Friday, January 31, 2014

The real Donald E. Westlake peeks through in Killing Time

In the brief introduction to the collection of Donald E. Westlake's nonfiction I'm editing, The Getaway Car, one of the reasons I gave for being interested in Westlake's nonfiction is that he gives us so little of his own self and opinions--explicitly, that is--in his actual writing. Oh, we certainly can glean a few things: he appreciated hard and careful work and craftsmanship, believed firmly in the power of entropy and error to derail plans, and thought we all were closer to the dark side than we like to think. But compared to, say, the digressive sermons offered up by John D. MacDonald, or the obvious protagonist-as-stand-in-for-author of writers like Robert Parker or even Raymond Chandler, Westlake the man is invisible on the page. Part of the fun of the nonfiction, therefore, is collecting and sharing the instances where he did explicitly offer opinions on his own work and that of others, when he straight-up gave us his point of view.

While I've been working on the book, I've also been slowly making my way through the last thirty or so of Westlake's novels that I've not read, and that led me not too long ago to his second book, Killing Time (1961). It's a good little corrupt town novel, with nods to Red Harvest but none of that book's whiffs of nihilistic brimstone. In this book, everyone's corrupt, and, frankly, while that's certainly not good, it's not necessarily all bad, either: rather, it's quite simply the way it is.

Late in the book, the protagonist, Smith--a private eye quietly kept on retainer by the corrupt powers that be in the city, another in what would become a long line of Westlake heroes who are nothing like heroes--goes on a rant when he meets a do-gooder from an upstate civic organization that, by arriving and making noises about cleaning up the town, has infected the town with a murderous case of nerves. On learning that Smith has files on crimes in the town dating back years, the do-gooder tries to shame him, only to be told by Smith that turning those records in simply isn't his job.

I'm going to quote at far greater length than usual, because the passage needs to be reproduced in full for Westlake's point--and mine--to be made. His point will be clear; mine is simply that this passage reads to me like as close a statement of opinion from Westlake as we would ever get. Not an endorsement of crime, but an endorsement of the acceptance of reality, and the pointlessness of naive idealism. See what you think:
"Not your job?" He sounded honestly shocked. "Surely, Mr. Smith, it is every citizen's job--"

"No," I said. For all his individual personality and appearance, completely unlike Masetti, he wound ups spouting the same tired civics-class garbage. "My job," I told him, "was to be a confidential investigator. If the facts I learn wind up in court, I'm not useful."

He shook his head slowly back and forth, the lips once more pursed. "I don't know, Mr. Smith," he said, "I have no idea what sort of arrangement Mr. Masetti had in mind, or what offers he made you, if any, but I'm afraid I'll have to know quite a bit more about the situation here in Winston before agreeing to do business with you. If you are trying now to gain immunity for yourself by making some sort of deal with the Citi--"

"Immunity? What the hell kind of immunity?"

"Now, really, Mr. Smith," he said ponderously. "After all, you have just stated to me that you have in your possession a record of governmental crimes in this community covering the last fifteen years, and that you have, until this very moment, never once attempted to reveal this information to the proper authorities. Quite the reverse. You have gone so far as to admit to me that you have actively concealed the evidence of these crimes."

"Never!" This interview wasn't going at all as I'd expected, and I was beginning to lose my temper. "I have never," I told him angrily, "concealed the evidence of any crime. The evidence has always been there, and is there now. And any proper authority who's interested can go find it exactly the way I did, by looking for it. It isn't my job to do the proper authority's work for it."

"Your job, as you describe it, Mr. Smith," he said pompously, "is a dishonest one."

"As a matter of fact," I went on, talking over him, "what lousy proper authority anyway? The District Attorney? He's one of the biggest crooks in the state. The Mayor? The Chief of Police?"

"that isn't the point," he said.

