Dickens Club Week 3 (Sketches by Boz) and a Week 2 Wrap-up

Wherein we take a glance back at the second week of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-23; With a look ahead to week three.

Friends, we’re about to begin Week 3 of our Dickens Club. Again, a huge congrats, no matter where you’re at in the reading process, and a “thank you” for reading along with us!

A very warm welcome to any new members that have joined in, including Ruth (on twitter), and my dear friend (I can blame him more than a little for my Dickens obsession), Lenny!!

Little reminder: feel free to comment below this post for Week 3’s Sketches, so that our threads in previous posts don’t get so long that they become difficult to find ~ or comment on twitter with the hashtag #DickensClub. For any newer members: My little Intro to Sketches by Boz can be found here. And if you need a reminder about the schedule overall, it’s in my intro post here.

screenshot_20220113-110254-379Henry (he and I have been marveling over some of the same quotes) has mentioned it’s still helpful to have The Circumlocution Office’s link to the daily Sketch on twitter, so I’ll continue that tradition—with a huge thanks to the most marvelous, joyously Dickensian account, the Dickens Fellowship for retweeting these ~ it has brought a sense of fun & camaraderie and has not only made more people aware of our group read, but has sent at least one person not currently reading with us to the library this week with the desire to read/reread these gems! 😊

Week Two Wrap-Up:

boz 6 -gcThis week, starting with the first in the “Scenes” sequence (“The Streets—Morning”), we’ve seen London in its pre-dawn half-life, as the “bustle and animation” of the streets begins anew along with the sun, to the “dark, dull, murky winter’s night, when there is just enough damp gently stealing down to make the pavement greasy” (“The Streets—Night”). We’ve seen the servants flirting with each other as they take in the morning milk and open the shutters, to the enthusiasm of the prospect of buttered muffins at night. (What is it with Dickens and muffins?!) Then the heart-wrenching image of the “wretched woman with the infant in her arms, round whose meager form the remnant of her own scanty shawl is carefully wrapped,” trying to sing out a popular ballad against the rain, and her own tears. We’ve glimpsed old Scotland-Yard as it used to be, and Seven Dials as it is in the 1830s, and as it was never meant to be. We’ve seen, in Dickens’ imagination, so teeming with life, clothes in secondhand shops tell stories of their former owners.

screenshot_20220113-081503What a fantastic week it was for discussion! Yvonne, Chris, Cassandra, and I all thought of Bleak HouseScreenshot_20220113-081556 with the first mention of spontaneous combustion, and the “Morning” Sketch had Yvonne singing “My Time of Day” from Guys and Dolls. Laura S, after reading the “Night” Sketch, finds herself longing, like the Londoners, to have “a convivial gathering after some sort of entertaining performance” in the midst of this seemingly never-ending pandemic. Laura S and Yvonne both reflected on how Dickens, so gifted at rousing our sympathy for individuals in desperate situations, seems to have a less sympathetic view of the seedy culture of Seven Dials as a whole ~ “raffish and disreputable and faintly dangerous” (Yvonne) ~ with “no moment of deep concern for any particular person” (Laura S). And the three of us were put off by the opening antisemitic comment in “Meditations in Monmouth Street,” though it was followed by a very fanciful, almost Sherlockian (Yvonne added, Mr Bucket!) touch, as our narrator fancifully deduces the histories of the clothing’s former owners by observing them with the closest

Skeleton suit
Image from https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/skeleton-suit/?s=09 : Designer unknown. 1800-1820. Source: Museum Rotterdam https://museumrotterdam.nl/collectie/item/68585-1-2

detail. Can’t you just see Dickens himself getting so caught up in his mind palace that the characters he is daydreaming about are more real than those he’s around in our comparatively mundane world? Including a lady in one of the secondhand stores: “in the depth of our meditations we might have been staring at the old lady for half an hour without knowing it.” (On this note: Yvonne tracked down an image and info about a boy’s “skeleton suit” mentioned in this Sketch.)

Plex has noted how well Dickens captures that strange sense of time that one experiences when traveling ~ and Chris commented on this too!

Sketches Wk 2 - Cassandra commentCassandra loved “Shops and their Tenants”: “Dickens could’ve written a whole book about a cursed building and I’d read every word of it.” Certainly, buildings in all his works become not only haunted by the spirits of their inhabitants, but the buildings seem to become characters too!

Sketches - Wk2 - Daniel commentDaniel calls Dickens “the Seer of the Largely Unseen-things we mere mortals miss”; he is the “Alchemist” ~ as he takes “the most ordinary things and refashions them into mystery.” On that note, Chris loves it when “CD gives a treatise on a common, every day object with the purpose of giving it enhanced meaning as he does here with the door knocker [in “The Streets—Morning”].”

Sketches wk 2 - Lenny comment
Comment by Lenny H.

Lenny reflects on Dickens-as-storyteller/craftsman; the way “Dickens is controlling the reader’s response. […] Got to watch out for this guy, as he’s developing his fiction strategies”—and, “My god, ‘Sketches’ is working like a writing lab for all that follows. He’s barely in his 20’s and the sociologist in him seems so well developed and functional.” He reflects also on the theatricality and the images of theater/drama in the “Night” Sketch particularly:

Sketches - wk 2 - chris comment
Comment by Chris M.

