Two posts back, I mentioned a variety of genres found in Dickens’s Reprinted Pieces: a variety founded on the varying identification of the first-person narrator. But the set contains variety of other sorts, as well: character study and travelogue, humor and tragedy, tender reminiscence and scathing satire. Under the first head, the best example is a piece in which Dickens meets a bill sticker who rides like a prince in his own curtained carriage. Travel numbers include, for instance, “Our French Watering-Place,” a picture of a French resort town with more English residents than French and a delightful landlord who lavishes soldiers assigned to his hotel with such luxury that he risks going bankrupt because, as he says, “It is a contribution to the State!” Dickens laughs with a new father who can’t get along with the nurse taking over his home and cries with the remnant survivors of a fearsome shipwreck. He remembers his old school with fondness, and tears apart the bureaucracy of the British patent offices with impish relish.
Least entertaining, perhaps, but most enlightening about Dickens’s life is a long series of dark pieces about walks in the night. Dickens tells some about his habit of searching out the underbelly of London by lanternlight in Sketches by Boz, and here we get further glimpses. “Three Detective Anecdotes” tells of a conversation with several police detectives whom Dickens invited to his home. They tell such vivid stories of the ratty pubs and flats they explore in search of criminals, Dickens can’t be satisfied until he spends a night on patrol with a certain Inspector Field. Together they visit noisome alleys, a thieves’ hideout, lodging-houses, a workhouse, and a prison. In every place he witnesses and reports on wrecked humans whose characters and conditions call forth both horror and pity.
What compelled this man to continually seek out the darkest recesses of humanity? What compelled the miserable people he met to answer his questions? From the account he gives, it seems doubtful that they had any notion they were talking with a famous author who might make them famous. At one point, Dickens and Inspector Field visit Waterloo Bridge and speak to the caretaker, who tells matter-of-fact stories of suicides, even giving his opinion on the most effective locations from which to jump. He, too, seems not to know or care about Dickens’s reason for curiosity. He simply knows Inspector Field and honors his request for some stories, with something like professional pride in his horrific knowledge.
Dickens may have sought out the dark recesses of his own soul in at least one number. “The Noble Savage” is actually a protracted diatribe against the idea given in the title, a scathing denouncement of all “uncivilized” people as ugly, brutish, irrational, cruel, cannibalistic heathens. Can this truly be Dickens speaking for himself? Apparently, some members of less- . . . , hmm, let’s say less-clothed societies had been introduced in recent years to Londoners at various events and exhibitions. The public showed interest in learning about them, and it wasn’t like Dickens to be behind the public in showing compassion. How can the man who wrote so mercifully of the paupers, prostitutes, and thieves of London write so mercilessly about the chiefs of foreign lands? Am I just incredulous because I’m so inured to politically correct talk of tolerance? Or was the piece intended as a satire whose layers have been irretrievably jumbled in the upheavals of changing thought?