From The Sketches to The Chimes: A Year-One Dickens Club Retrospective

Wherein we revisit the first year of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club (4 Jan 2022-4 Jan 2023); with links to Introductions and Wrap-Ups; with a little correspondence from your co-hosts.

From The Tomahawk (London), 25 June 1870. Scanned image by George P. Landow. Via Victorian Web.

By Boze and Rach

Friends & fellow Dickensians, exactly one year ago today we began our 2.5-year Dickensian adventure with an introduction to Sketches by Boz, followed by 56 days of reading a daily Sketch from Dickens’s early (pre-Pickwick) career. What marvelous discussions followed, and assiduous research! We want to send our heartfelt thanks to everyone reading along with us and/or participating in the discussions, whether you’re in it for one book, a few books, or for the whole journey!

In gratitude, your co-hosts, Boze and Rach, would like to offer a little retrospective correspondence, and also a wrap-up list of quick links to our major posts–including introductions and final wrap-ups. I hope this proves to be not only a convenient way to revisit our first year’s reading and discussion, but to give everyone a sense of just how much we’ve accomplished during 2022.

In 2022, we had eleven group reads, many of them door-stopping length, including one of fifty-six Sketches; weekly comment-based discussions; two online discussions; group watches; several supplementary essays or diary posts from Chris, Marnie, Boze & Rach, adjacent review posts from the Stationmaster, podcasts from Deacon Matthew, and many “comments” so complete and insightful that they were whole essays entire. And so much support from the wider Dickens community.

What a year it has been, friends! It is as though we have been as immersed in the endless Dickensian world, and as surrounded by his characters, as Dickens himself is in the painting, “Dickens’s Dream,” by R.W. Buss.

Buss, Robert William; Dickens’s Dream; Charles Dickens Museum, London; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/dickenss-dream-191221

And as we’re still within the Twelve Days of Christmas, you might enjoy hearing the recent podcast on A Christmas Carol that Boze and Rach recorded with Deacon Matthew!

I hope you enjoy this little retrospective, friends, and the final wrap-up of links for our eventful and rich first year, 2022!

A Retrospective, by Boze and Rach

My Dear Mr Pickwick,

Could Dickens be–like the Shakespeare paraphrase he used for Household Words–“the story of our lives from year to year”? (I just had a little dialogue all in Wellerisms with the Dickens Fellowship on twitter, to illustrate the point.) And now, to make another nerdy reference, we’ve gone All the Year Round with the Dickens Club, and the best is–mostly–yet to come. I say “mostly” because, of course, one would be hard-pressed to find anything more perfect than A Christmas Carol–or The Pickwick Papers.

If I begin to consider the depth and scope of the discussions that we’ve had over the year, beginning with Dickens’s “writing lab” (as Lenny called it) in Sketches by Boz, the “infinite variety” of opinions and insights is truly astounding–and many of us are not academics. Dickens has that universal appeal: he enlightens, inspires, appeals to the emotions, entertains–he’s downright hilarious–and he represents every class and type, making characters more real in their absurdity than those we meet with in daily life. Weren’t we just talking the other day about how few authors have actually made a character name into a trait, an adjective, or a noun? “A Scrooge,” “Pecksniffery,” “Jinglese,” “Pickwickian,” etc. etc. Dickens is a monster–what does he mean by coining all the best words, and creating the best characters, and he’s only 33 YEARS OLD in our current reading?

I could go on, but I have a feeling this could be a long retrospective, so let me end my first note with the obvious question, though I’m sure I know the answer: What was your favorite Dickens work this year–and why?

Ever your Sam,

Rach

My Dear Sam,

Mentally I’m raising a glass of brandy-and-water to the prospect of another year reading Dickens with you. Taking a glance at our schedule for the coming year, it looks as though we’re facing a murderer’s row of all-time classics: Dombey & Son (which you and I have nearly finished), David Copperfield (my favorite novel ever, at least until… well, we’ll get to that), Bleak House, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities (your favorite novel), and Great Expectations. Dickens’s winning streak in this period of his career is unmatched, like the Beatles from Rubber Soul to (depending on your preference) Magical Mystery Tour or the White Album.