"Why the hell isn't it? I live in Winston, in the real world. I have to make my living in Winston, in the real world, and that means I have to make my peace with the people who run Winston, and who run the real world. I tried that, and it's always worked pretty well. Now you people have come in and rattled this town out of its wits, and that arrangement doesn't work any more. I'm adapting myself to the new conditions, that's all. I'm no more honest, or dishonest, in the vague abstract total way you use those terms, than anybody else alive in the world. I have a job, and honest and proper job, licensed by the state of New York and the city of Winston, and I do that job as well as I can. And a part of that job is its confidential nature. My job is confidential in exactly the same way that a lawyer's job or a doctor's job or a psychiatrist's job or even a priest's job is confidential. Is a lawyer supposed to report every crime he hears described in his office? Is a priest supposed to report every crime he hears described in the confessional?"

"That is not the same thing, Mr. Smith!" And from the shocked, wide-eyed way in which he said that, I knew I had blasphemed.

"And just why the hell isn't it the same thing? I shouted. I was on my feet now, without knowing how or when I'd stood up, and I kept shaking my fist as I shouted at him. "I've been responsible for crimes solved, reparations made, injustices corrected, without the people involved getting a lot of bad publicity, and without anybody getting a useless jail sentence, and I've--"

"Useless?" That one brought Danile to his feet, too. Blasphemy against the penal system was apparently even worse than blasphemy against the church.

"Yes, you're goddam right, useless! Look, you take a kid--" I had to stop and shake my head and take a deep breath and start all over again, so the words would come out slow enough to be pronounced. "You take a kid, " I said. "He burgles a grocery store. The law gets him, and the court gives him six months in a reformatory, and he comes out a worse kid than when he went in. And ten years and four penitentiaries later, he winds up in one of those modern clinks with the pastel-pink bars and more psychiatrists than prisoners, and they spend five years trying to undo the damage that was done by that reformatory."

"That's an oversimplification!" he shouted.

"How else are we going to talk, if we don't simplify, you fat-headed fact-filled do-gooder?"

"I didn't come here--"

"To be insulted, I know. All right, now, listen, you take that same kid, only instead of the law getting him, I get him. And nobody knows about his crime but me and the grocer and his parents. He gets the scare of his life, when he sees how easily he was caught, and he gets the word on what would have happened if the cops had found him instead of me, and the grocer gets his money back, and the kid never pulls that kind of stunt again."

He shook his head rapidly, saying, "And you accuse me of idealism, when you expect--"

"Expect, hell! That's what happened! That is exactly what happened with a kid who broke into Joey Casales's grocery store. The hell with your theories, I'm telling you what works, and I'm trying to tell you what the goddam system is in this world, and how I fit into that system. And if I don't fit into that system, I'm through."

"If Satan himself--" he started, but I cut him off. "You're goddam one hundred per cent right! I snapped. "If Satan himself were Mayor of Winston, and all the lesser devils had all the offices in City Hall, they would be the ones running my world. And if I expected to live in that world, I would have to make my peace with them."
Killing Time is a short book, under 200 pages, and this rant takes up four of them. It feels like a set piece that perhaps Westlake didn't even intend when he set out on it, but that he couldn't help but let run once it caught fire. And it works: it raises and amplifies the underlying themes of the book (and of this genre of book), and it doesn't deform either the character or the story.

(Still trying to decide about two of those adverbs, though: "ponderously" I think is perfect, but "angrily" seems unnecessary.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Advice on use, and more

Friday I warned you that in the days ahead I would likely be quoting from Love, Nina, Nina Stibbe's wonderfully funny collection of letters she sent her sister from her London posting as a nanny to the children of London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers . . . and now we are days ahead! So herewith are a few of the many, many passages that made me and rocketlass laugh out loud.

After a number of grumbled complaints from the children (and regular dinner guest Alan Bennett) about the turkey burgers Nina has been making ("Because MK keeps buying turkey mince and what the fuck else can I do with it?"), she mentions the problem to MK:
Me: Can you stop getting the turkey mince?

MK: What's wrong with it?

Me: I can't make anything nice with it.

MK: It's versatile--simply use it in place of beef.

Me: You've memorised the pack.

