Guest Author - Siobhain M Cullen
We may picture the famous Victorian novelist Charles Dickens with grey hair, spectacles and a suitably distinguished, if stuffy, look. But in his early short stories (such as Mr Horatio Sparkins,) Charles Dickens shows that, like all citizens, he too was young once, and like many contrary young people of today - he too had a rebellious know-all streak. His writings from this early period, including those in Sketches by Boz, display all the cavalier and sceptical qualities of youth - adding a freshness to his writing which many readers of his later works may miss.
Other qualities evident in the young, such as youthful exuberance and even a little cheekiness, add not only freshness to the story of Mr Horatio Sparkins, but also humor - both the descriptions of nouveau-riche social snobbery and the precise character observations make the short story very funny! - and a delight to those of us who ever been at the receiving end of a particularly nasty and uncalled-for social put-down!
London's history is also brought to life as the nouveau-riche eligible residents of Camberwell, Wandsworth and Brixton (genteel towns near London at that time) populate the story and give us a snapshot of London in that period. Dickens after all was a prolific writer whose career spanned the whole Victorian era - therefore it is important to remember that the London he knew as a teenager was very different from the one he knew as a distinguished senior.
So - the early Victorian family in question lived a very different lifestyle to that of the late Victorians - a social calendar of balls, card games, assembly rooms lit by candles and trips out, not by train but by stage coach or horse and carriage! Mr Frederick Malderton, the head of the house in question, even had free admission to Covent Garden theatre.
Charles Dickens paints a picture of these particular Londoners as being 'elevated to an extraordinary pitch as their means increased; they affected fashion,taste, and many other fooleries, in imitation of their betters, and had a very decided and becoming horror of anything which could, by possibility, be considered, 'low.' Although not specifically narrating his own opinions of such people, Dickens leaves us in no doubt as to the ones he holds!
The young Charles pictures the social-climbers gossiping about a mysterious new arrival on their society circuit - a certain Mr Horatio Sparkins. The young Charles Dickens had 'seen it all' by the time he was twenty three (family fall from society, debtors prison, working in a stove-blacking factory) and has little time for the family's ambition to seize the acquaintance of this new personage in hopes it may elevate their social standing - they are name-droppers extrordinaire! But the mischievous young Dickens has their come-uppance in mind especially that of the unmarried daughters who have an eye to the newcomers financial set-up.
Here he reveals the somewhat cruel streak of lightning insight so evident in the young, describing the girls' image of a suitable marriage match 'the thought was transport.' The unsubtle manner of his remarks belie his youthful character - one perhaps that had not yet learnt to watch its tongue for fear of a lack of diplomacy.
Charles Dickens evidently had a sharp tongue and seemed not averse to using it for comical and literary effect - no-one in the Malderton family escapes it.
Neither did he he baulk at making the wry observations of girls that even today's teens are wont to make - except Dickens' critcisms came in the form of personal non PC remarks that many of us would shy away from today.
Miss Teresa Malderton is thus 'rather fat' and 'as well known as the lion on top of Northumberland House' having the same chance of marriage as it had! The acidic criticisms continue as both girls are described in terms of 'simpering' and 'murmuring' and their mother as 'a fat little woman.'
The male family members fare no better. Mr Malderton is only 'hospitable from ostentation' and only 'convenience and a love of the good things of life earned him plenty of guests.' His son, Mr Frederick Malderton (all kitted out in his very best attire in order to impress the noble Mr Horatio Sparkins) looks like a waiter!
Some readers more familiar with Dickens later works may be a little surprised and even a little disappointed, at the bluntness of his early writing, but others will relish the satire as a more accurate record of the young Dickens' private opinions of early Victorian middle-class society.
In any case, the young Mr Horatio Sparkins is not all he seems and the Maldertons are to get their 'just desserts.'