Sketches by Boz: A Brief Introduction

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.

His Alias

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

Meanwhile…

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.

Maclise, Daniel; John Forster (1812-1876); Paintings Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/john-forster-18121876-32390

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!

A question:

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!

26 Comments

  1. Ditto to Dana’s comments. Also, CD’s very first two sentences encapsulate set forth a theme he never strayed from and set the tone for his work that would follow: “How much is conveyed in those two short words—‘The Parish!’ And with how many tales of distress and misery, of broken fortune and ruined hopes, too often of unrelieved wretchedness and successful knavery, are they associated!”

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  2. Oh, by all means #DickensClub!!! I’ll tweet anon.

    Thanks for the wonderful background, Sydney…now I’m off to read about the Beadle!

    Speaking of, as a Yank, when I hear or read that generally unfamiliar word, my first association is always from SCROOGE (Alistair Sim), wherein, on Christmas morning, poor hysterical Mrs. Dilber (Kathleen Harrison), misreading Scrooge’s joy (and attempt to give her a guinea for a Christmas present) as a mad assault, cries out, in her inimitable Cockney, that she’ll have to “scream for the Beadle!”

    What fun!

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  3. What an enriching backdrop you have created for reading “Sketches”! Thanks much for the time, effort, and clear and attractive presentation of the life, times, and work of the Inimitable!

    I think that sharing thoughts on this comments portion is a good start. Clearly, not as robust as live conversation, but a way to share perspectives.

    1. Imperfections: “. . . sent into the world with all their imperfections (a good many) on their heads.” What a humble acknowledgement of his literary beginnings. It is such a sure principle: practice makes (more) perfect.

    2. Mark of genius: “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.” What a lovely image comes to mind of the wickedly intelligent, perceptive Dickens walking the streets of 19th-century London, and “becoming a part of it, and living within it.”

    3. Forster: We have so much reason to love this man, who “shepherded” Dickens’ remarkable creativity. Great image: “Forster, the same age as Dickens, was something of a Horatio to Dickens’ Hamlet.”

    Thanks much, Dickensian Wren!

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  4. A wonderful intro to the Inimitable’s corpus, this first sketch. Already we see several “types” of characters that will become so familiar in his later works.

    For example, the “small tyrant” figured in the master of the workhouse: “He is a tall, thin, bony man…and eyes you,
    as you pass his parlour-window, as if he wished you were a pauper, just to give you a specimen of his power. He is
    an admirable specimen of a small tyrant: morose, brutish, and ill-tempered; bullying to his inferiors, cringing to his
    superiors, and jealous of the influence and authority of the beadle.”

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  5. Absolutely loved these comments!!! Dana, YES! As to the workhouse master …fabulous quote. Thank you so much for your thoughts, Dan & Chris, and also the Gutenberg link…perfect!!!

    Here’s what I commented on twitter also:

    #DickensClub Day 1. Love all these comments so much! Both here and on the site…So agree with @RailWrites & @ljswansonwrites (beautiful comments!) and Chris on the webpage; & as @Caf01_Tx and I were discussing, the schoolmaster (“the very reverse of” the workhouse master –a “small tyrant”) – but the poor schoolmaster reminds me of a bit of a forerunner to the kind schoolmaster we’ll meet in The Old Curiosity Shop. And that beadle! “How pompously he marshals the children into their places! and how demurely the little urchins look at him askance as he surveys them when they are all seated, with a glare of the eye peculiar to beadles!”

    All this local “parish” administration…it kind of sets the tone for Oliver Twist & the persistent fear of the workhouse among the poor…anything would be better than that!

    Also, loved that funny moment, about the beadle’s assistance with putting out the fire, running like he meant it, then “at some house, smelling strongly of soot, at the door of which the beadle knocks with considerable gravity for half an hour” 🙄😂

    But back to the schoolmaster: “one of those men one occasionally hears of, on whom misfortune seems to have set her mark; nothing he ever did, or was concerned in, appears to have prospered.” I hated to leave the lonely figure walking up “the sunny side” of the courtyard 💔

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  6. Oh how my heart aches for the poor schoolmaster. I felt like I knew the man. Thanks so much for the wonderful background information as well!

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  7. Such great insights into the Inimitable’s first offerings to the world!

    I was struck, in listening to the first two sketches, by Dickens as Society’s Grand Jester.

    He punctures pomposity, pretense, and posturing with such deftness.

    He sounds a cautionary note: Do not identify yourself with position, with role, and with the authority associated with it. Beware: you risk losing your humanity, harming the humanity of others.

    Dickens’ marvelous humor eases the blow. But, the blow is still felt.