MK: Yes, giving advice on use.
To be wholly fair to MK, we ought to note that the turkey mince wasn't the sole problem with Nina's cooking as she describes it: she was at that unsatisfying stage of learning, familiar to all cooks, where, as she writes to her sister, a recipe with more than six ingredients is too complicated.

Then there's this exchange, in which Alan Bennett (AB) is allowed not one but two perfect punchlines:
Someone drew something on our wall with a penknife or stick. MK thought it was a heart. I went and looked and saw a penis (scratched into the brick).

Me: I think it's meant to be a man's penis.

MK: I thought it might be a heart.

Me: How?

MK: An upside-down one.

AB: Like mine.

(Will [the older boy] goes out to look.)

Me: People don't usually draw hearts on walls.

MK: I might.

Sam [the younger boy]: I'd never draw a heart or . . . the other thing.

Will: (returns) It's definitely a dick.

MK: It looks more like a heart.

AB: You'd think they'd label it.

(AB phones later to say he saw it on the way out. It's a penis.)
The following exchange comes a few months after Nina accidentally scraped the family car up a bit, then attempted to convince the boys not to tell MK. Which they ultimately couldn't resist doing. The letter opens, "Good news. Mary-Kay has pranged the car at long last--a relief after all mine (prangs)." Which leads to a dialogue:
Sam: It's mum's first time crashing.

Me: Yeah, but it's worse than any of mine--in terms of damage done.

MK: Hmm.

Me: Mine never required any action to be taken.

MK: Only the untangling of deception and denial.

Me: You dented the number plate--irreparably.

MK: True, but my credibility remains intact.

Told Misty that MK is unusual.

Me: She's just very unusual.

Misty: Is she a bit mad?

Me: God, no, she's 100 per cent sane.

Misty: That's unusual.

Me: That's what I mean.
Part of the fun of the book is that Nina is correct: Mary-Kay Wilmers comes across as remarkably sane, grounded, calm, sharp . . . and strange. Through dialogues like these we get enough of a sense of her slightly off-kilter character that when, later, she mentions that she likes it when people climb trees (prompted by Sam expressing his disapproval), it seems totally reasonable for Nina to suggest that the it makes sense because "it's one less person on the ground."

This is a great book, folks. Hie thee to your local bookstore and pre-order it--but do so knowing full well that you're going to laugh on the subway and read bit after bit aloud to your friends. Trust me: the risk of ostracization is worth it!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Thomas Hardy, "the man behind the pen"

Ever since I got back from London, I've been carefully rationing Nina Stibbe's always hilarious, sometimes poignant Love, Nina, a collection of the letters that the then-twenty-year-old Stibbe sent her sister in 1982 and '83 describing her experiences as the nanny for the two young children of London Review of Books publisher Mary-Kay Wilmers. The letters are full of absolutely hilarious dialogues among Stibbe, the boys, Wilmers, and their neighbor Alan Bennett, who's constantly dropping by for dinner (and usually supplying the mordant punchline to the group's exchanges). The dialogues are so good--so odd and funny and surprising--that I think I've read half the book out loud to rocketlass by now, to her great amusement.

The letters aren't solely of comedic interest, however. They also offer an interesting picture of early 1980s London as seen for the first time by a girl from Leicestershire, and of a moment in life that will be familiar to those of us who came from rural or lower-class backgrounds: when we begin to see higher culture, to know we want to be involved with it somehow, and yet we remain fundamentally (and often comically) ignorant of what that would entail. Stibbe's vacillation between confidence and fear, interest and frustration, knowledge and ignorance are charming and touching; they remind me a bit of similar moments in Caleb Crain's brilliant novel Necessary Errors, re-creating as his book did a very particular youthful feeling of inchoate ambition and hope.

I could spend the rest of this blog's year quoting from this book, but for today I'll just share an amusing--and far from unperceptive--observation that Stibbe made after encountering Thomas Hardy's poetry for the first time. She had been assigned some of his novels as part of her A-Level syllabus, and someone had suggested that she delve into the poetry as well in order to better understand "the man behind the pen." She subsequently wrote to her sister:
Got some of Hardy's poems out of Holborn library as per the letter. Most of them are rubbish and do not help me understand him. They make me think of him as wallowing and moaning and wishing for the olden days and that he hadn't been such a cunt to his wife.

