By Rashida Murphy
Growing up in the seventies in a convent school in India meant that the foundations of a colonial education were firmly entrenched by the time I was a teenager. To borrow Rushdie’s words, I too grew up “kissing books and bread.” Most of the books I kissed and consumed were those that inhabited my father’s rosewood bookshelves, along with the ones we were obliged to read as texts. The Bronte sisters were an early influence, as were Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. I could easily visualise Byron’s “deep and dark blue ocean” despite never having seen one and hear Shelley’s skylark without any idea of what that might be. And how I ached, along with Keats’s “drowsy numbness” and wandered, “lonely as a cloud” with Wordsworth, while peering into that “deep romantic chasm” with Coleridge. The poets spoke Romance to me and the Bronte sisters taught me that great love with doomed men was far, far preferable to morning walks around a mythical English lake with top-hatted gentlemen.
Those were the days before post-structural feminism was thought of. Misogyny in literature, and the invisibility of brown people and women in white men’s stories wasn’t considered a problem. Post-colonialism, as word and concept, still waited for me in the corridors of my university in Perth, some twenty years into the future.They were the days when ‘theory’ meant a nodding acquaintance with Aristotle’s Theory of Poetics and The Great English Canon wasn’t a subject to be debated, at least not by my early Anglophile teachers. So, as a young girl, I devoured pretty much anything I could read, without discernment; the only criteria being the language had to speak to me – the cadences, rhythms and music of English had to move me in ways I had no words to describe.
Which brings me to the confession I must now make. Charles Dickens did not speak to me then and still doesn’t. I worried about this for a long time. In conversations with peers, especially the nerdy reading type, I pretended to like David Copperfield more than Mr Pickwick. In truth, despite Dickens being prescribed reading on every school and college course I undertook over several years, I could not read him in entirety. I read abridged versions created by smart men and women who knew most kids would not read long novels about crazy women who walked around wearing one shoe and a wedding dress. I read him piecemeal; giggling inappropriately over the death of Little Nell, gritting my teeth over the tight yellow pages of Bleak House, and wondering why anyone would ‘enjoy’ reading something that not only looked, but smelled grim. I talked to friends who ‘loved’ Dickens in an attempt to understand his allure and tried, for the sixth time, to finish reading David Copperfield. Somehow I managed to fudge my way through essays and exams while feeling extremely guilty over this aberration. What was wrong with me? How could I be an English Lit tragic without including Dickens?
The answer suggested itself on a recent trip to the U.K. We drove through Rochester, hometown of the renowned Charles. Earlier in the trip I had armed myself with a copy of Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman, in an attempt to understand the private life and anguish of this most prolific of English writers. Sadly, the desire to read about Dickens went the same way as all my attempts to read him. I found myself back in childhood, grappling with this inexplicable, baffling revulsion. I didn’t want to know how his wife’s sister had died in his arms. I didn’t want to know about his invisible (and very young) actress-mistress. I didn’t actually care. I left the copy of Ms Tomalin’s exceedingly well-researched work on a bench under an oak tree in Rochester.
We stopped in front of the master’s house, his churches, his streets. We looked at towering spires and Gothic cloisters and sepulchral tombs. And I finally understood that everything I blamed Mr Dickens for was right here before me – in this narrow, pinched Victorian town with its unforgiving turrets and judgemental skies. Despite its beauty on a clear blue English autumn day, Rochester chilled me with its memory of young Oliver, and creepy Uriah and deranged Miss Havisham and all those hungry, beaten, downtrodden people the young Charles would have encountered in this city where he owned his first home. I realised that in all the years I’ve spent resisting him, and feeling guilty about it, I have actually been engaged in a lifelong conversation with Dickens and his people. Visiting his city, looking out from the top of the hill, touching the handrails inside Rochester Cathedral, walking down the side of grey stone buildings with his name carved on metal plates, I understood. I understood that despite my protests about the hard time I had reading his bleak novels, Dickens and his characters are part of my literary lexicon and, yes – my imaginative landscape.
Rashida Murphy lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her stories, essays and poems are regularly published in anthologies and journals. She blogs at http://rashidawritenow.wordpress.com/
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