Charles Dickens

February 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm (Anglophilia, books) ()

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits* and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

From Bleak House, Chapter 1: In Chancery 

*According to Wikipedia: “An ait (or eyot) is a small island. It is especially used to refer to islands found on the River Thames and its tributaries in England.”

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February 7 marked the two hundredth anniversary of the  birth of Charles Dickens. In honor of the occasion, Carol selected The Mystery of Edwin Drood for discussion at the next week’s meeting of the Usual Suspects.   During the run-up to the meeting, she’s been forwarding us some interesting material:

From the New York Times: “The World of Charles Dickens, Complete with Pizza Hut”

A ten question quiz in USA Today.

From NPR Weekend Edition: “A Tale of Two Centuries: Charles Dickens Turns 200”

Dickens 2012 lists a variety of events celebrating Dickens’s birthday. The recently refurbished Charles Dickens Museum is housed in the only extant domicile in London known to have been lived in by the writer.

Oh, to be in London….

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The Dead Witness, an excellent new anthology, is subtitled “A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories.” Editor Michael Sims has included the inevitable heavy hitters in the genre, but in assembling this collection, he had an additional purpose: ‘I looked for a lot of forgotten things by big-name writers and lost, wonderful stories by people no one remembers.’  Included in The Dead Witness is a fascinating nonfiction piece by Charles Dickens entitled “On Duty with Inspector Field.” Apparently Dickens frequently toured London’s sordid underbelly by night, in the company of a policeman. Then, as now, the regions of the city blasted by poverty and despair were hidden from the eyes of ordinary people.

  In a similar anthology, Masters of Mystery, you’ll find a terrific story called “Hunted Down.” The following brief excerpt demonstrates Dickens’s keen understanding of the subtle nature of criminal investigation. (It’s also a good example of his seemingly effortless yet extremely effective use of figurative language):

An observer of men who finds himself steadily repelled by some apparently trifling thing in a stranger is right to give it great weight. It may be the clue to the whole mystery. A hair or two will show where a lion is hidden. A very little key will open a very heavy door.

In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale, we learn that Dickens joined the fevered speculation concerning the sensational murder at Road Hill House in 1860. (Dickens’s close friend and collaborator Wilkie Collins did likewise.) Jack Whicher is frequently cited as the real life precursor of  Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, though it’s worth noting that Michael Sims makes a similar claim for Inspector Field.

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I love Simon Schama’s tribute in this week’s Newsweek. He begins with a series of questions:

Two hundred years on from his birth, how close is Charles Dickens to you? Do Pip and Peggotty, Carton and Copperfield, Pumblechook, Squeers, and Creakle have a place in your mind? Do you need Dickens as you need food and drink?

He hopes fervently that your answer is yes, He then proceeds to remind us of the linguistic gifts bestowed on us by the author:

We make much of the collapse of English into the squawk of the tweet and the text. To read Dickens, now more than ever, is to experience its opposite: to be caught up in an abundant tumble of words—and in language juicy with the flux of life.

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Dickens was great with first lines. My favorite has long been the opening sentence of David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

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On February 7, there was a wreath laying ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Dickens is buried there, along with so many of the greats of English arts and letters, in the South Transept, popularly known as Poets’ Corner. Prince Charles and Camilla were in attendance.Ralph Fiennes read the passage from Bleak House in which Dickens narrates the death of Jo, the crossing sweeper. 

Here is the video. (A commercial must be viewed first.) Gentle suggestion: Have some Kleenex handy.

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Charles Dickens: February 7, 1812 - June 9, 1870

1 Comment

  1. Elizabeth said,

    Oh, I love this post! I love how it is chock full of information on Dickens!

    Dickens was indeed a genius. I adore Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House. Oh, and of course, A Christmas Carol 🙂

    Elizabeth-

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