Review: Sketches by Boz - Charles Dickens' Early Writing

Sketches by Boz, illustrative of everyday life and every-day people - Charles Dickens

Full title: Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People, With Illustrations by George Cruickshank and Phiz (1903)

Author: Charles Dickens, Boz was actually derived from the nickname he'd given to his younger brother - Moses. Shorten than to Mose, then say it with an accent and you get Bose - which is how Boz was originally pronounced. (Wikipedia explanation is a bit more concise.)

Wikipedia page: Sketches by Boz (which has a list of chapters/stories in the book)

Gutenberg ebook page: Sketches by Boz


First a few quibbles about the ebook - the Kindle version at least, because that's the one I've read. It doesn't seem to have all the same content as the Gutenberg version - it ended with The Drunkards Death and didn't have Sketches of Young Gentlemen or Sketches of Young Couples. Which I'm fine with, as I have a limited tolerance for Dickens' humorous stories - but more on that later. Another problem is with the digitizing of the text, because sometimes Robert will be Kobert or Eobert, Ramsgate will be Eamsgate. Sometimes you'll get a "Havannah" cigar, sometimes "Havanuah." But then, it's a free ebook, and though it's definitely an annoyance it's only a minor one. ...Except in those instances when words like "not" are replaced with "riot" and suddenly the story is very different until you figure out that there's a spelling error. (I think the Gutenberg version doesn't have as many of these errors, though I only checked a few examples.)


As to the book itself - Dickens wrote a preface to make it clear that this was the work of his earliest days as a writer and journalist, so now it's mostly read by historians or Dickens scholars. (If you're reading it for fun you are still designated as a scholar! You can argue for "interested reader" but I'd totally say it merits the title.) It's still a great example of the sort of writing you'd find in the magazines and newspapers of the time - and something you can compare directly to more recent newspaper columns focusing on local places, or even blog entries (if you want to get really modern) full of pop cultural references. It's those sorts of comparisons that actually make me keep reading Dickens, because within all that dense text there are a lot of descriptions of his London, and the culture that surrounded him. (Examples in a bit, as always I have too many lots of quotes.)


Let's get my criticism out of the way first - I'm not at all fond of Dickens' humorous stories. He often uses the same kinds of characters over and over, like "timid man unable to get out of situation others push him into." I never made it through The Pickwick Papers because I just got too tired of every single story revolving around something stupid the characters would manage to do. But Dickens is odd in that after deluging you with characters acting humorously, suddenly he'll write a death or a tragedy into that story when least expected. That happened several times in Sketches, and it made me wonder if that was all due to this being his early work, or whether he'd just gotten better at leading up to the tragedies/deaths in his later books. (I don't have an answer for that! And it's been a while since I last read one of his novels.)


The book worked perfectly for the purpose I'd chosen - it was my Reading to Fall Asleep To. I have to be particularly careful what book I use for this because it can't be in any way suspenseful or I'll just wake up more and stay up reading. (It's tricky because there's the regular old insomnia, and then there's the book-induced "I can't stop reading this" kind that you can't always predict.) Since Dickens has this habit of using extremely long sentences, I measure how sleepy I was by whether I could make it to the end of one and still follow the train of thought.


Short version: Sketches is good for reading a bit of then setting aside. Or only reading bits and pieces of, as it interests you. If you want to skip to the best bits, in my mind those would be The Streets Night, Seven Dials, Meditations in Monmouth Street, and The Black Veil. (Examples from all in the quotes section.)



In the best parts of the book you'll get a picture of Victorian London from someone who's obviously walked the streets and observed the people first hand. At the worst, it rambles a bit and the pace will feel slow if you're not used to this era's writing style, which was never in a hurry to finish anything plotwise. There are four sections to the book: Our Parish, Scenes, Characters, and Tales. The section called Tales shouldn't make you think that the stories are any more finished than the others - they feel like sketches as well in that many of the characters exist only to complete a joke. Though having said that I wasn't at all prepared for the "humorous" story of A Passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle to have the conclusion it did, which wasn't laughable for me, anyway.