Which I already knew from the introduction to The Return of the Native.
Later, she tells a university interviewer that Hardy makes her feel insignificant, which, given the high drama and fatalism of his fiction, seems like a not unreasonable response for a twenty-year-old.

I'm sure I'll share more from Love, Nina soon. Stateside readers, meanwhile, should go ahead and have their local bookstore pre-order a copy: it will be published over here by Little, Brown in April.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Dreamland with Edwin Drood

On a day when it seems inconceivable that winter's bite could ever lessen, what better to talk of than death, and last meetings? I'll share one of the most memorable and moving bits that Robert Gottlieb dug up for Great Expectations, his book on Dickens's children. This comes from the pen of Dickens's eldest, Charley, presumably from Reminiscences of My Father, which was published posthumously in 1934. He writes of the last time he saw his father alive:
He was in town for our usual Thursday meeting on the business of "All the Year Round," and, instead of returning to Gadshill on that day had remained over night, and was at work again in his room in Wellington Street, on the Friday, the 3rd of June. During the morning I had hardly seen him except to take his instructions about some work I had to do and at about one o'clock--I had arranged to go into the country for the afternoon--I cleared up my table and prepared to leave. The door of communication between our rooms was open, as usual, and, as I came towards him, I saw that he was writing very earnestly. After a moment I said, "If you don't want anything more, sir, I shall be off now," but he continued his writing with the same intensity as before, and gave no sign of being aware of my presence. Again I spoke--louder, perhaps, this time--and he rested his head and looked at me long and fixedly. But I soon found that, although his eyes were bent upon me and he seemed to be looking at me earnestly, he did not see me, and that he was, in fact, unconscious for the moment of my very existence. He was in Dreamland with Edwin Drood, and I left him there--for the last time.
In his biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd calls the moment "disturbing," and while I can see his point, in this account, Charley seems to be at peace with being ignored in favor of the work, a position that surely was far from unfamiliar. The Dickens children seemed to always be proud of their father's work, even as they struggled with his failings as a parent, and I suspect that even though it likely pained him, Charley saw this final meeting as fitting.

With the family's pain a century and a half behind us, I will admit to being grateful for any time Dickens spent on Drood, a book I greatly enjoy. I wouldn't go so far as the reviewer for the Spectator in 1870 who, in an otherwise perceptive review, wrote,
However characteristic the faults of the fragment which embodies Mr Dickens's last literary effort, we feel no doubt that it will be read, admired, and remembered for the display of his equally characteristic powers, long after such performances as Little Dorrit and Bleak House are utterly neglected and forgotten.
But at the same time, I think Wilkie Collins's assessment of it as "Dickens's last, laboured effort, the melancholy work of a worn-out brain" is nonsense, perhaps rooted in some protectiveness about Dickens's modest encroachment on his own more deliberately mysterious and sensational turf. It feels alive and fresh (despite recycling some of the devices, relationships, and structures of Our Mutual Friend)--and, as a reviewer for the Academy wrote in October of 1870, "there are signs of a more carefully-designed intrigue than in most of his earlier works." Solutions to Drood, including Donald Westlake's sharply analytic unpublished one, though fun, may quite possibly take the "Mystery" of the title too seriously: as many have pointed out, Dickens was never much of a mystery-style plotter, his revelations and reversals rarely that surprising. Nonetheless, Drood feels more intricate and planned than a lot of Dickens. If ever his surprises were to surprise, surely it would have been among those shadows.

We shall never know. Talking with his daughter Kate the night before he died, writes Peter Ackroyd,
He talked of his hopes for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, "if, please God, I live to finish it." Then, he added, "I say if, because you know, my dear child, because I have not been strong lately."
Father and daughter talked until three in the morning. The next day, he wrote the last words we would ever get of Drood, and of Dickens: "and then falls to with an appetite." Which, while certainly, and sadly, unsatisfying, seems not wholly inappropriate. For how else do we approach Dickens's work than with an appetite? And what other writer's works do we fall to with such vigor?

