Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dickens the Character

I looked back at some previous posts the other day trying to find something I had said about Augustine’s views of skill and education. (I finally found what I was looking for in a post about Jane Austen, whose last name, as I think of it, is a variation on the name “Augustine.” ) I fairly amazed myself, frankly. The posts, all from several years ago, were generally written well, with good form and a somewhat pleasingly varied rhetoric. And more importantly, it seemed that I actually had things to say: ideas I felt strongly and that I conveyed clearly. I felt at moments while reading as if I were learning things from another person. How did that all that meaningful writing happen, and why isn’t it happening now? Where once I wrote a hundred posts a year, I’m now (in November!) struggling to get out just my fifth post for 2017, a look back at May’s reading. Did this blog suddenly slow down (a blog clog?) because I only have ten years’ worth of things to say in my soul? Did I just get tired of posting? Or did I get spooked by the Russian bots that troll my site after the potential mischief of Russian bots has hovered near the top of the news for over a year?

My favorite writer had much more than a ten years’ supply of words and ideas and never tired of sharing them. In May of this year, I finally got around to reading the (selected) letters of Charles Dickens. I had read two biographies of Dickens before and numerous articles about him, but in his letters I sensed that I was meeting the man himself. Or perhaps I should say that I discovered that the narrative voice in Dickens’s books was the Great Man all along: that the glowing face of Oz (or Boz in this case) is the man behind the curtain. In many ways, Dickens’s life was a novel and he was the hero of the tale. (He had no reason to have Copperfieldian doubts on that score. Hmmm. Or is that Copperfieldesque?) Dickens the man was Dickens the character, and the collection of his letters presents his story.

The first kind of connection between the letters and the novels is the most direct one: Dickens wrote from life, so events in the books came from events in life. Dickens’s description in an early letter of a snowy ride to Greta Bridge, for instance, reminded me very much of Nicholas Nickleby’s first ride to Yorkshire. The grief he expressed over the death of Mary, his teen-aged sister-in-law, hangs over the whole volume and presents a tragic story in itself deeply moving. But that watershed event in the author’s life also explains a lot of things in his books, most notably his penchant for including dying children (and the Tiny cripple who did NOT die). On virtually every page, I could have ticked a box on a list: yeah, there’s the thing from that book, and there’s that funny fellow from that book . . . . 

The manner of presentation corresponds as well. Dickens the novelist could write 800 pages of serious drama (Bleak House), of comedy (Nicholas Nickleby), of satire (Pickwick), of social lecturing (Hard Times), or of heartwarming homey stuff (David Copperfield). His tone changed with the needs of the story. Which of these voices was the voice of the real Dickens? All of them. Like Robin Williams, Charles Dickens was the amalgam of all of his personas. He wrote funny, ironic letters to his friends when the occasion allowed it and scolded forcibly when the occasion demanded it. He could be tender, indignant, facetious, or magniloquent. And he could be more than one of these things at a time: many a poor writer sent in a manuscript asking for advice, and Dickens regularly returned a kind but detailed rationale for why the correspondent needed to pursue a career outside the field of letters. (Had I been alive then, I would hope I would have better sense than to try.)

If the content and the style are both novelistic, then Dickens is indeed his own hero. No, literally: a hero. As his life and career progressed and he became the second most admired person in the British Empire (always second, of course, to the Queen who gave the era her name), Dickens recognized and accepted the responsibility of celebrity (a lesson that only Spider-Man seems to understand these days), several times exhibiting needed moral and emotional leadership in a crisis. Once during one of his public readings, a gas lamp fell in the theatre. Knowing that the fear of fire among a closely packed audience could cause more harm than the easily contained fire itself, Dickens stood his ground on stage and told the crowd to remain seated while officials took care of the problem, saving trouble, damage, and perhaps even life. But the most astonishing example came late in Dickens’s life when a bridge collapsed under a train he was riding. The engine plummeted off the rails ahead of his car, and the other carriages went off behind him. Dickens’s carriage alone teetered precariously on what was left of the trestle, yet he calmed the others on the car and asked a railway official to help him get the people out, then spent two hours helping and comforting the wounded and dying in the wreckage. (Note: the paid employee of the rail service responded to instructions from the author. He knew who was in charge.)

Every story needs a good ending, and the end of Dickens’s life reads like the crisis in a Sophoclean drama. Dickens takes on public readings and then gets weak from overexertion. He starts Edwin Drood, the novel death will interrupt, leaving its murder mystery tantalizingly unsolved. Dickens then decides to add the emotionally taxing scene of Nancy’s murder (from Oliver Twist) to his reading routine. Like a good Christian in a sentimental novel, he expresses his faith before departing. His letter to Rev. Macrae reminds that reader (as well as this one) that every last one of his morally good characters expresses faith in the Savior and that each Christmas book is meant as a sermon on a given Scriptural text. And then in his final letter, on the day before he died (critics have vilified him for including coincidences less outrageous in his stories), he tells John Makeham, “I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Saviour.”

Then the letters cease. Dickens’s first stroke occurred on stage during a public reading of Nancy’s murder a year earlier. His last stroke occurred on June 8, 1870, the day of the letter to John Makeham, and he died the next day.

I will now shock the world by announcing that I am not Charles Dickens. I don’t have much to say and certainly nothing original: I can only pass on the contents of books I have read. And I don’t have an ending. If I were to die before finishing this very sentence, the post would at least end with a flair if not a period.

Nope. Didn’t happen.

So I’ll go back to Augustine and Jane Austen. What they said, according to my blogpost anyway, is that any skill requires ability, education, and practice in order to be actualized. I have some ability and supposedly some education. So maybe my problem with writing this year stems from a lack of practice. Maybe it isn’t that I wrote all those previous posts because I had something to say: maybe I had so much to say because I wrote frequent posts. Well, only about six weeks remain in this year (again, I’m writing May’s piece in November), and if I’m to fulfill my vague determination to complete a month-by-month review of my reading for 2017, I’ll have to increase the frequency of these posts. So we’ll see.