Good reads about Victorian England, and the seedy underworld of the time do not come much more authentic than Dickens' ‘Sketches by Boz.’
This is not the first story collection title that springs to mind when thinking of the writings of famous English classic author Charles Dickens. Many readers may even be unaware that the quintessential English writer who was responsible for classics such as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, had written short stories. Yet Charles Dickens followed the same pattern as many other wannabe authors – he wrote short stories and sketches first – and in them we find the flashes of observational brilliance and the sharp, witty portrayals of humanity that would become hallmarks of his writing.
Another hallmark of Dickens’ writing was his ability to bring the Victorian backdrop against which he lived vividly to life. For London history fans, for example, his first sketches, written under the byline of Boz (how very modern-sounding – almost like a graffiti tag!) offer mini shots of Victorian street life – almost like moments caught for ever on camera. Some of these early ‘sketches’ of people seem to be harbingers of his later fully developed ‘larger than life characters’ such as Uriah Heep and Mr Micawber.
Opinions differ on the literary merit of Sketches by Boz. Dickens devotees such as George Gissing applauded them for their ‘true to life’ depiction and strokes of observational genius but other sources including G K Chesterton (whose article is featured on dickens-literature.com) cite their inexperienced tone and the coarseness of their ‘boy reporter’ style as faults stating.....
....’ there was some potential clumsiness and silliness in Dickens; and what there is of it appears here and there in the admirable Sketches by Boz.’
However, Dickens’ youth at the time of writing can be taken into account – for it displayed all the ‘know it all’ cockiness of today’s twenty-somethings – a confidence displayed until life’s hard knocks bring them down to earth.
Not that Dickens was a hot house flower cosseted in gentility. The son of a lately demoted Victorian gentleman-turned-debtor, he had already experienced his fair share of the gritty realities of surviving in the lower reaches of Marshalsea’s ‘dark satanic mill’ manufacturing quarter. A hard knock indeed for a boy raised in the relative calm comfort of faded gentility.G K Chesterton relates how the boy was wrested from the luxury of a passable education one minute, to be cast down into the slavish dirty working conditions of a stove-blacking factory the next.
No wonder G K Chesterton and others sensed an air of cynicism and derision in the Sketches by Boz written by Dickens shortly after dragging himself up by the bootlaces, through the ranks of bureaucratic anonymous little legal clerks to the slightly higher echelons of the questionable journalism profession – following in the footsteps of a father lately escaped from the clutches of the debtors prison.In many ways, it seems the child had become old before his time and was able to look at the lives of the growing middle-class with the supercilious air of one who has already ‘been there, done that.’
George Gissing on the other hand saw a different light shining through Dickens’ sketches. An internet search soon brings up his ‘The Immortal Dickens’ (on www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp) where he enthuses.......
‘If one asks (as well one may) how it came to pass that an uneducated man produced at the age of three-and-twenty a book so original in subject and treatment, so wonderfully true in observation, and on the whole so well written as Sketches by Boz, there is of course but one answer: the man had genius.’
And what of this editor’s book recommendation? Well, sometimes an author’s early works can be educative, enabling fans to chart the meteorite progress and development of a great author’s style and success from the very beginning, and plot experiments, successes and failures along the way to the denouement of the accomplished masterpieces of maturity – a worthy literary lesson indeed.
As for readability, and interest, this editor enjoyed the collection heartily and robustly recommends it to avid readers who enjoy the classic English style, and also to those with a penchant for Victorian history, vintage music-hall humor or even London-related genealogy.
It includes characters for laughter and entertainment as fresh as the day Dickens recorded them: (The Beadle, The Schoolmaster, The (heartthrob) Curate, The Spinster, The Sea Captain, The Brokers Men, Ladies and Neighbours, criminals, convicts, drunkards, patients, milliners, dancers and lodgers.
Also presented for our delectation are Victorian scenes including Greenwich Fair, Parliament, River Thames, London theatres, omnibuses, gin shops, pawnbrokers and a steamboat excursion. Victorian events such as Christmas Dinners, New Year and Christenings are preserved too.
Stories to charm and intrigue include Horatio Sparkins, The Tuggses at Ramsgate and The Black Veil. All London life is here in the ‘cut and thrust’ atmosphere that Dickens had to survive in himself as a boy – Sketches by Boz will let the reader live it with him. This reader is so glad to have explored it!.