Sketch on the Sketches: Essay on Dickens

Front Cover to Chaz's Boz as conceived by George Cruikshank (1837)

Front Cover to Chaz’s Boz as conceived by George Cruikshank (1837)

Following some “adult choices” concerning my so-called future in the legal services sector, I decided to talk to the inimitable Nicholas Whiting, my former head of sixth form, English teacher, Pasolini devotee and cineaste (the finer points of his character for some other time perhaps).

To condense a fairly circuitous and painstaking series of deliberations in a pointed way, I withdrew from my Law LLB course and applied for an English BA at Queen Mary, the place where I’d always wanted to be, the campus alone, (research and teaching notwithstanding) is a cornucopia of incongruous possibilities: a grade-listed Jewish cemetery? The Regents’ canal? Post-modern irregular glass structures? It’s all there. You’re probably wondering what kind of storyteller I purport to be if I can’t be bothered to source the effort to detail the intervening period in the verbal richness and colour and wit it requires to maintain your attention. Feel free to skip to the essay, but as I write *this*, it’s 2100 exactly at Liverpool Street Station, hunched over my tablet by the gum-marked stone steps on the upper tier (haunters to this stop know while this isn’t the workhouse, it ain’t fun either) so you’ll forgive me. During the invariable edit following the train ride, which may provide some time to write a little something etc., I could add more and so on.  However, if this sentence exists the likely chances are that I didn’t write anything else. Look, I’ve made the decision not to. My back is congruent to some back-slapping Wasabi-eating males and I want to go home. Wah. Arendt, Steven Pinker and Vonnegut’s “Galapogos” are waiting for me. And so on.

Anyway,  this following incomplete extract (pulled verbatim from the QM email) from Dickens’s ‘Sketches by Boz’ and accompanying entry essay on the motifs, form and so on of the first sketch represents a neat marker towards a future filled with fiction (hopefully not in the overtly delusional sense of living mendaciously) and less, nay zero, legal criteria-checking and procedural form-filling. If anyone happens to come across this post in some months and years time, do be constructive? Or perform the now internet-standard thing of baseless conjecture before reflection, that we’re all pretty guilty of..?

Oh, and this isn’t necessarily self-flattery, but please consult me before any reproduction of the essay occurs anywhere.

The extract in not quite its fully glory:

Charles Dickens, “Sketches by Boz”


The appearance presented by the streets of London an hour before sunrise, on a

summer’s morning, is most striking even to the few whose unfortunate pursuits

of pleasure, or scarcely less unfortunate pursuits of business, cause them to be

well acquainted with the scene. There is an air of cold, solitary desolation about

the noiseless streets which we are accustomed to see thronged at other times by a

busy, eager crowd, and over the quiet, closely–shut buildings, which throughout

the day are swarming with life and bustle, that is very impressive.

The last drunken man, who shall find his way home before sunlight, has just

staggered heavily along, roaring out the burden of the drinking song of the

previous night: the last houseless vagrant whom penury and police have left in

the streets, has coiled up his chilly limbs in some paved comer, to dream of food

and warmth. The drunken, the dissipated, and the wretched have disappeared;

the more sober and orderly part of the population have not yet awakened to the

labours of the day, and the stillness of death is over the streets; its very hue seems

to be imparted to them, cold and lifeless as they look in the grey, sombre light of

daybreak. The coach–stands in the larger thoroughfares are deserted: the night–

houses are closed; and the chosen promenades of profligate misery are empty.

An occasional policeman may alone be seen at the street corners, listlessly gazing

on the deserted prospect before him; and now and then a rakish–looking cat

runs stealthily across the road and descends his own area with as much caution

and slyness — bounding first on the water–butt, then on the dust–hole, and

then alighting on the flag–stones — as if he were conscious that his character

depended on his gallantry of the preceding night escaping public observation.

A partially opened bedroom–window here and there, bespeaks the heat of the

weather, and the uneasy slumbers of its occupant; and the dim scanty flicker of

the rushlight, through the window–blind, denotes the chamber of watching or

sickness. With these few exceptions, the streets present no signs of life, nor the

houses of habitation.


An analysis of “The streets – Morning”

For reasons documented later, the extract is ostensibly a non-fiction in which the eponymous Boz (for our purposes, a speaker interchangeable with Dickens) finding himself in unprepossessing street scene, imports a degree of foreknowledge of the events of the early morning and prior night. For instance, in the case of the “rakish-looking” cat’s behaviour: “as if he were conscious that his character depended on his gallantry of the preceding night escaping public observation.” This speculation works well since cats exemplify patterns of skittish and calculated behaviour, this cat perhaps especially so. However such a line may also interact with a common antecedent in identifying “typical” behaviour: “The last drunken man, who shall find his way home before sunlight, has just staggered heavily along”. There is more than a small allusion that determinism and repetition are manifesting themselves on the street. The last drunken man may not be the same, but one will always exist as a theme with variations. This will be explored further.

To capture the immediacy of the cat’s behaviour, Dickens uses dashes instead of commas to note sudden shifts in focus; a mirroring that appears elsewhere in the extract.