“Isn’t it really a drama with a kind of master of ceremonies who sets out the various ‘scenes’—watches with us as they play out, and then becomes the curtain-closer as this play comes to its conclusion? I think this is Dickensian theater masquerading as a ‘sketch.’” Lenny has been enamored of the “Night” Sketch in particular. Lenny also asks us about gender roles in Dickens, even as early on as the Sketches, and how his thoughts develop. Chris suggests in her remarkable responses that he will use some of these characters ~ e.g. a Nancy or a Little Nell and other “at risk personages” in order “to emphasize his point of social failure.” What does Dickens think of the comparative freedom of the men we encounter, versus the more constrained lives of the women? In the midst of the whole crowd of people that we fail to really “see,” Lenny asks what we make of the women in particular: is Dickens calling our attention to them as victims? What are we to make of it all? 

We’ve chatted about the circularity of Dickens’ interests/themes/motifs, and Lenny brought up the Jungian elements and Dickens’ recasting from the “dross” of childhood. I was reminded of my Ackroyd rereading recently ~ e.g. When Dickens lived near Rochester as a child, he was neighbors with a suspiciously familiar-sounding “old lady” and “half-pay captain.” It’s also one of the reasons, perhaps, why Dickens is so satisfying: as I mentioned, he writes in “a pattern of circularity, of things coming back round again, refined, anew. Or recast. Or even, redeemed. […] It all comes round again, in some mysterious ebb & flow, like the sea that is always with him!” Chris reflected on the importance of seeing how Dickens develops over the course of his work and life.

Sketches - wk 2 - Plex commentAnd friends, how cool is this: one of our members, Plex (on twitter), is reading Dickens in English for the first time! Isn’t that marvelous?

A Look Ahead to Week Three:

Today’s Sketch, the seventh in the “Scenes” sequence, is “Hackney-coach Stands,” and can be found here. Thank you, Chris, for the reminder about the illustrations that can be found on the Charles Dickens Page, if you don’t have a copy with illustrations! Since her reminder, I’ve been trying to include an illustration with the daily twitter link when there is one.

This week’s Sketches, if you’re continuing with one per day, would be as follows, with links to individual Sketches via The Circumlocution Office, though the entire work can also be accessed via Gutenberg and elsewhere:

Tues, 18 Jan, 2022: “Scenes,” Chapter Eight: “Doctors’ Commons”

Wed, 19 Jan, 2022: “Scenes,” Chapter Nine: “London Recreations”

Thurs, 20 Jan, 2022: “Scenes,” Chapter Ten: “The River”

Fri, 21 Jan, 2022: “Scenes,” Chapter Eleven: “Astley’s”

Sat, 22 Jan, 2022: “Scenes,” Chapter Twelve: “Greenwich Fair”

Sun, 23 Jan, 2022: “Scenes,” Chapter Thirteen: “Private Theatres”

Mon, 24 Jan, 2022: “Scenes,” Chapter Fourteen: “Vauxhall Gardens by Day”


  1. Dickensian Wren and Friends!

    What a marvelous recapitulation of last week’s installments of “Sketches,” and the various and very astute comments and observations.

    Don’t you think that Dickens improves our perception? Our ability to see with more nuance?

    Three observations:

    1. “(What is it with Dickens and muffins?!)”: There must be a doctoral dissertation somewhere on this topic!!! I wonder if anyone in the group has access to the Bodleian Library!

    2. “the buildings seem to become characters too!”: So true. I wrote an essay as an undergraduate on how in many instances homes in Dickens were mirrors of the minds and souls of the occupants . . . .

    3. “a convivial gathering after some sort of entertaining performance”: I experience this forum as a “convivial gathering” after reading and pondering the portion of “The Sketches.” Truly.

    Many thanks, Dickensian Wren and All!

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  2. “The autobiography of a broken-down hackney-coach, would surely be as amusing as the autobiography of a broken-down hackneyed dramatist . . . .”

    So delightful–the endless relishing of sights, sounds, smells of the venerable hackney coaches!

    Indeed, as pointed out, Dickens makes inanimate things into living, breathing, charming characters!

    I’m reminded of Maya Angelou’s poignant insight: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

    Dickens gives hackney coaches their opportunity to tell their story!

    Yay, Dickens!

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  3. Thanks, Rach, for the wrap-up! These have been great because you point to comments I’ve missed which are so helpful and interesting!

    Chapter 7 – Hackeny-coach Stands – I do not live in New York City but I suspect this Sketch could be updated to refer to NYC’s yellow taxi cabs – can anyone attest to this? – which are (are they?) being replaced by Uber’s and Lyft’s. Indeed, not just NYC’s taxi cabs, but taxi cabs everywhere.

    CD’s fondness for coaches will become very evident as we progress through his novels. They are vehicles (pun) for him to wax nostalgic, or for his characters to contemplate their situation(s), for conversations to take place, to indicate passage of time, etc. I’ll try to keep aware of this as we move forward.

    “We keep no horse, but a clothes-horse; enjoy no saddle so much as a saddle of mutton; and, following our own inclinations, have never followed the hounds. Leaving these fleeter means of gearing over the ground, or of depositing oneself upon it, to those who like them, by hackney-coach stands we take our stand.”
    “. . . one of [the horses] lifts his mouth to the ear of his companion, as if he were saying, in a whisper, that he should like to assassinate the coachman.”
    Sentences like these, in my humble opinion, are in no small part what ingratiated CD to his audience. I can see the smiles and laughter erupt from the listening audience as this sketch was being read aloud around a fire at home or in a pub or coffeehouse.