Friday, January 17, 2014


A quick post tonight, for a three-day weekend looms, offering little but reading (and snow, to secure us in our indoor intentions). I'll merely share two poor snapshots that I took last week when an unexpected free afternoon in London allowed me to visit the house in Gough Square that Samuel Johnson lived in while composing the Dictionary. Like most house museums, it's small and unassuming, portraits and a few pieces of furniture offering the basic brushstrokes that help the imagination populate the rooms. And it's not hard to do: Johnson lumbering up and down the stairs and dominating the small rooms, the constant noise and commotion of the many permanent houseguests, the mess of papers and books that filled the garret as the work in progress progressed, letter by letter. One bit of additional period detail I didn't have to imagine: the clatter of horses' hooves echoed about the square, generated by two mounted police officers.

The snapshots are of items held in a vitrine full of Johnsoniana on the ground floor, commercial items created to commemorate (and capitalize on) various Johnson-related anniversaries. The first is a Dr. Johnson-shaped flask, sold in 1909 for his bicentennial.

The color is unquestionably unappealing, but the idea of having Johnson as a constant drinking companion does entice.

This, meanwhile, is a doorknocker, also from the twentieth century:

At its top is Litchfield Cathedral, in front of which is depicted the meeting of Johnson and Boswell. (Hooray to Boswell for achieving such prominence on the knocker!) Beneath Johnson's head--reasonably cast as the active part of the knocker--is, we're told, the figure of his cat.

Enjoy the weekend, folks. Happy reading to you.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Colonel Greene Dies of Apoplexy"

Travel and holidays have delayed my acknowledgment of a welcome reappearance from my anonymous Texan correspondent. Regular readers may remember posts about two unsigned postcards that I received in late 2012, both bearing a Dallas postmark and choice quotes from A Dance to the Music of Time. Still a welcome mystery more than a year later, they were joined in early December by a new communication, one that expanded both my correspondent's epistolary and literary ranges: a printout of the obituary of Colonel Jacob L. Greene that was published in the Hartford Courant on March 30, 1905.

Who is Colonel Greene, you ask? Well, that's essentially the question that my correspondent is hinting I should have asked back in November when I shared a story Mark Twain told about him in his autobiography. Twain makes good sport of Greene's style of public speaking, which he explains was smooth to the point of barren dullness:
His speech was always like that--perfectly smooth, perfectly constructed; and when he had finished, no listener could go into court and tell what it was he had said. It was a curious style. It was impressive--you always thought, from one comma to another, that he was going to strike something presently, but he never did.
Greene, my correspondent would have us know, was more impressive than Twain's joking might imply. The obituary opens by identifying him as the president of the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company (surely the perfect job for a dull speaker, no?), but when the obituary delves into his earlier life, the story begins to get more impressive: his paternal great-grandfather was "a man of staunch character" who served as a lieutenant in the Revolutionary army, in which his maternal great-grandfather served as a general. Greene himself, meanwhile, was born in Maine, attended "the Michigan University," which at the time was newly opened and tuition-free, and became a lawyer just before the outbreak of the Civil War. "The blood of a noble ancestry burned within him," explains the Courant, "impelling the consecration of himself to the Union cause." He enlisted as a private, then advanced to lieutenant before being laid out for a full year by illness. Strength restored, he took a position under General Custer and served with "distinguished gallantry" in the battle of Trevellyan Station, where he was captured on June 11, 1864. While a prisoner at Charleston, he was among the Union soldiers forced by their captors into the path of Union shells. Eventually he was paroled, but he wasn't officially exchanged until April 8, 1865, the day before Lee's surrender. He served another full year before resigning his commission and embarking on his career as a life insurance executive.

