Charles Dickens as journalist
Charles Dickens – the great novelist – was also a journalist in love with the streets.
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“A change of performance takes place every day during the fair, but the story of the tragedy is always pretty much the same. There is a rightful heir, who loves a young lady, and is beloved by her; and a wrongful heir, who loves her too, and isn’t beloved by her; and the wrongful heir gets hold of the rightful heir, and throws him into a dungeon, just to kill him off when convenient, for which purpose he hires a couple of assassins.... Then the rightful heir is discovered in prison, carefully holding a long chain in his hands, and seated despondently in a large armchair; and the young lady comes in to two bars of soft music, and embraces the rightful heir; and then the wrongful heir comes in to two bars of quick music.... The interest becomes intense; the wrongful heir draws his sword, and rushes on the rightful heir; a blue smoke is seen, a gong is heard, and a tall white figure (who has been all the time, behind the armchair, covered over with a tablecloth), slowly rises to the tune of ‘Oft in the stilly night.’ This is no other than the ghost of the rightful heir’s father....”Skip to next paragraph
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And so on, with ever more hilarious complications, until the curtain drops.
While there is a good deal of fancy in Dickens’ reportage, the second half of "Sketches by Boz" consists of what are, in fact, out-and-out short stories. Some of these are highly sentimental, several farcical, and one, “The Black Veil,” is both Gothicky and melodramatic in its account of a young surgeon commissioned by a poor woman to revive her hanged son. (Given his own tastes in such matters, Edgar Allan Poe, in a review, naturally singled out this last story as “an act of stirring tragedy, and evincing lofty powers in the writer.”) Still, the most powerful pages in "Sketches by Boz" are those titled “A Visit to Newgate.” After depicting the claustrophobic oppressiveness of the notorious prison, Dickens puts himself in the mind of a condemned felon on the night before he is to be executed:
“Conceive the situation of a man, spending his last night on earth in this cell. Buoyed up with some vague and undefined hope of reprieve, he knew not why – indulging in some wild and visionary idea of escaping he knew not how – hour after hour of the three preceding days allowed him for preparation, has fled with a speed which no man living would deem possible.... He has wearied his friends with entreaties, exhausted the attendants with importunities, neglected in his feverish restlessness the timely warnings of his spiritual consoler; and now that the illusion is at last dispelled, now that eternity is before him and guilt behind, now that his fears of death amount almost to madness, and an overwhelming sense of his helpless, hopeless state rushes upon him, he is lost and stupefied....”
Notice the long, weighty sentences, reflecting the prisoner’s mental desolation. Dickens then imagines – in a prefiguring of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” – that the doomed man finally falls asleep and fitfully relives his trial and its aftermath. Suddenly – and feel how the prose immediately starts to pick up speed – he realizes that the prison gate has been left open, “and in an instant he is in the street, flying from the scene of his imprisonment like the wind.... At length he pauses; he must be safe now; he will stretch himself on that bank and sleep till sunrise....”
Alas, when he wakes, “cold and wretched,” he realizes it has been only a dream and that “he is the condemned felon again, guilty and despairing, and in two hours more will be dead.”
The sketches first appeared in book form on February 8, 1836 – one day after Charles Dickens turned 24. By then, Boz had already created quite a buzz through their appearance in newspapers: Wordsworth wrote to a friend that he’d heard from Thomas Arnold that the boys at Rugby school “seemed to care for nothing but Bozzy’s next number.” Nonetheless, Boz was soon overshadowed by the Cockney Sam Weller, whose introduction in the tenth chapter of the serialized "Pickwick Papers" produced a sensation, triumphantly confirming Dickens’ decision to become a novelist.