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Survival of the fittest: Shakespeare, Dickens and the decline of the Victorian novel

Penguin Books is to merge with Random House. To widespread dismay, this will not result in a new entity called Random Penguin, or even Penguin House, but the more prosaic Penguin Random House. It is a significant moment for anyone who loves books; it is the old guard consolidating forces to oppose new commercial pressures represented by Amazon.


The way we read is changing fast. Sales of e-books rose by 89% last year, to a value of £145m in the UK. I suspect that what we read will also change significantly and it’s hard to imagine many classic Victorian authors having much appeal in only a few generations time. Equally, it’s easy to suppose that Shakespeare’s audience will continue to flourish.Microsoft Word - shakespeare & Dickens.docx
There are reasons for this. For while the Victorian novel tended to reflect the nineteenth century back to its readers, Shakespeare is attached to no time. He set his plays in Illyria, Bohemia, Athens and Verona at various periods from the ancient world to contemporary Tudor and Jacobean, but really they exist anywhere and at any time – and in recent productions I have seen Measure for Measure set in Freud’s Hapsburg Vienna, As You Like It in eighteenth century pastoral, Troilus in a non-specific classical past and Othello in Edwardian dress.
Shakespeare is for all time, but Victorian novelists seem trapped in their shadowy house of poverty, gas lamps, polite repression and madness in the attic. Their literature is slipping from us as their era passes from view. I was born in 1955, so am not yet incredibly old, but all my grandparents were Victorians and the world in which I grew up was still tangibly nineteenth century. Plumbing was poor and houses were freezing cold in winter. Steam trains still ran on pre-Beeching-cut railways. Public buildings in every major city were blackened by soot, and cars were still a relative rarity. I remember rag and bone men collecting with horse drawn carts and knife grinders sharpening knives in the street, sparks flying. In school I was taught to form my first letters in chalk on slates with wood framed borders.
In other words, the outlines of life were still significantly Victorian. As it happens, I spent the first seven years of life on an island in the Thames Estuary only a few miles from Chatham, where Dickens grew up, and remember the shock of recognition on first reading Great Expectations. The flat, misty Kent marshes were instantly familiar. The marshes may still be there, but we are moving at speed from the world that Dickens and his contemporaries inhabited.
We are also moving away from a world in which reading is a mass leisure activity.   Although my 1950s childhood was not quite pre-television, it was long before 24 hour, multi-channel TV. It was a world in which people read vast broadsheet newspapers, in which pupils were expected to recite poetry from memory, the Bible was still a part of everyday life and in which books were revered.
This is changing. Newspaper sales are falling steeply everywhere. Millions of books are still published annually and e-books are establishing new markets, but in an age of twitter, texting and shortened attention span I doubt a continued appetite for the heavyweight three volume novel. Pre-Victorian, Jane Austen may continue to find a readership, partly because her novels are crisper and in part because her main themes are timeless.
She deals in relationships and as long as people fall in love, a few of them are going to fall in love with her work. There is also an element of escapism, for although the Napoleonic wars were being fought for almost all her writing life, they are never referred to. It intrudes even less than the poor, who only appear as servants, and even then not very often.
Her society is engaging – and while few would choose to return to Victorian cities with their fogs, slums and cholera many literary types still aspire to a Jane Austen style world of Georgian architecture, rolling parkland and acres of bosom in neo-classic dress. On top of all this, she created some wonderful female characters – notably Elizabeth Bennet who is intelligent, sparky and bold.
Elizabeth is in great contrast to those that followed her. Becky Sharp is an interestingly amoral creation, and there are other strong and passionate women in nineteenth century literature, but of these Catherine Earnshaw opts for Linton rather than Heathcliff and dies in childbirth, Dorothea Casaubon endures years of patient suffering before finding happiness with Ladislaw and though Jane Eyre eventually marries Rochester, it is only after he has been maimed.  They are exceptions. The typical Victorian heroine is loyal, passive, mute and dependent. She is rarely centre stage.  She is not, in short, a woman of the 21st century.
That is not the case with Shakespeare, who consistently wrote interesting female roles – who created full-blooded women able to argue, outwit suitors, defy their fathers, cross-dress, follow their sexual nature or even urge their husbands to murder. They are funny, resilient, daring and fully alive.
They are also on stage. This is a huge advantage for Shakespeare. For if reading a novel requires active will, watching a play is in some ways a passive experience. It unfolds itself before us, even if we’re half asleep. And in the best theatre we are gripped by the performance, transported by a magic suspension of disbelief into other worlds that are simultaneously our own.
This happens too, with the novel, of course. The opening paragraph of Bleak House throws out a wonderful image of London, dank and muddy in which it would not be strange ‘to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.’ Dickens deals in such imagery, but the ability to read is not innate and the imaginative muscle required to vivify his megalosaur might slacken and be lost.
Humans are instinctively creative. We are natural makers of art, but our ability to read came to us late and might be the first skill to depart. We were scratching petroglyphs on rocks in Kimberly, Australia, perhaps as long ago as 50,000 years. By 17,300 years ago we were creating spectacular cave art in Lascaux. Yet the earliest fragments from the Epic of Gilgamesh, generally considered the first work of literature, date only from about 1800 BC. We were painters and sculptures thousands of years before we were readers and writers and it’s reasonable to suppose we were storytellers and actors, dancers and musicians long before we were painters and sculptors.
Written language was invented by accountants. It began as a purely functional activity, to record stores of grain and inventories of things. It is useful and it allowed knowledge to flourish and spread. We are unlikely ever to cease to be readers, but it is possible that our reading will revert to its perfunctory role, as a means to catalogue possessions or arrange assignations.
Since Shakespeare wrote to be performed, he will be proofed against this trend. His work seems in better hands now, than it has ever been. We have a fantastic collection of actors and directors able to bring the plays to life in consistently fresh and exciting ways. And if we are becoming a less literate culture, we are becoming an intensely visual one. We are constantly looking at screens and monitors – and Shakespeare is as constantly being re-interpreted on film; Baz Luhrmann’sRomeo+Juliet remains the best of recent adaptations, with Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanusnot long released, new versions of Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing in production and Al Pacino rumoured to be starring as King Lear.
Shakespeare lends himself fluidly to film. A play adapted for the screen retains its essence while the adaptation of a novel transmutes it into something else. It may make for good cinema or TV but it won’t be the novel written by Dickens or Thackeray, Bronte or Eliot.
I regret this, but things change. One hundred years ago an educated person would have been expected to speak Latin and Greek. Today, few people are familiar with either. Today, English is the most widely spoken language in the world, the second choice for most non-native speakers. This too is likely to change. In one hundred years’ time the dominant language is likely to be Chinese. In the US it may be Spanish. Yet you can be pretty sure that as long as there are poor players strutting and fretting upon a stage, they will be strutting and fretting Shakespeare’s stuff, however much or little it signifies. Being Shakespeare, it will naturally signify much.


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