Don't Know Dickens

Charles Dickens, that is.

Don’t take your guns to town, son

For some reason, Johnny Cash’s Don’t Take Your Guns to Town pops into my mind when I think about Barnaby (and his mother). Like the boy in the song, Barnaby does not mean harm, but he is caught up in the mob fever (no mob in Cash’s song, by the way–just a stupid kid who gets shot for pulling his weapon more slowly). Barnaby wants his mother to be proud, and it is touching–and sad–when he tells Hugh that he wants his mother to see him at his best. How could that ever happen in the company of a man/boy like Hugh?

Again, the romance of war is at work and that is something I will never understand.

I also don’t understand why Barnaby becomes a focal point of the mob’s attention. That Hugh gets attention makes sense: Hugh is hotheaded and reckless, promising a better life. I can understand why the young men follow him, but where does Barnaby fit it? Dickens makes it clear that Barnaby is “different,” so, by using such a character, is Dickens making the case that those who participated in the mob were crazy and stupid?  Or is it to make the point that even an innocent like Barnaby can get caught up in violence?

I think my favorite part of this novel is that Dickens puts the reader in the middle of the mob. This book evokes excitement and dread in ways I haven’t experienced with the other books we’ve read this semester.


Dickens in Pieces

I grew up in rural Mississippi. When I visited New Orleans with my family, I had never seen a “real” city in the morning–and what a treat that was! Yuck. I can still remember the smell of the trash cans and sidewalks that summer morning.

Reading “The Streets–Morning” reminded me of that experience. I remember, too, watching the town come to life, from the big picture to the details and the individuals. The last passage has a Rear Window quality to it–like I’m seeing more of the people’s lives than they are aware of. Maybe the routines of the morning reveal more about us than we think.

I’m not sure I want to visit the city of “The Streets–Night.” When Dickens mentions the height of glory, I was expecting something other than a wet, gloomy night. (I should know better by now, right?)  A night at the theatre followed by entertainment and refreshments would be nice, though. Until it is time to go home in the rain at 4am.

I can just imagine Dickens writing “The Prisoners’ Van” because it would be hard not to create a story after witnessing such a spectacle. My previous classroom overlooked a Bail Bondsman’s office, and I invented all sorts of stories for the people going in and out of that office. (One day my students and I saw a takedown on the lawn of the office–very educational.) It was sad and interesting and terrible all at the same time. When Emily in the passage mentions six weeks and labour, I definitely feel for her knowing what I know about Victorian prisons and the lack of opportunities for a poor woman without a family’s support. I imagine Dickens’ readers would’ve responded similarly.

I enjoyed reading these pieces; Dickens seems like more of a person somehow. His observations of the city make him a part of the city–and it gives him a credibility that I don’t think writers always have. And good for him that he was not afraid to write about the hard stuff and the ugly stuff.

These short glimpses also made me think that Dickens would have been a fan of social media: just think of all the observations he could’ve tweeted!

Victorian Prisons: Don’t Go There

Many criminals were executed.

Get rid of ‘em. Ship them to America or Australia.

And what’s the problem with that? (Well, besides morality and human decency, that is.)

According to “A Victorian Prison,” “hundreds of offenses carried the death penalty,” but, by 1860, the popular thought was that prisons should be feared since transportations and executions were not working. With bigger cities that  meant a larger urban population and crime, the Victorians wanted to maintain control and order in the cities.

Probably the worst part (besides the executions) was the practice of the silent system that began after the 1865 Prison Act. As its name suggests, convicted criminals worked long hours in silence. At night they slept on wooden boards, and they ate the same food on the same day of each week (“A Victorian Prison”).

Hard Labor

In some prisons, convicts worked on the treadmill that may or may not have driven a

Hard labor using the treadmill.

flour mill or pumped water; in some prisons, “after 1865 most treadmills had no purpose other than the effort required from the prisoners themselves to operate them” (“Victorian Crime and Punishment”). Forgive the personal commentary, but that’s crazy! Working a machine for hours that did nothing! I understand that prison is not supposed to be a fun place, but punishment for the sake of punishment does not make sense.

