Wherein we take a final glance at the first read of our #DickensClub, Sketches by Boz, With General Mems and a final Discussion Wrap-up for Week Eight’s Sketches, with a special focus on “The Black Veil.”
It is fascinating how, even in these early publications, the possibilities for discussion and analysis are endless! We could spend an entire semester on the Sketches alone, and still feel in need of more time.
And it has been a tough week for the world, so a huge “Thank You” to all reading along with us. I do think that Dickens, who wrote so powerfully and uniquely on the entire spectrum of human experience, from comedy to tragedy ~ but always with humanity ~ helps us to make sense of our own dark times, and to bear up.
Over the course of these eight weeks, we’ve really glimpsed Dickens’ early progression as a writer. It would be fascinating, on one hand, to analyze them chronologically, as they are not in chronological order. But certainly, when we look at the individual Sketch publication dates, we can see the growth in complexity over the months and years. His unparalleled eye for the observation of detail is honed over time and his style is gradually freed from any adherence to more traditional forms of narration the later we get ~ say, in the Sketches of 1835, versus those of ’33-’34. Chris, a couple of weeks ago, had noticed the difference in, for example, one even as late as “Shabby-Genteel People” (November 1834) versus the later “The Last Cab-Driver” or “The Mistaken Milliner,” both of which were published in late-1835.
Even this early on, there is foreshadowing of Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, and Pickwick; we’ve read of many themes that would arrest and haunt Dickens throughout his writing career. We feel his infinite and inimitable capacity for both humor and pathos; for the blustering and the ridiculous; the grotesque and the gothic. Even our very young Dickens shows us how to see and observe; his attention and wonder make the common places and circumstances of life delightfully uncommon. Dickens’ ability to spoof human foibles and to walk with us, pointing out ~ almost like a friend and spectator at our side ~ the various workings of public organizations and systems, or familiar shops or types of persons, are such that we see them suddenly anew.
What a gift.
If you have any final/closing thoughts about the Sketches and your experience, please feel free to comment below; or on twitter, with the #DickensClub hashtag!
I would recommend saving any comments about Pickwick for tomorrow’s post, which will be an introduction to The Pickwick Papers.
Always and forever, a heartfelt thanks to the joyously Dickensian account, the Dickens Fellowship for retweeting these and keeping us all in sync, and to The Circumlocution Office for providing such an online resource for us!
For any newer members or those who might be interested in joining: the schedule is in my intro post here. If you have been reading along with us but are not yet on the Member List, I would love to add you! Please feel free to message me here on the site, or on twitter.
Week Eight Discussion Wrap-Up: “Sketch” Defined; Revisiting “The Tuggses”; “Horatio” as Austen-Spoof or Anti-Romantic Comedy; Comedic Mishaps and Sketchy Schemers
What an assortment of “Tales” we had this week! We started Week Eight ~ and ended Week Seven ~ with the spoof on matrimonial scheming in “Horatio Sparkins”; we have a haunting, gothic tale in “The Black Veil”; some lighthearted mishaps and laughs in “The Steam Excursion,” “The Great Winglebury Duel,” and “Mrs. Joseph Porter” (“Ting, ting, ting!”) ~ only to transition from comic into tragic with “A Passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle.” Finally, the old Humbug in “A Bloomsbury Christening” gives us some more chuckles, only to end with a melodramatic, melancholy, and “cautionary tale” in “The Drunkard’s Death.”
It was a quiet week for the #DickensClub on twitter, likely because we’ve been reeling at the devastating news of the attacks on Ukraine. But the discussions here on the site have been phenomenally rich. My own apologies for being rather quiet this past week; it has been a difficult one for several reasons. As always, though, it has been a real balm to be reading Dickens, and enjoying the discussions.
Henry and Chris have both shared some wonderful images (in words or pictures), and Henry and I have a blog exchange planned ~ watch for it! I’m very much looking forward to reading his thoughts on a new biography of Dickens.
