Thursday, 24 May 2012

Dickens and "utterly unreasonable compassion"

Having of late and very gladly taken my turn as a missionary for the exalted name of Charles Dickens, I was pleased back in February to attend the wreath-laying at Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, that marked the bicentennial of the great man’s birth. 

I went along not expecting the ceremony to be a huge deal, rather more interested in the prospect of seeing the Abbey in full formal regalia, and also the outside prospect of some top-quality people-watching. (Simon Callow had made it plain that all true believers should shun the Abbey and make their way to Portsmouth for the day; but then Simon Callow was not someone I’d been hoping to snag a glimpse of.)

I had a slight wardrobe malfunction at the door to the Abbey, an impeccable usher leaning to my ear to murmur, ‘May I remind you, sir, of the formality in respect of hats...?’ For I was in fact wearing one, and it had simply hadn't occurred to me that a man must go bare-headed into church... Anyhow, once inside, I was allotted a nice seat right on top of Gladstone's grave. After the solemn entrance of HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, and a lovely airing from Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony, we were treated to a consummate and notably upbeat assessment of Dickens and his legacy by Claire Tomalin, and a very controlled and intense reading of the death of Jo from Bleak House by Ralph Fiennes. 

But to my surprise my favourite address was that given by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams is obviously a smart man, though in the past that hasn’t stopped him from saying a lot of fatuous things – fatuous even by the low standards of what clever Anglicans are forced to say just on account of the collars round their necks. But literary appreciation is evidently a strength of his. I have quite never been able to bear the thought of his book on Dostoyevsky, but quite possibly this has been my loss. His best observations on Dickens were in respect of the ticklish issue of caricature, melodrama, excessive emotion and what have you. Very accurately he praised Dickens’ gift for depicting characters who are in advanced states of inner torment – ‘in hell’, as was the forgivable gloss – and pointed out that what is often their salvation in Dickens is an “utterly unreasonable compassion" that shakes the dungeon and “because of its utter unreasonableness can change everything.” It is the very same excess that leaves many of us in bits over Dostoyevsky, and Williams was, I daresay, promoting the connection quite deftly. 

On the star-gazing front, by the way, I feel I need only report that I made my way out of the Abbey side by side with Ron Moody - The People’s Fagin, no question. A cherishable moment.

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