Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

“I won't be a slave to the past. I'll love where I choose.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

I long to visit England…  to one day have the chance to travel through Wessex…  to wander the sweet smelling farm where Bathsheba Everdene walked with Gabriel Oak among the pastures and flocks, where Tess Durbeyfield lived her early simple cottage life and the town of Casterbridge, where a mayor’s past catches up with him….

The problem is… there is actually no such place.  
A fictitious area that featured as a setting in all of Hardy’s major novels, Wessex was named after the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom that historically did exist in southwest England prior to the Norman Conquest and it was the area that Hardy himself called home. Using this imagined world gave Hardy a feeling of freedom that enabled him to  translate his social concerns into his fictional works  - whether it related to class inequality issues, the ruination of many rural communities by new industry and technologies or the troubling gender issues that affected all levels of Hardy’s world.

“Happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Six of Hardy’s Wessex novels were an achievement of great British literature - Far From The Madding Crowd (1874), The Return Of The Native (1878), The Mayor Of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess Of The d’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude The Obscure (1895). 

These Wessex novels are outstanding works that continue to give us a wealth of unforgettable characters - with one of the strongest and most conflicted being Michael Henchard. We follow this memorable character in our next read for The Jane Austen Tea Society  -  The Mayor Of Casterbridge.

“It was part of his nature to extenuate nothing and live on as one of his own worst accusers.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

This masterful novel first appeared in a serial form concurrently in Graphic Magazine in England  and Harper’s Weekly in the US from January to May of 1886 and was then published in two volumes in book form the same year. Thomas Hardy’s tenth published novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge related a story that Hardy himself described as having taken place “before the 19th century had reached one-third of its span” yet there are many strong Gothic elements that surface during the storyline lending a dark and ominous edge that subtly influences our perceptions.

“Life is an oasis which is submerged in the swirling waves of sorrows and agonies.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Set in a place based on the real-life town Dorchester in Dorset  - it is recognizable enough by description in the book that a well-versed guide of today can show you where all of the major events occurred. Hardy did not attempt at all to hide that fact that it was set in the town where he lived and it was possible that his current day readers knew each house that was described and everything down to roads and farms that were set out in the smallest detail.

As the original title - The Life And Death Of The Mayor Of Casterbridge: A Story Of A Man Of Character - implies, this work is a careful study of character and the effect of a person’s actions against each person close to him.  It is a story of the fatal impact possible in our choices and the wayward direction of heart.  This work is a carefully structured novel - possibly the most minutely structured of any Hardy book.  His characters were not idealized as many authors did during his time period - they were real flesh and blood people with faults and passions.  Critics weren’t always appreciative of where Hardy took his characters, but they approved of the masterpiece that Mayor of Casterbridge proved itself to be.

“Though when at home their countenances varied with the seasons, their market faces all the year round were glowing little fires.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Author Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840 in a small hamlet called Higher Bockhampton which is located in the southwestern English county of Dorset. His childhood was filled with a wealth of the deep influences of culture and locale. From their two-story brick and thatch cottage, Thomas Hardy naturally absorbed a love for literature from his mother, who although she had only served as a maidservant and cook, loved to read Latin poets and translated French romances.  Hardy had a deep love of poetry and even as a renowned author of novels, primarily thought of himself as a poet.

His father, a self-employed master mason and building contractor, had descended from an old Dorset family tracing back to the Isle of Jersey in the1400s and was an avid violin player who passed along his love of music to young Hardy.

Thomas Hardy’s childhood very much revolved around literature, music, the local church and life in a rustic rural setting – all of which translated into the body of work that the author became renowned for and for which he was much loved by his devoted readers.

"Some folks want their luck buttered.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

In my own life, when I was finally able to put aside the college textbooks and night times taken up with study and homework after graduation, I set out on a personal journey to read through the classics… Now that my reading choices were my own I delved into Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and with a particular relish… Thomas Hardy.

I didn’t lose my heart to Hardy the way I did to John Keats but the writing style of Thomas Hardy totally captured my mind. His word-crafting is sublime and the wise reader will keep a dictionary handy if your love of words is equal to your love of story.

