So long (sort of like Bleak House)

I feel as if I must sign off, although I do not have to.  I really enjoyed the class and will always carry around in my pocket Rogue Riderhood, Sydney Carton, Mr. Tremlow, Mr. Sangsby, and Bella Wilfer.  I learned much from each of them. I will never forget “200 years of Charles Dickens.” We were commemorating 200 years, not living 200 years in Charles Dickens.

Although I am signing off, I will not be saying good-bye to Dickens. There are so many ways to reference Charles Dickens in so many other forms of literature. The opportunities will present themselves. The study of literature is cyclical in nature and I will find a way to slide Dickens into all of my literature studies.

See you later for now, and when you see other references to Victorian literature that I may use, I will be winking toward this class.


The lusty month of May and its pole in Barnaby Rudge

Happy May Day, four days early.  The Maypole is a dynamic symbol in Barnaby Rudge.  Early to Christianity, it was a pagan symbol.  In Barnaby Rudge, it is a symbol of Pentacost in the Protestant Church.  It is also a symbol for Labor in some European countries.  The maypole is usually erected and employed on May 1st, which is fast approaching. Actually, in Barnaby Rudge, the Maypole is the name of the inn at which everyone gathers.

Central to Barnaby Rudge is the Gordon Riots of 1780, Protestant riots. I like a good Protestant/Catholic fight.  Starting in 1485, when John Tetzel sold the indulgence to Martin Luther and Luther wrote his 99 theses, Catholics and Protestants have been fighting. This is the stuff that good Protestants the world around have been taught in Sunday School.  There are Luther, Swingli, Knox, Calvin, Wesley and many others. Comparative to Cowboy Westerns and Tall Tales, these Christians fought the good fight.

And then the Catholics Counter-reformed. Let us not discount the impact of Counter-Reformation. During Counter-Reformation, Catholics answered charges and cleaned house.  So there was redemption everywhere.  Some of the reasons for reform were caused by Henry VIII and his “Henrican” Church.  Later called Anglican, now Episcopal. Queen Elizabeth I established Whose King his Religion and although this was a great concept, it was ultimately confusing. Although intended to bring unity to the state, it made the British crazy, because the state kept changing.  This is probably one of the reasons for pockets of fights among the Protestants and Catholics.

Although these breakout fights can be distressing if you live in a peaceable kingdom as I do, these issues really burned.  Are we saved by the Grace of God or by our good works and words?  These were emotional issues in the 1600s and 1700s.   People wanted proof of the greatness of Catholicism and others wanted to try something new. Some feared the Papacy with its stringent rules.  When we go there in our minds, we must remember the fervor of the day and the burning issues of the times.

The Maypole Inn was the gathering place for the persons of the riots, but I can’t help but note that the maypole was a defiant symbol of Pentacost and sometimes Labor and sometimes around the world unity.

Happy May Day! The maypole can be the symbol of how we will go forth from here. Peace be with you.

Sketches by Boz or Insight by Boz

I was stricken the most in “Thoughts about People,” by Charles Dickens’ description of older men. They are known in coffee houses by the “Luxury of their dinners,” and have neither friend nor companion. and look upon others with a jaundiced eye. We know this person to be a bit misanthropic.  Although he belongs to a club, he is disliked by its members. He sounds a little like the model for Ebenezer Scrooge. Oh, wait! This is Ebenezer Scrooge.

I believe these sketches were later translated into characters for his novels and short stories. There is a vague recollection to The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. This is an interesting novella that is almost a duplicate of the Scrooge story. The character is a little different, though.  He is the wronged party. Uh-oh, the wronged party in literature. Throughout the many genres of literature, there is none quite so righteously furious as the wronged party. One such story is Tim Gautraux’s “Welding with Children.” Older man with grandchildren in the car.  People he knows from church hurl epithets that the children can hear. This character can crash and burn or he can rise above it.   This is true about life as well. People are waiting to see if you will crash, but you handle it with dignity, by virtue of the fact that you read the literature. Literature can teach us about life if we let it in.

There is much literature action to be mined in Sketches by Boz. There are insights everywhere.  In “Thoughts about People,” he hits loneliness with a rare mark. These could be models for the characters of Betty Higden of Our Mutual Friend or Mrs. Pardiggle from Bleak House. Insights from nonfiction can make great fictional accounts. Where does he come up with these characters? Through observation.

You know the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, Practice, Practice.”  How does he write so elequently about loneliness, fatigue and humiliation? He sees and writes with insight.

Storytelling – Telling stories

Last evening, another member of the class and I got to see Dolores Hydock, a storyteller and actress.  She told stories about the people of Chandler Mountain, Alabama, near Gadsden. She was phenomenal.  If you ever get a chance to see her, her performance is well worth the effort and time. She told us that when she was a university student at Yale, she visited Chandler Mountain as part of a folklife project.  After she graduated Yale, she came to Birmingham to be close to Chandler Mountain and their folks.  She was truly inspirational about the folkways and folklore of Chandler Mountain, including quilting, making bonnets and “warming up.”  Warming up is having leftovers for dinner.

