Sketches by Boz: A Final Wrap-Up

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.

General Mems

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

Cruikshank on “The Steam Excursion”

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”:

Daniel M comment

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:

Chris M on “Horatio Sparkins”
Lenny H on “Horatio Sparkins”

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:

Chris M on “The Great Winglebury Duel”

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:

Rach M on “Mrs. Joseph Porter”

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”:

Chris M on “A Passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle”

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:

Harry Furniss’ illustration for “The Black Veil”

“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:


Lenny continues:

“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…


  1. Wow! What a knock-out wrap up Rach. You hit it out of the park, again, with your superb integration of the ideas we developed, or maybe I should restate that last–with the “superb ideas” which we noticed in Dicken’s so-call “apprentice work.” And the journey you’ve so beautifully set up for us has been wonderful, exciting, mind bending, and just plain fun.

    However, as I assess very briefly the assortment of questions you pose at the end of your epilogue, I’m struck with this question: WHY did Dickens and his publisher/editor decided to end the VOLUME called “Sketches By Boz” on such a down, sad, depressing note. As you’ve noted (above), the published text did not arrange the sketches chronologically. So considerable time and thought must have gone into the way they were presented. But Gads, to end with a suicide, the machinations and thoughts of a misanthrope, and the horrible story of the drunkard and his family really took me “down” psychologically several levels. Why conclude this fine volume on such a depressing note?

    Once again, it’s been a great “Ride” through the “Sketches.” and on we gallop toward PICKWICK and beyond. In a sense, we are experiencing our own “monomyth” while traveling through the Dickens corpus. How will we be “changed” when we pass through our “initiation” and confront the real world and the challenges it presents us with after we finish this rite of passage? In this sense, do we, personally, become the heroes and heroines of our own “myth”?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh Lenny, I have so much to say!!! THANK YOU!!! (And I meant to send a HUGE thank-you for your offer a few days ago about emailing you regarding my tough week…I might take you up on that within the next day or two!) Your questions, and the ideas you bring up for reflection here, are spot-on.

      I’m inclined to agree with you about The Drunkard’s Death, and I don’t think it was a good way to end Sketches. I know this one wasn’t previously published on its own, and was published specifically for the volume, but it was a dismal way to end it; it had no variation in tone, but might be likened to one of the stories/vignettes that a character (say, in Pickwick) would share with the reader, which, since it is merely an interlude in a larger story with such varying bits of comicality and joy, is fine; but standing alone, it’s pretty dismal. As I mentioned, I’m reading Claire Tomalin’s bio of Dickens now, and she feels it’s the weakest of them all ~ too melodramatic. Maybe I’m getting a couple things mixed in the brain, but honestly, I think this was a bit of the “negative” aspect of the melodramatic influence on Dickens; Victorian stage melodrama, for example, which tends too much towards sending a message by way of affecting the emotions & extreme circumstances. It’s kind of a “worst-case scenario” type of situation. And as Tomalin says, he was no Temperance Society supporter, and often joked about it, so it is interesting that he goes to such lengths to make the drinking habit more like something of a nightmare.

      The one thing I will give to Drunkard’s Death, is that it felt to me perhaps like a glimpse into a life like Miss Jenny Wren’s childhood had been, with her alcoholic father. She was clearly the breadwinner and, like so many of Dickens’ child characters, had to be the “adult” in the situation; but in OMF there is such a variation in story and tone; humor mixed with pathos, which ultimately makes it more impactful and…Dickensian! Dickens is just masterful when he can weave both together; the tragic becomes all the more heartrending, and the joy makes it more palatable and human.

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  2. Chapter 12 – The Drunkard’s Death – Gee, could Boz have laid it on any thicker? Lenny & Rach – The note in my edition says this tale was “Specially written as the last of the Second Series (December 1836)” and quotes a letter from Dickens which says he wanted “to finish the volume with éclat”, that is, with brilliance, with a dazzling effect. Well, it certainly is that, but not a very uplifting effect. Generally speaking, I find Dickens’s work to be hopeful. Even his “dark” novels have a message of Hope. This tale’s message of “don’t drink” – or, more broadly, don’t get addicted to anything that takes your focus away from others or that blinds you to your duty to others, especially your family, just about gets lost in the layer after layer of horrible things that happen to Master Warden. Warden had chances to change his ways. What he didn’t have was help – no intervention, no Alcoholics Anonymous – everyone enabled him. So the message of duty to others extends from the Warden’s duty to his family & society to his family’s & society’s duty to him. This message – that of one’s duty to others – is a running theme in Dickens. It is arguably the best message, of course. But my goodness, in this tale he does lay it on thick.

