If he would only work hard enough…

Fildes The Empty Chair 1870

Dickens’ empty chair at Gads Hill, after his death from a stroke at age 58. He looked much older.

I began reading Pickwick Papers last week as preparation for resuming my journey through Dickens’ novels, and today, for good measure, I was reading the beginning of John Forster’s biography of Dickens. And immediately the date leaped out at me: February 7, 1812, Dickens’ birthday.

February 7, 2018, then, is a good time to begin at the beginning.

Forster says:

The house called Gadshill Place stands on the strip of highest ground in the main road between Rochester and Gravesend. Often had we traveled past it together, years and years before it became his home, and never without some allusion to what he told me when first I saw it in his company, that amid the recollections connected with his childhood it held always a prominent place, for, upon first seeing it as he came from Chatham with his father, and looking up at it with much admiration, he had been promised that he might himself live in it, or in some such house, when he came to be a man, if he would only work hard enough.

I wonder if these words of his father, when the boy was 4 or 5 years old, imparted a decisive quality to his life and direction as an adult, or whether the grown-up Dickens selected an incident from his childhood in retrospect to fit the lifestyle he had made for himself.

There’s no doubt that what a parent says to a child can have a powerful and lasting effect on their behavior and development. But an exhortation to work hard–perhaps not an exhortation but a dangling bait–can meet with little understanding in a child’s mind of what “working hard” means. Was the promised reward of living in Gadshill such an alluring prize, and real enough to the imagination and heart’s desire, to carry young Dickens through the growing years or was it only a charming fancy to be recited to friends in amiable conversation?

Dickens worked hard his entire adult life. It is said that he was prematurely aged by his labors. Other motivations than Gadshill suggest themselves: fear of poverty, a desire to effect social improvement. But surely, the fascination of storytelling; the bringing to life of characters endearing, abhorrent, and amusing; the expression of worthy themes … the romantic ideal of the artist that we all want to believe in … that has to be the real reason a man would write book after book, plus essays, stories, and narratives of travels. Right?

There are plenty of people with the itch to write who lack the purpose-driven stamina and the will to work hard, so I circle back to Dickens’ willingness to put in the hours and not go on to something else that beckons and says it will be more enjoyable, to toil away at the desk and make the words come, even when (I have to assume) his hand cramped, his back hurt, and hundred other reasons could be employed to let himself stop, rest, daydream.

He was driven, and that is often not a happy thing, no matter what the private reason to work hard and not quit.

Portents and Signs

He was the meekest of his sex, the mildest of little men. He sidled in and out of a room, to take up the less space. He walked as softly as the Ghost in Hamlet, and more slowly.

I revisited Chapter 1 of David Copperfield, intending take another look at the similarities and contrasts of the chapter’s two primary characters, Clara Copperfield and Betsey Trotwood. What I noticed in the second reading, though, is something that passed right by me during my first reading: Dickens has crammed this chapter full of Portents. Now I love a good prophesy to get my interest up, but most writers content themselves with a single one. Here is abundance: Hamlet (Senior) is conjured up, Betsey Trotwood’s “presentiment” plays a role, and we also hear about the prophesies of the women of the neighborhood.

The image of the Ghost in Hamlet is used to humorously characterize the doctor, timid Mr. Chillip, but the dark shadowy thing on the battlements of Elsinor is stalking right beside the doctor, and he is not amusing in the least.

Bringing Hamlet into the beginning of the story (although disguised as a joke) is the darkest portent — dead father, weak mother, and a son at the mercy of an evil stepfather. No happenstance was involved in this choice of image, I think.

The prophesies made by the women of the neighborhood are that the child born near midnight on a Friday is destined to be unlucky and have the ability to see ghosts and spirits. We are told that the second part of the prophesy has not come about by the time that David is telling the story, but as for the first part, well, that’s a teaser: stay with me, reader, and you’ll find out!

When Clara goes into labor and the doctor and nurse arrive, Miss Betsey herself is described as “an unknown lady of portentous appearance.”  That may be; but the really interesting portent is not Miss Betsey herself, but the one that has brought her here.

Any number of reasons could have been devised to prompt Miss Betsey to visit Clara Copperfield: interest (reluctant or not) in Clara’s well-being, respect for her deceased nephew, simple curiosity, a legal matter, a family matter, or some such thing. It would not be hard to bring about a meeting between these two women.

But it was for none of the reasons above that Miss Betsey comes to the Rookery. She comes because she has had a presentiment that the baby will be a girl. And she sees this baby girl as the one who will be a new version of herself, who will face the choices she did, and be protected from making the wrong choices.

It makes her a sympathetic and memorable character, and her eccentricities become only secondary. We know something true and deep about her. It was an inspired way to bring her to the Rookery.

Her initials in hard brass nails

I am about a quarter through David Copperfield.

I have been tremendously impressed with Dickens’ powerful characterization. I think every writer who is serious about the craft at least knows that you should create a character on the page — using only words — as vividly as possible. You want to create an individual that the reader can see and instantly understand, even though more development may follow as the story goes on.

Well, I am dazzled by this paragraph:

It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was, dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows… She brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite.

Peggotty is characterized by her warm hugs that put so much pressure on her dress that her buttons in back fly off — it’s a humorous, exaggerated sort of image that works fine: we get the idea that she’s generous both in proportions and hugs. It’s also a little, well, unbelievable (nothing wrong with that). In contrast, the vignette of Miss Murdstone is totally believable: the hard boxes with the brass nails, the purse with the chain handles, and the metallic snap closure. The purse is commonplace: you can go to the department store and buy one that fits the description today. But when Dickens associates the boxes and the purse with Miss Murdstone, we get a sharp understanding of her personality. That is wonderful writing, especially the words “shut up like a bite.”

I notice also how economical this characterization is. A page of description would be more diffuse and less powerful, and much less memorable.

A reader who is not a fiction writer might not consciously notice the superb craft in this passage, but I am sure it is part of the pleasure of the reading experience for all, not just writers.

“Janet! Donkeys!”

For those who don’t recognize the exclamation above, that’s Miss Trotwood, giving the alarm that the animals are treading on her tidy lawn. Unfortunately, her lawn fronts on a road and the donkeys are regular visitors. Her pared-to-the-essence cry to swift action delighted me, so I decided to use it for the blog.

I’m starting to read all of Dickens’ novels, and I thought it would be enjoyable to share the voyage with anyone else who cares to join. If you’ve already read Pickwick, Great Expectations, and all the rest, or some of them, or if you think you might want to read them, come along.

I’m reading them in the order that Dickens wrote them, except for one. I’ve started with David Copperfield, because I was interested in some of the autobiographical parts of the story. (Also, it was the only one I had in the house.)

Years ago, I earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English literature, and yet, I have just realized, I finished both degrees without ever having to read anything by Dickens. Criminal!

I have to admit, though, that it’s very pleasurable to have this wonderful … continent of stories … virtually unexplored. Of course, I’d read A Christmas Carol long before I ever went to college, and have re-read it many times. And I read A Tale of Two Cities a couple years ago. But there is so much more to Dickens.