Charles Dickens as journalist

Charles Dickens – the great novelist – was also a journalist in love with the streets. 

Scholars estimate that during the roughly 35 years of his active career Charles Dickens produced more than a million words of nonfiction. As a reporter, nothing escaped his street-smart eye and ear.

Born 200 years ago this month, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is arguably the greatest novelist in English and quite certainly the creator of more memorable characters than any writer since Shakespeare. Just recall a few names: Fagin, Miss Havisham, Mr. Micawber,  Uriah Heep, The Artful Dodger,  Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller, The Fat Boy (“I wants to make your flesh creep”), Sairey Gamp, Madame Defarge, Mr. Gradgrind,  Krook (who self-combusts), Little Nell, Scrooge—the list could go on and on. These bit players in the novels that run from "The Pickwick Papers" and "Oliver Twist" to "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" aren’t just alive, they’re immortal.

Yet if you glance over Dickens’s biography, you might almost conclude that he was primarily a journalist who wrote fiction on the side. Scholars estimate that during the roughly 35 years of his active career he produced more than a million words of nonfiction. By his early twenties Dickens was already acknowledged as the best Parliamentary reporter in England. His first book, "Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People" (1836) collects a series of “you-are-there” newspaper reports on “shabby genteel” London in the mid 1830s. Nothing escapes Dickens’ street-smart eye and ear, as he visits the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall, the second-hand clothes shops of Monmouth Street, the city’s pawnshops and theaters and gin joints.

“We have,” proclaimed the young journalist, “a most extraordinary partiality for lounging about the streets. Whenever we have an hour or two to spare, there is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy – walking up one street and down another, and staring into shop windows, and gazing about as if, instead of being on intimate terms with every shop and house in Holborn, the Strand, Fleet Street and Cheapside, the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind. We revel in a crowd of any kind – a street ‘row’ is our delight – even a woman in a fit is by no means to be despised, especially in a fourth-rate street...”

Years later Dickens tended to dismiss his early journalism as picturesque juvenilia. Hardly. Already the writing is what we now readily identify as "Dickensian," glorying in that mix of humor, archness and bounce, that theatricality, which belongs to “the Inimitable” alone. Above all, for today’s casual reader, "Sketches by Boz"– in contrast to such Victorian-Gothic cathedrals as "Bleak House," "Little Dorrit," and "Our Mutual Friend" – is an approachable, friendly book. None of its vignettes of Cockney London goes on for more than a dozen or so pages. One can open the book at random,  read a few pieces, enjoy the Cruikshank illustrations, and marvel at  a description, a bit of overheard conversation, or even a list. A list? Dickens’ operatic imagination  could never resist any opportunity for a catalogue aria:

“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. ”

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:

“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....”

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.

And yet he never abandoned journalism. He loved the way newspapers and periodicals allowed him to be in regular touch with his public, almost a member of the family.  Over the course of his literary career he was associated – as contributor and often as editor – with The Monthly Magazine, Bell’s Weekly Magazine, The Morning Chronicle, The Evening Chronicle, Bentley’s Miscellany, The Daily NewsHousehold Words and All the Year Round.  As the chief “conductor” of Household Words, he claimed that one year he read  900 manuscripts submitted for consideration, and accepted about one in 80. His own novels appeared there – and later in All the Year Round – as serials, yet he still found time to comment on topics in the news and, in scholar Michael Slater’s summary, editorialize about “Red Tapism, ‘flunkeyism,’ ‘toadyism,’ ministerial and administrative incompetence, phoney patriotism, party-political games, legal injustices.”

Always fascinated by crime, Dickens would even hang out with Scotland Yard detectives – one inspector, he recalls, possessed a particularly “reserved and thoughtful air, as if he were engaged in deep arithmetical calculations”– and record some of their cases. He is, in effect, the complete newspaperman: part police reporter, part investigative journalist, part Op-Ed columnist, part feature writer. And that’s not all. In the view of one informed authority – the 20th-century press baron Lord Northcliffe – Dickens ranks as “the greatest magazine editor either of his own or any other age.”

Consider one of his most scathing pieces of reportage: “The Paradise at Tooting.” Here, with savage indignation, Dickens lays out the conditions at a kind of orphanage, where scores of children died of cholera: “The dietary of the children,” he wrote, “is so unwholesome and insufficient, that they climb secretly over the palings and pick out scraps of sustenance from the tubs of hog-wash.”

Yet even the crusader Dickens could still revert occasionally to New Yorker-style casuals, such as “Our English Watering-Place,” an essay about a seaside resort in off season. At one point he visits the resort’s library and discovers that a Miss Julia Mills has read all the romance novels on the shelves. And not only that: “She has left marginal notes on the pages, as ‘Is not this truly touching? J.M.’ ‘How thrilling! J.M.’ ‘Entranced here by the Magician’s potent spell. J.M.’ She has also italicized her favourite traits in the description of the hero as ‘his hair, which was dark and wavy, clustered in rich profusion around a marble brow, whose lofty paleness bespoke the intellect within.’ It reminds her of another hero. She adds, ‘How like B.L. Can this be mere coincidence? J.M.’ ”

Apart from all his short articles, polemics, and reviews, Dickens’ also published two books that may be loosely called  travelogues: the rather sour "American Notes" and the rather bland "Pictures of Italy." Nonetheless, as he wrote in an essay called “The Long Voyage,” all his life he had delighted in “travel books”:

“When the wind is blowing and the sleet or rain is driving against the dark windows, I love to sit by the fire, thinking of what I have read in books of voyage and travel. Such books have had a strong fascination for my mind from my earliest childhood; and I wonder it should have come to pass that I never have been round the world, never have been shipwrecked, ice-environed, tomahawked, or eaten.”

While Dickens produced journalism steadily throughout his life, he saved what many regard as his best for last: In "All the Year Round" he published 37 intimate, somewhat mellow reports from an autobiographical figure called “The Uncommercial Traveller”:

“I am both a town traveler and a country traveler, and am always on the road. Figuratively speaking, I travel for the great house of Human Interest Brothers....  Literally speaking, I am always wandering here and there from my room in Covent-garden, London – now about the City streets, now about the country bye-roads – seeing many little things, and some great things, which, because they interest me, I think may interest others.”

In these late essays he returns, for a last time, to many of the same themes first adumbrated in "Sketches by Boz," but now in a quieter, more writerly fashion, obviously taking his inspiration from The Spectator essays of Addison and Steele. His topics range from accounts of homelessness to reflections on dogs to charming reminiscences of childhood (see, for instance, “Nurse’s Stories,” with the thrilling account of the Bluebeard-like Captain Murderer). Throughout, his similes remain as striking as ever: Ship passengers “lie about in melancholy bundles, as if they were sorted out for the laundress.” Yet Dickens can still surprise you, as when he writes not about dentists – which would be unusual enough – but rather about the dentist’s aide:

“The Dentist’s servant. Is that man no mystery to us, no type of invisible power? The tremendous individual knows (who else does?) what is done with the extracted teeth; he knows what goes on in the little room where something is always being washed or filed; he knows what warm spicy infusion is put into the comfortable tumbler from which we rinse our wounded mouth, with a gap in it that feels a foot wide....”

If you decide to read Dickens journalism during this anniversary year, start with "Sketches by Boz," which is readily available in paperback or in an e-book edition. Many of the other essays can be found in modern collections such as the Penguin "Selected Journalism," or in old sets of the complete works, usually gathered under the titles "Reprinted Pieces" and "Miscellaneous Papers." Check out your local used bookstore for cheap volumes from broken sets. Best of all, if you’re rich you can buy – and if you’re lucky you can borrow from a good library, as I did – the four-volume Dent edition of "Dickens' Journalism," edited by Michael Slater (joined by John Drew for the fourth volume, "The Uncommercial Traveller.")  Beautifully laid-out and printed, the set supplies basic contextual and historical information about each essay: This is scholarly publishing at its most attractive and useful.

Two hundred years ago this month Charles Dickens was born. One hundred and seventy six years ago tomorrow "Sketches by Boz" as published in book form. Surely that should be enough for a toast? Let us therefore, like all members in good-standing of the immortal Pickwick Club, raise our glasses high, shout huzzah, and drink to the glorious memory of a great writer and a great journalist.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post

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