Day 1296: The Battle of Life

Cover to Dickens Christmas booksAs has been my tradition for several years, only missing the year I moved to Washington, I am reviewing one of Dickens’s Christmas books for the Christmas season. I only have one left, so I’ll have to think up a new tradition in a couple of years.

The Battle of Life begins with a section about a battle that was fought years before on the site of the main characters’ home. I thought that since Dickens’s Christmas books often involve ghosts, this battle might be the source of a ghost story, but no. Apparently, this section is just an extended and rather laborious metaphor.

In any case, we soon meet the Jeddlers, who are celebrating some important birthdays. It is the birthday of Marian, the younger and more beautiful Jeddler sister, who is provisionally engaged to Alfred Heathfield, Dr. Jeddler’s ward. It is also Alfred’s birthday. This day he will be released from his wardship and travel to the continent to study medicine. In three years, he will return and marry Marian, if they are both so inclined. There is something odd, however, in the way in which Marian bids farewell to her sweetheart, looking at her sister Grace all the while.

Illustration from The Battle of LifeIn the second part, the plot thickens. It is three years later. Alfred is due back, but another player has entered the scene. Michael Warden has ruined himself with his spendthrift ways and meets with his solicitors, Snitchey and Craggs, to discuss how he might save himself. Snitchey and Craggs have already appeared as Alfred and Dr. Jeddler’s solicitors and provide some of the typical Dickens comedy, along with their wives. During this meeting, Warden states his intention of eloping with Marian Jeddler. Could Marian be contemplating an elopement just when Alfred is due home?

This novella about two sisters each of whom is ready to sacrifice her own happiness for the other is a little predictable but makes a touching, if slightly sappy, story. As one of Dickens’s Christmas books, I would rate it below A Christmas Carol but above the others, especially The Chimes. I have one more to read, and next Christmas will show how well I liked it.

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Day 1153: Bleak House

Cover for Bleak HouseBest of Five!
I just love Bleak House. I hadn’t read it for years, so I was happy to pick it up as one of the last books on my first Classics Club list. Note: with this book, I have finally posted my last review for my first Classics Club list. I will soon have my second list posted at the link above.

At first, the novel appears to follow two distinct stories, that of the orphan Esther Summerson and that of the household of Lord and Lady Dedlock, but we find that these stories are entwined. Peopling the novel are countless other unforgettable characters.

Esther has had a sad childhood, but her life begins to improve when an unknown benefactor first takes her education in hand by sending her to school and then employs her to be the companion of Ada Clare. Ada, with her cousin Richard Carstone, is another orphan, and both are parties to the famous lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. As they are wards of the court, a distant cousin, Mr. John Jarndyce, has agreed to be their guardian.

Dickens was famous as a social activist, and one of his targets here is the Courts of Chancery, where wills are proven. Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a famous case in Chancery that has been going on for years and has driven countless possible legatees to ruin. Mr. Jarndyce refuses to deal in this case and hopes to encourage Richard and Ada to leave it alone.

Esther makes a happy home for herself and Richard, Ada, and Mr. Jarndyce at Bleak House, Mr. Jarndyce’s home. But as Richard grows older, he fails to settle to a profession and devotes more and more time to the lawsuit. He is sucked in. And that is more a shame because Ada, whom Esther calls her darling, is in love with Richard.

At the Dedlock’s, a mystery begins that eventually takes up much of the novel. Lady Dedlock is beautiful and stately but deeply bored. However, one day when the Dedlock lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, comes with papers to sign, Lady Dedlock glimpses some handwriting and promptly faints. Lady Dedlock has a secret, and Mr. Tulkinghorn is determined to find it out. Mr. Tulkinghorn is inexorable.

As with any Dickens novel, Bleak House is filled with entertaining characters. There is Mrs. Jellyby, who is so taken up by a charity for Africans that her children are neglected and her house is a disaster. Her unfortunate daughter, Caddy, covered in ink when we first meet her, becomes an important secondary character. One of Mr. Jarndyce’s friends is Harold Skimpole, who professes himself a mere child in worldly ways and proceeds to leech off his friends. There are many other notable characters, but one of the most interesting is the detective, Mr. Bucket. At first he seems rather sinister, but we soon change our minds about him.

Above all, there is Dickens’ style, which carries you along with the story. He makes you laugh, he makes you cry, and as always, he shows sympathy for the unfortunate, especially for children. It is easy to see from Bleak House, which many consider his masterpiece, why he was the most popular writer of his time.

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Day 1048: Hide and Seek

Cover for Hide and SeekHide and Seek is Wilkie Collins’s third novel. It acknowledges inspiration from Charles Dickens and shows his influence in plot and characterization. It is getting closer to the works he is most famous for but is certainly not his best.

