A Little Fun with “Sketches by Boz.”

Boz by Candlelight.

Charles Dickens’s first published work was “Sketches by Boz”  — a volume of humorous sketches of places and circumstances, as well as a number of short stories. His pen-name, at the time, was “Boz.” Then he came out with “The Pickwick Papers,” and became a celebrity under his own name. Even more so with Oliver Twist (which just so happens to be one of my favorite books).

When I first found the little crimson volume in a second-had book shop, I skipped straight ahead to the tales, and avoided the sketches. But the other day I started reading them — and I think they’re some of the funniest things Dickens ever wrote. Here’s a passage about Captain Purday. He’s the next-door neighbor of a little old lady, and both of them are very important personages in “the parish.”

The Old Lady.
The Old Lady.
Captain Purday.
Captain Purday.

A very different personage, but one who has rendered himself very conspicuous in our parish, is one of the old lady’s next-door neighbours. He is an old naval officer on half-pay, and his bluff and unceremonious behaviour disturbs the old lady’s domestic economy, not a little. In the first place he will smoke cigars in the front court, and when he wants something to drink with them — which is by no means an uncommon circumstance — he lifts up the old lady’s knocker with his walking-stick, and demands to have a glass of table ale, handed over the rails. In addition to this cool proceeding, he is a bit of a Jack of all trades, or to use his own words, “a regular Robinson Crusoe;” and nothing delights him better, than to experimentalise on the old lady’s property. One morning he got up early, and planted three or four roots of full-grown marigolds in every bed of her front garden, to the inconceivable astonishment of the old lady, who actually thought when she got up and looked out of the window, that it was some strange eruption which had come out in the night.

Another time he took to pieces the eight-day clock on the front landing, under pretence of cleaning the works, which he put together again, by some undiscovered process in so wonderful a manner, that the large hand has done nothing but trip up the little one ever since. Then he took to breeding silk-worms, which he would bring in two or three times a day, in little paper boxes, to show the old lady, generally dropping a worm or two at every visit. The consequence was, that one morning a very stout silk-worm was discovered in the act of walking up-stairs — probably with the view of inquiring after his friends, for, on further inspection, it appeared that some of his companions had already found their way to every room in the house. The old lady went to the seaside in despair, and during her absence he completely effaced the name from her brass door-plate, in his attempts to polish it with aqua-fortis.

But, as in all cases when it comes to Dickens, there’s also ample depth through which honest observations can resonate. One of my favorite quotations from the volume, is this one (and concerns the same old lady):

Thus, with the annual variation of a trip to some quiet place on the sea-coast, passes the old lady’s life. It has rolled on in the same unvarying and benevolent course for many years now, and must at no distant period be brought to its final close. She looks forward to its termination, with calmness and without apprehension. She has everything to hope and nothing to fear.

Then, of course, there’s wisdom mixed with humor, in that splendid “Dickens-y” way. Such as in the sketch of the four Willis sisters, who grow older and older with no apparent hope of anyone ever marrying them.

Miss Willis -- never mind which one.
Miss Willis — never mind which one.

But then, the impossible happens — and someone does propose to one of them. But no one can figure out which one has been proposed to, because the sisters go everywhere, and do everything, together. So, when one of them is seen with Mr. Robinson — they’re all seen with Mr. Robinson. They even stand together at the altar for the wedding. So how is anyone to know?

. . . it certainly had a very singular appearance, but still it would be uncharitable to express any opinion without good grounds to go upon . . . and to be sure people ought to know their own business best . . .

Very wise; very true. If only everyone thought this way. But then, old Charles has to throw in a few giggles when everyone finally figures out which one got married — on account of the fact that she’s having a baby.

The parish residents had polite enough sentiments at first; but when they work it all out at last, they make several comments, such as: “I thought so,” “I always said it was . . .” “Well, I never, “It’s too ridiculous!” and so on and so forth.

That’s quite accurate, I think, when it comes to people. It seems they always spoil their original good intentions with their — well, their humanness.

But now, of course, we must conclude with one more dose of humor: the death of the parish beadle. (It shouldn’t be funny, we know; but somehow old Charles still makes us laugh.)

This was the state of affairs in our parish a week or two since, when Simmons, the beadle, suddenly died. The lamented deceased had over-exerted himself, a day or two previously, in conveying an aged female, highly intoxicated, to the strong room of the workhouse. The excitement thus occasioned, added to a severe cold, which this indefatigable officer had caught in his capacity of director of the parish engine, by inadvertently playing over himself instead of a fire, proved to much for a constitution already enfeebled by age; and the intelligence was conveyed to the Board one evening, that Simmons had died, and left his respects.

I, your humble narrator, hope sincerely that this has been a humorous and enlightening glimpse into Mr. Dickens’s earliest work. If you ever have a moment to pop your nose into this little volume, I highly recommend it!

Artwork by George Cruikshank -- Dickens's primary illustrator.
Artwork by George Cruikshank — Dickens’s primary illustrator.

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