On February 7, 2012 I am on my way to work to meet an 8 am class with Ithaca College first-year writing students when I hear on NPR that it is Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday. My students and I are going to be discussing another great writer with initials C. D., the one with the haunted eyes and the flowing beard, Charles Darwin. We are reading The Voyage of the Beagle: Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World. We call it The Voyage. I share with my students the news that Dickens birthday parties are being held worldwide, and some of them look pleased. We had discussed their tastes in literature. About half loved Great Expectations, and the other half shook their heads.
The NPR story featured an interview with Claire Tomalin, author of a new biography of Dickens called Dickens: A Life. Tomalin tells the interviewer that Dickens wrote extremely fast, and his books were published with little to no revision by him or by editors. No revision??? Revision is one of the core values of writing instructors. So this I do not share with my students. Tomalin says that there is “bad writing” in Dickens’ books, but it is outweighed by the good. I muse that if Dickens had been as energetic a reviser as a writer, he might have found himself at square zero, i.e., no books, but more to the point, in his day sheer volume was one way of satisfying reading appetites. There were no motion pictures. While it may not be accurate or fair or useful to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, Dickens painted many scenes with thousands of words. He wrote fast, and that was the method to his madness.
After class, hurrying off to make my appointment with a propane deliverer in Aurora, 30 miles up Cayuga Lake from Ithaca, I make a dash-by stop at my local library to get a Dickens on tape for my own little Dickens birthday party. No David Copperfield. No Great Expectations. Bleak House! Oh no. I remember one of my academic debacles in college. An English major, I signed up for a semester-long Dickens course. A young visiting professor from UPenn got us off to a fast start. We were to read an entire small Dickens novel per week and a half of one of the big ones, like Bleak House, per week. I was a fast reader and I liked Dickens, especially his lengthy sentences, his word pictures. I started copying out sentences and passages that I liked as I read. My stack of note-cards grew almost as tall as Bleak House was thick. I fell behind. I stopped going to class. I foundered in the wealth of his words, like a pony in spring clover. I either failed the course, which I don’t think occurred because there are no F’s on my transcript, withdrew (but there are no W’s), or the professor had a medical emergency and the class was terminated (a faint possibility according to my memory because I remember a sense of guilt that she, the professor, had foundered because students like me couldn’t keep up). I had kept up with Henry James, but Dickens….
I slip the CD into the player and prepare to re-engage with Bleak House. The Prologue is witty but dryish; when I start to drift a little I am brought to attention by the mention of a woman dying of spontaneous combustion. What? It’s too late to figure that out because the first chapter is beginning. I am attentive. The slate-blue waters of Cayuga Lake and low gray clouds are on my right and the rolling folds of Lansing fields on my left as the first chapter begins. It’s a very beautiful beginning, very grand, suitable for a big book. A slender book would not need such a beginning. The sun is dead. Fog swirls out of the nooks and crannies of England’s landscape and seascape, descending into the heart of London, to surround the High Court of Chancery. Dickens invokes the fog, and mud, and foul weather to begin his passionate assault on this high court, “most pestilent of sinners.” He repeats the word “fog” over and over, but it does not feel overused. We know that when it’s foggy, fog is everywhere, and fog is fog. There are not that many other words for it. Just one or two. Then Dickens uses one of the synonyms so beautifully near the end of this opening passage. We are now in the presence of the Lord High Chancellor, who sits in the court “with a foggy glory around his head.” And his minions–they are “mistily engaged” in their miserable tasks. For me, the attachment of “mistily” to the human activity is stunningly effective. Nature and chancery are one. He has brought the fog from all over England to the fingertips of these workers in a befuddled, and often malignant, bureaucracy. I reach Aurora, but I am still in the first chapter of Bleak House because I replay the opening chapter again and again. Maybe some books should be written fast, but read slowly.