A Tale of Two Cities

This is Dickens’s worst book. There, I said it.

Oh yes, it has some memorable parts, like that epic first sentence—”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Dickens is notorious for taking his time warming up in a novel— Pickwick only starts to get good once Sam enters the scene. But 150 pages in, and six weeks of forcing myself to try to read this, I’m throwing in the towel.

I think the main problem is that he strays from what he does best—describing the working conditions of London’s underclass—to churn out this historical novel about the French Revolution. Because he’s so far afield, he doesn’t have the right grip to be able to toss out the bevy of jolly and ridiculous characters that usually propel a story forward. I felt no connection to any of these stilted names, making it harder and harder to pick up the book and push through a chapter.

Please tell me this is not inflicted on schoolchildren still.

The Pickwick Papers

The Marx Brothers have nothing on Dickens, as proven in his scenes of ragtag madcap drinking, jesting, capering, punning, joking. This is his first novel, fully titled The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club and you can actually watch as he progresses in honing his skills across the pages. The first chapters are universally despised as boring, but Dickens introduces the character of Sam Weller in chapter 10, breathing life into the story and carrying it to success for another 600+ pages. It gives off “an extraordinary sound, which being neither a groan, nor a grunt, nor a gasp, nor a growl, seemed to partake in some degree of the character of all four” (from chapter 52, where Sam’s dad is about to give the red-nosed preacher a beat down).

Pickwick roves the countryside with his band of merry younger friends in search of wisdom but adventures come knocking. Even in the early chapters we see glimpses of genius like “[the horse] wouldn’t shy if he was to meet a wagon load of monkeys with their tails burnt off.”

The scene with warring political parties also comes off well in chapter 8, where Pickwick cheers for the candidate that the mob just cheered and tells his friends, “Hush. Don’t ask any questions. It’s always best on these occasions to do what the mob do.” Mr. Snodgrass asks “But suppose there are two mobs?” and Pickwick recommends to “Shout with the largest.” Later, a politician is making the rounds and told to kiss babies to make a good impression on the crowd, to which the politician (Slumkey) resigns himself.

One of my favorite techniques Dickens uses is the nested story, having a character relate a tale that he heard, like the Bagman’s ghost story (Ch 14). Inevitably the people in the story get drunk, which explains the weird stuff they see later. In the Bagman’s Story, Tom Smart thinks a chair in his bedroom is an old gentleman, and begins to have an argument with it/him. The chair brags of having lots of ladies sit in his lap, then proceeds “to recount some other exploits of his youth, when he was seized with such a violent fit of creaking that he was unable to proceed.”

Another embedded ghost story in chapter 49 ended with a line that made me laugh out loud. The character walked home late at night, drunk (natch!), and sat in some dilapidated abandoned mail coaches, then woke to find them bustling about, brand new. He attempts to help one of the ghosts elude her captor, but wakes before they get to safety. The landlord who has listened to this tale asks “I wonder what these ghosts of mail-coaches carry in their bags,” and the storyteller answers, “The dead letters, of course.”

We get the first hints of Dickens anger about lawyers, courts, and debtor prisons here (prisons more fully explored in Little Dorrit and courts in Bleak House). Pickwick is entrapped by his landlady who thinks he’s made a marriage proposal and who sues him for breach of contract. When a jury finds him guilty, he refuses to pay the amount and prefers to go to Fleet prison instead. After a few months, the woman’s lawyers throw her into prison for non-payment of their fee, wherein Pickwick pays her out in return for a letter saying that he never made such a proposal. Unaccountably, Pickwick also helps Jingle out of prison, despite being made the butt of his schemes earlier in the book.

Besides this aborted marriage, there are plenty of sneaking around and pinching of barmaids. Several of Pickwick’s friends end up married off at the end, bearing children for him to godfather.

Possibly my favorite parts were those witticisms of Sam. If I read this again, I’ll try to collect all of them. A sample:

  • “Come sir, this is rayther too rich, as the young lady said, wen she remonstrated with the pastry-cook, arter he’d sold her a pork-pie as had got nothin’ but fat inside.”
  • “I rayther think you’d change your note, as the hawk remarked to himself with a cheerful laugh, ven he heerd the robin redbreast a singin’ round the corner.”
  • “Sorry to do anythin’ as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin’s, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament.”

Pickwick disbands his club with a farewell speech worth quoting, as it mirrors Dickens’ own farewell to the time spent writing this in monthly serials:

“I shall never regret having devoted the greater part of two years to mixing with different varieties and shades of human character: frivolous as my pursuit of novelty may have appeared to many. Nearly the whole of my previous life having been devoted to business and the pursuit of wealth, numerous scenes of which I had no previous conception have dawned upon me—I hope to the enlargement of my mind, and the improvement of my understanding. If I have done but little good, I trust I have done less harm, and that none of my adventures will be other than a source of amusing and pleasant recollection to me in the decline of life. God bless you all!”

