Settling into this last comfy chair

Dear Charlie,

I’m well into Our Mutual Friend and I gotta say, my friend, I’m conflicted.

toread

Soon, my pretties… soon…

On the one hand, knowing I have so little time left to finish this year-long challenge makes me want to race through the two volumes so that I can reach my self-imposed goal. That, and as much as I love you, I’m just itching to read pretty much anything from the 20th or 21st centuries. I’ve got some seriously tempting stuff waiting in the wings, and it’s a testament to your skill I haven’t swanned off into other centuries more often. But at the same time, knowing that this is the last of your major, finished works makes me want to slow down and truly savour every nuance of character, plot and style.

And since we’re on the subject, let’s talk about plot, shall we? 300 pages in, and I’m still not entirely sure who the novel’s protagonist is. Lizzie? Eugene? Charlie? Mortimer? The frickin’ Veneerings? Six months ago, this would have irked me, but now I just want to snuggle back into the easy chair that is your storytelling and let things unfold as they will, content that, with so many pages before us, you’ll eventually take me where I need to go.

There’s one scene that I keep thinking back to: poor Georgiana Podsnap’s “birthday party” and the sinister attentions paid her by the mercenary Lammles. I really like Georgiana, and identify with her. I like that you made her awkward and retiring, but also gave her a keen intellect and some wonderfully biting observations. Made me remember some painful Junior High dances. <shudder> I hope we see more of her, and I hope nothing too terrible happens to her. Oh, and I’ve just met fiery little Jenny Wren, and I like her too. And you can’t talk about fiery without mentioning Miss Potterson, the pub owner. Charlie, you’ve got some seriously interesting women lurking in these pages. It almost makes up for the overly angelic Lizzie and the spoiled Bella Wilfer.

our-mutual-friend-gaffer

Well that’s one way to end a stakeout…

The other great scene is that rainy night with the Inspector, the two lawyers and Riderhood waiting by the river for Gaffer to appear. It’s positively cinematic the way you set that up – I could feel the warmth of the pub fire and the cold stinging of the hail. Fantastic! I like to think that you pulled that whole scene from your own experiences tagging along with the London police. And such a grisly end to those chapters! I mean, it’s no spontaneous combustion, but it’s still gratifyingly macabre.

I do wonder, though, Charlie, whether anyone was ever seriously fooled by Mr. Rokesmith. I mean, I could be totally off base here, but if he doesn’t turn out to be Mr. Harmon in the flesh, I’ll be mightily surprised. I can buy, though, that no one else would guess his identity – he has been abroad for years, after all.

So, lots of great stuff, Charlie, and I’m sure that there’s a ton of great stuff to come.

I just have to figure out how quickly I want to get to it.

Affectionately,

Melissa

Well, aren’t you adorable?

Dear Charlie,

I know I got a little bit whiny on you while I was reading the first volume of your “Miscellaneous Papers,” but after taking a break with Great Expectations I returned to the second volume with greater equanimity. This time around, there were several things that caught my attention, including your hilariously sarcastic observations on the spiritualist movement and séances (remind me never to introduce you to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I don’t think you’d get on), less racism than I expected, and some really interesting appearances of some unexpected guests.

Leigh_Hunt

Meet Harold Skimpole…er, I mean Leigh Hunt. NOT Skimpole. AT ALL.

These guests are none other than some of your famous characters, and the articles in which they appear are those where you step out from behind the “anonymous author” curtain to either defend your work or review another’s. Let’s start with, “Leigh Hunt: A Remonstrance.” In it, you defend yourself from accusations that Bleak House’s childlike Harold Skimpole bears a striking resemblance to your friend Mr. Hunt. Where most people would likely flat-out deny the similarities, you stand up and say, “Yes! Of course I took some of dear Leigh’s eccentricities and used them to create Skimpole, but only the good bits and no one could possibly infer that Skimpole’s less desirable qualities are in any way attributable to Mr. Hunt. And, anyway, I asked his friends to read it and totally changed the bits they thought were too much like him, so kindly shut up about it already. Lewsers.”

I’m not entirely convinced, Charlie, and I’m not entirely sure you were either.

The other place one of your characters puts in a prominent appearance is in your review of your buddy John Foster’s biography of Walter Savage Landor. In your review, you compare Landor to Bleak House’s Mr. Boythorn on two separate occasions. Reading the article, I’m struck both by how similar your fictional character is to the real life subject, and by how cavalierly you make the connection for the reader, without any of the previous article’s remonstrance that Boythorn is a separate and unique creation. Was it because you don’t make Boythorn as morally questionable as Skimpole, so no one was likely to give you a hard time about it?