Looking back to the year past, I think the biggest surprise was how much I enjoyed rediscovering Oliver Twist. Undoubtedly some of my enthoosymoosy for this book is owing to the stellar twelve-part 1985 BBC adaptation featuring Michael Atwell as Bill Sykes, which you and I watched (and made our longsuffering families watch) repeatedly. But also it’s the first and possibly most perfect book in its particular genre, the orphan tale told from a child’s perspective that has influenced countless subsequent books for children, among them Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. (Philip Pullman is an avowed fan of Dickens, and Oliver.) The plot is so intricate, its numerous payoffs so satisfying, that I find it baffling and a little infuriating that for much of the book Dickens had no idea where the story was going, and only devised the concluding revelations—which seem so crucial to the story—midway through, under intense pressure. Critics tend to underrate Dickens’s plotting abilities, but they are certainly a key to his continuing popularity.

But it’s time for the part of the letter we were all waiting for, when I doff my hat to Mr Samuel Pickwick, esquire, and the Pickwick Club. This was not only the finest Dickens novel I read this year but the finest book overall, and on my third read-through here at the end of a very Pickwickian Christmas it lays claim to being my second or third favorite book ever. (Even the desecrations of the 1960s musical adaptation, with a lascivious, butt-shaking Sam Weller, can’t trouble its lofty position.) You and I have talked at length about how Tolkien detested Pickwick, but its influence is all over the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, with its long feasts and jaunts across country and fireside tales at shabby inns and numerous expressions of brotherly camaraderie. Sam Gamgee’s relationship to Frodo even mimics Sam Weller’s relationship to Mr Pickwick in interesting ways. And arguably the later, more battle-heavy portions of The Lord of the Rings would have been improved by the inclusion of a gentleman in a green coat and top hat who speaks solely in mangled syntax. Like Syme at the end of The Man Who Was Thursday, I “feel grateful for many a fine scamper and free fight,” for this densely built and endearingly cozy world of beef-steaks and punch bowls, of blazing fires and ghost stories and oyster barrels and cod-fish and portly gentlemen in wheelbarrows and whips cracking on frosty roads. If there was one fictional world I could choose to live in, it would have to be that of Pickwick Papers; and we can only pray that heaven is a bit like Dickens’s imagined England.

What about you, though? What were the biggest surprises of this reading year? How did your evaluations of various books change and shift? And who were your favorite characters to visit or re-visit?

Ever your Pickwick,

Boze

My dear Mr Pickwick—

–that WAS EXACTLY what I was waiting for, but the ensuing “love letter to Pickwick” was beyond perfect! I love your enthoosymoosy for the (as you say) “brotherly camaraderie”—“fireside tales at shabby inns”—“blazing fires and ghost stories”—“gentlemen in wheelbarrows”—Pickwick is life—Pickwick is “heaven”—bottle green coat at the pearly gates—“mangled syntax”—very. I never cease to be surprised and oddly moved by Jingle, by Pickwick’s “arc” (somewhat contrary to Chesterton’s notion that Pickwick never changes, and is always the same), by the father-son relationships between Pickwick and others (e.g. Sam, Jingle, Winkle). And I can only be forever grateful for Dickens’s discovery—how can we say “creation” of someone that must always have existed, as in the mind of God?—of Sam Weller. No butt-shimmying musical madness can tarnish the real Sam, as he is imperturbable, unflappable, immortal.

Pickwick is my ultimate comfort read. It’s in my top 3 Dickens novels—and near the pinnacle of favorite novels ever. (If anyone is reluctant about trying it, I love suggesting the brilliant audiobook narrated by Simon Prebble.) I’d been all a-flutter with anticipation of the Spring read of it with the group—and here we are, reading it again on our own, just for kicks & Wellers. If there is anything better than reading Dickens, it is reading Dickens with friends. (Better still, reading Dickens aloud with friends!) I’ll never forget the holy-ish–emphasis on the “ish”–envy with which I heard of your habit of reading aloud some Jingle passages to friends. (Before we started skyping and forming the read-aloud habit ourselves!) And when you read my novel draft, of course, you saw that, for me, the consummate sign of a Dickensian kindred spirit was one who immediately recognizes a reference to Mr Jingle.

But lest this should become a second love letter to Pickwick—and here I must just say again how THRILLED and EXCITED I am about Rob Goll’s upcoming audiobook version, as though we’re all on the same page!—I’ll add my other highlights for the year. After Pickwick, I think the delights and surprises were, for me, mostly due to Sketches by Boz (it was my first time reading all of the Sketches), and Nicholas Nickleby. I loved the animated conversations that happened in our animated daily Sketch readings—the theatrical spoofs, the cab-drivers, the “Making a Night of It,” the relatable but utterly original “voice” Dickens gave to the observation of ordinary things. The darker aspects too, which Lenny so beautifully wrote of; Chris’s insights and scholarly research; Yvonne’s venture into helpful bits of Victoriana. I can’t forget the “half-pay captain” nor the pawnbrokers’ shops.

