Monday, May 07, 2012

Reviewing and plots

In my re-reading of Our Mutual Friends over the past several days, I've been making extensive use of Philip Collins's collection of contemporaneous reviews of Dickens, Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage. Among the twenty-five pages of reviews of Our Mutual Friend--most of them mixed at best--is one from the Eclectical and Congregational Review of November 1865 that, in passing, addresses one of the great problems of fiction reviewing:
Needless work, we presume, it would be to attempt to tell the outline of Mr Dickens's story. Most of our readers have either read, or will read it; those who have not read will, perhaps, not thank us for attempting to tell it.
Now, a fiction reviewer these days certainly can't presume that all his readers will be familiar with the work in question, but even given that, I prefer that attention to plot be kept to a minimum--fiction reviewing is difficult precisely because it should be primarily evaluative or analytical, yet it seems that often the reverse holds true: we get a recap of the plot and, almost as if they're thrown in as a bonus, perhaps a few lines at the end rendering some quick judgment.

That said, I'm not sure I trust the judgment of the Eclectic and Congregational Review's critic, however, based on what comes next in this review:
Yet, perhaps, as a story, it is quite equal to any Mr Dickens has told; it is sustained throughout; there is nothing in the plot too strained or unnatural. Mr Dickens has not always been thought happy in this, for a writer with so much of nature; he has sometimes and often devised most unnatural positions and situations. . . . Yet there is less that offends in this way than in many other works of the writer, as even in Great Expectations, where the reader is startled by the half grotesque and half horrible episocidal thread of Miss Haversham [sic].
The "episodical" thread of Miss Havisham? Imagine pulling her thread from that book . . . what on earth would you be left with?

The reviewer is right that there is less here of the grotesque or fantastic than in other of Dickens's novels--no spontaneous combustion, for example--but there is strain, as the plot turns on some unlikely events and a number of the novel's least convincing characters.

More perceptive is the opening of the unsigned review, by E S. Dallas, that appeared in the Times on November 26, 1865:
Novels published in parts have the advantage and disadvantage that their fortunes are often made or marred by the first few numbers; and this last novel of Mr Charles Dickens, really one of his finest works, and one in which on occasion he even surpasses himself, labours under the disadvantage of a beginning that drags. Any one reading the earlier numbers of the new tale might see that the author meant to put forth all his strength and do his very best; and those who have an eye for literary workmanship could discover that never before had Mr Dickens's workmanship been so elaborate. On the whole, however, at that early stage the reader was more perplexed than pleased. There was an appearance of great effort without corresponding result. We were introduced to a set of people in whom it is impossible to tak e an interest, and were made familar with transactions that suggested horror. The great master of fiction exhibited all his skill, performed the most wonderful feats of language, loaded his page with wit and many a fine touch peculiar to himself .The agility of his pen was amazing, but still at first we were not much amused. We were more impressed with the exceeding cleverness of the author's manner that with the charm of his story; and when one thinks more of an artists' manner than of his matter woe to the artist.
The reviewer is responding in part, it seems, to a characteristic that I noted in my first post on the book several days ago: that the opening chapters feel remarkably de-centered, jumping from location to location and character to character with barely a hint of the thread that will ultimately connect them all. It's a daring decision--all the more so because Dickens isn't explicit about it, neither calling out the fact that he is doing anything unusual nor hinting at who among these characters may end up as his hero.

Dallas ends up approving of the book, and his review closes with fulsome praise for Dickens's characterization of one of his heroines, Bella Wilfer, "without exception the prettiest picture of the kind he has drawn--one of the prettiest pictures in prose fiction." Bella is more interesting, and more complicated, than the usual bland, flawless Dickens heroine, but she's far from the best thing in the book. Still, I suspect it's that passage that led Dickens, as Philip Collins tells us, to take the unprecedented step of sending the reviewer a copy of the manuscript of the book in thanks. Dickens's heroines, it always seems, are the closest to his heart--the more you read about his life, the more you become convinced that this is simply how he saw women, how he needed them to be, and that blindness deformed a number of relationships throughout his life. To have an outsider recognize his portrait as perfect would surely have pleased him beyond most other praise.

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