Our next book discussion will take place near the end of July here in Nashville. There is plenty of time to walk the vivid & atmospheric path that this book offers. Don’t pass this Thomas Hardy masterpiece by and miss the experience!

“She had been too early habituated to anxious reasoning to drop the habit suddenly.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice - Opening sentence of novel, Chapter 1.

There are few classic novels that have had quite the far-reaching impact that Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice has had, and it continues to be a favorite read for every succeeding generation - remaining among the top books included on almost every “Best Loved” and “Books You Should Have Read” list.

Why the continuing popularity?  And more importantly - why exactly do we all love Mr. Darcy?

My good opinion once lost, is lost forever.
Pride and Prejudice - Darcy, Chapter 11.

What other male character in classic literature has had the romantic impact of Mr. Darcy, has been compared to more heroes and, frankly has been found more lacking in our initial perception of him.  He has remained an icon of devotion and love, despite his haughty and inauspicious beginning in the story.

She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.
Pride and Prejudice - Mr. Darcy to Mr. Bingley about Elizabeth Bennet, Chapter 3.

We are never given any very clear description of Mr. Darcy, other than - tall, handsome features, noble mien, clever, haughty, reserved, fastidious…  But we are given Elizabeth’s close observations and brief glimpses into his heart through the events in the novel that show his developing devotion toward her.  

Is that what pulls us in and makes us love his character?  That his rigid reserve melts?  That it is her character and personality that changes him?

The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.
Pride and Prejudice - Other characters' reaction to Mr. Darcy, Chapter 3.

It isn’t just Elizabeth’s perception of Darcy that changes as the storyline progresses. Our own understanding of him becomes deeper and more appreciative.  Throughout the novel we learn that the people closest to Darcy - Bingley, Georgiana, his housekeeper - all have the utmost respect for his loyalty, kindness, generosity and affection.  The stable and worthy characters of the book all value Darcy.  Elizabeth’s journey through her first year of knowing Mr. Darcy reveals the same thing in the end.  His proves to be the heart that is worth knowing long and knowing well.

There are so many memorable characters in Pride And Prejudice - ones that stay with you long after you finish reading and that we love to revisit with each rereading.  Elizabeth Bennet is one of these and has proven to be one of the best known and well-beloved characters in literature.  

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.
Pride and Prejudice - Chapter 10.

Elizabeth’s father described her as being more quick to understand than her sisters. Her mother described her as half as handsome as her older sister and half as good humored as her youngest. But Darcy’s blossoming impression of her draws more fine detail - a face rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes and a figure that was “light and pleasing”. Her manners were “not those of the fashionable world” but nonetheless he was drawn by her “easy playfulness”

Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley's attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. Of this she was perfectly unaware; to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable nowhere, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with.
Pride and Prejudice - Chapter 6.

Elizabeth’s innate sweetness & cheerful personality make us to want to be her friend.  Although, perhaps a bit too quick to jump to the occasional conclusion, she is steadfast in her desire to be fair and just and her deep-rooted sense of loyalty draws us to trust her.  This trust leads the first time reader of Pride And Prejudice into the same pitfalls and weaknesses that Elizabeth experiences in assessing the character and heart of such characters as Darcy and Wickham.

Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends — whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain.
Pride and Prejudice - Darcy, Chapter 18.

One of the sweeter sides to Elizabeth’s character & personality  besides her appealing playfulness is her relationship with her sisters - especially her older sister, Jane.  Anyone who has the great treasure of a beloved sister immediately feels a kinship with Jane Austen, who understood the close relationship that can exist between sisters… that mighty link of DNA and a shared history… the fact that you can’t remember what it’s like to have ever been without that person. Elinor and Marianne… Jane and Elizabeth…  how different from each other and yet similar in devotion to each other. 

According to most timelines that you find for Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, the novel begins in September of 1811 (Mr. Bingley agreed to take possession of Netherfield before Michaelmas or before September 29th) and ends in October of 1812 - a time period just over one year.

