Posts Tagged ‘Dickens’

CD and me

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Hello, friends. A couple of days ago, I saw a car driving very slowly around the car park of Portsmouth Olympic Harbour in Kingston. This isn’t unusual. The harbour is always busy with runners, walkers, picnickers, coffee-drinkers, dog-walkers, cyclists, and all manner of casual idlers. The thing that caught my eye was the small dog trotting along beside the car. Yes, the dog’s owner was “walking” his dog by driving alongside it. I don’t think I’ve led an excessively sheltered life, but this startled me. We North Americans love our cars and we’ve built our sprawling cities around them. I guess the next logical step is to give up our legs entirely?

If you thought I was going to segue once again to Judith Flanders, you’re absolutely right. In The Victorian City, Flanders asserts: “walking was the most common form of locomotion throughout the nineteenth century. By mid-century it was estimated that 200,000 people walked daily to the City; by 1866 that figure had increased to nearly three-quarters of a million.” What I love is that it’s not just the poor who walked: it was most people, including the rich. “In 1833, the children of a middle-class musician living in Kensington walked home from a concert in the City.” That’s roughly 4 miles and it would take about 90 minutes, according to Google Maps. “Two decades later, Leonard Wyon, a prosperous civil servant, and his wife shopped in Regent Street, then walked home to Little Venice.” That’s about two and half miles, or 50 minutes. And “In 1856, the wealthy Maria Cust returned from her honeymoon, walking with her husband from Paddington to Eaton Square.” Assuming the Custs strolled through Hyde Park, that’s a 2 mile walk which might take 40 minutes.

Not everyone walked for leisure, of course. Working people endured extremely long days, by our standards: shifts of 12, 14 and 16 hours were not uncommon. And they commuted by walking. (No wonder they bought breakfast along the way, eating as they went.) My favourite image of the Victorian walking commute features office clerks: “a thick black line, stretching from the suburbs to the heart of the city… [they] plod steadily along… knowing by sight almost everybody they meet or overtake, for they have seen them every morning (Sunday excepted) for the last twenty years.”

All this puts Charles Dickens’s famously feverish walking in a clearer context. Dickens once walked 30 miles from his home in London to his country house in Kent. (He set off at 2 a.m. after a quarrel with his wife, which helps to explain his average walking pace of over 4 miles an hour!) And in his lifetime, he was famous for passionately, diligently, ceaselessly walking the streets of London, which appear in his fiction in such remarkable and evocative detail. But even if I didn’t have Charles Dickens to cite as a model, I would claim that walking is the only way truly to see a city. That’s how I fell in love with London, too. When I lived in Bloomsbury, as a graduate student, I would get up early on weekend mornings and explore the streets. There were other Londonphiles doing the same thing, and I got to know a few of their faces.

These are golden memories, and writing this post has created in me a new resolve: the next time I have 2 or 3 hours, I’m going to walk part of Kingston I’ve never walked before. It’s hardly Dickens in London, but I’ll take it.

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The inimitable (redux)

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Hello, friends. I’ve been enjoying Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life so very much, and I was deliberately slowing down towards the end so as to spin it out a bit longer. (Anybody else do that?) But I finished it last night with an immense sigh of satisfaction. And I’ve been thinking about Dickens’s reckless, utterly driven pace of life and death.

It was clear that his death was approaching. He’d had a stroke, was increasingly weak, and unable to walk at times, but he persisted in keeping up a demanding schedule of public appearances. In his last, dying days, Dickens:

- met with Queen Victoria, rather reluctantly, and fumed about her “preposterous” book, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, behind her back

- gave a final series of public readings, in which he couldn’t pronounce “Pickwick”. It came out, variously, as Pickswick, Pecknicks, and Pickwicks

- dined with the American ambassador and Disraeli, and breakfasted with Gladstone

- advised his daughters in an amateur theatrical they were putting on

- supervised extensive renovations to his country house at Gad’s Hill

- made an inventory of the spirits consumed at Gad’s Hill House: rum, sherry, brandy, and “Very Fine Scotch Whiskey”

- and, of course, worked on his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

As Tomalin points out, there’s a huge amount of contradiction here. Even as Dickens acknowledged his mortality with a farewell reading tour and getting his will and other papers in order, he was also renovating his house, worrying about how much whiskey remained in the cellar, and writing instalments of another full-length novel.

