Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Periodical, Episodical, and Methodical

Every fan -- probably about half the population of New York City, although it seemed like everyone -- every fan, as I say, wanted to know: Is Nell Dead?  The story's followers had been left with a cliffhanger and had to wait two months to learn the outcome.  They discussed the topic with friends and strangers, on the street and at dinner; they read the reviews and prognostications in the newspapers.  You ask: was Nell a character on a nighttime soap?  Was this suspenseful interruption a ratings-boosting trick by television producers that the public just doesn't remember as well as they remember wondering, Who shot J.R.?

No, this happened in the winter of 1841, and Nell was a character in a book.  Throngs of fans went to the piers in New York harbor looking for British ships and calling up to passengers and crew: "Is Nell Dead?"  The scene repeated itself each day until the new copy of a periodical called Master Humphrey's Clock showed up on one of those ships, and the Americans at last found out the answer to their question.

The book was The Old Curiosity Shop, and it was published (as were all of Charles Dickens's novels) serially.  Master Humphrey's Clock presented two of his early novels and a handful of his stories in its monthly numbers.  Later, after his popularity and wealth were secured, Dickens started his own journals: Household Words in the 1850s and All the Year Round in, roughly, the 1860s.  Each issue of these periodicals offered the subscribers a new portion of the current Dickens novel; portions of one or more other novels by, say, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, or Edward Bulwer-Lytton (of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame); various vignettes; and short stories, sometimes even just one part of a short story.

Now, in some of his novellas, including several of the lesser-known Christmas stories I've been reading this month, Dickens let Collins and others write some of the interior chapters.  As we've seen recently on television series with single overarching plots -- X-Files, Buffy, or LOST, for instance -- the story, characters, tone, and theme can remain coherent and consistent even if the creative genius who starts the story lets others write occasional installments, always stepping in again at crucial episodes, especially the last.  For nineteenth-century subscribers, "Dickens's" novellas appeared as seamless as these television series seem to us.  But for any reader since the 1890s, when these novellas were first collected and published in book form, giant gaps appear; the chapters by other writers simply aren't included, not even in online sources of the books such as Project Gutenberg.  My response to the predicament has always been divided: part of me wishes I knew how the story got from point A to point D, and part of me remembers that I'm reading these stories for Dickens's special style -- for everything he could do with or without a plot.

But a great, blessed event has occurred in just the last couple of months.  The University of Buckingham has completed its labor and given birth to Dickens Journals Online.  Every issue of Household Words and All the Year Round has been scanned and posted online.  These lovely, clear reprints are probably available in multiple places, but the most convenient entryway I've found is at http://www.archive.org/.  (Just search there for "Dickens Journals Online.")  Now I can read all the missing parts to these novellas, all the stories by other writers.  If I wanted to, I could log on once a month (both in the sense of "sign in" and in the sense of "put a log on") and read a novel the way it was first read.  Maybe for my third ten-year reading plan!

By the way, Nell died.  (I know, it's really not nice to give away plots.  The next thing you know, I'll be telling you that Rosebud is a sled.)  Twentieth-century critics have denounced the scene of Nell's death as sentimental, and so did I on my first reading of TOCS, in the early 1980s.  But when I reread the book a couple of years ago, the scene struck me as beautiful and completely justified.  First, sentimental looks different at 50 than it does at 25.  Having children and grandchildren probably contributes to that change.  Second, I know more about Dickens's method now and what he was trying to say with his death scenes.  In almost all that he wrote, and especially in those scenes, Dickens tried to inspire each reader to examine his life, to find the points at which he had strayed from the path, and to let go and give over to sanity again.  To Dickens, every person is Scrooge.  Third, after Nell walks with her grandfather through the fires of Hell and then leads him into the safety and rest of the Church, what else was a good writer supposed to do with her?

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