Sketches By Boz - (Charles Dickens 1833 - 36)


Mar 21, 2005
Hello all,

As some of you would already be aware Mr. Charles Dickens celebrates his 200th anniversary this year (February 7, 1812).

To this end we will be conducting monthly (more or less) discussions focusing primairly on his novels ( we may introduce a seperate short story thread in this section and possibly one other featuring his travelogues etc. ).

I will basically be following his major works to the best of my abilities in chronolgical order, with the next work to be announced by the end of this week and posted by mid February. Having said that I do not intend to 'lock' any of the Dickens reading threads and therefore members will always have an opportunity to return to earlier books to post their thoughts throughout the year.

First off the rank then is Sketches By Boz (produced during the period 1833 - 36).

I myself have never read this before and recently accquired a vey attaractive looking Pengiun black classic edition featuring the orignal illustrations by George Cruikshank. If you can obtain a copy that includes Cruikshank's orignal drawings I would urge you to do so as they really do add to the overall narrative.

I apologise that I have not had time to better prepare a preamble on this work, so I have pulled something off wiki just to provide you with a basic idea of what the book is about.

Sketches by "Boz," Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People (commonly known as Sketches by Boz) is a collection of short pieces published by Charles Dickens in 1836 accompanied by illustrations by George Cruikshank. The 56 sketches concern London scenes and people and are divided into four sections: "Our Parish", "Scenes", "Characters", and "Tales".

The material in the first three of these sections is non-fiction. The last section comprises fictional stories. Originally, the sketches were published in various newspapers and periodicals from 1833-1836.

I aim to start posting some comments by the end of this week but feel free to start now.

Re: Sletches By Boz - (Charles Dickens 1833 - 36)

I'll revive my reading now, but in the meantime here are a few paragraphs that I posted around Nov. 12-14 of last year:

I began reading this book yesterday evening by choosing three likely-looking portions to read to my wife and one of our daughters while they knitted and drank their tea. The selections were, in order of reading:

Brokers' and Marine-Store Shops
The Pawnbroker's Shop

It turned out that this arrangement worked well. The first sketch has plenty of that Dickensian particularity and feeling for corners of London. The second develops real pathos. The third raises our spirits.

Next I read (in this order) "Criminal Courts" and "Public Dinners." (I do mean to read the entire book, but feel free to jump around a bit.) These also were read-alouds. We see Dickens's interest from the beginning of his career in crime and in organized philanthropy ... with an eye to the self-pleasing opportunities of the latter. (Dickens includes a note at the end of the latter sketch to assure the reader that he is not poking fun at all philanthropic institutions and their supporters.) Since I've just reread Bleak House, it's easy to see a continuity between these works from early and later in his career.

I could almost envisage Dickens as capturing London, item by item, for his imagination. He's making it his own, his city, and he succeeded (I'm not saying he consciously had this agenda); the "Victorian London" of many Americans, I suppose, is basically that of Dickens's imagination.

I've read (aloud) two more sketches -- about morning and night in the London streets. It's as if Dickens wrote them and put them in a time capsule for us; what a privilege to be able to read them.

I find it somehow moving to think of times when one could just walk in and out of a great city (see some early paragraphs of Collins's The Woman in White for my favorite example). That is hardly feasible now, is it? thanks to our culture's having handed travel over to the automobile etc.

Gollum, I relish Dickens's storytelling, but there is something good too in these sketches as observation without the agenda of a plot and characters. Such writing helps us to "travel back in time."

Take that "Morning" sketch. It really is almost as if Dickens is a modern science fiction writer, describing his time-traveler's observations as the traveler arrives in the past for the first time. But what Dickens gives us is better than that, since he really did observe that bygone London -- when it wasn't bygone.

Literature is wonderful.....

It's almost fascinating -- to think of people whose ways were so different from ours, and yet who spoke the same language, etc. They're close to us and yet very far away indeed thanks to the passage of time.

Their London, too, is -- London! And yet how different it is, from any place in London that we could visit now.

---Now back to 22 Jan. 2012: I just want to agree fervently with Gollum's recommendation that everyone use an edition with Cruikshank's pictures.

I'm also going to float an idea for the amusement of all us sf-oriented types: supposing social breakdown (financial collapse and so on), is it possible that Dickens's London will foreshadow some of the scrounging people will have to do to get by someday? of course the differences would be profound. But perhaps a bit of a Sketches by Kunstler element suggests itself.
Re: Sletches By Boz - (Charles Dickens 1833 - 36)

Sketch of "Seven Dials" -- the notorious slum.