    Avoid pretense and personal aggrandizement at all costs!

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  8. On Sketches day 2 (“The Curate–The Old Lady–The Half-pay Captain”) …

    I laughed so much at this Sketch!! Particularly about the handsome young curate (who “parted his hair on the center of his forehead in the form of a Norman arch” 😂) who “came to astonish the parishioners”: “half the young-lady inhabitants were melancholy with religion, and the other half, desponding with love. Never were so many young ladies seen in our parish church on Sunday before” –UNTIL the cadaverous, odd-looking rival shows up in town, and then no matter how much the curate coughed to arouse sympathy, it was no good! 😂

    Then, of course, I loved the bit about the troublesome half-pay Captain whose assistance (ahem) in handyman work on the old lady’s house and grounds gives her no end of trouble 😜

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  9. Chapter 2 – The Curate. The Old Lady. The Half-Pay Captain: I want more. I want to know what happens to them, how their lives intersect. The transitions are too sudden, not fluid. But this, I believe, is due to limited space and to CD immaturity as a writer because both fade over the course of his career. The mania with which the parishioners assail first the new curate and then their quick transfer to the new clergyman foreshadows our own mania for the newest latest fad on social media. That CD is prescient about so many things in our time is not surprising given his keen observation and the fact that everything old is new again. Perhaps it is not so much that he is prescient but that human society cannot but help follow patterns, and our goal should be to recognize those patterns and to either step out of them or embrace and enhance them. The little old lady is certainly a master of patterns in her daily routine, yet she embraces the half-pay captain’s disruptions “when it is all over”. She, unconsciously (?), sees beauty in his chaos and, I think, that it enhances her own life.

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    1. I love your comment, Christine! Yes, how much more do we run after “the newest latest fad on social media” as you put it! And the “patterns” ~ yes, I see (so far) in these early Sketches, an astute observation of certain “types” of persons & people in certain positions, and I love his ability to satirise them, making us aware of our own foibles and those of society. But agreed, it feels like the depth of characterization is something that was to come later, where we see the types turn into characters more real than many of those we meet in day to day life!

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  10. Day 3 – “The Four Sisters”

    Oh, those Willis sisters…did Mr Robinson have any idea that he’d be, in effect, marrying the whole *set*?? Smiling face with open mouth and cold sweat I do love that one line, though it’s meant in a different way than I like to think: “They seemed to have no separate existence, but to have made up their minds just to winter through life together.”

    “The house was the perfection of neatness–so were the four Miss Willises. Everything was formal, stiff, and cold–so were the four Miss Willises. Not a single chair of the whole set was ever seen out of its place–not a single Miss Willis of the whole four was ever seen out of hers.” Here maybe we have a bit of the foretaste of the way Dickens compares a setting to his characters–or in this case, the characters *are* actually a part of the setting! Or–*are* the setting…? “…and thus they vegetated–living in Polar harmony among themselves, and…occasionally icing the neighbors.”

    That honeymoon must have been extremely awkward….!

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  11. Chapter 3 – The Four Sisters: As one of four sisters myself I understand how it is “most peculiar” that the Miss Willises “seemed to have no separate existence” from one another because my sisters and I, though extremely close, are four very different people. That “[t]hey were so completely identified, the one with the other” is made even more peculiar with the “actuat[ion]” of Mr Robinson. Yet for me, they wouldn’t be so interesting if they weren’t, initially, spinsters,“far from juvenile” and “of an uncertain age”. CD’s spinsters are always good value – Miss Rachael Wardle, Charity Pecksniff, Miss LaCreevy, Miss Knagg, Sally Brass, Miss Miggs, Miss Tox, Rosa Dartle, Miss Wade come quickly to mind. I could also include his widows – Mrs Bardell, Mrs Todgers, Flora Finching, Mrs General – & even Betsey Trotwood, Miss Havisham and Mrs Gamp. In his treatment of these “odd women” (nod to Gissing), CD does what he does best – he forces us to (1) consider them and then (2) to reconsider them & their situation through his unique way of blending of comedy and tragedy. In spotlighting these women CD exposes the Victorian treatment of them as curiosities, burdens, nuisances, or useful extra hands, e.g. Perhaps, he seems to say between the lines, we should give them – or rather, allow them to pursue – something more useful to do than to provide gossip for the neighbors.

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  12. Hi, fellow Dickensians! I’m out on a long shift, so I’ll make some comments here about numbers 4 & 5 both… “The Election for Beadle,” and “The Broker’s Man.”

