Dickens and love, Sigrid Nunez in the new Little Star

I remember playing Estella in a school performance based on scenes from Great Expectations.

Remember how, despite how she mistreats him, Pip goes on loving her—always.

Remember the teacher-writer-director and what an oddball she was (one of those teachers children find it almost a duty to torment), and how one of the oddest things about her was how much this junior high school playlet meant to her. At rehearsals, she kicked off her shoes and tore around the stage, demonstrating, cajoling, moving so energetically that her waistband twisted askew, and the sweat shone on her skin (while we shivered: it was cold in the auditorium after school). It is her voice I hear animating the lines:

Don’t loiter, boy.

I think she is very pretty.

Why, he’s a common laboring-boy.

Well? You can break his heart.

I hear an accent, too, and unless memory has invented it she was from the South. I remember her disappointment with Pip, who would not get into the spirit; her frustration with me for not being able to project; and how she wrested from another girl the likeness of a witchy old British spinster that was truly uncanny.
In another class, we read an abridged David Copperfield.

I am called on to describe Steerforth, the good and the bad.

Steerforth is handsome, he is clever and rich, Steerforth is charming, romantic, and popular. Steerforth is selfish, he is dishonest, he is bad to Little Em’ly and mean to the poor.

And did I think there were many people in the world like Steerforth? asks Mr. Rosenberg.

Quite sure of the answer, I say there are not.

Really? says Mr. Rosenberg, giving me another chance. And when I nod he says, Then I think you are very naive.

The world is full of Steerforths, he warns, looking straight into my eyes.

More Dickens in high school, Dickens in college—more and more one of my favorite writers. Long out of school, I decide to read Our Mutual Friend for the first time. Anticipating the old rapture, I am crushed to feel—boredom. But that’s what happens: writers who once meant everything don’t thrill in the same way anymore. And have you noticed how almost all rereading, even of the most beloved books, brings at least some disappointment.

Read more in Little Star #4 (2012)!

Sigrid Nunez has published six novels, most recently Salvation City. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag.

“Steerforth and Mr. Mell” by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). July 1849. Steel etching. Illustration for Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume one. Image scan and text by Philip V. Allingham from Victorian Web. “Phiz has vigorously captured the precise moment when in the confrontation between the virtuous school master and the haughty adolescent: ‘I am not clear whether he was going to strike Mr. Mell, or Mr. Mell was going to strike him, or there was any such intention on either side. I saw a rigidity come upon the whole school as if they had been turned into stone….’” [ch. 7, “My ‘First Half’ at Salem House”]

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