I found myself thinking that our time traveler to Dickens's London would eventually realize that one enormous difference with our time would be the enormously greater degree of standardization -- of almost everything -- in our time. On that topic, here's a book review that may be of interest:

The buildings themselves, the doorways, the windows, the steps, the furnishings, the hats and clothing people wore,the dyes used to color those clothes, the carts in which produce was transported for sale, the innumerable dame-schools -- most or all of these things would not have been standardized, or at least would have been standardized far less rigorously than today. The results must have been of profound significance for eye and brain as compared to our own time: I suppose, that those loafers whom Dickens describes in this sketch would have found far more interesting variation to look over than loafers at the same GPS location today would see. I suppose we can hardly imagine what it was like.

Of course standardization is in many ways a good thing and a necessary thing for us. But it is not inherent in reality itself.
Re: Sletches By Boz - (Charles Dickens 1833 - 36)

"Doctors' Commons" -- I discovered that the "doctors" were lawyers; I had assumed they were physicians. I was surprised to learn that, "under a half-obsolete statute of one of the Edwards" (I suppose Dickens could very well have said which if it had suited him), "the court was empowered to visit with the penalty of excommunication " any person convicted of brawling in a church. Of course the state having the responsibility to try cases involving violence and disruption of public order makes sense, but the state having the "authority" to inflict ecclesiastical discipline seems another matter. The offender is fined costs of the trial plus two weeks' excommunication. He asks that he be excused the costs and excommunicated for life instead, since he never goes to church anyway.
Re: Sletches By Boz - (Charles Dickens 1833 - 36)

"The River" -- His description of boat races on the Thames reminds me of a curious bit of literary lore. There's a substantial house -- still standing -- on the river that was the residence, at one time in the Victorian era, of the very great fantasist George MacDonald. He called the house "The Retreat." He moved out, and who moved in? Another great Victorian fantasist, William Morris, who called it Kelmscott House (as distinct from his Kelmscott Manor near Oxford -- but the two residences were on the same river).* I have a little book about the building, that mentions how people would watch the boat races from the house -- even, as I recall, from the roof.


As for Dickens himself: this sketch is an example of something actually rather unusual about Dickens, as compared (from what I call tell) to most literary greats: he liked crowds.

Who else, of the world's great authors, appears to have liked crowds? I'm not sure that I could think of even one.

*And by the way, when the third great Victorian fantasist, Rider Haggard, wanted letters of introduction for his trip to Iceland, he got such letter(s) from William Morris (whose Icelandic Journals are indispensable books for me). I believe Haggard went to Kelmscott House to get them. O, if buildings could talk -- ! And I think Lewis Carroll, the fourth great Victorian fantasist if you liked, photographed some of MacDonald's children there. He certainly did photograph them somewhere.

There's an association also with the composer Gustav Holst (The Planets) by the way, who came to socialist meetings at the coach house by Kelmscott House, as I recall... perhaps the socialists adjourned to the House for refreshments afterwards...
"The Hospital Patient"

As it happens, I picked for my next "sketch" one in which Dickens explicitly refers to his liking to be with crowds. As the narrative continues, however, and he enters a city hospital, Dickens is one of just a few. There is some concise but graphic description of suffering inmates of a hospital ward; and the narrative concludes with a surprising and disturbing anecdote.
Here is an addendum to my comments on "The River." This is a review that I wrote for the excellent monthly Tolkien newsletter Beyond Bree.


Elletson, Helen. A History of Kelmscott House. London: William Morris Society, 2009. 64 pages. ISBN 978-0-903283-27-4. Available from The William Morris Society, P. O. Box 53263, Washington DC 20009. $20. Reviewed by Dale Nelson.

The house was built late in the eighteenth century, "a fine example of late Georgian architecture." In 1816, Sir Francis Ronalds "constructed in the garden the first electric telegraph." Its claims on the fascination of fantasy readers date to the second half of the nineteenth century.

George MacDonald lived there with his family from 1867-1877, and during this time wrote The Princess and the Goblin, a book incontrovertibly important for Tolkien's conception of the goblins in The Hobbit. MacDonald called the house "The Retreat," but moved his family away eventually because the proximity to the Thames River seemed unhealthy and the low-tide smell of mud was disagreeable. Of all the possible people to sell the lease to, who would have guessed MacDonald would connect with William Morris? Morris "took the house from George MacDonald for [pound symbol] 85 a year: a low rent that reflected the need for extensive repairs and re-decoration, which would cost Morris [pound symbol] 1,000." It was Morris's London residence from 1878 to 1896, i.e. till his death. Morris liked to think of his two homes being located on the same river. Linking the Hammersmith, London, building to his Oxfordshire (now Gloucestershire) rural home, Kelmscott Manor, Morris renamed it Kelmscott House. Elletson doesn't say if Morris wrote The Well at the World's End or any of his other famous romances there; we may presume conservatively that, at the very least, he must have thought of them there at times, even if it should be the case that he wrote them at his country property.

