(To modern readers: spoiler alert!)
Dear Mr. Dickens,
I had to write to say I love what you do with fog. You make it such a living entity, such a haunting thing, such a dangerous creature. Thank you for your determination to show England (London in particular) in all its gruesomeness and glory through the fog that defines it and damages its people. It’s not a glamorous fog, but a killer fog, a polluted fog. Most decidedly NOT the fog that Fred Astaire sings about in A Damsel in Distress (1937). In fact, London is a killer, isn’t it? Jo couldn’t survive it. Neither could Gridley. Nor Nemo.
Fred sang "A Foggy Day in London Town" but it wasn't Dickens's "Fog"!
I’m particularly enjoying reading your ninth novel, Bleak House, right now. Lots of critics (scholars) suggest this might be one of the best novels you’ve ever written. There are a remarkable number of characters and twists and turns that keep me ever interested in what’s going to happen next. I’m quite in love with it–just as I remembered the first time I read it. It is possible that I love the first-person narration by a female character intermixed with an omniscient narrator who conveys your sharp wit? That might be it. It might also be the tragi-comedy of it all. I wonder if I love it because of the mysteries in this story–who is who, who was where, who is connected to who, and so on? The fear of having one’s own mysteries revealed drives so many of your characters. Or do I love this novel because you skewer the legal system, the Chancery in particular, throughout the novel showing the emptiness of mindless laws and the terrible effect on human lives?
Of all the characters, I am intrigued the most by Lady Dedlock. But first let me say that I am enraged by various horrific characters you have made me utterly loathe: Tulkinghorn, Skimpole, Guppy, Vholes, Mrs. Jellyby, and the Smallweeds.
Ick. You’re such a genius at creating creepers. OH. And the opium overdose for Nemo (Hawdon)–so sad, so very sad.
My heart breaks for Lady Dedlock and Captain Hawdon. What is their story–how did they meet–how did they fall in love? I’m dying to know. How cruel was her sister (Miss Barbary to tell Honoria that her baby was born dead. Back then, perhaps, that was something like a benefit given the way an unwed mother would have been treated in the early to middle 1800s. And if Captain Hawdon was truly lost at sea, there would have been no way out for her–no way she could marry him at any point to recover her reputation. Why bring up the past then when she had the opportunity for a marriage and a life, especially a life of wealth and leisure? I admit she turns into a haughty woman, but is her heart not broken? Was Hawdon’s heart not broken? How miserable. Will you please write and tell me the details please, please, please? Because I can’t stand not knowing.
I also like Bucket. I keep reading about how he’s the first detective to play a prominent role in literature. Thanks so much. I really like the detective novel (and what your friend, Wilkie Collins does with the genre is great), so your start with Bucket is lovely. Bucket finding the key to Jarndyce & Jarndyce–just brilliant. I know you wrote about detectives in your periodicals regularly and were fascinated by the beginnings of this profession in your time–who wouldn’t be?
In fact, the connections that arise between everything and everyone are fabulous. I know you didn’t plan this all out ahead of time like other writers do–with a big outline or such like. You are always so busy with a ton of things to keep you occupied: editorial work, writing your novels, short stories, journalism, performances, philanthropy, a large family, a secret girlfriend, loads of friends, a rigorous travel schedule, and a thriving social circle. I’m not sure how you do it. I am wiped out after a day of talking and an evening of reading. I wish I had your energy to walk 10 miles or a more per day and write hundreds of letters and act on stage. Acting. It’s so flashy and so you.
On another issue: I can see how you would have to punish Richard–that layabout wastral of a boy. I’m so disappointed in him. I can certainly understand why you are disappointed in him, too. Were you thinking of your sons who were not able to match you in their energy and production?
Speaking of children… I am always struck by your use of children in your novels. They are always present, and so many of them suffer greatly–in so many ways. You really get that children have a hard time of it in your time. You certainly had more than rough patch in your own life, didn’t you? I think you must sympathize deeply with those young ones who have no family to protect them (and young ones whose families do anything but protect them). You try to find ways in your stories to “save” some of the children and young people in whatever ways you can (in “real” life, too, you helped). You like happy endings, too, don’t you? Me, too. That’s one of the reasons I like reading your works: the bad are reformed or punished, the good rewarded. Thanks for that. It’s almost always satisfying.
There is sadness, too, as in life. Some who are good in heart or good in spirit are lost forever through illness or ill deeds. I have yet to read one of your books without shedding some tears (see my despair over Sydney Carton). The bad suffer but the truly angelic also experience grave pain (or various diseases) and sometimes they die or undergo great hardship: Nell, Lucie, Esther, Oliver.
The poor women, too. So used and abused. So fearful and having so many worries. It’s so hard to be a Victorian woman. You sort of got that, but perhaps not in your own life, eh? Did you worry about your daughters and their lives, their futures, their options? Was that part of what drove you to create women characters who struggled so deeply?
Dickens with his daughters, Kate and Mamie.
(By the way, I’m real uptight about Edwin Drood. Do you think you could manage showing up to a seance to tell me what you intended? Did you happen to catch the portrayal of you in a Doctor Who, season 2, episode 1, “The Christmas Invasion,” in which your “character” alludes to a possible science fiction ending to Drood? I like that. Do you?)
OH, did I mention how much I love Krook being illiterate? (He’s both a crook and a victim, too.) Texts and not-texts are so important for you and always in your books… and reading is a key to power always. Texts=knowledge. Letters, wills, court documents. Even if one cannot read what one collects, ownership of text is power. Unless, of course, one combusts.
I really like that you may have been inspired for Jarndyce & Jarndyce by Charlotte Smith’s connection with a real case of law and that Walter Landor Savage may have inspired Mr. Boythorn… Leigh Hunt may have been a model for Howard Skimpole. And how were you connected to these three? You were all prolific writers.
Charlotte Smith was a big deal in the very early Romantic period as a writer (she died ill and poor in 1806). Her works were largely forgotten but have in recent years been recovered and re-included in the canon. I know you knew her because you read EVERYTHING you could get your hands on. You knew every author of every kind of your time and hers.
Leigh Hunt, also a contemporary writer of the Romantics, was a member of your circle. I recall you put on a charitable show to help Leigh Hunt in rough financial times (and I think there were a lot of those for Hunt–he had ten children, like you). Walter Savage Landor lived a long and storied life as a writer knowing nearly everyone you did. He wrote some fascinating works, like the Imaginary Conversations. He was a handful later in his life, he was… living in Florence, Italy near the Brownings and good friends with them. He is buried, as you’ll recall, very near Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the Protestant Cemetery in Florence. (I got to visit this place and take a private tour and see EBB’s and Landor’s graves once–so amazing. I saw the graves also of those who I was told were the last Shakepeares. And there were so many more amazing histories. I suppose you visited there since you traveled in Italy–though, I have to confess that I haven’t read your whole book on your time in Italy. Shameful.)
I love this about you–finding your inspiration in all around you. You see the world differently than so many people do, don’t you? Every person, every conversation, every moment is a story. You write about anything and everything. That’s you though. You’re a writer all the time. You write.
Thanks for the writing. It’s been a blast. And be sure to tell me about the ending of Drood. I really must insist.
In the meantime, I’m so happy to be reading Bleak House. It really is a fine novel, such a grand story, such a reflection of the fears and desires so many of us still possess in the 21st century. Perhaps, ultimately, that’s why I love this book–you make me think and feel and worry and laugh.
Always your delighted reader in any century, E.D.