A Christmas Carol, revisited

Haven’t posted here for ever so long. Truth to be told, I’ve grown a little tired of Mr. Dickens. But it’s tough to resist his Christmas classic. Check out my appreciation of A Christmas Carol at my books blog: Reading Salon. Season’s greetings!

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Best of times with Masterpiece Mystery

lewis-and-hathwayCatching up on my Masterpiece Mystery/Inspector Lewis, I watched “The Indelible Stain” online this morning.

Seeking more information on a case, DS Hathaway interviews an Oxford dean who notes that he’s reading, or rather re-reading, Tale of Two Cities. He and Hathaway then recite the opening sentence (“It was the best of times…”) in turn. In a subsequent scene, Hathaway—ever the scholar—chides himself for missing that the dean had misquoted, slightly: “we were all going direct to heaven, we are all going direct the other way,” instead of “were going the other way.”

Great fun to have a Dickens moment for the book I’m reading now….

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Tale of Two Cities, reflection

I’m slowly working my way through Tale—a little shocked to see that my last entry was in April.

Since then, I’ve visited the small but well-done Dickens Exhibit in Lowell, which is celebrating the bicentennial in big way. But I failed to post an entry about it at the time.

Dickens PortraitTo make up for it now: a couple of photos from my visit.

The star of the exhibit is the charming 1842 portrait of Dickens by Boston painter Francis Alexander, done when the author visited the city for his first American tour–on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts. Apparently, the painting has not been exhibited in Boston for thirty years.

Dickens was only in Lowell for one day, but he was impressed by its factories and its employment system for mill workers; as grim it may have been, it was vastly superior to England’s treatment of factory workers. As it turned out, Dickens’s visit to Boston and its environs were some of the highlights of his time in the U.S.; he was dismayed by much of what he witnessed as he ventured farther west and south.

Panel: Dickens returns to Boston

Dickens returned for a second tour of America, 1867-68

While the Lowell exhibit is small, it packs a lot of information into its cases and panels.

Now, back to A Tale of Two Cities.

I’m very interested in how Dickens presents the character of Sidney Carton. What has caused him to have such a bleak outlook—to be so very cynical and without hope? He can work hard but has no ambition. After his night of working for Stryver:

Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.

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Best of times

Illustrated Classics: A Tale of Two CitiesAs The Writer’s Almanac reminds us, A Tale of Two Cities was first published, in serial form, on this date in 1859. It was featured in the first issue of Dickens’s new weekly journal, All The Year Round.

Readers must have been intrigued by the opening lines:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …”

Now that I think about this story, and how much I loved it (when I first read it as a pre-teen and again later, as an English major), perhaps it should be my next “reading Dickens” choice. The history, the twin settings of London and Paris, the remarkable cast of characters: it’s time to pay another visit.

When looking for an image for this post, I found the cover of the “Classics Illustrated” comic book edition of Tale. My uncle had a large collection of these remarkable comics, and I became familiar with a number of great books (or at least their essential plots) while gently perusing the comics’ brittle pages. I can still remember their pungent aroma of cedar-lined cupboard and incipient mold.

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Dickens and the ladies

Bella Wilfer and her fatherHow Dickens loves his heroine Bella. When he writes a Bella-infused chapter, he positively effuses. It’s not enough to describe her charming little ways twice, when thrice or more will do.

Bella, putting back her hair with both hands, as if she were making the most business-like arrangements for going dramatically distracted, would enter on the household affairs of the day. Such weighing and mixing and chopping and grating, such dusting and washing and polishing, such snipping and weeding and trowelling and other small gardening, such making and mending and folding and airing . . .

Bella has her good qualities—in particular her sensitivity to the corrosive effects of wealth and her unwavering faith in her husband John (Rokesmith, soon to be revealed as Harmon) as his secret starts to leak out. But I could do with a bit less about her dimples and the investigation of John’s coat button; and her simpering behavior towards her father—the ever-patient R. Wilfer—is revolting:

Her father being more than willing to obey, she dressed his hair in her most elaborate manner, brushing it out straight, parting it, winding it over her fingers, sticking it up on end, and constantly falling back on John to get a good look at the effect of it. Who always received her on his disengaged arm, and detained her, while the patient cherub stood waiting to be finished.

(Poor Rumpty: he gets only grief from his harridan of wife, so I suppose he has to take affection where he can.)

I can only imagine that Dickens wished he was both Bella’s father and her husband—that he had a daughter/wife who would twist up his hair, coo at him, and snuggle up next to him, while still being a serious, accomplished and thoughtful companion (when that was called for).  Well, perhaps he found his Bella in Nell Ternan.

For my part, I much prefer Jenny Wren, the dolls’ dressmaker, who has a sharp eye and a sharp tongue, and, despite poverty and crippled limbs, is no one’s fool. Lizzie Hexam is another interesting female character. She loves Eugene but knows she’s beneath him socially and thus retreats to preserve her own honor; she loves her pretentious, self-centered brother but won’t let that love compromise her own sense of self-worth when he tries to coerce her into marrying Bradley Headstone.

I can tell that Dickens likes Jenny and Lizzie—and he admires Mrs. Boffin and poor but proud Betty Higden. But it’s Bella who’s captured his heart.

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Dickens in Lowell

Just found out that Lowell, MA is celebrating its connections to Dickens—the mill city was one of Dickens’ stops during his 1842 American tour.