As to Nickleby: I was, perhaps, unduly biased because I had not only received from you the most gorgeous book I owned to that point (the Nonesuch Nickleby), but was eagerly anticipating a rewatch of my favorite filmed anything: the 8.5hr, 1982 filmed stage production with Roger Rees and Edward Petherbridge, which I never cease to preach about. What a delight to have the insights of fellow RSC Nickleby enthusiast Marnie, and her Nickleby diaries while reading with the group! I think this go-round of the reading portion really brought out both the pathos and the humor. I particularly loved thinking of NN as a both a send-up of, and a “love letter” to, the stage.

The characters that stood out to me this year? Well, it has been a year of learning wooing from “Mr Cucumber” & Mr Bumble; learning flattery from Mr Mantalini; of learning apt comparisons from Sam Weller and of comprehensible syntax from Mr Jingle; a year of Winkle on the ice and of Mr Pickwick under it; a year where heroes mean Dick and the Marchioness. All the while, longing to meet Sam and the Pickwickians at every bend in the road—surely they’d have made it out West eventually, in their pursuit of knowledge and experience.

“‘I have estates, ma’am,’ said the old gentleman, flourishing his right hand negligently, as if he made very light of such matters, and speaking very fast; ‘jewels, lighthouses, fish-ponds, a whalery of my own in the North Sea, and several oyster-beds of great profit in the Pacific Ocean. If you will have the kindness to step down to the Royal Exchange and to take the cocked-hat off the stoutest beadle’s head, you will find my card in the lining of the crown, wrapped up in a piece of blue paper…After that, love, bliss and rapture; rapture, love and bliss. Be mine, be mine!’”

Nicholas Nickleby, Chapter 41

At the beginning, I didn’t necessarily think that anyone else would be interested in such a lengthy chronological reading challenge; but how much poorer it would have been as a solitary blog/reflection! How much poorer it would have been without so many differing perspectives and insights! All the way along, I’ve been continually amazed by the comments, photos, and sheer presence of our members: yours, of course, and those of Chris, Lenny, Rob, Daniel, Dana, Gabriela, Laura, Deacon Matthew, Sofia, Priscilla, Icona, Marnie, Henry, Steve, Gina, the Stationmaster, Cassandra, Yvonne, and others—including those who aren’t in the discussions now but are still reading with us. One of our members was reading Dickens in English for the first time. Wonderful educational post shares from our encourager & friend, Dr. Christian; images of the legendary location for the “Pickwick Cottage” from Maria, a friend who isn’t currently in the Club but who made a special trip just to get those images for us. Ultimately, one of the things I love about Dickens is that the best things come in relationships, and in community. Would Nicholas and Smike have made it so far without the Crummles, and Noggs? Would we have Mr. Jingle’s story about Donna Christina if he didn’t have such a willing audience? Would Pickwick have gotten far without Sam?

I hope the second year of the Club is just as full of magic and enthoosymoosy as the first; perhaps even more so, as we have such adventures ahead, with Dickens’s major works. (And Sydney Carton, too.) Wot larks, Pip…wot larks!

Ever your Sam,

Rach

Updated Reading Schedule / Original Introductory Post
Dickens Club Member List

The Books/Works:

1.) Sketches by Boz (in 56 Sketches)
Introduction / Supplement / Final Wrap-Up
2. )The Pickwick Papers
Introduction / supplement / Final Wrap-Up
3.) Oliver Twist
Introduction / supplement / Final Wrap-Up
4.) Nicholas Nickleby
Introduction / supplement / Final Wrap-Up
5 & 6.) Master Humphrey’s Clock & The Old Curiosity Shop
Introduction / Supplement / MHC Wrap-Up / Shop Final Wrap-Up
7.) Barnaby Rudge
Introduction / Supplement / Final Wrap-Up
8 & 9.) American Notes & Martin Chuzzlewit
Introduction / supplement / American Notes Wrap-Up / Chuzzlewit Final Wrap-Up
10-11.) The Christmas Books I & II: A Christmas Carol & The Chimes
Introduction (Including the intro to Pictures from Italy) / supplement / Christmas Books Final Wrap-Up (to come April 2023)
~Intro to A Christmas Carol
~General Mems Post on The Chimes

9 Comments

  1. Yes, a big New Year’s toast to our inimitable hosts, Rach and Boze! An incredible job you guys “all year long,” and for another to come. It’s been a wonderful ride with more great and fun stuff to come!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hear, hear! A toast to you, dear Inimitables! Although I joined late in the year, and have mostly been quiet in the comments, I’ve been so edified by the many insights of the other DCRC members. Tremendous work, Rachel and Boze — as we talked about on the podcast not long ago — creating this community around Dickens, the Master, who teaches us that “the best things come in relationships, and in community.”