I was truly touched because, as she talks with the people of Chandler Mountain, they never fail to ask her, “How’s your Mama?”  The people of Chandler Mountain have never met Dolores’ mother, but they always ask.

Examples such as these bring me to my comparison to the works of Charles Dickens.  He illuminates this grand portrait of the people of Victorian England, and peppers his tableau with simpler stories that speak to exactly the folkway or idiosyncrasy of exactly the person of this particular era at this particular location. Take for example, Mr. Tremlow of Our Mutual Friend.  As I was reading the work, I kept thinking about Mr. Tremlow as a background character, one of the many characters in the back of the novel who pop up to say a few words, like Georgina Podsnap.  Just a few sprinkles here and there. However, he plays a pivotal role with Mortimer Lightwood as they defend Lizzie Hexum together at the Veneerings. Through stories, we can understand the underying voices, the sensation and the sense of groups and their plans. Stories and storytelling remind us why they call these kinds of courses and activities the Humanities.  They remind us why we are humans, after all.

Tune in tomorrow

Tomorrow I will speak, as a portion of my presentation, about the Chateau d’If in Count of Monte Cristo.  Think Alcatraz, (famous prison in San Francisco) only in France during the time of Napolean and without any due process.  Think solitary confinement.  Tomorrow, I will speak upon how two prisoners elevated themselves out of the depths of the most depressing prison in the world.  I will talk about the liberation that education brings to one who is imprisoned or otherwise in a kind of darkness or bondage.

The prisons in A Tale of Two Cities are very much like the one described in Count. There is no habeas corpus and there is no sense of justice in the system that sends them there. Can we find liberation in the dark corridors?  Can we understand the strength that it will take to withstand injustice and then, triumph? It will take survival skills and much grit to wrestle our way out of the darkness and elevate ourselves into the true light of liberty.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning – Best Literary Chick ever!

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an awesome poet. Her dates are 6 March 1806 – 29 June 1861. At age 6 or 8, we are not altogether sure, she writes one of her most successful early poems “On the cruelty and forcement of men.” Could not find a copy of it at the ready, so I will save these nuggets for my next blog.  She acquired a lifelong illness that was never diagnosed. She lived on the famous Wimpole Street in London.  The famous film Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934 and 1957) depicts her escape from the home of her ever-watchful father and her romance and subsequent marriage to Robert Browning. Sonnets from the Portugese is her most famous collection of poems.  It includes the must maligned and the much loved “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” We used to make fun of this poem in high school, claiming that it was too treacly, but it is actually a great poem, citing that love is everlasting, even if you are frustrated with life and even when you do not really feel like it. It goes on. Read it, Read it now!

Aurora Leigh is very much like Charles Dickens’ Little Dorritt, both set in the prisons and similar plot lines.  Both deal with similar issues. “Cry of the Children” in the collection, Blackwoods is about child labor and is a very significant work.

Flush, written by Virginia Woolf is a fictional account of the lives of the Brownings, told through the eyes of their cocker spaniel.

Bella and her education

So Bella gives up on British Family Housewife. I have looked everywhere for the text and have come up wanting.  I think it is probably fictional.  Have you seen how stealthy Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, really is?  Wow. I would recommend a shorter tome, My Life in France. It’s a really a good biographical read and she shares how much time and energy she really placed into Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Some of these housekeeping books are long and boring, and we already know how to perform these tasks anyway.

In Our Mutual Friend, Bella finally rejects her Housewifery Handbook for newspapers and the study of geometry. I think this is a wise choice.  Bella knows that she will have to have something to talk to her husband about, if she is going to make this work for the long term.  I can recommend two 20th Century poems that Bella can study if she furthers her study in geometry, “Euclid” by Vachel Lindsey (Early 20th) and “Geometry” by Rita Dove (Late 20th) You can Google these poems and they come right up.  Never fear, most famous modern poems can be Googled, so that we have them at our keypads.

I know that Bella is a 19th Century kind of gal, but we are attempting to relate this to the years of our lives.  I was not around when Vachel Lindsey was a popular poet, (1879-1931) but Rita Dove’s (b. 1952)  “Geometry” made all the circles in my high school just about the time I was taking geometry as a course.  As we relate Dickens’ characters to 20th Century ideas, it may also be relevant to go back to Euclid’s time. He is the Father of Geometry, born 300 BC.

Sometimes we forget that ideas are out of time, without a timeline and are true today as they were true in 300 BC.

Punctuation centers

So, punctuation was begun by printers in the Victorian Era.  I thought that linguists and sociologists and lexicographers got together to confuse beginning writers. Punctuation is the bane of the beginning writer.  Some beginners are so aggravated about punctuation that they just resign.  No need to lose ideas because of a lack of understanding of punctuation. Writing should not be a frustrating experience, always second guessing where to place the comma.  When in doubt, do we leave it out? There is even a tendancy to add more.  Let us declare a moratorium on punctuation and edit it later, carefully and with an eagle eye.

