Thursday, 8 March 2012

Video clip: “Dickens and London”

This clip from the BBC’s Teaching English website features Charles Dickens’s great-great-great-granddaughter Lucinda Hawksley as she talks about this brilliant author’s feelings toward the city where so much of his work is set. “When Dickens writes about London,” Hawksley says (1:11), “he writes about it warts and all. That’s what’s so wonderful – he writes about the things he loves, but also about the really bad sides.” See the clip here:

I’ve always been struck by Dickens’s descriptions of London; even when he’s essentially being negative, the language is so fascinating and beautiful that you can’t help but be drawn in. I’m including two of my favourite passages here: one from A Christmas Carol (1843), and one from the opening of Bleak House (1852).

It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already—it had not been light all day—and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale. (From A Christmas Carol)

London.  Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall.  Implacable November weather.  As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.  Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.  Dogs, undistinguishable in mire.  Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers.  Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere.  Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.  Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.  Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.  Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck.  Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongy fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy.  Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look. (From Bleak House)

(Find the full text of both of these novels and countless others at Project Gutenberg.)

Which passage/sentence is your favourite?

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