tisdag 27 september 2016

My top 10 list of (male) Dickens villains, part I

Inspired by far too much time spent looking at Youtube top 10 villain clips (Disney's the goldmine - interest in villains and interest in Disney films seem to go hand in hand pleasingly often), I thought I'd try a top 10 list of my own, on a less common theme. Where can you effortlessly find 10 villains and more worth mentioning if not in Dickens novels?

Like the inspirational youtubers, I'll have to set out some rules and restrictions: as I don't want to have to clog up my list with Miss Havishams and Rosa Dartles, only male villains will be included (which leaves me scope for a top 10 villainess list in the future - there are plenty of worthy candidates). The villains listed will mainly be my personal favourites, but in two cases they make the grade due to their greater service to the villain-loving community. These are not the most evil villains you find in Dickens, but the ones I like best and find most interesting. Also, as ten is rather a lot and I have a fair amount of gushing to do about each entry, I'll have to divide the list into two blog posts. From the top then, and in descending order:

1 James Carker in Dombey and Son "Carker has everything", a writer of a splendid article on Dickens's villains (which I've been unable to locate again, annoyingly) once stated, and I can only agree. Here we have the Dickensian embittered social climber in his most exquisite form. What gives Carker the edge is that he's not only tremendously intelligent and adept at villain rhetoric (both ingratiating-ironic speeches and the odd why-I-hate-the-world rant), but also attractive and socially successful. He can play any game well - he can win a chess game without even looking at the board ("it is a mere trick"). He converses knowledgeably about art and is even (according to Dombey) no mean painter himself. He is the only one who gets along both with Mr Dombey's guests from the business world and Mrs Dombey's guests from high society at their dismal "house-warming" party. He is even handsome in a sly, feline way. Yes, like Jane in Pride and Prejudice he smiles too much, but otherwise he is free of the kind of Dickensian character-tics that could lessen his formidableness as a villain. Carker has the character of Uriah Heep hidden by the outer trappings of a James Steerforth - and yes, I do mean that as a compliment.

2 Uriah Heep in David Copperfield  Rooting for elegant, fair-faced Carker sometimes hardly feels like a sport at all (though judging by the continuing Warleggan blindness, the general public are slow to catch on to the charms of feline villain handsomeness). Now, if you see the point of Uriah, on the other hand, you really have what it takes to be a villain-lover. David Copperfield, who is repulsed by him, paints no pretty picture of his demeanour. Even I, who genuinely like pale, cadaverous men and redheads, would not have minded if Uriah had writhed rather less or if his fingers had not left greasy trails "like a snail" when he's reading a book. For all that, though, he's fiercely clever - once again, as in Dombey and Son, the villain is easily the most intelligent character in the book. There is a dry, cynical edge to his conversation, when freed of the professions of humility that only serve as garnish, which the chafing David, wrapped as he is in his moral superiority, has a hard time responding to. Uriah is a good example of the old Dickensian theme of how bitterness can be bad for you: he's intelligent enough to be able to make his way in the world honestly, but blinded as he is by anger at the (by no means imagined) contempt in which his so-called betters hold him he resorts to theft and fraud instead, and so the law gets him in the end. I bet he did really well in Australia, though.

3 Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House Sometimes, mostly depending on which novel I've read most recently, Mr Tulkinghorn changes places with Uriah and comes second on my list. He's certainly always in the top three. Dickens's villains are often a fiery lot, but Mr Tulkinghorn is pure ice, and that (as in a lesser degree with my number ten which I'll be addressing next time) leaves the door open to fascinating speculations on his real motives. Love of power would be my guess, coupled with wintry discontent at being patronised by the likes of dim-witted Sir Leicester and sneered at by the likes of haughty Lady Dedlock. Again, we have an extremely able man having to kowtow to his intellectual inferiors, and though he doesn't hate it with the passion shown by Carker or Uriah, he doesn't seem to like it. Tulkinghorn isn't led astray by his animal instincts, which makes him a particularly dangerous enemy. It's questionable whether anything short of a bullet would have stopped him.

4 Sir John Chester in Barnaby Rudge  Here, at least, I can be brief, as I have already covered Sir John at some length in a previous post. He is the only one of Dickens's dandyish villains I have any time for, and consequently the only one who makes it to this list. The snooty put-downs of men like James Steerforth, James Harthouse (the first name James in Dickens's universe appears to signal "lock up your wives and daughters") and worst of all the ghastly Eugene Wrayburn only make me want to punch them, perhaps because I sense that the kind of person these layabouts would despise the most would be exactly the industrious social climbers (and villains) I have most time for in the Dickensian universe. It's a bit unfair, as only Wrayburn actually insults the designated clever social-climbing villain of his novel (if you can call poor Bradley Headstone a villain, or indeed clever). Anyway, Sir John is entirely without fault in this regard, as he actually conspires with an embittered social climber - Gashford - in order to get at the dour, honest-to-a-fault Haredale who is an entirely legitimate object of baddie scorn. His laziness is mostly a pose, too - in fact he's an active and wonderfully manipulative villain.

5 Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby This is not one of Dickens's more successful novels, in my view, and this affects the villain too. Ralph too often acts in a certain way only because the plot requires it, not because it makes any sense from his point of view. Why does he take so violently against his nephew? (Not that I don't agree with him, mind, but at first sight?) Why wouldn't he protect his niece Kate from his predatory aristocratic acquaintances if he's fond of her? Surely, Lord Verisopht's custom can't be that important? The plot devices creak noticeably, and poor Ralph is stuck in them. The reason he still makes it to my list is partly his terrible fate - so tragic surely only the most hard-hearted hero-fancier could fail to feel pity for him - and partly his gift for suitably biting villain conversation, especially the why-I-hate-the-world rant mentioned above. No-one rants like Ralph.