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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens

“No light, but rather darkness visible”*…


Satan John-Martins-illustrations-for-643_m_18_facing_p37-edit

Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council (Book II, line 1), from John Martin’s epic set of illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1827


I begin with sound. I read Paradise Lost not only with my eyes, but also with my mouth. I was lucky enough to study Books I and II for A level many years ago, and to do so in a small class whose teacher, Miss Enid Jones, had the clear-eyed and old-fashioned idea that we would get a good sense of the poem if, before we did anything else to it, we read it aloud. So we took it in turns, in that sixth-form classroom in Ysgol Ardudwy, on the flat land below the Harlech Castle, to stumble and mutter and gabble our way through it all, while Miss Jones sat with arms comfortably folded on her desk, patiently helping us with pronunciation, but not encumbering us with meaning…

The experience of reading poetry aloud when you don’t fully understand it is a curious and complicated one. It’s like suddenly discovering that you can play the organ. Rolling swells and peals of sound, powerful rhythms and rich harmonies are at your command; and as you utter them you begin to realise that the sound you’re releasing from the words as you speak is part of the reason they’re there. The sound is part of the meaning and that part only comes alive when you speak it. So at this stage it doesn’t matter that you don’t fully understand everything: you’re already far closer to the poem than someone who sits there in silence looking up meanings and references and making assiduous notes…

John Milton’s Paradise Lost has been many things to many people — a Christian epic, a comment on the English Civil War, the epitome of poetic ambiguity — but it is first of all a pleasure to read.  Drawing on sources as varied as Wordsworth, Hitchcock, and Conan Doyle, author Philip Pullman (the author of many wonderful volumes, but most relevantly here, the His Dark Materials [Golden Compass] trilogy and the Book of Dust novels currently underway) considers the sonic beauty and expert storytelling of Milton’s masterpiece, and the shaping influence it has had on his own work: “The Sound and the Story: Exploring the World of Paradise Lost.

* Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1


As we contemplate the celestial, we might recall that it was on this date in 1843 that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol— a novella he’d written over the prior six weeks– was formally published; it had been released to book stores and the public two days later.  The first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve, and the book continued to sell well through twenty-four editions in its original form.

Cover of the first edition




Written by LW

December 19, 2019 at 1:01 am

“This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper”*…


It’s been decades since most Americans have thought seriously about nuclear war, although we’re regularly entertained with reality TV shows about “preppers” readying themselves for it, or a zombie invasion. What if, though, it turns out that they’re the smart ones? If, in the coming months or years, the standoff with North Korea turns hot and we confront a nuclear holocaust, and millions of people flee toward long-forgotten fallout shelters, one of the first questions we’ll face is the simplest: What do you eat when the world ends? It’s actually a question that the government has spent a lot of time — and millions of dollars — struggling with. The answer, though, may not encourage you to survive…

Meet the all-purpose survival cracker– and the balance of the US government’s Cold War-era nutrition solution for life after a nuclear blast: “The Doomsday Diet.”

* T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”


As we stock up, we might send silly birthday greetings to Joseph Grimaldi; he was born on this date in 1778. The most popular English entertainer of his day, Grimaldi was an actor, comedian and dancer who effectively invented the character of The Clown as today we know it.  He became so dominant on the London comic stage that harlequinade Clowns became known as “Joey”; both that nickname and the trademark whiteface make-up that Grimaldi created were, and still are, used widely by all types of clowns.  His catchphrases “Shall I?” and “Here we are again!” still get laughs in pantomimes.

Grimaldi’s memoir, edited by his fan Charles Dickens (who had, as a child, seen Grimaldi perform), was a best-seller.  The annual memorial service held for him (in February at Holy Trinity Church in the London Borough of Hackney) is attended by hundreds of clown performers from all over the world– who attend in full make-up and costume.

Grimaldi, au naturel

Grimaldi, in character



Written by LW

December 18, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Cut my pie into four pieces, I don’t think I could eat eight.”*…


“The Kitchen,” 1874, from Prang’s Aids for Object Teaching–Trades and Occupations, a collection of twelve chromolithographic plates issued by L. Prang & Company, Boston

The prolific and flamboyant journalist George Augustus Sala, one of several young British writers who found fame as acolytes of Charles Dickens, rose to become a regular contributor to Dickens’s weekly magazine, Household Words, and, eventually, one of The Daily Telegraph’s most well-known correspondents…  Sala visited the United States twice, first during the Civil War in 1863 and again in 1879. His initial visit was chronicled in the two-volume work, My Diary in America in the Midst of War, and the second trip, a lecture tour, inspired the better-known America Revisited…  In a chapter describing a train trip to Baltimore, he inserted {a] brief digression mocking what was (according to Sala) the uniquely American passion for pie, beginning: “Almost everything that I behold in this wonderful country bears traces of improvement and reform—everything except Pie…”

Dig in at “The Tyranny of Pie.”