Dickens' writing is knee deep in the popular culture of his time, which can be annoying if you don't like not getting all the references he makes. But it's along the lines of someone now citing Fifty Shades of Grey or the Da Vinci Code - both of those are/were popular enough for them to be a shorthand for "that type of book" and most readers don't need any further explanation. The great thing about Dickens' pop culture references is that now you can quickly find their meanings via the first page of a google search.


Of course I have an example! Mainly because I get sucked into this kind of googling way too much. (I measure that by how much time it sucks from my actual book reading.)


From the chapter called The Steam Excursion:


"...there was the young gentleman with the green spectacles, in nankeen inexplicables, with a ditto waistcoat and bright buttons, like the pictures of Paul - not the saint, but he of Virginia noteriety."


Two fun bits of research from that:


1) "a ditto waistcoat and bright buttons, like pictures of Paul"

I had no idea who Paul was, but thanks to the fact that google has all those digitizations of books in its database now I found a link to the book Victorian Subjects  By Joseph Hillis Miller (in particular this page). It turns out that Dickens is referring to the novel Paul et Virginie (1788) by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and I'll let you check that link for the plot details. As far as I can tell by context the only thing that the reference to Paul and his buttons is supposed to mean is that the fellow is showing off his wealth, or at least attempting to do so in a showy, artificial way.


That's fairly typical of a lot of Dickens' pop culture references - you don't need to know what all of them mean to pick up on what's happening. That everyone in this story is pretending to be more posh than they actually are is very clear.


2) "nankeen inexplicables"

I'm pretty sure Dickens had fun using that phrase. The Victorians were deeply goofy in how they referred to body parts, and of course not every writer or editor bothered over such things. So while some books say they never used the word "trousers," Dickens does. However the common phrase for them was "inexpressibles" - which was what had me looking up Dickens' word choice. Here's a link to the book The Story of Men's Underwear by Shaun Cole, which I might have to look up and read later. Page 31:


"...Language describing the body and subsequently clothing was also affected, becoming more euphemistic and medical, so "legs" became "limbs," men's trousers became "inexpressibles" in 1805 and later as "nether integuments," and underclothes were described as "linen." "


So in Dickens' choosing inexplicables over inexpressibles - well, now you're in on the joke too. It is an amusing way to talk about trousers.



And now for a huge chunk of quotes, mainly for examples of what I liked or lines I wanted to remember, which are mostly in order of their appearance in the book.





The Four Sisters - all about neighborhood gossip trying to interpret the lives of the sisters:

"...Was it possible? one of the four Miss Willises was going to be married!


Now, where on earth the husband came from, by what feelings the poor man could have been actuated, or by what process of reasoning the four Miss Willises succeeded in persuading themselves that it was possible for a man to marry one of them, without marrying them all, are questions too profound for us to resolve: certain it is, however, that the visits of Mr. Robinson (a gentleman in a public office, with a good salary and a little property of his own, besides) were received—that the four Miss Willises were courted in due form by the said Mr Robinson - that the neighbours were perfectly frantic in their anxiety to discover which of the four Miss Willises was the fortunate fair, and that the difficulty they experienced in solving the problem was not at all lessened by the announcement of the eldest Miss Willis, - 'We are going to marry Mr. Robinson.' "


The Broker's Man - getting into debt in this era resulted in a sort of weird imprisonment, sort of like being held hostage until your debts were paid. If you had any source of money you could be somewhat comfortable, but if not...

"...The civility which money will purchase, is rarely extended to those who have none; and there’s a consolation even in being able to patch up one difficulty, to make way for another, to which very poor people are strangers. "

The Ladies Societies - do-gooders causing their own form of suffering:

"...When the young curate was popular, and all the unmarried ladies in the parish took a serious turn, the charity children all at once became objects of peculiar and especial interest.  The three Miss Browns (enthusiastic admirers of the curate) taught, and exercised, and examined, and re-examined the unfortunate children, until the boys grew pale, and the girls consumptive with study and fatigue.  The three Miss Browns stood it out very well, because they relieved each other; but the children, having no relief at all, exhibited decided symptoms of weariness and care."


Some of the best portions are in the Scenes section, if you're just reading to get a description of certain parts of the city. You'll find particularly descriptions that historians have cited for decades. But it's also full of bits of really good prose. If I've quoted more than one paragraph (and you enjoyed reading it) you can assume that the rest of the essay is worth looking up.


The Streets, Night - companion piece to one on the day time version. I particularly love descriptions of street food vendors, as you can still eat such street food in London, though perhaps not the same recipes:


"The streets in the vicinity of the Marsh-gate and Victoria Theatre present an appearance of dirt and discomfort on such a night, which the groups who lounge about them in no degree tend to diminish.  Even the little block-tin temple sacred to baked potatoes, surmounted by a splendid design in variegated lamps, looks less gay than usual, and as to the kidney-pie stand, its glory has quite departed.  The candle in the transparent lamp, manufactured of oil-paper, embellished with 'characters,' has been blown out fifty times, so the kidney-pie merchant, tired with running backwards and forwards to the next wine-vaults, to get a light, has given up the idea of illumination in despair, and the only signs of his 'whereabout,' are the bright sparks, of which a long irregular train is whirled down the street every time he opens his portable oven to hand a hot kidney-pie to a customer.


Flat-fish, oyster, and fruit vendors linger hopelessly in the kennel, in vain endeavouring to attract customers; and the ragged boys who usually disport themselves about the streets, stand crouched in little knots in some projecting doorway, or under the canvas blind of a cheesemonger’s, where great flaring gas-lights, unshaded by any glass, display huge piles of blight red and pale yellow cheeses, mingled with little fivepenny dabs of dingy bacon, various tubs of weekly Dorset, and cloudy rolls of 'best fresh.'

...It is nearly eleven o’clock, and the cold thin rain which has been drizzling so long, is beginning to pour down in good earnest; the baked-potato man has departed—the kidney-pie man has just walked away with his warehouse on his arm—the cheesemonger has drawn in his blind, and the boys have dispersed.  The constant clicking of pattens on the slippy and uneven pavement, and the rustling of umbrellas, as the wind blows against the shop-windows, bear testimony to the inclemency of the night; and the policeman, with his oilskin cape buttoned closely round him, seems as he holds his hat on his head, and turns round to avoid the gust of wind and rain which drives against him at the street-corner, to be very far from congratulating himself on the prospect before him."


Scotland Yard - nothing to do with crime or police, just a neighborhood name. Imagine someone railing about a new mall being built over an older area, and you have this same type of article on "changes in a city" that Dickens writes about here:

"...And what is Scotland-yard now?  How have its old customs changed; and how has the ancient simplicity of its inhabitants faded away!  The old tottering public-house is converted into a spacious and lofty ‘wine-vaults;’ gold leaf has been used in the construction of the letters which emblazon its exterior, and the poet’s art has been called into requisition, to intimate that if you drink a certain description of ale, you must hold fast by the rail.  The tailor exhibits in his window the pattern of a foreign-looking brown surtout, with silk buttons, a fur collar, and fur cuffs.  He wears a stripe down the outside of each leg of his trousers: and we have detected his assistants (for he has assistants now) in the act of sitting on the shop-board in the same uniform.


At the other end of the little row of houses a boot-maker has established himself in a brick box, with the additional innovation of a first floor; and here he exposes for sale, boots—real Wellington boots—an article which a few years ago, none of the original inhabitants had ever seen or heard of.  It was but the other day, that a dress-maker opened another little box in the middle of the row; and, when we thought that the spirit of change could produce no alteration beyond that, a jeweller appeared, and not content with exposing gilt rings and copper bracelets out of number, put up an announcement, which still sticks in his window, that ‘ladies’ ears may be pierced within.’  The dress-maker employs a young lady who wears pockets in her apron; and the tailor informs the public that gentlemen may have their own materials made up."


Seven Dials - refers to a location in London's west end (wikipedia link). I may love this best for the references to post-leaners, the "destitute bugs," and the "doubtful oysters":

"...In addition to the numerous groups who are idling about the gin-shops and squabbling in the centre of the road, every post in the open space has its occupant, who leans against it for hours, with listless perseverance.  It is odd enough that one class of men in London appear to have no enjoyment beyond leaning against posts.  We never saw a regular bricklayer’s labourer take any other recreation, fighting excepted.  Pass through St. Giles’s in the evening of a week-day, there they are in their fustian dresses, spotted with brick-dust and whitewash, leaning against posts.  Walk through Seven Dials on Sunday morning: there they are again, drab or light corduroy trousers, Blucher boots, blue coats, and great yellow waistcoats, leaning against posts.  The idea of a man dressing himself in his best clothes, to lean against a post all day!


