Skip to main content

More Mr. Boz


As I finish up Little Dorrit (ravenously – it is very good), I think of two other books:

The first is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford when the august and proper Miss Jenkyns discusses literature with the gregarious but gauche newcomer Captain Brown. Miss Jenkyns, a devotee of Dr. (Samuel) Johnson, is horrified when she discovers Captain Brown has a mania for Dickens (“Mr. Boz”). When Capt. Brown asks her if she thinks the Pickwick Papers are “famously good,” she replies acerbically that the writer is a young writer and if he “persevere…who knows what he may become if he will take the great Doctor for his model.” Capt. Brown feels the sting and reads her a few lines from Dickens, whereupon Miss Jenkyns sends someone to fetch a few lines of Johnson which she reads and pronounces “I imagine I am now justified in my preference for Dr. Johnson, as a writer of fiction,” sending Capt. Brown harrumphing.

Dickens is shown, as a contemporary of Gaskell, to appeal to the popular but not high and conservative taste. Capt. Brown’s taste for Dickens leads to his doom, but Miss Jenkyns’s quiet justification is undermined by a young relation who hides her own copy of Dickens to devour voraciously by late night candle.

The second is Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust in a sudden and eerie plot twist, when poor Tony Last is trapped in the Amazon by an illiterate devotee of Dickens who saves Tony’s life, only to keep him a prisoner by making him read all of Dickens aloud. Though this is pleasant at first, Tony soon grows tired of it and then suspects that he might never be allowed to escape. Tony begs for the means and information to return to civilization, but is answered with polite evasion and “Let us read Little Dorrit again. There are passages in that book I can never hear without the temptation to weep.”

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Private Life of the Diary

I’ve kept a diary since I was twelve. While I composed nearly illegible autobiographical scratchings in my first years of primary school at my teachers’ request, it wasn’t until I was on the brink of becoming a teenager that I felt I needed a more permanent arrangement. I suspect it had to do with reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My diary’s function has changed over the years – it once had a name (having discovered that Zoe was the Greek word for life, I thought my choice extremely clever), and I used to like my diaries in a variety of shapes and sizes, spangled with glitter, ruled with wide lines, shackled with locks and keys. For at least eight years my diary was the space in which to vent my feelings, and offered some form of therapeutic comfort. This meant it was largely about boys and is, as a result, very tedious to reread. But while the function of my journal has changed, each volume has been a solution to the manic desire to scribble. As I discovered reading Anne Frank, each e…

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo t…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…