Well, aren’t you adorable?

Dear Charlie,

I know I got a little bit whiny on you while I was reading the first volume of your “Miscellaneous Papers,” but after taking a break with Great Expectations I returned to the second volume with greater equanimity. This time around, there were several things that caught my attention, including your hilariously sarcastic observations on the spiritualist movement and séances (remind me never to introduce you to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I don’t think you’d get on), less racism than I expected, and some really interesting appearances of some unexpected guests.

Leigh_Hunt

Meet Harold Skimpole…er, I mean Leigh Hunt. NOT Skimpole. AT ALL.

These guests are none other than some of your famous characters, and the articles in which they appear are those where you step out from behind the “anonymous author” curtain to either defend your work or review another’s. Let’s start with, “Leigh Hunt: A Remonstrance.” In it, you defend yourself from accusations that Bleak House’s childlike Harold Skimpole bears a striking resemblance to your friend Mr. Hunt. Where most people would likely flat-out deny the similarities, you stand up and say, “Yes! Of course I took some of dear Leigh’s eccentricities and used them to create Skimpole, but only the good bits and no one could possibly infer that Skimpole’s less desirable qualities are in any way attributable to Mr. Hunt. And, anyway, I asked his friends to read it and totally changed the bits they thought were too much like him, so kindly shut up about it already. Lewsers.”

I’m not entirely convinced, Charlie, and I’m not entirely sure you were either.

The other place one of your characters puts in a prominent appearance is in your review of your buddy John Foster’s biography of Walter Savage Landor. In your review, you compare Landor to Bleak House’s Mr. Boythorn on two separate occasions. Reading the article, I’m struck both by how similar your fictional character is to the real life subject, and by how cavalierly you make the connection for the reader, without any of the previous article’s remonstrance that Boythorn is a separate and unique creation. Was it because you don’t make Boythorn as morally questionable as Skimpole, so no one was likely to give you a hard time about it?

In both articles, however, it’s fascinating to read about the real-life models for two of your famous characters.

ThreesCompany_S4

“The Village Coquettes,” 1970s-style

And now we come to the part of the book that endears you to me. These are a collection of your early attempts at short plays and operettas. No, don’t blush, my friend, they’re the most adorably awful of your creations I’ve read. They’re like 19th century stage productions of “Three’s Company” episodes, with  comic misunderstandings, impossible coincidences, and unbelievable and abrupt resolutions. I particularly love the title of your play, “Is She His Wife? Or, Something Singular!” Sounds less like high culture and more like a great tabloid headline. :-)

You’re an amazing writer, Charlie, but I admire these cheesy, less than stellar early works because they reveal your enthusiasm for experimenting with different forms of writing, as well as just how far you progressed in the course of your career.

But to end this letter on a sentimental note, let me quote your dear friend. Even though Forster was writing about Landor, as I continue to read this volume I can’t help but apply his observation of that gentleman to you:

But, now that the story is told, no one will have difficulty in striking the balance between its good and ill; and what was really imperishable in Landor’s genius will not be treasured less, or less understood, for the more perfect knowledge of his character.

Thanks for giving me more windows into your character, my friend.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

Explorers and Expectations

Dear Charlie,

Sorry I haven’t written in a while. It was the Canada Day long weekend, so I spent it in a tent trailer in the woods, getting sunburned, eating fire-charred meat and donating huge quantities of blood to starving mosquitos. Oh, and getting through the first part of Pip’s adventures in Great Expectations.

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Sir John Franklin

I did, however, finally finish volume one of your Miscellaneous Papers, which ended with a curious two part essay called “The Lost Voyagers,” which argued against the notion, put forward in an 1848 report by John Rae, that the victims of the unfortunate Franklin Expedition (which had disappeared in 1845) had resorted to cannibalism in their final hours. I admire your passion, Charlie – you’re clearly well-read on the subject of exploration and feel very strongly about your topic. But I find it interesting that you should feel the need to refute the findings at all. Maybe I’ve been completely desensitized, but cannibalism would seem to be a definite option when faced with starvation in the Canadian arctic, moral misgivings aside.