...Brokers’ shops, which would seem to have been established by humane individuals, as refuges for destitute bugs, interspersed with announcements of day-schools, penny theatres, petition-writers, mangles, and music for balls or routs, complete the ‘still life’ of the subject; and dirty men, filthy women, squalid children, fluttering shuttlecocks, noisy battledores, reeking pipes, bad fruit, more than doubtful oysters, attenuated cats, depressed dogs, and anatomical fowls, are its cheerful accompaniments."


Meditations in Monmouth Street - the place for buying or selling used clothes (wikipedia). This is another essay worth the full read, just for how deeply Dickens knows this sort of business and this kind of poverty.


"...Through every alteration and every change, Monmouth-street has still remained the burial-place of the fashions; and such, to judge from all present appearances, it will remain until there are no more fashions to bury.


We love to walk among these extensive groves of the illustrious dead, and to indulge in the speculations to which they give rise; now fitting a deceased coat, then a dead pair of trousers, and anon the mortal remains of a gaudy waistcoat, upon some being of our own conjuring up, and endeavouring, from the shape and fashion of the garment itself, to bring its former owner before our mind’s eye.  We have gone on speculating in this way, until whole rows of coats have started from their pegs, and buttoned up, of their own accord, round the waists of imaginary wearers; lines of trousers have jumped down to meet them; waistcoats have almost burst with anxiety to put themselves on; and half an acre of shoes have suddenly found feet to fit them, and gone stumping down the street with a noise which has fairly awakened us from our pleasant reverie, and driven us slowly away, with a bewildered stare, an object of astonishment to the good people of Monmouth-street, and of no slight suspicion to the policemen at the opposite street corner.


...There was the man’s whole life written as legibly on those clothes, as if we had his autobiography engrossed on parchment before us."


Hackney-Coach Stands (wikipedia):

"...Why should we, with a feverish wish to ‘keep moving,’ desire to roll along at the rate of six miles an hour, while they were content to rumble over the stones at four? "


"What an interesting book a hackney-coach might produce, if it could carry as much in its head as it does in its body!  The autobiography of a broken-down hackney-coach, would surely be as amusing as the autobiography of a broken-down hackneyed dramatist; and it might tell as much of its travels with the pole, as others have of their expeditions to it.  How many stories might be related of the different people it had conveyed on matters of business or profit—pleasure or pain!  And how many melancholy tales of the same people at different periods!  The country-girl—the showy, over-dressed woman—the drunken prostitute!  The raw apprentice—the dissipated spendthrift—the thief!"


London Recreations - saving this for the eyerolling at Victorians' idea of women (you get used to this if you read a lot of the period, but still, I must eyeroll and feel pleased not to live in that era):

"...Whether the course female education has taken of late days—whether the pursuit of giddy frivolities, and empty nothings, has tended to unfit women for that quiet domestic life, in which they show far more beautifully than in the most crowded assembly, is a question we should feel little gratification in discussing: we hope not."


Greenwich Fair - when dragging someone up and down a hill was a spectator sport:


"The chief place of resort in the daytime, after the public-houses, is the park, in which the principal amusement is to drag young ladies up the steep hill which leads to the Observatory, and then drag them down again, at the very top of their speed, greatly to the derangement of their curls and bonnet-caps, and much to the edification of lookers-on from below.  ‘Kiss in the Ring,’ and ‘Threading my Grandmother’s Needle,’ too, are sports which receive their full share of patronage.  Love-sick swains, under the influence of gin-and-water, and the tender passion, become violently affectionate: and the fair objects of their regard enhance the value of stolen kisses, by a vast deal of struggling, and holding down of heads, and cries of ‘Oh!  Ha’ done, then, George—Oh, do tickle him for me, Mary—Well, I never!’ and similar Lucretian ejaculations. "


Mr. Minns and his Cousin - if you have the idea that Dickens was all about angelic characters aside from the occasional villain, meet the constantly reoccurring character of the crotchety gentleman. Minns isn't at all a Scrooge duplicate - he seems to be about middle age, with very definite dislikes.

