The first meeting of the specially formed Manchester Dickens group met to discuss Dickens’ most autobiographical work. It’s a big book, the conversation ranged freely and could have gone on much longer than it did.
We needed to get to know each other a little and find out what each of us was hoping to gain from coming to this group. The reasons varied, but strong among them was a wish to enjoy discussing our reading with each other.
Here are just a few of the talking points.
It’s full of memorable characters; people many of us feel we know already, such as Mr Micawber and Uriah Heep. Some of our knowledge comes from films, so several of us felt we really valued the opportunity to read them for ourselves.
David’s own growth from childhood to maturity was the starting point. Harriet used a memorable phrase Happiness is wanting what you get, not getting what you want. Is this David’s lesson in life?
Who is the “best” character? Brian felt Uriah Heep is vividly drawn and wields the real power of the book. Amjad read the characters as either good or bad.
Someone else said he doesn’t do women very well. Did David just marry his mother? Both rather weak and arguably silly women who needed to be killed off so as to move the story along. But there is Betsy Trotwood who is eccentric but strong, sympathetic and reliable
Is Mr Micawber a hero or a villain? There were quite differing opinions about him; the words irritating and annoying were used, though we recognised he does prove crucial to saving the day near the end.
And what about Little Emily? Anja had strong opinions about her. Dickens tries to make us feel sorry for her as a victim of Steerforth’s evil intent. But all the time she knows she has inheritance from Barkis so is never really going to fall into prostitution. This brought us all up sharply - a new way of thinking about this rather shadowy character.
Finally we touched on the odd and “grotesque” characters Dickens has peppered this novel with. Geoffrey finds it a bit unbelievable that he could encounter so many. Mr Dick and Miss Mowcher are the most memorable. But is this one of Dickens’ wider purposes in writing? He makes us think about how people who are “abnormal” are treated. “ Trust me no more, but trust me no less, than you would trust a full-sized woman” says Miss Mowcher.
We touched on the structure of the novel, its coincidences and cliff-hangers, its moments when the author has clearly forgotten to tell us something or possibly even where he was up to. One of us finds him too long-winded, but others love the multi-layered descriptions, so much more vivid than when we are presented with a character on a film.
There was not enough time to discuss all the things we could have learnt from this novel, about child exploitation, debtor’s prisons, poor education standards, but I’m sure over the course of the year these topics will re-appear. One shocking fact that Donna shared with us was that the age of consent was only 12 years at this time.
Jane was the co-ordinator of Time To Read, a partnership of people working in public libraries in NW England, to develop the audience for reading.
She retired in August 2015 and is now very busy doing other things.