For my second book I chose Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens. Like Virginia Woolf’s The London Scene, this collection of essays depict London and it’s people. Dickens lived right around the NYU London area in Bloomsbury (one of the houses he lived in is one block away from my dorm). In his writing he includes streets, places, and parks that I pass on a daily basis: Coram street, St. George park, islington, the British museum, Russell square, etc. The 56 essays were published in news papers and other publications individually over a span of three years (1833-1836). The Sketches are divided into three sections, “Our Parish,” “Scenes,” “Characters” (non-fiction) and “Tales” (fiction).
If you read my book-1 blog post you may thinking, why did I chose another scenic, essay formatted, 19th century book. I had a few reasons, besides my personal goal to indulge in British literature, there’s an appeal of the picturesque and realistic depictions of London that writers from a different time period present. Large cosmopolitan cities demand vignettes. The small moments that give the city breath and depth is an integral part of writing in a large city. For example, Dickens says in the essay “The Streets–Nights”: “In the streets of London, to be beheld in the very height of their glory, should be seen on a dark, dull, murky winter’s night, when there is just enough damp gently stealing down to make the pavement greasy, without cleansing it of any of its impurities; and when the heavy lazy mist, which hangs over every object, makes the gas-lamps look brighter, and the brilliantly-lighted shops more splendid, from the contrast they present to the darkness around” (119). He takes a very small particularly mundane part of the city, and gives it life. Fog, rain, and darkness is a common part of London. And as dreary as it is, the dark, abandoned streets, quiet enough to hear the wind rustle the bushes, beckons reverence. Dickens contrasts this particular moment in London with the previous chapter that focuses on the streets of London during the day, which is loud, crowded, and lively.
The chapter, “Making A Night of It” under Characters was brilliant. It was one of my favorite chapters, because it depicts male relationships and the alcoholic culture of the time period accurately. And even more, it parallels a lot of the pub-culture that I’ve witness while in the UK. The chapter talks about two friends, Damon and Pythias. “They lived in the same street, walked into town every morning at the same hour, dined at the same slap-bang every day, and revelled in each other’s company very night. They were knit together by the closest ties of intimacy and friendship” (they essentially were bros). The narrative then shifts to what they do at night: drink and have fun. sherry, whiskey, Havanas, all the pleasures of life are exploited by their whims when the sun goes down. They get drunk, and go to a pub, and get into a fight with men and women, and end up with huge pecuniary fines for they did. The chapter was very, average-Saturday-frat-gathering, and what surprised me, was that they were piss-drunk by 8pm! I’ve noticed everyone starts drinking early hare in London, and get drunk really early as well. Yesterday as I walked near the West End at 7pm, I walked pass pub-after-pub that were so full people had to stand outside to drink. Dickens depict a similar cultural trend that persist, and reinforces how strong tradition and culture is. This wasn’t the only chapter that had alcoholic references in it. Actually, in nearly every essay/chapter that involved people after evening time, alcohol found it’s way into the story. One family mentioned in the chapter, “The Dance Academy” ended their day at a dance with more dancing on tables and bounties of alcohol–that lasted till 6am. I knew before coming to London that alcohol was a big part of culture, but now that I’m here, even more so. I do think it’s a point of contention, because I was watching the O’Brien show this week, and there was a heated debate on if the A&E should admit drunk people, which left a lot of the British audience crossed (the argument was, if people go out and get drunk, why should our tax money go to caring for them, and pumping their stomaches?). Good point, and I think that this was telling since it was on day-time television.
The fact that the 19th century London that Dickens depict is still very similar to the 21st century London speaks to the traits of the city and it’s people that our embedded deep into the culture. To answer my early question, I chose an essay-styled books, because with big cities like London and New York, they demand vignettes. You have to get down to the nitty gritty details to really visualize and feel the essence of the city. This book was distributed by chapter weekly to the local community. It was popular then, and the conclusion I can draw from this is that in a large city, people want to see its inner workings and their own lives reflected back at them. It’s one of the ways we build community.
- Sketches by Boz: George Cruikshank