Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

07 FEBRUARY, 2014

Charles Dickens on Grief and How to Heal a Mourning Heart

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“The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.”

In addition to being one of literary history’s most celebrated authors, no doubt in part thanks to being such a disciplined early riser, Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was also a man of extraordinary wisdom — from the timeless life-advice he gave his youngest son to his generous fan letter to George Eliot to his insightful and amusing observations on the rites of dating. But some of his most poignant wisdom addressed a subject of the gravest sort — the healing of a grieving heart.

In 1862, Dickens’s younger sister, Letitia, lost her husband of twenty-five years, the architect and artist Henry Austin. In a letter from early October of that year, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public library; free download), Dickens envelops Letitia with equal parts compassionate consolation and a call to psychoemotional arms:

I do not preach consolation because I am unwilling to preach at any time, and know my own weakness too well. But in this world there is no stay but the hope of a better, and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through those two harbours of a shipwrecked heart, I fully believe that you will, in time, find a peaceful resting-place even on this careworn earth. Heaven speed the time, and do you try hard to help it on! It is impossible to say but that our prolonged grief for the beloved dead may grieve them in their unknown abiding-place, and give them trouble. The one influencing consideration in all you do as to your disposition of yourself (coupled, of course, with a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit) is, that you think and feel you can do. . . . I rather hope it is likely that through such restlessness you will come to a far quieter frame of mind. The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.

But nothing is to be attained without striving. In a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.

The Dickens family with friends, 1864

Complement with Joan Didion on grief. For a more uplifting Dickens treat, see Neil Gaiman’s reading of A Christmas Carol.

The Letters of Charles Dickens is an enormously absorbing read in its entirety, full of the beloved writer’s meditations on life, literature, love, and loss.

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23 DECEMBER, 2013

Neil Gaiman Reads Charles Dickens’s Original Performance Script for “A Christmas Carol”

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“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

Though Charles Dickens figures among literary history’s most notable pet-lovers with his raven Grip, he also had several cats, which he held dear — so much so, that he famously exclaimed, “What greater gift than the love of a cat?,” a line so popular that it even made it into a New Yorker cartoon. When one of Dickens’s most beloved cats, Bob, died in 1862, the author’s sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, had Bob’s paw taxidermied and turned into a letter-opener. She engraved it “C. D. In Memory of Bob. 1862″ and presented it to the author as a gift intended to forever remind him of his feline friend. This odd object, which sat by Dickens’s side in the library at Gad’s Hill where he wrote, is one of the artifacts featured in Molly Oldfield’s wonderful The Secret Museum (public library) — that magnificent inventory of sixty never-before-seen “treasures too precious to display,” culled from the archives and secret storage locations of some of the world’s greatest libraries and museums, including such gems as Van Gogh’s never-before-seen sketchbooks, Anne Frank’s friendship book, and the surprisingly dark story of how the Nobel Prize was born.

Charles Dickens's letter opener. The handle is made out of his cat Bob's paw.

Today, Dickens’s bizarre literary instrument survives as a prized possession in the collection of the New York Public Library, where it shares space with the writing desk and chair the author used while traveling, as well as thirteen of the “prompt copies” that Dickens, the first famous writer to perform his own works, had made for his public readings — special performance scripts created by taking apart an existing novel, cutting and pasting select sections into a blank-leaf book, then filleting the text by highlighting the most dramatic scenes and annotating them with reading cues and stage directions. NYPL curator Isaac Gewirtz tells Oldfield:

Dickens wasn’t only a great writer, he was a fantastic actor: he loved to perform his work, rather than simply read extracts from it.

Among NYPL’s most treasured Dickensian prompt copies is that of A Christmas Carol (free download) — the classic 1843 novella, which blends elements of science fiction, philosophy, mysticism, satire, and cultural critique to tell a timeless story about the benevolence of the human spirit and our heartening capacity for transformation and self-transcendence.

Neil Gaiman, dressed as Charles Dickens, with Molly Oldfield. (Photograph: NYPL)

At a recent NYPL event hosted by Oldfield, one of the greatest writers of our time, Neil Gaimanchampion of the creative life, man of discipline, adviser of aspiring writers, contemplator of genius — reads one of the greatest writers of all time, in exactly the way Dickens intended for his classic work to be read, based on the annotations and directions in that precious NYPL prompt copy of A Christmas Carol. Here is Oldfield, introducing Gaiman, who proceeds to give an enchanting and entertaining reading of the Dickens classic:

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.

The Secret Museum is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, and A Christmas Carol is available as a free download, as is the entire NYPL readings series — how’s that for a priceless gift?

For more Gaiman goodness, see his 8 rules of writing, his charming children’s book, and the lovely story of his bachelor party.

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22 NOVEMBER, 2013

Charles Dickens’s Fan Letter to George Eliot

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“The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of.”

To avoid the Victorian era’s biases against women writers, Mary Ann Evans (November 22, 1819–December 22, 1880) began writing under the male pseudonym George Eliot, which went on to become one of the most revered names in literary history. Her first big break came at the age of 37, in 1857, when “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton” — the first installment in her Scenes of Clerical Life (free download) — was published in Blackwood’s Magazine, then in book form in early 1858. Eliot made sure it got into the hands of all the right people — in the first week of 1858, she mailed copies to some of the era’s most influential luminaries, including Dickens, Thackeray, Faraday, Ruskin, Tennyson, and Carlyle. It was met with overwhelming acclaim — all 1,500 printed copies sold out and early reviewers praised the writer as “strong in his knowledge of the human heart,” which sparked speculation about the author’s identity. Rumors attributed the work to Joseph Liggins, who tried to deny the allegations, in vain, then resigned to accepting the misattributed celebrity.

Portrait of George Eliot by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for more.

But the most vibrant testament to Eliot’s talent came in a letter from none other than Charles Dickens himself, which he sent to Eliot’s publisher before her identity was revealed. Though he addressed it “Dear Sir,” Dickens — whom Eliot had met in 1852 and found “disappointing [and with] no benevolence in the face and I think little in the heart” — makes a point of his intuition that the writer, despite popular rumors, was a woman. The letter, found in George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals (public library; public domain) — the altogether fascinating 1884 sort-of-biography edited by her husband, John Walter Cross — disarms Eliot’s first impressions of Dickens in the most direct and beautiful of ways. It is a pinnacle of praise, written with equal parts professional admiration, generosity of spirit, and the special kindness Dickens reserved for his kin:

January 18, 1858, London

My Dear Sir

I have been so strongly affected by the two first tales in the book you have had the kindness to send me through Messrs. Blackwood, that I hope you will excuse my writing to you to express my admiration of their extraordinary merit. The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of; and they have impressed me in a manner that I should find it very difficult to describe to you, if I had the impertinence to try.

In addressing these few words of thankfulness, to the creator of the sad fortunes of Mr. Amos Barton, and the sad love-story of Mr. Gilfil, I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume. I can suggest no better one; but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me to be such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began.

You will not suppose that I have any vulgar wish to fathom your secret. I mention the point as one of great interest to me — not of mere curiosity. If it should ever suit your convenience and inclination, to shew me the face of the man or woman who has written so charmingly, it will be a very memorable occasion to me. If otherwise, I shall always hold that impalpable personage in loving attachment and respect, and shall yield myself up to all future utterances from the same source, with a perfect confidence in their making me wiser and better.

Your obliged and faithful Servant, and admirer

CHARLES DICKENS.

For a heart-warmer in the same spirit, complement this with Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, then see what George Eliot teaches us about happiness.

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