Charles Dickens’ First Drafts

We are reading Dickens’ first drafts.

That is the thought that struck me after reading The Old Curiosity Shop. This novel begins with a peculiarity: an unnamed observer who narrates the story while making no contribution to it and, after three short chapters, completely disappears. He has the decency to say good-bye: “I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for themselves.” That is, perhaps, sufficient explanation for his going, but not for his appearing in the first place.

Another character disappears more subtly, and yet rather more notably—Fred Trent, the older brother and moral opposite of Little Nell. Introduced by the vanishing narrator, Trent persisted in the story for perhaps 150 pages longer. He intended, evidently, to be a principal villain. He plotted to get his grandfather’s money, plotted to marry off his sister to his stooge of a friend, plotted to hunt down both relatives when they fled the city. He is attributed with some past entanglement with the young wife of the jealous, malignant Quilp. And it all comes to nothing, and Trent slips off the pages. Dickens remembers him only at the close of the novel, and only to give him a bad, thoroughly unconnected end.

Beyond the characters who disappear are the characters who transform. Dick Swiveller begins the story as nothing more than a fool; he ends as little less than a hero. Kit Nubbles walks into the narrative with “the most comical expression of face;” he “would have amused one anywhere,” and his weekly writing lesson is little more than an occasion to “wallow in blots, and to daub himself with ink up to the very roots of his hair.” From this comical dolt, Kit becomes a well-spoken, upstanding young man who secures a bright future.

Like these two characters, The Old Curiosity Shop developed from inauspicious beginnings to something quite creditable. The first chapter of the story was originally the fourth entry of another series. Titled Master Humphrey’s Clock, the series was a collection of miscellaneous stories and sketches, published in a weekly paper. But Dickens discovered that a miscellany was far less popular, and thus far less profitable, than a novel. He aborted Master Humphrey’s Clock early in its course, and that collection “became one of the lost books of the earth” (as Dickens wrote, with regret that seeps through the ink, in his preface to the 1848 edition of The Old Curiosity Shop). Leaving behind Master Humphrey, Dickens devoted himself to the story of Little Nell, and The Old Curiosity Shop transformed from one item in a collection to a bona fide novel. As Dickens noted—again, in the 1848 preface—the novel “was written and published from week to week, in weekly parts.”

I had known before that Dickens wrote and published weekly; I had even noticed its effects (Pickwick is likewise ennobled over the course of his serial). But The Old Curiosity Shop brought home to me the reality of what Dickens did. The unevenness of the novel is the unevenness of a first draft, when ideas and characters are still nebulous, and would have been smoothed out in a final draft. But there was no final draft. Dickens published as he wrote, and never had the opportunity to revise the parts in view of the whole.

So we read Dickens’ first drafts, and when you realize that, they are all that more impressive.

The Quality of Love

When King Lear begins, in the play bearing his name, to realize the truth of his daughters’ love, he exclaims, “Ingratitude! Thou marble-hearted fiend!” Lear rated his daughters repeatedly for their lack of gratitude. He never understood that the quality of his love did not merit any gratitude from his children.

The play opens with Lear dividing his kingdom among his three daughters. Before making the partition, he asks which of them love him most, so that he may give her the greatest part of the kingdom. The older daughters oblige him with hyperbolic speeches. Cordelia, the youngest daughter, tells her father that she does love him, but will give half her love to her husband, and will not “love my father all.” For this response, Lear disowns and disinherits her.

In this one scene, Lear pits his children against each other, to compete for his gifts; extracts professions of love by dangling rewards; and punishes the one child who would not flatter him.

Having driven out one daughter, and given his kingdom to the remaining two, Lear sets the program for the rest of his life: to live with each older daughter a month at a time, bringing with him one hundred knights as his attendants. This went as well as any reasonable person would expect. Goneril, the eldest daughter, is soon complaining to her father of his behavior, and his attendants’ behavior, in her house: “You strike my people; and your disordr’d rabble / Make servants of their betters.” She asks him to reduce his attendants to fifty.