Daniel gave us a helpful definition of “sketch”:
At the outset, Lenny brought us back to “The Tuggses at Ramsgate,” from late in Week Seven. He lists the various ways in which each member of the Tuggs family, desiring “to appear ‘genteel,'” appears to be “a few cards short of a full deck.” Here’s his wrap-up:
“It appears that this family is not only naive but really and crazily bonkers. If true, then this analysis probably explains their customers’ complaints and curiosities about their grocery-selling methods….At any rate, they are ripe for the plucking by the Captain and his wife and suffer the consequences of their mental shortcomings. They are ‘Gulled’ to the extent of 1500 pounds, a mighty sum in Britain of the 1830’s!”
And Chris added: “I guess they let their inheritance go to their heads, and whatever ‘crazily bonkers’ notions they had before the money just increased exponentially.”
Then a wonderful discussion on “Horatio” followed, and its parallels to Jane Austen ~ Chris compares its opening to Pride and Prejudice ~ in its matrimonial scheming. The same thought had struck Lenny:
“Is it possible that ‘Horatio’ is a kind of parody of the Austen design, and that of the other late 18th and early 19th century novels like hers? Moreover, this new tale seems almost Shakespearean in its makeup, a ‘lower class’ comedy of errors, using the romantic comedy paradigm but one that revels in farce or comic exaggeration.”
Everyone is scheming for something ~ the Maldertons, and Horatio ~ and each is hoping to benefit from the other. Lenny writes, “this tale is another story involving ‘schemes’ (is Dickens obsessed by this idea?)…” Chris brilliantly outlines exactly why there are red flags right away:
Lenny calls it “a kind of ‘anti-romantic comedy’!”
As Chris has it, “These people cannot possibly succeed.” And: “Horatio/Samuel unfortunately is found out precisely because the Malderton’s have not mastered gentility.”
We move on to “The Steam Excursion” ~ don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about “The Black Veil” but I’m putting that discussion below ~ and its predecessor. Chris writes: “Another early sketch and one that Dickens apparently ‘borrowed’ from a story by John Poole called ‘Preparations for Pleasure; or, the Pic-nic’ published in 1829.” Lenny found it reminiscent of one of the Sketches we’d read early on, “The River,” and its “wonderful blend of commentary and slapstick–the kind of visual comedy that could be played so beautifully by either Chaplin or Keaton.” He and I were both fascinated and amused by Percy Noakes, who has been compared to Dickens himself.
“The Great Winglebury Duel” really does have it all, as Chris sums up:
Lenny comments on the “universality” of its opening, and “how easily it foresees the great comic literature that came out of the American West in the later stages of the 19th century.”
Chris is happy to see a united family endeavor, however doomed, in “Mrs. Joseph Porter,” and is justifiably frustrated by the woman herself, who bears a large share of the blame for the ruination of the endeavor: “A mischievous, meddling woman, bent on pointing out the errors of others, of one-upping her neighbors, and proving herself superior. This type of woman is not uncommon in Dickens but usually they get their comeuppance in the end, and if this story were to have a second chapter Mrs Porter would have been put in her place.” Lenny sees it as probably having been doomed before the curtain rises (so to speak) on the action of this Sketch, however: “150 rehearsals–that is absurd, and is very telling, if true; it’s definitely more comic hyperbole, but also foretells that the rehearsal, even perhaps the progress of the entire play, isn’t going so well!” I had been thinking of it from the perspective of having just read a wonderful passage in Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens, and was reminded again of his outstanding and lifelong love of the stage:
I didn’t add any reflections on “A Passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle,” but personally I found Mr. Gabriel Parsons an all-out villain, and had more and more trouble stomaching him as it went on, and his scheming (scheming again!) use of people. Chris very helpfully gave us a whole new perspective on the word “passage”:
A Deeper Dive into “The Black Veil”
I’ve tried to hit just a few of the many fantastic notes in this week’s discussion, but with “The Black Veil,” a brilliant piece of Gothic fiction, I really must give it its own section, and quote in full these rich analyses ~ which really deserve their own posts entirely.