So I had an idea as we were watching the youtube about the Westfields Village Printer who was demonstrating the printing press. Someone has those cubbies that printers used and also the leftover punctuation tiles. DONATE them to a kindergarten for centers. In this way, we can teach punctuation in kindergarten at the centers.  Every kindergarten child loves centers.  Turn in those puncutation tiles and the cubbies they come in and let children play with them so that kindergartners can have an early understanding of punctuation. They can practice their punctuation early in life and start to like it before the pouring rain comes. They are already one-up on the writing world and they have not yet begun the first grade!

A new twist on greening so we can find a new home for our old punctuation tiles. Let us recycle and reuse! Kindergartners need them for their centers, so that they can get the jump on punctuation early and can always be prepared to weather the punctuation storms.

As Alexander Pope has said, “A little bit of learning is a dangerous thing.”  Variation on the theme: A dangerous, cool thing for our little bitty people.

In Praise of Non-Standard Grammar (sometimes)


I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and of course, I did not find anything. Wishermaydie is  a sort of portmanteau word, meaning, “I suppose,” or “hopefully.” Wishermaydie may be the preferred word, because newscasters such as Charles Kurault fought against “hopefully” for YEARS. People still use the word hopefully, so we can wishermaydie that it will change.

Jo certainly has a way with words. He says he draws breath as heavy as a cart, and rattles like it. Jo is suffering from an upper respiratory condition, probably asthma. What strikes me is the grammar and patterns of his language. The thank’ees and the nothinks are really telling us that Jo has not had the advantages of middle-class Victorian England.  It is tempting to pull out the red pens and correct his grammar until we realize that this kind of speech is authentic speech. Dickens is giving us a clue to how the common folk talk, and another clue into how they think.

Sometimes standard grammar doesn’t cut it. If we cannot record how people are really talking, then we cannot examine how we really are.  This is the argument for placing gratuitous swear words in movies.  The argument goes, “We are recording how people really talk!”  Sometimes I am convinced that writers have placed these words into certain movies because of the very lack of creative dialogue.  Writers could think of no better dialogue so they gin up the cussing.

I love the character of Jo.  He ties together the sadness, remorse and again the strengths of Bleak House. I can come to understand the poor through the nonstandard grammar of Jo. Jo was never taught better grammar, so he pieces together the words that he has learned into a kind of mulligan’s stew of words.  If you’ve ever studied a foreign language and had to recite, you know how Jo feels. Placing language into blank spaces will eventually help you to learn language, but it is everso wrong while you are doing it. The irony is that this is how we actually learn language. Trial and error.

Dickens is ironic when he states, “From the sole of thy foot to the crown of thy head, there is nothing interesting about thee.” We can learn much from Jo, much about language and about life.

Melting Cold Cold Hearts in the Springtime of Dickens

Hey, I was able to catch Architreats this week at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.  The guest speaker was Rheta Grimsley Johnson. You may remember her from her Monday column in the Montgomery Advertiser.  She is a feature writer from Montgomery, an Auburn University graduate.

The place was packed.  The overflow room was PACKED. The subject was her new book Hank Hung the Moon, and Warmed our Cold Cold Hearts. She was a magnificent speaker, addressing many issues of our day.  She talked about interviews she completed with Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams (no relation – daughter of poet Miller Williams) and many country music greats.  She stated, “Hank spoke to every man and made complex issues simple.  He was termed as The Hillbilly Sheakespeare.”  I had never heard of Hank as the Hillbilly Shakespeare before.  However, a ring of truth bellowed through my memory when she spoke of Hank Williams speaking to the persons among us with varying backgrounds and educations and making the complex simple. Doesn’t Charles Dickens make hard to reach ideas simple in Our Mutual Friend, when Bella leaves the Boffin home?  Doesn’t Dickens tackle complex themes in Bleak House when Mr. Skimpole tries to turn a deathly sick Jo out of Bleak House, because he is contagious?

When Dickens is writing about Victorian manners and ideals, he is more subtle than “Hey, Hey good looking — Watcha got cookin’?” When I heard this song as a young girl of 10, I said, “That is the worst pickup line I have ever heard. This guy really has some nerve.”  However, on the flip side, he uses the metaphor of a blind man.  “Then like a blind man that God gave back his sight … Praise the Lord, I saw the Light!” When we look at the complex construction of the blind man to whom God gave back his sight, it is perhaps awkwardly constructed. Yet, it is a redemptive metaphor.

Was Hank Williams Dickensian in his musical songwriting and performance?  I will have to say not, at least not intentionally.  He is attempting to simplify a midnight moon to the shade of purple and give melting hearts two colds, as in “…cold, cold heart.” Williams is not intentially emulating Dickens, but indeed making ideas that are hard to grasp, within the reach of country music fans.

Persons with varying backgrounds and educations will recognize the talisman of the guillotine pin jewelry as a replacement for the lavalier cross in Tale of Two Cities. The guillotine as a replacement for the cross is a strong metaphor that we can miss if we are not paying attention. Making complex ideas simple.

Was Dickens Williamsian?