1 September 2012

Meandering through the 19th Century

It started with Vanity Fair. I was still reading Dickens on my commute; I had an Everyman copy of Little Dorrit that I’d found in a second-hand shop in Swanage, up to that point possibly my favourite Dickens’ novel, but I needed a break and Vanity Fair was patiently waiting on the bookshelf.

It was fascinating, not what I was expecting, it wasn’t as sentimental as Dickens, a bit harder edged, but as a consequence not as much fun, A Novel Without A Hero; Becky Sharp and George Osbourne were completely unsympathetic characters, I find it curious that our present esteemed Chancellor changed his too posh name to a feckless, vain and selfish character who left behind a trail of debts and heartache, either he didn’t know the book or he had read it and didn’t understand it, only seeing a heroic, handsome hero, either way, a waste of a very expensive education, Gideon. It did seem to me that Thackeray had been influenced by Dickens, but I tend not to read biographies, so I’ll leave that to my imagination rather than explore that idea.

I moved onto Hardy, who surprised me as well, I was expecting the Victorian equivalent of Mills and Boon, which to be honest I’ve not read either, but no, tales of poverty and depravation and an insight into the hardship of rural Britain in the 19th Century. It seems television and film adaptions of classic books had coloured my perception, going back to the originals I found interesting and sometimes challenging stories, the costumes or the actors didn’t get in the way, the language wasn’t difficult to understand if sometimes the plots were.

Now if I was in a second-hand bookshop, looking for a Dickens novel that I didn’t possess, I allowed my eye to wander around the classic section for other authors, I decided to stay in the Victorian era somewhere I hadn’t explored before, somewhere a Grammar school education didn’t venture. We studied Shakespeare, naturally, Brighton Rock, Watership Down, 20th Century Poetry and short stories etc, but apart from A Tale of Two Cities, nothing before 1900. One of our local bookshops, now the only second-hand bookshop left, had, very helpfully, a pre 20th Century section. I picked up Collins, Hardy, Thackeray, Conrad, Henry James

…and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. First; The Lost World, a really enjoyable book, and then; Sherlock Holmes. Learning from my mistake with Dickens, I started from the beginning; A Study In Scarlet, and was surprised to find that Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes weren’t old men and that Dr Watson had been an army doctor and had just returned from Afghanistan (just how long have we been fighting there?) Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a particularly pleasant character and was more complex than I’d seen portrayed on the screen, he was smarter than everyone and he knew it, but inspired loyalty to those around him. The stories were brilliant and for the first time I understood the fascination that people have for them, they were short enough to use as literary sorbet, refreshing the palate between a Dickens and a Wilkie Collins and I was ridiculously pleased when I came to The Adventure of Silver Blaze and discovered where Mark Hadden had found the title for his book. 

As some of the Holmes’ and Conrad’s stories aren't Victorian, I broke my own rules but as I was about to move onto the Russians, limiting myself to Victorian England seemed unnecessarily restrictive. I wasn't finished with the 19th Century England but pre-revolutionary Russia was calling. 


  1. Forced my son to read 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' before seeing the movie. He loved it.
    Have you started on the Russians yet? A good place to start is Turgenev's 'Fathers and Sons'. Not as heavy going as Tolstoi but absolutely Russian in outlook and maddening use of different names for the same person. I still reread it every few years.

    1. Funnily enough, the Russians are a future blog, I started with 'Dead Souls' feet first. I had the same problem with 'The Idiot' every character seemed to have three names depending who they were talking to! The joy of a paperback, being able to flick back and forward with fingers stuck in relevant pages!