In their cells, convicts might have picked oakum–which means they separated tarred rope into its individual fibres. “They then had to take these individual strands and unroll them, usually by rolling them on their knee using their hands until the mesh became loose,” (“Prisoner 4099”), which supposedly gave the prisoners time to reflect on their crimes. I’m sure that there was quite a profit in this business–for the prisons, of course. Is some activity better than none?

Picking oakum.

As terrible as the crime and punishment system were in the Victorian era, it is interesting how societies continue to struggle with what to do with people who have broken the laws.

Works Cited

“A Victorian Prison.”

“Victorian Crime & Punishment.”

“Prisoner 4099.”





George Eliot

  • 1819-1880
  • Real name was Mary Anne Evans
  • Notable works: Middlemarch, Adam Bede, Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, and Daniel Deronada (Wikipedia).

George Eliot does not regard the novel as a vehicle for entertainment alone, but rather as a means of revealing the human condition (Victorian Web).

  • Connections to Dickens
  • She writes about social change (“George Eliot”).
  • She knew Charles Dickens.
  • According to Phillip Allingham, “Unlike Dickens, Eliot never allows her minor characters to get out of control and steal the scene.”
  • Cool facts
  • Her father helped her get an education because she wasn’t pretty enough for the marriage market.
  • She used a male pen name to set herself apart from chick-lit.
  • The queen read her stuff!
  • This lady courted scandal. She had a relationship with a married man, and later married a man twenty years younger. While she was not religious (despite paternal pressure), she could live somewhat independently because her father left her money after she had taken care of him.

Barnaby Rudge

I almost groaned in Chapter 1. How many books begin with this setting? Sheesh.

BUT, then I got caught up with the plot, and I did not have to force my way through the opening chaptersIt reminded me of Drood, which has been my favorite, with its simplified character list and development of plot. The references to ghosts, mysterious bells, ravens, and dead bodies has completely distracted me from Barnaby Rudge as a historical novel. I hope that this will be more character driven than Tale of Two Cities because I missed getting to know those characters more.

Chapters 1-9 seemed effortless to read, and the characters are engaging, particularly Migg. Whether she is a bitter and jealous woman or not, her prank on Sim Tappertit was hilarious–probably because he is so annoying with the “‘Prentice Knights” business.

This was unexpected, for me. The conditions that children lived–and worked–in are depressing and disturbing, but Dickens’ portrayal of Sim and his brotherhood did not evoke my sympathies. No, children shouldn’t be told they’re worthless or called a “dreadful idle vagrant,” but I’m sure that Sim’s organization is going to lead nowhere good. “Death to all masters, life to all ‘prentices, and love to all fair damsels” seems to be a childish motto with little thought to the consequences. Is Dickens messing with me? I would expect to on the side of the child, but I’m definitely not.

By Chapter 10, Mr. Chester, Mr. Varden, and Mr. Haredale appeared to be the characters of consequence, despite the novel being titled after Barnaby. [Side Note: Something about Barnaby reminded me of Faulkner’s Benjy in Sound and the Fury and the boy in Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.]

And there is a forbidden love with quarreling families. Yep, I’m gonna like this one.

OMF: What’s in a Name?

I have been thinking about the title of Our Mutual Friend quite a bit and why Dickens picked the title. Yes, maybe such wondering should wait until the end of the novel, but I wanted to blog about it before I forgot about it.

Option #1: Friends Emerge

This is the first section of reading that seems to be more about friends than enemies. From the beginning, people set up others–or maybe kill others. Characters have a public facade, but readers see their questionable or downright greedy motives when others aren’t looking. I haven’t been able to relax with this book because I’m constantly trying to figure things out.

In this section, though, I was much relieved to see acts of kindness (with no obvious self-serving reason behind such generosity). I hope that there will be more of a balance by the end of the novel.

Option #2

There is no such thing as a friend. If the Veneerings, Boffins, Lammles, and everyone associated with them are really friends, then I’m not sure if their idea of a friend is the same as mine. Or am I naive about people and their motivations?

Why are they so quick to form friendships? I guess this goes back to the dinner with the Veneerings and the marriage of the Lammles. People form such quick attachments to those who will help them get higher up on the social ladder without asking some serious questions: why would I want to know such shallow people? Who are they really? Why should I respect them?


Bleak House in Bullets

Before I start bulleting points, I have to say that I like Bleak House. Okay, it was a little slow in the beginning, but I like Esther and her plot. I find the court subplots long and boring; they would probably be more interesting if I understood more of the court system.

