Tom Hodgkinson finds anti-racist sentiments in Dickens, progressive politics in Enid Blyton and satire in Lewis Carroll
Lockdown has given me a chance to get into Dickens. I’d always found him a bit scary and impenetrable and I’m pretty sure that Hard Times was the only novel I ever read all the way through, on account of its relative brevity. I’ve now read the whole of Martin Chuzzlewit (1842-1844) and half of The Pickwick Papers, written in 1836 and 1837 when Dickens was just 24 (the illustrator, Phiz, was 19). And they’ve been a joy. I’ve also gone back to Enid Blyton, who I used to love when I was very young. Make of that what you will.
Here are my top five books from the last few weeks.
• Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. Dickens was the Netflix of his day. In the 1840s there was obviously no radio, telly, cinema or Internet – just books and live shows. Martin Chuzzelwit was released in monthly instalments, two or three chapters at a time. It’s the story of a bunch of bickering relatives and features the great creation of Mark Tapley, the younger Chuzzlewit’s servant, who takes Stoicism to absurd new levels. “There’s no credit in being jolly at the Blue Dragon,” he says of his lovely local pub, and tries to make his life harder so that there is more credit in being jolly. His philosophy is tested to the limit when he and Martin C travel to America and find themselves duped by unscrupulous rogues with fat cigars who constantly crow about their great love of liberty. As Dickens points out, there is something jarring in the extreme for a nation built on slavery to boast of its love of freedom. (Before him Dr Johnson had made a similar point in the 1780s: “How is is that the loudest bleats for liberty are heard from the drivers of the negroes?”). Dickens was actually referring to a poem by Thomas Moore, an attack on Thomas Jefferson. Here’s a quote:
The patriot, fresh from Freedom’s councils come,
Now pleas’d retires to lash his slaves at home;
Or woo, perhaps, some black Aspasia’s charms,
And dream of freedom in his bondsmaid’s arms.
This was an allusion to a slander of the day against Jefferson: that he made his female slaves into mistresses.
Dickens later revised his view of America, saying he found it greatly changed for the better following a visit in the 1860s.
• The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. It’s the exuberance and fun that really appeals in Dickens, as well as his inventiveness with language. The Pickwick Papers is a picaresque romp through an old England of stage coaches, inns with blazing fires, bowls of steaming punch, sexy landladies, story-telling and card-playing, and it’s immensely comforting and often laugh out loud funny.
• The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter (HarperCollins, 1979). A brilliant account of the everyday life and conversations of Tolkien and C.S Lewis and their mates in Oxford in the thirties and forties. We find out about their different attitudes to Christianity and their love of drinking three pints at The Mitre of a morning. The Inklings was their literary society and met every Thursday evening. Tolkien would arrive and announce he’d written a new story for children called The Hobbit and read bits out. The assembled company thought it was brilliant but worried that it would not find an audience. The grand figure of T.S. Eliot hangs over the book. C.S. Lewis didn’t like him much, finding him to be gloomy, but Eliot did commission books from the Inklings in his role as director at Faber and Faber. A treat on every page.
• The Making of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Peter Hunt (Bodleian Library, 2020). Here is a satisfying little portrait of a legendary Oxford figure from an earlier time, the mathematician, photographer and spinner of nonsense, Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. Peter Hunt, an academic, delves into the sources of characters like the March Hare and Dormouse, and does a good job of describing Henry Liddell, Lewis Carroll’s boss, Dean of Christ Church College and the father of Alice and her two sisters, Lorina and Edith. (Fascinating fact: Louis Theroux met Adam and Joe at Liddell’s house at Westminster School, named after the Dean, a former headmaster there). Hunt also demonstrates that most of the poems in the books are direct satires on existing children’s rhymes, most of which Dodgson (or Carroll) thought were silly and sentimental. The book also features loads of John Tenniel’s brilliant drawings. It got me back into the reading the original books. There was plenty new to discover.
• Five on Kirrin Island Again, Enid Blyton (1947). When I was young and an avid Famous Five reader, I was terrified of Uncle Quentin. I could not believe that such an unpleasant, grumpy and mean person could exist. Reading the books again today, I have quite a different view. I identify with him. He is trying to do important and difficult work, has powerful enemies, no money, is surrounded by pesky kids and his only daughter has declared that she is actually a boy. He copes with all of this pretty well – he’s not remotely transphobic and accepts completely that George was born into the wrong body. He is progressive in other ways: I was amazed to discover that the top secret project he’s working on in Five on Kirrin Island Again is nothing less than a free, renewable energy system for the world. “We’ll never have to dig coal again!” he enthuses to George. Quentin is my new hero.