Curiouser and curiouser

Dear Charles,

Please forgive me if this letter is less coherent than usual, but the incongruity of our circumstances has never been more apparent. Here I am, having finished the first volume of The Old Curiosity Shop, on a patio in Palm Desert, where it’s 35 degrees Celsius in the shade (96 F), while you, my dear friend, languish, dead, in a chilly 19th century English autumn. I considered bringing your American Notes with me, but even then I suspect you never made it as far as California, so I’ll save those for their proper chronological place.

My brain may be liquefying in the sun, but I can make one tenuous connection with your novel, in that both Little Nell and I have left our home town in anticipation of brighter days ahead. And since I’ll be travelling to Las Vegas, we might even be able to compare notes on wax-works exhibitions, where Nell herself is currently employed the last time we saw her. I think, though, that that’s where any similarities end.

Obviously, reading about the trials of Nell makes me think back to poor little Oliver, both young innocents cast upon the world to find their own way, and both slightly aggravating in that very innocence. Could you not have given the girl a few brains? I mean, she’s thought far enough ahead to stash a gold coin for a rainy day, but then you have her witness her grandfather suffer a huge relapse into his gambling addiction in an inn full of suspicious characters – wouldn’t you have her think of hiding the money before she goes to bed? On the other hand, having her discover that it was her grandfather stealing into her room to search for the money was terrifying and heartbreaking. You really have nailed both her love for her grandfather (and his devotion to her) and her pain and fear at seeing the person he turns into when tempted. And the way he turns from a gentle but vacant figure to this insatiable creature who takes everything from Nell in order to win her a fortune is chilling. It’s truly a brilliantly written relationship. She is absolutely caught between a rock and a hard place here, and we haven’t even begun to talk about the “baddies” that are circling around her and waiting to strike. Poor old Kit seems very far away and powerless, although I am glad to see that he’s gainfully employed with some good people.

Speaking of baddies, Mr. Quilp has to rank right up there with the best (or the best so far). And it looks like I’m justified, because he’s #28 on this list of literary villains; there’s just something so frightening about someone who will go out of his way to make others lives worse, and his behavior towards his wife is downright sickening. Sikes and Ralph Nickleby may have met grisly ends, but I sincerely hope you have something extra nasty in store for Quilp. Something lingering involving spikes, perhaps.

Anyway, I should get back out and enjoy the sunshine while I can. Maybe bring Volume 2 along with me. In closing, I just stumbled across this and I share this fellow blogger’s feeling:

I get warm fuzzies just looking at it. :-)

Until next time, I remain,

Yours affectionately,

Melissa

Pickwick, partings and prisons

Dear Charles,

It snowed here last night, so I woke up to a world missing both the colours of fall and the companionship of Mr. Pickwick and his friends. It’s really not fair – you keep introducing me to these characters who I like and whose fates you make me care about, and then I have to reach the end of the story and leave them within its pages. It’s a comfort, however, to know that you feel as strong a relationship to Mr. Pickwick and his friends as I do:

It is the fate of most men who mingle with the world, and attain even the prime of life, to make many real friends, and lose them in the course of nature. It is the fate of all authors or chroniclers to create imaginary friends, and lose them in the course of art.

I, at least, can go back and revisit Pickwick & co. whenever I want to, but it must’ve been hard to see your characters out there in the real world and know that you could no longer change their stories. Maybe that’s why you kept so busy; if you had three novels on the go, it wouldn’t be quite so painful to finish one of them when you still had the fates of other characters in your hands.

The grounds of the Fleet Prison

On a slightly more somber note, remember how I told you how amazed and happy I was to find so many similarities between your time and mine? Yeah, I’d like to amend that. Pickwick’s brief incarceration in the Fleet debtor’s prison made me very glad that some things, at least, have changed for the better. It must’ve been awful for you to see your father confined to a place like that, and the way you describe Mr. Pickwick’s experience inside sounds both frightening and miserable. I think it’s very telling that when the only three people in the world that Mr. Pickwick had grudges against are found inside (Mr. Jingle, Mr. Trotter and Mrs. Bardell), he does his utmost to get them all out again. It cheers me to no end, however, to know that you lived to see the passing of the Debtor’s Act of 1869, which (mostly) abolished the imprisonment of people for debt. I hope that your calling attention to the conditions and abuses inside played a part in its passing.

