tisdag 4 oktober 2016

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

I'll continue my list without further ado: for my top five and explanations of the rules of selection applied, see below.

6 Fagin in Oliver Twist I like Fagin a lot, but I've never been attracted to him, which is why he isn't higher on my list. I can usually disregard questions about a villain's personal hygiene (though Carker is very scrupulous about being clean and neat - only saying), but something about imagining Fagin's beard makes this impossible in his case. It must be absolutely filthy.

For all that, he's a great character and surely the most popular Dickens villain of all time. That is enough in itself to earn him place number six. Additionally, he's clever, funny and well liked by his employees (except Bill Sikes, that is) and suffers so memorably at the end it's hard to imagine that Dickens himself didn't pity him a little. I've written about both the wonders and the problems with Fagin before, so let's move on.

7 Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop Two of my favourite scenes in the old TV series Dickens of London (creaky, but worthwhile for the really nerdish) featured Dickens exclaiming "I love you, Daniel Quilp!". The first time was when he was caught up in getting under the skin of the character, the second when he got the sales figures for the latest installment of The Old Curiosity Shop. These scenes acknowledged both that Dickens had a special bond with all his characters including the wicked ones, and that he recognised that villains were good copy.

I was entranced by Tom Courtenay's portrayal of Quilp in the 1995 TV adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop (the one that also featured Peter Ustinov as a rather vacant grandfather to Nell). On the page, though, Quilp can be a bit... much. There's an awful lot of monkeying about and face-pulling. He also relishes the discomfort of others in a way that not even I can find attractive. Nevertheless, he is an energetic and charismatic presence, and a scene with Quilp in it is never dull - a great plus in a novel as uneven as The Old Curiosity Shop. His marriage to a still devoted, pretty young wife - though her love for him, "one of those strange infatuations of which examples are by no means scarce", has taken its toll during years of ill-treatment - is one of the very few instances where a Dickensian villain (of the clever kind) has actually managed to land a girl. It may also to some degree explain why Dickens's other female characters tend to steer well clear of villain unions.

You wouldn't want to become Quilp's number second, but he's good fun, and another example of a Dickens villain viewed with some fondness by the general public, though many may only know him from the TV screen (apart from Courtenay, there's also Toby Jones's nicely understated Quilp in the more recent ITV adaptation). He's good copy, is Daniel, then as now.

8 Vholes in Bleak House Now I've worked through my favourite head villains in Dickens, it's time to squeeze in at least three of the secondary ones, and it's no easy matter. There are plenty of great minor villains in Dickens - while I leave out some top-billed baddies for a reason (like thick Bounderby, brutish Sikes and shadowy heart-breaker Compeyson), many of the secondary ones miss out merely through lack of space. Anyway, here goes.

I've always had an extra soft spot for Dickens's lawyers, and while Tulkinghorn is the prime example of the villainous kind, Vholes isn't half bad either. Dry, precise and level-headed, it's small wonder he takes the tempestuous Richard in. How many treacle-slow workdays have I not thought of his maxim that it is not what is done that's important, but what is doing. Dickens appears to have created him partly to illustrate why it's no good argument to say the law must work the way it does so the lawyers can earn a decent living. Vholes may prey upon Richard not only for his own sake but for the sake of his three daughters and his aged father in the Vale of Taunton, but that doesn't make him any less of a parasite. What a parasite, though - I'm not sure that keeping Vholes, the Misses Vholes and Vholes senior in the Vale of Taunton in the manner to which they have become accustomed isn't a perfectly good reason for going into law.

9 Littimer in David Copperfield Before darling Thomas in Downton, before Caxton in From Time to Time (and the original book), before Edgar in Aristocats and scores of other Bad Servants, there was Littimer. In his typically understated way, Steerforth's respectable-seeming valet embodies many of the anxieties of the middle class towards the superior form of servant. He knows how to exploit both the arrogance of his employers and the nervousness of manservant-unaccustomed house guests like David for his own ends. The manner in which he puts a dampener on a party in David's apartment - intimidating everyone while cooking the food and cleaning up to perfection - is a good example of how he manages to spread general unease while efficiently fulfilling his valet tasks. He even succeeds in fooling the worldly Miss Mowcher into thinking that David, not Steerforth, is set upon Little Emily and inspires her to one of her few quotable lines post-conversion to good character: "'Young Innocence' (so he called you and you may call him 'Old Guilt' all the days of your life)". The reader never sees Littimer's mask slipping - even the combined contempt of David and Rosa Dartle leaves him unperturbed - but there is another, more vindictive side to him. The fact that he helps Rosa find Emily, although she is so lacking in respect towards him, shows that he has not forgiven Emily for slighting him, and even in prison he still remembers the "young woman [...] that I endeavoured to save" and her "bad conduct" towards him. It is only to be hoped that the section of Australia to which he will be deported is a long way away from Port Middlebay.

10 Bitzer in Hard Times An underwritten character from Dickens's next-worst novel (yes, Martin Chuzzlewit is even worse) with only one, or let's say one and a half good scenes? What's he doing on this list? Well, it's my list, and I fancy him. Plus, that one scene - where he explains why he's determined to hand Gradgrind's son Tom over to the police, using the purely logical and self-interested arguments he was taught in Gradgrind's own school - is seriously good. Bitzer's tics and Dickensian characteristics - the forehead-knuckling, being so pale "that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white" - appeal to me. Then he's so young too (a class-mate of Sissy's, remember), and I can't help wondering how exactly Mrs Sparsit knew about him making a sound like a Dutch clock when sleeping; I'm not sure I buy the whole falling-asleep-at-his-table-on-long-winter-nights rigmarole. The very absence of explanations for some of Bitzer's behaviour invites further speculation. Why is he so dead set against the circus people, i.e. "the horse-riders" (the only strong emotion he exhibits in the whole book)? Is he an albino? Did he nearly end up as an exhibit in a circus freak show? Or could it be that this Gradgrind pupil is inspiring me to some seriously far-fetched flights of fancy?

Honourable mentions: considering my pseudonym, it could be considered a shame that I don't include Alfred Lammle from Our Mutual Friend on my list. I am vastly fond of him, but the reason I didn't include him, or Sampson Brass from The Old Curiosity Shop (another favourite of mine), is that they're both part of double-acts where the female  - Alfred's wife Sophronia Lammle and Sammy's mannish sister Sally Brass - is the stronger character of the two. Well, in the case of the Lammles it's arguable, but nevertheless, without their female support these two ingratiating rogues would be nowhere. For this list, I've prioritised bad guys who can stand on their own two feet. But who knows - I may do a "top 10 villain double-acts" list in the future (I don't think I can restrict that one to merely Dickens), and then they will both be guaranteed a place.