Monday, June 16, 2014

Dickensian Laughter

Though I read a lot of literary biographies, I don't read a lot of non-biographical secondary literature. Oh, here and there I'll read something about one of my favorites--Anthony Powell, Iris Murdoch, or Thomas Hardy, for example--but the only writer about whom I regularly find myself reading criticism is Dickens.

In part it's because Dickens, two hundred years after his birth, still seems inexhaustible. There's so much matter in each of his books that it seems there's always a new angle of attack or area of focus. He also has the benefit of being stodgy enough that even contemporary critical writings about him feel largely like the product of an earlier century: even as they may take new findings and new approaches into account, they nonetheless keep an eye on the general reader, and work in a prose register that is accessible to him or her.

In addition, those are the books that bring me into better contact with the wild world of non-novelistic Dickens writings. Any serious Dickens fan does some dipping, here and there, into Sketches by Boz, or American Notes for General Circulation, but those books don't bulk so large in our memories as the novels. And who reads beyond that, to the Household Words pieces, or the countless volumes of letters? But there are rewards in almost any page of Dickens's writing, and one of the great pleasures of a good work of Dickens criticism is the new acquaintance it offers us with those writings.

All of which is by way of a long preamble to saying how much I'm enjoying Malcolm Andrews's new book Dickensian Laughter: Essays on Dickens and Humour. As Dickens's own people say, it does what it says on the tin, offering a number of different angles on how Dickens used humor, how his audience received it, how he fit with and broke from earlier traditions, and--best of the bunch--what we know about Dickens's own laughter.

The book is so rich with quotation that it feels at least as much like a conversation as an argument, throughout the book, Andrews treats us to gleanings from the minor Dickens, along with opinions and insights from his contemporaries and friends. I'll treat you to my favorite bit thus far, from a letter Dickens sent to Georgina Hogarth from a reading tour in Ireland on August 25, 1858. Dickens cast this portion of the letter in the form of a dialogue between himself and a young boy he met on the street:
INIMITABLE. Holloa, old chap.


INIMITABLE (In his delightful way). What a nice old fellow you are. I am very fond of little boys.

YOUNG IRELAND. Air yer? Ye'r right.

INIMITABLE. What do you learn, old fellow?

YOUNG IRELAND (very intent on Inimitable, and always childish, except in his brogue). I lairn wureds of three sillibils, and wureds of two sillibils, and wureds of one sillibil.

INIMITABLE (gaily). Get out, you humbug! You learn only words of one syllable.

YOUNG IRELAND (laughs heartily). You may say that it is mostly words of one sillibil.

INIMITABLE. Can you write?

YOUNG IRELAND. Not yet. Things come by degrees.

INIMITABLE. Can you cipher?

YOUNG IRELAND (very quickly). Wha'at's that?

INIMITABLE. Can you make figures?

YOUNG IRELAND. I can make a nought, which is not asy, being round.

INIMITABLE. I say, old boy, wasn't it you I saw on Sunday morning in the hall, in a soldier's cap? You know--in a soldier's cap?

YOUNG IRELAND (cogitating deeply) Was it a very good cap?


YOUNG IRELAND. Did it fit uncommon?


YOUNG IRELAND. Dat was me!
Dialect often feels like the weakest of jokes, but here it's animated so wonderfully by Dickens's sly stage directions, and by the fun that he and the young man both are clearly having. Oh, to have gone to your mailbox and found there a letter from Dickens!

No comments:

Post a Comment