One other quick point: I don’t like Richard. I keep waiting for someone to stop indulging his whims, and tell him to pick a career. It is hard for me to like him with the way he spends money (and plans to spend his inheritance, if the case is settled).

Now the bullets:

  • Mysterious pasts
  • Money–real and pretend (like the inheritance from the case when it is settled or the money that is give through charity or even Mr. Skimpole)
  • Is there commentary about what a good woman should be, or I am being sensitive? Esther says of Mrs. Jellyby, “It is right to begin with the obligations of home.” Ouch.
  • Ghosts again?
  • And dead bodies.
  • Romance between Richard and Ada
  • Poverty that is hard to for the rich to comprehend. Mrs. Pardiggle sees the brickmaker’s living conditions, but she doesn’t see their suffering.
  • Generosity–real and for appearance’s sake

Overall, I like this book, and I like most of the characters–mostly because I like Esther and her way of seeing the world.


Money, Money, Money

I’m back into the book (but I wish I had written this three days ago because I’m forgetting things again). I thought a couple of weeks ago that things were starting to drag, but I can see things coming back together in an interesting way. The crazy part is that I can’t decide which story lines are more interesting than others–it keeps changing. Soap opera-esque, no doubt.

For instance, in the earlier chapters, I felt so sorry for the Lammles, and I was rooting for their revenge. Now? Hate ’em. They are terrible people, and I hope they suffer more. [This might also be a result of my accidentally skipping ahead 400 pages on my iPad without realizing it–but I won’t spoil anything.] Their pretense of wealth is disgusting; for example, they search for a “non-existent Lammle structure,” which is also referred to as a palatial residence. Again, at first, I did not mind their subterfuge, but Dickens makes it hard to understand their motivations by this part of the novel.

Maybe Bella’s story line offers too much of a contrast. She shirks wealth and its trappings. She even offers to help her mother cook–what a change! And it seems so sincere.

 I have money always in my thoughts and my desires. –Bella

Who doesn’t in this book? I feel that I may have judge her to harshly at the opening of the novel. She sees how wealth has corrupted Boffin and she seems to suspect the Lammles, too.

The Like List

Jenny Wren




Don’t Like

The Lammles

The Boffins (although I might move the wife to the “Like List”)


Not Sure

Silas Wegg

Mr. Riah

Mr. Riderhood

I’m still fascinated with the mounds, and I can’t visualize them. I’m reading OMF first this week, and I’m sure I will need to reread this book at some point. I’m missing/forgetting too much, and it seems that the plots are starting to converge.

One another mention: I really enjoyed the chapter titles!

A Tale of Two Cities Quickfire

I’m a sucker for a romance–especially when it involves obstacles. When I pick up a novel, I always hope that a great romance is about to unfold. The romance in A Tale of Two Cities, though, is not the one I expected.

After developing this perfect creature (Lucie) and the mysterious man (Darnay), I expected the works: courtship, marriage, etc. While this happens, it is hardly the focus of the novel. What surprised me, I guess, was the romance of war, justice, and morality. Dickens goes into such detail about the priviledged lives of the aristocrats and the difficult lives of the impoverished–and what a contrast that is. From drinking wine on the ground to terrible acts of violence, the poor of France grab the heart of the story.

Lucie and Darnay? I know they will be more of a focus in the “Book the Third” with Darnay determined to return to France, but will it shift the romance aspect back to them? I’m not sure I care. There are people fighting for liberty and right and wrong, and that seems so much more important than Lucie Darnay. I’m hooked to the romance of revolution.

Celebrating Dickens

It was an entire day of Dickens, which was exciting and a little surprising. People were talking about Dickens on the internet, the radio, and even at my school.

Before I left for school, I tweeted a quick birthday message and viewed a video recommended by Twitter about Charles Dickens.

Although the video is not long (under five minutes), I enjoyed the glimpses of Dickens’ England. Most of the information mentioned is general biographical info accompanied with images of London–new and old. Nevertheless, there is something about seeing where he lived and worked to make his story compelling. How would working in a factory at a young age affect how you see the world? What does living in rat-infested buildings do to a person? Such real experiences in life had to have benefited him as a writer.

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