A December full of Dickens

Dear Charlie,

Merry Christmas, my dear friend! The last couple of months have been weirdly (but in a good way) full of Dickens-related things and I thought I would share my joy with you.

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Eating babies since 2014

Firstly, eighteen months after it began, the Twitter-happy group reading of Our Mutual Friend came to an end in November (if you’re interested, you can read the tweets in a cohesive Storify narrative for each installment). I mentioned in an earlier post that I was tweeting as one of the characters, and I can now reveal that I was/am @omf_dustygator, the taxidermy alligator residing in Mr. Venus’ shop.

The months have flown by, and I had such a great time constructing my fictional alter-ego, so you can imagine how pleased I was to be asked to contribute an article about my experience to “19,” Birkbeck’s online journal. Lest I be tempted to reiterate all I said there, you can read the whole article (and equally fascinating articles by some of the other characters) at 19’s website. And because I was given an official citation to share, I’ll copy it out verbatim here, cuz it looks all fancy ‘n academic ‘n stuff:

Symanczyk, M. (2015). Reflections of a Sawdust-Filled, Six-Foot, Tweeting, Taxidermy Alligator. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 21, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.16995/ntn.749

And as far as titles for scholarly articles go, you gotta admit that it’s pretty awesome.

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An unexpected Christmas treat!

The second cool Dickens-y thing that happened was receiving a Christmas present from my Aunt, who lives in Malvern. Not only did she send me a wonderful edition of “The Pickwick Papers” from the 1930s, but she also included a fascinating booklet called “Charles Dickens at Malvern,” by Elini Odescalchi, detailing your travels to and from Malvern in 1851.

I learned that you had made arrangements for your wife to stay there to take advantage of a Dr. Wilson’s “hydropathic establishment” after an illness following the birth of your ninth child. After nine children I don’t doubt that poor Catherine needed a vacation! Apparently she stayed in one “Knotsford Lodge” which is now part of the gorgeous Abbey Hotel. I wish I’d known that you had such a personal connection to Malvern when I visited last year, but I will definitely take this little booklet with me when I visit next and refer to the last section in particular, which details which local buildings would have existed in 1851. I sense a perambulation of my own in the (hopefully) not too distant future.

And finally, I have to mention the premiere of a television show I’ve been anticipating since I first heard about it. I’ve seen the first two episodes of BBC One’s“Dickensian” and I must admit that I’m a little bit in love.

Dickensian

 

One thing I always lamented in your works (with the exception of Master Humphrey’s Clock) was the lack of character crossover between novels. And here is a show that basically tossed everyone into a big hat to be drawn out at random and pushed on stage. I’m curious to know what someone with only a passing familiarity with your works would make of it, because the things that warm my heart the most have very little to do with the actual plot. The first episode was spent half in a perpetual state of fangirl squee watching familiar character after familiar character make their entrances, and half in a kind of brain-vibrating, game-show excitement trying to identify the novels from which the characters were plucked and which shop signs were nods to other novels (I suspect that all of them are: I noted with glee a sign that said “Pecksniff’s” something or other, for instance).

I am more than willing to forego analysis of chronology and potential anachronisms if it means Sam Weller and the future Mrs. Dedlock get to converse (for the record, I will be deeply disappointed if none of Pickwick’s posse have speaking roles – they’ve been mentioned in passing but we didn’t get to meet any of them). If there’s anything lacking here it’s a bit of your irrepressible humour, and who better to bring in some of that merriment than Pickwick & co.?

Mr. Venus in BBC's "Dickensian"

Mr. Venus in BBC’s “Dickensian”

But I love that Inspector Bucket is investigating Jacob Marley’s death. I love that his assistant is none other than Mr. Venus (have I mentioned that I feel a strong bond with Mr. V. due to my stint as his alligator?). I love that Mr. Venus is absolutely nothing like I pictured him but that the casting still absolutely works. I love that there are already two characters from Our Mutual Friend on the scene. I love that they’ve taken pains to at least attempt a bit of diversity in the casting and how that makes me want to reexamine the original plotlines in light of those choices. I love that characters like Lady Dedlock and Miss Havisham get some backstory to flesh out their characters (and I love that they’re friends!). I love that there are another 18 episodes to enjoy. This show makes me so, so happy.