Entirely linear in its chronology, the Sketch undoubtedly captures one of the more ephemeral periods of the just before the last drunken man has ‘staggered heavily along’ and an hour before sunrise when the first cold burst of “grey, sombre light” of a “summer’s morning” fades into sunrise.

Having been confronted with the “chilly limbs” of a vagrant one “coiled up” in a foetal sleeping position “in some paved comer, to dream of food and warmth”, some ten sentences past (a negligible duration since there is nothing to suggest a longer demarcation), we are nonetheless told residents have partially opened a “bedroom–window here and there”; allegedly this “bespeaks the heat of the weather.” Such disparity of temperatures may seem alas, a little hyperbolic. It is nothing short of incongruous. Could it be possible that our subjective experiences of warmth are predicated only on the trappings of blankets, night garments and property? Dickens may be implying this, but not necessarily that a dearth of material items makes this so; rather a simple dichotomy of “desolation” in the streets and community which has shifted into those houses of habitation makes it so.

 The “occasional” policeman, one ‘listlessly gazing’, suggests a wilful unseeing or lazy cynicism on the part of agents of the state. Equally, it may suggest social solidarity, or general permissibility of casual street sleeping. Given the time, it is reasonable to assume the usual demarcations of personal wealth; class and education are temporarily irrelevant: sleep, or at least, fatigue, has conquered all men and all women.

One is not required to be a Dickens’ scholar to recognise that his works concerned the forgotten, the unfortunate and illegitimately excluded or to paraphrase from Rainer Maria Rilke ‘those for whom neither the past nor the future belongs’. I use this quote for a number of reasons given that the sketch hovers on a moment of suspended temporality.  However, it remains very much an open question whether the subjects are constructed with a disproportionate tilt to either fascination or repulsion. Are these positions mutually exclusive?

Who are the non-attendant “the drunken, the dissipated, and the wretched? Are they merely an extension of those present in the Sketch? Dickens does not wholly embellish but instead produces an alliterative deadening phonology less the inclusion of wretched; this is met too with the unambiguous “stillness of death is over the streets”. Such a tripling in the first example and sibilance in the second, with its stress-based rotundity will arrest the quickest of readers with these full-bodied adjectives. Given this is not verse, such sparing use (a singular use in this way) that exhibits the metrics of its sentences is all the more effective for introducing thematic concerns in a memorable, rhythmic idiom. Clearly, prose owing to its composition with words contains origins in metre, in the inherent syllabic stress and slack is not exempt from these elements

For example, the devices of alliteration and assonance are frequently, not always, associated with parallel syntactical construction: they rely for their effect on parallelism in sound. It is not possible to separate the strictly phonological (sound) effects in examples as these; for they are part of a compound of lexical, syntactical and stress devices, that remind us of purchase of parallelism which, creates a rhythm of sound and echo and entwines ‘meaning’ and ‘phonology’.

This kind of syntactical parallelism (often combined with phonological stress and pitch) here achieves a more delicate rhythmic effect where content and audible forms interrelate. They are not necessarily thematic.

 It is also noteworthy in describing these dwellers; Dickens takes care to avoid gendering the ‘chilly limbs’ of the vagrant for example. We assume a male like the drunk, but are these biases owing to the fact the “benevolent” patriarchy of Dickens’s era would not fathom the possibility of a destitute woman?

Where we might have reasonably anticipated the coming warmth of the summer sun putting forth its abundance without limit or measure, if it does so at all, both the streets and to a lesser extent, homes of habitation are instead dead, and the few souls who patronise it, by fate and by economic necessity are their natural counterparts it may appears: “its very hue seems to be imparted to them, cold and lifeless as they look in the grey, sombre light of daybreak”. With this in mind, ‘Roaring out the burden of the drinking song of the previous night’ is perhaps all the more affecting given the abject stillness of the scene. ‘Burden’ too may suggest an a priori duty or societal expectation to reach intoxication rather than just a liability to critical faculties, sobriety etc.

Throughout the second paragraph such assonance in the imagery of death (as well as the  new day as rebirth) is so pronounced that it could not reasonably be symbolically unconnected to these themes: the device of anaphora to these ‘last’ men (“the last houseless vagrant; “the last drunken man”; the foetal sleeping position) reinforces this routine– these are the people for whom the participation in the ‘throng’ of civil society will not occur since possible pneumonia, a pub brawl, tuberculosis and death are not an impossibility.  Should they overcome this, the labours of the day may introduce them to a long familiarity with the miseries of working life.

Moreover, given the absence of names in the extract, even the opportunity of pseudonyms, Dickens might be accused of employing a Nietzschean ‘doctrine of types’ or a master/slave dynamic where the drunken man will always stumble home, the policeman may always listlessly gaze etc. Perhaps we seem to recognise a scene well from such economical language precisely because such themes of power, control, and homelessness transcend epochs but so too, because they are anaphoric. However such an idea burdens such a short text. It may well be just as plausible to state that memorability and ‘punch’ are what Dickens desires.