First of all, Chris gives us, as Lenny says, “a boatload of ideas” in her background and perspective on “The Black Veil,” and in comparing it to the later A Christmas Carol. Here are the two parts of her analysis, in gallery view (click on each image to see it enlarged):
And then Lenny gives us a “Monomythic” analysis of “The Black Veil.” He proposes many levels on which the tale could be read; it could be analyzed in conjunction with its “antecedents and followers” solidly in the Gothic tradition:
“As I was reading the ‘Veil’ I thought immediately of Hawthorne, Irving, and secondarily, of Poe–all of whom were writing in something we could call the ‘Gothic’ tradition. The Stories I’m thinking of are Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Browne’ and ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’–and with Irving, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle’. With Poe, writing later, there is ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ which really made a huge impression on me as an undergraduate. All of these ‘tales’ are dark, strange, symbolic, introduce dream/nightmare states and suggest allegory–Christian or otherwise. At one time or another, Dickens was probably familiar with them all but to what extent he made use of them I don’t know. Nevertheless, they contain elements which could be read back into the ‘Veil’ productively, seeing it as a kind of gothic allegory.”
Instead, however, Lenny looks at it through the dual perspectives of the Germanic Bildungsroman (essentially, a type of “coming of age” hero’s journey) structure, and the not-unrelated “monomyth” of Joseph Campbell, with its structure of Separation–Initiation–Return.
Here’s a helpful explication of Bildungsroman from Merriam-Webster:
“In the monomyth, this veiled woman would, in taking the young doctor out of his ‘safe’ environment, act as his GUIDE into the ‘Initiation’ part of the Campbell structure. And this segment of the structure, makes up the bulk of the tale, where the doctor moves out of his home into kind of unknown and strange environment where he begins to see and experience a part of life he’s new to. The grotesque, chaotic, ramshackle, impoverished landscape will imprint itself upon him for ever, and give him an awareness he perhaps has never before experienced.”
And later ~ wow:
“The gothic description of the dead man’s home and resting place is dark and austere, and reminds me of the horrible spaces in a Kafka novel or something from a surreal painting of Dali. In fact, in this regard, I’m tempted to classify the entire tale as a surreal short story–with its early dream sequence and the very nightmare-like details near the story’s conclusion. In raw terms, also, one might say that the mother has beckoned the young doctor into an ‘appointment with death’! And, naturally, this is one of the great ironies of the story. The doctor’s FIRST patient is a dead man! Now we’re getting, I believe, into the realm of Poe!”
Then, his education complete, Lenny discusses seeing it in the light of an allegory in the nature of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and brings it back around to the Bildungsroman.
I couldn’t help but put Lenny’s rich analysis into its own document for your perusal here, and it is well worth the deeper dive:
I hope everyone had a chance to read the phenomenal comments this week. As the wrap-up is going up on the same day that we read our final Sketch, “A Drunkard’s Death,” feel free to comment below on it. And, of course, any final comments at all in your experience of reading Sketches by Boz, before we move on to The Pickwick Papers tomorrow. I will save my final reflections for the comments below as well.
A few prompts, though, for thought:
1.) If you happened to notice the publication dates for the Sketches as you read them (which The Circumlocution Office adds in, often with other helpful notes), did you see a progression in Dickens’ writing?
2.) Do you have a “favorite” Sketch? Or a “top three” or “five”?
3.) Were there certain themes, subjects, or situations that you thought Dickens tackled especially well ~ or otherwise?
4.) Did you have a least favorite Sketch, or one that was for some reason especially difficult to read?
5.) Was there one Sketch in particular that you didn’t want to end, or wished Dickens had turned into a novel?
6.) If you could imagine yourself in a situation where you read these Sketches, knowing absolutely nothing about London, how would you sum up this most eccentric city, based solely on Dickens’ writing?
Friends, it has been an absolute joy. I can’t wait to discuss Pickwick with you! Our journey has only just begun…