Love is in the air…

Dear Charles,

I was doing a bit of nosing through your biography, and I read that Nicholas Nickleby was your first ‘romance,’ and I had to pause for a second. A romance? Really? I’m almost half way through volume two, and we’ve only just learned Nick’s love interest’s name (but ha! I knew the lady from the agency would return! You never introduce an interesting character just for the fun of it). But he’s only actually seen her three times! Generally, though, there’s just so much going on, not only with Nicholas, but with your cornucopia of secondary characters, that classifying this gorgeously meandering novel as a ‘romance’ seems rather… restrictive.

That’s not to say that you don’t examine relationships extensively (and humorously). Thinking back on it, this book is bursting at the seams with all the couples Nicholas encounters. The Squeerses, the Mantalinis, the Browdies, the Crummleses, the Kenwigses, the Lillyvicks, are all held up for inspection as examples of wedded bliss… or agony, not unlike the examples of various couples in your Sketches. Even Mrs. Nickleby gets to be wooed by her mad neighbor (he’s an odd fish, and I wager he’ll be back, if my note above holds). It’s interesting that they’re all so very different, and none of them are perfect. You certainly do have an uncanny knack for capturing humanity and all its foibles.

And then we’ve got Kate’s rather more sinister suitors, although they seem to have faded into the background, at least for the time being (I hope Mulberry Hawk returns, however, because he’s such a wonderfully selfish character). And now even the lovely Miss Bray is threatened with a terrible marriage. Is this all one big object lesson for our hero?

Maybe then, this is less of a boy-meets-girl story as it is one epic examination of love, the choices people make, and how those partnerships play out. Having seen all these examples, it’s now finally up to Nicholas to chart his own course on these treacherous waters. Will he rescue Miss Bray from her dire fate? I suspect so, but I also suspect the journey will not be an easy one. And so on that note I shall bid you a fond farewell and find out how this romance ends.

Yours affectionately,

Melissa

 

It’s nice to have friends

Dear Charles,

friends are awesome!

I’ve discovered something that we have in common – amazing friends! I’ve just found out that you were wont to hang with one John Forster, who took it upon himself to write your biography shortly after you passed away. And my friend Sue, who is wont to hang with me, gave me a beautiful illustrated copy of this biography as a late birthday present! I can’t wait to dip into it and learn more about you, and I’m glad you had the kind of long-standing friend who you trusted to commission with your biography. Just reading the introduction makes me itch to read more.

I discover from the introduction that Mr. Forster was a friend for over thirty years and read all your drafts, and even if your friendship with him was not all sunshine and rainbows, that he was the only person you trusted enough to tell about your difficult childhood. I also read in the introduction that he downplayed some of the aspects of your life that he didn’t agree with, such as your treatment of your first wife. Biographies are interesting in that way, aren’t they? On the one hand, your best friend knows more about you than anyone, but because he’s your friend, he has to balance what he knows against what he thinks other people should know. Quite the conundrum, writing a faithful account while remaining faithful to you as a friend. I’m sure he wanted to portray you in the best possible light, even if he tried to tell himself he was impartial. I wonder what you would have thought of it?

Well, this is just a short letter, because as much as I’d love to keep writing, or to dive right into your biography, I’m nowhere near finished reading about the Nicklebys and their new friends, the Cheeryble brothers.

I remain your friend,

Melissa

P.S. Jane Smiley, in her forward, calls you “an odd man” who wrote “odd books.”  Maybe that’s why I’m enjoying them so much. :-)

Nicholas Nickleby – Vol. I

Dear Charles,

I’m approaching the end of the first volume of Nicholas Nickleby. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve spent a month together now, or if it’s the older protagonist here, but I find myself far more engaged with Nicholas’ story than I was with Oliver’s.

I’ve left Nicholas becoming acquainted with his new theatrical cohorts – quite a surprising development for someone who was looking for a secretarial position, but such are the vicissitudes of life, and I’m looking forward to seeing how long he remains gainfully employed translating plays and learning how to act. But to compare him to Oliver, I’m so glad that he isn’t a pushover in spite of his sheltered upbringing, and that he can seriously kick some ass when confronted with cruelty (not that Oliver didn’t show his temper once, but Nicholas did some serious damage). I also really like that he’s the master of his own fate. Oliver just sort of fell into other people’s laps, but Nicholas is off beating people, saving other people from beatings, striking off to interviews, meeting MPs (I would have turned down that job too), and in the midst of thinking he’s going to become a sailor suddenly accepts the offer to become a thespian! What’s in store for our hero next? And what of the mysterious and lovely woman in the employment office? Surely we haven’t seen the last of her?

Apart from Nicholas’ grand adventures, there are two aspects of the book so far that have made it particularly enjoyable. The first is that, even through Nicholas bade a fond farewell to his mother and sister, Kate is not relegated to the footnotes and we get to see the flip side of Nicholas’ terrible experiences in the rural school in Kate’s unfortunate (but fortunately brief) employment as a milliner. I only wish she would show some of the spunk of her brother when being accosted by strange gentlemen – it makes me very happy that a woman in my day can do more than blush and stammer and avoid eye contact with a lecherous asshole. Yes, I know it’s your Uncle’s house and your Uncle’s guests, but kick the bastard in the groin, for the love of god!

And speaking of bastards, and Uncles, the second thing I find so interesting is Ralph Nickelby. At first he was rather your stock evil character, and I had written him off as such. But there’s a moment, when he hands the flustered Kate into the coach, where we get to see that he does have a glimmer of humanity in there somewhere. Ah ha! Maybe he’s not as one-dimensional as I thought. Maybe he’s redeemable. Part of me hopes so, but part of me doesn’t. Whatever happens, I hope that we get to see more of Ralph, and that he becomes more complicated rather than less.

Well, I would write more but I would really like to continue the story, so I will remain,

 Yours faithfully,

 Melissa

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