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    1. Absolutely, Chris!! 💙 And thanks for these wonderful comments, Daniel, Chris, & Lenny!!! Chris, I agree completely about these kind of sentences endearing Dickens to his audience ~ I found myself consistently smiling, frequently chuckling, at this comical, half-ironic, but nostalgic testament to inconvenience…why pay 8p to go at speed when you can lumber along for a shilling, at a brisk-ish walking pace? 😂 (“We pause for a reply…” 😂)

      I was thinking of Dickens’ description later, of Tellson’s Bank in A Tale of Two Cities, and how it is the epitomy of inconvenience, and those old-fashioned brown-suited men like Mr Lorry, who wear tights/gaiters/wigs of an earlier date, are endearingly dusty, and who are **proud** of the very inconvenience of Tellson’s! 😊 I can just feel both the ironic and yet loving twinkle in the eye ~ Dickens clearly has a fondness, as we discussed last week, for old-fashioned ways, even if they’ve arguably been replaced by more convenient, sensible ones. No, we stand by inconvenience! “By hackney coach-stands we take our stand.”

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  4. Chapter 8 – Doctors’ Commons – The germ that will be Bleak House! From the description of the courtroom, to the “very self-important-looking personages” who are the officers of the court, to the ridiculousness of the case of “Bumple against Sludberry”, to the “Prerogative-Office” wherein “It was curious to contrast the lazy indifference of the attorneys’ clerks who were making a search for some legal purpose, with the air of earnestness and interest which distinguished the strangers to the place, who were looking up the will of some deceased relative”, leaving legatees bewildered and perplexed by the “technicalities” and “whole string of complicated trusts”, while others, through “avarice and cunning” use those same features to drive “a nice hard bargain” “with some poverty- stricken legatee, who, tired of waiting year after year, until some life- interest should fall in, was selling his chance, just as it began to grow most valuable, for a twelfth part of its worth”!

    I think if we look hard enough we could find many of CD’s novels, at least aspects or foundations of them, in these Sketches.
    That said, CD’s contempt of and frustration with the legal profession comes through loud & clear here. He gets so lost in sarcastic contemplation – “pondering, as we walked away, upon the beautiful spirit of these ancient ecclesiastical laws, the kind and neighbourly feelings they are calculated to awaken, and the strong attachment to religious institutions which they cannot fail to engender” – “that we had turned into the street, and run up against a door-post, before we recollected where we were walking”. In short, “The law is a ass – a idiot.” CD will succinctly say via Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist.

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  5. Dickens’ essential benevolence shines through; but, he can also level human avarice, greed, willful stupidity in such a delicious way. From enduring and savoring the delights of old-fashioned inconveniences to damning some aspects of the educational and legal systems. What a wide-ranging spirit!

    Today is our son Luke’s birthday. We have anointed him “The Satirical Rogue” (we live in the Rogue Valley, southern Oregon). And, the highest compliment we can pay him, “That’s positively Dickensian, Dude!”

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  6. Dicken’s ideas and interests about/with the past seem to be piling up. As Wren suggests, there is a nostalgic twinkle mixed with irony, as the various notions of a hackney Coach seem to add to the complexity of Dickens’/Boz’s feelings. Daniel points out: when it comes to the law, there is no doubt. Avarice and graft, self-importance and tortured continuation of legal matters are the norm. And Chris looks ahead to the tragedies of Jarndyce in BH that cement Dickens’ horror of the courts. And the comments from Mr. Bumble in OT seem to be succinct. Yet, Boz pointed in earlier sketches that, at a very basic level, change or “Mutability” “rules.” However, in the legal system, the rigidity and trappings of the past are almost insurmountable. Maybe, then, with certain elements of British society at the time of the Sketches, there is little or no change? Some things our dear author just can’t be nostalgic about!

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  7. Loved these comments! Chris, agreed 100% about this being Bleak House prep. As Daniel says, “human avarice, greed, willful stupidity”; and Lenny: “in the legal system, the rigidity and trappings of the past are almost insurmountable.” Yes!

    Laughed aloud at the warp-wigged fellow who, our Boz was surprised to discover, “was no other than a doctor of civil law, and heaven knows what besides…he must be a very talented man. He conceals it so well though–perhaps with the merciful view of not astonishing ordinary people too much–that you would suppose him to be one of the stupidest dogs alive.” So scrumptious! 🤭 Then laughed aloud again at the court case, “Bumple against Sludberry”!

    That last paragraph strikes home, though. These “curious old records” are, sadly, more than just whimsical bits of human folly; they are almost like a kind of Book of Life itself, undying records of “jealousies and revenges; of affection defying the power of death, and hatred pursued beyond the grave” ~ I picture them as weaving the chains around people in life and death, like those wrongs and meannesses that forged the chain Marley created for himself, binding him in life, and after.

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  8. In “London Recreations,” I was particularly struck by Dickens’ portrait of two types of people and ways of “gardening.”

    “. . . and leaning back in his arm-chair, descants at considerable length upon its beauty, and the cost of maintaining it. This is to impress you—who are a young friend of the family—with a due sense of the excellence of the garden, and the wealth of its owner; and when he has exhausted the subject, he goes to sleep.”

    “On a summer’s evening, when the large watering-pot has been filled and emptied some fourteen times, and the old couple have quite exhausted themselves by trotting about, you will see them sitting happily together in the little summerhouse . . . ”
    That’s Dickens the human-foibles roaster and Dickens the cherisher of human authenticity and simplicity at this best!

    P.S. As a grand-parent, I delighted in this observation: “the children are tired, and amuse themselves and the company generally by crying, or resort to the much more pleasant expedient of going to sleep.” AMEN!

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  9. Chapter 9 – London Recreations – Moving quickly past the “humbler classes” aping their betters, and the “City man” and “retired [man] from business” who dote on their gardens, and pausing to comment causticly on the “course female education has taken of late days”, CD takes us to the Tea Gardens which I think would be a splendid way to spend a Sunday afternoon-evening. This sketch is close to my heart because it sounds a lot like any number of gatherings I’ve had with my family, from Weddings to Sunday dinners. The characters CD mentions could easily be members of my family (it’s a pretty large, extended Italian family), and I found myself thinking of them (past, long past, and present) as I read. Quite a sweet trip down memory lane for me with this one!

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  10. I love the way Boz moves from the General to the Particular in “London Recreations.” This is really a “classification” essay that would probably strike very closely to the hearts and minds of his readers. He’s dealing with the familiar, here, and I can imagine how much his readers would enjoy the descriptions of the various ways in which Londoners interact with the outside or “nature” aspects of of the sprawling city. There is a kind of innocence here, just slightly critical and ironic.

    In each section, Dickens gets down to a kind of poignant core, even though there are other details that affect one: In the “regular City man” segment, our protagonist has, besides his paper, only his garden with the quote: “(he) can be said to have any daily recreation beyond his garden….” The narrative implies that the garden is mostly for show, but it seems to me that this businessman does enjoy being with his paper, and his paroquet, while he sits “on an armchair reading his Sunday paper.” I’m drawn into this segment with these closeup details. It individualizes this white collar worker, while at the same time implying that these moments are few and far between. Business is his life and his garden, even though he has , probably, no time to work it himself, gives him solace and allows him to decompress on his Sundays.

    On the other hand, the next section presents a contrasting situation, “a very different class of men whose recreation is their garden.” Here the individual is retired and has the time to actually involve himself in the making and keeping up the garden. What we see here is his love of the garden for itself and the pleasure he has while toiling in it. He even stands by the window during inclement weather, looking at it. It’s as though he’s practically one with his garden. But the writer (Boz), pulls us in even further with more, almost intimate details involving the planting of seeds : “In springtime, there is no end to the sowing of seeds, and sticking little bits of wood over them which look like epitaphs to their memory.” This description of the beginning stages of planting the garden is so intimate–that it almost makes me cry. Are these seeds being treated almost as though, ultimately they are or will, as autumn approaches, be a sort of burial ground! And the labels a sort of memorializing touch?

    Finally, the “essay” takes us to the last segment, which involves an out door party atmosphere. Both Chris and Daniel have alluded to the ways in which this narrative affects them in personal ways. and it does, me too in the ways they’ve mentioned. But it also reminds me of the Chicago song: “Saturday in the Park,” with is various snapshots of the way in which the individuals and groups celebrate the outdoors in much more social manner than in the earlier two portraits. However, though, it doesn’t just generalize the theme, but gives us readers some interesting and individualizing portraits: “boys, with great silk hats just balanced on the top of their heads, smoking cigars, and trying to look as if they liked them….” and, then ultimately a finer detail, “the little boy…that diminutive specimen of mortality in the three-cornered pink satin hat with black feathers.” I’m especially drawn to the particularity of this description because of the mention of the boy as a very small “specimen of mortality.” As with the label “epitaphs” in the earlier narrative, the scent of death is suggested here. Are we, briefly being drawn into the idea that these things and people are but transitory images. There is the smell of impending death here.

    Comparatively, then, “London Recreations” is a wonderfully benign sketch, but one which draws the reader into many interesting particulars and thoughts. While the generalities in each give us the sense of universality–that these happenings are timeless, the details are the real crux of the matter and give the different segments their unique value and meanings.

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    1. Love all of these thoughts so much ~ and I couldn’t help pondering, like Daniel and Chris, the various kinds of “gatherings” such as we have in the three types in “London Recreations”.

      Lenny, wow, what a marvelous reflection, and I found myself also very touched by the passage in the second portrait of the gardening couple, which is a bit like my mom and I as we fool around in the garden, but it is tinged with mortality: “In spring-time, there is no end to the sowing of seeds, and sticking little bits of wood over them, with labels, which look like epitaphs to their memory.” I thought of Yeats: “I heard the old, old men say, …All that’s beautiful drifts away. Like the waters.” There is something melancholy, something of Winter and finality, even in the Spring. I love this couple, who seem to have the secret of happiness and contentment. They enjoy the twilight time, too: “On a summer’s evening, when the large watering-pot has been filled and emptied some fourteen times, and the old couple have quite exhausted themselves by trotting about, you will see them happily together in the little summer-house, enjoying the calm and peace of the twilight, and watching the shadows as they fall upon the garden […] no bad emblem of the years that have silently rolled over their heads […] and they require no more. They have within themselves the materials of comfort and content; and the only anxiety of each is to die before the other.” Wow. And…yes.

      As to today’s, “The River,” I couldn’t help but wonder going into it if we were to get a glimpse into this huge running (so to speak) motif and presence in Dickens’ works…the River, always with him, like the Sea, emblematic of so many aspects of London, and of Life itself. I went back to Ackroyd on this subject: of all the sights and sounds swirling around Dickens’ imagination, none were “more evocative for him than ‘the splash and flop of the tide’. Dickens grew up beside water–beside the sea, beside the tidal waters, beside the river […] Just as Dickens himself preferred to spend long periods in the coastal regions of England or of France, so many of the settings in his novels are by the sea’s edge and there are few of them which are not haunted by the presence of the river.”

      Of course, in this one there is the humorous and whimsical note, of everyone pretending to be a great waterman: “There has evidently been up to this period no inconsiderable degree of boasting on everybody’s part relative to his knowledge of navigation; the sight of the water rapidly cools their courage, and the air of self-denial with which each of them insists on somebody else’s taking an oar, is perfectly delightful.”

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    2. I also see a poignant side to the gardeners’ stories – The City Man’s garden is for a showpiece, for him to admire and to show off to visitors. It is a status symbol – one of those “things” we have because we can afford them and because “society” says we should have them, but one which we really don’t “need” or know what to do with – like a mansion or sports car or giant big screen tv. “. . . his delight in his garden appears to arise more from the consciousness of possession than actual enjoyment of it.”
      As for the retired couple, their garden stands in place of their lost son. They have no one (besides each other) to bestow their care on so they dote on their garden. It’s really rather sad even though it is beautiful.
      There are so many layers to Dickens’ writing!

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  11. Chapter 10 – The River – I love the machismo of this piece. “Amphibious-looking young men”, sentimental young men, burly boat men, boasting gentlemen, strapping athletes, indignant fathers – all on the water. What could go wrong, indeed! And can’t you just see Dickens walking along the shore, stopping every now and again to watch a particular scene, filling each in with his own experience of such moments. But even if things go inevitably wrong, there is beauty in the endeavor to have a successful water-party, if only to have a good story to tell afterwards.

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    1. A great statement, Chis: ‘What could go wrong, indeed”! And Boz signals early in this sketch that there is very little that can go RIGHT in these “water Parties”:

      “Now, with all respect for the opinion of society in general, and cutter clubs in particular, we humbly suggest that some of the most painful reminiscences in the mind of every individual who has occasionally disported himself on the Thames, must be connected with his aquatic recreations. Who ever heard of a successful water-party?—or to put the question in a still more intelligible form, who ever saw one? We have been on water excursions out of number, but we solemnly declare that we cannot call to mind one single occasion of the kind, which was not marked by more miseries than any one would suppose could be reasonably crowded into the space of some eight or nine hours. Something has always gone wrong.”

      One wonders how his audience reacted to this statement, not just the average reader of his column but even those retailers along the Thames who have an interest in the “selling ” of boating parties, or those who offer commercial, steam-driven transportation down the same river. The hyperbole embedded in this quote is obviously meant for humor, but still, those who wish to go on these parties might be driven away simply by his rhetoric. He claims “more miseries than anyone could suppose” have happened to him during all of his excursions on the water…. Don’t get me wrong, as I feel the comedy that follows is worthy of Chaplin and Keaton in their prime. The boat rowers, who perform a wonderful slapstick routine, the bumbling family aboard the steamers, freaking out about where they should go and finding out they are on the wrong boat–that is marvelous stuff. And I’m sure that the magazine readers would, for the most part, have loved it. But might there have been some letters to the editors protesting Boz’s words about the “miseries” of water parties, sort of warning people that all is not fun and games out on the Thames. And, it could be dangerous; children fall into the water! In short, I’d love to get into the library stacks and read some of the reader responses to this sketch!

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  12. “Astley’s” (Friday).

    Morning, friends! I have to head to my long shift soon, so I’ll have to make this one quick, but I’m looking forward to catching up on some reading and comments during the quiet times of the night tonight!

    So, we’ve gone to the circus, in this delightful spoof of its actors and its audience. Loved the spoofing of the various tropes, including the troublesome father-figure with his predictable prologue and the melodramatic turns…

    Also, laughed so much at this line: “He is none of your second-rate riding-masters in nankeen dressing gowns, with brown frogs, but the regular gentleman-attendant on the principal riders, who always wears a military uniform with a table-cloth inside the breast of the coat, in which costume he forcibly reminds one of a fowl trussed for roasting.” All with “an appearance of deep thought and poetic melancholy”!

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  13. Chapter 11 – Astley’s – My favorite line and one I believe to be indicative of CD (at the very least in these sketches), is: “Our histrionic taste is gone, and with shame we confess, that we are far more delighted and amused with the audience, than with the pageantry we once so highly appreciated.”

    This sentiment is echoed in the Jane Wagner/Lily Tomlin show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” (currently revived staring Cecily Strong). The crazy bag lady character, Trudy, tries to explain to her alien friends (her “space chums”) the difference between a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and Andy Warhol’s painting of a can of Campbell’s soup – one is soup, the other is art. The aliens just can’t grasp the concept – human brains are so weird! Until they go to Carnegie Hall. There, Trudy notices that all through the performance the aliens hardly looked toward the stage but instead were looking all around the audience. “What’s the matter? she asks them afterwards, “didn’t you like the performance?” “The performance?” they say, “that was soup. But the audience was art!” I’m paraphrasing, but I hope you get the idea.

    CD finds plenty of art in the audience of Astley’s. There is no doubt that CD is a master of characterization, but I think his grasp of awkward young men in particular is exceptional. Poor George – “a boy of fourteen years old, who was evidently trying to look as if he did not belong to the family”; who “waxed indignant, and remonstrated in no very gentle terms on the gross impropriety of having his name repeated in so loud a voice at a public place” by his younger siblings who, along with their parents, laugh at him for “think[ing] himself quite a man now”. This “exquisite” spends the entire evening wearing an “assumed . . . look of profound contempt” “rubbing the place where [his] whiskers ought to be, and . . . was completely alone in his glory.” Not a little autobiography in this description I’d wager. I’ve see this same pantomime in my own sons and their friends – and I’m sure plenty of 14 year old girls have performed a similar pantomime (speaking from my own experience as a one-time 14 year old girl). But CD’s awkward young men are something special. I think we’ll see a few more in these Sketches, and later in The Uncommercial Traveller, and in the novels we can look forward to: the young men at Mrs Todgers (Martin Chuzzlewit), Mr Toots (Dombey & Son), David Copperfield and Ham (David Copperfield), Mr Guppy (Bleak House), Tom Gradgrind (Hard Times), Pip and Herbert Pocket (Great Expectations), Sloppy and Bradley Headstone (Our Mutual Friend). I’m sure there are many more – will keep an eye out for them.

    CD’s lifelong love of, and attendance at theaters like Astley’s made him quite familiar with various types of performances and with actors. (I love his description of actors “attitudinizing” [what a word!] around the stage-doors during the day.) In fact, had a sever head cold not kept him from keeping an audition appointment at Covent Garden Theatre he no doubt would have been one of them. We have that head cold to thank for his writing career! (See charlesdickenspage.com) As with the awkward young men, we will hear much more about theaters and actors as we progress: (e.g., Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations).

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    1. Again, great writing, here, Chris. Our narrator achieves so much when he moves from the general to the particular. That is, he moves down the scale of rhetoric to capture the individual or individuals involved in his narratives, so that our empathy is so complete, so in tune with these various audience members, that it is AS THOUGH WE ARE SITTING IN THE CROWD with them. We watch a bit of the program, with them, and then we become them. Here’s an example that is amplified many times throughout:

      “Then when the man in the splendid armour vowed to rescue the lady or perish in the attempt, the little boys applauded vehemently, especially one little fellow who was apparently on a visit to the family, and had been carrying on a child’s flirtation, the whole evening, with a small coquette of twelve years old, who looked like a model of her mamma on a reduced scale; and who, in common with the other little girls (who generally speaking have even more coquettishness about them than much older ones), looked very properly shocked, when the knight’s squire kissed the princess’s confidential chambermaid.”

      I’m really amazed at the ability of this young writer to strategize how to bring his readers so close to the activity not only of what is going on with the main event, with its outstanding details, but with the parallel “event” of the watchers watching each other while watching the Astely circus.

      OK. I love the complexity of all this. Just wonderful. But Boz is not finished with his sketch just yet. There is much more work to do, and that will encompass another set of events OUTSIDE the theater. And by golly the old formula rears its head again–the appearance and reality theme. Watch how the master works this out:

      “Did any of our readers ever notice the class of people, who hang about the stage-doors of our minor theatres in the daytime? You will rarely pass one of these entrances without seeing a group of three or four men conversing on the pavement, with an indescribable public-house-parlour swagger, and a kind of conscious air, peculiar to people of this description. They always seem to think they are exhibiting; the lamps are ever before them.”

      He makes it seem as though these young men are a sort of group of, well, ruffians–who are, more or less, acting out a kind of attitude, indeed, a sort of “drama” for anyone who might be watching. And this may be true. It appears they are, so why not? Acting out, not acting out? What is real, here? But then he hits the reader with this “reality”:

      “Some years ago we used to stand looking, open-mouthed, at these men, with a feeling of mysterious curiosity, the very recollection of which provokes a smile at the moment we are writing. We could not believe that the beings of light and elegance, in milk-white tunics, salmon-coloured legs, and blue scarfs, who flitted on sleek cream-coloured horses before our eyes at night, with all the aid of lights, music, and artificial flowers, could be the pale, dissipated-looking creatures we beheld by day.

      We can hardly believe it now. Of the lower class of actors we have seen something, and it requires no great exercise of imagination to identify the walking gentleman with the ‘dirty swell,’ the comic singer with the public-house chairman, or the leading tragedian with drunkenness and distress; but these other men are mysterious beings, never seen out of the ring, never beheld but in the costume of gods and sylphs.”

      Appearance and reality. These guys appeared to be the magical characters in the theatrical presentation, but they are SO much different now. There is a kind of diminishment that Boz gives us near the end of this sketch that is so poignant! So sad and causes one, in this disillusionment, to want to go up to these fellows and ask, “What Happened?”

      But there is something else that interests me. Here it is–“the very recollection of which provokes a smile at the moment we are writing.” My gosh; this quote just slips by us so easily, and we probably don’t notices its significance, but now the writer has just invited us to join with him while he’s writing. This is an amazing self reference that beings us, not just closer to the text which he has written, but to him as an individual, as we read, simultaneously his thinking what he is writing as he writes…. Oh Boy!

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  14. Jane Austen and Astelys:

    In Chapter 54 of Emma, Mr. Knightley explains how Robert Martin became engaged to Harriet Smith. In his talk with Emma, Mr. Knightley mentions Astley’s, the wildly successful amphitheatre in London: “It is a very simple story. [Robert Martin] went to town on business three days ago, and I got him to take charge of some papers which I was wanting to send to John.—He delivered these papers to John, at his chambers, and was asked by him to join their party the same evening to Astley’s. They were going to take the two eldest boys to Astley’s. The party was to be our brother and sister, Henry, John—and Miss Smith. My friend Robert could not resist.”


