NYC’s local PBS (Channel 13) is currently showing “Dickens” and I’m more or less watching it, thinking I ought to know something more about Dickens and having been inspired after reading Virginia Heffernan’s review in today’s NY Times. Basically, it’s a documentary spliced with dramatic recreations (or “historic reconstructions”); actors portraying Dickens and his family and friends look into the camera as if they are actually being interviewed by the documentarian. Meanwhile, there are clips of PBS/BBC movies of Dickens’ books and narration by novelist/biographer, Peter Ackroyd. It seems well acted, but Dickens comes across as really whiny so far (“My mother made me work in the factory when I was 12! I was robbed of my childhood and I could never forgive her!”; “I dumped my wife; no, I will not talk about my mistress(es)”). The overarching theme feels like “Innocence lost” again and again. Could this Dickens portrayal be a tad less Freudian, please? (hates his mom, loves his dad…) And, not to mention how Dickens had every potential of being a snob: dresses like a gentleman as an adult; resents working in the factory; resents that his sister got to attend the Royal Academy for piano lessons while he was in the factory; did he ever realize he had to work because his family needed the money? It’s easy to see how Dickens created the character of Pip in “Great Expectations” – he used his own self as a model. Pip was convincingly portrayed as a young man who resented his working class circumstances because Dickens was that very same kind of person. Peter Ackroyd intones about how Dickens suffered “humiliations of his youth”; I get the feeling that had therapy been invented back then, perhaps Dickens wouldn’t have gone to his writing to get through his emotional turmoils!
Dickens was a snob (possibly), but championed outcasts. In his public speaking circuits, he was amusing but was internally dark. He apparently hated London for being the source of his sorrows, but all his books recreate 19th century London amazingly (did he really hate London, or was he doing all he could as a reformer because he saw the city had potential to be better than a place collecting the worse of society?). Dickens’ wife loved the man; how much did he love his wife, rather than just using her (marrying her because he needed a marriage)? Did he ever empathize with her pains (she bore all those kids for him; he was needy; she was needy; it was not a great marriage)… Dickens was human and the documentary is very good about making that very apparent.
I still don’t enjoy these kinds of documentaries that much; it’s weird to watch an actor speak as Dickens in such a revealing manner – it doesn’t feel like they’re speaking in a 19th century style, even if all the characters’ British accents are plummy and nice. A celebrity like Dickens revealing all his frustrations sounds too much like a 20th/21st century creation. And, I miss the talking heads; where are all the scholars who talk about their areas of expertise? I’m left wondering why I have to listen to only Peter Ackroyd (I’m not so well-read to have gotten around to reading Ackroyd’s works either). Oh, well, each person has his/her own taste about documentaries.
Sidenote – Virginia Heffernan used to be Slate.com’s tv critic; I enjoy her writing, because it always gives me the feeling that she’s someone who really enjoys television and writes well. I like to see that critics like their subject area, even if they’re critiquing something less-than-glowingly. The NY Times has an asset in Heffernan.