After I finished my 4th novel, well, the 3rd draft of it, who knows what needs to be done to it and at what time it needs to be done, I sent it off to my ‘agent’. He’s not really my agent as we don’t have a writer/agent relationship, he doesn’t have a relationship with me but with a book of mine, my 3rd novel, Johnny William & the Cameraman. However, what’s a writer to do after finishing number 4 but send it on to someone and an agent who has a relationship with number 3 is as good as any. He said he was looking forward to reading it. He said he liked it. With number 4 out of my hair, I felt like my pet budgie had flown away, a little lost. I scanned two abandoned pieces of prose, both over 20,000 words, one set in a declining rural town that seeks its survival only to have that thwarted by the media; and a story of a group of people who witness a tragedy on Sydney Harbour. Neither re-tickled my novelistic fancy.
Original illustrations by George Cruikshank
“It’s all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers and Pickpockets,” said Lord Melbourne, the young Queen Victoria’s prime minister. “I don’t like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented.”
I think it’s “excessively interesting,” said the young Queen.
Oliver Twist (1837) was a bit of a shock for Dickens’ fans who were introduced to the writer through that plump, accident-prone, well-off, and comic character, Mr Pickwick. And then along comes the serialised Oliver Twist, even before the serialised The Pickwick Papers, which garnered a circulation of 20,000, had finished; and in a new magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, edited by Dickens. The underworld of London low life had, in the past, been treated lightheartedly, even comically, but Oliver Twist was something very different. Thieves, house-breakers, pickpockets all living squashed together in dingy slums and mud, taking pride in their work, but seemingly surviving in little groups that resembled something close to ‘a family’; and dealing not only with petty crime, but also, kidnapping, murder, treachery, and domestic violence.
If you think you know the story, you probably do.
A young orphan, innocent and alone, is put to work in a workhouse, fed on watery gruel, and where he has the audacity to ask for ‘more’; is mistreated, runs away, meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, and Fagin and his gang of thieving street boys; is saved from the same occupation by the kindly Mr Brownlow; is kidnapped by Nancy, harassed by the villainous Bill Sikes and forced into a stint of house-breaking, only to be shot and taken in by the also kindly Mrs Maylie and her ward Rose – really his aunt; threatened by the mysterious and dangerous, Mr Monks – who is actually Oliver’s half-brother; but saved by the pitiable but kind Nancy, who is murdered by her lover, Sikes for her efforts; and ultimately reunited with the kindly Mr Brownlow, who adopts him for a predictable happy ending: the oft used, and abused, first rule of novel writing. Oscar Wild said it best and said it better by giving it to Miss Prism to say in his most famous play, The Importance of being Earnest (1895):
The good end happily; the bad end unhappily. That’s what fiction means.
However, what is equally as interesting is what Dickens can teach writers.
Oliver took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection.
Dickens sentences, usually long, are full of information and in a way that makes them seem packed with it; and sarcasm.
Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble; and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry; and these two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a man in a white waistcoat said he was a fool, which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.
These two lines are early in the book, carrying some of the lightheartedness his readership would’ve expected having read The Pickwick Papers, but then surprising them later by his darker themes.
He also uses expression to mirror action. After Sike’s failed house-breaking attempt, during which Oliver is shot, the friends and neighbours of the assailed inhabitants, Mrs Maylie and her ward, Rose, decide to investigate the crime-scene.
Lights were then procured, and Messrs Blathers and Duff, attended by the native constable, Brittles, Giles, and everybody else in short, went into the little room at the end of the passage, and looked out at the window, and afterwards went round by way of the lawn, and looked in at the window, and after that had a candle handed out to inspect the shutter with, and after that a lantern to trace the footsteps with, and after that a pitchfork to poke the bushes with.
A lot of repetitive energy, and phrases, to produce not a scrap of evidence.
Dickens is a great character-builder with the use of dialogue.
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’), uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’), and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’. Mr Grimwig, a friend of Mr Brownlow’s, uses a unique expression not ‘… I’ll eat my hat” but ” … I’ll eat my head.” Barnaby, a street urchin, has an adenoidal problem over the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’: “Dobody but Biss Dadsy” (Nobody but Miss Nancy.) Bill Sikes regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it was replaced simply by ‘D-‘; they understood what it meant but were not forced to actually ‘read’ such a shocking word. In a hierarchical society such as Dickensian London where one’s status is ruled by birth, income, education, and gender, such distinctive character differentiation may not be appropriate in a modern context but giving characters vocal habits is a useful device for character differentiation. Dickens has Fagin call everyone, regardless of gender, age, or status, ‘my dear’. Ascribing a character with a particular grammatical habit of, say, never using contractions helps to paint a rather serious and stern person. If characters are not first speakers of the readers’ first language grammatical mistakes ( no plural ‘s’, wrong prepositions, gerund misuse, etc) are really essential. I once heard a writer, a young male American, read, at a literary event, a section of his new novel that was set in Rome but had a Mexican character who sounded, when he spoke, nothing like a Mexican English-speaker living in Rome; he and each of the characters sounded like a young male American. A missed opportunity.
In contemporary fiction the narrator is, usually in the third person, a nameless, genderless, all-knowing, god-like voice with access not only to characters’ thoughts, desires, and plans, but also to their past and future lives. Not so with Dickens. He writes directly to the ‘reader’, calling them such, and refers to himself as the ‘biographer’, and ‘faithful historian … who knows his place’. He even chastises himself for keeping an esteemed character waiting while dealing with other plot necessities. The use of the narrator for plot-based effects is rare but was used effectively by Ian McEwan in his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, where the first person narrator turns out not to be the writer; and, most intriguingly, the satisfying ending is only evident because you, the reader, have read the book: it’s because the book is available to read that you then know the ending. Curious? Check the link above. Dickens used his narrators in a far freer and more colourful way with direct input into not only the plot but the tone. Here, in a recent short story, Serendipity, is an example of the narrator not only intruding into the writing of the story, but also is a secondary narrator with his own story: a double narrative, if you like, one feeds on the other.
Dickens’ reference to himself, the narrator, as ‘historian’ leads now to another novelistic ‘trick’: creating
Yes, we know that we are reading fiction, that most of the whole thing – sometimes not all – is made-up but the writer wants us to believe that the story is true. Writer’s rely on our imagination to create for ourselves our own reality, and so allowing our emotions to do their work. However, writer’s don’t want to ‘lose’ their readers by letting the text slip too far from possibility. A text in the first person has a better chance of doing that, more so than a text in the third.
However, Dickens ‘tricks’ us several times implying that what he is saying is true: 1) he (the narrator) admits to omitting a word in the dialogue of a character because it is too impolite for your, the reader’s, ears. By refusing to tell us what the word is he is implying that he actually heard it, but decided it was not suitable; 2) a character observes a conversation between two people in the same room but can’t hear the exact words and so infers what is said. This is a plot point but it also implies that the conversation actually happened – no, the narrator is not making this up because if he was he would’ve placed the character closer to the talkers; and 3) forgetting a name. We, real people, do this all the time, so by the narrator confessing he has forgotten someone’s name, or the name of some place, reinforces the truth of the scene because actually the person or the place is made-up – this is fiction, remember – and being made-up the writer (narrator) could’ve provided a name. But he didn’t, so the implication is that the action must’ve happened.
It is true to say that contemporary fiction is the mainstay of a modern reader’s literary diet. However, a dip into the classics now and again, is a palatable way to hone critical thinking, get a grip on literary history, and understand where our literary tastes may be heading, and where our cultural references came from.
Most of the classic literary texts from Australia, Britain, Europe, and America are out of copyright and are, therefore, available online for free. The University of Adelaide has established a website where you can find a myriad of classic texts. It contains all of Dickens’ novels as well as a large collection of his short fiction and you can download ebook versions in various formats and for various devices. Happy exploring.
Dickensian sentence p 10
“He took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection”
P12 “… made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice… at his ease.”
“… the poor people liked it …”
Narrator as biographer p46
D is a great teacher of dialogue for character building:
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), and any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’ p 296).
Mr Grimwig ‘… I’ll eat my head” p110
And Barnaby p119 with his adenoid problem
P155 Bill Sikes who regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it is replaced by ‘D-‘. Mr Bumble, the beadle, uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’) and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’.
The relationship between narrator and reader: strong in OT but rare in modern lit. P135
The narrator calling himself “author” and “faithful historian …. who knows his place” p216 and insinuating what kind of an author would he be to keep a beadle waiting …
Unpleasant description of Fagin: “loathsome reptile” p153. P154, by telling the reader that he, the narrator, will not mention something adds veracity to the tale.
Also, like forgetting a name, not hearing a conversation because the whispers were too quiet. P213;
Describing 1 or 2 minutes when nothing is said p 218
Possible theme: what Dickens can teach us about writing. Use of narrator. A N can be a biographer, a person, not just a dissociated god-like voice. But take it further, if s biographer, then why not a person; and one with opinions, attitudes, even a history, even a present history! Narrators nowadays are usually ‘apart’ from the narrative; what if the narrator was a part if the narrative, or framed a parallel story, see Serendipity. Link to Tablo.
Character: Nancy’s ‘acting’ p165 OT nor the reader is ever quite sure what Nancy is playing at.
Dickens on description p234-5 “0f the two ladies …” He describes not so much what they wear but the impression the whole picture gives.
“Lights were then procured, and …with” p246
The bad are bad but show a little bit of good, ie Fagin. The good are good but not bad (Rose).
This book is for dipping into.