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  15. Chapter 12 – Greenwich Fair – How exhilarating to read this Sketch about lots of people coming together to have a rip-roaring good time, with no thought of tomorrow or of COVID! Ah, the good ol’ days! This “spring-rash [Spring break??]: a three day’s fever”! Even though those days are behind me, as they are for our narrator, I kind of wish at least the opportunity to partake in such an event were available. As it is not, I vicariously enjoy the Fair and adhere to what Dennis Walder says in his Introduction to the Penguin Edition of Sketches by Boz about “Greenwich Fair”: “Underlying the comedy there is a longing to break through the dullness of the everyday, into a world where the improbable has become conventional, and ordinary people can transcend themselves at least briefly.” (xxxiii)

    My Penguin Edition also has a footnote which says this Sketch was “First published in the Evening Chronicle (16 April 1835); the Thursday before the Easter holiday that year, hence timely.” Even at this early stage, CD was keenly aware of the importance of timing and the use of popular culture in terms of engaging his audience. He will exploit both timing and popular culture in his Christmas stories and in many of his novels. Walder also says, regarding the Sketches as a whole, “Dickens established something new: an intermingling of reportage, fantasy and social concern that transforms ordinary people, events and landscape into something rich and strange, without losing a grip on reality.” (xxxiii) Indeed, CD’s ability to do this, in both his Sketches and in his novels, is his genius. (Even when he is called out for being “fantastic” or “unrealistic”, as he will be with his portrayal of Nancy in Oliver Twist and with Krook’s spontaneous combustion in Bleak House, he either successfully defends his position (re Nancy), or maintains that within the scope/context of the novel the event/episode is sound/plausible (re Krook).)

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  16. “Timing and the use of popular culture”–what a great and useful quote, Chris! To extend this idea further is a kind of ironic sense that Boz, himself, was becoming “popular culture” while writing about it. And then when the “Sketches” we’re collected in two volumes, the marketing idea was complete, and would be the model for most of Dickens’ publications that followed. Here we see a kind of double commercial whammy: write the novels to be published in serial format, and then reorder them to his audience as published texts, bound books of novels or collections of stories.

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  17. Just home from my long shift, sleepless & brainless 😄

    What a marvelous opening, and I was laughing at the outset: “If the Parks be ‘the lungs of London,’ we wonder what Greenwich Fair is—a periodical breaking out, we suppose, a sort of spring-rash…” etc.

    I can relate to the thought in the following paragraph, as Boz describes his later inclinations: “We have grown older since then, and quiet, and steady: liking nothing better than to spend our Easter, and all our other holidays, in some quiet nook, with people of whom we shall never tire…” Though whether Dickens is really that sedate and content with quiet, is somewhat doubtful…

    I absolutely loved his summary-spoof of the tropes of the sort of melodramas that are perhaps little prequels to the Crummles’ company! The unrequited love, the rightful heir and the wrong heir, the two assassins (one bad, one good), the double murder and the repentant death, all within about five-&-twenty minutes!!! More anon, with a clearer head!! Have a good night, all ✨

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  18. Chapter 13 – Private Theatres – Another demonstration of CD’s familiarity with the theatre – at least the cheaper theatres, but I’m sure what he’s written translates to the high-brow, serious theatres as well. He’s shown us the audience, now he shows us the actors up close and personal, as well as the backstage and stage areas. And Cruikshank perfectly captures CD’s description – it was fun to flip back & forth while reading the description to look at the illustration. He even captured the resemblance between Mrs Sarah Siddons and “The large woman, who is consulting the stage directions in Cumberland’s edition of Macbeth, [who] is the Lady Macbeth of the night; she is always selected to play the part, because she is tall and stout, and looks a little like Mrs Siddons – at a considerable distance.”

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  19. I want to revisit “Greenwich Fair,” briefly, to point out that once again Boz uses the authorial “we” as he did near the ending of “Astleys.” In that brief moment, he makes a slight authorial/narrative shift as he says, “…at the moment we are writing….” and briefly gives us readers the idea that we are seeing/hearing/reading something which brings us very close to the narrator, a kind of intimacy which I think his readers at the time would have appreciated. It’s as though we are there beside him as he gets in this little personal remark about what he’s thinking as he writes. I bring this up because we see something like this happening in the second paragraph of “Greenwich Fair”:

    “In our earlier days, we were a constant frequenter of Greenwich Fair, for years. We have proceeded to, and returned from it, in almost every description of vehicle. We cannot conscientiously deny the charge of having once made the passage in a spring-van, accompanied by thirteen gentlemen, fourteen ladies, an unlimited number of children, and a barrel of beer; and we have a vague recollection of having, in later days, found ourself the eighth outside, on the top of a hackney-coach, at something past four o’clock in the morning, with a rather confused idea of our own name, or place of residence. ”

    Here, again, he assumes a position of intimacy with the reader, speaks to us as though we were there with him,
    listening to the very descriptive and complex narrative that follows. I feel that this is a fairly unique strategy, so far in these sketches, that sort of validates for us the experience he is relating, and tells us, personally, the way the fair has affected him. Of course the anecdote is wonderfully humorous at the same time that it personalizes his earlier involvement.