An exhibition called “Dickens and Massachusetts: A Tale of Power and Transformation’’ is running through October 20 in the Boott Gallery in the Lowell National Historical Park. There is also a scholarly Dickens Society Symposium planned for July 13-15 at the Tsongas Industrial History Center.

More information

Dickens in Lowell

Lowell National Historic Park

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Great Expectations, unfulfilled

I had great expectations of my own for PBS Masterpiece’s version of Great Expectations, but I found that I just couldn’t watch it. I thought casting Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham was a clever move: instead of an old crone, re-imagining her as a woman still young enough to make a life for herself if she weren’t so fixated on past regrets and future revenge. But, no. Anderson played her like Alec Guinness’s version of Jacob Marley: a weirdly-pitched voice and a campy, “ghostly” aspect.

Not sure how long this link will work, but take a look:

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Slowing down, going in circles

Mr. & Mrs LammleI don’t have to hurry through Our Mutual Friend to find out how it ends (since I already know from previous encounters). And I don’t want to rush. As I watch the pages creep along to the conclusion, I’m reading slowly, prolonging my journey on this current of conversations, observations, actions, and reactions.

In the chapters concerning the Lammles, I continue to be amazed by Dickens’ ability to show how very uncomfortable they are in their marriage:

Was it the speciality of Mr and Mrs Lammle, or does it ever obtain with other loving couples? In these matrimonial dialogues they never addressed each other, but always some invisible presence that appeared to take a station about midway between them. Perhaps the skeleton in the cupboard comes out to be talked to, on such domestic occasions?

The phrase “skeleton in the cupboard” gave me pause, because I wondered if Dickens was referencing Longfellow’s poem. That sent me in a fascinating circle of web searching.

Fall River's skeleton in armor

Fall River's skeleton in armor

As a native of Fall River, MA, I vaguely remembered a tale about a mysterious skeleton that had been found in the city (in 1832, as I learned). Longfellow was familiar with the discovery and published “The Skeleton in Armor” (not the cupboard) in 1841, in which he imagines the skeleton’s life as a Viking explorer. The skeleton was discovered—buried in the ground, not hidden in a cupboard—with a brass breastplate, hence wild theories about its provenance. The skeleton was placed on display at the Fall River Athenaeum (where he did, apparently, reside in a cabinet), which was destroyed in an 1843 fire. Most authorities think the skeleton was probably native American, not Viking.

And I found that the phrase “skeleton in the cupboard” (or closet) dates back to 1816. In Britain, cupboard in more common; in the U.S., closet.

And lest you think this has taken me far, far from Dickens—quite the contrary: we’re back at the beginning. Longfellow and Dickens were transatlantic pen pals and first met during Dickens’ 1842 American tour.

Related links

Fall River’s skeleton in armor

Skeleton in the closet (idiom)

Family and friends of Charles Dickens

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I continue to marvel at the genius of Our Mutual Friend. The interwoven plot lines; the variety and the acute specificity of the characters; the suspense, tragedy, comedy, romance, and social analysis (Dickens taking full advantage of his bully pulpit). I could do with a bit less mawkishness around Bella, whether described as Pa’s lovely woman or a “boofer lady,” but that’s a small price to pay for everything else at the banquet.

Our Mutual Friend is still my favorite Dickens novel.

I’ve been copying wonderful passages as I read (made so easy by the iPad) and emailing them to myself for discussion or at least inclusion here—but then I get so carried away with the story that I forget to post. Just one word—from that peg-legged scoundrel and leaden-tongued orator Silas Wegg—will have to suffice for now: “terrimenjious.”

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Money, money, money

Cover of Our Mutual FriendObsession with wealth and money is a major theme in Our Mutual Friend. The Harmon fortune sets the plot in motion: the supposed death of old Harmon’s rightful heir leads to the surprising windfall to his loyal servants—the Boffins—and ripples out to characters such as Mortimer Lightwood, Silas Wegg and Bella Wilfer.

Bella—as beautiful as her name implies, but also poor, and proud, and petulant—was used as a pawn by Harmon, who stipulated that his son marry Bella to inherit the fortune. With the son’s death, Bella is left without prospects, until the Boffins make her their ward. Her position once again assured, she plots to marry only for money and not for love; yet she is also a daily witnesses to the way that wealth has taken its toll on the once generous and open-hearted Mr. Boffin. As she tells her father:

‘. . . every day he changes for the worse, and for the worse. Not to me—he is always much the same to me—but to others about him. Before my eyes he grows suspicious, capricious, hard, tyrannical, unjust. If ever a good man were ruined by good fortune, it is my benefactor. And yet, Pa, think how terrible the fascination of money is! I see this, and hate this, and dread this, and don’t know but that money might make a much worse change in me. And yet I have money always in my thoughts and my desires; and the whole life I place before myself is money, money, money, and what money can make of life!’

Familiar with grinding poverty, debtor’s prison, and the workhouse himself, Dickens was obsessed not only with success but with amassing a fortune—and most of his novels’ main characters, from Oliver Twist to Pip, are similarly concerned with making their way in the world. In Our Mutual Friend (the last book completed before his death), Dickens underlines, again and again, the flip side of ambition: the corrupting influence of money.  The book is filled with skinflints, scrooges, and scammers, from old John Harmon to Silas Wegg, Alfred Lammle, “Fascination” Fledgeby, Rogue Riderhood, and the stories of misers that Mr. Boffin collects.

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