His last days stand in sharp contrast to those of Jane Austen, who also knew she was dying. Austen’s priority (apart from her family) was to finish her last, masterful novel, Persuasion, and I’ve always been convinced by arguments that Persuasion ends so rapidly because Austen was working against time.

Tomalin’s final paragraph is a brilliant compression of the major themes and ideas she develops through the book. It’s too long to quote here, but if you’re at all interested in Dickens as a writer, I urge you to read this bio. It does everything a good biography should: expanded and enhanced my appreciation for the subject, inspired me to read more about people and things related to Dickens, and galvanized me to start re-reading the novels.

I think I shall begin with Great Expectations.

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It was a dark and stormy night.

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Hello, friends. I was just tinkering with what I think will be the first chapter of Rivals in the City and thinking about Elmore Leonard’s dictum, “Never open a book with weather.” (There’s a ton more writing rules here, if that’s your sort of thing.) And I’m not at all sure weather should be forbidden, let alone the first thing Leonard chooses to condemn.

The infamous “It was a dark and stormy night” is often cited as a bad beginning and an example of purple prose, but really, it’s perfectly all right. It’s a clear and straightforward sentence. It creates mood and promises action in seven words, none of which is extraneous. And its author, Edward Bulwer Lytton, was a successful Victorian novelist whose public apparently enjoyed his having started with the weather, as well as the very ornate sentence that follows it.

And I was recently reminded of the power of starting with the weather in the opening chapter of Dickens’s Bleak House. Here’s the full first paragraph:

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

I can’t imagine a writer pulling this off now, but it’s a splendid beginning. It begins like a telegram or a bit of news reporting (“London. Michaelmas term lately over…”), then immediately turns the weather into an adversary (“implacable”). From this terse economy, it suddenly springs into science fiction cut with absurd comedy (a Megalosaurus waddling up Holborn Hill), horror (“the death of the sun”), and disease (“a general infection of ill-temper”). After coating the world and its contents with filth and mud, Dickens introduces the theme of money (“accumulating at compound interest”) that circulates through the book. Quite a feat for a paragraph that’s all about the weather, hm?

Now, I’m not even considering comparing myself to Dickens or Elmore Leonard, but my point here is, let’s lighten up with the writing rules, shall we? Because sometimes, it really is a dark and stormy night.

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The Inimitable

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Hello, friends. Yesterday, I began reading Claire Tomalin’s latest biograpy, Charles Dickens: A Life. I had extremely high hopes for this book, so much so that I worried that my hopes were unreasonably high and I might inevitably be disappointed. But it begins beautifully, and this week I just want to share some of my glee with you.

The biography starts with three maps and a Cast List – essential in a book as jammed with places and personalities as this one. One of the reasons I love this kind of front matter and pore over it for ages before launching into the actual book is because they reveal so much about the author’s interests. Her voice is as strong there as anywhere else in the book, and diving into a list like that is a perfect way to get acquainted (or reacquainted, in this case). I’ll show you what I mean:

On the map called Dickens in Central London, the Garrick Club is described thus: “Dickens a member from 1837, resigning and rejoining frequently”. A perfect window into the man, in four words!

Here are a couple of the extremely varied people he associated with:

“Cooper, Louisa… sent to Cape, returned 1856, bringing D[ickens] an ostrich egg…”

“Elliott, Frances… heiress with rackety marital history… persuaded D to intervene in her difficulties in 1860s, questioned him in vain about his private life”

And Tomalin’s judgement on others:

“Morson, Mrs Georgiana… matron of Miss Coutt’s Home [for reformed thieves and prostitutes] from 1849 to 1854 when she remarried. A pearl.”

“Townshend, Chauncey Hare… rich, Cambridge-educated hypochondriac… dedicated poems to D, who dedicated Great Expectatiosn to him, gave him manuscript – huge reward for foolish friend”

Also, Dickens gave his kids really florid names! They often seem to be modified versions of the names of famous people, as in “Walter Landor” (why skip the “Savage”?) and Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson (really? He chose to interrupt Alfred Tennyson’s name with “D’Orsay”?). Other times, he went for the full homage, naming two of his sons “Henry Fielding” and “Edward Bulwer Lytton”.

I’m hooked.

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