Thursday, 7 June 2012

Dickens/The Portico

Last week I went to the Portico Library in central Manchester for the first time. If I was going to dream up an ideal library, it would be the Portico.
Did I imagine an old fashioned card catalogue? Marble busts? Hosts of librarians? Armchairs and tables in discrete corners? Shelves of leatherbound volumes ascending to a great domed window above? All real. It's airy, bookish, friendly, quiet: a perfect retreat to read or write. It is now officially my favourite place in Manchester (including my house).

I was invited to the Portico by Sherry Ashworth, an award-winning writer for young people, a lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and the Portico's current writer-in-residence, for a workshop on Charles Dickens' women. She asked me along largely on the strength of the name of this blog. Picture my excitement: the perfect location and a talk about Jenny Wren and Bella Wilfer. I was so excited I had to grip the arms of my chair to prevent myself from floating - like a character in a Chagall painting - up into the dome.
Sherry challenged the notion that Dickens can't write women. This is based on a misunderstanding of the way he works as a writer, she said. While Dickens was a man of his time (to put it mildly) in terms of gender relations, the range of his female characters is quite extraordinary. As a writer, Sherry observed, Dickens works from the externals inward; ie he uses what characters look like to suggest their inner state - in a tradition of writing that Sherry traced back to Chaucer and the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. (And very different to Dickens' contemporaries: think of the writings of Elizabeth Gaskell, or Charlotte Bronte or George Eliott). Yes there are characters painfully reminiscent of the Victorian ideal of women (Agnes from David Copperfield, Lizzie Hexham in Our Mutual Friend). But once you are beyond these sentimental creations, his women, particularly the damaged ones, are amazing. Sherry served up a range of Dickens' strong, flawed female characters - Esther in Bleak House; the bastard child of Lady Deadlock, brought up by her resentful cousin. And pause awhile to admire Miss Havisham.

Then think of the range of women in Our Mutual Friend alone. Consider Bella Wilfer, who starts out as the cynical, angry star of her own fairy tale, a self-styled "mercenary little wretch". What's not to like? (Unfortunately, she turns into a bit of a stereotyped wee wifey further down the line, but she's great for the first two thirds of the book). There's Jenny Wren - a bit more problematic perhaps because she's a crippled child - but she's shrewish, old before her time, sarcastic, ugly (yet with beautiful hair) and deals remorselessly with her father, a chronic alcoholic (and she's the polar opposite, physically and emotionally, of the 'perfect' Lizzie Hexham).  Then there's Sophronia the fortune seeker, who meets her match in the Albert Lammle, and is the subject of a fantastic scene on a beach where the two miserable mercenaries come to terms with their joint, penniless future. And finally Betty Higden, the elderly working class heroine, whose determination to keep herself out of the workhouse and independent of charity leads to a tragic mistake and equally to a dignified end.

It was fantastic to hear Sherry talk knowledgeably and enthusiastically about these characters who have so vividly inhabited my own imagination for some time now. Not to mention being in a room full of Dickens enthusiasts, surrounded by the most tempting looking books I have ever seen. To say I'm looking forward to forthcoming Dickens events at the Portico Library is an understatement - check out their website for details or follow on Twitter - @ThePortico.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! Makes me want to go back and read more Dickens... (I've always been utterly fascinated by Miss Havisham.) So glad you were invited to participate in this event, and that you found a wonderful new spot for reading and writing and dreaming in The Portico. xo, dawna