A friend and I were discussing Charles Dickens earlier this evening — specifically, the idea of Dickens as a literary sociologist — so I thought it would be a good idea to post this review I wrote of one of his earliest works.
Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens
Even those who are not fond of Charles Dickens’ writing style would have to admit that he created some of the most memorable characters in English literature. Wackford Squeers, the Artful Dodger, Miss Havisham, Scrooge and Gradgrind and Sydney Carton…and so on and so forth. The plots of some of his books might be on the thin side, but his character sketches have stood up very well over the years. And Sketches by Boz, his very first book, is a collection of Dickens’ early attempts at pen-portraits of the characters and places and scenes he saw every day in the bustling zoo of early Victorian London.
The stories in Sketches by Boz were published in various monthly magazines and periodicals under the pen-name of ‘Boz’ (which apparently came from a family in-joke or nickname). Some are actual tales, usually light-hearted or comical and often with a wicked sense of humour. Dickens enjoyed poking fun at the affected airs of the middle-classes, especially those who strove to portray themselves as being just outside of the highest echelons of society. He also took a number of potshots at the mercenary nature of the marriage-market; several of the stories and sketches revolve around the awkward romantic entanglements of desperate spinsters, befuddled bachelors, and melodramatic young lovers who run off to Gretna Green at the slightest provokation. But the sympathetic side of Dickens also shows through in his collected stories written from real observations — there are sketches about Newgate Prison and the prisoners within, about the poverty and vice that plagued the streets of the city’s slums, and about the quietly desperate poor who were a few shillings away from being on the streets or who (like Dickens’ own family) lived in fear of the debtors’ prisons. Reading the book is like taking a walk, with Dickens as an expert tour guide, through the dirty, noisy, busy streets, past the courts of law and the pawn-shops and the gin-palaces and even through the new little suburbs that eventually would be swallowed up by the London metropolis.
The London that Dickens was writing about was a city in transition, as the rowdy and bawdy years of the late Regency gave way to the smoke-shrouded gentility of the Victorian era. In Sketches by Boz, Dickens was able to capture a glimpse of that time of transition from the perspective of one who was writing about a city — and a people — that he knew well and loved.