On Rereading Dickens in 2021

There is something comforting in those new beginnings which feel like circling back round to something familiar. (Perhaps the rollout, albeit slow, of the vaccine, combined with the respite from daily/hourly fears of what strange new occurrence will emerge from the White House has something to do with it…? Some hope, perhaps, that a sort of “normalcy” will resume?) In any case, I’ve found that, in the midst of going back to reading Dickens’ biographies (currently, those of Michael Slater and John Forster), and reading/rereading those works of Boz that I’m less familiar with (notably, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, thanks to Dr. Pete Orford’s book on its various solutions and resolutions ~ and what fun to contribute to the solutions with a version of the Bernie’s Mittens meme), makes me long to have a more integrated, concentrated, and systematic approach to rereading Boz in the coming year.

Bernie as Dick Datchery? One of the mysteries of Edwin Drood SOLVED…?

Why do I feel the need to go back and reread everything in this way? I really don’t know. I feel like there is a Wellerism, or something like it, that I should have to hand here as a quippy response/explanation ~ but I really don’t know.

Having read all Dickens’ novels, some many many times over, I realize that my first read for each of them came at such different periods of time, in such a random fashion and in different frames of mind, that I find I keep going back to the same few ~ again and again. Whereas others, only once ~ and a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away).

I call the former category my “Tier 1” of Dickens novels ~ not necessarily the “best” of his, but the ones that, for whatever reason, I have an itch to keep going back to: A Tale of Two Cities, The Pickwick Papers, and Little Dorrit. (I’ve read or listened to an unabridged audio of A Tale of Two Cities at least twenty times.)

Tier 2 would probably be: Dombey and Son, Our Mutual Friend, and Bleak House.

Tier 3, perhaps: David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop.

Tier 4: Martin Chuzzlewit, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Tier 5 (and, yes, those I seem to go back to least, are some of his most known and most-often read): Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Hard Times, and Barnaby Rudge.

Being less familiar also with his non-serial-novel works, I am looking forward to reading Pictures from Italy (1846) and American Notes (1842). I’m looking forward to attending a virtual lecture on the former in May, part of the Dickens Fellowship “programme” for 2021. (Yes, in my geekiness I’m a proud card-carrying member of the DF now. But there are so few lectures that a poor working gal can attend due to the time difference and work schedule! In this case, however, there’s enough time and motivation to schedule someone to cover me at work, and in true nerdy style, why not make a vacation day of it?)

But I have an odd fancy, as the new year is underway (and in spite of various other writing/research projects, my novel, work, and various fascinations) to reread all of Dickens’ major works in the order in which he wrote them, while at the same time, slowly, rereading one of my favorite books: Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens.

This method of rereading presents a few choices to be made, as so many works were written with an overlapping timeline ~ Dickens would be working on finishing one piece while beginning another. I’ll probably opt for reading them in the order in which the serialization began. So, Pickwick having been started before Oliver Twist, I’d start with Pickwick, for example; and Barnaby Rudge wouldn’t begin serialization until four years later, though Dickens had been planning, considering, and promising it to publishers quite early on.

Anyhow, I suppose it can’t hurt to give it a go. All I know is, the spirit of the one and only Dickens continues to haunt me (pleasantly, of course), and I feel that this is the year ~ a hopeful year ~ to make it happen.

The Impact of Dickens: An International Conference

It was a joy to drop in this morning on the opening of the Zoom-based international conference on The Impact of Dickens, which will continue today and tomorrow, and to hear the introduction by the delightful Pete Orford, and that of Ian Dickens, the great-great-grandson of the great man.

Before getting ready for work, I was able to view a good portion of the first panel, including Katie Bell‘s presentation on the impact of Dickens on the southern gothic novelist and short story writer, Flannery O’Connor. She pointed out that the dark humor of both Dickens and O’Connor depends on “a delicate balance of comedy, violence and freakery.” I particularly loved not only the references of both O’Connor and Dickens to Cervantes, but the insight that both Dickens and O’Connor share the association of intense pain and violence with that of grace and redemption. Bell also draws attention to the fascination of both authors with characters who have physical–or even moral–impairments, and their proximity (whether because of or in spite of such characteristics) to the intersection of grace and redemption.

The one question I did pose before the first panel commenced was whether the presentations would be available for viewing later, as time off work was impossible during this difficult time in our wildfire-consumed southern Oregon. It sounds as though it may well be available, as it is certainly being recorded, so any who are interested might want to just keep an eye on the facebook page and the Dickens Fellowship website. Here’s hoping…

But for now, I leave the conference with reluctance, to get ready for work. Alas, yes, the work must go on. (Like Mr. Pancks, “What else am I made for?”) Have a happy Thursday, everyone!

