Lost and found

Dear Charlie,

Just a quick note to let you know that I found your pen. It’s at Yale University:

dickens pen

What’s your pen doing at Yale University? Keeping your pipe and writing slope company, apparently.

It’s a timely find, because with only six more volumes to read, I really need you to get out of this slump you seem to have fallen into and give your adoring public some fresh material. The least you can do is to finish “Edwin Drood” before I get to it.

I admit that your being dead might be a teeny tiny obstacle to this request, but you’re nothing if not creative.

Affectionately,

Melissa

P.S. I really like this comic:

dickenscartoon

thank you for existing, Tom Gauld. http://www.tomgauld.com

 

Out of my depth, literally and figuratively

Dear Charlie,

CAL062113LRHa11

Calgary’s City Hall, looking a touch damp. Good thing you weren’t touring this week, Charlie!

It’s been a surreal week, my friend. Massive flooding has devastated many neighborhoods of my fair city, including its downtown core. Remember that photo I took of you on Stephen Avenue when you were on tour? Yeah, that’s underwater now (or was a few days ago). Living in a city on the prairies, flooding wouldn’t seem to be a huge danger, but the beautiful Bow and Elbow rivers that run through Calgary can turn into angry mofos every century or so, and do one hell of a lot of damage.

Anyway, I think that’s one reason my mind hasn’t been as focused on your works this week, since I’ve been glued to Facebook, Twitter and news sites for the latest developments. The other reason is that I’m reading a volume of your “Miscellaneous Papers,” and I’m finding them, for the most part, extremely tough going.

One of the great things about your novels, Charlie, is that you weave the social issues of your day effortlessly into the plot. I can watch several lives being destroyed by the convolutions of the Chancery system in Bleak House, or see the impact of the Debtor’s Prison system, or the difficulty in obtaining an English patent in Little Dorrit. Oliver Twist brings to light the plight of uneducated street kids. I may not know the specifics surrounding these issues, but I can very clearly see and appreciate the gravity of the results.

Some of the articles you wrote for the Examiner and Household Words, on the other hand, are almost incomprehensible without some sort of annotation or guide book (which this edition doesn’t deem necessary). I can tell that you have some serious hate on for Lord Aberdeen, but I can’t share your sense of outrage, because I have no idea who he is. I can tell that you feel very strongly about other specific political leaders and issues, but it’s frustrating not to be able to appreciate your scathing sarcasm and satire. It would make as much sense as me handing you a newspaper from today and expecting you to care who in City Council said what regarding flood relief. As well, many of the articles are so short and so dependent on the reader knowing and living the context in which they were written that I may as well be surrounded by aliens all shouting at me from their different soapboxes for all I’m getting out of them.

hippo

The hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, London, 1852.
Who wouldn’t want a monument to this guy?

That said, there are a few articles that are less specific and that have a wider appeal. For example, I enjoyed the series of letters written by your rather snarky raven (I’m assuming it was Grip) about how human beings have all the vices commonly associated with his species. The hippo (“His Rolling Hulk”) even gets to be guest blogger to the raven’s column, and explains how his existence in the local zoo is nothing less than a civic service, since by doing nothing all day he provides entertainment for those London citizens also fond of doing nothing. As such, he feels deserving of a commemorative monument.

As in your other pieces for Household Words, there are articles with recurring themes – your criticism of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons, your advocating of education for children of the poor, your arguments against capital punishment, and other concerns that found their way into your novels. It’s nice to know that these issues weren’t mere plot devices, but that you were a continual champion against social injustice.

So as my city dries out and we start the long process of cleaning up, I’ll keep plodding my through these bits and pieces of your brain, my friend. I’ll try to make sense of the politics that infuriated you, shake my head when your unfortunately virulent racism appears, and enjoy those moments when your time and mine align and I can share your concerns.

And so, I remain waterlogged but always,

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

History, villains and feels

Dear Charlie,

I stayed up far too late on Sunday finishing A Tale of Two Cities. It’s an excellent story that moves at one hell of a clip, especially for you, and ends with a fantastically emotional wallop.

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Travel Advisory: Avoid France when they’re chopping people’s heads off.


I can see why people compare this so favorably when set beside Barnaby Rudge, your only other historical work. The historical backdrop is arguably more dramatic, the cast is smaller, and the action is much more focused and tightly controlled for maximum impact. But I have to say that I think Barnaby Rudge has the advantage when it comes to the incorporation of historical fact into the narrative.

Maybe it’s because you had more pages to play with, or maybe it’s because I knew so little about the Gordon Riots that featured in Rudge, and so much more about the French Revolution, but the way you describe the unfolding of events in your earlier work is so seamless that I came away with a real grasp of the riots as a historical event, as well as a satisfying story. With A Tale of Two Cities, I feel that if I didn’t know anything about the French Revolution, I wouldn’t have gained that same level of historical knowledge.

Of course, the French Revolution lasted a lot longer, and you were probably banking on your audience already having a fairly intimate knowledge of the Revolution’s major developments, so you could focus less on the history and more on the plot. And speaking of plot, having your entire cast stuck in the middle of Paris during one of its most violent and dangerous periods was utterly nerve-wracking and really claustrophobic, and I very nearly yelled at the book during Darnay’s second arrest.

Thinking back to your History of England, it’s really interesting to me that you can be such an accomplished writer of historical fiction, and such a crap historian.

But to get back to the story.

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Madame Defarge was not the only angry woman.

I don’t know why I’m so hung up on your villains, Charlie, but I really dig Madame Defarge. For so much of the book she’s just sitting there, all quiet and observant and knit-y, content to let her husband run the show. But as soon as the violence and beheading starts, boy does she ever get her groove on! I love the way that she quickly becomes the central villain of the piece (if you don’t count Madame Guillotine herself). You may not have granted her any of your heroines’ angelic feminine virtues, but once I found out where her anger was coming from I began to really sympathize with her. Mostly, I really like that she’s a) female and b) not another evil-for-the-sake-of-it character like Rigaud. Here’s a woman who has some serious issues, and a horrific past that she’s been stewing over for years, waiting for her moment for revenge. So even though I was cheering for good ol’ British Bulldog Miss Pross in their final showdown, I was kind of sad that Madame Defarge had revenge snatched from her. (But seriously. Best. Catfight. Evar.)

Which brings us to Sydney Carton.

I mean, I figured out what he was planning. I could see it coming, and I didn’t even  want to stop it, necessarily, but damn, Charlie! Just… argh…

I can’t talk about him coherently because I still have too many feels.

cry_baby

Too. Many. Feels.

And so I try to leave the French Revolution behind. Rather than leaping straight into another novel, I thought I’d cleanse my palate by reading a volume of your “Miscellaneous Papers” instead.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

On top of the covers

Dear Charlie,

A Tale of Two Cities is the 29th volume of your complete works that I’ve picked up to date, and I’ve been staring at its lovely dark green, faux-leather-faux-gold-circa-1960s pomp and circumstance of a cover. Not that it’s weird in any way. It’s exactly the same binding as the other 35 volumes. This massive collection is unlike anything else on my bookshelves, and it got me thinking about the pros and cons of owning (and reading) such a uniform collection of books (it also got me thinking about historical fiction and revolutions and such, but we can chat about that later).

library

OK, this isn’t my library, but damn I wish it was. Let’s see you pull *that* off with Kindles and Kobos!

I confess that I do own an ereader, and what it does well it does really well. You can’t beat it for travelling, reading lengthy books without hand cramps or spine-breaking (grr, spine-breaking), looking up words on the fly, or hosting fragile books that you don’t want to bung into a bag with your lunch and keys. But for me it will never replace the look/smell/feel of real-live books. My bookshelves are a self portrait that I wouldn’t want to lose. I have to really loathe a book before I can part with it – even books that I didn’t particularly like and will likely never re-read I can still point to as a part of my literary development (I’m looking at you, American Psycho). My bookshelves make kaleidoscopic and colorful statements, and I really like that.

As well, for me, a book’s cover is an important mnemonic device, helping me to recall not only the book’s plot and characters, but where I was and what I was doing as I read it. And they’re sometimes lovely to look at in their own right. My dear Kobo just doesn’t do any of that as adroitly.

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36 volumes of faux-leather goodness

Your works, Charlie, fall into a strange no-man’s land between these two extremes. The bubbly escapades of The Pickwick Papers and the emotional intensity of Dombey & Son are both presented to the reader in exactly the same way, and if you don’t know anything about the plots (as I didn’t), there’s no way to tell at the outset what you’re going to get.

I wonder, now, if the sheer uniformity caused much of the unfounded fear I had going in to several of these volumes that they would be dry, dull and hard to get through.

Of course, this black box approach might not have been such a bad thing. Doing a quick image search for covers of A Tale of Two Cities makes me realize that a silly or inappropriate cover can set up certain expectations of the contents that the story itself might have a hard time overcoming.