The novel begins in the household of Valentine Blyth, an artist. Valentine is a breezy, accepting person with an invalid wife. The one thing he fears to lose is his adopted daughter, Madonna, whose parentage is unknown. He is afraid that someone will come and take her away sometime.

Valentine himself took Madonna from the circus. She had been taken in at birth by Mrs. Peckover, a clown’s wife. Her mother died having her, refusing to speak of her people and leaving behind only a bracelet made from two people’s hair. Madonna later became a deaf/mute after an circus accident, and Valentine saved her from harsh treatment by the circus master.

Valentine has befriended a careless young man named Zach, with whom Madonna is in love. Zach in his turn befriends a rough man named Mat, who has just returned from adventures in the Americas. Here Collins’s geography breaks down a bit, for Mat speaks mostly of adventures in South America and claims to have been scalped in the Amazon, when scalping and some of the other things he mentions are definitely North American. It is through the identity of Mat that the plot thickens.

In this novel, Collins’s characters tend to be one-dimensional, and his plot is often easy to predict. Several times I was ready to quit because I felt the novel dragging. This was probably because, although most of the characters are likable, I wasn’t particularly interested in them. I think Collins is at his best in mystery plots (although this one has its mysteries), and his characterization eventually becomes much richer.

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Day 839: Charles Dickens: A Life

Cover for Charles DickensCharles Dickens: A Life covers some of the same material as The Invisible Woman, Claire Tomalin’s excellent book about Dickens’ affair with Nelly Ternan, but it is broader in scope and provides more information about his life. Of course, The Invisible Woman was in a way ground-breaking, because it brought out into the open a relationship that was concealed for many years. In fact, the Dickens biography by Peter Ackroyd, which came out in 1991, the same year as The Invisible Woman, dismissed the affair as an improbability.

I much preferred this biography to Ackroyd’s. While Ackroyd practically falls all over himself telling us what a genius Dickens was, Tomalin is not afraid to examine the whole person, warts and all. Certainly, Dickens was charming, energetic, lots of fun for his friends, and the possessor of a serious social conscience. He was also one who ruthlessly cut ties to some friends and family, occasionally for trivial reasons; who treated his wife shamefully when he separated from her after 22 years of marriage (insisting, for example, that his children take his side and cut off ties to her); who made a young girl from a financially struggling family his mistress when he was more than twice her age. I feel that his fame was not good for him—that it gave him an inflated sense of his own importance and made him think he was infallible. Of course, he was probably the most famous person of his time. We have no modern equivalent.

Those interested in Dickens’ life and works will enjoy this biography. Dickens’ story is unique. He certainly had a difficult early life and worked hard for his success. He also started out as a much nicer person than the man he became, so during most of the book he is very likable. In fact, it’s easy to see why he was so loved by most of his friends and family. He was one of those charming people who are loved whether they deserve it or not. And in many ways, he did deserve it.

The book is extremely well written and very well researched, with more than 100 pages of notes and bibliography. Although more than 400 pages long (not counting the back matter), it moves along nicely and is entertaining. There are three insets of pictures and photos to illustrate the discussion along with a few interspersed drawings.

Just a small comment on my recurring theme of the quality of publishing. My copy of the book was bound upside down. Yes, the cover is on upside down, which I found rather disconcerting as I was always picking it up to read upside down. Unfortunately, I had it too long before opening it to return it for another copy.

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Day 825: The Cricket on the Hearth

Cover for The Cricket on the HearthA year ago I reviewed two of Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories at Christmas time, and since I have a book containing all of them, I thought I’d continue the tradition.

We first meet the Peerybingles in their home, made cheerful by a bustling wife and a cricket on the hearth. John Peerybingle is an honest carter, quite a few years older than his wife. They have a baby and a clumsy maid named Miss Slowboy.

The plot is simple. It is the eve of the marriage of Mr. Tackleton to a much younger bride, May. He comes to invite the Peerybingles to the wedding as an example of a happy May-December union. But the wedding is set for the couple’s anniversary, and they have plans to spend it alone. Still, they include May in a visit to the house of their friend Caleb Plummer and his blind daughter Bertha. An unexpected visitor is with them—a deaf old man who accepted a ride in John’s cart but seems to have nowhere to go.

Mr. Tackleton is not a nice man. He’s been a grasping employer and landlord to Caleb, and it is clear that May is reluctant to marry him. At a point in the evening, Mr. Tackleton takes John aside and shows him something that makes him think his wife has deceived him.

This story is not one of Dickens’ best. Its pleasures are in its scenes of idealized domestic happiness in the Peerybingle home. But since we can’t reconcile our first glimpses of the Peerybingles with any such betrayal as alleged, we’re not in much doubt that everything will turn out to be a misunderstanding. Most of the characters are mere sketches, the only ones even slightly developed are the Peerybingles and Caleb and Bertha Plummer.