And on that note, my friend, I shall wish you the best of the season and a New Year full of Dickens-related topics to discuss.

Your friend,

Melissa

A collective read commences!

Dear Charlie,

To think I was ever worried about finding material to write to you about once I’d finished my reading challenge!

I’m nearly finished Claire Tomalin’s biography of you, but I’ll save that for another post – it’ll give you a chance to prepare yourself for a sometimes unflattering account, particularly of your later life. I hope death has mellowed you a little when it comes to your personal failings or we may have a falling out.

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Our Mutual Friend originally ran from May 1864 to November 1865

Today, though, I wanted to share with you something that I wish you were alive to see. From May 2014 to November 2015, Birkbeck, Universityof London is hosting a public reading of Our Mutual Friend in its original installments. As well, each month will feature an article examining the events and themes of that installment. Reading the first article, and reading the comments, it’s clear that this will be decidedly more erudite than these humble missives.

Being now a certified Dickens groupie, I am of course participating. It’ll be interesting to observe the differences between this more leisurely pace of reading and my original let’s-read-a-freaking-enormous-book-in-ten-days timetable that, while enjoyable, was hardly the way the book was originally intended to be read.

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Most of the ads for Victorian products are less than appealing nowadays, but I would absolutely buy all of these things because chocolate. (Also, how tragic is it that Icelandic moss cocoa not a thing anymore?)

It’s early days yet, but already it’s been a treat to mull over the first few chapters and the common elements that tie them together, even though each takes place in a vastly different setting with characters of vastly different social standing. As well, being able to see the installments in their original green covers and hemmed in by fascinating contemporary advertisements gives it a whole new consumerist vibe. This is fiction for the masses (even if it didn’t end up selling as well as everyone expected), and I’m looking forward to seeing how pairing this populist format with scholarly discussion plays out.

Added to the mix of green covers and intelligent discussion, however, is a gloriously 21st century addition to the project. A group of enthusiastic volunteers have signed up to portray each of the characters (major, minor, wooden, skeletal and stuffed) on Twitter. You can see the first installment summarized on Storify. I am absolutely signed up as one of the characters (although I can’t tell you who I am because I don’t want to give it away), and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to be notified that a fictional character is following me, or to see the brilliant blending of plot detail with anachronistic references to modern life.

You’d be as pleased as your famous gin punch, I’m sure, to watch the plot unfold through these characters’ slightly irreverent eyes.

Speaking of which, I must go and check my feed.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

A rushed curtain call, for both of us

Dear Charlie,

We’re getting down to the wire, my friend. Our Mutual Friend has moved to the “finished” pile and I’m halfway through The Uncommercial Traveller, leaving a volume of Edwin Drood and some miscellaneous “Household Words” to finish by the 17th (or the end of August, or somewhere in between).

I don’t know if it’s because I’m trying to read more quickly, but the end of Our Mutual Friend felt a bit hurried and in some ways a little too gift-wrapped. As Oscar Wilde famously put it, “the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That’s what fiction means.” But that isn’t always such a good thing. Not that I think you should have changed anything regarding your principal heroes and villains – Harmon and Bella deserved a happily ever after, and Riderhood and Headstone deserved everything nasty that came to them.

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Grrr! I’m a big, stingy meanie and I hate you!
Just kidding! LOL. :-/

It’s the supporting cast I’m a little disappointed with. The Lammles sort of fade away quietly, and there’s not that same parade of characters across the stage to take their final bows that characterize some of your earlier works. Part of me was overjoyed that Mr. Boffin was only pretending to be a grouchy miser to teach Bella a lesson, but I gotta admit, it seemed a bit forced. A bigger part of me wanted him to NOT be faking, but to have some Scrooge-like epiphany (minus the ghosts) that his behavior wasn’t at all cool and to try to make amends, especially to his long-suffering wife.

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Lightwood and Harmon finally meet!

And about Harmon. I loved the dramatic meeting between him and Lightwood, I raced through the resulting tension as the authorities try to determine if Harmon might have actually murdered himself. That’s great stuff, Charlie, but it was wrapped up so quickly I felt a bit cheated. That’s the central drama for god’s sake! That’s why we’ve known about Harmon’s disguise for hundreds of pages! At least put him in a little bit of jeopardy – imprison him for awhile or something! Maybe bring in the interesting but vastly underused Pleasant, who’s actually seen him in disguise!

I admit, though, that you do have a really good excuse for being less than caught up in the end of your novel. I should be pleased that it turned out as well as it did, considering you were physically and mentally recovering from a train wreck, as well as navigating tricky personal waters with a wife and a mistress – a public figure like yourself would have found that difficult, I imagine.

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I love this illustration of Jenny Wren. It captures her intelligence perfectly. From Jessie Willcox Smith’s “The Children of Dickens” (1925)

And generally speaking, those are small complaints against an otherwise pretty satisfying ending. I loved Harmon’s violent reaction to Wegg, and I’m glad Mr. Venus got his girl. I’m really glad that you didn’t conveniently kill off Eugene and left him to rebuild a (hopefully) better life with Lizzie. I like that hint of Romance between Sloppy and the awesome Jenny Wren. And really, who cares what happened to Charlie – the guy was a total ass. I hope he fell into a lock as well. Miss Peecham and her maid are better off without the objects of their desire.

Finally, I like that you rounded off the novel as you began it, narrowing focus of the final pages on the eccentric Mr. Twemlow, who surprised me (and everyone else) by sticking up for Eugene’s marriage and putting the stuffy Podsnaps in their place.

Now on to the next. It’s fitting that I’m reading The Uncommercial Traveller, since I’ll be taking myself off to Sechelt, BC for the Sunshine Coast Writer’s Festival coming up. Hopefully I’ll have some time for at least a short letter, or maybe a postcard. I’m already convinced that curious, exploring, travelling Dickens is the cutest, most engaging aspect of your personality. The unfaithful, defensive dude who was kind of weird with his kids…not so much. But whatever your current mood, I still remain,

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

Channeling Homer?

Dear Charlie,

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Finally going to be able to put your work into better context!

I’m quite excited, Charlie, because yesterday I found Peter Acroyd’s e-frickin’-normous biography of you at a used book store. At over 1,000 pages, it rivals even your longest works for epic-ness. Before this year, I would have avoided such books out of sheer intimidation at their size, but now that I know I can not only survive but enjoy such hefty tomes I bought it with a light heart. You’ll forgive me though, Charlie, if I wait a few months before cracking it open to discover all the nooks and crannies of your life.

But while we’re on the subject of epic tomes, I wanted to mention a few interesting things I noticed while reading Our Mutual Friend. I’m about ¾ of the way through it and, while the plot is slowly coalescing, it’s taking its sweet time about it. Now, I know you had a lot going on while you were writing this – an affair with a younger woman and the breakdown of your marriage, not to mention a traumatizing train accident, would throw off anyone’s focus. Add in the inherent pressures of serialization and it’s little wonder that I find myself wondering where everything is going.

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The manuscript of Our Mutual Friend was saved from the wreckage, along with your mistress of course.

After a promising introduction, Georgiana Podsnap has been rescued but has subsequently vanished into the ether, and the delightfully mercenary Lammles never seem to get any traction in their plots to relieve other people of their money. Their plans for the Boffins seemed pretty solid, but you wouldn’t give them an inch (but what a fantastically uncomfortable breakfast the four of them endured!). And speaking of the Boffins, after setting up a fairly solid partnership, Venus has suddenly admitted his part in a blackmail plot against the increasingly unstable Mr. Boffin, which seems a little arbitrary at the moment.

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At least one happy ending!

There are an awful lot of pieces in play, and I’m worried that some of them are in danger of falling off the board entirely. But you are the master of the many-character storyline, and I trust that you’ll tie up as many of the loose ends as you can, my friend, but for the last few chapters it kind of seems like you’re just writing for writing’s sake. At least Bella grew up a little and she and John have been united; that’s something.