When you ponder over such a timeline, it’s amazing to realize that the many vital events of the novel play out within such a short time period. The carefully crafted storyline that takes us from Darcy’s initial indifference to Elizabeth to his desperate proposal in Hunsford, spans only six event-packed months.  Through the framework of a single year -  and the events that lead to the book’s conclusion -  Jane Austen was able to unfold a masterpiece of intricate pacing.

I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.
Pride and Prejudice - Elizabeth about Darcy, Chapter 5.

It is indeed a striking feature of our current read, Pride And Prejudice, that this single year of profound self-discovery and life-defining events for a young twenty-year old in Regency England continues to be relatable to readers across many cultures.

I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.
Pride and Prejudice - Darcy to Elizabeth who asked him to to account for having fallen in love with her, Chapter 60.

Jane Austen originally started Pride And Prejudice in 1796 when she was staying with her brother Edward and his wife at Goodnestone Park in Kent and she continued its development through August 1797. It is believed to have first been an epistolary novel, although none of the original manuscript remains to confirm that fact. Before her novel was given the title, Pride And Prejudice, Jane Austen called her work First Impressions, and in truth it was an accurate reflection of the major storylines driving the plot.

The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.
Pride and Prejudice - Elizabeth, Chapter 24.

After revisions in the work were made by Jane Austen between 1811 and 1812, the title was changed to Pride And Prejudice and she sold the copyright for this work to Thomas Egerton from the Military Library, Whitehall for a one-off payment of £110. It was published when Jane Austen was 38 years old and - just as with Sense And Sensibility - did not give authorship to her own name.  Sense And Sensibility was released with the designation “By A Lady” but Pride And Prejudice simply bore the words - “By the Author of Sense And Sensibility”.

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.
Pride and Prejudice - Miss Bingley, Chapter 11.

We continue with our beloved Jane Austen with our Spring Book Lunch choice of Pride And Prejudice. Take some time to ponder why the “Darcy Appeal” continues strong through 200 years of readers. We will be discussing this book over a sweet & savory potluck brunch on Saturday, April 21st, 2018.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Sense And Sensibility by Jane Austen

Elinor was to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs.
Sense and Sensibility - Chapter 37.

When I read Jane Austen’s first published novel Sense And Sensibility - written with her ever carefully-crafted style - it brings many emotions, thoughts and remembrances to mind. It is a common occurrence when reading Jane Austen.  If you are listening closely and reading with careful attention, there are numerous moments that we almost all can identify with… that are familiar even in our day and time.

To name a few: 

  • Beloved sisters who are our friends and confidantes
  • Beloved sisters who distinctly differ from each other but learn through life how to value those differences
  • The loss of a dear parent and the subsequent walk through grief
  • The loss of a home that we knew and loved
  • First love and the joy that can follow
  • First love and the heartache that can follow
  • Learning to control our emotions
  • Learning to control our actions
  • Finding the true value of a strong and Godly character in someone we love
  • Finding the true value of accepting that lack of Godly character will never bring real joy in love

At various stages of my life I have identified more with Elinor and at other times - when lost in youthful dreams and emotions - I have felt myself more like Marianne.  And I have grown in my appreciation of Colonel Brandon over the years. He is criticized for not being “romantic” but his deeply loving heart and strength of integrity leave Willoughby (and in a slight degree Edward) in the dust. To be honest, however, my appreciation of Colonel Brandon became its most sincere after watching Alan Rickman’s sensitive & endearing representation of the role in the 1995 production of the screenplay written by Emma Thompson.  Colonel Brandon is not a character to take for granted as you are reading… he is a reminder of calm good men in the world.

“Colonel Brandon . . . was silent and grave. His appearance however was not unpleasing, in spite of his being in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five and thirty; but though his face was not handsome, his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike.”
Sense And Sensibility - Chapter 7.