More germane to Twain's story, however, is what comes next in the obituary:
Colonel Greene had made many public addresses. He was the orator of the day at the Grant Memorial exercises in this city and his address was pronounced a fine example of eloquence and power. . . . He had talked before Hartford audiences and elsewhere on topical subjects and on many occasions when his oratorical efforts were of the highest order. He was ever ready to speak in the interests of the poor and oppressed and always took a high stand for personal and civic morality. He was a graceful speaker and a polished writer. . . . and always acquitted himself to the satisfaction of those interested, and the great pleasure of his audience.
Which, set in the balance against Twain's depiction of a smooth-flowing river of boredom, makes me think that perhaps there's a middle ground: It's likely Greene was as good a speaker as the Courant claims, yet still wasn't up to Twain's standard. We can't all be Mark Twain, after all.

I'll close the way any sensible public speaker should do: with thanks to the person who brought me here. Hope it's a pleasant winter down there in Dallas, sir or madam. Keep the correspondence coming!

Monday, January 13, 2014

The perils of drinking in Victorian taprooms

I thought I was done writing about Judith Flanders's The Victorian City, but I can't resist sharing the passage I just read. I'm going to quote at a bit greater length than usual because (as you'll see) both sides of the story of Victorian London's drinking establishments needs to be told:
Hints to Men About Town, published in 1840, warned that "as every Man about Town is liable to be placed in situations where it is almost impossible to escape perfectly sober," such a young man needed to learn how "to take his glass . . . without making a fool of himself." The author, who called himself "The Old Medical Student," advised young men to eat as well as drink, to stick to one type of wine, not to get rowdy, and, above all, "Do not be prevailed upon to sing" (which is surely good advice today too). This was followed by a section on what to do when a friend passed out from drink and how to cure a hangover. It was all very matter-of-fact.
Is a medical student really the person to trust on this topic? I've not known a lot of them, but those I did definitely included in their number some intemperate drinkers. (Also, this is sadly pre-Jeeves: the best advice for dealing with a hangover is, of course, to ring for his assistance.)

Then there's the distaff side:
The Servant Girl in London: Showing the Dangers to which Young Country Girls are Exposed was published in the same year, but could not be further away in tone, even though its author had similarly pragmatic views. Readers were instructed that many pubs were entirely respectable, having been established by servants of gentry, and in them one could expect to meet "some of the most pleasant company. . . . The conversation is often very instructive, and well expressed . . . about politics, the news of the day, parish intelligence, and the like." It was the taproom that was the danger: "Here collect the working men, male servants in and out of place, hackney-coachmen, omnibus cads, &c.," who "drink far more in proportion than those in the parlour . . . and frequently insult most grossly" the servant girls from local houses, the "wives of mechanics [artisans], poor tradesmen, and the broken-down gentlewoman who keeps a school." These blameless females, while waiting to collect the supper beer, were obliged meanwhile to mingle with "the washerwoman, the market-woman, the basket-woman, the gaudily-attired courtesan, the sad street-walker." This mixing, warned the author, was "highly dangerous," but it was the mixing he was warning about, not the drinking.
Choose your drinking companions wisely, lady lushes! (And choose your books wisely, too: go get The Victorian City! You won't regret it!)

Friday, January 10, 2014

We already knew Dickens was good at naming

While I've got Dickens on the brain, here's a very quick post drawing on Robert Gottlieb's Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens. Gottlieb's book is brief and synthetic rather than groundbreaking, but for Dickens fans it does perform a service: while much research has been done, and many books and articles written, about the lives of Dickens's sons, relatively little of it makes its way into Dickens biographies, which tend, reasonably, to end with Dickens's own death. So our portrait of his children is incomplete, and, Gottlieb argues convincingly, somewhat unfair: even if we know better, we tend to take Dickens's own disappointment in them as a reflection of reality, whereas their lives and fates were much more mixed, and some could certainly be called happy and successful.