Of course, Pickwick’s sojourn in prison is only a small part of this second volume. I particularly enjoyed the various romantic escapades and clandestine weddings. As with Nicholas Nickleby, everyone seems to find an appropriate partner (and not a widow among ‘em), or reconcile themselves to bachelorhood. You seem to enjoy ending books with weddings; I’ll have to see if this trend continues in The Old Curiosity Shop and beyond.

I remain, more so than ever,

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

Meeting Mr. Pickwick

Dear Charles,

I didn’t do much reading this week, unfortunately, and am only a hundred or so pages into the second volume of  Mr. Pickwick’s adventures. But I did go to an estate sale yesterday, and came face to face with Mr. Pickwick himself! Needless to say, I invited him home, and I’m sure he will be the most conscientious of house guests.

Just looking at that cheerful face is enough to make me smile. If only there had been a Sam Weller figure as well – they’re such a great pairing.

And speaking of Sam Weller, I was reading in Forster’s biography that it wasn’t until you introduced him into Pickwick that the story began to gain popularity. As Forster says, “Sam Weller and Mr. Pickwick are the Sancho and the Quixote of Londoners, and as little likely to pass away as the old city itself. ” Apparently, Sam became quite the cultural touchstone, which is interesting because before I began reading Pickwick, I’d never heard of the character. It makes me wonder about the qualities a fictional character must possess in order to withstand changing public tastes. The Victorian creations of Holmes and Watson seem to be more popular than ever, but Pickwick and Weller are, perhaps, too rooted in their time and place to achieve the same kind of immortality (or maybe I live under a rock and their fame simply hasn’t reached me). Of your characters, dear Charles, I’d have to say that Ebenezer Scrooge is the most famous, followed at some distance by Oliver Twist.

Well, I shall continue to read about Mr. Pickwick and his friends as they enjoy the society and sights of Bath, and hope that Pickwick can resolve his ongoing legal dilemmas with his landlady and her avaricious lawyers. And I shall remain

Yours affectionately,

Melissa

Pondering Pickwick

Dear Mr. Dickens,

It’s a blustery, grey Thanksgiving Monday as I write to you – the perfect day to be curled up on the couch with a cat on my lap and the first volume of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club nearly finished. It seems like a good juncture to pause and write to you: Mr. Jingle, the source of much consternation, embarrassment and anger, has been exposed as a fraud in Ipswich (although less dramatically then either I or Mr. Pickwick would have wished), and Mr. Pickwick himself is preparing to return to his friends at Dingley Dell while anticipating his upcoming lawsuit brought against him by his former landlady.

You can see how Mrs. Bardell might interpret this as a marriage proposal…

I was anticipating this book to be more along the lines of your Sketches, as a collection of unrelated short stories, but there is a central cast of characters, and one episode flows into the next in a loosely connected narrative. It reminds me of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (or perhaps her book should remind me of Pickwick, since hers was published after yours, and in a magazine for which you were the editor! It’s a small world, indeed).

I should stop being so surprised every time I read a description of a person or place and burst out laughing, since it happens so often – I really need to get over my original perception of you as some stuffy, serious dead guy. But while I’m really enjoying Pickwick, I have to ask you why you interrupt the narrative every so often to have one of your characters suddenly launch into a story of their own? It’s not that they’re badly written, but they do pull the reader out of the comfortable world you’ve created, and it’s difficult to see a purpose in them, other than as little nuggets of morality, since they don’t impact the course of the main narrative. It’s like finding a piece of bacon in a pumpkin pie – bacon is great, but in context a bit off-putting (or maybe I’ve just stumbled across the next great culinary fad).

Anyway, I shall continue to follow the delightful Mr. Pickwick and his friends, and until we next chat I shall remain

Your affectionately,

Melissa

A little bling

Dear Charles,

I respectfully present my humble efforts to bring you, and this blog, into the realm of 21st century pop culture:

 

Also, I’m really enjoying Pickwick.

Affectionately,

Melissa