Charles Dickens's Sketches by Bozforeshadows his novels in its profusion of characters, its glimpses of surreal modernity and its limitless fund of pathos and comic invention. This Penguin Classics edition is edited with notes and an introduction by Dennis Walder.Published under the pen-name 'Boz', Charles Dickens's first 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.In his introduction, Dennis Walder discusses Dickens's social commentary, his view of London and his imaginative mixing of genres, and places the Sketches in the tradition of eighteenth and nineteenth-century reportage. This edition also includes the original illustrations by George Cruickshank, a chronology, further reading, appendices and notes.Charles Dickens is one of the best-loved novelists in the English language, whose 200th anniversary was celebrated in 2012. His most famous books, including Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfieldand The Pickwick Papers, have been adapted for stage and screen and read by millions.If you enjoyed Sketches by Boz, you might like Dickens's The Pickwick Papers, also available in Penguin Classics.
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 quality of these ‘prentice pieces, originally written for a number of different publications.
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 readers from chapter to chapter.