In both articles, however, it’s fascinating to read about the real-life models for two of your famous characters.

ThreesCompany_S4

“The Village Coquettes,” 1970s-style

And now we come to the part of the book that endears you to me. These are a collection of your early attempts at short plays and operettas. No, don’t blush, my friend, they’re the most adorably awful of your creations I’ve read. They’re like 19th century stage productions of “Three’s Company” episodes, with  comic misunderstandings, impossible coincidences, and unbelievable and abrupt resolutions. I particularly love the title of your play, “Is She His Wife? Or, Something Singular!” Sounds less like high culture and more like a great tabloid headline. 🙂

You’re an amazing writer, Charlie, but I admire these cheesy, less than stellar early works because they reveal your enthusiasm for experimenting with different forms of writing, as well as just how far you progressed in the course of your career.

But to end this letter on a sentimental note, let me quote your dear friend. Even though Forster was writing about Landor, as I continue to read this volume I can’t help but apply his observation of that gentleman to you:

But, now that the story is told, no one will have difficulty in striking the balance between its good and ill; and what was really imperishable in Landor’s genius will not be treasured less, or less understood, for the more perfect knowledge of his character.

Thanks for giving me more windows into your character, my friend.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

This seems familiar…

Dear Charlie,

Do you ever get déjà vu? Coming off Great Expectations and into the second volume of your Miscellaneous Papers, I’ve had the sense for the past week that you and I have been here before.

lol-love

Me + Great Expectations

Before we get into details, let me say first that I loved Great Expectations. It was brisk, lively, funny, and had complex and interesting characters. I love the inscrutable Jaggers and the relationship of mutual mystery and strict professionalism between him and Wiggins. I love Wiggins’ split personality and his little domestic castle and his adorable dad, and I love dear Herbert’s trusting good nature. I love Biddy and her refusal to pine for Pip. I love Magwitch’s life-changing adoration of Pip. I can absolutely see why people consider it your best work.

If I were going to recommend a Dickens gateway drug, this would be the one.

But remember how I told you I suspected that there would be unforeseen connections between characters? Turns out I was right, and it also turns out that this isn’t such a great thing.

Without the usual army of supporting characters, those ‘coincidental’ connections are more obvious than Darth Vader on the deck of the Enterprise. Really, Charlie, there’s suspension of disbelief, and then there’s the wrestling of disbelief into a straight-jacket and throwing it into solitary confinement in Alcatraz that’s required to swallow Pip’s story. Trying to picture the Venn diagram of these relationships puts me at risk of a seizure… Pip’s and Miss Havisham’s spheres overlap in Estella, but Pip and Magwitch also sorta share Estella, as do Pip and Jaggers’ housekeeper, and as do Jaggers and Miss Havisham. In the meantime, Pip and Magwitch share Compeyson, but Pip and Compeyson share Miss Havisham. And Pip and Magwitch overlap in Jaggers. Oh my brain hurts.

Venn_Diagram_simple

This is a Venn Diagram

VennDiagramComplex

This is the Venn Diagram for Great Expectations

And we haven’t even started with the déjà vu. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in your head for 11 months now, my friend, but reading this book was a bit like conducting a Dickens retrospective. Pip reminds me strongly at times of David Copperfield, with bits of Martin Chuzzlewit, Jr. and Nicholas thrown in. Orlick is a combination of Uriah Heep and Barnaby Rudge’s Hugh, Compeyson smacks of Steerforth, and Estella is definitely channeling both Mrs. Dombey and Louisa Gradgrind.

But it wasn’t until I came across one of your more famous quotations that I realized how much this book distills and refines everything that’s come before. This is the line:

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.

And I sat there and thought, “dammit, I’ve sure I’ve read that before!” So I did a little digging (thank you, Project Gutenberg), and sure enough, in the pages of Barnaby Rudge you wrote:

It was on one of those mornings, common in early spring, when the year, fickle and changeable in its youth like all other created things, is undecided whether to step backward into winter or forward into summer, and in its uncertainty inclines now to the one and now to the other, and now to both at once–wooing summer in the sunshine, and lingering still with winter in the shade–it was, in short, on one of those mornings, when it is hot and cold, wet and dry, bright and lowering, sad and cheerful, withering and genial, in the compass of one short hour, that old John Willet, who was dropping asleep over the copper boiler, was roused by the sound of a horse’s feet, and glancing out at window, beheld a traveller of goodly promise, checking his bridle at the Maypole door.

