By Meredith Allard
Even the most die-hard Dickens fans are not so well-acquainted with his first published pieces, short works of fiction and rides of imaginary fancy alongside observations of 1830s London life. The individual sketches were compiled into the book Sketches by Boz, first in 1836 and then in subsequent editions. Literary critics have largely dismissed the sketches, and, as Dennis Walder states in his Introduction to Sketches by Boz for the Penguin Classics edition (1995), Dickens himself didn’t do much to improve public perception of those early works.
With the retrospect that comes with the passing of time (and greater literary successes), Dickens looked back on his early sketches with skeptical eyes. He said (at the ripe old age of thirty-eight) that the sketches were written when “I was a very young man, and sent into the world with all their imperfections (a good many) on their heads. They comprise my first attempts at authorship—with the exception of certain tragedies achieved at the mature age of eight or ten, and represented with great appplause to overflowing nurseries” (Preface to the first Cheap Edition, Sketches by Boz, 1850).
This is where I differ from the stodgy, humorless critics, and even from Boz himself, since I admit (without the slightest hint of sarcasm or embarrassment) that I love the sketches. I’m not saying they stand equal to Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities. I’m saying that for what they are, Dickens’ earliest published pieces, they’re gems—well-written, insightful, bursting with energy, and, most importantly, absolutely hilarious. I’ve always said I can forgive anyone anything if they can make me laugh. I will forgive Dickens whatever needs forgiving because no other writer makes me laugh out loud (I mean milk-spurting-through-the-nose laugh out loud) the way he can. Even in these earliest works his sarcastic observational humor is spot-on. The sketches are exactly what the young Dickens wrote them to be—individual pieces that were either short stories or come-as-you-are journalism. That’s all. If we take them at face value then we can appreciate the first glimmers of literary genius in a man who was so very young when he started.
His first sketch, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” appeared in December 1833 when Dickens was twenty-one years old. Dickens himself told the story of how he had surreptitiously dropped the manuscript off at the publisher, and how, when he found out the piece was going to be published, he was so overwhelmed with emotion he wasn’t fit to be seen in the street. Published the first time he submits his work? Well, he was Dickens. And even in that very first piece (later known as “Mr. Minns and His Cousin”) we can see the beginning of Dickens’ preoccupation with class relationships. The story is a comedy of manners as the Buddins family tries ever so hard to ingratiate themselves into the will of Mr. Minns, their wealthier cousin. Other, more journalistic-type sketches such as “London Recreations,” “Vauxhall Gardens by Day,” and “The Pawnbroker’s Shop” are notes on his thoughts as he rambles through London and notices everything everywhere around him. That was a talent Dickens displayed throughout his career–his ability to see what was right in front of him and reflect it back while everyone else simply scurried past in their rush from here to there and back again. For those of us reading the sketches in the twenty-first century, it’s a time traveling experience to see 19th century London, with its odd cast of characters, come to life before our eyes. I’m willing to bet that “Making a Night of It,” about young men out to have an alcohol-infused good time, is based on an actual experience of Dickens’. I don’t know that for a fact, but it’s a hunch. Or I might have read that somewhere. I can’t remember. And then, in “A Visit to Newgate,” he imagines what it might be like for a prisoner awaiting his execution with all the emotional intensity we’ve come to expect from the older, more seasoned Dickens.
Don’t pay any attention to Dickens’ own criticism against the sketches (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!) since most writers tend to look back on their earliest works as silly. In fact, Dickens did rearrange and revise the sketches for subsequent editions in later years, so he took more care with them than he wanted us to believe. Whatever criticisms about the sketches I’ve read (they’re too haphazard, there are no recurring themes, there’s no depth to the descriptions) may even be true, but to focus on the weaknesses is to miss the point of Sketches by Boz. Through the process of writing these pieces, Dickens was able to begin to lay a path through which he could nurture his genius.
Every Dickens fan should be required to read Sketches by Boz since 1. The pieces are a sneak peek into the workings of the mind of a young man on the road to literary greatness, and 2. They stand just fine on their own as short stories and journalistic impressions. And besides, they’re damn funny.
Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.