For today's post, however, it's all about the nicknames. All of Dickens's children had them, some more than one, and they're fun. Herewith, in birth order:
Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, 1837–1896

Flaster Floby (a corruption of Master Toby)

Mary Angela Dickens, 1838–1896

Mild Glo'ster

Catherine Macready Dickens, 1839–1929

Lucifer Box (which Gottlieb glosses: "A 'lucifer' was a safety match, and from her earliest years Katey's temper would flare up the way matches flared up--and the way her father's did as well.")

Walter Savage Landor Dickens, 1841–1863

Young Skull ("for his high cheekbones")

Frank Jeffrey Dickens, 1844–1886

Chickenstalker (Origin obscure: "One source claims it's descriptive of 'his make-believe hunting adventures around the home place.' More generally, it's ascribed to a character in 'The Chimes.' . . . But why would you name a baby boy after a jolly, fat old lady? Was baby Frank conspicuously jolly and fat? If so, we have no record of it.")

Alfred d'Orsay Tennyson DIckens, 1845–1912

Skittles (origin obscure)

Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens, 1847–1872

The Ocean Spectre ("because of what Georgina [Hogarth, Dickens's sister-in-law, who more or less raised the children after Dickens repudiated their mother] called his curious habit of pausing in his play, cupping his tiny hands under his chin, and casting a faraway look over the ocean.")

Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, 1849–1933

The Jolly Postboy

The Comic Countryman

Mr. H, or just H

Dora Annie Dickens, 1850–1851

Dora, always frail, died after a mere six months of life and was never nicknamed.

Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, 1852–1902

Plorn (Plorn was the only Dickens child to actually use his nickname out in the world; it essentially became his name.)
Two immediate thoughts come to mind on seeing this list assembled:

1. The Dickens nicknames give the Mitford girls' nicknames a run for the money.

2. That's a whole lot of children in a short time span, even for the Victorian era. The failure of the Dickens marriage, like the failure of almost any marriage, surely had multiple causes--not least of which, by any means, was Dickens himself--but it's hard not to attribute a substantial part of Catherine Dickens's decline in health, emotional strength, and general appetite for life (which drove Dickens to distraction, scorn, and eventually cruelty) to the wear and danger of that constant cycle of pregnancy and birth.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Keep it under your hat

I wrote about the pleasures of Judith Flanders's The Victorian City on Monday, but I can't help returning to it today to share one more wonderful bit. It comes from the same chapter as Monday's passage about the piemen, and it's a mere footnote to a section about coffee houses and the ways people ate there--including bringing their own meat for the waiter to put on the fire and cook. Flanders quotes from one of Dickens's All the Year Round pieces, "Night Walks," wherein he tells of seeing a man at a Covent Garden coffee house in 1860 take "out of his hat a large cold meat pudding." To that Flanders appends the following footnote:
If Dickens is to be believed, men kept almost everything they owned in their hats. It is almost quicker to itemize those characters who did not use their hat as a handy man-bag. Those who did include: Mr Pickwick, who keeps his glove and handkerchief there when he goes skating; in Oliver Twist a hat is home to Mr Bumble's handkerchief; the Dodger brings hot rolls and ham for breakfast in his; his pickpocket colleague Toby Crackit puts a shawl in "my castor" ["castor" = beaver]; in Nicholas Nickleby, Newman Noggs, flustered, tries to fit a parcel "some two feet square" into his, as well as keeping at different times a letter there, "some halfpence" and a handkerchief, while the moneylender Arthur Gride keeps large wedding favours in his; in The Old Curiosity Shop, Kit's handkerchief is in his hat; in Martin Chuzzlewit, Montague Tigg keeps old letters, "crumpled documents and small pieces of what may be called the bark of broken cigars" in his, while the stagecoachman uses his to store his parcels for delivery; in Little Dorrit, Pancks, the moneylender's clerk, keeps his notebook and mathematical calculations there; and finally, in David Copperfield, David puts a bouquet for Dora "in my hat, to keep it fresh"--possibly the only fully middle-class person in Dickens's novels to use this caching spot. Much later in the century Shelock Holmes notices a bulge in Watson's hat, which indicates the has stashed his stethoscope there, but there are few other mentions in fiction. I suspect it was a standard location for a man's handkerchief, and for all the other items Dickens merely thought it was funny.
If that litany of silliness hasn't convinced you to buy Flanders's book, I don't know what will!

