As I promised at the weekend, a quick post to catch up with the Dickens course. A very quick post, because as is the case with most (all?) online courses, and probably most others too, the suggested time needed each week to complete the work set is ridiculously underestimated. I think it was advertised as three to five hours a week. You can double the top of that estimate easily. Not that I mind that, I just think courses should be more open about the necessary commitment, although they are probably wary of the numbers that would enrol if they were upfront about the hours.
I was talking about this with my Shakespeare group, yesterday. We are studying Love’s Labour’s Lost and you will remember that the play starts with the King of Navarre and three of his Lords vowing to study for three years while they live a life withdrawn from almost all other society. The idea isn’t Shakespeare’s own. There really were such Academies in France at this time, drawing their inspiration via Renaissance Italy from those of Ancient Greece. Within moments, however, the King is forced to recognise the sheer impracticality of the idea. Life imposes itself. He cannot neglect his other duties. I know how he feels. Finding ten hours in a week that is made up of 168 of the darned things (169 this week!) sounds as though it would be a doddle. Until, that is, you try to do it.
Anyway, I have got some of this week’s work out of the way. We have moved on from considering the role of the city for the moment and are thinking about the extent to which you can legitimately see Dickens own biography in his writing. I am not going to rehearse the well worn arguments about biographical interpretations of a writer’s work. I can see points in favour of both those who say never and those who say always. I suppose my position is that most of us make decisions every day based on what we have experienced in the past and I can’t see why a writer should be any different, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t make an active decision not to reflect those experiences in their writing. I am probably in the sometimes camp.
What I do have a problem with, however, is those biographers who make inferences about their subjects with no evidence whatsoever and then present it as a fact. My favourite example of this comes from a biography of Christopher Marlowe. I had been having problems with the writer from the beginning of the text but when, talking about Marlowe’s reaction to the work of a Cambridge contemporary, he claimed if Marlowe read this, he was amused I finally exploded. If Marlowe read this, I think he might have been amused, I might just about have coped with, although I would have preferred him to tell me on what grounds he thought the playwright was so tickled. I would actually have liked something along the lines of Marlowe read this and we know he was amused because we have his authenticated copy of the book and in the margin he has written ‘I am amused’. That, however, would be crying for the moon. The trouble is, of course, that once you hit a statement like this, one for which there is no real evidence, you begin to question all the other statements that have been presented as fact. I know that biographers have to be prepared to make inferences from evidential material and we as readers have to be prepared to weigh the value of such inferences, but sometimes the writer goes to far.
So, I think I am going to take my Dickens cold and not worry about what is or isn’t biographical. They are cracking good stories and for me that is ultimately what matters.