Jane Austen began writing what would later become Sense And Sensibility in 1795 when she was 19 years old - originally crafting her work in the style of a novel-in-letters with the title Elinor And Marianne.  She later changed the novel’s style to that of a narrative and by giving it the title - Sense And  Sensibility - highlighted what would grow into a story of the differences between two devoted sisters and how their different approaches to life and love affected the course of their lives.

Thomas Egerton of the Military Library publishing house in London published Sense And Sensibility in three volumes in 1811. Jane Austen actually paid to have the book published and also paid Military Library publishing house a commission on the sales.  It was a severe stretch for the Austen annual household income, but a profit was realized when the first edition had sold all of the original 750 copies by 1813 when the second edition was issued.

Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire in England to a rector father from an old and well-respected family of wool merchants who had fallen into poverty and a mother from the prominent and highly-connected Leigh family. George Austen received a modest income from the living to the Steventon parish and depended on assistance and support from relatives along with farming and the tutoring of young boys who boarded in the Austen household. 

Although money was ever an issue, the Austen household was filled with intellectual conversation, amused considerations of social and political interests and easy debate. Their home was frequented with visits from friends and family with news of travels, fashionable life in London and Bath - all of which Jane digested and which ultimately found their way into her works.

On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse.
Sense and Sensibility - Chapter 6.

In the midst of a very affectionate family, Jane and her sister Cassandra in particular had a deep and devoted relationship and hated to be apart. Other than a few relatively short stays at boarding schools, they were primarily educated by reading at home with some guidance from their father and older brothers.  Her father always gave her unrestricted access to the library and provided both Jane and her sister with drawing materials and paper for writing.

Jane loved to write and experimented with different “voices” and mediums.  She filled bound notebooks with parodies of current historical writing or the wildly romantic fiction of the day (which she disliked).  She wrote poems, short stories, comedic plays and began trying the drafting of novels - all of which is now referred to as her Juvenilia.

It wasn’t until her 30s that Austen began to anonymously publish her works.  She, her mother and her sisters had settled with her brother Edward in the village of Chawton within his Hampshire estate and Jane Austen began her most serious period of readying some existing manuscripts for publication.  She published four well-received novels during her time there.

She was stronger alone; and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as, with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be.
Sense and Sensibility - Describing Elinor, Chapter 23.

Most published writers of her day were men but Jane Austen brought a new voice to her literature of the day.  She presented the everyday and the ordinary life of a woman of her station in Britain.  She didn’t delve into the political or fill her works with the crimes or wars that were a part of her day and time, but wrote about the simple plight of the single female in a world that left her materially dependent on others.

It is the lasting greatness of Jane Austen’s works that - regardless of the century, continent or person - we can each find ourselves in her carefully constructed characters.  We have all most likely had our Willoughbys - but if we are very blessed, we sometimes find our Edwards or our Colonel Brandons to be our companions.

He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart.
Sense and Sensibility - About Edward Ferrars, Chapter 3.

We don’t know as much as we would like about Jane Austen - her life, her thoughts, her loves.…  Her sister, Cassandra was a fierce protector of Jane, and is thought to have destroyed over two thirds of Austen’s letters before her own death, leaving only about 160 letters for our study - none of which were written before Jane turned 20.  Some of the redacted letters that remained even had sections cut out and ultimately revealed extremely little about what she thought about her family, her friends, politics and religion.  

It is possible, however to hear Jane Austen’s heart in her published works and not only that, but her satirical nudges at society, her burden of monetary dependence on others and her appreciation of honor and kindness.  She was a ground-breaking writer for her time - yet before she died, none of her works were published in her name.

Sense will always have attractions for me.
Sense and Sensibility - Elinor, Chapter 10.

Jane Austen died at 41 years old is buried in Winchester Cathedral with the inscription:

In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER.

There is nothing in this original inscription that celebrates her lasting contribution as a profoundly important writer, but simply honors her wealth of value as a beloved daughter, sister and friend.

As we revisit our beloved Jane Austen in our Winter Book Lunch choice of Sense And Sensibility - you might ponder the many ways you see yourself in these finely-drawn characters. Are you Elinor?  Are you Marianne?  Are you Willoughby?  We will be discussing this book over a sweet & savory potluck brunch on Saturday, January 27th, 2018.

