Charles Dickens as journalist
Charles Dickens – the great novelist – was also a journalist in love with the streets.
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“Our readers must often have observed in some by-street, in a poor neighborhood, a small dirty shop, exposing for sale the most extraordinary and confused jumble of old, worn-out, wretched articles, that can well be imagined. Our wonder at their ever having been bought is only to be equaled by our astonishment at the idea of their ever being sold again. On a board, at the side of the door, are placed about twenty books – all odd volumes; and as many wine-glasses – all different patterns; several locks, an old earthenware pan, full of rusty keys; two or three gaudy chimney-ornaments – cracked, of course; the remains of a lustre, without any drops; a round frame like a capital O, which has once held a mirror; a flute, complete with the exception of the middle joint; a pair of curling-irons; and a tinder-box. In front of the shop-window are ranged some half-dozen high-backed chairs, with spinal complaints and wasted legs; a corner cupboard; two or three very dark mahagony tables .... an unframed portrait of some lady who flourished about the beginning of the thirteenth century, by an artist who never flourished at all; ... fenders and street-door knockers, fire-irons, wearing apparel and bedding, a hall-lamp, and a room-door. ”Skip to next paragraph
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As any habitué of thrift shops will recognize, some things never change.
Theatrical to the bone, in these pages Dickens – who would at the end of his life thrill audiences with public readings from his own works – instinctively transforms any group of people into a mini-drama. At a pawnshop he zeroes in on a young woman, accompanied by her mother, who hopes to pledge “a small gold chain and a ‘Forget-me-not’ ring; the girl’s property, for they are both too small for the mother; given her in better times; prized, perhaps, once, for the giver’s sake, but parted with now without a struggle; for want has hardened the mother, and her example has hardened the girl, and the prospect of receiving money, coupled with a recollection of the misery they have both endured from the want of it – the coldness of old friends – the stern refusal of some, and the still more galling compassion of others – appears to have obliterated the consciousness of self-humiliation, which the idea of their present situation would once have aroused.”
This is already powerful, but Dickens further heightens the drama by adding an onlooker, “whose attire, miserably poor but extremely gaudy, wretchedly cold but extravagantly fine, too plainly bespeaks her station.” The still young prostitute gazes at the other girl’s trinkets, which seem to call up memories, until she suddenly draws back, covers her face, and bursts into tears. Dickens concludes on an almost Proustian note:
“There are strange chords in the human heart, which will lie dormant through years of depravity and wickedness, but which will vibrate at last to some slight circumstance apparently trivial in itself, but connected by some undefined and indistinct association with past days that can never be recalled, and with bitter recollections from which the most degraded creature in existence cannot escape.”
For all the realism in the "Sketches" (and the later works), Dickens constantly extrapolates from what he sees, fantastically animating the inanimate, regularly blurring the horrific and the humorous, revealing London after dark as an Arabian Nights-like realm, Baghdad on the Thames. As his biographer Peter Ackroyd writes, he is “ready to see the farce and absurdity inherent in human behaviour but is always alert to the darker music beneath it.” Of course, he can be astonishingly funny, too, as when summarizing the hokey melodramas presented at Greenwich Fair: