Sketches By Boz – Volume II

Dear Charles,

I may call you by your Christian name, may I not? After all, after having just finished your “Sketches” in their entirety, I feel I know you quite well now. And, before I forget, I must reintroduce you to my Aunt. I was on the phone with her the other day and she said had made your acquaintance some time ago but found you difficult to get along with! However, she had never read your “Sketches,” and I’m confident that if she did, she would have quite a change of heart over your disposition.

As I look back over the contents of this second volume, I’m amazed by the variety and breadth of your writing. The rest of your “tales” were just as entertaining as the first few – you can almost visibly trace the comedic lineage from your tales through writers like Wodehouse and Sharpe, all the way to our modern sit coms (although, unlike poor Mr. Watkins Tottle, our modern comedies don’t usually conclude with the unfortunate protagonist’s suicide). “The Black Veil,” however, was disturbingly different – a spooky little moral tale that hints, I suspect, at darker writings to come.

“The poetical young gentleman” totally looks like Russell Brand, no?

After that, your portraits of types of men young ladies should avoid, and types of couples everyone should avoid, again had me laughing out loud. Would it shock you to know that “poetical young gentlemen” would today be referred to as “emo” and are paid large sums of money to form rock bands? Or that “the loving couple,” who are prone to repeated public displays of affection, are just as prevalent and subject to ridicule nowadays? I said it before and I’ll say it again – you may have been looking around you and writing about what was immediately apparent to you, but your ability to observe archetypes of human behavior that are just as observable almost two hundred years later is astounding. And awesome. And frickin’ hilarious.

We finish with your accounts of the fictional town of Mudfog, and its scientific and learned conferences. Here I have to look back to Jonathan Swift’s satire of the Royal Society, when Gulliver travelled to Laputa and observes their various pointless experiments. Were you a fan of  Swift? You must have been — your learned men’s accounts of their discoveries are no less satirical and patently ridiculous – such as establishing a walled park in which young gentlemen with nothing else to do can knock down and assault artificial policemen, instead of the real thing, or the proposal to establish schools for young fleas, that they may contribute to the economy of the country.

It’s now quite obvious what aspects of society pissed you right off. I can only hope that by calling attention to those things in such an entertaining way, you were able to effect some kind of change, or at least awareness.

Because I understand that your Pickwick Papers are also quite light in tone, and serialized for bite-sized enjoyment, I thought I would save them for a bit and instead turn to your next novel: Nicholas Nickleby. So until next week, I will bid you a fond farewell and remain,

Yours sincerely,

Melissa

“Mr. Crinkles exhibited a most beautiful and delicate machine […] by the aid of which more pockets could be picked […]. The President observed that, up to this time Parliament had certainly got on very well without it; but, as they did their business on a very large scale, he had no doubt they would gladly adopt the improvement.”

Sketches by Boz, Volume I

Dear Mr. Dickens,

Here it is Monday already and I haven’t even finished the first volume of “Sketches by Boz.” However, I have finished all of the non-fiction sketches and am just getting into the “Tales,” so it is perhaps an opportune moment to pause and write to you.

Your ‘everyday people’ and mine are not so different.

What struck me the most as I read your varied depictions of London people, places and events is that, while so much has changed since you wrote them, people are people, whether in your time, in mine, or two hundred years from now. For example, I was reading your sketch about London ‘buses,’ which in your day were horse drawn, and from the way you describe the competition for fares, probably not a public service. Obviously a very different experience to my daily commute to the C-train station. But the annoying behaviours of your fellow passengers that you describe, the way people of the bus view newcomers as interlopers, and the ubiquitous crabby old man who wonders why you didn’t get off at the last stop with those other people so the bus doesn’t have to stop just for you, well, I recognize all of them – they’re still around.

I do wonder, however, if you didn’t make a few enemies when you turned that curious and witty gaze on your own parish neighbours. I’m sure that even in your day, writing what you know could get you into trouble if someone took offense at their portrayal in print. I can only hope that they forgave you in time and were big enough to be able to laugh at themselves.

The other thing I love about your sketches is how much of yourself you put into them. I feel I know you much better than I did a week ago. I can picture you walking the streets, curious and alert for anything that might be of interest. And , correct me if I’m wrong, I get the feeling that you were curious about pretty much everything, and people in particular. Anyone else would merely note the number of shoes for sale outside a secondhand shop, but you imagine characters for each pair – who wore them, why they were cast off, and even go further and create a dance for them all and see how they perform as an ensemble! And I imagine you must have been quite courageous, not only to wander into more dangerous areas of the city, but into court houses and prisons as well. In every description there is a genuine underlying sympathy for all people, but especially the plight of the poor and criminal, and a quest to make other people see what they might want to ignore.

More than anything, it’s this mixture of the witty chronicler of society’s foibles and the concerned observer of its hidden miseries that make these sketches so compelling.

Well, I shall return now to the “Tales” section and volume two of your sketches.Until next week I shall remain,

Sincerely yours,

Melissa