She felt the loss of Willoughby's character yet more heavily than she had felt the loss of his heart.
Sense and Sensibility - Marianne, Chapter 32.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Dickens Detour - The Old Curiosity Shop

It is no small thing, when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.
― Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock

The Old Curiosity Shop, the fourth published novel by Charles Dickens was first released in serial form from April 1840 until January 1841 and then all together in a book format in 1841 by Chapman & Hall of London.

It first appeared in the weekly publication, Master Humphrey’s Clock along with various short stories and essays which Dickens wrote and edited. It became evident, however, by the 7th edition that the present day public - all avid Dickens readers - were solely attracted to the publication by the ongoing The Old Curiosity Shop. During the publication life of Master Humphrey’s Clock, two novels originated as short stories that developed into novels — The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.

For who can wonder that man should feel a vague belief in tales of disembodied spirits wandering through those places which they once dearly affected, when he himself, scarcely less separated from his old world than they, is for ever lingering upon past emotions and bygone times, and hovering, the ghost of his former self, about the places and people that warmed his heart of old?
― Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock

The publication Master Humphrey’s Clock opened with an introductory frame story which featured Master Humphrey — a lonely bachelor living in London, who acts as a narrator, describing himself and his close group of friends and their love of telling stories. Master Humphrey wrote and then hid his manuscripts in an old grandfather clock in a chimney corner of his house. He decided one day to start a club with his small circle of friends in which they would each be involved in reading their manuscripts aloud. Some of the stories from the club Master Humphrey’s Clock and the mirror club from Humphrey’s kitchen - Mr. Weller’s Watch - brought back characters from The Pickwick Papers. Two such characters included Mr. Pickwick, the hero of The Pickwick Papers and his much beloved manservant, Sam Weller, along with Master Humphrey’s maid and a barber.

To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.
― Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock

The Old Curiosity Shop follows the life of the beautiful young orphan Nell Trent and her maternal grandfather, who live in an old “olds and ends” antique shop in London and is thought to have been set around the time of the mid-1820s.

“Very interesting and cleverly written.…”
― Queen Victoria

In reading any novel by Charles Dickens it is possible to glean an intense and well-drawn glimpse into the life and the times in which he lived. References abound and it is worth stopping to savor and investigate them. There are clear and interesting allusions to foods and drinks of the day, popular songs, literature of the time, scandals of the day, and social and political commentary - primarily regarding the plight of the poor.

Thus violent deeds live after men upon the earth, and traces of war and bloodshed will survive in mournful shapes long after those who worked the desolation are but atoms of earth themselves.
― Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

As with Oliver Twist, Dickens played with contrasting characters surrounding a lonely & innocent child. In the book preface he said;

“I had it always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed when her history is first foreshadowed.”

Although dearly loved by her grandfather, Nell leads a solitary existence surrounded by very few acquaintances and companions. Her grandfather’s efforts to stave off poverty lead to dire consequences and one of the most evil villains created by Dickens.

Lawyers are shy of meddling with the Law on their own account: knowing it to be an edged tool of uncertain application, very expensive in the working, and rather remarkable for its properties of close shaving than for its always shaving the right person.
― Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

In typical form, Charles Dickens introduces a wide variety of strongly contrasting characters both good and bad. There is a plotting brother, a malicious moneylender and a simple and true friend to Nell. It has been said that there is a fairy tale quality to The Old Curiosity Shop which sets it apart from all of the other Dickens novels.

If there were no bad people there would be no good lawyers.
― Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

This novel became so popular on both sides of the Atlantic that avid readers in New York stormed the wharf when the ship arrived in 1841 bearing the final installment. Any Harry Potter fans among us will certainly be reminded of the excitement that accompanied the release of the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter And the Deathly Hallows and the highly anticipated conclusion of Harry’s fate in the fight against Voldemort…. the guarded pallets of the books awaiting release and the midnight book release parties.

Time has left many varied and lasting responses to The Old Curiosity Shop — Oscar Wilde ridiculed its sentimentality, Algernon Swinburne soundly condemned Nell, and Irish leader Daniel O’Connell burst into tears at the finale and threw the book out of the window of the train in which he was traveling.

As we read this 3rd installment in our Dickens Detour reading plan, let us know what your conclusions are as you read The Old Curiosity Shop. We will be discussing this book during our 2017 Autumn Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, October 28th, 2017.

“The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.”
― Charles Dickens


April 2017
The Pickwick Papers 
Published as a Monthly serial
April 1836 to November 1837

July 2017
The Adventures of Oliver Twist
Published as a Monthly serial 
in Bentley’s Miscellany
February 1837 to April 1839

October 2017
The Old Curiosity Shop
Published as a Weekly serial 
in Master Humphrey’s Clock
April 1840 to November 1841

January 2018
Little Dorrit
Published as a Monthly serial
December 1855 to June 1857

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Dickens Detour - Oliver Twist

“Please, sir, I want some more.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist 

Little Oliver Twist has remained a unique character for literature and was particularly uncommon for a Dickens character.  In Charles Dickens’ second published novel, Oliver Twist, he took a poor, helpless and friendless young orphan and through his experiences, revealed the desperate and impoverished criminal underworld of his day through the vivid characters who abused and exploited the most vulnerable in humanity.  Dickens painted the characters in Oliver Twist with an unsentimental hand for his day and time.

“The sun,--the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man--burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Oliver’s inherent innocence that continues to survive throughout his trials is a small light of hope within the darkness surrounding him.  As onlookers we become alternately anxious, then relieved, then on tenterhooks once more with his moments of comfort and his subsequent recapture within the elements of crime and want.  But somehow Oliver’s tender heart prevails through everything.  With little Oliver, Charles Dickens had the intention of showing “the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last”.  What companions would try him best?

“The persons on whom I have bestowed my dearest love lie deep in their graves; but, although the happiness and delight of my life lie buried there too, I have not made a coffin of my heart, and sealed it up for ever on my best affections. Deep affliction has only made them stronger; it ought, I think, for it should refine our nature.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

The Adventures of Oliver Twist was first published under the title of  Oliver Twist or The Parish Boy’s Progress, By Boz as a serial in the pages of Bentley’s Miscellany from February 1837 to April 1839 and then in three volumes in 1838.  The publication of this novel overlapped with Dicken’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers for nine months and overlapped Dickens’ third work Nicholas Nickleby by a similar nine months.

It was a momentous time for the young man, Charles Dickens.  The publication of Oliver Twist began just one month after Dickens’ first child was born, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, which was sadly soon followed by an untimely loss in May of 1837 when Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth suddenly passed away after a night at the theatre. Mary was 17 years old, lived with Charles and Catherine Dickens and was a favorite in their household. The family was devastated and Dickens missed the June installment of Oliver Twist as well as The Pickwick Papers.  This was the only time in Dickens’ career that he ever missed a publication installment.
“It is because I think so much of warm and sensitive hearts, that I would spare them from being wounded.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Dickens fought for many of his social concerns through his writing.  He greatly opposed the New Poor Law of 1834 with the middle-class Victorian attitudes that empowered it, and clearly voiced his views through Oliver’s experiences. Oliver Twist originally began as one of Dicken’s “Mudfog” sketches, published in Bentley’s Miscellany depicting Oliver’s birth and upbringing in a poorhouse.  It was an effort by Dickens to speak out against the New Poor Law.  As he wrote Oliver Twist into a novel, he chose the coarse, the criminal, the low and the degraded of London’s population and Dickens knew that when Oliver Twist was published, readers of his time would be shocked and most likely disapproving of the type of characters that he highlighted in his book.

“Some people are nobody's enemies but their own” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

When the New Poor Law of 1834 was introduced, it was originally welcomed by some as a way to reduce the gradually building cost of looking after the poor.  It was an Act of Parliament that replaced earlier legislation that had come to be deemed inefficient  and purposed to take beggars off the streets and encourage poor people to work hard to support themselves. This system intended to change the poverty relief system in England and Wales by only providing relief within workhouse settings. These workhouse systems were ultimately aimed to deter people who would prefer to receive some form of assistance instead of working to provide a living for themselves and their families.  Workhouse conditions were purposefully designed to be such that only the truly destitute could bear to face them.  Even at the time, many Victorians saw workhouses as merely prisons for the poor.

The poor would consent to be housed in workhouses where they were clothed and fed under the responsibility of a Board of Guardians.  Children received some schooling and all able-bodied workhouse paupers were required to work for several hours a day. Workhouses varied in size but were often a self-contained and often self-supporting system.  They could include basic living areas such as dormitories for sleeping with men and women separated, a dining hall and possibly dayroom for the elderly, but they might also have their own laundry, bakery, vegetable gardens, infirmaries and schoolrooms for the children.

When a person’s circumstances resulted in entering a workhouse, their possessions were severely limited and might only include their uniform and bed. Uniforms  were generally made of coarse materials designed to be sturdy and long-lasting.  Comfort was not a part of the design. Men wore jackets of strong “Fernought” cloth, trousers, striped cotton shirts, a cloth cap and shoes.  Women and girls wore gowns made from a coarse fabric made of silk, often combined with mohair or wool and stiffened with gum, calico shifts, petticoats of Linsey-Woolsey material, gingham dresses, day caps, worsted stockings and woven slippers.

“What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society. But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once - a parish child - the orphan of a workhouse - the humble, half-starved drudge - to be cuffed and buffeted through the world - despised by all, and pitied by none.”
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

A workhouse diet was formulated with minute detail. The Poor Law Commissioners issued sample dietary tables for use in union workhouses itemizing food, drink and amounts of each with very limited inclusions of meat. The main food staple was bread and it had often had various foods added with each meal such as gruel or porridge at breakfast. Water used for boiling any dinner meat became “broth” and could have such items added as onions or turnips to make a mid-day soup.  But ingredients and food variations were strictly and universally limited.

One of the more difficult results of being sent to the workhouse was that you were ultimately separated from your husband, wife or children.  The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act routinely split up families - deliberately keeping husband and wives apart so that there was no possibility of more children coming to the family.  In addition, children were often kept separately from their parents to try to “improve” them and turn them into “better people”.

“Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

In his novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens carried the major classic Victorian themes of injustice, bleak & brutal poverty and sinister characters. But the often-followed tendency of the time was to paint robbers and thieves as romantic characters and their lives as filled with adventure; living in picturesque caverns and winning the beautiful heroine.  In Oliver Twist, Dickens endeavored to paint a raw reality of the day by creating characters that more accurately  represented the desperate lives that teemed in the back alleys of London.  He aimed to uncover the misery and suffering that pushed so many into lives of crime and fostered the abuse of the innocent.  In short - Dickens meant to convey through his writing, his belief that poverty ultimately leads to crime.

In Dickens’ Preface To The Third Edition, 1841 of Oliver Twist, he said:
“It appeared to me that to draw a knot of such associates in crime as really do exist; to paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives; to show them as the really are, for ever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life, with the great, black, ghastly gallows closing up their prospects, turn them where they may; it appeared to me that to do this, would be to attempt a something which was greatly needed, and which would be a service to society.”

“People like us don't go out at night cause people like them see us for what we are” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is the second read in our new Dickens Detour reading plan. This is a fairly long read so you might pick up a copy and get started. We will be discussing this great book during our Summer Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, July 29th, 2017.

“The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.” 
~ Charles Dickens


April 2017
The Pickwick Papers 
Published as a Monthly serial
April 1836 to November 1837

July 2017
The Adventures of Oliver Twist
Published as a Monthly serial 
in Bentley’s Miscellany
February 1837 to April 1839

October 2017
The Old Curiosity Shop
Published as a Weekly serial 
in Master Humphrey’s Clock
April 1840 to November 1841

January 2018
Little Dorrit
Published as a Monthly serial
December 1855 to June 1857