A Page from Charles Dickens

I was led to write this article by a piece in the Christian Science Monitor. That publication is on my news feeds. The editors like to feature lists of this or that. They are usually amusing.

A recent effort was a listing of the top 15 strange comments overheard in the library by librarians. One of them cracked me up:
  • “Did Charles Dickens ever write anything fun?”
Well, Charlie was rather obsessed about poverty and classism in old Europe, particularly as they affected poor young boys growing up. Rather like his own upbringing when his father was thrown into debtor’s prison. But he actually had the richest sense of humor. It is found in his characterizations of the characters who dominate all his books. Real people. Not heroes. Greedy, poor, unclean, brutal people sometimes. Snooty pretenders. Wizened old cranks.
You know. Like your neighbors.
Like the Senate.
And I smile to think that Dickens wrote his books in installments some 150 years ago. The installments were published in newspapers, and he was the rage of the time. He effectively blogged his novels.
Miss Havisham
The Book I will sottoize a page from is “Great Expectations“, which is a story of our hero young “Pip”, fatherless, motherless and living at the start of the book with his older sister and her husband Joe. Joe is a blacksmith, not the brightest iron in the furnace but good of heart and protective of young Pip. A mysterious benefactor arranges for Pip to go to London to clerk at a law firm for a gruff cheapskate lawyer named Mr. Jaggers. The separation from Joe is heartwrenching but it is best for Pip, a very bright boy. Joe knows he can show Pip no future.
Jaggers is an excellent lawyer, as we will see in a moment.
Pip falls in love with the mysterious and unpredictable Estella, a resident at the remarkable Miss Havisham’s grand residence. Miss Havisham was jilted on her wedding day and remains frozen in time, hung up on the crash of love lost. Love’s grip is a key theme of the novel, and Pip gets gripped by Estella.
But let’s just take a moment to step back as Pip gets to know Mr. Jaggers, courtesy of a tour of the law firm by a law clerk at the firm named Wemmick.
Wemmick invites Pip to his house some time, an invitation which Pip accepts. Then Wemmick asks:
< < < < < – – – – > > > > >
“Have you dined with Mr. Jaggers yet?”
“Not yet.”
“Well,” said Wemmick. “he’ll give you wine, and good wine. I’ll give you punch, and not bad punch. And now I’ll tell you something. When you go to dine with Mr. Jaggers, look at his housekeeper.”
“Shall I see something very uncommon?”
“Well, said Wemmick, “you’ll see a wild beast tamed. Not so very uncommon, you’ll tell me. I reply, that depends on the original wildness of the beast, and the amount of taming. It won’t lower your opinion of Mr. Jaggers’s powers. Keep your eye on it.”
I told him I would do so, with all the interest and curiosity that his preparation awakened. As I was taking my departure, he asked me if I would like to devote five minutes to seeing Mr. Jaggers “at it”?
JoeAm lookalike. Charles Dickens.
For several reasons, and not the least because I didn’t clearly know what Mr. Jaggers would be found to be “at”, I replied in the affirmative. We dived into the City, and came up in a crowded police court, where a blood relation (in the murderous sense) of the deceased with the fanciful taste in brooches was standing at the bar, uncomfortably chewing something; while my guardian had a woman under examination or cross-examination – I don’t know which – and was striking her, and the bench, and everybody with awe. If anybody, of whatsoever degrees, said a word that he didn’t approve of, he instantly required to have it “taken down.” If anybody wouldn’t make an admission, he said, “I’ll have it out of you!” and if anybody made an admission, he said “Now I have got you!” The magistrates shivered under a single bite of his finger. Thieves and thieftakers hung in dread rapture on his words, and shrank when a hair of his eyebrows turned in their direction. Which side he was on, I couldn’t make out, for he seemed to me to be grinding the whole place in a mill; I only know that when I stole out on tiptoe, he was not on the side of the bench, for he was making the legs of the old gentleman who presided quite convulsive under the table by his denunciations of his conduct as the representative of British law and justice in that chair that day.
< < < < < – – – – > > > > >
So, did Charles Dickens ever write anything fun?
I don’t know about you, but Dickens had me smiling all the way through this book. His people come alive, from the mention of their names to their quirks of their lives. The travails the characters face are made more intense by the vividness of the pictures in which they perform.
“He’ll give you wine, and good wine. I’ll give you punch, and not bad punch.”
The line shows Wemmick to be a good man, a comparatively poor, underclass man, who knows his place in life, yet keeps it in healthy – indeed, tasteful – perspective.
What a cast of characters. Tell me the names aren’t fun:
  • Miss Havisham
  • Abel Magwitch
  • Joe Gargery
  • Mr. Pumblechook
  • Mr. Jaggers
  • Mr. Wemmick
  • Herbert Pocket
And the active writing style.
We dived into the City, and came up in a crowded police court, where a blood relation (in the murderous sense) of the deceased with the fanciful taste in brooches was standing at the bar, uncomfortably chewing something  . . .
We didn’t just walk downtown and into the City court to watch the victim’s relative testify.

The magistrates shivered under a single bite of his finger.

Brilliant, Dude. Gives me shivers, too. Dickens is my idol. Words are scalpels for him, or feathers to caress, or microscopes under which people look a lot like bugs.

