Thursday, October 13, 2005

Thoughts on a Postscript

I finally finished reading Our Mutual Friend. It was on my summer reading list, and it's October now, so that tells you something about the book's length and flow. But I stuck it out all the way to the postscript, which Charles Dickens wrote "In lieu of a Preface." The postscript is a jewel. Dickens writes,

[I thought] it worthwhile, in the interests of art, to hint to an audience that an artist . . . may perhaps be trusted to know what he is about in his vocation, if they will concede him a little patience . . . .
What a revolutionary thought, in this destructive Age of Literary Criticism. Dickens also comments on the difficulties of the serial novel:

[I]t would be very unreasonable to expect that many readers, pursuing a story in portions from month to month through nineteen months, will, until they have it before them complete, perceive the relations of its finer threads to the whole pattern which is always before the eyes of the story-weaver at his loom. Yet, that I hold the advantages of the mode of publication to outweigh its disadvantages, may be easily believed of one who revived it in the Pickwick Papers after long disuse, and has pursued it ever since.
This puts me in mind of a book duo written by Daniel Poole. Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters: The Rows and Romances of England's Great Victorian Novelists interweaves a truly interesting history of the Victorian novel with gossipy biographies. It explains how oddities like the three-volume novel provided economic benefits to publishers (and by extension, authors), and how such seemingly arbitrary literary structures led, in turn, to the modification of plots. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew is an indispensable companion volume to any Victorian library. Wondering what a "quid" is? Or why certain country houses were called "abbeys"? What kind of indoor plumbing existed in the 1880s, and why poor people sifted through trash for bits of bone to sell? Read this book.

Finally, Dickens describes how he nearly lost part of his manuscript (and his own life) in a railway accident.

I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book:--THE END.
It's rather touching, when you consider that this was Dickens' last complete novel.

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