Since I recently read Dickens’ biography, though, I was interested in his little fantasy about marriage, particularly it being between two people so disparate in age, years before his affair with Nelly Ternan but only a few years after his wife’s younger sister, Georgina, moved in to live with them.

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Day 631: Two Christmas Novels by Dickens

Cover for A Christmas CarolIn the spirit of the season, I thought I’d take a look at a collection I have of Charles Dickens Christmas books. As you may know, Dickens wrote a short Christmas book every year for years. A Christmas Carol was the first one, and it did much to revive Dickens’ career, which was flagging after Martin Chuzzlewit. My book contains the Christmas stories in order, and this Christmas I have read the first two.

Dickens is closely associated with Christmas. He didn’t invent our current traditions, but through his glimpses of how happy families celebrated it, some traditions were probably set and promulgated.

The introduction to this collection admits that A Christmas Carol is the best of the Christmas books, which is probably why it is most well known and adapted. Still, it has been a long time since I read it, and I found it interesting to compare it with the screen renditions, with which I am more familiar. (In my opinion, the best one because of its atmosphere is the 1951 version with Alistair Sim—but only in black and white, mind.) What stood out the most is that in one of the movies, Scrooge actually fires Bob Cratchit, a cruel joke even if only momentary, but he does not in the book. The movies also seem to put more or less of Scrooge’s nephew Fred in them, depending.

Of course, A Christmas Carol is the story of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who has grown so obsessed with the accumulation of wealth that he has given up all pleasure and human companionship, and even worse, from Dickens’ point of view, all charity. Through the intercession of his dead partner Jacob Marley and the visits of three ghosts, he gets a second chance to be a better person.

chimesI haven’t read any of the others before, but I found The Chimes to be a similar story. Trotty Veck is a poor porter. He lives nearby a church that has a set of bells considered to be haunted. But Trotty likes the bells and in his simple way is always praising them.

One day an overbearing alderman makes some comments to Richard, who is the fiancé of Trotty’s beloved daughter Margaret, about how foolish he is as a young man to be getting married. Richard and Margaret are to be married New Years’ Day, and when Trotty sees Margaret in tears later, he thinks the alderman’s comments have caused Richard to break it off. This and other encounters cause Trotty to have doubts about the goodness of humankind. Later, the bells lure Trotty up to the bell tower and teach him a lesson.

The lesson of this story is much more garbled than that of A Christmas Carol. Since Trotty’s thinking processes are a bit murky at times, I wasn’t even sure exactly how Trotty supposedly transgressed the bells. Still, Dickens always manages to bring a tear to your eyes when he tries.


Day 617: Charles Dickens

Cover for Charles DickensReading this biography of Charles Dickens was very interesting to me after reading The Invisible Woman, about Dickens’ long illicit affair with Nelly Ternan. I have read biographies of Dickens before, but these two were the first I read that were forthright about some of Dickens’ inconsistencies and hypocrisies.

Renowned British actor Simon Callow puts a different spin on this book by examining Dickens’ love of and relationship to the theatre and his audience. Dickens adored the theatre and made quite a few forays into amateur theatrical productions, some of them quite large in scope, before settling on dramatic readings of his novels that were hugely successful.

It was of course during one of these productions, performances of a play he wrote with Wilkie Collins, where Dickens met Ellen Ternan, the young actress who became the focus of his mid-life crisis, which eventually ruined his marriage. She was brought in to replace Dickens’ daughter when a public performance made it improper for a young lady to appear.

This book is written in vivid and humorous style. It is entertaining and provides a view of Dickens’ career from the point of view of a theatrical background. Callow has himself played Charles Dickens more than once, most notably in a one-man performance, and is the author of nine books on theatre.

P. S. This book is sometimes titled Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World.

Day 567: Jack Maggs

Cover for Jack MaggsBest Book of the Week!
Jack Maggs belongs in a growing genre of fiction that reinterprets a classic novel. In this case, the novel works in two ways: as another look at Great Expectations from the point of view of a different character and as a loose work of metafiction.

Jack Maggs is a convict illegally returned from Australia when he arrives at the door of a gentleman named Henry Phipps, only to find no one at home. The maid from a neighboring house, Mercy Larkin, thinks he has come to the wrong house as an applicant for a footman position in her own. Maggs decides to take the position so that he can watch the neighboring house for Phipps’ return.

Maggs’ employer is Percy Buckle, once a grocer, who inherited some money and fancies himself a patron of the arts. That night Buckle entertains at dinner a famous author, Tobias Oates, who dabbles in mesmerism. During dinner, Maggs is attacked by a horrible pain in his face, which makes him collapse. Oates hypnotizes him in an attempt to cure him but also gets him to tell some of his secrets.

