Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Drowning my sorrows in Dickens

I am not happy about the state of our book club. No, I am not happy at all. So I am turning to my old standby, English literature; to be precise, The Old Curiosity Shop, by Dickens.

I chose this book because it is mentioned in Little Women, and to my surprise it is, in many ways, a hoot. The overarching plot, of a young girl whose life is ruined by her gambling grandfather, is rife with pathos, but for all that, this book is really funny. I never really thought of Dickens in this light before.

There are many interesting characters, some unremittingly vile, some more complex, and some, or course, as good as the day is long. The introduction seems to imply that the heroine, little Nell, is on the insipid side, but I am having none of that. She reminds me of Maya, actually, in the excessive sweetness of her nature and her desire to protect and serve others, as well as her vivid imagination that makes her more anxious sometimes than perhaps she needs to be.

The story itself eventually revolves around a character whose very name indicates movement: Richard Swiveller. Originally seeming to be dissolute and disreputable, by the end of the book he is shown to be a good-hearted, although clearly weak-willed, man who ultimately is the cause of much good in many lives. And he is the subject of my favorite passage in the book:

... he decided to pick a quarrel with Miss Wackles without delay, and casting about for a pretext, determined in favor of groundless jealousy. Having made up his mind on the important point, he circulated the glass (from his right hand to his left, and back again) pretty freely, to enable him to act his part with the greater discretion, and then, after making some slight improvements in his toilet, bent his steps towards the spot hallowed by the fair object of his meditations.

This spot was at Chelsea, for there Miss Sophia Wackles resided with her widowed mother and two sisters, where she maintained a very small day-school for young ladies or proportionate dimension ...

To this Ladies' Seminary, then, Richard Swiveller hied, with designs obnoxious to the peace of the fair Sophia ...

(Glass in this case means mirror, a hand-held mirror to be precise, just in case it's not obvious from the context.)

Designs obnoxious to the peace of the fair Sophia. Yes, I love it.

I also like the passage where the villain intimidates his wife and mother-in-law by the way he eats breakfast:

..he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits and began to doubt if he were really a human creature.

I love this book, and I didn't expect to at all, since as far as I know it's not regarded as one of Dickens' major works.

Next I will be reading the Palliser Novels, by Anthony Trollope, and sometime soon re-reading Pride and Prejudice.

It's a lonely undertaking, but what's a reader to do?

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Blogger Lesley said...

Sally gave me a book to's a collection of short stories. I need something to get me motivated!

5:26 PM  

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