    The Election:

    So, our half-pay Captain won the day for his candidate, Bung! I don’t know whether to be tickled at that, or a little sorry for Spruggins ~ with his 10 children (2 twins) “and a wife!!!” Had a chuckle about Spruggins’ advocate, the “official party who lives in our row. He owns some half-dozen houses in it, and always walks on the opposite side of the way, so that he may be able to take in a view of the whole of his property at once.”

    So enjoyed the spoof on the “celebrated negative style adopted by great speakers” ~ and the huge “political” row that occured over the dissemination of the workhouse soup recipe! Dickens jabbing in fine form 😉

    The Broker’s Man:

    “Our parish being once again restored to a state of comparative tranquillity” after the election ~ I was delighted by the description of Bung as “one of the careless, good-for-nothing, happy fellows, who float cork-like on the surface, for the world to play at hockey with…” and we learn in his narrative that he ended up working for a broker doing some pretty distasteful work ~ “I was as seedy as a cheap cowcumber”! It had more humor at first, such as fo how, when he came to collect repayment of loans and is to stay in the house until they’re paid, he’s paid extra to fake being a servant, so as to save face for the borrower…eek! “The civility which money will purchase, is rarely extended to those who have none.”

    But here is the shift; from the comic, the narrative quickly becomes tragic, relating the misfortunes of some of the families he encountered, and the mother so crazed that she struck her child 😦 and all of whom seemed to have ended up in the infirmary, a house of correction, or the workhouse. Then, of the woman who was about to give up the miniature of her father, and that moment when the broker’s men discreetly left it on the table and out of their ledger…such a touching and sad scene.

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  13. Chapter 4 – The Election for Beadle: This sketch so captures politics that it should be required reading in high school Civics classes (do they have these anymore?)! That the Captain and the leader of the official party are at odds “with an equal disregard of [the] individual merits” of a candidate or issue is such an accurate assessment of politics today. Do they (we) even know what they (we) are arguing about? The issue itself gets lost in the verbal fencing of opponents whose sole aim is to take issue with the other. The fact that neither candidate is qualified for the position is immaterial to the political machines behind them. To the candidates, the office is simply a job; to the machine the office is power. To neither is the office a means of serving the people who would elect them. CD’s final jab at politics is to note that the outcome of the election ultimately rests on muffins.
    I’m always amazed at CD’s grasp of language given his spotty education. His vocabulary is astounding; he uses words so well, turns a better phrase than anyone, and, though his sentences can often stretch on for a very long time, they seem by their very length to absorb the reader into his thought and thereby express his meaning perfectly. I would be interested to know more about how he educated himself in regard to his vocabulary – was it simply absorbed via reading or did he, e.g., keep a thesaurus at hand? I love descriptions like “little restless perking eyes, which appear to have been given him for the sole purpose of peeping into other people’s affairs with”.
    Regarding the Leader of the Official Party’s complaint that “the daily journals . . . never give verbatim reports of vestry meetings” speeches: during his time as a shorthand court reporter CD earned a reputation for speed and accuracy. He was often asked for by name by certain politicians to attend their speeches because they knew that if he took down their speech it could be printed, verbatim, in the next day’s newspaper.

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  14. Chapter 5 – The Broker’s Man: Mr Bung – doing a job that needs to be done, yet no one really wants to do it and no one likes you for doing it. Mr Bung, and Mr Fixem also, have hearts at least. They are attune to the plight of the unfortunate, perhaps because they have experienced the same.
    CD has connected the dots of the rich, the poor, and those in between – no one, he reveals, is exempt from troubles – in this case money troubles. Troubles are worse for the poor because they have little or no recourse, but the better off still feel the sting (embarrassment, wounded pride, but sometimes worse – bankruptcy, imprisonment).
    CD knew the sting of money woes early on (family money woes through much of his childhood including the traumatic blacking factory experience), and worried about money for the rest of his life. Mr Bung would have been a familiar character to young CD. What is amazing is that CD was able to separate the man from the occupation. He was sympathetic to the man doing a distasteful job – rather than chastising the man for bringing misery to the family – hate the sin and not the sinner.
    Note: Mr Bung foreshadows Mr Neckett in “Bleak House” (see especially Ch XV Bell Yard).

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  15. Chapter 6 – The Ladies’ Societies – Busy work to keep otherwise idle women busy. Quoting myself from my post about The Four Sisters: “Perhaps, he seems to say between the lines, we should give them – or rather, allow them to pursue – something more useful to do” – not so much between the lines here I fear. And, again, his use of language is exquisite, rambling sentences that suck you (me, at least) in and create such a vivid mental picture. The battle between the Misses Brown & Co. and the Johnson Parkers rivals that between the leader of the official party and Captain Purday.

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