Wherein we are introduced to Sketches by Boz and the Inimitable’s first published story, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk”; On the publication of collected Sketches; On his alias, “Boz”; Touching on the Inimitable’s life in 1836; A look at the day and the week in the DCRC; And a Question.
Happy Day One of our Dickens Chronological Reading Club, friends! Today we embark on the first of the Sketches. (Or at least, I do; but please read at whatever pace works for you! Start later, read more earlier, or whatever!) But I wanted to first give a brief introduction to these earliest published stories of the Inimitable.
In Dickens’ Preface of 1850 to Sketches by Boz, he writes: “The whole of these sketches were written and published, one by one, when I was a very young man. They were collected and republished while I was still a very young man; and sent into the world with all their imperfections (a good many) on their heads.” He calls them sometimes “crude and ill-considered, and bearing obvious marks of haste and inexperience.” However relatively tame they are compared with his later works, they have the mark of that sprightly genius, the laser-sharp attention to detail, the pathos mixed with comedy ~ in that unique blend of his which, eventually, could only be described as Dickensian.
His first story, and subsequent “Sketches”:
In late 1833, Dickens went to the office of the Monthly Magazine with a short story in hand. (Its title, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” was later to be changed for the published collection, Sketches by Boz, to “Mr Minns and His Cousin.”)
This story, Dickens recalls after, he “dropped stealthily one evening at twilight, with fear and trembling, into a dark letter-box, in a dark office.” It was to be his first published story. He recalls, seeing it in print in the next edition of the periodical (December 1833): “I walked down to Westminster Hall, and turned into it for half an hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen there.”
Dickens was to write more in the coming months for the Monthly Magazine, and eventually to supplement his reporting work for the Morning Chronicle with new sketches too; eventually, Dickens was also to accept George Hogarth’s invitation to write for his new venture, the Evening Chronicle. (Hogarth was soon to become Dickens’ father-in-law upon the marriage to Catherine Hogarth.) In June 1835, he began writing them for Bell’s Life in London.
Dickens was enamored of walking in London, of observing the minutiae of ordinary people in their ordinary life. “He cannot describe a scene,” writes Peter Ackroyd in his marvelous biography, “without also becoming a part of it, and living within it. His genius lay in an imaginative sympathy so strong that the world overpowers him”—from prisons and executions, restless crowds, and the poor. “But he also had an unwearying sense of comedy even in the darkest situations.”
In 1835, Dickens, all youthful eagerness, readily took John Macrone up on the latter’s request to publish a collection of his Sketches. But as Dickens was as yet a new author, the more substantial name of George Cruikshank (for the illustrations) was to give the publication the extra interest it might otherwise have lacked for buyers. The first volume of the Sketches was published on 8 February, 1836, and the second collection would be published in December.
There’s been debate on how to pronounce “Boz,” the pen name Dickens used for these early works. Many now pronounce it with a short “o,” as I did so for quite a while. Given its history, however, it was probably pronounced with a long “o” as in “Boze.” (Kind of reminds me of the days when ~ though an adopted Oregonian now ~ I was one of those newcomers who pronounced it the dreaded “Oregone.” It took some time before I could reconcile myself to the correct pronunciation ~ both for Oregon and Boz! As to the latter, since following fellow Dickensian and Club member @sketchesbyboze (Boze Herrington) on twitter, I’m now not only reconciled about it, but think it is marvelous, and couldn’t be any other way!
Where did the “Boz” come from? Dickens’ younger brother, Augustus, was nicknamed Moses (after a character in The Vicar of Wakefield) ~ which the latter pronounced as a through-the-nose “Boses,” afterwards shortened to “Boz.”
“Who the dickens ‘Boz’ could be
Puzzled many a learned elf,
Till time unveiled the mystery,
And ‘Boz’ appeared as Dickens’s self.”~ published in Bentley’s Miscellany, March 1837
1836 was a big year for Dickens. The first installment of The Pickwick Papers was published on 30 March, and just a few days later he was married to Catherine Hogarth. (But more on Pickwick anon.)
Another note: I was just asked how Dickens met his close friend and biographer, John Forster. Turns out, it was also late-1836, at the home of their friend Harrison Ainsworth. (Ackroyd thinks it likely that they were introduced by their mutual publisher, John Macrone.) Forster, the same age as Dickens, was something of a Horatio to Dickens’ Hamlet; he was to be the one to whom Dickens confided secrets about the trauma of his childhood ~ working in the blacking factory, and his father’s imprisonment for debt in the Marshalsea ~ and those autobiographical written fragments which were instead to be used in forming the story of David Copperfield. Forster, starting with one of the numbers of Pickwick, was thereafter to get all of Dickens’ subsequent early drafts first. Peter Acrkoyd writes: “it is not going too far to say that he became Dickens’s literary agent, editor, proof-reader and critic.” The painting below is of a young John Forster in 1830, six years before the meeting with Dickens.
Looking at today, and this week…
Our first Sketch, today’s, is part of the “Our Parish” sequence, subtitled, “The Beadle—The Parish Engine—The Schoolmaster.” We’ll see in today’s first Sketch on “The Parish,” a hint of the beginnings of Oliver Twist in its beadle, and of the workhouse. (This was around the time of the new Poor Law of 1834, sharply criticized by Dickens and others, which made the parish workhouse system essentially the whole solution for the poor, rather than continuing direct relief in terms of food, clothing, etc. The workhouse was so feared in its bleak, starvation conditions that the idea was, it would be a deterrent to any seeking relief.)
Tomorrow’s will be Chapter Two, “The Curate—The Old Lady—The Half-pay Captain.” And so on.
If you don’t have access to a book or audiobook of it yet (there’s a 3-part audiobook read by Peter Joyce on Audible or Scribd and possibly Overdrive through your local library), it is free to read at many sites, including The Circumlocution Office.
As of this morning (4 Jan), we have at least eight, including myself, who are going to embark on the entire read, and a few others who are joining in for at least one book, or for the info!
How would it be easiest to go about sharing thoughts as we read? We (including myself) can write in the comments below, and/or those who are joining in on twitter could also comment on it, perhaps with the hashtag #DickensCRC (for Chronological Reading Club)? Or simply #DickensClub, which doesn’t appear to have been used except for 2 non-related posts, as far as I could tell. (I tried #DCRC, but it comes up with a bunch of posts about camel-racing! Dickens might enjoy the random disconnectedness of the two things, but…)
What are your thoughts on the hashtag for those joining in on twitter? [UPDATE: Looks like #DickensClub is the popular vote so far!]
Any other means you’d suggest for sharing thoughts as we go? I wouldn’t be opposed to some group message/chat, or even the occasional Zoom, but honestly, I’m a bit shy and would prefer not to lead it! 🙂 So, if we want to just keep it to blog & twitter responses, that is more than fine with me. Always open to ~ and grateful for ~ changes/suggestions!