In a simple analysis this imagery coheres with ‘pathetic fallacy’ and a further parallel, not only of the internal dispositions’ of the ‘last’ men pinned to the same axis as the weather’s obliqueness but too, of the ‘houses of habitation’ which ‘with few exception’ present nothing to the external passer-by. This mirroring extends to the entire scene. Dickens’s entire panorama in effect, one of stillness and all the remarkable for providing an appreciation of the texture of the writing as a whole: “With these few exceptions, the streets present no signs of life, nor the houses of habitation.” Does such mirroring produce solidarity, sympathy, antipathy?  Not only does any device aimed at shaping readers’ emotions appear to threaten their autonomy, there is an anthropocentric tendency in fiction where readers cannot see anything that is not in their own image, or speaks to some aspect of our lives.  There is nothing to suggest this parallelism is satirically motivated.

“The appearance presented by the streets of London an hour before sunrise, on a summer’s morning, is most striking even to the few whose unfortunate pursuits of pleasure, or scarcely less unfortunate pursuits of business, cause them to be well acquainted with the scene.”

The universality of this sentence in avoiding idioms of the age, and crucially avoiding a time and location may imply that on any such future date at a similar time , a scene not unlike this will be observable to the reader and resident of a city at least two millennia old. They may even be tempted to leave their comforts or perhaps, the discomfort of sleep to such a prospect. On balance, a certain readership of the Sketch may frequent at such a time and the Sketch can quickly become its own self-fulfilling prophecy: a call to observe the minutiae of life lived. The sun may rise and the text may overcome its elegiac tone for something unrestricted, perhaps hope. While vagrants may be condemned to faceless anonymity that which remains extraordinary is understanding and perhaps altering other’s lives. The detail of the vagrant “coiled up” in a corner no less, could be more than circumstantial: it could suggest untapped potential waiting to spring or resentment waiting to attack. It remains a moot point whether the Sketch is promulgating any of these virtues though conversely, Dickens’ does not address whether the existing social order can be changed at all, only renewed, and thus has nothing to defend itself from bald fatalism.
What are we to make of the ‘dim scanty flicker’ through the window? Does it stand in isolation or in correspondence to anything which precedes it? As well as signalling the previously remarked warmth that the vagrant sorely dreamed of, it also denotes in the history of poetry and fiction, passage or illumination (clearly, connotations from any imagery are entirely contingent on the cultural formulation of the viewer, the text’s cultural location and so on). The flame’s feebleness suggests the near absence of these intangible resources as a means to social elevation, not just of the homeless but of the precarious renting-ranks of London too.

The middling ranks and working poor were certainly not required to be inordinately wealthy to possess a lit candle at this time. However, this mere detail, taken in totality with rest of the extract might suggest a sumptuous refuge despite ‘sickness’ or ‘uneasy slumbers’, one that is underappreciated by its occupants. The nature of ‘sickness’ may be harder to define: it may be reference to the street itself, perhaps poor air quality or some commentary on the price of Industrial progress generally. Nobody, after all, no matter how wealthy and fortified, is wholly immune to the use of the streets. They too make use of the coach-stands, pavements and so on.

Although Dickens has no obligation to truth, he cannot be easily accused of mendacity. For disparities in temperature noted, the extract has to be read with reservations as a purely historical document. Since the extract is entirely devoid of dialogue, the text may be read a metier not dissimilar from the case studies of peers within and outside the literary world, such as Joseph Rowntree. Why does “the streets” not seek to produce a dialogue with its dramatis personæ but observe their lifestyles from afar? Is Boz’s reasoning that authority will accrue as result or that a precarious scene will be contaminated if such authorial intervention occurs? Boz does not consciously seek to self-actualise as the hero in the centre of his own Gonzo reportage that would come to define the travelogues of Hunter S Thompson, Paul Theroux or George Orwell some decades later. Does this superficial third party adjudication lend an aura of journalistic integrity where external verification is not possible? Quite legitimately it does, at possible expense of abstracting us from the very persons we ought to feel more curious about. However, such a lack of a nominal hero or antagonist allows for purely social and historical concerns to be addressed and is not problematic.

The Sketch as a form is perhaps its great merit and its great disservice; unlike other Dickens’s text this lacks the richness of verbal, dramatic and situational ironies that in their own small way undermine the paradigmatic virtues of Victorianism: respectability, deference to authority and domesticity.

To the Sketch’s credit it avoids the oft-noted dilemmas of the novel: condensing the constituent details of tumultuous lives; where the longueurs and baneful regrets of decisions that characterise real lives portend an immediate denouement, but instead end in an unsatisfying fashion after decades. The Sketch instead remains open-ended. The limits of such a style of writing, however, are revealed somewhat in gnomic short-hands such as the wry assessment “the chosen promenades of profligate misery are empty”. Whose misery and why such a gratuitous quantity of it? Is Boz referring to the profligate hoi polloi or not?

In spite of its limitations as a medium to express ideas fully this extract can still be defended for its repetition as well as its thoughtful conviction, which today may be liable to an easy sneer but, in an era where retrenching living standards bring us closer to 19th century indices of disparity is quite indispensable. Dickens may not possess the utopianism of Morris but could this Sketch to the streets as they are, not as they ought to be, be the true joie de vivre of such a bleak extract?