My first post-Christmas read was Alexander McCall Smith’s charming The Sunday Philosophy Club. The novel is the first in the author’s Isabel Dalhousie series. I love discovering Edinburgh through his characters. I love how ruminative those characters are. I love his gentle wit and insights.
The series’s protagonist is, of course, the aforementioned Isabel Dalhousie, amateur sleuth and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. Unsurprisingly, then, she is often found thinking through ethical problems, and thus invites the reader to do likewise. I finished reading the novel yesterday and continue to engage with the questions the story raised for me.
Which explains why I haven’t been of a mind to dig into a new story-world. I have the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf on my to-read list. Also The Odyssey. There’s the newest Incorrigible Children series I’ve been saving up. Ultimately, though, I decided on Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. This is another title that’s been on my to-read list for a while, and I feel I can engage with sketches at the moment.
Being in the mood to wander, I scrolled through the table of contents looking for something to jump out at me and settled on a piece called “Gin-Shops.” My favorite adult beverage is a gin and tonic, so it seemed fitting, though reading “Gin-Shops” could very well put one off drinking gin.
After a typically fascinating Dickensian digression, he tells us, “We will endeavor to sketch the bar of a large gin-shop, and its ordinary customers, for the edification of such of our readers as may not have had opportunities of observing such scenes.” As, for example, those of us reading 175+ years on and still captivated/repulsed by the world he evokes.
I’ve written before about the danger of reading Dickens, which is that it provokes the question, why does anyone else bother using the English language?! What he does with words! If one needed further evidence that, as I’ve argued before, we cheat fate by creating beauty from ugliness, then one need look no further than Dickens. Reading “Gin-Shops,” the beauty of his language and descriptions belies the bleakness of the thing he’s describing, and the poignancy and message, though very much grounded in the ills of his time, continue to resonate.
Here is a sentence that goes on for days – and what a sentence!
“The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can hardly be imagined by those (and there are many such) who have not witnessed it. Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three – fruit and ‘sweet stuff’ manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in the front parlours, cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on the second, starvation in the attics, Irishmen in the passage, a ‘musician’ in the front kitchen, and a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one – filth everywhere – a gutter before the houses and a drain behind – clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in white great-coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.”
I could read this one sentence over and over (and over), though I will push myself to carry on reading the whole collection.