Monday, January 06, 2014

On the streets of the Victorian city

I recently discovered that, like many people, I had been led badly astray by my youth. But unlike most people in that situation, the discovery brought joy rather than sorrow (or decades of therapy).

Specifically, I thought I'd read all of Dickens except The Old Curiosity Shop (which I've avoided for years because of Little Nell, even as I've re-read the others)--but as I read Judith Flanders's wonderful The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens's London and kept encountering unfamiliar passages and characters from Oliver Twist, I realized that I actually had never read it. I'd instead checked it off the mental list twenty-plus years ago based on a jumbled recollection of having read an adaptation (think Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare) as a kid and then playing Oliver in Oliver! when I was thirteen. Oh, joy! My book bag for an upcoming London trip could be repacked--and Little Nell could live, insipidly, for another day!

That was far from the only joy I received from Flanders's book, however. I've long been a fan of her Inside the Victorian Home, which is exactly the sort of up-close, detail-and-anecdote-filled history I most enjoy, and this book takes that same approach to the streets of London.

At first I was worried that the conceit of the subtitle--that Dickens would be our guide--was merely a hook designed to capitalize on last year's Dickens bicentennial, and that Dickens would ultimately prove more window dressing (or even limitation) than central source. But oh, was I wrong: one of the great pleasures of Flanders's book is how much more she makes us appreciate Dickens's eye for detail, and how deftly she uses those details to help us understand the life Dickens was seeing around him. I can't count the number of times Flanders seizes on an expression or aside in one of Dickens's novels--the sort of descriptive texture that most readers would pass over, uncomprehending but untroubled, in the rush of Dickens's prose--and uses it to illustrate or explain some forgotten aspect of street life. Dickens, in Flanders's hands, is restored to his role of reporter and man on the street, never forgetting anything he sees his fellow Londoners do.

Perhaps my favorite example comes in the utterly fascinating chapter on street food, when Flanders gets to the piemen. Being a pieman, she explains, was not really profitable:
In the 1840s, the Corn Laws kept the price of flour high and, with it, the price of pies. To maintain their price at the expected penny, the piemen were forced to scrimp: their pies were made with cheap shortening, or had less filling, or poor-quality meat. Many of the legends of cats-meat, or worse, in pies spring from this period. In 1833, Sam Weller advises the horrified Mr Pickwick, "Wery good thing is weal pie, when you . . . is quite sure it ain't kittens," but in summer "fruits is in, cats is out."
Even the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1849 didn't help, as the piemen then found themselves competing with pie shops. So, Flanders explains, the piemen's customer base was reduced almost entirely to boys,
who worked in the streets, eating coffee-stall breakfasts, shellfish at lunch, hot eels or pea soup for dinner, perhaps with a potato, and a pie to fill in the gaps when they could afford it. What the boys loved about piemen was their method of charging. A pie cost a penny, but all piemen were willing to toss a coin for one: if the customer won, he got the pie free; if the pieman won, the pieman kept both pie and penny. Tossing for a pie was part of the language. Dickens used it regularly: in Pickwick Papers the stagecoach driver warns his passengers: "Take care o' the archvay, gen'lm'n. 'Heads,' as the pieman says.' In David Copperfield, little Miss Mowcher is like "a goblin pieman" as she tosses up the two half-crowns she is paid, as did Montague Tigg in Martin Chuzzlewith spinning a coin "in the air after the manner of a pieman."
See what I mean? I'm sure when I read those lines in Pickwick and the other novels, that I simply chalked them up as character-driven slang, with nary a though to the history they revealed.

The Victorian City is full of passages like that, ones that give you the feeling--brief and illusory though it might be--that you understand what it would have been like to walk down the streets of Victorian London. It's both a great book for the lover of London and a useful addition to the ever-growing Dickens bookshelf. (I should say: it's been available in the UK for more than a year, but the US edition isn't scheduled to be published until this summer.)