The essays, 97 of them, are entertaining, enlightening, short, but sometimes challenging, and not just because of the subject matter, literature, science, history, politics and more. They are challenging because his language can be of a higher form and one should read this book within easy reach of a dictionary, app or paper; and that’s a good thing, as we all should not let an unknown word pass us by. Hitchens was a prolific writer, but he also was a prolific reader: every essay is full of references, anecdotes, comparisons, opinions, and so wide-ranging and eclectic is his accumulated knowledge that one wonders when he had time to sleep, eat, and raise a family.
Most of the writings in this volume were first published in magazines or newspapers such as The Atlantic, Newsweek, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, Vanity Fair, Foreign Affairs, among many others.
Just a glance at the Contents page will throw up depths of interest that one can look forward to plumbing: Abraham Lincoln: Misery’s Child; In Defence of Foxhole Athiests; The Dark Side of Dickens; W. Somerset Maugham: Poor Old Willie; Stephen Spender: A Nice Bloody Fool; Harry Potter: The Boy Who Lived; Why Women Arn’t Funny; So Many Men’s Rooms, So Little Time; Charles, Prince of Piffle; The Swastika and the Cedar; North Korea: A Nation of Racist Dwarfs; you see what I mean?
His asides are where the fun is:
” … Bertrand Russell, who could have been world famous in several departments, from adultery to radicalism …”
” … [Isaac] Newton spent much of his time dwelling in a self-generated fog of superstition and crankery.”
re Jessica Mitford. “These themes – of kinship and class, flight from same, residual loyal-ties to same, commitment to revolution, and stiff-upper-lippery in the face if calamity – recur throughout this assemblage of Jessica’s correspondence. ”
re W. Somerset Maugham. “Despite his exile and his increasingly distraught public and private life, Maugham eventually received an honour from the Crown – but it was for “services to literature” rather than for literature itself, and this distinction represents all the difference in the world”, as bitchy as his subject is arch.
What I have learned from Mr. Hitchens:
The French ‘ban’ on the burka can be seen as not a ban at all: it is a lifting of a ban on women being able to choose their own attire, and it is a lifting of the ban on women being able to question clerical, ie male, authority, and to be free to communicate to fellow humans face to face.
Isn’t it ironic that the Promise Land that god promised the Jews, a promise that was finally fulfilled, is the only bit of land in the Middle East that doesn’t have any oil.
“Jewish humour, boiling as it is with angst and self-deprication, is almost masculine by definition.”
The fundamental tenant of Christianity may contain its own unravelling: we are created bad, but commanded to be good.
The Magna Carta was not written in English. Of course it wasn’t; look at its name!
The Sixth Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill, has nothing to do with pacifism since Moses told his Levite faction after receiving the original tablets containing the Ten Commandments from god on Mt. Sinai, to “slay everyman his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour” (Exodus 32:27-28). Killing for honour, revenge, or conquest is not really killing at all. The three monotheistic religions were born in extremely violent times and they continue to be violent religions to this day. Maybe God meant ‘murder’ and he was mis-translated. So, we must remember that the problem of ‘authority’ in the first 1500 years of Christianity was solved by having it all ‘wrapped up’ in languages that the majority of adherents could not understand; its mysteries being decoded by a select few: a ‘special caste’; and recoded many times since.
And while we’re on the subject of The Ten Commandments, it seems they were specifically written for men who had staff: “Thou shall not covert thy heighbour’s house, his wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, ass, …” lumping his wife (wives) in with all of his other chattels.
Kurdistan (The Other Iraq) is (was) marketing itself as an investment and tourism hub.
America’s first military tussle with the world of Islam was from 1801-1805, The Barbary Wars, which not only gained US access to European trade but created the U.S. Navy.
The meaning of the phrase ‘tumbril remark’; his examples are hysterical.
How it feels to be ‘waterboarded.’
The etymology of the phrase ‘blowjob’ and who will, and who will not, do it.
An intelligent person sifts out the truth with a lot of ‘senses’, far more than the original five; hearing and understanding words being the least of them.
Hitchens died at the age of 62 in December 2011 from pneumonia, a complication of oesophageal cancer (he was a nicotine addict; by his own reckoning he smoked 15,000 cigarettes a year ). Although his death came before the rise, and now continuing decline, of IS, his essays on the politics of the Middle East and north Africa give important insights into the recent history of these regions; and it’s recent history that seems, paradoxically, the easiest to forget.
One of his last pieces, from May 2011 in Vanity Fare, gives an enlightening and humorous account of how the language of the Bible has been used, politically, commercially, and sect-affirmingly to, not only sell bibles, but to make them accessible to absolutely every one, like an offering in a “cut-price spiritual cafeteria”. Only in America could there be published bibles called “Extreme Teen Study Bible” or “Policeman’s Bible” or, my favourite, “One Year New Testament for Busy Moms.”
But what one is left with after browsing in, flipping, and giggling through this entertaining volume is his precise and educative use of the English language. It may be of an un-coffee-table-book shape, given its fatness, but the coffee table is where it should be; or, at least, somewhere as easily accessible. Happy dipping!
You can get this book in various formats, including audio CD, here.