Little Dorrit

If everyone started the day by reading an hour of Dickens, I’m convinced the world would be a better place—in good humor and with eyes twinkling. This 800+ page tale envelopes you, luring you into its cozy layers, tales within tales. Dickens serialized this between 1855-7 when he was in his forties, getting better with each foray into the printed world. The characters pile up fast and furious, and if you’re not paying attention, you have to flip back several hundred pages to wonder where it was that you first heard of Mrs. Merdle (not to be confused with Mrs. Meagle, although their stories do slightly cross) and her squawking parrot. The eponymous character, Little Dorrit, is Amy Dorrit, daughter born to a gentleman in debtors prison and raised all her life there until fortune smiled on him with his friends uncovering the fact that he was heir to a title and lots of money. Mr. Dorrit immediately wants to forget the previous 25 years of his life and turns his back on those who helped him, but Amy still yearns for those simpler days with Arthur Clennam and Maggy (the 80 year old child). Dorrit dies in Rome along with his brother, and this seems fortuitous, releasing Amy from the need to “marry well” and removing the threat of having Mrs. General as her stepmother.

There’s a mystery laid down at the beginning, when Arthur returns from China after his father’s death to ask his mother if there were some sort of wrong that he had done to someone that needed reparation. His wheelchair-bound mother sniffs off this suggestion and turns her back on him to solely run their business with Mr. Flintwinch when Arthur gives up his claim. Spoiler alert: she’s not really his mother! And the mystery is that she’s withholding £1000 that should rightfully be Little Dorrit’s, although I’m a bit confused about the circumstances.

Dickens is at his best when he pokes fun of the obtuse inflated flaccid bureaucratic arms of government, here represented by the Circumlocution Office. “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT.” He goes on to detail the red tape, paperwork, forms, and in general abhorrence to “doing things” in preference to “not doing” anything. Much of this rings true about our illustrious Congress in the early 21st century.

His writing is always entertaining, secret jabs and pokes that make you laugh like “his genius, during his earlier manhood, was of that exclusively agricultural character which applies itself to the cultivation of wild oats.” His description of Pancks as a tugboat steaming away always brought a smile to my face whenever he appeared. And when describing Mr. Baptist/Signor Cavalletto, “He looks to me as if every tooth in his head was always laughing.”

You also pick up random bits of life from mid-19th century, like the fact that bakers kept their ovens going continuously and would cook food in it for people for a small fee (like a leg of mutton stuffed with oysters in this case). Refrigerators were in use (and called such); at this time they were vessels filled with cold water or any cool place.

Once again I’m amazed at the variety of names. A sampling: Mr. Pancks, Mr. Rugg, Mrs. Chivery, Plornish, Flora Finching, Meagles, Doyce, Clennam, Merdle, Gowan, Tite Barnacle, Stiltstalkings, Barnacle Junior, Mrs. Bangham, Flintwinch, Mrs. Tickit.

Bleak House

It’s been awhile since I do-ie-do’d with Dickens, and I’d forgotten his propensity of peppering the pot with characters, tossing a handful of new ones in each passing chapter like a drunk chef with spices. In the first third of the book alone, we encounter (in addition to main characters Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and Richard Carstone): Skimpole, Jellyby, Pardiggle, Quale, Gusher, Jarndyce, Krook, Flite, Turveydrop, Guppy, Badger, Boythorn, Tulkington, Leicester, Snagsby, Rouncewell, Blinder, Gridley, Neckett, Captain Swosser, Professor Dingo, Woodcourt, Chadband, Smallweed, Jobling -> Weevle, Bucket, Wisk, Piper, Perkins, Swills, Mevilleson, Bogsby, Squod, Vholes.

There’s a lot of how terrible the law courts are, how one they get their teeth into a case, it’s about prolonging it to squeeze as much cash out of the proceedings as possible. The case at the heart of the book is Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, and right at the moment when they believe a discovered Will will resolve the case, the case is dissolved in court because the entire fortune at stake had been dissolved by the ongoing court costs (years and years worth). A cautionary tale worth assigning to all incoming law students.

The book has all the ingredients of a successful Victorian novel: baby born out of wedlock to a woman who goes on to attain wealth and prominence while her daughter is brought up in secret by her sister, ragamuffin Jo who haunts the East End and is constantly being told to “move on” by the cops, horse and carriages predating the railroads that were marching towards them, and a whodunnit mystery of the murder of insufferable lawyer, Tulkington.

