Late to the party: The convivial journey of a Dickens newbie
My journey began at an auction.
The date was January 16, 2012 and after some moderate bidding, I found myself the new owner of lot #84, the Centennial Edition of The Complete Works of Charles Dickens in 36 faux-leather volumes.
And this is where I make a confession: I’d never read anything by Charles Dickens. I love reading, I love books, I have an English degree, for god’s sake. How was it possible that until that auction, almost the only time Charles Dickens and I ever crossed paths was once a year and involved Kermit the Frog?
It was to rectify this sad gap in my literary life that I bid on the lot in the first place. But I felt a bit like I’d gone to Las Vegas and woken up married to the blackjack dealer. There were so many volumes that I didn’t have any room on my bookshelves, so they sat on the floor, and they stared at me every time I walked by. Even my cat was questioning my purchase.
I knew it would take something extraordinary to encourage me to read even one of the volumes, let alone all 36.
Then, two things happened:
I discovered that 2012 was the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, and I read “Julie and Julia,” which recounts a woman’s efforts to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s The Joy of Cooking in a year. It clicked. I would set my own personal challenge to read all of Dickens’ 36 volumes more or less chronologically, in a single year, beginning on my birthday in August. And to keep myself on track, I would start a blog about it.
And so began Dear Mr. Dickens, and the surprisingly convivial journey of a Dickens newbie. This afternoon I’d like to use my own experiences first, to examine why Dickens’ works are so accessible to newcomers, and second, how 21st century social media connects Dickens with individuals and institutions in new and innovative ways.
With any difficult challenge, it’s natural to expect a certain amount of struggle to make the final achievement truly rewarding, but to be honest, I was scared. The math alone was daunting – in order to meet my goal, I’d have to finish one 500 page volume every ten days, and my reading habits to date had been far more recreational.
My edition was certainly pretty, but the covers didn’t give much away in terms of what to expect. All I had to go on were these threatening titles like “Bleak House” and “Hard Times.” I have to admit that I was a more than a little intimidated. I expected the books’ contents to be something I would often have to grit my teeth and endure. Perhaps it was photos of Dickens. All that beard…
I was so sure that the challenge was going to be difficult that I chose to forego the two volume “Sketches by Boz” in favour of something I’d actually heard of, “Oliver Twist.” It was only one volume and I had vague memories of a musical I’d seen as a child
So I was confident I wouldn’t be setting myself up for immediate failure. It wasn’t until I’d finished Oliver, the Sketches, Nicholas Nickleby and was well into The Pickwick Papers that I finally realized I had been worried for nothing. I was enjoying everything. I was even laughing out loud.
But what was it that made Dickens’ works so accessible to someone approaching them for the first time and with very little context? For me, I think that very lack of context was probably an advantage: I came into the year with an almost clean slate. I was intimidated, sure, but it wasn’t because of a previous bad experience.
Because for every person who discovered their love of the author after reading one of his works as a child, the 1-star reviews of Dickens’ works on Amazon attest to the fact that there are an equal or greater number of people who have never gone back after having been forced to read him in school.
By inadvertently avoiding all that, I had very few preconceptions of any of Dickens’ works, although I suspected that A Christmas Carol did not, in fact, contain skating penguins or singing fruit.
I deliberately didn’t read up on the plots or characters beforehand so that I could just enjoy the stories as they unfolded. Because I didn’t know what was going to happen next, I felt a certain kinship with Dickens’ original readers (even though I didn’t have to wait months to find out the fate of Little Nell).
As well as the lack of emotional baggage, for me, three things make Dickens so welcoming to the uninitiated: the author himself, his characters, and how much you learn about daily life in the 19th century.
It was early in the year when I realized that Charles Dickens was far from being the grim-looking man in his later photos. It was while reading Sketches by Boz that I realized that Charles Dickens, intimidating 19th century author, was someone I genuinely enjoyed spending time with. Oliver Twist had been a really good story, but with the Sketches I felt I was walking the streets of a strange town arm in arm with an intelligent and perceptive tour guide.
One in particular that stands out is called “Meditations in Monmouth Street.” It begins with Dickens’ observations of several second-hand clothing shops but quickly spirals into a series of imaginative flights of fancy whereby the author dreams up a series of characters to inhabit the waistcoats and trousers on display. He says:
We have gone on speculating in this way, until whole rows of coats have started from their pegs, and buttoned up, of their own accord, round the waists of imaginary wearers; waistcoats have almost burst with anxiety to put themselves on; and half an acre of shoes have suddenly found feet to fit them, and gone stumping down the street with a noise which has fairly awakened us from our pleasant reverie…
And it’s not just one or two characters. By the end of the article he has created an entire ballroom of people to inhabit a series of 2nd hand shoes, and even pairs them off in an imaginary dance. Anyone who can create that kind of vivid and populated imaginary world from what other people would glance at and dismiss, was not just some moralizing and grumpy author, but someone I definitely wanted to befriend.