Lear—beginning and ending with a denunciation of his daughter’s ingratitude—calls down vivid curses upon her. He leaves in a rage and goes to Regan, the second daughter. Regan greets him: “I am glad to see your highness.” Lear answers, “If thou shouldst not be glad / I would divorce me from thy mother’s tomb, / Sepulchring an adultress.” In this, we see another method of Lear’s management of his children—threatened rejection, with insult or injury to another member of the family as well.

When Goneril arrives, a sort of family conference develops. The sisters close ranks—Regan telling Lear that he may stay with her with twenty-five attendants, and Goneril asking him why he needs even five. Lear erupts into incoherent threats: “No, you unnatural hags, / I will have such revenges on you both, / That all the world–I will do such things– / What they are, yet I know not;–but they shall be / The terrors of the earth.” And again he storms out, and no one would imagine that either sister regretted it.

Lear memorably declared that he was a man more sinned against than sinning. There is no doubt that the narrative agrees with him. One senses here a cultural mist. In Shakespeare’s day, the idea of duty or honor owed to a father—and even more to a king—was far more powerful than it is today. Even so, I would not disagree with Lear’s conviction that his daughters had sinned against him. But what is striking is Lear’s conviction of his own guiltlessness.

In truth, Lear’s sins were returning to him. He had attempted to compel his daughters’ love by threats and promises. Naturally, he had compelled only a pretense of love, and that pretense faded as soon as he resigned his power to punish and to reward. His daughters were selfish, but so was the man who had raised them.

Lear called his daughters unnatural because they did not act with what used to be called “natural love.” But Lear was not lovable, and it is not unnatural that his daughters should not love him. You cannot demand, by right or nature, a love that you have never shown.

Two Classics

I read two classics this past summer: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Dostoevsky’s Devils. I was maybe two hundred pages into Devils when I realized, with a measure of surprise, that the book reminded me of Jane Austen. Not the political revolution, of course, or the atheism and murder; the book’s conclusion, in which Dostoevsky briskly mowed down half his cast, shows everything that Dostoevsky is and Jane Austen is not. But even after that bitter end, I am sure: Dostoevsky and Austen are like each other.

The characterization in their novels has a similar texture: at once sharp and deep. Both Dostoevsky and Austen stand outside their characters in their narration, taking the tone of an observer of rare acuity and no inclination to cover over anything. Neither ever saw a fool without observing and declaring the fact. They are unsparing. At the same time, they draw so comprehensive a sketch of their characters that it feels a little like empathy. The fools may have been lampooned, but they were at least understood.

A broader similarity also plays into this likeness in characterization. Austen and Dostoevsky share a keen awareness of the foibles that seam human nature. The ordinary foolishness and common weaknesses of humanity are fully understood by both writers, and finely displayed. Dostoevsky is amused by people behaving absurdly, and Austen is positively delighted. They catch the comedy of foolishness. They catch, with even greater skill, its darkness. In this Dostoevsky is stronger, but Austen captures the same truth, that workaday follies can be both laughable and destructive. They carry, sometimes, a surprising cost.

Most strikingly, Austen and Dostoevsky root their stories in society. In many novels, society – the broader community, with its rules and workings – exists as little more than background. Events play out, and characters live, at a distant remove from the community. There is no sense of what ordinary life might be like. But to read Austen and Dostoevsky is to enter a society. The shibboleths are different than our own, but the organism is the same: the requirements and prohibitions, the expectations and interactions, all the self-conscious fussiness. Austen and Dostoevsky make use of the broad conventions of society, such as who shall marry whom. Their mastery is in how they use the minor conventions. They bring forward the weight of trivialities. It doesn’t matter, really, whether you dance or don’t dance. What matters is what other people make of you for either one.

