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Dickens' sketches of life and London

  • Jun 2, 2011
Part of the rating of "what a classic" I'm assigning to Boz goes to its place in the canon.  Started before his famous novels, as newspaper columns that were his first published work, uncredited and unpaid at first, the sketches in original format, editing, rewriting, reordering, and republishing in volume format extended almost through Dickens' entire career.  That they flashed so much talent so early (he wasn't unpaid and uncredited for long) is not so surprising as that Dickens, clearly recognizing the worth and respect he owed these short sketches, spent so much time revising and republishing them.

So as published here (not quite in final form, as Penguin's editor pulls from an early collected edition because Dickens cleaned up some of his earthier language in later editions) Boz predates, prefigures, and encompasses many of the themes and settings of the better known novels in his canon.  Setting is important, as always in Dickens, perhaps even more so here as much of the material was written as an observer of London life for the newspapers that published it; see, for example, Going Astray:  Dickens and London, (as I noted in my review, I should have read Boz first).

As reordered by Dickens, the Sketches are arranged around four broad topics--sketches of parish life, scenes, characters, and tales.  The most successful of the sketches are the strictly observational ones, where one can see Dickens' great genius at painting word-pictures of inimitably (not for nothing was his nickname "The Inimitable") colorful, vivid, humorous, and poignant clarity.  Both the brick-and-mortar streets of London, the Victorian culture,  and the world of our imaginations would be barer, then and now, without the  great talent Dickens shared with us.

The tales, while prefiguring some of the characters and set-pieces of the more complex and fully-realized novels, I found less satisfying than the observational pieces that constitute the greater part of Boz (a pen name he used early on based on a runny-nosed child's pronunciation of Moses).  Perhaps this is because the completed novels are so powerfully realized that we recognize these for what they are, Tinkertoys in the hands of a master engineer of the English language.  Interestingly, a couple of the tales here read with a twinge of Gothic mystery that echoes Poe--writing a bit before Dickens and providing positive reviews of Dickens from across the ocean--and would not reappear until the tragically foreshortened Edwin Drood.

When should one read Boz?  I followed the more common track of making my way through the major novels before finding my way here, and in this fashion Boz serves as a great frame and stand to place the novels upon after reading them.  But if you came to Boz first, it would read just as well, especially because Dickens' greater fame precedes him and the reader will be able to move on to the more familiar novels with assurance that more of the same--and even better-- awaits.

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June 28, 2011
I agree with Jennifer-- wonderful reminder of Dickens' other writings!
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #37
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Charles Dickens's first published book, "Sketches by Boz" (1836) heralded an exciting new voice in English literature. This richly varied collection of observation, fancy and fiction shows the London he knew so intimately at its best and worst - its streets, theatres, inns, pawnshops, law courts, prisons, omnibuses and the river Thames - in honest and visionary descriptions of everyday life and people. Through pen portraits that often anticipate characters from his great novels, we see the condemned man in his prison cell, garrulous matrons, vulgar young clerks and Scrooge-like bachelors, while Dickens's powers for social critique are never far from the surface, in unflinching depictions of the vast metropolis's forgotten citizens, from child workers to prostitutes. A startling mixture of humour and pathos, these Sketches reveal London as wonderful terrain for an extraordinary young writer. "Sketches" is a remarkable achievement, and looks towards Dickens's giant novels in its profusion of characters, its glimpses of surreal modernity and its limitless fund of pathos and comic invention.
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ISBN-10: 0140433457
ISBN-13: 978-0140433456
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: Penguin Classics

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