As I finish up Little Dorrit (ravenously – it is very good), I think of two other books:
The first is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford when the august and proper Miss Jenkyns discusses literature with the gregarious but gauche newcomer Captain Brown. Miss Jenkyns, a devotee of Dr. (Samuel) Johnson, is horrified when she discovers Captain Brown has a mania for Dickens (“Mr. Boz”). When Capt. Brown asks her if she thinks the Pickwick Papers are “famously good,” she replies acerbically that the writer is a young writer and if he “persevere…who knows what he may become if he will take the great Doctor for his model.” Capt. Brown feels the sting and reads her a few lines from Dickens, whereupon Miss Jenkyns sends someone to fetch a few lines of Johnson which she reads and pronounces “I imagine I am now justified in my preference for Dr. Johnson, as a writer of fiction,” sending Capt. Brown harrumphing.
Dickens is shown, as a contemporary of Gaskell, to appeal to the popular but not high and conservative taste. Capt. Brown’s taste for Dickens leads to his doom, but Miss Jenkyns’s quiet justification is undermined by a young relation who hides her own copy of Dickens to devour voraciously by late night candle.
The second is Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust in a sudden and eerie plot twist, when poor Tony Last is trapped in the Amazon by an illiterate devotee of Dickens who saves Tony’s life, only to keep him a prisoner by making him read all of Dickens aloud. Though this is pleasant at first, Tony soon grows tired of it and then suspects that he might never be allowed to escape. Tony begs for the means and information to return to civilization, but is answered with polite evasion and “Let us read Little Dorrit again. There are passages in that book I can never hear without the temptation to weep.”