Most instances of A Tale of Two Cities feature appropriate imagery of burning buildings, French flags, guillotines and angry French mobs. Good stuff. Even if not particularly earth-shattering from a design perspective, at least I know what I’m getting into.

everything

Yup. Pretty sure this book will be about the French Revolution.

But there are alarming exceptions.

For instance, I might be really disappointed that this edition of A Tale of Two Cities didn’t tell me which hotel was the best value or where to eat or the best time to ride the London Eye. The London Eye? Seriously?

Brochure

Hey! Dickens contains NO hotel recommendations or Tube maps! Some tour guide you are…

And this one, although awesomely clever from a graphic design point of view, annoys the historian in me because neither Big Ben nor the Eiffel Tower existed during the French Revolution.

EiffelBen

A Tale of Two Anachronistic Structures That Have Nothing to Do with the Plot

Aaaand then there’s this, which my brain can’t even come to grips with right now.

Uuuhhmm

Yes, please tell me how to code-knit the names of Enemies of the People who should be beheaded at the first opportunity. Also a tea cosy.

You know, Charlie, maybe it’s best that I stick with my green and gilt volumes, and remain uninfluenced and always,

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

A mostly satisfying wrap-up

Dear Charlie,

367px-Little_Dorrit,_Damocles,_by_Phiz

Oh Blandois/Rigaud/Lagnier, that house is propped up for a reason…

I raced through the final hundred or so pages of Little Dorrit yesterday, my friend, and on many levels, it was a very satisfying ending, as I’ve come to expect from you. Will Rigaud get his just desserts? Of course he will! And in another fantastically over-the-top dramatic death, no less. Will Tattycoram come around? Of course she will (although to be honest the feminist in me was kind of hoping that she’d be able to find a happy middle ground between the count-to-25 of Meagles and the everyone’s-out-to-get-you Mrs. Wade). Will Pancks free himself from his passive aggressive employer? You bet your quarterly rents he will! Will Flora calm down and back off? Well… maybe?

And the big question: Will Amy and Arthur get together? Well, duh, this is you, Mr. Dickens, and you wouldn’t let me down. Thanks Charlie. After being scarred by Game of Thrones recently, I truly appreciate your only killing off the characters who deserved it, and then seeing everyone else happily off into the sunset.

But that central mystery of Clennam’s: what does the ‘do not forget’ in the watch mean and was there some injustice perpetrated against the Dorrits by the Clennams? You remember, the one Arthur spends the entire book trying to figure out. Well, it turns out to be not that big a deal. It is to Mrs. Clennam, of course – the poor woman has been stewing in righteous anger and feelings of grim betrayal for decades, and taking it out on poor Arthur. And she gets nothing for her martyrdom but a nice, juicy dose of blackmail by a cheesy stage villain.

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NOT Arthur and Amy, thank god!

But really, once you get right to the nitty gritty of Mrs. Clennam’s angry explanation, shocking as it may have been during your era, Charlie, it didn’t really have any huge ramifications for anyone else but her (and maybe Flintwich). That, and even after reading the section through twice, I’m still not entirely clear on why, exactly, Amy was due anything at all (and since she doesn’t seem to mind not getting it, I’m not going to lose sleep over it). There was a moment there where I thought that Amy and Arthur were somehow related, in some surreal Dickensian Luke and Leia kind of way, but I’m pretty sure my fears are groundless (whew!). Regardless, the new Mr. and Mrs. Clennam can start their new lives with a clean, if poor, slate.

The bigger deal is what happens when Merdle’s speculations crumble, taking everyone down with him. Merdle may take the coward’s way out, but if there’s a real villain of the piece, it has to be him. It’s interesting to put his quiet, self-effacing character beside Rigaud’s sinister flamboyance. Sure Rigaud is up to no good, but he’s after small game in a small sphere, and even there he’s far from successful. Merdle, on the other hand, plays the game on a grand scale, and yet he remains an enigma – was his quiet, socially uncomfortable demeanour simply a ruse to hide his crimes? Or were people so blinded by his apparent wealth and success that they assumed he had a competence in money matters that he never had or claimed to have? Here, you’re rich, have some of my money too! It’s interesting, Charlie, that you who have such a flare for creating memorable characters, have left Mr. Merdle so ambiguously drawn. Very sneaky.

So now I’m off to the French Revolution! And thinking back to how well you fused fiction and history in Barnaby Rudge, I have high hopes.

Affectionately,

Melissa

P.S. Oh, and we hit our 20,000th visitor, my friend! I’m in happy awe (awppy? hawe?), and I hope you are too.