It wasn’t until later on in the year that I arrived at Dickens’ articles written for Household Words. By then Charlie and I had become fast friends. But here again, I was struck by his insatiable curiosity about, and interest in people of all walks of life. There’s a humanitarian impulse here, absolutely, such as when he describes a visit to the home of a poverty-stricken family who are just barely scraping by. But there’s also the sheer joy of meeting new people and learning about them.
There’s an article called “Bill Sticking,” for example, where he describes jumping into the back of a “bill-sticker’s” cart to find out from an old man the history of bill posting in the city while sharing a pipe and a glass of rum just for the hell of it. Being rather shy myself, it’s hard not to admire someone so friendly and outgoing.
That isn’t to say that we didn’t have our disagreements.
His Child’s History of England, for instance, was the kind of slog I had been expecting at the start of the project. An unbiased and objective look at English monarchs it isn’t. That book has blurred into one long procession of violent and morally corrupt nobles intent on executing their enemies in horrible ways. As far as his personal life goes, I was disheartened to learn that what I had initially thought was a youthful holiday with his friend Wilkie Collins in, “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices,” may well have been Dickens roping his friend into giving him a plausible alibi while he went in search of his mistress.
But in spite of all I learned about some of Dickens’ less than awesome characteristics when it came to his beliefs and domestic life, it’s the friendship with a guy who’s just so insatiably curious about people that made the year-long journey worthwhile.
Dickens’ personality aside, however, what drew me in and kept me there were his characters.
Perhaps that sounds a bit obvious, and it is, but there are books I read a month ago where I’ve already forgotten the names of the main protagonist.
But two years after the fact I’m still smiling when I think of the narcoleptic fat boy in Pickwick, getting creeped out when I think of Quilp abusing his poor wife, and still really pissed off that Esther didn’t tell Guppy where to get off when he told her he wasn’t interested in her anymore.
The fact that I feel a closer connection with the wooden midshipmen from Dombey and Son or Grip the raven from Barnaby Rudge than I do with the main characters in some more modern novels attests to how well Dickens creates even non-human characters. Sure, some of them may be melodramatic or over-the-top at times, and maybe a little one-sided, but they are rarely forgettable.
Thirdly, what I loved about Dickens’ novels is how much I learned about the day-to-day lives of everyday people. Now, I love me some Jane Austen, but a book like Pride and Prejudice shines a very focused beam on a thin sliver of society.
A novel like Bleak House, conversely, reveals aspects of the daily lives of everyone from Joe, the poverty-stricken crossing sweeper, right up to the aristocratic Lady Dedlock herself, with a boat-load of characters from all walks of life sandwiched in between. In every book, an astonishing array of clerks, lawyers, dancing masters, school teachers, milliners, maids, pickpockets, and a host of other professions appear in vivid detail, creating a vibrant portrait of 19th century society. And that’s when Dickens isn’t even trying to write a historical novel!
All of this: Dickens himself, his compelling army of characters, and just how much I was learning, made the pages and volumes fly by, but that was only part of this convivial journey.
The other occurred primarily in cyberspace, and it was there I discovered the vibrancy, immediacy and friendliness of the larger Dickens community.
What made this year-long project so amazing was discovering that I wasn’t alone with my new 200-year-old friend. For me, it started with a blog, but it’s led to Twitter and to communal reading projects and to this room, today, and the chance to meet fellow Dickens enthusiasts and scholars.
Having a blog allowed me to voice my opinions, but so would a physical journal, and at first that’s how I thought of it. As soon I started searching for related links or images to add to my weekly posts, however, I quickly discovered not only many relevant articles but also, and more importantly, other Charles Dickens blogs and online resources that offered a wealth of information and different perspectives. Whether it was detailed plot synopses or lively discussions on TV adaptations, it was thrilling to find out that so many people were passionate about Dickens!
And that connection goes both ways – the day that the Charles Dickens Museum here in London featured a link to my blog on their Facebook page I felt like a bit of a celebrity. Later, when they hosted a “Dickens on Tour” event that involved taking a photo of a photo of Charles Dickens in various international locations, I was, of course, eager to participate. That they then had a temporary exhibition of those photos as an exhibit in the museum itself is a perfect example of the ways in which the internet facilitates the type of dialogue and participation that truly engages people.
By the time I actually got to visit the museum in person, I felt like I was meeting up with an old friend to continue a conversation, and not entering a place that was in any way frozen in time. I may have got a bit misty, in fact. This type of online outreach and inclusion is invaluable to maintaining a sense of the author’s immediacy and relevance in the 21st century.
