Saturday 28 January 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 1 - "Sketches by Boz"

Charles Dickens began to write in the summer of 1833, at the age of twenty-one. He had been working as a parliamentary reporter for several newspapers and periodicals, but now he set about the serious intention of becoming a writer of fiction.

A portrait of Dickens by George Cruikshank in 1836
One evening that autumn he submitted the manuscript for a fictional sketch called “A Sunday Out of Town” to the Monthly Magazine. As he recalled it later, he had “dropped it stealthily one evening at twilight, with fear and trembling, into a dark letter-box, in a dark office, up a dark court [Johnson Court] in Fleet Street.” When he returned to the same address some time later, in order to buy the magazine’s next issue, he was amazed to find that his piece had been printed - the title changed to “A Dinner at Poplar Walk”. He was not paid for the sketch and he got no credit or by-line, but he was overjoyed to see his work in print: “I walked down to Westminster Hall, and turned into it for half an hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen there.”

Dickens was invited to submit more work, and over the next few months about ten more sketches were published by the Monthly Magazine. And as his work began to be noticed and appreciated, it got picked up by other periodicals.

And then in August of 1834 a funny story called “The Boarding House” was finally attributed to its young author, but under the pseudonym of ‘Boz’. Boz was a nickname that Dickens had come up with for his younger brother Augustus. It began actually as Moses – after a character from Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield. Soon the nickname came to be delivered facetiously in a nasal tone – instead of Moses, it became “Boses”. And in time, Boses became shortened to “Boz”. So, although most people pronounce Charles Dickens’s early pseudonym so that it rhymes with ‘was’, it is really supposed to rhyme with ‘nose’.

Dickens continued to write sketches as Boz for a couple of years. Eventually, they were published in a two-volume set by John Macrone on February 7th, 1836 – Dickens’s twenty-fourth birthday. A “second series” was released in one volume in August 1838. The volumes were called Sketches by Boz. The book collection was also published in installments by Chapman and Hall from 1837-1839; these usually included two black-and-white illustrations by artist George Cruikshank – wood engravings or metal etchings. The release of the first book of the sketches brought its author instant celebrity. About a month later he was commissioned by Chapman and Hall to write his first serialized novel. It was to be about a men’s sporting club – an idea that Dickens turned into The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Dickens’s authorship was shown on the title pages as “Edited by Boz.” Six weeks after the first edition of the Sketches of Boz, the first installment of The Pickwick Papers was issued. Dickens rapidly shot to fame – especially after he introduced the character of cockney Sam Weller as Pickwick’s valet in Chapter 10. But he continued to write and submit sketches even as he was focused on writing his first novel.

The full title of Dickens’s collection of early sketches was Sketches by Boz: Illustrative of Every-Day Life And Every-Day People. The final version of the work consisted of 56 sketches in four groups: “Our Parish”, “Scenes”, “Characters”, and “Tales”. The best writing here is in the sketches, where he writes with a wry attention to detail and a sense of ironic humour; in the tales of the final section, he often relies on dramatic and melodramatic cliches.

The title-page of the Second Series (1838)
 The book is an interesting collection for those who want to see how Dickens developed as a writer and a social thinker. It’s a wildly uneven enterprise, though: as Dickens admitted himself, “They comprise my first attempts at authorship. I am conscious of their often being extremely crude and ill-considered, and bearing obvious marks of haste and inexperience.”

I found it difficult to plough through the book. Unlike other very long works of his, which can often be read through in a week (once you get hooked by the plot and attached to the characters), this can be heavy-going. And there is no plot-arc to pull you along. Some of the drama is over-the-top melodrama (“The Black Veil”). Some of the satire is heavy-handed. Much of the writing is poorly done – heavy with modifiers and full of stereotypes and clich├ęs: “He wiped off the concentrated essence of cowardice that was oozing fast down his forehead” (“The Great Winglebury Duel”).

But if you’re a real fan, and you’re a completist who wants to read all of Dickens’s major work, then you’ll want to get through this. All juvenilia is interesting - at least - for offering a glimpse of an author’s themes and style in their embryonic state. So you’ll be willing to forgive the weakness of much of the writing, in order to observe Dickens developing his characteristic humour and ironic tone. And in the midst of a series of rather tedious sentences, he’ll come up with a fresh image like this: “Mr. Cymon Tuggs sighed like a gust of wind through a forest of gooseberry bushes” (“The Tuggses at Ramsgate”). And in the same tale, he has this: “There were some male beaux doing the sentimental in whispers, and others doing the ferocious in moustache.” You can overlook the tendency to rely on pathos and sentimentality, when he strikes a genuine chord of real human sympathy. The melodrama in “The Hospital Patient” is too much: a dying woman who protects her husband from the police, even though he has beaten her severely. But then he stirs your sympathy in a sketch about a couple of women embarrassed to be reduced to pawning a few trinkets (“The Pawnbroker’s Shop”). And he does some serious social-realism that is free of any heavy-handed sentiment, like his description of Newgate Prison (“A Visit to Newgate”). Finally, one has to admire the imaginative gifts he brings to characterisation and situation. He describes a visit to a second-hand clothing shop (“Meditations in Monmouth Street”) with a wonderful conceit. He mentions various pieces of clothing on display, and then imagines the owners who might have lived inside them: “We dressed, from the same shop window in an instant, half a dozen boys of from fifteen to twenty; and putting cigars into their mouths, and their hands into their pockets, watched them as they saunted down the street, and lingered at the corner, with the obscene jest, and the oft-repeated oath.”

Illustration for "Gin Shops" by George Cruikshank
And familiar Dickensian scenes and situations emerge: late-night or early-morning strolls through the streets of London; boat cruises down the Thames to the northern-coast of Kent; lonely spinsters and ineffectual bachelors looking for love and marriage prospects; social gatherings full of pomposity and disaster. You can see how Dickens is seizing on everything he observes and experiences – using his imaginative power to turn it into fiction full of observed-detail and sympathetic characterisation.

Sketches by Boz is not for a newcomer to the work of Charles Dickens. If you’ve never read a Dickens novel and want to try one of his early works, pick up Oliver Twist - if you want drama and story – or The Pickwick Papers, if you’re looking for humour and picaresque adventure. I would only recommend Sketches by Boz to those who want to read everything of his, or to those keen to witness the creation of a style, the development of a voice, and the emergence of a social conscience.

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Charles Dickens was to start again, read through all 14 of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. I'll give it a try, anyway! So this is the first of a series.]

[Next – The Pickwick Papers]


  1. I like this review Clive."He wiped off the concentrated essence of cowardice...." That sounds very like a teenage school boy who's hormones are infecting his imagination. I have never read Sketches by Boz, I might do one day, however I am not a completist as you succinctly put it, I'm more of a dip into everything sort of person trying novels at any stage of an authors life.A kind of a randomness has pervaded my reading habits.That's it, I'm a randomist!!!! I quite often go back to authors though and read some more. I have done this over the years with Thomas Hardy and Graham Greene.Other authors too.

  2. Yeah, I'm like that, too. With music, if I really like someone, I tend to want to get everything they've put out (Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, etc.). With books, it's a matter of time available. I dip into writers' work, too. I've read a few Hardy novels (did some in university), a fair number of Greene - who I really like.

    We used to have a reading club at work. Everyone involved had the chance to recommend a book. I chose "The Heart of the Matter" by Greene, a novel I really loved. They hated it! They couldn't see the point. No acquaintance with Catholic guilt, I suppose! Or no sense of the dark side of life. I was kind of shocked that they couldn't relate to, or appreciate, his work.