An unhistorical history lesson

Dear Charlie,

Who knew we’d hit a monarch-sized roadblock?

I write this letter with a heavy heart. Just when I thought all my fears and preconceived ideas about you had been conquered by your wit, charm and fantastic books, and that we were cruising along the highway together on the kind of extended literary road trip one can only have with a dead author, we hit the road kill. The size of an elk. Or, more appropriately, the size of King Henry VIII.

I’m talking about A Child’s History of England.

Seeing as how it was meant as an entertaining and easy introduction to the kings and queens of England for your son, and that it was published in installments in the journal Household Words for the edification of children everywhere, I really expected it to be more of an adventurous romp through the pages of history in your usual whimsical and accessible style. Now, however, being almost finished, I feel that if your son ever read it, that it was more of a punishment than a reward. The Brussels sprouts of your body of work.

It’s been painfully slow going, I have to confess. What frustrates me is knowing that you can write about historical events in an extremely powerful way – I need only think back to the riots in Barnaby Rudge to remember how awesome you are at weaving fact into fiction and creating an amazing and factual story. To be fair, almost a thousand years of history is quite a lot to stuff into 470-odd pages, and you have to give necessarily short shrift to many of the early monarchs, but after reading a few hundred pages it all blurs into a long procession of (usually) selfish kings, sidelined queens, greedy nobles continually fighting for power, and a succession of rather pointless wars and treaties and broken treaties and more wars, usually with France.

So this is James I, whose “dull goggle-eyes stared and rolled like an idiot’s”?? I’m not seeing it, to be honest, Charlie.

Being a degree-carrying historian myself, it’s rather hard to take anything purporting to be a “history” very seriously that doesn’t contain a) a good thick bibliography at the back, b) references to primary source materials, c) more footnotes on a page than text, and d) at least an attempt at an unbiased approach to the topic. Given that this is meant for a younger audience, I can forgive the lack of much of this, but really, Charlie, unbiased is a word that absolutely cannot be applied to you. In case you need reminding, here are a few of my favorites:

Of Henry VIII: “The plain truth is, that he was an intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England.”

Of Elizabeth I: “She had her fine qualities, but she was coarse, capricious, and treacherous, and had all the faults of an excessively vain young woman long after she was an old one. On the whole, she had a great deal too much of her father in her, to please me.

Of James I: “He was cunning, covetous, wasteful, idle, drunken, greedy, dirty, cowardly, a great swearer, and the most conceited man on earth.”

 

Alfred the Great, incarnation of all the Victorian, er, I mean Saxon virtues. Yeah, Saxon.

In fact, just about the only monarch of which you have anything positive to say is Alfred the Great, who, as you put it, “possessed all the Saxon virtues. Whom misfortune could not subdue, whom prosperity could not spoil, whose perseverance nothing could shake.”

I think I’d feel better about the whole thing if you had changed the title to something less lofty. Perhaps, “Some Interesting Anecdotes about Monarchs Who You Shouldn’t Look Up To, Because They Weren’t Very Victorian” or “Lots of People Die Brutal Deaths, But It’s Okay Because They Generally Weren’t Very Nice.” At least then your reader would know what they were in for.

The trouble with all of this is that even when I’m reading about something I didn’t know much about, say, the background and details of the Gunpowder Plot, I can’t be sure if what I’m reading about is the truth, or the truth as seen through your very particular gaze. Multifaceted I’m afraid you are not, my friend.

But you are still my friend, for all of this turgid history bogged down in a quagmire of Victorian values, and we must look to the future, thank god. So let’s stop poking the roadkill with a stick, get back in the car, and head for that ominous-looking Bleak House up the road.

Yours affectionately (if not historically),

Melissa

David as hero?

Dear Charlie,

I finished David Copperfield a few days ago now, and have been waiting for a chance to write to you and tell you how much I enjoyed the novel, which has now supplanted Nicholas Nickleby as my favorite of your works. Before this project, my goal was always to get through as many books as possible in a year, so I’d consciously avoid anything of epic length. But taking several weeks to read 1,000+ pages has made me appreciate the value of getting to know and live with characters over time. I can now more fully appreciate this article on The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels. I particularly like this line:

The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back.

But in this Everest attempt at your complete works, Charlie, David Copperfield is less of a hostage situation and more of a stretch of unexpectedly gentle incline.

Mr. Micawber

But I digress.

As David grows up and marries his “child-bride,” Dora, he becomes the center of a number of whirling, intersecting plots. Uriah’s stranglehold over the Wickfields (and Mr. Micawber, and even the Strongs), Emily’s flight with Steerforth and subsequent escape, Mr. Peggoty’s lonely, heartbreaking search for her, Betsy Trotwood’s mysterious visitor, Ham’s dangerous disregard for his own safety, and even Miss Dartle’s strange behind-the-scenes scheming.

There’s a LOT going on, and how you manage to tie everything up into a more or less tidy ending is truly amazing (plus this is the first time you’ve sent the good guys to Australia) . Even though I was hoping for something a little more fitting for Uriah Heep, I suppose not everyone can be dismembered by a train. It’s interesting that both he and Littimer the unctuous butler are both imprisoned and both had designs of marriage with inappropriate partners. Was that intentional, I wonder?

But all of these stories involve David more as a spectator than participant. Indeed, he can go off to Switzerland and Italy and grieve for three years and not affect events at home a great deal (hmm, I wonder where you got the idea to have David travel to those particular locations? Art imitates life, methinks).

So, is David the hero of his own story, as he asks in the first line?

I’m sure that question has been answered in essays and books by greater minds than mine, but I haven’t read anyone else’s opinions, so I’ll be bold enough to venture my own, since I’ve been asking myself that question repeatedly over the last few days. I can’t help but draw parallels between David and Dunstan Ramsey, the main character in Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business. At the front of that book is the following definition:

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero not Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.”

-Thomas Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads

Interestingly, when Davies was asked whether the book was autobiographical, he replied that if it was, it was “autobiographical, but not as young men do it; it will be rather as Dickens wrote David Copperfield, a fictional reworking of some things experienced and much re-arranged.”

Yup. I’d want to give him a smack too.

One on hand, David’s personal story of love, loss, and eventual happiness with Agnes is definitely the kind of romantic plot arc worthy of a hero, but it so often takes such a back seat to the other, more dramatic events (I mean, c’mon, the storm at Yarmouth was insane, and David is purely a spectator to Ham and Steerforth’s not-quite-a-showdown). The only mildly heroic thing David does is to give Uriah Heep a well-deserved smack in the face, but even then he’s not the instrument of the man’s downfall the way Micawber is.

This is not to say I don’t like David, because after spending so much time with him and watchign him grow up, I really do. Maybe he can, like us, be both the fallible but well-intentioned hero of his own life and at the same time be a catalyst in the lives of others. Either way, he’s a very human character. Because he bears a little resemblance to you, and because you liked him so much yourself, I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt. Hero he is, then.

Or have I begun sympathizing with my captor?

 

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

In which I buy stuff

Dear Charlie,

I’m less than 100 pages from the end of “David Copperfield,” and rather than write you two more letters about that fantastic book, I thought instead I’d share with you some miscellaneous bits and pieces I’ve collected relating to you.

It’s kind of weird that this time last year I was completely oblivious to your charms, whereas now I can’t see anything even remotely associated with you without a) getting very excited and b) wanting to own it. The only thing preventing me from purchasing this Tale of Two Cities t-shirt while on a recent trip to The Book Man in Chilliwack was the fact that I haven’t read the book yet (I bought The Maltese Falcon one instead). I strongly suspect it’ll be in my closet by August.

One of these things is more obscure than the others…

Anyway, I went to an auction a few months ago and saw three Royal Doulton figurines of characters from your books. And having the rabid possessiveness of a new convert, I bid on them and won them. Now I can look up at my hutch and see Mr. Pickwick (yay!), Tiny Tim (yay!), and Stiggins (ya—wait, who?).

I thought he must have been a character from a book I hadn’t yet read, but no, he’s tucked away in the Pickwick Papers, being one pineapple-rum-imbibing reverend who takes advantage of, and preaches to Mrs. Weller (and whom Mr. Weller, Sr. gleefully boots into the street after his wife’s unfortunate death).

I’m guessing that The Pickwick Papers were far more popular when the series of figurines was first commissioned, since so many of them are characters from that book. However, having now read over half of your body of work, and having been introduced to a myriad of memorable characters, I can think of more than a few who should have been memorialized ahead of Stiggins. Barnaby Rudge himself springs to mind. Quilp, too, would have been fun to design, having such a distinctive look. It’s not a great photo, but you can see most of the figurines on Christie’s website, where almost the entire series sold for £576 back in 2005. Who would you have chosen, I wonder?

I was aided in the identification of Stiggins by a book I bought online, called Charles Dickens: A Celebration of His Life and Works. It turns out to be less about your life and more about listing every character in every book you wrote, complete with contemporary and modern illustrations. Not engrossing bedtime reading, but handy for keeping names straight. This ambitious project of mine, continuing after your year-long bicentenary, has enjoyed the unforeseen advantage that all of the books that came out or were reprinted for that memorable birthday are now slowly migrating to the discount shelves (I love you, but I’d rather spend $5 than $40 on books about you).

How cool is it that your descendant is also a writer? Pretty damn cool.

And speaking of discounted books, I also picked up a fantastic one written by Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, your great-great-great granddaughter and patron of the Dickens Museum in London. Written in association with the museum, it features an informative, bite-sized biography divided into time periods and other areas of scholarship like your views on religion and the poor, and it’s nicely illustrated as well. I learned, for example, that, much like David Copperfield did, you had one hell of a crush on a young lady and that the relationship, unlike David’s, didn’t progress as far as you would have liked.

But what makes this book extra awesome is that it also contains facsimiles of actual documents from the museum, such as your marriage certificate, different calling cards with your photograph, a ticket to your final reading tour, and pages of your original manuscripts. It’s not as exciting as seeing that letter you wrote, but it’s the next best thing. I’ll have to console myself when I’ve finished reading all your works by perusing these books at greater leisure.

And now I’ll get back to the final pages of David Copperfield with great anticipation. And until I write again, I remain,

Yours affectionately,

Melissa

 

 

What’s in a point of view? Quite a lot, actually.

Dear Charlie,

Hey! Only $5,500 and the originals could be mine!

Coming out of the 1,000+ pages of Dombey and Son, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to leap right into another epically long book and embrace a whole new cast of characters without my brain spontaneously combusting. And yet here it is a week later and I’ve already devoured the 523 pages in the first volume of David Copperfield without pausing for breath and can’t wait to crack the second. Just when I think I’m starting to get into your groove and appreciate your style you go and kick it up a notch. How the hell do you do that? Logically, there are many of the same elements here that we’ve seen in earlier novels. Like Oliver, Nicholas, Nell, Martin and Flora, David is an innocent learning to navigate a harsh world. There are a host of fabulous supporting characters here too, but all your books have those in spades. So what makes this book so darned addictive?

Poor David, trying to be all grown up.

It has to be the point of view, doesn’t it? This is the first time we’ve had a first-person narrator. It’s a small change, but that “I” makes all the difference in the world. Since you’ve put yourself (and us) firmly into David’s head, you can’t send him to America or leave him in some tidy little plot eddy while you go off and devote chapters and chapters to those interesting supporting characters you like so much. If David doesn’t see it, you don’t get to write about it. The point of view may be restrictive, but in the long run it has the effect of a) keeping the plot much more focused, and b) making your title character more human than some of your others. Can you really imagine Oliver (even a grown-up Oliver) with a hangover? Neither can I.

There’s some criticism I’ve been reading that suggests that David is the least interesting character in the book, and that may be true, but he’s certainly the most interesting of your protagonists so far. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our travels to date, but set David beside Nell or Barnaby and you have to admit he’s much more real and sympathetic. You make it so easy for us to like him – it helps that he’s definitely not perfect. We’ve all known people that make us feel young and stupid (I still can’t think of my grade 10 French teacher without forgetting every single word of French I ever knew), we’ve all had moments of behaving as if we were older than we are, we’ve all done stupid things that we regret and had impossible crushes in our youth on unattainable people (I’m looking at you, Donnie Wahlberg).

The plaque at 6 Chandos Place, London, marks the blacking factory where you worked as a child.

The other reason I think David is so appealing is that, unlike your contemporary readers, we know how closely David’s early work experience in London mirrors your own unhappy childhood working in a blacking factory. It gives us modern readers a fascinating and heartbreaking glimpse of your early years, and an appreciation of how far you rose above it. You said that David Copperfield was your favorite child, and part of that has to be because in many ways he’s a lot like you.So I’ll continue to keep David company as he grows. I can’t wait to find out what becomes of Steerforth, Uriah, the Micawbers, little Em’ly and Pegotty. And, of course, to David himself. At this pace, I shall be back ahead of schedule in no time. And of course, I remain,

Yours affectionately,

Melissa

P.S. I just came across this. Apparently David Copperfield is not quite the most quintessentially you.

Something to cheer us up

Dear Charlie,

I woke up with a migraine and the beginnings of a head cold, so I’m taking a sick day to (hopefully) nip it in the bud.

Blargh.

To cheer us both up, though, before I go and lie down again, here’s a photo I took in the summer in the back yard. Getting a new camera meant playing with all the settings in an attempt to take some artistic shots. I like this one the best. I hope you do too. Now it’s nap time.

Affectionately,

Melissa

I can almost smell those lovely sweet peas…