Soon the two are locked in a struggle. Oates has mentioned knowing of a thief-taker, whom Maggs wants to employ to find Phipps. Oates only agrees to give him the name in exchange for two weeks of allowing him to mesmerize Maggs. Oates, who has realized quickly that Maggs is a fugitive, wants to learn about the criminal mind for an upcoming book. But Maggs becomes dangerous when he learns Oates has found out his secrets.

This tale is really gripping and ultimately suspenseful. It is also very Dickensian in nature—in its storytelling, its empathy for the poor, its dark London atmosphere, its character names, and its rather convoluted but satisfying plot. Our sympathy is all for Maggs, who has built up in his mind a fantasy about Phipps, whom he educated and made a gentleman, and who he does not realize is hiding from him in dread.

Oates is meant to be Dickens himself, and he is depicted less sympathetically. He misuses Maggs in service of his writing, but he is not much more responsible toward members of his own family.

Although Carey won a Booker prize for Oscar and Lucinda, I think Jack Maggs is much more powerful.

Day 550: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan

Cover for The Invisible WomanThe Invisible Woman is the interesting story of the relationship between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, the true nature of which is still being debated. Although Dickens’ reputation was jealously guarded by himself during his life and by his friends and family after his death, Claire Tomalin shows convincing evidence that the two had an affair during the last 13 years of his life.

They met when Nelly was just 18 and he was at the height of his fame at 45. She and her mother and two sisters were struggling, hard working but respectable actresses, or as respectable as actresses could be during the Victorian era. It is possible that Dickens at first thought he had latched onto a bird of a different feather as he befriended the family.

Although Nelly was excited by the attention of such a famous man, it seems clear that she succumbed to him only reluctantly. He offered her a chance at a life free from the worries of poverty but one in which she could not be a member of society.

This is a fascinating story, particularly because of the lengths Dickens went to protect his own image even while shedding his wife Catherine in a cruelly public way and telling lies about it. The actions of his sister-in-law at this time toward her own sister seem almost inexplicable. Also interesting is how Nelly managed to reinvent herself after Dickens’ death.

This book is an engrossing, well written, carefully researched account of events in Dickens’ life that were hidden for years. Only a few years ago I read another biography of Dickens that glossed over this friendship, alternately suggesting that it was perfectly innocent and that Nelly was a gold digger while never actually committing itself about the nature of the relationship. Although there were rumors even at the time of the affair, the cover-up was so pervasive that details are still being uncovered.

Day 528: A Tale of Two Cities

Cover for A Tale of Two CitiesIt has been a long time since I read A Tale of Two Cities, and I did not remember anything except its broadest outlines. The novel is unusual for Dickens in two respects. It is his only historical novel, and it is probably the grimmest. Although he handles some weighty subjects in other novels—the poor laws, the civil justice system, mistreatment of children, abusive schools—this novel about the French revolution shows little of his celebrated sense of humor.

The novel centers around a much smaller cast of characters than usual for Dickens. It begins with Dr. Alexandre Manette, long a resident in a French prison for reasons we do not learn until the end of the novel. When the book begins, he is free but severely disturbed from trauma. His daughter Lucie travels with his banker Jarvis Lorry from England to bring him back to London.

Five years later, he is living contentedly with his daughter in England. Their friend French émigré Charles Darnay is tried for treason on bogus charges, but he is released when his defense proves that the principal witness cannot tell him apart from Sidney Carton, a barrister. These characters will soon become well acquainted.

When the novel returns to France, it shows us the extreme poverty of the poor as well as grim depictions of their mistreatment by aristocrats. Darnay returns to France to meet his uncle, the Marquis St. Evrémonde, and renounce his inheritance. St. Evrémonde’s careless slaughter of a young child when he runs over him in his carriage and his disdainful treatment of his nephew are all we see of him before his murder.

Secretly, a revolutionary society is growing and taking note of atrocities such as those committed by Evrémonde. Wine shop owners Monsieur and Madame Defarge are involved, and at first we have sympathy with their cause.

Charles Darnay marries Lucie Manette in London, but Sidney Carton has fallen in love with her as well. Although he considers himself unworthy of her, he pledges to do anything he can for her or for anyone she loves.

Meanwhile, France falls into revolution and brutal chaos. It becomes a place where revenge is more important than justice.

The fates of the main characters reach a climax when Charles returns to Paris to help an old retainer and is denounced by the revolution. Although he has committed no crime, his relationship to St. Evrémonde puts him in peril. Dr. Manette’s sanity is also threatened when he, Lucie, and Jarvis Lorry travel to Paris to try to help Charles.

The novel is a little more melodramatic than I prefer, unleavened as it is by Dickens’ usual antics. Only a couple of major characters provide momentary relief, and Madame Defarge is like a heavy dark cloud hovering over everything. The novel is also a bit disjointed through moving back and forth between the two cities. Still, Dickens always manages to bring tears to my eyes.