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.
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,