Yesteryear Europe, March – Dickens

24 Mar,2016 By Jagabond

Few would argue that Charles Dickens is one of the best writers of the 19th century. Mostly known for ‘A Christmas Carol’, that novella spawned a multitude of depictions in other media. The most popular of my generation is probably the Bill Murray movie ‘Scrooged’, but I’m more partial to the George C. Scott rendition from a few years before. Heck, I even liked the ‘Quantum Leap’ episode where Al the hologram played ‘Ghost of Christmas Future’ in freaking out a New York City tycoon. That last reference showed my age and my proclivity towards nerd-dom. In all seriousness, Dickens was known for his portrayal of the poor and disenfranchised…mostly in and around London…and his views on social justice. Oh…and he had a great beard!

March was a big month for Dickens in a couple ways. When he was close to death, he decided on a ‘farewell tour’ where he’d book halls in London and do readings of his work. He began his tour in January 1870, with his last reading in March of that year at St. James Hall…he read ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘The Trial from Pickwick’. Only a few months later he suffered a stroke, and never regained consciousness. Years before in happier times, March was also the month he moved into a residence on Doughty Street in London with his wife…very nearby Baker street of the Sherlock Holmes fame. It was here he wrote the whole of ‘Oliver Twist’. I was lucky enough to walk by his house during my travels.

Dickens house in London

I can’t say I’ve read much of his work, but a short story of his, entitled ‘Shy Neighbourhoods’ (from ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’), caught my eye recently. Dickens was a fan of personification, and in this story he attributed the many vagrancies of humans to animals. I loved the imagery here, particularly the cats reflecting the promiscuity of some London housewives. Examples of this work are paraphrased below…

Of birds:

“Nothing in shy neighbourhoods perplexes my mind more, than the bad company birds keep. Foreign birds often get into good society, but British birds are inseparable from low associates. There is a whole street of them in St. Giles; and I always find them in poor and immoral neighbourhoods, convenient to the public-house and the pawnbroker’s. They seem to lead people into drinking, and even the man who makes their cages usually gets into a chronic state of black eye.”

Pigeon in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Of dogs:

“We talk of men keeping dogs, but we might often talk more expressively of dogs keeping men. I know a bull-dog in a shy corner of Hammersmith who keeps a man. He keeps him up a yard and makes him go to public-houses and lay wagers on him, and obliges him to lean against posts and look at him, and forces him to neglect work for him, and keeps him under rigid coercion. I once knew a fancy terrier who kept a gentleman – a gentleman who had been brought up at Oxford, too. The dog kept the gentleman entirely for his glorification, and the gentleman never talked about anything but the terrier.”

Dog in Namur, Belgium

Of donkeys:

“I have known a donkey – by sight; we were not on speaking terms – who lived over on the Surrey side of London bridge, among the fastnesses of Jacob’s Island and Dockhead. It was the habit of that animal, when his services were not in immediate requisition, to go out alone, idling. I have met him a mile from his place of residence, loitering about the streets; and the expression of his countenance at such times was most degraded.”

Donkey in Lindos, Greece

Of cats:

“In appearance, they are very like the women among whom they live. They seem to turn out of their unwholesome beds into the street, without any preparation. They leave their young families to stagger about the gutters, unassisted, while they frouzily quarrel and swear and scratch and spit, at street corners. In particular, I remark that when they are about to increase their families (an event of frequent recurrence) the resemblance is strongly expressed in a certain dusty dowdiness, down-at-heel self neglect, and general giving up of things. I cannot honestly report that I have ever seen a feline matron of this class washing her face when in an interesting condition.”

Cat in Rhodes, Greece

Another thing about this month of March…Dickens had a quote about it. “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” This was from ‘Great Expectations’, a great book I’m sure…but my favorite Dickens quote is…

“Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

This is from ‘Sketches by Boz’, and I think it summarizes a wonderful perspective on life. I, like many, have had personal successes, personal failures, professional successes, professional failures…but thank God the world is so big that it offers so many opportunities, experiences and occasions for change. As I move forward, I hope I can keep this quote in the forefront of my mind, and learn to appreciate the blessings of life.

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