Sunday, December 1, 2013

Oh How I Wish I’d Read Dickens as A Teen

My Grandmother bought me an abridged version of Great Expectations when I was about nine, but I didn't crack the book till my teens, at which time my dad tried as sincerely as he could (without pushing) to encourage me to read it. I couldn't get past the first paragraph - to paraphrase: "My last name being Pirrip and my first Philip, all my young tongue could make of them was Pip..." It just seemed like waffle to me at that time - I was into Marvel Comics, Conan the Barbarian novels, the sci-fi of Heinlein, Anthony, Niven and Pournelle, the horror of Stephen King, and that first paragraph of Great Expectations just seemed like nonsense.

How wrong I was. How bitter I am that I never allowed myself to read just the next page, where Pip is grabbed by the convict Magwitch in the cemetery! How that would have grabbed me and pulled me in! And how I could have sat for long hours with my dad, who passed away many years ago now, and talked Dickens! I believe I might even have begun writing my own novels sooner had I discovered Dickens back then. How I would love to be able to go back and do those things, especially sit and talk Dickens with my dad.

I won't go into anything of the plot of Great Expectations, one should read it and see for themselves, but I'll describe how I finally discovered Dickens, and how I have recently finished reading that old abridged version of Great Expectations that my granny gave me over four decades ago.

I was living in Los Angeles at the time and was unemployed and filling my days by borrowing and reading books from the library. My reading tastes were quite varied by then and I went through every copy they had of the Deathlands series by James Axler, everything I could find by Robert McCammon, The Ruby in the Smoke books by Philip Pullman, Little Women and the Eight Cousins books by Louisa May Alcott, and all eight books in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series.

Then I found a beat up old copy of something called Poor Miss Finch by a fellow named Wilkie Collins. It was in such a wrecked state, almost falling to bits, and I wondered why the librarians didn’t just throw it out and get a new copy. It intrigued me for this reason alone and I took it home. When I started reading it I realized it was no ordinary book. It was set in nineteenth century England and the style was something I couldn’t quite define, old-fashioned and yet at the same time seeming very modern and easy to grasp. And the story! What was I reading? It was about a poor young blind woman who is taken advantage of by twin brothers – they take turns in wooing her, pretending to be just one man – oh those black hearts! I wanted to jump into that book and throttle them both. It was a long book, very full and densely packed – something else I never would have read as a teen. But when I finished it I wanted more of Wilkie Collins.

A little research told me that not only was Poor Miss Finch set in nineteenth century England, it was also written back then! Collins was from those times and I realized that what I’d read was a Victorian Novel – I’d heard of them, never had the slightest interest in reading one, and now had by complete accident discovered that they were sensational. I was hooked. I read more of Collins: Hide and Seek, The Dead Secret, No Name (a book every modern young woman should read!) and his magnum opus, The Woman in White (the title on his grave marker). I learned also that he was a contemporary of, and indeed best friends with, Charles Dickens, a discovery that made me wonder if Dickens would be as much fun to read.

The first book I could find of Dickens was David Copperfield. I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was: funny, heart-warming, tragic and dramatic, and with that same old-fashioned yet modern and easy reading quality (and granted not all Dickens is easy reading!), but also, within the tragedy, there was at times a great sense of fun about David Copperfield. It was to that point the greatest book I’d ever read. And the best thing was there were many more books by Dickens that I would have the pleasure of reading – and they were all tomes! I had become an addict, hooked on Dickens and Collins, and I fed my habit.

After David Copperfield I of course thought of that old abridged version of Great Expectations my Gran had given me, but not having it to hand I bought a four-dollar paperback from Barnes & Noble (full version not abridged) and devoured it in less than a week. I marveled at it. I loved it more than David Copperfield. And that was when I began to wish I could go back and tell my dad how sorry I was I’d never read it while he was alive. This could never be, of course, so when I came back to Australia I did what I felt was the least I could, and read that old abridged version. I just finished it… and it only took me forty-four years!