    My guess is that Dickens, the writer, is falling back on a device common to the great 18th-century novelist Henry Fielding, who constantly encourages the reader to sort of sit with him as he tells his story. Here’s a very early example from TOM JONES:

    ” Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any farther together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion, of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever; and here I must desire all those critics to mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs or works which no ways concern them; for till they produce the authority by which they are constituted judges, I shall not plead to their jurisdiction.”

    This is a much more intrusive use of the authorial voice but nevertheless, when repeated often in the novel, closes the gap between the teller of the tale and the listener or reader. I think that is part of what Dickens is doing in these two sketches, albeit less violently. But of course, I’m wondering to what extent this will continue to happen in subsequent Dickens writings we’ll be reading….

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  20. “Private Theaters” is just an extraordinary bit of writing. My gosh, Boz just piles up detail after detail in getting the reader familiar with the environs and people making up what appears to be a very downtrodden, sad theater milieu. Here’s an example of of how he just throws images at the reader at an almost unstoppable rate:

    “The principal patrons of private theatres are dirty boys, low copying-clerks, in attorneys’ offices, capacious-headed youths from city counting-houses, Jews whose business, as lenders of fancy dresses, is a sure passport to the amateur stage, shop-boys who now and then mistake their masters’ money for their own; and a choice miscellany of idle vagabonds. The proprietor of a private theatre may be an ex-scene-painter, a low coffee-house-keeper, a disappointed eighth-rate actor, a retired smuggler, or uncertificated bankrupt. The theatre itself may be in Catherine-street, Strand, the purlieus of the city, the neighbourhood of Gray’s-inn-lane, or the vicinity of Sadler’s Wells; or it may, perhaps, form the chief nuisance of some shabby street, on the Surrey side of Waterloo-bridge.:

    As we have come to know, there is no end to the catalogues or lists of details that this writer is capable of accumulating on whatever topic interests him. My guess is that Dickens is so in love with language, or the poetry of language, that he almost can’t help himself from strewing his paragraphs with these wonderful, descriptive images. This is the process which Daniel, very early on in our discussions of these “Sketches” called “alchemical.’

    In this sketch, He sets forth all this descriptive material as a kind of preface or backdrop to what will eventually become a dramatic closeup in REAL TIME of a “private theater” in operation. Again, it’s classic Dickens’ structure, moving from the more or less impersonal representation to a specific moment, a particular night in a particular theater:

    “A quarter before eight–there will be a full house to-night–six parties in the boxes, already; four little boys and a woman in the pit….”

    Now we are in the theater with the narrator as “he” is watching the crowd assemble. But there is a noticeable change in TIME. The audience catalogue is just beginning and this is filled with another reveal of personages who are not exactly who they appear to be: “Mr Horatio St Julien, alias Jem Larkens….He does Alfred Highflier in the last piece….” Wow, this is pretty complex stuff–one wonders what real identities these characters actually “have.” Who calls them what?

    However, once more he is giving us the opposite of what we anticipated, focusing on a different drama off stage, behind the scenes, so to speak. I think this is just exceptional writing, as he very fluently and craftily controls the the reader’s vision of events, controls the reader’s expectations: “Let us take a peep ‘behind,’ previous to the ringing-up.” Ok then. He’s playing, we think, a kind of delaying tactic. But IS he? He’s presenting a whole new stage for us, behind the “real” stage, and this brings us back to Rach’s comments much earlier in our discussion of the previous “Sketches”: “All the worlds a stage for Dickens….” Oh boy, how that rings true, here!

    “The characters in the tragedy are all dressed, and their own clothes are scattered in hurried confusion over the wooden dresser which surrounds the room….”

    He then gives several paragraphs, beautifully staged and detailed, about the behind the scenes preparations for the tragedy we think we will be watching with him. Of course that will never happen, as he glories in giving us, perhaps, a much more interesting “drama.” And ends his piece with, “The bell rings–the tragedy (!) opens–and our description closes.”

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  21. Vauxhall Gardens by Day:

    “How different people do look by daylight, and without punch, to be sure!” Such is the idea behind this piece ~ seeing what was meant to be seen as part of the nightlife of the city in its less-glamorous daytime aspect, with the “air of deep mystery” unveiled, its gate “nothing more nor less than a combination of very roughly painted boards and sawdust.

    It reminded me of Smike’s question, and Nicholas’ answer, in Nicholas Nickleby:

    “Is this a theatre?” whispered Smike, in amazement; “I thought it was a blaze of light and finery.”
    “Why, so it is,” replied Nicholas, hardly less surprised; “but not by day, Smike–not by day.”

    Interesting article about the pleasure gardens of the 18th & 19th centuries: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/vauxhall-pleasure-gardens

    “They were sites for music, dancing, eating and drinking – and regular fireworks, operas, masquerades and illuminations. Laid out as formal gardens, with shrubberies and miniature waterways, and dedicated buildings for performances and for eating, they were places to see the latest in art and architecture.” But they were also considered places “of danger, debauchery and drunkenness” and were frequently “used as a backdrop for contemporary novels, ballads and prints. The heroes and heroines of numerous 18th and early 19th century novels end up in a pleasure garden at some point, and usually worse off at the end of the evening than at the beginning of it.”

    Of course, being an opera fan, I had to go looking up Tancredi, a melodramatic opera by Rossini, based on a play by Voltaire…
    I’ve recently ordered Lee Jackson’s Palaces of Pleasure, which should give some interesting insights into phenomena like these pleasure gardens!

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