I got very fed up with reading theology and churchy stuff. I don’t read popular literature much, and the “Plain” theme novels available at the library were, to my mind, rather poorly written and not very accurate. I absolutely cannot bring myself to read anything that is salacious in some way (i.e. most modern fiction). Which makes me sound like a prude, but really, I just find other people’s love lives way too boring, I mean, there is only so much you can do with falling in love, experiencing lust and the act itself. It is monotonous.
I wanted something to read that wasn’t boring and poorly written, and might have some redeeming social value. So I pulled down some Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House. These are not the big names in Dickens literature, but they are complex books with a good deal of commentary on poverty, government and law. Of course, there are the huge numbers of overlapping and interwoven coincidences and collisions of fate, which keeps the book moving while being somewhat implausible. It is just that sort of plot device that modern fiction fights so hard against, but once I get over the “so obvious” thoughts and suspend disbelief, I really enjoy the action.
I had forgotten the subplot in Bleak House about the obsessed mother who diligently tries to raise a scheme for growing coffee in Africa to benefit the natives of some fictional territory, while her own household goes to ruin and her husband is declared bankrupt. It was just too evocative of some of the nonprofit schemes we have seen over the years, and of the people who are motivated to run them. And the descriptions of the household itself, and the attempt of cleaning it before the wedding of the eldest daughter, were a little too realistic, if one has ever helped in such circumstances! It motivated me to clean out my refrigerator and cupboards.
Dickens was more than a little cynical about charity and greed. This is the most human side of him, even when the characters are a bit tedious, or too good, too beautiful, too sweet to be true. (His rough-hewn and villainous characters are more believable than the good-hearted, naturally refined ones, but maybe I’m a little cynical myself.)
The horrors of poverty and ignorance he portrays have not gone away, despite the legislation and goodwill of nations and churches. We hide our slums and ghettoes better, our poor are less likely to beg on the streets, we blame the poor themselves (just as in Dickens’ day) but the suffering is still there. Our own schemes of “live simply so that others may simply live” don’t seem to be working. Maybe, like the reformers of Charles Dickens’ novels, we are just giving this lip service, while sitting down to a good dinner every night.