Still, Christie exemplifies ingenuity only in its cunning aspects. For the full experience of language "marked by inventive skill and imagination," Dickens is your man. I find it hard to talk about Great Expectations without wanting to sound like Dickens, just a little bit, just for the fun of it--so today I found myself helplessly muttering "J-O-Joe!" at odd moments during our class discussion. That's the comic Dickens, of course, but there's also the creepy Dickens ("I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community") and the poignant Dickens ("Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlaying our hard hearts"). Sometimes, the most remarkable thing is his ability to change registers, or even to sound both funny and tragic notes at once. There's Joe's hat, toppling hilariously off the mantlepiece like an animated indicator of Joe's unfitness to be in Pip's elegant lodgings, and then moments later there's Joe himself, showing up the superficiality of that very judgment and shaming Pip back into humility with his own "simple dignity":
'You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends. It ain't that I am proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I'm wrong in these clothes. I'm wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th' meshes. You won't find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress, with my hammer in my hand, or even my pipe. You won't find half so much fault in me if, supposing you should ever with to see me, you come and put your head in at the forger winder and see Joe the blacksmith, there, at the old anvil, in the old burnt apron, sticking to the old work. I'm awful dull, but I hope I've beat out something nigh the rights of this at last.'And so, of course, he has.
In my George Eliot seminar, it was week 2 on The Mill on the Floss. I wrote a bit about it at The Valve and don't have much to add except that reading so much George Eliot at once this term is really bringing home to me how important I think intelligence is to fiction with any real literary aspirations. I've quoted David Masson before on the relationship between a novelist's writing and a novelist's thinking; here's the most relevant bit from British Novelists and Their Styles :
the measure of the value of any work of fiction, ultimately and on the whole, is the worth of the speculation, the philosophy, on which it rests, and which has entered into the conception of it. . . . No artist, I believe, will, in the end, be found to be greater as an artist than he was as a thinker.I'm thinking maybe I will found a school of criticism based on this principle. The Massonites? This may be the definitive answer to the whole 'should aspiring writers go through MFA programs': no, or at least not too early on, because they should not expect to be taught how to write before they have learned how to think--and think hard. The satisfactions of George Eliot's novels are certainly not all intellectual or philosophical, but far from agreeing with those who object that the novels are somehow too discursive to be pleasurable, I agree with Henry James's remark that the "constant presence of thought, . . . of brain, in a word, behind her observation, gives the latter its great value and her whole manner its high superiority. It denotes," as he says, "a mind in which imagination is illumined by faculties rarely found in fellowship with it."