steerforth arrives on the scene. Finally we sense David might evolve from a potted plastic flower into one rooted in soil and subject to weather. Finally we see his moral judgements are subject to error. Finally we see the possibility of him being influenced by something other than unadulterated virtue. Unfortunately though Dickens soon repeats the early template of moral absolutes with a new set of characters. And Steerforth, the only character capable of messing with David’s programmed predictability, vanishes from the novel.
There’s no character development in this novel. Even as an adult David still seems like a ten year old. No surprise then that he falls in love with a female counterpart – an adult ten year old female. Before reading this I would have nominated Dorothea and Casaubon in Middlemarch if someone had asked me which couple in the history of literature I found it most difficult to imagine having sex together. However David and Dora now get that award. In fact, sex, like everything else that happens to him, has no notable effect on his character. The moral light in this novel is glaring; it hurts the eyes. No surprise then that the unpredictable dark charge of sex is hostile to its regulated lighting system and so ignored.
Of course it’s not all bad. The sentence writing is consistently brilliant. And as ever Dickens creates his characters with the startled wide-eyed wonder of a child – always they have an almost hallucinated detailed vividness, that larger than life quality, a single oddball defining trait, with which we tend to see grownups as children. We magnify one detail which comes to represent the person in question. It was probably his most inspired feature, his ability to see the world through the eyes of a child but narrate his findings with the eloquence of an adult. Dickens has never been a great psychologist; he doesn’t have much to say about the inner life; his terrain is generally surfaces. The surface of this novel reminded me of a gaudy birthday card with embossed pink hearts and ribbons splashed all over it. For me Dickens is the master purveyor of the novel as light entertainment. But this sucked!