"...There were two classes of created objects which he held in the deepest and most unmingled horror; these were dogs, and children.  He was not unamiable, but he could, at any time, have viewed the execution of a dog, or the assassination of an infant, with the liveliest satisfaction.  Their habits were at variance with his love of order; and his love of order was as powerful as his love of life."

The Steam Excursion - I like the description of "parenthetical legs" - if you can't picture it, think of legs shaped like ( ). However the sad fact that underlies the humorous description is that legs bowed out like that meant that the child probably had rickets, a sign of malnutrition.

"Mr. Percy Noakes was a law student, inhabiting a set of chambers on the fourth floor, in one of those houses in Gray’s-inn-square which command an extensive view of the gardens, and their usual adjuncts—flaunting nursery-maids, and town-made children, with parenthetical legs."

The Black Veil - actually something worth looking up if you like the more gothic, Victorian horror story. I wouldn't say that Dickens pulls off the ending well, but then he was never particularly good at spooky endings - he seems to use a bit too much melodrama over a more quiet, creepy finish. He also likes to wrap things up with a lot of information, along the lines of "and what they did next, and how everyone lived happily ever after, or not." Here a young doctor is in a bad part of London, and knows it:

"When we say that the surgeon hesitated, and walked a few paces beyond the house, before he could prevail upon himself to lift the knocker, we say nothing that need raise a smile upon the face of the boldest reader.  The police of London were a very different body in that day; the isolated position of the suburbs, when the rage for building and the progress of improvement had not yet begun to connect them with the main body of the city and its environs, rendered many of them (and this in particular) a place of resort for the worst and most depraved characters.  Even the streets in the gayest parts of London were imperfectly lighted, at that time; and such places as these, were left entirely to the mercy of the moon and stars.  The chances of detecting desperate characters, or of tracing them to their haunts, were thus rendered very few, and their offences naturally increased in boldness, as the consciousness of comparative security became the more impressed upon them by daily experience.  Added to these considerations, it must be remembered that the young man had spent some time in the public hospitals of the metropolis; and, although neither Burke nor Bishop had then gained a horrible notoriety, his own observation might have suggested to him how easily the atrocities to which the former has since given his name, might be committed."

Those interested in more information on the criminals named should check under London Burkers. And here's an article on the Italian Boy's Murder (as the case was called).


A Passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle - which I did not like at all, except for a few descriptions, like this one of what a traffic jam (stoppage) of the period was like:

"... There are three classes of animated objects which prevent your driving with any degree of comfort or celerity through streets which are but little frequented—they are pigs, children, and old women.  On the occasion we are describing, the pigs were luxuriating on cabbage-stalks, and the shuttlecocks fluttered from the little deal battledores, and the children played in the road; and women, with a basket in one hand, and the street-door key in the other, would cross just before the horse’s head, until Mr. Gabriel Parsons was perfectly savage with vexation, and quite hoarse with hoi-ing and imprecating.  Then, when he got into Fleet-street, there was 'a stoppage,' in which people in vehicles have the satisfaction of remaining stationary for half an hour, and envying the slowest pedestrians; and where policemen rush about, and seize hold of horses’ bridles, and back them into shop-windows, by way of clearing the road and preventing confusion."

The Bloomsbury Christening - featuring an uncle Nicodemus Dumps who doesn't like children. Or people. Or much of anything. But again it's the descriptions I like:

"Cabs whisked about, with the ‘fare’ as carefully boxed up behind two glazed calico curtains as any mysterious picture in any one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s castles; omnibus horses smoked like steam-engines; nobody thought of ‘standing up’ under doorways or arches; they were painfully convinced it was a hopeless case; and so everybody went hastily along, jumbling and jostling, and swearing and perspiring, and slipping about, like amateur skaters behind wooden chairs on the Serpentine on a frosty Sunday."