150+ essays on literary topics
The essays that Dickens published under the title of The Uncommercial Traveller were written towards the end of his life and mostly made their first appearance in his new weekly magazine, All the Year Round. If he were writing today, they would have been blogs. The voice we hear when we read them is not the voice we are familiar with from the novels, though we hear that in snatches, whenever one of the essays includes a story. Otherwise we hear the voice of the famous Charles Dickens, as we might hear today the voice of a well-known writer as a columnist in one of the Sunday papers or a contributor to BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View. One of the essays, The Ruffian, reads like an angry Letter to the Editor about the way the police and the courts deal with juvenile delinquents. It is not, as we might have expected, knowing Dickens as we do, their harshness that he objects to, but their leniency. ‘I take the liberty to believe,’ he writes, ‘that if the Ruffian besets my life, a professional Ruffian at large in the open streets of a great city, notoriously having no other calling than that of Ruffian, and of disquieting and despoiling me as I go peacefully about my lawful business, interfering with no one, then the Government under which I have the great constitutional privilege, supreme honour and happiness, and all the rest of it, to exist, breaks down in the discharge of any Government’s most simple elementary duty.’ He goes on to describe his personal, relentless pursuit of a seventeen year old girl who, ‘with a suitable attendance of blackguards, youths, and boys, was flaunting along the streets, returning from an Irish funeral,’ and in the process had sworn at him. He had her arrested and charged under a clause in the new Police Act of which neither the police nor the judiciary were aware until he pointed it out to them. Even then they tried to persuade him to drop the charges but he refused to back down and the girl was sentenced to a fine of ten shillings or, more likely, a term in prison. ‘“Lord bless you, sir,” said the Police-officer, who showed me out, with a great enjoyment of the jest of her having been got up so effectively, and caused so much hesitation: “if she goes to prison, that will be nothing new to her. She comes from Charles Street, Drury Lane!”’ Are there no workhouses? The girl was fortunate to have got away without a whipping, her back ‘scarified often and deep’, which Dickens recommends earlier in his essay as a suitable punishment for ruffians in general.
Apart from revealing Dickens as a grumpy old man, prejudiced (against Irish funerals) and intolerant (of misbehaviour in public places), The Uncommercial Traveller offers an insight into the Dickensian literary method which, when applied to real people, can have the exact opposite effect to what we are used to in the novels. There, Mr Murdstone and Mr Pickwick are ready-made fictional characters. Here, we see real people being fictionalised. The inhabitants of Titbull’s Almshouses, the subject of one of the essays, are instantly transformed by Dickens’s pen into characters in a story, as in this description of two of them. ‘They are little, stooping, blear-eyed old men of cheerful countenance, and they hobble up and down the court-yard wagging their chins and talking together quite gaily.’ Dickens the writer gives us as vivid a picture as Cruickshank the artist, using very similar techniques. But Dickens the essayist reminds us that his interest is not in real individuals, as we meet them for example in the essays of Hazlitt, but in the dramatis personae of the theatrical world of his imagination, for which all he needs is caricatures. Sketches by Boz. Fancy, not fact. Fact transformed before our very eyes into fancy. Fancy having exactly the same relationship to its origins in fact that fairy tales have to everyday life. In one of his essays, Nurse’s Stories, he treats us to a masterly re-telling of some of the stories that scared him when was a boy, giving us a double dose of terror by weaving the child’s reaction into the story itself. Fact and fiction. Two kinds of truth.
The next entry in my READER’S DIARY is due on 15 January and will be about whatever I’ve been reading lately.
My next essay, due on 8 January, is about playwrights from Aeschylus to Lorca – PLAYS WITHOUT ACTORS.
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