Fulfilling Little Nell’s Wish During Quarantine

Our state, Oregon, went into full lockdown in the middle of March this year, and has been in the gradual reopening process over the past months. As I’m among those who was never able to work remotely, working as I do with superheroic adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (or, different-abilities!) in a group home setting, I’ve not been able to focus as much time and energy on writing and on research as I’d like. However, I have been delving into a big Dickens readathon ~ or, perhaps more appropriately, re-readathon.

I’ve recently started the renowned Dickens biography by Michael Slater, having wanted to read it for a long time, only halted by my intense attachment to the Peter Ackroyd biography. I’ve also been rereading ~ or relistening to audiobooks of ~ his novels. One of those has been The Old Curiosity Shop, which I hadn’t read in years. I love the atmosphere, although it’s never been among my top favorites; however, during one of my walks with my brother, I was very much struck again by how applicable Dickens is, even to seemingly disconnected parts of life.

My brother, looking at the vista from one of the cemetery trails

One of our favorite places to walk is the picturesque, historic little town of Jacksonville, Oregon, about 30 minutes away from Ashland, and home to a number just shy of 3,000 residents, but with, at least in pre-Covid days, a relatively hopping little tourist economy, between its old-West downtown flavor and historic homes, surrounding woods and trails, the supposedly-haunted Jacksonville Inn, and the renowned Britt Festival in the summer.

The historic Jacksonville Cemetery is a beautiful place for a walk ~ at least, when it isn’t too hot, because it tends to have spots of intense sun, and a few too many inclines for some of us in the heat. We’ve walked there often over the years, but our walk only a couple of weeks into the strict lockdown last March was particularly memorable.

Although I didn’t take pictures to speak of at the time ~ those in this post were primarily taken since ~ I recall in those first weeks of total quarantine, when we could only go out for essential needs, or to walk, for example, that I was inspired by the quiet, social-distanced, but active presence of people at the cemetery…walking, visiting the graves of loved ones, or simply sitting under the shade of trees to read and nap. I don’t recall having seen so many people there before, although there were no gatherings, or anything else that went against the lockdown regulations. If there is one thing that, just perhaps, we might see more of in a time of shutdown and pandemic, is a beautiful sort of connection to the earth, to family, and to those who have gone before us.

I kept thinking of Little Nell’s lament, when beautifying the little churchyard late in the novel, of the many graves that go unvisited, as though forgotten. She finally opens up about her thoughts to the kind schoolmaster:

“I rather grieve–I do rather grieve to think,” said the child, bursting into tears, “that those who die about us, are so soon forgotten.”

“And do you think,” said the schoolmaster, marking the glance she had thrown around, “that an unvisited grave, a withered tree, a faded flower or two, are tokens of forgetfulness or cold neglect? Do you think there are no deeds, far away from here, in which these dead may be best remembered? Nell, Nell, there may be people busy in the world, at this instant, in whose good actions and good thoughts these very graves–neglected as they look to us–are the chief instruments.”

“Tell me no more,” said the child quickly. “Tell me no more. I feel, I know it. How could I be unmindful of it, when I thought of you?”

“There is nothing,” cried her friend, “no, nothing innocent or good, that dies, and is forgotten. Let us hold to that faith, or none. An infant, a prattling child, dying in its cradle, will live again in the better thoughts of those who loved it, and will play its part, through them, in the redeeming actions of the world, though its body be burnt to ashes or drowned in the deepest sea. There is not an angel added to the Host of Heaven but does its blessed work on earth in those that loved it here. Forgotten! oh, if the good deeds of human creatures could be traced to their source, how beautiful would even death appear; for how much charity, mercy, and purified affection, would be seen to have their growth in dusty graves!”

~ Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapter 54

So, of course, the schoolmaster is right ~ it is our deeds, and our lives, by which we best remember those who have gone before. Who knows what hidden sparks of life, what dreams and moments of even heroic virtue, might have been inspired by one who died long ago? But still, I understand little Nell’s lament, and it is the peculiar sadness of the cemetery: not so much that it is a place to house the dead, but the broader fear that they are forgotten by the living. We know this isn’t so, but we are connected inextricably to the tangible. Fresh flowers left at a grave site; grass freshly mown and earth recently weeded; little pebbles left like secret messages at a headstone.

One might see it as “morbid,” perhaps, to keep part of one’s focus on the memory of the deceased; but I think there are few things that more awaken us to the living world around us, than the memory of those who are still so alive to us in a more profound way, although not physically present to our senses.

Perhaps for many of the visitors, like my brother and me, many were just in the cemetery for a beautiful walk, or somewhere to read with a vista of the surrounding town and hills, and not specifically to visit the grave of a loved one. But one can’t help but remember one’s own loved ones in such a setting, and one’s connection to the earth. Was it just my imagination, or had the quiet cemetery never seemed so full of life, and active memory, as it had during those early days of quarantine? I hope that those goods that have come from this time of universal lockdown are not too soon forgotten.