Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2012 Evelyn C. Leeper.


AMERICAN NOTES FOR GENERAL CIRCULATION by Charles Dickens:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/22/2005]

Charles Dickens's AMERICAN NOTES FOR GENERAL CIRCULATION (ISBN 0-14-043077-6) is about Dickens's 1842 trip to the United States, during which he visited prisons, workhouses, orphanages, and asylums, and wrote about them. Sometimes he found them models that England should emulate; other times he found them horrific. He says very little about society or social events. I'm sure she attended some, but his goal in describing his trip was more social reform than to write a 19th century "People" magazine. He spends far more time describing the clothing of the working class than of the cream of society, and points out the flaws he sees. For example, he notes "Some Southern republican that, who puts his blacks in uniform, and swells with Sultan pomp and power." And as the book goes on, he finds more to complain about, from the practice of chewing (and spitting) tobacco to the practice of slavery, which he finds abhorrent. Yet he too has his blind spots. He describes traveling through some areas where he was served by slaves, and also through women's prisons, yet later says, "Nor did I ever once, on any occasion, anywhere, during my rambles in America, see a woman exposed to the slightest act of rudeness, incivility, or even inattention" (page 192). What he seems to mean is no white woman, and for that matter, probably only those of the higher classes.

But I do love his description of the sleeping arrangements on one of the canal boats he took: "I found suspended on either side of the cabin three long tiers of hanging book-shelves, designed apparently for volumes of the small octavo size. Looking with greater attention at these contrivances (wondering to find such literary preparations in such a place), I descried on each shelf a sort of microscopic sheet and blanket; then I began dimly to comprehend that the passengers were the library, and that they were to be arranged, edge-wise, on these shelves, till morning" (page 193).

And Dickens, or rather his guide book, certainly disagrees with Attorneys General Edwin Meese and John Ashcroft when it says of the statue The Spirit of Justice in the Capitol, "the artist at first contemplated giving more of nudity, but he was warned that the public sentiment in this country would not admit of it, and in his caution he has gone, perhaps, into the opposite extreme" (page 165).

This book serves as a good way of seeing the social philosophy and attitudes informing Dickens's novels as well as an outsider's portrait of life in mid-19th century America. (Alexis de Tocqueville traveled a bit earlier, about 1831. He also came to inspect the prisons and workhouses, but wrote about considerably more.)

To order American Notes for General Circulation from amazon.com, click here.


BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/24/2006]

BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens (ISBN 0-553-21223-0) seems to be the current "classic du jour" with both an eight-hour "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation and a five-hour BBC radio adaptation in the last few months. I figured I should read the book first, before watching or listening to either of those, but after 200 pages (out of 800 pages total), I decided that Dickens was definitely paid by the word, and this was way too padded out for me. Oh, there were some fine passages, such as "Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man to have so inexhaustible a subject. After reading his letters, he leans back in his corner of the carriage and generally reviews his importance to society." [Chapter 12]

Nothing so displays the poles of wonderful reading versus repetition (to me anyway) as Dickens's first two paragraphs. The first, about London in November, is as evocative of a scene as any; the second, about the fog, is merely repetitious:

"London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street- corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest."

"Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier- brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds."

In fairness, I should say that Vladimir Nabokov thinks this repetition is a positive thing, saying in his LECTURES ON LITERATURE, "Dickens enjoys a kind of incantation, a verbal formula verbally recited with growing emphasis; an oratorical, forensic device." I disagree with this (as well as with Nabokov's use of the semi-colon). ("Forensic" seemed to be wrong also, but it is defined in my somewhat older dictionary as "suitable for debate; rhetorical".) Then again, maybe Dickens is a man's author, since Nabokov starts his lecture (given at Cornell when that university was all-male, one presumes) by saying, "In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort in order to join the ladies in the drawing room. In the case of Dickens we remain at table with our tawny port."

In spite of Nabokov's words, I have liked other Dickens, but perhaps the fact that this not only drags on and on, but that the plot is about a lawsuit that drags on and on, make it seem far more tedious than, say, A TALE OF TWO CITIES.

To order Bleak House from amazon.com, click here.


MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT by Charles Dickens:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/08/2011]

We recently watched the 1985 BBC version of Charles Dickens's MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT. I found an interesting contrast between Dickens's attitude toward "flighty" girls and Jane Austen's attitude. In Austen, when a young girl who is a major character cares only for dances and pretty clothes and soldiers in uniform, and looks on marriage as a way to lord it over her unmarried sisters, fate (or friends and family) conspire to make everything turn out all right. In Dickens, when a young girl has a similar attitude, she ends up as she probably would in real life: with a husband who married her only for her money, and who drinks and beats her. (I realize that the generalization about Austen is not entirely true. For example, Colonel Brandon's first love in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY comes to a bad end, but she is not a major character--indeed, we never actually meet her at all.)

And speaking of Dickens, it is clear that Tolkien got his inspiration for the hobbits' names from Dickens. Brandybuck, Bracegirdle, Sandheaver, Smallburrow ... they have a certain Dickensian ring to them, don't they?

To order Martin Chuzzlewit from amazon.com, click here.


Go to Evelyn Leeper's home page.