* Yogi Berra


As we agree with David Mamet that “stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie,” we might send beautifully-baked birthday greetings to Cornelius Hoagland; he was born on this date in 1828.  He co-founded (with his brother Joseph Christoffel Hoagland) the Royal Baking Powder Company. With four other companies including the Fleischmann’s Yeast Company, Royal merged to form Standard Brands, the number-two brand of packaged foods in America after General Foods.


With best wishes to U.S. readers for the Thanksgiving holiday, (R)D is taking the long weekend off.  See you again next week.

Written by LW

November 23, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Life swarms with innocent monsters”*…


Julia Pastrana, a woman from Mexico born with hypertrichosis, became one of the most famous human curiosities of the 19th century, exhibited the world over as a “bearded lady” while both alive and dead. Bess Lovejoy explores her story and how it was only in 2013, 153 years after her passing, that she was finally laid to rest…

Read through to the too-long-delayed happy ending at “Julia Pastrana: A ‘Monster to the Whole World’.”

* Charles Baudelaire


As we celebrate humanity in its rich totality, we might recall that it was on this date in 1859 that Wilkie Collin’s The Woman In White began its serial run in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round (in the UK; it began an American run three days earlier in Harper’s Weekly).  Among the first mystery novels (and the first–and arguably the finest– in the genre of “sensation novels“), it was published in book form in 1860.

Cover of first US edition



Written by LW

November 29, 2014 at 1:01 am

Bonaparte’s Boom-Stick*…

“The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries,” Jacques-Louis David (1812)


In 1821, the year of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death from stomach cancer, his penis embarked on a journey that rivaled its owner’s bloodthirsty trek across Europe. It began on an autopsy table on the British island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, which had been the emperor’s home since the ill-fated Battle of Waterloo…

Shortly after the autopsy, rumors circulated in Paris that the doctor’s aides had smuggled various souvenirs from the island: strips of the bloody bed sheet, teeth, nail clippings, splinters of rib, locks of hair, chunks of bowels. Dr. Antommarchi himself filched the emperor’s death mask and two pieces of lower intestine, which he left with friends in London. Napoleon’s chaplain, Abbé Ange Vignali, laid claim to the most intimate part of the royal anatomy, boasting about his treasure when he went home to Corsica. Two decades later, when the British government allowed Napoleon’s body to be returned to Paris, Vignali’s relatives kept Napoleon’s penis for themselves—at least until 1916, when descendants put the Vignali collection up for auction. The organ was described thusly in the catalogue: “a mummified tendon taken from [Napoleon’s] body during post-mortem.”

An unknown British collector purchased the penis, which had been exposed to the air over the previous century and shrunk considerably. In 1924, eccentric American collector A.S.W. Rosenbach bought it for £400. Home in Philadelphia, he boasted of the relic, used it as a conversation piece for parties, and temporarily loaned it to the Museum of French Art in New York, which displayed it on a small velvet cushion. “Maudlin sympathizers sniffed; shallow women giggled, pointed,” Time magazine reported. “In a glass case they saw something looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or a shriveled eel”—a verdict that would give anyone a complex.

In 1969, the Vignali Collection was shipped back to London for auction, but Napoleon’s penis failed to sell. Eight years later, the collection was broken up and auctioned in Paris, where Columbia University professor Dr. John K. Lattimer—America’s leading urologist—bought it for 13,000 francs, about $2900. He had it X-rayed at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, which confirmed that it is definitely a penis (although French cultural officials remain skeptical of its provenance, and refuse to exhume Napoleon’s body for examination). Lattimer kept his Napoleonic trophy in a suitcase under his bed in Englewood, New Jersey, where it stayed until he died in 2007. His daughter has fielded at least one $100,000 offer and has so far showed it to only one person, author Tony Perrottet, who deemed it “certainly small, shrunken to the size of a baby’s finger, with white shriveled skin and desiccated beige flesh”…

Read the whole tale at “The Strange Journey of Napoleon’s Penis.”

[C.F. also:  Rasputin’s penis, on display in Moscow, where the museum director avers that “having this exhibit, we can stop envying America, where Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis is now kept. Napoleon’s penis is but a small ‘pod’, it cannot stand comparison to our organ of 30 centimeters.”]

* your correspondent’s own nomination for addition to the (self-proclaimed) “world’s longest list of penis euphemisms


As we wonder at all this jones-ing for johnsons, we might recall that it was on this date in 1859 that the final installment of what is surely the English language’s best-known (and loved) account of the preface to Napoleon’s rise, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, was published in Dickens’ periodical All the Year Round.

 from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s site, where one can browse the manuscript of A Tale of Two Cities

Written by LW

November 15, 2013 at 1:01 am

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