"Now, there are (if I can speak in hushed tones for a moment) those who do not like Dickens at all. There are some who look askance at the buffoonery and high spirits and wish for something more refined. 'If those people are ever refined it will be by fire' is Chesterton’s response, but he does acknowledge that Dickens poses some special problems for modern critics. There is something in his writing that is out of temper with our times, a sense that a critical apparatus which can seize upon Thackeray or Eliot with a firm grip will somehow slip and grasp emptiness when applied to Dickens. Chesterton noted this already a century ago, and ascribed it to the powerful simplicity of Dickens’ genius:
Dickens has greatly suffered with the critics precisely through this stunning simplicity in his best work. The critic is called upon to describe his sensations while enjoying Mantalini and Micawber, and he can no more describe them than he can describe a blow in the face. Thus Dickens, in this self-conscious, analytical and descriptive age, loses both ways. He is doubly unfitted for the best modern criticism. His bad work is below that criticism. His good work is above it."
I'm always sorry to say goodbye to an old year. But this year, I'm even sorrier than usual.
It's been a great year for Dickensians -- a year in which the world honored the author we love. From the memorial service at Westminster Abbey to the Dickens Fellowship conference in Portsmouth, to the birthday tributes right here on this blog; from readathons to statues to costume parties; from new movies and new biographies to birthday cards and teas, admirers of Charles Dickens found just about every conceivable way to celebrate his 200th birthday. And it has been wonderful fun!
As well, many of you helped raise money for charity in honor of Dickens's own tireless generosity and care for the needy. I'm still tallying up the results, and hope to have those for you in a few days. But it's looking like we raised a sum that would have made the Inimitable proud.
But just because the bicentennial year is ending, that doesn't mean we leave Dickens behind with it! The good news is, of course, that we take him with us into the new year, just as we have in every year before this. Matthew Davis, in an excellent article about he spent the year reading all of Dickens's novels (thanks to Wendy and Christy for the link), reminds us: "So as New Year approaches, reading Dickens in 2013 would not be a bad resolution to make."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
And so, as Scrooge said, "A happy New Year to all the world!" And may it be as happy a year for Dickensians as this year has been.
In 1837, Edward Caswall, using the same publisher and illustrator as the highly successful young Charles Dickens, had a hit with the satirical essay collection Sketches of Young Ladies, describing varying types of ladies: The Romantic Young Lady, The Mysterious Young Lady, The Matter-of-Fact Young Lady, and so forth. Six months later -- as if he weren't busy enough simultaneously writing The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist -- Dickens published an anonymous sequel to this volume, titled Sketches of Young Gentlemen. Two years later he followed it up with Sketches of Young Couples. All three volumes are offered here, with "Phiz's" original illustrations. Caswall's contribution is quite funny, but Dickens, as you might expect, digs more deeply into his characters (giving them names, expanding their amount of dialogue, and so forth) and so extracts even more amusement from them. As Paul Schlicke observes in his introduction, "The contrasts between Caswall's work and Dickens's highlight the ability of Boz to evoke the distinctiveness of a character in a few swift strokes."
Becoming Dickensby Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011). Rather than write a conventional biography, Douglas-Fairhurst focuses on Dickens's early years, up through 1838 and the beginning of Nicholas Nickleby, in order to explore the making of him as a man and an artist. Through Dickens's works, he traces the various forces -- his culture, his family, his education, and so forth -- that shaped his life and his voice. It's an interesting approach and works pretty well on the whole, though sometimes it leads the author to give far too much weight to trifling details. Thus, from a passing reference to a mouse that drowned in ink in Dickens's essay "Our School," we get this: ". . . The detail about drowning in black ink carried far more troubling associations. The mouse that might have achieved greater things was like a small dark shadow of the boy who might have achieved far less if his life had taken a different turn."
. . . Really? I'm all in favor of an approach that helps us remember not to take Dickens for granted, but too much of this sort of thing starts to look like pure melodrama.
But when he's not straining too hard for effects like this, Douglas-Fairhurst provides a lively and readable account of Dickens's development. In particular, his emphasis on the work (as opposed to spending the bulk of the time on the life) is the kind of thing I happen to enjoy in a biography, so I can recommend this one.
(Review copy obtained from the publisher.)
Tomorrow: A Child's Journey with Dickens by Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin.
Critic Michael Dirda has an excellent article in the Barnes and Noble Review celebrating Dickens's accomplishments as a journalist. I love this:
"One can open the book at random, read a few pieces, enjoy the Cruikshank illustrations, and marvel at a description, a bit of overheard conversation, or even a list. A list? Dickens's operatic imagination could never resist any opportunity for a catalogue aria . . ."
You can sponsor me, or you can choose your own charity from the official list and do your own readathon! (Remember, you don't have to start today; you can start any time during the year.) When you get your page set up, please put the link in the comment section below so we can keep track of everyone's efforts.
And don't forget, for every Dickensblog guest post that you write this year, I'll give $10 to any charity you pick from that list. (I had originally said $5, but I've since changed it to $10.) Ideas for guest posts may also be submitted in the comment section. For those of you with artistic gifts, we'll also do some graphics challenges to raise money. So get those creative juices flowing!
Happy New Year and happy reading!
Oh, and by the way: This is the 1000th post at Dickensblog.
This is the second book in the Charles Dickens on . . . series, which began with Charles Dickens on Travel. Given that, as Orford says in his Introduction here, "London was his muse," I'm rather surprised that the London volume didn't come first. But anyway, it's out now, and it's a delight, containing eight of Dickens's essays about the city. Highlights include "Gone Astray," an account of Dickens's getting lost in the Strand as a child, and "The Giant Chronicles," a tale in which two statues come to life . . . or do they? The collection winds up with the justly famous "Night Walks."
Barlow was a good friend of Cedric Charles Dickens, the author's great-grandson, and wrote this book with his help and encouragement. As one might expect, then, it's very well researched. Barlow takes the story of Dickens's cat who used to put out the candle with his paw, and uses this cat as a narrator to tell us about Dickens's life. She adopts the rather fanciful tactic of having the cat be deaf in general, and yet still able to hear Dickens's voice . . . but then, this is also a cat who can tell us stories, so "fanciful" is pretty much par for the course.
I couldn't help thinking, though, that Barlow could have done something a little more interesting than simply have Dickens tell the cat the story of his life. With some breaks to show current action, much of this book reads like straight biography (or autobiography, rather), and we already have plenty of those. As well, the tone veers a little bit toward the cloying at times. Still, the portrait of Dickens here is appealing on the whole, as is his relationship with his cat, and it all makes for a pleasant enough read.
Part 2 of this edition of "From the book pile" will be along tomorrow!