Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Pickwick Papers chapters 33-34

It is now the 13th of February, the day before Mr Pickwick’s trial, and Sam receives a note from his father saying he wants to see him in the Blue Boar at 6pm.  As Sam is early he wanders along the streets pausing at a stationer’s to look in the window.  Seeing some pictures on display he says, “If it hadn’t been for this, I should ha’ forgot all about it, until it was too late.”  The picture was a valentine so Sam goes into the shop and buys some gilt-edged letter paper and a hard-nibbed pen and continues on his way to the Blue Boar.  As he has plenty of time he asks for some brandy and water and an inkstand and proceeds to write his own valentine.  Mr Weller is not impressed by this, saying he thought that Sam should have enough sense not to get involved with women and that “it would be a trial to see Sam married.”  Sam is unsure how he should sign his valentine, but his father advises he should sign it “Pickvick” as “it’s a werry good name, and a easy one to spell.”  Sam addresses the valentine to “Mary, Housemaid, at Mr Nupkin’s Mayor’s, Ipswich, Suffolk.”  I wonder if this is going to cause more trouble for Mr Pickwick?
The remainder of the chapter is taken up with a description of a meeting of the Brick Lane Branch of the United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association which Sam and his father attend.  This meeting was held in an upstairs room accessed by a ladder and seemed to involve a lot of tea drinking and the reporting of converts to the temperance movement.  After some time, the chairman announces to the gathering that Brother Stiggins has arrived below.  This is the deputy shepherd, otherwise known as the red-nosed man who visits Mrs Weller.  “The little door flew open, and brother Tadger appeared, closely followed by the reverend Mr Stiggins, who no sooner entered, than there was a great clapping of hands, and stamping of feet, and flourishing of handkerchiefs; to all of which manifestations of delight, Brother Stiggins returned no other acknowledgement  than staring with a wild eye, and a fixed smile, at the extreme top of the wick of the candle on the table: swaying his body to and fro, meanwhile, in a very unsteady and uncertain manner.”  Mr Stiggins suggests loudly that the meeting is drunk and pushes Brother Tadger who falls down the ladder.  As the meeting deteriorates into chaos Mr Weller starts taking off his coat while telling Sam to go out and find a watchman.  Mr Weller then attacks Mr Stiggins until he is eventually dragged away by Sam while Mr Stiggins is removed to strong lodgings for the night.

Chapter 34 “is wholly devoted to a full and faithful Report of the memorable Trial of Bardell against Pickwick.”  The chapter begins with a description of the court and the swearing in of the jury.  A chemist complains that he cannot serve on the jury as he has no-one to leave in charge of his business except a boy who does not know the difference between Epsom salts and syrup of senna!  Mr Pickwick is represented by Serjeant Snubbin and Mr Phunky and Mrs Bardell by Serjeant Buzfuz and Mr Skimpton.

Serjeant Buzfuz opens the case by saying, “You have heard from my learned friend, gentlemen, that this is an action for a breach of promise of marriage, in which the damages are laid at £1,500.  But you have not hear from my learned friend, inasmuch as it did not come within my learned friend’s province to tell you, what are the facts and circumstances of the case.  Those facts and circumstances, gentlemen, you shall hear detailed by me, and proved by the unimpeachable female whom I will place in that box before you.”  Serjeant Buzfuz goes on to describe how Mrs Bardell has been left a widow after her husband “was knocked on the head with a quart-pot in a public-house cellar” leaving Mrs Bardell to bring up her son on her own.  His description of Mr Pickwick suggests that he is guilty of “systematic villany”.  He concludes by saying that he will show the jury that Mr Pickwick offered Mrs Bardell marriage and that he was discovered holding her in his arms.  He offers two notes as evidence.  In one of these, Mr Pickwick writes to Mrs Bardell “Dear Mrs B, I shall not be at home till to-morrow.  Slow coach.”  Followed by “Don’t trouble yourself about the warming-pan.”  Serjeant Buzfuz makes a lot out of this note ending his submission by saying that “Pickwick still rears his head with unblushing effrontery, and gazes without a sigh on the ruin he has made.  Damages, gentlemen – heavy damages – is the only punishment with which you can visit him; the only recompense you can award to my client.”
Witnesses are then called including the four Pickwickians who do not help Mr Pickwick’s case.  Mr Winkle describes how he found Mrs Bardell in Mr Pickwick’s arms. The author writes, “Lawyers hold that there are two kinds of particularly bad witnesses: a reluctant witness, and a too-willing witness; it was Mr Winkle’s fate to figure in both characters.” Mr Winkle goes on to describe another occasion when Mr Pickwick’s behaviour was less than gentlemanly – the time he found himself in a lady’s bedroom at midnight. 

Sam is called too and describes the occasion when he visited Mrs Bardell to pay the rent.  Two of her friends were there discussing the case.  Sam reports that they said it was very generous of the lawyers Dodson and Fogg to take on the case “on spec and to charge nothing at all for costs, unless they got ‘em out of Mr Pickwick.”  This sounds very similar to the modern day practice of firms advertising “no win, no fee”.
The jury reached their decision in a very short time finding Mr Pickwick guilty with damages set at £750.  Mr Pickwick is adamant that he is going to contest the case and will not pay a farthing of damages or costs. Mr Weller’s final comment to his son was “Oh, Sammy, Sammy, vy worn’t there a alleybi!”






Monday, 29 May 2017

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

For the last few years I have attended a weekly book group entitled Lunch with Dickens which starts each year with a Dickens’ novel – this year’s book was The Old Curiosity Shop which was published in 1841.  This is also the 19th century classic on my Back to the Classics Challenge.  The Old Curiosity Shop was Dickens’ fourth novel after the Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and was first serialised in Master Humphrey’s Clock during 1840-41.

The Old Curiosity Shop tells the story of Little Nell and her grandfather who leave London as they are in debt to the dwarf Quilp and set out on a journey without any clear destination. “Forth from the city, while it yet slumbered, went the two poor adventurers, wandering they knew not whither.”  Nell is very idealistic about leaving London seeing this as an escape and “relief from the gloomy solitude in which she had lived, an escape from the heartless people by whom she had been surrounded in her late time of trial, the restoration of the old man’s health and peace, and a life of tranquil happiness.  Sun, and stream, and meadow, and summer days, shone brightly in her view, and there was no dark tint in all the sparkling picture.”  However the travellers find out that not everyone they meet is kind and helpful and that there are some unsavoury characters in the countryside too. 
When we first meet Nell she is described as a child and it is only later in the book that we find out that she is in fact 14. At times she seems very naïve and then at other times quite mature and sensible and able to deal with quite difficult situations.  In particular, Nell tries to stop her grandfather from gambling.  Dickens portrays this very well showing how this addiction has taken hold of the old man.  The old man says at one point, “If I could have gone on a little longer, only a little longer, the luck would have turned on my side.  Yes, it’s as plain as the marks upon the cards.” 

The descriptions in the book are excellent – the example of the industrial town providing a powerful contrast to the images of the countryside and showing how the industrial revolution affected ordinary people in the Victorian age. When Nell and her grandfather arrive in an industrial town they are helped by a man who takes them to the foundry to spend the night.  “In a large and lofty building, supported by pillars of iron, with great black apertures in the upper walls, open to the external air; echoing to the roof with the beating of hammers and roar of furnaces, mingled with the hissing of red-hot metal plunged in water, and a hundred strange unearthly noises never heard elsewhere; in the gloomy place, moving like demons among the flame and smoke, dimly and fitfully seen, flushed and tormented by the burning fires, and wielding great weapons, a faulty blow from any one of which must have crushed some workman’s skull, a number of men laboured like giants.”

An interesting character is Dick Swiveller who is a friend of Nell’s brother, Frederick who suggests that Dick might marry Nell when she is older as he believes she will come into a lot of money.  Quilp too thinks Dick might be useful to him so gets him employment with the lawyer, Sampson Brass.  I was pleased that Dick turns out to be better than I had expected although he doesn’t pay his bills. He enters in a little book the names of the streets that he can't go down while the shops are open. He says, "the roads are closing so fast in every direction, that in about a month's time, unless my aunt sends me a remittance, I shall have to go three or four miles out of town to get over the way."  This was funny but sad for the small shopkeepers who also had bills to pay.  Dick takes pity on the little housemaid employed by the lawyer who is mistreated by his sister Sally.  Dick calls this little maid the Marchioness and she is an interesting character.  However as Claire Tomalin points out in her biography of Dickens, “he abandoned her halfway through her history, perhaps because Little Nell had to hold centre stage or because he did not know how to develop the Marchioness.” 

Overall, I enjoyed the book which has an interesting story line – the reader has to keep reading to find out what happens at the end especially as Quilp is on the chase getting nearer to Nell and her grandfather.  There are some interesting characters although some of them seem to be caricatures rather than being real people - this is especially true of the women in the story.   
Some of the writing was oversentimental, for example the description of the death of the schoolboy.  “He was a very young boy; quite a little child.  His hair still hung in curls about his face, and his eyes were very bright; but their light was of Heaven, not earth.” 

This is a dark and complex novel which deals with a number of themes including poverty, addiction, the abuse of women and death. I was glad that I read The Old Curiosity Shop but I would not class this as one of Dickens' best books.


Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

Brona's Books has an interesting readalong this year - to read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings

I first read The Hobbit many years ago when I was a student, encouraged by my boyfriend (now my hubby) and then re-read it before going to see the films - this was not a good idea as the films are very different from the book!  I am certainly enjoying reading The Hobbit again although I must admit that I now imagine some of the characters as they appeared in the film! 

The copy I am reading is a very old paperback edition which contains some lovely illustrations by the author which I have reproduced here. 

The story starts in Hobbiton where Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, lives a very quiet life enjoying good food and company.  One day he gets a visit from the wizard Gandalf, followed shortly after by a group of dwarves.  They want him to accompany them on an adventure to reclaim some stolen treasure from the dragon, Smaug who lives in the Lonely Mountain.  For some reason they believe Bilbo to be an excellent burglar.

This illustration shows the Lonely Mountain, their final destination. "They knew that they were drawing near to the end of their journey, and that it might be a very horrible end.  The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair.  There was little grass, and before long there was neither bush not tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished.  They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon, and they were come at the waning of the year."

Although this is a children's book it is beautifully written.  It is also a very good adventure story which keeps the reader's attention throughout.  During the course of the tale Bilbo develops becoming braver and more clever justifying Gandalf's faith in him although he is reminded by Gandalf at the end of the story that "he is only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"  To which Bilbo replies, "Thank goodness!"

As I am currently doing a course on the Vikings, I enjoyed working out what the runes said and also looking for other influences which Tolkien borrowed from Old Norse.

I have thoroughly enjoyed re-reading The Hobbit for Brona's Challenge and look forward to re-reading The Lord of the Rings Trilogy at some point in the future.