Sketches by Boz, the first volume of the new Oxford Dickens, was also the title of Dickens's first book. It is a collection of sixty pieces, mostly humorous although there is nothing funny about 'A Visit to Newgate', which first appeared as contributions to magazines and newspapers in the mid 1830s. They are distinguished by his sharp and often satirical observation of social situations and London characters; but, with one exception, they are works of fiction. Fourteen can be described as short stories, but most are sketches presented to us as reportage. They show why Dickens was recognised as a brilliant new talent from the outset of his career. In the absence of any manuscripts, the text of each piece (with one exception) is based upon the first published version. They offer Dickens as he appeared to his very first readers in the mid 1830s, and as he has not been seen since. Dickens edited later editions, cutting contemporary references, oaths and sexual innuendo. The consequence of reading Dickens as he was is startling, for these pieces both offer a direct reflection of the social scene in London of the period, and have a raciness which Dickens excised from later printings. This work rediscovers the young Dickens.
The latter set of Tales were varied, with a few dull ones, but also some very funny ones, esp The Boarding House, Mr Minns and his Cousin (Dickens's first published piece as A Dinner at Poplar Walk), Horatio Sparkins and The Bloomsbury Christening. The Black Veil and The Drunkard's Death were very haunting.
The illustrations by George Cruikshank were marvellous, better than those by Phiz in my view, with a Hogarthian sort of feel about them. 4/5
I have finally done so and am glad to have made the effort despite the variable
In the section titled “Scenes” we see London of the 1830’s through Dickens eyes. He knew his city intimately and here he vividly evokes it’s sights and sounds just before the Victorian era dawns. He shows us pawn shops and the gin-soaked criminal quarter of Seven Dials. He visits Newgate Prison, inaugurating his lifetime interest in penal institutions. He takes us inside the London theatres and the cheerful vulgarity of Astley’s Amphitheatre. He sees everything and he also listens. Through him we hear the voices of costermongers and omnibus drivers, prison officers and shoppers, the pleasure seekers at Vauxhall Gardens .
These vibrant pieces are perhaps the best of these early writings. In “Characters” and “Tales” we see his early attempts at imaginative writing. In later life he was critical of many of them, noting the rushed quality they had and seeing many of these short pieces as “crude and ill-considered, and bearing obvious marks of haste and inexperience.” They are interesting though in showing us the development of the writer’s mind and we can see where characters such as Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller came from. I find myself in agreement with Thea Home who wrote the introduction for this ‘Oxford’ edition. She points out that the sketches have a special fascination in both fore-shadowing the work of a writer of genius and also revealing the young Boz . We are surely walking alongside Dickens himself when we encounter the patrons and performers of ‘Private Theatres’ whose proprietors may be “..an ex-scene painter, a low coffee-house keeper, a disappointed eighth-rate actor, a retired smuggler, or uncertificated bankrupt.”
I particularly enjoyed “The Tuggses at Ramsgate”, partly set on a pleasure steamer on the Thames and brimful of vivid characters in a tale of a rise in fortune and social climbing gone sadly awry.
“..the City of London Ramsgate steamer was running gaily down the river. Her flag was flying, her band was playing, her passengers were conversing; everything about her seemed gay and lively,- No wonder- the Tuggses were on board.”
I did come to the conclusion that the ‘dipping’ approach has something to be said for it with this collection, as reading straight through does become tedious. This is particularly the case with some of the weaker sections of this edition such as “The Mudfog Papers” which I would not recommend as the humour is forced and tedious in the extreme.
I experimented with using Libravox with this. On the plus side - a free, complete, audio copy of the book. On the down side, there was a HUGE difference in the quality of