Interesting, eh?

Had you been unconsciously playing around with that sentiment every March in the intervening years until you had it phrased perfectly?

plagiarismAnyway, Charlie, I feel like I’m being mean to you, and I didn’t intend to be, because I honestly think Great Expectations is awesome, and if you’re going to plagiarize someone, it might as well be a writer as fantastic as yourself.

Affectionately,

Melissa

Number crunching

Dear Charlie,

The good news: I finished Great Expectations and only have five volumes of yours left to read.

The bad news: It’s only 38 days until my birthday and the end of this year-long adventure.

So, if my shaky math is correct, I have a little less than eight days to finish each remaining volume. Eeep!

Although I have come to realize as I go along that reading your works at warp 9 is NOT the way to get the most out of our friendship, my dear, my goal stands.

bring-it-on

I love you, but I’m getting slightly stir crazy being stuck here in the 19th century.

Affectionately,

Melissa

Explorers and Expectations

Dear Charlie,

Sorry I haven’t written in a while. It was the Canada Day long weekend, so I spent it in a tent trailer in the woods, getting sunburned, eating fire-charred meat and donating huge quantities of blood to starving mosquitos. Oh, and getting through the first part of Pip’s adventures in Great Expectations.

franklin-sir-john-1403

Sir John Franklin

I did, however, finally finish volume one of your Miscellaneous Papers, which ended with a curious two part essay called “The Lost Voyagers,” which argued against the notion, put forward in an 1848 report by John Rae, that the victims of the unfortunate Franklin Expedition (which had disappeared in 1845) had resorted to cannibalism in their final hours. I admire your passion, Charlie – you’re clearly well-read on the subject of exploration and feel very strongly about your topic. But I find it interesting that you should feel the need to refute the findings at all. Maybe I’ve been completely desensitized, but cannibalism would seem to be a definite option when faced with starvation in the Canadian arctic, moral misgivings aside.

WilliamBraine

Hard to be moral when you’ve got some serious lead poisoning going on.
(Library and Archives Canada)

But you seem to put extraordinary emphasis on the moral and ethical ramifications of eating one’s comrades. By the end of the article you’ve basically argued that cannibalism isn’t a moral or upstanding thing to do, and because British Explorers, and Franklin’s men in particular, are the epitome of all British exploration-y virtues, and are therefore the most moral and upstanding people in the entire Universe, it’s totally obvious that Franklin’s men didn’t eat one another, and never even considered eating one another, and why are you taking the word of uncivilized “Esquimeaux” savages over this perfectly obvious line of reasoning, even if they are eye witnesses? Witnesses shmitnesses.

Of course, you do mention several documented instances of cannibalism (which you take a rather suspicious delight in recounting), but you’re quick to point out that in those cases the explorers were either a) not British or b) not British enough to prevent moral lapses in their non-British travelling companions. Britannia rules the waves, and England never, never, never shall be entrees. 😉

And with that great lesson in Victorian reasoning, I quite happily closed the book. All joking aside, Charlie, I wish you’d been around to see the remains of the Franklin Expedition unearthed – I’m sure you would have been as fascinated as I am to see the mummified bodies of the crew.

Finishing that article meant that I could bound into Pip’s life with joy and a certain amount of relief that there’s not an arctic explorer in sight. I’m now almost half way through Great Expectations, and even though it’s shorter than some of your other works, it doesn’t feel rushed or any less richly populated than your earlier novels. On the contrary, the pace is lively, and there’s so much that has happened already that I’m certain will have repercussions down the road – a couple of convicts who we keep being reminded of, the strange Orlick who loomed up out of nowhere, the creepy-ass Mrs. Havisham (mummified herself, in a manner of speaking) and her creepy minion Estella, Pip’s “mystery” benefactor, and the unreadable Jaggers.

This is all great stuff, Charlie, and I can’t wait to see how Pip handles his new circumstances and how all of these things are connected (because if I’ve learned anything from you, my friend, it’s that there’s only ever a degree or two of separation between seemingly unrelated characters).

And with that I shall bid you a fond farewell, and I shall try to get lost in Pip’s story, forget Franklin’s and ignore my many mosquito bites.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa