‘Of the people’: Simplicity and popularity in Brighton Rock and David Copperfield

Peter Orford

Sometimes it feels like you just can’t escape Dickens. Just the other day I was reading Brighton Rock, and early on in the story was greeted by this passage, as Grahame Greene describes his amateur detective Ida Arnold as she ponders on the death of Hale, a man she barely knew:

the cheap drama and pathos of the thought weakened her heart towards him. She was of the people, she cried in cinemas at David Copperfield, when she was drunk all the old ballads her mother had known came easily to her lips, her homely heart was touched by the word ‘tragedy’. (Brighton Rock, Part 1, Chapter 3).

For Dickens’s story to be used as a signifier of Ida’s connection to the people is in some respects simply an extension of Trollope’s withering, yet uncontestable, summary of Dickens as “Mr Popular Sentiment”. Furthermore, Greene in particular was clearly influenced and inspired by Dickens throughout his career and spoke often upon him, so to see David Copperfield referenced here in passing is no great revelation in itself. The confusion lies in the context, for while Greene was a fan of Dickens, he was not a fan of Ida: Brian Diemert argues that ‘Ida is mocked by the narrative in which she appears: her understanding of the case and of the world she inhabits is clearly shown to be limited by her inability to see beneath the surface of things’ (Diemert 307). Moreover it has been recognised by Grahame Smith that Brighton Rock is a work which evolves during the writing process; he tells us that ‘Greene intended Brighton Rock to be “a simple detective story”’ (Smith 56), and Diemert notes Greene’s comment that all that remains of that detective story are in the “first fifty pages” – in which the David Copperfield reference appears – “and that they would have been removed if he had had the strength of mind to do so” (Diemert 386). Ida’s simplistic, anti-Holmesian approach to detective-work represents an early draft from which Greene subsequently expanded and escaped, looking back on the origins with apparent contempt. In other words, her description, as “of the people”, is not a compliment so much as a criticism, as is her reaction to David Copperfield. That’s important to note, for this is not meant to attack Dickens, but the reaction to him; Greene actually admired Dickens for acting against popular interest in resisting the temptation, after the success of The Pickwick Papers, to simply repeat the formula ad nausea for easy money:

 How many in Dickens’s place would have withstood […] the popularity founded, as it almost always is, on the weakness not the strength of the author? (Greene cited in Braybrooke, 384)

Popularity is set in counterpoint to artistic creativity, just as the origin of Brighton Rock is a simple detective story, so too the simplicity of The Pickwick Papers triumphantly evolves into Dickens’s varied canon in spite of its own popularity. And yet…there is much to be said for that popularity. Greene recognised that ‘Dickens developed a style so easy and natural that it seems capable of including the whole human race in its understanding’ (Greene cited in Braybrooke, 384): Dickens, like Ida, is first and foremost ‘of the people’. Diemert argues further that Ida herself is triumphant in her identity as an everyman figure, that just as “she, in fact, reads and interprets others’ texts so that she can produce a narrative which is the story of what happened to Hale […] she is also a figure analogous to the reader or critic of Brighton Rock who sifts the text for meaning in order to develop his or her own interpretation of the text’ (Diemert 387). Sneer though Greene might at the simple detective in a simple detective story, his creation is nonetheless the keystone for the reader into the text.

But it is not Dickens, but David Copperfield who is cited as Ida’s credentials; more specifically the film, not the book. Brighton Rock was published in 1938, the David Copperfield which Ida would have cried at in the cinema is thus George Cukor’s celebrated 1935 film. Now there is a possibility that Greene identifies the film specifically to mark Ida out as of the people; not your intellectual who reads the original, but one of the crowd who waits for it to come out in the cinema. Cukor’s film was certainly popular, the New York Times felt ‘it encompasses the rich and kindly humanity of the original so brilliantly that it becomes a screen masterpiece in its own right’ (New York Times, 19 January 1935). The film was especially noted for its emotional power, and Freddie Bartholemew as the protagonist in his infancy was felt to be “a manly and heart-breaking David” ((New York Times, 19 January 1935), though indeed on watching the film he does seem to overindulge in blubbing and screaming his way through the performance; Variety, though complimentary on the whole, did note that “the adaptors have not always been as successful. Now and then they linger too elaborately in a scene’ (Variety, 31 December 1934). Was there an element of snobbery in Greene then in picking the movie out as Ida’s connection to Dickens, a despairing comment from a fan of the original on the popularity of an adaptation? There is a telling piece of dialogue in the film during David’s discussion with Steerforth on the engagement of Emily to Ham. In the book, the speech goes as follows:

