Big beasts in brief

15th July 2011 at 01:00

Charles Dickens: Hard Times and Great Expectations

By Alan Taylor

Robert Burns: Bard of Scotland

By Bronwen Hosie

Inspirations Series, pound;5.99, Argyll Publishing

5 out of 52 out of 5

Beware, readers. Alan Taylor's primer on Charles Dickens is not a study of the two novels mentioned in the title but a general introduction to the life, times and work of the great Victorian novelist.

As such, it makes for an admirable secondary-level introduction to Dickens. It is a lucid, informed and accessible appraisal of who the Dickens this literary giant was and what he was about; combining biography with social history but always centred on the literary work itself and even placing that, on occasion, in a European context.

To convey all of this and to give a true taste of Dickens's vast corpus in a mere 120 pages is no mean feat and although the book leans heavily on previous biographies and studies (as the author readily admits), Taylor makes a fine fist of it.

He writes with a clarity of perspective and approach that should appeal to younger readers and he does so with a sense of pace and drama.

There is much, naturally, about Dickens's childhood and Dickens's London before we enter the picaresque world of Mr Pickwick, journey through the "autobiographical" novels, examine Dickens's engagement with educational and social issues, consider his sentimentalism and the savage counterblast of his satire of the English legal system - and with space even for a final chapter on what literary "greatness" might actually mean.

By contrast, Bronwen Hosie's book on Burns (or "Robbie" as he is referred to throughout) is a more old-fashioned affair, as if inspired by a Victorian kirk minister's sentimental musings.

It is half novelistic with reimagined encounters, whispered conversations and soulful dwellings upon a hard fate.

This book is undoubtedly aimed at a younger readership than the Dickens volume in the same series but, even so, it is a rather watery kind of brose to serve up as nourishment for hungry minds. It is a blow-by-blow account of Burns's early life that cuts off, almost without warning, before Burns even reaches Edinburgh and acquires the fame he so earnestly sought.

It is rather like being invited to the theatre and then being asked to leave for no apparent reason before the second act.

The book's main virtue is that it does convey the relentless poverty and drudgery of the young Burns's life but there is no evocation of a convincing psychology.

The jacket blurb describes it as "an inspiring story". And so it might be if you still swallow the Burns of Victoriana, Burns the kailyard lad o' pairts, Burns the hapless lover. In short, Burns the sentimental sausage.


Alan Taylor is associate and literary editor of The Sunday Herald and editor of The Scottish Review of Books. Bronwen Hosie is a children's author and former primary teacher.

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