WilliamBraine

Hard to be moral when you’ve got some serious lead poisoning going on.
(Library and Archives Canada)

But you seem to put extraordinary emphasis on the moral and ethical ramifications of eating one’s comrades. By the end of the article you’ve basically argued that cannibalism isn’t a moral or upstanding thing to do, and because British Explorers, and Franklin’s men in particular, are the epitome of all British exploration-y virtues, and are therefore the most moral and upstanding people in the entire Universe, it’s totally obvious that Franklin’s men didn’t eat one another, and never even considered eating one another, and why are you taking the word of uncivilized “Esquimeaux” savages over this perfectly obvious line of reasoning, even if they are eye witnesses? Witnesses shmitnesses.

Of course, you do mention several documented instances of cannibalism (which you take a rather suspicious delight in recounting), but you’re quick to point out that in those cases the explorers were either a) not British or b) not British enough to prevent moral lapses in their non-British travelling companions. Britannia rules the waves, and England never, never, never shall be entrees. 😉

And with that great lesson in Victorian reasoning, I quite happily closed the book. All joking aside, Charlie, I wish you’d been around to see the remains of the Franklin Expedition unearthed – I’m sure you would have been as fascinated as I am to see the mummified bodies of the crew.

Finishing that article meant that I could bound into Pip’s life with joy and a certain amount of relief that there’s not an arctic explorer in sight. I’m now almost half way through Great Expectations, and even though it’s shorter than some of your other works, it doesn’t feel rushed or any less richly populated than your earlier novels. On the contrary, the pace is lively, and there’s so much that has happened already that I’m certain will have repercussions down the road – a couple of convicts who we keep being reminded of, the strange Orlick who loomed up out of nowhere, the creepy-ass Mrs. Havisham (mummified herself, in a manner of speaking) and her creepy minion Estella, Pip’s “mystery” benefactor, and the unreadable Jaggers.

This is all great stuff, Charlie, and I can’t wait to see how Pip handles his new circumstances and how all of these things are connected (because if I’ve learned anything from you, my friend, it’s that there’s only ever a degree or two of separation between seemingly unrelated characters).

And with that I shall bid you a fond farewell, and I shall try to get lost in Pip’s story, forget Franklin’s and ignore my many mosquito bites.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

Out of my depth, literally and figuratively

Dear Charlie,

CAL062113LRHa11

Calgary’s City Hall, looking a touch damp. Good thing you weren’t touring this week, Charlie!

It’s been a surreal week, my friend. Massive flooding has devastated many neighborhoods of my fair city, including its downtown core. Remember that photo I took of you on Stephen Avenue when you were on tour? Yeah, that’s underwater now (or was a few days ago). Living in a city on the prairies, flooding wouldn’t seem to be a huge danger, but the beautiful Bow and Elbow rivers that run through Calgary can turn into angry mofos every century or so, and do one hell of a lot of damage.

Anyway, I think that’s one reason my mind hasn’t been as focused on your works this week, since I’ve been glued to Facebook, Twitter and news sites for the latest developments. The other reason is that I’m reading a volume of your “Miscellaneous Papers,” and I’m finding them, for the most part, extremely tough going.

One of the great things about your novels, Charlie, is that you weave the social issues of your day effortlessly into the plot. I can watch several lives being destroyed by the convolutions of the Chancery system in Bleak House, or see the impact of the Debtor’s Prison system, or the difficulty in obtaining an English patent in Little Dorrit. Oliver Twist brings to light the plight of uneducated street kids. I may not know the specifics surrounding these issues, but I can very clearly see and appreciate the gravity of the results.

Some of the articles you wrote for the Examiner and Household Words, on the other hand, are almost incomprehensible without some sort of annotation or guide book (which this edition doesn’t deem necessary). I can tell that you have some serious hate on for Lord Aberdeen, but I can’t share your sense of outrage, because I have no idea who he is. I can tell that you feel very strongly about other specific political leaders and issues, but it’s frustrating not to be able to appreciate your scathing sarcasm and satire. It would make as much sense as me handing you a newspaper from today and expecting you to care who in City Council said what regarding flood relief. As well, many of the articles are so short and so dependent on the reader knowing and living the context in which they were written that I may as well be surrounded by aliens all shouting at me from their different soapboxes for all I’m getting out of them.

hippo

The hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, London, 1852.
Who wouldn’t want a monument to this guy?

