…just given up ‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’, my monthly column in The Believer, after five years. The column worked best, I felt, when I’d read three or four books in a month, and pretty much any Dickens novel, apart from Hard Times, my least favourite, takes time. So I’m marking my retirement by re-reading Great Expectations, an experience all the more enjoyable for knowing that I won’t have to write two and a half thousand words about it.
One of my favourite literary facts is that Dickens is estimated to have created thirteen thousand characters, an astounding number – the population of Ely! – that’s always taken as evidence of his extraordinary energy and indefatigable imagination. Every now and again, though, you start to wonder whether it’s not some form of incontinence. For example, he introduces fourteen new characters between pages 209 and 214 of my Penguin edition of Great Expectations – fifteen if you count Mrs Pocket’s deceased father, who gets a couple of pages more or less to himself anyway. Do the Pockets have to have seven children? And two nurses? And two lodgers? And a quirky next-door neighbour? There’s something almost animal about this level of production – this is Dickens as seahorse, popping out tiny creatures apparently uncontrollably, and with very little effort. It’s not his best passage of writing, understandably, those six pages. Maybe someone should have taken him discreetly aside and told him what precautions were available for great novelists.