In Dostoevsky, all these things are shaded more darkly. His psychological portraits sketch the reasons of murderers, his fools descend into wickedness and ruin, his grand ball dissolves in panic as the city catches fire. The similarities between his works and Austen’s are subtle and fascinating. The differences are obvious, and ultimately more important. So profound is the divide that one cannot imagine Austen even touching the subjects that Dostoevsky wrestled. Dickens might have taken up Dostoevsky’s themes, though with far more sentiment and optimism. But if Jane Austen had written about revolution, or moral anarchy, or the psychology of suicide, she would not have been Jane Austen.

And the world would have lost something. One may prefer Jane Austen; one may prefer Fyodor Dostoevsky. Either position is fair. But it is good that Austen was herself, and not Dostoevsky, just as it is good that Dostoevsky was himself, and not Austen. Such is the diversity that makes the world rich.

The Crux of the Tragedy

Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language. I know because everyone says so. Like most of you, I was compelled to experience his greatness in school, and I did not particularly enjoy it. (It was Othello. I could not work out the math by which the Great Handkerchief Scandal resulted in murder.) Earlier this year, I decided to give Shakespeare another go. I browsed Amazon for options and, scrupulously applying my principles, chose the most cost-efficient: the complete works of Shakespeare, bound into one enormous volume that could probably be used as a murder weapon but cost, used, $10.

The table of contents covers well over two thousand pages. I searched it for a place to begin and, intimidated, settled on the beginning. I proceeded on this direct approach only to be confronted by Romeo and Juliet. All my adult life, I had intended to never read Romeo and Juliet. But it was the next story in the collection and so, for a sense of completeness, I read it. The play has four centuries of hype to live up to and, as you would expect, it doesn’t.

It has its points, of course. My experience of Shakespeare is limited – Romeo and Juliet is only fourth in the book – but he seems to have been the kind of writer whose work is often uneven but never meritless. There is wit and gorgeous verse in Romeo and Juliet. The dramatic irony is interesting. The graveyard denouement, and Juliet’s living burial with her dead relatives, are evocatively horrible. And although Shakespeare probably didn’t intend it, it is kind of funny to watch Romeo drama-queen all over the stage.

And yet, as a love story, Romeo and Juliet is hasty and shallow. The two meet at a party and marry the next day. By the time they commit suicide, they have known each other perhaps a week. Granted, it was a jam-packed week, mostly with murders, but still. I know they were passionate to the point of hysteria. I know they gave some pretty speeches. I hold, nonetheless, to the principle that one of the requirements of a grand love affair is that it outlive milk.

If not a grand love story, Romeo and Juliet is a great tragedy – needless and self-inflicted, unredeemed by nobility. Neither hero nor heroine was courageous when it might have helped. Both, once they discovered each other, became cruel to everyone else – whether it was Juliet declaring her cousin’s death a good thing or Romeo skewering poor Paris. When the apothecary protested that he could be executed for selling the poison, Romeo goaded him into it by scorning his hunger and poverty. He put the man’s life at risk and pressed him into the guilt of complicity with another’s self-destruction. These are great moral crimes.

Mostly, Romeo and Juliet distinguish themselves by their absolute lack of wisdom and good sense. They were not star-crossed lovers. They were simply and inexcusably wrong about everything. Their secret marriage was a disaster in the wings from I do. That was so exceedingly obvious even they should have seen it. The only question was whether the crisis would be forced when Juliet got pregnant or when her parents chose a husband for her. Romeo and Juliet might have at least tried the honest approach. Rejecting that, they might have run away together. Either brave frankness or open rebellion could have saved them. But they would literally have rather killed themselves.

The only sensible reaction to Romeo and Juliet is Children, you are really very stupid. And that is the crux of this tragedy – that they were little more than children in need of adult supervision, and nobody was it: not the Nurse, not Friar Lawrence, not their awful parents. Romeo and Juliet got drunk on their first sip of sexual love and ruined everything. That is not a beautiful love story, nor an ennobling tragedy, but it is piercingly poignant.