Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reconciling Differences

Last year I spent a lot of time reading from the Wilkie Collins catalogue, and seriously enjoying every minute of it. I never really found him sluggish or boring, and I always got through in a relatively short time. His books weren't necessarily easy, nor were they very funny, but I found them to have a great flow that wasn't restricted by lots of description or narration that didn't seem necessary. Despite his portrayal in Dan Simmons' Drood, I found his writing style to be exactly what I enjoyed reading, and even if he was kind of a bastard in real life, I could forget about that while reading his books.

Back in high school we did a lot with Charles Dickens. We read the obligatory Great Expectations, and even read A Tale of Two Cities (one of the greatest books in existence). But we never learned a lot about the author himself. And while Drood was a fictional account of a book that was never finished, Simmons was able to give us a little bit of the relationship between Dickens and Collins that I found fascinating to the point that I wanted to read something else Dickens wrote to see how the two stack up.

I've mentioned a few times, both on Goodreads and on Facebook, that I am having a very hard time understanding how the two could have possibly collaborated on anything! Their writing styles are so wholly different that it almost seems impossible that they could have been contemporaries, or even friends. I'm working my way, slowly, through Little Dorrit and am having an awful time of it. The book is hilarious, but it is also very long-winded. The narration is heavy-handed and at times unnecessary, leaving me sometimes confused about who or what is the subject and even what is going on. I am also having trouble with how long the story is and why, after 300+ pages, I'm still left with a feeling of, what's the point? The funny thing is, Little Dorrit is one of his most prominent works, one that simply everyone talks about (once you're out of high school, anyway), so there has to be something about it, other than the often sardonic humor, that makes it so prestigious.

Compared to Collins, who was able to tell a fantastic story sometimes in less than 200 pages, Dickens is long-winded and ridiculous. But Collins, compared to Dickens, is not descriptive enough and much more dark. How could they reconcile the differences in their respective styles enough to make one cohesive work together? It makes my brain hurt to think of it.

I think, now that I've immersed myself in Collins' works for so long, I can't quite appreciate Dickens as much as I used to. I do love the subtleties of his works that some people just don't see, but I wonder if some of it wasn't just blustery "look at me write!"-type sections. Collins was obviously aware of his genius, as was Dickens, but I think Collins used it a bit more to his advantage. And yet, he is often overlooked when discussing the period of literature or even as a contemporary of Dickens. I mean, look at me - I spent years studying this period in literature and didn't hear about Collins until I had been out of graduate school for a couple of years. How does that make any sense? And if you compare the lack of availability of his books in the US, with the overabundance of Dickens' works, well, it's understandable that no one knows who he is. The only two books of his I've seen on the shelves in any US bookstore are The Woman in White and The Moonstone, obviously his most famous but not the only ones worth reading. In the UK he is everywhere!

So what is it about Dickens that made him more famous than Collins, and what is it about the two of them and their friendship that led them to reconcile their style differences and collaborate? I have no idea how they did it, but somehow they did. Maybe a topic for future research, but for now, I will content myself with slogging through Little Dorrit and looking forward to reading the books of Collins' that I was lucky enough to get for my birthday last year.


  1. I went through Collins' works a couple of years ago and really enjoyed them... even went so far as to pick up a first American edition of "The Moonstone" (couldn't find a British at a price I could handle). I think the comparisons with Dickens arise largely because both are interested in social pathology, the levels to which people can descend given certain environments and situations, and the notion that people are impelled toward a fate, with free will not playing as much of a role as some would wish. But I see Dickens as more of a social novelist - he often seems more interested in the environments I referred to than he is the characters who inhabit them, though he certainly created some memorable characters.

    Thanks for the great postE!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I'm still slogging my way through Little Dorrit, but every page gets me closer to the end. Collins is definitely more focused on fate, I think - a lot of his novels talk about how the characters are led on their path without any real control (or despite their knowledge that they should be going in a different direction). Dickens gives people a bit more free will.