That said, there are a few articles that are less specific and that have a wider appeal. For example, I enjoyed the series of letters written by your rather snarky raven (I’m assuming it was Grip) about how human beings have all the vices commonly associated with his species. The hippo (“His Rolling Hulk”) even gets to be guest blogger to the raven’s column, and explains how his existence in the local zoo is nothing less than a civic service, since by doing nothing all day he provides entertainment for those London citizens also fond of doing nothing. As such, he feels deserving of a commemorative monument.

As in your other pieces for Household Words, there are articles with recurring themes – your criticism of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons, your advocating of education for children of the poor, your arguments against capital punishment, and other concerns that found their way into your novels. It’s nice to know that these issues weren’t mere plot devices, but that you were a continual champion against social injustice.

So as my city dries out and we start the long process of cleaning up, I’ll keep plodding my through these bits and pieces of your brain, my friend. I’ll try to make sense of the politics that infuriated you, shake my head when your unfortunately virulent racism appears, and enjoy those moments when your time and mine align and I can share your concerns.

And so, I remain waterlogged but always,

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

The dangers of befriending the dead

Dear Charlie,

One of the dangers of striking up a friendship with a dead Victorian author such as yourself is that, as much as you find you have in common, you will be periodically reminded of how different you sometimes are. I’ve been amazed time and again by just how much connects your time and my own, and it’s made me feel closer to you as we’ve become better acquainted.

Don’t get me wrong, my friend, I’ve come to love you dearly, but there was one article in my volume of reprinted pieces (reprinted, mostly, from your journal “Household Words” which ran from 1850 to 1859) that made me pause and question my affections.

The article in question is called “The Noble Savage,” and it doesn’t pull any punches. In the very first paragraph we have such gems as

I don’t care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth.

And

Yielding to whichsoever of these agreeable eccentricities, he is a savage – cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails, and beastly customs; a wild animal with the questionable gift of boasting; a conceited, tiresome, bloodthirsty, monotonous humbug.

Ouch.

You don’t see that quoted on tea towels and coasters in the local gift shops, now do you?

Please, sir, I hope you’re not this unbelievably racist.

The whole article continues along much the same lines as the opening, and is so vitriolic that even now I wonder if it’s tongue in cheek or whether you actually did feel this strongly. I really hope it’s the former, because it’s hard to believe that this article was penned by the same hand that used a whole novel to persuade readers that the working class should be treated like human beings, who changed his American travel plans to avoid slave-owning states, and who felt so badly about his anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin that he deliberately changed the text when reading from “Oliver Twist” in later years. This seems mighty out of character for someone whose sympathies generally lie with the underdog.

Seriously, what’s the deal, Charlie?

The rest of the volume, on the other hand, is an absolutely fascinating mixture of journalism, short fiction, criticism and recollections that present a completely different picture of you – an enthusiastic, curious, amiable person prone to sea- and motion-sickness, fond of travelling, and ready to expose government bureaucracy and inefficiency. It was especially interesting to see the forerunners of characters and plot lines that would emerge in later novels, including one about an inventor and the hoops he had to jump through (and the money he had to spend) in order to get a patent, which I’ve just discovered appears in the first part of Little Dorrit (which I’ve just started).

Law and Order: Victorian London style

There are also several articles that emerged as the result of a series of interviews and ride-alongs with London police officers (including Detective Field, who was later to be transformed into Detective Bucket of “Bleak House”). You recount their daring detective work with a gusto that makes me think you’d be addicted to Law and Order if you were around today. I also get the feeling that when you were invited to accompany the police on their rounds you were outwardly trying to be very serious, while inwardly aquiver with excitement that you were actually walking the policeman’s local beat.

 

My personal favorite, however, is the article called “Bill Sticking,” recounting your conversation in the back of a wagon-turned-moving billboard with an ancient bill sticker. I could just imagine you, too curious to resist climbing in and sharing a pipe and some rum with a complete stranger in order to learn about the history of London advertising. It also made me realize that ubiquitous advertising is not a new invention. Again, just one more of those things that link us across time.

All in all, I leave this volume with mostly positive feelings and a new respect for your talents as a journalist and your powers of observation in these more mature ‘sketches’ of your surroundings. I just wish that your “Noble Savage” article hadn’t left such a bad taste in my mouth and lingering questions in my brain.

I still remain, however,

Yours affectionately,

Melissa