    “Sorry to do anythin’ as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin’s, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament…”

    But Boze, as you mentioned “how Tolkien detested Pickwick, but its influence is all over the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring,” I’d like to pass along this essay from James Moffett at A Tolkienist’s Perspective, who reads “The Goblins Who Stole a Sexon” in parallel with the capture of the hobbits by the goblins in The Hobbit. The influences abound!

    https://atolkienistperspective.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/tolkiens-dickensian-dreams/

    So looking forward to reading and continuing the conversation with you all in 2023, and “God bless us, every one!”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, this is FANTASTIC! I can’t wait to read the essay…thank you, Deacon Matthew! Beautiful thoughts & wishes. I’m constantly amazed by the breadth and depth of your reading and contributions, and your richly insightful podcast…I’m so inspired that you continue to enrich everyone, in spite of such a busy schedule. Please, please keep them coming! Wot larks! 🙂 here’s to a joyous 2023 & yes, “God bless us, every one!”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The core of “The Cricket on the Hearth” is nice enough, though the final product seems a second or third draft of the story. It feels unpolished to me. We get long passages of the narrator’s comments, of his opinions, of his (well) narration, rather than passages in which character or personification is used as the vehicle for describing the action. For example, when the narrator tells us all about Caleb’s well meant fabrications for his daughter’s sake we get a paragraph telling us:

    “The Blind Girl never knew that ceilings were discoloured; wall blotched, and bare of plaster here and there; high crevices unstopped, and widening every day . . . never knew that Tackleton was Tackleton in short; but lived in the belief of an eccentric humourist who loved to have his jest with them; and while he was the Guardian Angel of their lives, disdained to hear one word of thankfulness.” (Chirp the Second)

    And then we are TOLD “And all was Caleb’s doing”, inspired by the cricket on his hearth, and then TOLD of Caleb’s and Bertha’s working-room via lengthy inventory lists of items, and then TOLD of Caleb’s demeanor, before we finally are graced with Caleb’s and Bertha’s bittersweet conversation wherein all the previous NARRATION comes alive.

    It seems to me a rare case of Dickens telling rather than showing, which is disappointing since over this past year we have experienced just how steadily his skill at showing has matured and improved. This may be owing to what Ackroyd describes as Dickens “working on [‘The Cricket’] in a hurried and discontinuous way, and indeed it may be that the circumstances of its composition materially affected the nature of the story” (99-100).

    Nevertheless, it is a nice little story, again with a moral for Christmas-time – don’t judge too harshly what you see, or what is shown to you by someone whose motives might be suspect, until you have all the information surrounding the event/incident; AND don’t underestimate those you know to be capable, intelligent, and devoted, especially in times of trouble or hardship, for it is then that their qualities will most manifest themselves. Or, as Ackroyd puts it, “Charity and mutual forbearance can, and must, win through in the end – that is always [Dickens’s] seasonal message” (100).

    I would like to note the theme of “ill-assorted marriage” (Chirp the First) or “unequal marriage” (Chirp the Third), presented here in a May-December marriage, that is where one party (usually the wife) is much younger than the other (usually the husband). It’s a theme that runs through Dickens’s works (see my post “Relationship Patterns” of 5/27/22) and which becomes more fraught with anger and rationalization as his own “ill-assorted” marriage dissolved. Here, however, the marriage is threatened by a misunderstanding and lack of communication – two things to which every relationship built on trust runs afoul of at one time or another – but is amicably resolved when all the facts come to light. I’m hoping to expand upon my previous post about Dickens’s relationship patterns soon because that theme will become more prominent as we move forward.

    Happy New Year, everyone! Wishing you all every happiness and blessing in 2023!

    Like

    1. Put that way, there’s kind of a parallel between The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. Trotty learns not to judge the people he reads about in the newspapers and John and Tackleton learn not to judge Dot.

      Happy New Year to you too.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s