With so many characters, even I, who am reading at breakneck speed, have a tendency to forget who all the players are. It must’ve been even more challenging for your original reader who had to wait months for the next installment. But I did notice something neat in this book that helped me, and I’m not sure if it was deliberate on your part.

Back in University I took a course on ancient Greece, and had to read The Illiad. I don’t remember a great deal, but I do remember that every character was given a descriptive epithet or two, to help the narrator narrate and the listener to remember. Whenever the main actors in the drama are named, they are also described, such as, “Achilles, cheeseburger-eater,” or “Odysseus, that hairy-chested dude,” or “Helen, the total babe,” (I may be paraphrasing slightly).

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Brave Achilles, Pac-Man Player

Interestingly, you do the same thing, Charlie. So in this epic of yours we have Twemlow, “rooms-above-the-stable dweller,” the Veneerings, “the people of the camels,” and Mrs. Podsnap, “she of the horse-like features.” Every character’s introduction is accompanied by some snippet of information that helps the reader remember who they are and where they stand. With such a multitude of characters, I’ve found it hugely helpful, and I’m sure your initial reading public would have found it even more so. I’m really curious to know if this was a deliberate move on your part, whether it was a nod to ancient epics, and whether you’ve done it before, since this is the first time I’ve really noticed it.

And now, as I venture into the last quarter of Our Mutual Friend, I wonder if I should now refer to you as “Busy Charlie, overworked survivor of train wreck?”

I think I’ll just stick with “my friend.”

Affectionately,

Melissa

Settling into this last comfy chair

Dear Charlie,

I’m well into Our Mutual Friend and I gotta say, my friend, I’m conflicted.

toread

Soon, my pretties… soon…

On the one hand, knowing I have so little time left to finish this year-long challenge makes me want to race through the two volumes so that I can reach my self-imposed goal. That, and as much as I love you, I’m just itching to read pretty much anything from the 20th or 21st centuries. I’ve got some seriously tempting stuff waiting in the wings, and it’s a testament to your skill I haven’t swanned off into other centuries more often. But at the same time, knowing that this is the last of your major, finished works makes me want to slow down and truly savour every nuance of character, plot and style.

And since we’re on the subject, let’s talk about plot, shall we? 300 pages in, and I’m still not entirely sure who the novel’s protagonist is. Lizzie? Eugene? Charlie? Mortimer? The frickin’ Veneerings? Six months ago, this would have irked me, but now I just want to snuggle back into the easy chair that is your storytelling and let things unfold as they will, content that, with so many pages before us, you’ll eventually take me where I need to go.

There’s one scene that I keep thinking back to: poor Georgiana Podsnap’s “birthday party” and the sinister attentions paid her by the mercenary Lammles. I really like Georgiana, and identify with her. I like that you made her awkward and retiring, but also gave her a keen intellect and some wonderfully biting observations. Made me remember some painful Junior High dances. <shudder> I hope we see more of her, and I hope nothing too terrible happens to her. Oh, and I’ve just met fiery little Jenny Wren, and I like her too. And you can’t talk about fiery without mentioning Miss Potterson, the pub owner. Charlie, you’ve got some seriously interesting women lurking in these pages. It almost makes up for the overly angelic Lizzie and the spoiled Bella Wilfer.

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Well that’s one way to end a stakeout…

The other great scene is that rainy night with the Inspector, the two lawyers and Riderhood waiting by the river for Gaffer to appear. It’s positively cinematic the way you set that up – I could feel the warmth of the pub fire and the cold stinging of the hail. Fantastic! I like to think that you pulled that whole scene from your own experiences tagging along with the London police. And such a grisly end to those chapters! I mean, it’s no spontaneous combustion, but it’s still gratifyingly macabre.

I do wonder, though, Charlie, whether anyone was ever seriously fooled by Mr. Rokesmith. I mean, I could be totally off base here, but if he doesn’t turn out to be Mr. Harmon in the flesh, I’ll be mightily surprised. I can buy, though, that no one else would guess his identity – he has been abroad for years, after all.

So, lots of great stuff, Charlie, and I’m sure that there’s a ton of great stuff to come.

I just have to figure out how quickly I want to get to it.

Affectionately,

Melissa