  • The book is a mystery, too. Who is Pip’s benefactor?
  • And a romance. Will the heart-smitten Pip marry the pretty and teasing Estella?
  • And a bit scary. The creepy pale face in the window at Miss Havisham’s dark, foreboding mansion. Or Pip’s meetings with the unbalanced Miss Havisham, an old woman trapped for years in sorrow and anger.
But more than anything, the book is good for the mind and soul.
An easy read? No way. British language of 150 years ago was wretchedly twisted; strained through the imagination of the verbose Charles Dickens, it assumes entirely new shapes of grand contortion.
Is the climbing of a mountain easy? Afterwards, yes.
Is Dickens fun?
The best.
20 Responses to “A Page from Charles Dickens”
  1. Edgar Lores says:

    Ah, a literary digression. A little trip down memory lane, a timely relief to skip our preoccupation with snooty politicians and greedy candidates.But, no, there’s the comparison to real people “like the Senate”. Oh, well, I might give old Charlie a try (ex Project Gutenberg) and see whether he can make me laugh where I would cry, the beloved country.

  2. There is laughter and there is mirth. Mirth is to be found in the fallibility of sincerely dismal characters. The humor in the book is more of the mirthy kind. It helps put the real world in perspective, that there always were and always will be "creatures" amongst us, and our good middle path should have us treading amongst them heads up and smiles ready at the draw. The alternative, as you recognize, is tears.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I haven't read any Dickens. The long run-ons may put me to sleep but your appreciation of Dickens certainly perked my interest. My favorite politician before the Corona impeachment, Teddy Boy Locsin, liked Little Dorrit the most or so he says in a broadcast. I doubt very much, though, the term "positively Dickensian" refers to anything humorous.DocB

  4. Ha, yes, he does know how to pen a sleep inducing sentence. I just take it very slow to begin with then it picks up when I get used to the entanglements. Dickensian. By dickens, that is a good word. Meaning dark and entangled, probably. I'm too lazy to look it up.

  5. Cha says:

    Did Charles Dickens ever write anything fun?Bah humbug! A Christmas Carol has got to be one of the few stories written from that literary period that had me laughing from the very beginning. "Old Marley was dead as a doornail". Dickens' wry sense of humor getting a warm-up. I can think of only one other classic that I found just as funny, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Are there any more?I need to revisit Great Expectations, it's the only other Dickens book I've really read. I'm not so sure it made me smile. I think it made me angry, at Estella and Ms Havisham mostly, maybe the anger kept me from enjoying the more lighthearted moments to the story. Or maybe I was just too wrapped up in my own teenage angst, too sullen to find any humor in the story of an orphan boy named Pip. Now that I think about it, that name alone should probably have made me smile.

  6. Ahahahahaha. "Old Marley was as dead as a doornail". That is Charles Dickens in a sentence. No "passing away" for him, no sir.I rather think Dickens is enjoyed best with a lot of drudge in one's past, and the idealism of a teenage girl is unlikely to provide enough of it. You should re-read this book and see if a smile doesn't keep sneaking onto your face at those marvelous descriptions. When you recognize some old curmudgeon lawyer or teacher from your past, or a good-hearted lummox like Joe Gargery.Dickens paints with words. He paints character. And characters.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Dickens' love and lust for women was copied by Sotto. Dickens is forever fun while Sotto has been trying hard all his life to be funny to his fans. And Charles never plagiarized in his lifetime!Olympia WA fan

  8. Olympia, Yes, can you imagine Dickens lifting paragraphs from Cervantes or some other popular writer? That is so funny. I rather think Dickens is just one of those guys who opens his brain and words flow out like water, prettily aligned and powerfully multi-dimensional. Like the dude was an artistic genius.

  9. Cha says:

    Well, he might just as well have had Sotto in mind with these lines: (also from A Christmas Carol )"This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both and all of their degree! But most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that which is written is Doom…. "Now as for the girl… another senator comes to mind.

  10. My God, if you will pardon the expression, but that is good. I do believe I must dig up "A Christmas Carol" for its grand wisdoms. I always thought it was about sugar plums; oh, wait, that was a different story. I simply can't imagine what senatorial girl you have in mind . . .

  11. Anonymous says:

    Sotto is rich, never started poor, unlike Charles, who mined his humble beginnings to create those characters. Sotto seems satisfied mining the Pope blog and the RFK speech. Poor soul.DocB

  12. Anonymous says:

    To be fair to Sotto, I have to say he's a certified song writer but being a tunesmith is different from being a senator of the republic.DocB

  13. Then there are the boxers and dictator's wives . . .

  14. andrew lim says:

    Joe, Id like to seek your permission to publish here a short essay I am writing on "An Alternative View of Pedro Calungsod (in the context of the Spanish-Chamorro Wars 1672-1698). Ill finish it within a few days. In summary, it's about the parallel experience of the Chamorros (now Guamanians) at the hands of the Spanish imperialists- very similar to the Philippine experience- the use of force, the imposition of a foreign culture, the disrespect for indigenous cultures, etc.Viewed from this context, Pedro Calungsod was a loyal ally and assistant of the invading Spaniards, an enabler of imperialism. Could be very controversial.

  15. Certainly, andrew. Send it to the e-mail address in the "Contact Us" tab when you have it ready. And if you have a photo you'd like, attach that, too. Otherwise I'll find one.As for controversy, I'm reminded of a mentor of mine at the bank (British; they owned us at the time) who was always challenging and provoking the executives. He confided in me it was one of his main principles, "you know, Joe, chemical reactions work faster if a little heat is applied". I rather think the same about thinking.

  16. Edgar Lores says:

    There's a photo of Vice President Binay with a Calungsod "Ken" doll.

  17. andrew lim says:

    That photo's a rich source for pundits, Joe. The Philippines'first black vice president named Jesus Joseph and Mary (JEJOMAR)holding a Ken Calungsod doll!Will submit my article today, Joe. Will leave the choice of photo to you and your wicked sense of humor. 🙂

  18. Great, andrew. I look forward to it.Thanks for the explanation of JEJOMAR. I didn't know that, and now understand why humility is not his trademark.

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