 Ah, Steerforth! It’s well for you to joke about the poor! You may skirmish with Miss Dartle, or try to hide your sympathies in jest from me, but I know better. When I see how perfectly you understand them, how exquisitely you can enter into happiness like this plain fisherman’s, or humour a love like an old nurse’s, I know that there is not a joy or sorrow, not an emotion, of such people, that can be indifferent to you. And I admire and love you for it, Steerforth, twenty times the more! (ch. 21)

The omission of Rosa Dartle from the film and a need to keep the running time down (even so it is still over two hours long) understandably result in a different form of this passage emerging in the film:

Don’t be terribly cynical. I see how well you understand those simple people, and how perfectly you want only their happiness. And I admire you for it.

In both instances David champions an understanding of ‘such people‘, but whereas in the book these people are identified first as ‘the poor’, in the film they are instead ‘those simple people’ – the sort presumably who might people a ‘simple’  detective story. David, frequently cited as the fictional representation of Dickens, looks upon ‘such people’ with compassion in a well-meaning but patronising way, while Steerforth, detached from the feelings of others, is already planning the corruption of Emily just as Pinkie the sociopath corrupts Rose. It is in the contrast of David and Steerforth that we can identify the contrast of Ida to Pinkie and Rose, her naïvely cheerful outlook on life juxtaposing with their bleaker view of sin and morality. Ida stumbles through her simple detective story whilst being superseded by the villains who surround her much as David’s account of his life is made brighter by the rogues and vagabonds who populate it, many of them blessed with a far greater sense of self-awareness than poor David can ever hope for. But if Ida’s naivety is cause for contempt, it is also a source of strength and reason for celebration. Smith discusses the roots of Greene’s fiction in Dickens by arguing that:

From a strictly novelistic standpoint, the roots of the paranoid view of modern urban existence lie deep in classic nineteenth-century fiction, especially in Dickens and Dostoevski, both of whom deploy human bafflement in the face of the bewildering complexities of city life in a form that approximates to the detective story (Smith 19).

And so back to the detective story. The simple detective story. Ida’s bafflement, like David’s naivety, is a key aspect of their humanity and our connection to them as reader; Greene’s use of Copperfield as a signifier of her commonality is not merely a snide comment of the crying populous of the multiplexc, but, intentionally or not, an alliance of two innocent souls in a world of duplicity and hidden intent, two everyman figures with whom we are invited to share the journey, and with whom we connect, precisely because they are ‘of the people’.


Works cited

Vereen M. Bell, ‘The Emotional Matrix of David Copperfield’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 8, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn 1968), pp. 633-649.

Neville Braybrooke, ‘Grahame Green The Critic’, The Irish Monthly, Vol. 81, No. 962 (Oct. 1953), pp 383-388.

Brian Diemert, ‘Ida Arnold and the Detective Story: Reading Brighton Rock’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 38, no. 4 (Winter 1992), pp. 386-403.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, ed. Malcolm Andrews, Everyman Dickens (London: J. M. Dent, 1993).

Grahame Greene, Brighton Rock (London: Vintage, 2002).

Andrew Sennwald, ‘Review: David Copperfield’, New York Times, 19 January 1935.

Grahame Smith, The Achievement of Grahame Greene (Brighton: Harvester Press Ltd, 1986).

‘Review: David Copperfield’, Variety, 31 December 1934.

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