Before starting this project, I had never used Twitter and had no idea how it was supposed to work. It sounded kind of pointless, to be honest. I’m eating dinner. I’ve finished dinner. I’m going to bed now.
But since that’s what all the cool kids were doing, I knew I had to at least make an attempt to figure it out. It took two weeks of utter confusion before I found my feet (and learned what a hashtag was and how to use one), but it quickly became apparent how powerful a tool it can be for connecting people with similar interests and for sharing ideas. Having a blog was great, but it’s still basically one person building a tree house in a forest and hoping other people will look up and see it. Twitter provides the necessary bulletin board so you can find out what’s going on in other treehouses, and discover that you’re actually in the middle of a treehouse community.
By following and being followed by people studying or interested in Charles Dickens and his time, I not only found an audience for my weekly posts, but received a wealth of links to articles, websites and activities all relating to the author. To be honest, I was astounded by the number of Dickens-related things I found myself retweeting. I can’t tell you how excited I was to discover that several of Dickens’ relations were on Twitter, and how over the moon I was when one of them replied to a tweet I sent her.
Almost as a happy as receiving a tweet from Grip the Raven, who now tweets (caws?) from his home in Philadelphia. Had Dickens himself appeared in the room to shake my hand I couldn’t have been much happier.
What’s more, it’s completely acceptable on Twitter to read someone’s Dickens-related tweet and jump straight into the conversation with a question or opinion, which would be creepy and weird if you did it on the street. Online, however, people will actually take you seriously and reply to you.
Sure, Twitter is haunted by trolls and jerks, but in my two years on Twitter, the circle of Dickens scholars and admirers has been an overwhelmingly nice one.
Performing a web search for “Dickens” might return a thousand pages of hits to websites and blogs that have been neglected for years. But it only takes one link from someone on Twitter to let you know about an event that’s happening in a month, or tomorrow. It only takes one retweet from someone with a lot of followers to suddenly have a minute of fame in Italy.
Why Italy, you may be asking yourself.
The most surreal demonstration of the power of Twitter occurred about a year ago. I had finished my challenge (I missed the one year deadline by eight days, but I’m calling that a win). I had just tweeted about an infographic I’d created and posted, that detailed every character death in Dickens’ works.
Within 24 hours it had been retweeted a whole bunch of times, I’d been informed of several deaths I’d forgotten to include, and someone had written an article about it on the Italian version of The Huffington Post.
With the blog alone I would never have achieved that kind of reach in such a short period of time, and nor, to be honest, would it ever have occurred to me that Italy was a target market for character deaths. Who knew?
The latest example of the conviviality and popularity of Dickens online has to be the communal reading projects.
I don’t know if this happens frequently, but I think it’s fantastic that both Edwin Drood and Our Mutual Friend were being read in cyberspace concurrently. Now, maybe it’s because I’m still angry at Dickens for dying before finishing Drood, but I got caught up in the Our Mutual Friend project in a big way. Here was my chance to slow down and read Dickens at a less than hell-for-leather speed.
Learning that it was to have a parallel Twitter feed was icing on the cake. When I emailed the organizer and asked if I could be assigned one of the characters to tweet as, I was disappointed to learn that all the major and even minor characters had already been taken, but I was glad that the project was so popular that inanimate objects and cameo parts were all that were left, even before the project started. Of course I signed up and I’m having a huge amount of fun sending out tweets, both plot-related and otherwise. I’d tell you who I am, but then I’d have to kill you.
Reading tweets from characters that blend plot points with current events and phrases has been hugely entertaining and reminds me again just how well Dickens’ characters stand the test of time. Rokesmith can be a Victorian man in disguise, but we can also see him as a poor, moody emo kid, skulking around the periphery of the early chapters. Watching characters carry on their conversations beyond the boundaries of the both plot and page brings the work to life and makes it easy to explore nuances that I overlooked when I ripped through it the first time around.
And finally, without Twitter I may never have discovered that this conference existed. I want to thank the organizers for picking perhaps one of the most perfect themes this year for me and providing me with an excellent excuse to revisit London. Dickens’ books and the online community are wonderful demonstrations of conviviality, but it has been the chance to meet fellow enthusiasts that has truly made me feel a part of a larger community. The fact that Charlie has also brought me together with my relatives here, in this very room, is something I’m truly grateful for and that I never expected when I cracked the first volume two years ago.
What I envisioned at the outset to be a daunting and essentially isolated one-year reading project turned into something far, far more exciting and enjoyable.
From discovering that intimidating titles contained a wealth of humour, fascinating historical detail and so many personable characters, to discovering an online community also full of personable characters, my journey has taken me far beyond the pages of the physical volumes I bid on. My self-imposed challenge may have ended, but far from closing the books and walking away, as I had originally thought I would, I can’t wait to see where this convivial journey takes us all next.