In between Thanksgiving dinners, car trips, and visits with grandchildren over the last two weeks, I've been reading Reprinted Pieces, a ragbag collected from Household Words, the weekly literature magazine Dickens published in the 1850s. I scheduled them for this time of year because I thought they might just provide some simple, fun, and interesting reading during the holiday-and-end-of-semester bustle. But these and other shorter pieces by Dickens don't just offer smaller portions of the same aesthetic and moral pleasures found in the novels; by their nature, they present some unique problems, possibilities, and puzzlements.
For instance, I’m not even quite sure what it is I’m reading. Although the periodical identified the authors of the serialized novels appearing on its pages, it published smaller works anonymously. This situation seems to have afforded Dickens the opportunity to explore different narrative voices. In most of the pieces, the narrator makes explicit reference to himself by means of the first-person pronoun. But the identity of the "I" remains a bit of a mystery, even assuming that tradition and research have accurately picked out the pieces by Dickens from those by Wilkie Collins and other regular contributors. And this curtain hiding the man behind the voice leaves the very genre of each piece in question. In some cases, for instance, it seems that "I" is truly Dickens himself, making these particular titles autobiographical essays. But "BIRTHS. Mrs. Meek, of a Son," on the other hand, begins with the lines "My name is Meek. I am, in fact, Mr. Meek"; by explicitly naming its imaginative narrator, this number establishes itself as a piece of fiction. The first line of "A Poor Man's Tale of a Patent" also marks it as fiction: when a Dickens piece opens with the words "I am not used to writing for print," I know “I” can’t be taken as representative of the prolific author. These examples are clear, but what about “Lying Awake,” a first-person account of insomnia? No doubt Dickens had insomnia from time to time; an author who never suffered from the affliction that has me writing this post in the wee hours of a Thursday morning couldn’t have authored such a spot-on description. But do the peculiar details of this narrator’s stream of consciousness – hot-air balloons, Benjamin Franklin, an audience with the Queen, Niagara Falls, a monster chalked on a church door – reflect the actual thoughts of Dickens during one sleepless night? Or is “I” a semi-autobiographical character here?
Another strange problem I’ve noticed concerns repetition. Any author, but especially Dickens, might repeat some given motif several times in a novel for purposes of theme, unity, or tone. The odd moments of repetition in Reprinted Pieces, though, seem unplanned. The use of the term “watering-place” for a resort town, complaints about begging-letter writers, men who offer directions by pointing with pipes in impossible directions. Surely the multiple appearances of such a weird assortment of notions arose only because they had crossed Dickens’s path in real life during this period and had formed temporarily obsessive grooves in his mind. These reiterations irritated me as I came across them, but they also gave me a new appreciation for Dickens’s teeming imagination. The quirk of pointing toward the ocean while telling someone how to get to a certain inn has that marvelous, unforgettable Dickensian quality, and I can easily imagine it appearing in a novel. (Did people ever learn to be cautious around Dickens, knowing that any irrational habit stood a good chance of being immortalized as the signature motto of some ridiculous minor character in the next book?) But the man who constantly catalogued quirks in his capacious mind would never have let this one appear in two novels, much less two characters in a single novel. Nevertheless here it is, a characteristic of two separate figures in one book of collected essays and stories. Of course Dickens never intended for this book to be a book; people might or might not read any given piece, so he could carelessly repeat himself here and there, perhaps in order to meet a weekly deadline, without diminishing the integrity of some work or body of works. I read them in the artificial proximity of a posthumous collection, so the repetitions stood out to me as problems; but didn’t they make me appreciate all the more the hundreds of distinctly differentiated second players in the novels!