From my reading of Rider Haggard's autobiography, The Days of My Life, it seems clear that the author of King Solomon's Mines and She waited on Morris at Kelmscott House when he needed letters of introduction from Morris to take on his Icelandic expedition, which fed his creation of Eric Brighteyes, a pastiche saga that Tolkien liked well. (Tolkien is on record as saying that She influenced him in the writing of The Lord of the Rings, and it's a critical commonplace that Morris influenced him.) Incidentally, next door was a coach house which Morris renovated into a Socialist meeting hall; Gustav Holst, composer of The Planets, attended. It is no extravagance to suppose that Holst popped in next door; Elletson says guest speakers were often invited to dinner at the House. Perhaps Holst got to come along. If so, we may add one more to the list of outstanding imaginative creators upon whom those walls looked down. May we add any other names to the roll of fantasy creators who visited at Kelmscott House? Indeed we may. Lewis Carroll liked to photograph George MacDonald's children, and one of the settings for his pictures was The Retreat:

Elletson's attractive, though pricey, little book is illustrated with old photos of interiors showing Morris's decorations and with recent color photos of the exterior and of some of Morris's wallpaper designs. .... Kelmscott House, 26 Upper Mall, London W6 9TA.
Thank you Extoallger for keeping this thread moving.

I must apologise to not having had much time to post anythnig yet but I will definitely be posting my thoughts on some of the stories this weekend.

In the next couple of days I will be posting a thread for the next Dickens book I will be reading/reviewing (discussion will kick off around mid February).
"Vaux-Hall Gardens by Day" -- This one gives glimpses of balloon-riding aeronauts; humans in hot air balloons began about 1783; by Dickens's day it draws a crowd (as it still does), but is not such a novelty. Reminded me of this interesting book:
"Meditations in Monmouth-Street"

Dickens stares at second-hand clothes and shoes and becomes entranced in imaginings of people who might have worn them. William Blake said something like "I can gaze at a knot in a piece of wood till I am frightened at it" -- this came to mind; and then I remembered how Peter Ackroyd has written large biographies of both.

Dickens's imaginings don't suggest ill will as somehow inhering in the articles, but I was reminded also that M. R. James wrote "The Malice of Inanimate Objects" -- perhaps I will have to look that up again. In the meantime, the Dickens essay is well worth the attention of anyone interested in Dickens's imagination -- as well as in one more apparently fine piece of London reportage circa 1836.
"The Curate -- The Old Lady -- The Half-Pay Captain"

Dickens likes each of them, but I think he likes the captain most -- a crusty but "charitable, open-hearted old fellow." The captain's a "regular Robinson Crusoe," a Jack of all trades but not quite so handy as others wish he were.

Dickens is matter-of-fact about the curate's consumptiveness. As common as the disease was and as long as some people could survive with it, this kind of attitude would be understandable. How horrible it would seem now, to know one had incurable "consumption."
I note that, on page 11 of the Penguin edition of Sketches that I'm using (I don't have it at hand, but it's from circa 1994), there's a statement by Dickens in which he is somewhat dismissive of the Tales in the Sketches. I will probably skip most or all of them. I remember that, when reading Nicholas Nickleby, I came upon his story about the Grozzwigs or whatever it was, I found this virtually unreadable -- although overall I relished the novel. "The Signalman" is fine, but my impression is that, in general, Dickens is not a notable short story writer.

The sketch about the Miss Willises -- the "Four Sisters" -- approaches being a tale, and I wouldn't say this was too compelling of a piece. It's by Dickens, but in itself a pretty perishable bit of 19th-century writing. ...Unless I missed something!
I read The Beadle. The Parish Engine. The Schoolmaster and The Curate. The Old Lady. The Half-Pay Captain. Last night and was quite surprised :eek: at just how much I enjoyed them. I agree with Extollager that I suspect he has rather a soft spot for the Captain, but my feeling was that the Old Lady held his greatest sympathy. It's funny, even today we must all know an old lady or two just like her.

I particularly liked the Beadle's handling of the penny dropped by one of the 'urchins' in the Sunday service:

his little round head, when it again appears above the seat, with divers double-knocks, administered with the cane before noticed, to the intense delight of three young men in an adjacent pew,...

Extollager: I think I too have the same edition (or at least an ebook taken from it) as I have the same warning from Dickens in the Preface.

One point of curiosity: I couldn't quite see what the basis was for his splitting of chpaters, each has effectively three separate vignettes and I couldn't see why it was not either 6 chapters (OK a bit small) or all one chapter.
"Shops and Their Tenants" -- Despite the plural, this sketch mostly concerns one shop.