    In answer to Rach’s questions:

    One – Progression in Dickens’s writing: I’ve been reading “Charles Dickens and ‘Boz’: The Birth of the Industrial-Age Author” by Robert L. Patten. In his chapter on “Sketches by Boz” he says: “One might look for evidence of linear development as Dickens practices his craft. He tries one strategy, elaborates on it in the next contribution, reverses it in a third, then discovers a further potential in the topic or treatment, and thus grows and improves with each successor. The chronology of the ‘Sketches” is, however, so complicated . . . that linear development, even if it could be minutely tracked, is unlikely to be the paradigm of Boz’s artistic trajectory.” (65) I understand from this that Dickens’s“artistic trajectory” then, and as we shall see in Pickwick, was to try everything – draw from personal experience, attend to your audience’s reaction, tap into commonalities of humanity and human nature, and then rearrange it and/or reimagine it. Stylistically, I think the more he wrote the better his writing became – he uses words more effectively (though not necessarily fewer words) and crafts more meaningful, considered sentences. He also becomes more focused in terms of considering his topic and sticking to a “point”. We’ve mentioned that some early Sketches seem to be a collection or series of characters or scenes, whereas the later ones have more of a story line.

    Two – Favorite Sketch(s) – “Astley’s” because the description of young George embarrassed by his family who are, in turn, amused by his teenage angst is so true to life – been there, done that both from young George’s perspective and from his mamma’s. “Seven Dials” has always been a favorite, mainly because I think the illustration is so fantastic – the women arguing in the street while their neighbors watch always makes me chuckle. “Meditations in Monmouth-street” taught me to look at things differently. I can no longer pass shop windows without bringing the mannequins to life, or refrain from making up stories about the people in line at the grocery store or at the airport.

    Three – Themes, subjects, situations – Dickens always has us thinking, considering and reconsidering. And as our Dickens Club has shown, the thinking doesn’t stop when we put down the book. Whenever we go out we see a situation that reminds us of some Dickensian point and we are forced to think again of what he has written. At least, this is my experience. His writing, to me, is so centered in the everyday that I see it reflected everywhere. Even when he strays from “reality” into the fantastic, I see, or perhaps feel is a better word, a connection to emotion or I get a sense of some universal concept (we are all interconnected and therefore must take care of each other, e.g.). I’ve also found that there isn’t much that happens in the world today that hasn’t already happened in Dickens. (P.S. Dickens does have issues with women and can have trouble writing them, but often he surprises me and does a pretty incredible job writing them.)

    Four – Least favorite – “The Election for Beadle” and “The Broker’s Man” – I know Dickens does a great job with electioneering and the characters, but the topic generally doesn’t hold much interest for me.

    Five – Sketch didn’t want to end – I would like to know what happened to Miss Evans and Mr Wilkins after the action of “Miss Evans and the Eagle” – did they make up? Did they find other lovers? I’d also like to know what happened to the other people who were in the lock-up house with Watkins Tottle, especially Harry & Kate – did he go to debtor’s prison, or worse? Did their parents ever forgive them? And, as semi-creepy as the living arrangements are, I’m wondering how Mr & Mrs Robinson (of “The Four Sisters”) managed – did they stay with the other 3 sisters? How did the fact of the child (& possibly more children) affect the living arrangements? What did the neighbors say?

    Six – Sum up London by these Sketches alone – Dirty, crime-ridden, somewhat isolating, hard to get ahead in, but a heck of a lot of fun!

    Looking forward to Pickwick!

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  3. Oh, Chris ~ what MARVELOUS thoughts…and I can’t believe you tackled all the questions…I love it! 🙂 Thank you, you have helped me appreciate the Sketches so much more deeply than I would have done in isolation. I love our group here, and I too am hugely looking forward to Pickwick!!!!

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    1. Rach – I like a challenge, especially when Dickens is involved! And I’m having so much fun with these readings, comments, and insights. Really, really great fun. Cheers!

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  4. I am late to the Sketches closing party, but I wonder if anybody here might have some answers for me. My Kindle editions of Sketches by Boz (both the standalone version and the version within my complete works) include a bunch of other short pieces: Sketches of Young Gentlemen, Sketches of Couples, the Mudfog Papers, and a couple of other short items. Project Gutenberg seems to include these as part of Sketches by Boz as well. I’d love to hear more about why these are included in some editions and excluded from others, if anyone here might be able to shed some light on the question.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Jamie! I meant to comment last night but must have gotten sidetracked… Interestingly, I recently read something in one of the biographies that is relevant here, and I’ll see if I can find it. My recollection (may be wrong) is that these Sketches are not part of the original compilation of the Sketches volumes published in 1836, but were written later for, I think, Chapman and Hall, so some editions include them almost as an appendix, some don’t. But I’ll see if I can find the passage on this subject! 🙂


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