It’s a pleasure to come across Dickens being Dickens:

He perceives with astonishment, that supposing the present Government to be overthrown, the limited choice of the Crown, in the formation of a new Ministry, would lie between Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle – supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle. Then giving the Home Department and the Leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle? You can’t offer him the Presidency of the Council; that is reserved for Poodle. You can’t put him in the Woods and Forests; that is hardly good enough for Quoodle. What follows? That the country is shipwrecked, lost, and gone to pieces because you can’t provide for Noodle!

On the other hand, the Right Honorable William Buffy, M.P., contends across the table with someone else, that the shipwreck of the country – about which there is no doubt; it is only the manner of it that is in question – is attributable to Cuffy. If you had done with Cuffy what you ought to have done when he first came into Parliament, and had prevented him from going over to Duffy, you would have got him into alliance with Fuffy, you would have had with you the weight attaching as a smart debater to Guffy, you would have brought to bear upon the elections the wealth of Huffy, you would have got in for three counties Juffy, Kuffy, and Luffy; and you would have strengthened your administration by the official knowledge and business habits of Muffy. All this, instead of being, as you now are, dependent on the mere caprice of Puffy!

Occasionally Dickens shows some self-restraint, or at least self-awareness. Chapter 9 starts, “I don’t know how it is, I seem to be always writing about myself. I mean all the time to write about other people, and I try to think about myself as little as possible, and I am sure, when I find myself coming into the story again, I am really vexed and say ‘Dear, dear, you tiresome little creature, I wish you wouldn’t’ but it is all of no use.”

I actually don’t recommend getting the Penguin Classics edition of this, because it includes annoying footnotations throughout the text. Page 1 of chapter 1 has 13 notations explaining various things that need not be notated so closely. My preference is a notes section that lingers in the back without numbers in the text, and if you’re curious about something, you go digging to see if there is backup info.

Dombey and Son

I could use this 1,000 page book as a weapon of self-defense if need be. This brick has dogged me for the past week, I reluctantly tucking it into backpack (all 1000 pages) in case of a spare few minutes. Today, 400 pages from the finish line, I knew I’d create enough time to Dombey on through the end, et voila! here I am. Described by Kate Millett as a “nearly perfect indictment of both patriarchy and capitalism,” I had to read the story. Dombey runs a prosperous trading company, and we encounter him eagerly facing his newborn son as his first wife fades from the face of the earth. Son Paul follow suit after a few years, and older daughter Florence is cruelly ignored by her father. All the intricate Dickensian plot twists are here, with the old woman Brown who steals young Florence’s dress, sending her into Walter’s arms for refuge (they end up marrying), second wife Edith haughty but inexplicably melting and tender toward Florence (the first affection F has received since her mother died soon after Paul’s birth). A very strange relationship with Mr. Carker (and his older brother/sister who end up inheriting his wealth after Evil Carker is mown down by a train. I can’t possibly cram all 1000 pages of plot here. Let us not forget the incomparable Cap’n Cuttle, black-eyed Susan (the maid who marries Mr. Toots), Walter and his uncle, Miss Tox (hankering for Dombey’s widowed hand in marriage), Mrs Pipchin the schoolmarm turned housekeeper, Polly Tootles (inexplicably named Richards by the family when she comes to nurse Paul), and the bug-eyed Major. Only thin/unbelievable part was the running away of Mrs. Dombey #2 (Edith) with Evil Carker – why would he think that he’d beguiled her?

David Copperfield

In an effort to better understand the term “Dickensian” which gets thrown about so often to describe authors, I picked this up for a re-read. For some reason I threw one of my favorite chapters from Copperfield up on this site over a decade ago, and as I read it in the context of the book, it was again one of the more enjoyable ones. The story, as everyone knows, follows the eponymous hero from a tough early childhood (father dies before he’s born, mother remarries an ogre who drives her to her death, the boy is sent to work as a wine merchant before escaping away to his aunt’s where he begins formal schooling in earnest) through to successful adulthood (famous author, very autobiographical). The writhing Uriah Heep and Mr. Micawber are remarkable characters, along with Agnes, Dora, and Mr. Dick, but Dickens stacks his story full of dozens more, just inserting a new face whenever he feels a tiny bit bored. Written as a serialized piece over many months, he had to make each chapter interesting as a stand-alone. There is something very Bartleby-esque about Micawber’s refusal to heed Uriah Heep during his explosive chapter (“Because I, in short, choose”). So to sum up what the Dickensian epithet means to me, a story crammed with characters, tolerably well written, and for a fifth-grade reading level and above.