Dickens observes the fortunes of one building, from "substantial, good-looking private house" (that unfortunately gets involved with Chancery -- cf Dickens's masterpiece Bleak House) to "handsome shop" through stages of decline to the point that it is a "dairy" -- in which free-range chickens run in and out. The spirit of this sketch is very like what we would expect today if someone told the story of an urban plot of land from busy downtown department store (wiped out when a big box store moved to the edge of town) eventually became a tae kwon do studio.

I was glancing at Wikipedia's entry about Jane Jacobs

and also came across these sentences in an entry about her famous book The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

------Jacobs argued that modernist urban planning rejects the city, because it rejects human beings living in a community characterized by layered complexity and seeming chaos. The modernist planners used deductive reasoning to find principles by which to plan cities. Among these policies the most violent was urban renewal; the most prevalent was and is the separation of uses (i.e. residential, industrial, commercial).

These policies, she claimed, destroy communities and innovative economies by creating isolated, unnatural urban spaces.

In their place Jacobs advocated for "four generators of diversity", writing on page 151, "The necessity for these four conditions is the most important point this book has to make. In combination, these conditions create effective economic pools of use."
  • Mixed uses, activating streets at different times of the day
  • Short blocks, allowing high pedestrian permeability.
  • Buildings of various ages & states of repair.
  • Density.
Her aesthetic can be considered opposite to that of the modernists, upholding redundancy and vibrancy, against order and efficiency. She frequently cites New York City's Greenwich Village as an example of a vibrant urban community.-------

On "permeability" --

--and was struck by how very relevant this concept is to Dickens. For example, one could easily argue that a key feature of Oliver Twist is permeability, both its more favorable and its more detrimental implications. When it is time to discuss Oliver Twist here I must be sure to bring this up.

I'm sure that urban density is a concept worth applying to Dickens's portrayal of London, too.

Back specifically to the present Sketch, I note Dickens's passing remark about "poor [female] creatures" who try to earn a little money making elegant little trifles to sell, who are at last, in Dickens's words, "drive[n] to a last dreadful resource, which it would shock the delicate feelings of ... charitable ladies to hear named." He can only mean prostitution. I think the recent, sometimes well-intended substitution of the value-free term "sex worker" is likely to obscure some of the realities involved, not so much the matter of disease (diseases for which, in Dickens's day, there were no cures) as the ruination of people spiritually and the ruin of families. And yet one can imagine how an impoverished girl could gradually come to accept the idea, perhaps after going through a stage of disgusted awareness of prostitutes in her neighborhood, to learning about how they got involved, to desperately resolving to sell her body once or a few times... and so on.
"Early Coaches" -- Dickens writes of an experience I've sometimes had and that I suppose others will recognize too: you know you have to get up early and so you have trouble getting to sleep, keep waking up... at last you settle into what would have been good, restful sleep and then something wakes up (an alarm clock or a person) and you have to get out of bed. Reading this sketch gave me an extra-intense sense of the reality of people living so many years ago. The sketch has interesting details about how one arranged to ride the said early coach and about the discomforts of walking in sleety weather and slush to the place where the coach is due to arrive, but also evokes the attention one pays to things because of being up so early. Soon other passengers bustle onto the scene. One wonders if the thin, peevish young woman who is going to be one of the outside passengers will make her journey without consequences to her health.

Reading about the outside passengers on the coach reminded me of a friend's accounts of riding buses or vans (called mutatus, I think) in Kenya, loaded with riders inside and out.
I've read all of them, and all I have time to say right now is that they were tremendously fun (and great information for world building if you are writing anything close to the Victorian period).
I'm getting the sense, though, that the Book Club heading is the kiss of death for discussion!
Fair call Extollager but as I'm now back on track with various things in that oft problematic place called 'the real world' I hope to push forward on the Dickens reading club again soon....apologies for the lull.

Several members here have indicated interest in both specific works and Dickens in general, so I remain eternally optimistic that a concerted effort to imbue the "kiss of life" upon the Dickens book club will in fact still prove to be a rewarding experience for all involved...:)
I'm about finished with a few days' focus (as for as comments at Chrons) on stories by Harlan Ellison, so this would be a good time for me to resume posting on Sketches by Boz.
..and for me to get my skates on by posting on both Sketches and Pickwick Papers (reading this weekend) before tackling the next Dickens I had on the list....:rolleyes:

I've been out of it for quite a while now but finally in a position to properly focus on the Dickens reading thread AND start posting on my World Literature thread.

Better late than never I suppose.

Back to reading now.

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