Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Visiting with Dickens

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Earlier this week, while I was still weighing the dozens of unread books in the house against my desire for the comforts of an old favorite, About Last Night's Carrie Frye quoted from Dickens, in a post about Martin Chuzzlewit and a bear (Really--go read her post!). What better way to satisfy both urges than to read one of the three Dickens novels I'd never read! For opening a Dickens novel, even one whose plot and characters are unknown, is like visiting an old friend: from the first page, we recognize that familiar, effervescent voice, and that world of cultivated eccentricity and urban bustle that only he can conjure up.

I chose The Pickwick Papers (1837), leaving The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and Hard Times (1854) for later. The Pickwick Papers was Dickens's first novel, and it made him a star at twenty-four. A ramshackle picaresque, it doesn't offer the masterly plotting that we would come to expect from Dickens's later novels, but the many characters who populated its loosely connected stories are so lively and comic that it's easy to see why it became such a sensation. Take this exchange between the oddly charming (but wholly untrustworthy) Alfred Jingle and a couple of members of the Pickwick Club:
[Jingle said,] "English girls not so fine as Spanish -- noble creatures -- jet hair -- black eyes -- lovely forms -- sweet creatures -- beautiful."

"You have been in Spain, Sir?" said Mr Tracy Tupman.

"Lived there -- ages."

"Many conquests, Sir?" inquired Mr Tupman.

"Conquests! Thousands. Don Bolaro Fizzgig -- Grandee -- only daughter -- Donna Christina -- splendid creature -- loved me to distraction -- jealous father -- high-souled daughter -- handsome Englishman -- Donna Christina in despair -- prussic acid -- stomach pump in my portmanteau -- operation performed -- old Bolaro in ecstasies -- consent to our union -- join hands and floods of tears -- romantic story -- very."

"Is the lady in England now, Sir?" inquired Mr Tupman, on whom the description of her charms had produced a powerful impresion.

"Dead, Sir -- dead," said the stranger, applying to his right eye the brief remnant of a very old cambric handkerchief. "Never recovered the stomach pump -- undermined constitution -- fell a victim."

"And her father" inquired the poetic Snodgrass.

"Remorse and misery," replied the stranger. "Sudden disappearance -- talk of the whole city -- search made everywhere --- without success -- public fountain in the great square suddenly ceased playing -- weeks elapsed -- still a stoppage -- workmen employed to clean it -- water drawn off -- father-in-law discovered sticking head first out of the main pipe, with a full confession in his right boot -- took him out, and the fountain played away again, as well as ever."
Though I have no reason to think this is actually how Dickens constructed this passage, I love imagining him writing Jingle's lines in more normal cadences, then one by one stripping away verbs, prepositions, and other markers until he'd stepped right to the verge of incomprehensibility--and thus knew he'd allowed Jingle's voluble eccentricity its full play.

In the thirty-odd years that followed this debut, Dickens would greatly refine not just his plotting, but his language and his understanding of character as well. But while The Pickwick Papers may display a talent that's not fully formed, at the same time, the sensibility behind it is already, obviously, lovably Dickensian--and reading it feels like coming home.

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