Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

Ever since Masterpiece put out “Bleak House” 2009, I’ve watched it seasonally. My husband, Jeff, can’t help but get involved too. We get rattled, angry, Jeff swears off the series but comes back and in the end, it all works out because that is Dickens. Now there isn’t much Dickens I care for. It’s pretty much just the tv version of Bleak House and Miss Havisham that does it for me. I’ve read plenty of Dickens and have always felt sorrowful that I, unlike Jo March, just cannot get into Pickwick Papers.

And then life happens and we get older and I got older too and after all these years, I finally picked up Dickens again. I picked up Bleak House, naturally. Knowing the plot doesn’t bother me any and I was looking forward to what Davies couldn’t possibly pack in. And well, I get it now. I get why people love Dickens. I love him too. Loving him doesn’t mean he isn’t perfectly maddening at times with too many words. Loving him doesn’t mean that his psychology isn’t off at times. It’s just loving him. I love him because when I picked Bleak House and read just a few lines, I realized he loved writing.

“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.”

London. Now. Back Then. So yes, I see the Dickens allure. There’s also two characters that have caught my eye. One is Mrs. Jellyby. She has innumerable children but due to a heavy correspondence about forming and raising money for a colony in Africa, she neglects her household to a shocking state. Her children run ragged and dirty. The food on her table is served nearly raw. Her husband pines in a dark corner. Her oldest daughter is sort of a goodwill slave, always at her mother side, taking down her memorandums and letters. I’m certain this daughter will break free (okay so I know the plot but still! I’m intrigued at what she’ll do) though I doubt it for the poor depressed husband.

Counter to this is a Mrs. Pardiggle. She keeps her five young boys, age 12 to 5, in constant movement with her. She visits the poor and by visits, I mean comes to their house unwelcome and lectures them on what to do. Immediate assistance, she cannot give. Practical assistance, she cannot render neither. She is however, full of energy and strength. So she visits, commands and leaves, never tiring, never faultering. Her boys trail after her, pinching people’s arms for money when she isn’t looking and being as nasty as they can be whenever Mrs. Pardiggle is up to her ears in some other matter.

Neglect on one hand, control on the next. I’ve been mulling over those characters and wondered what Dickens’ wife thought of these women. What is the safe way through motherhood? How to not ignore one’s children for sanity or control them for some order? Mrs. Dickens had tons of children. I wonder what she thought of his ladies. And as much as I love these two ladies for their caricatures, I do want to see a lady of his creation who is both controlling AND neglectful. It seems to me that the two have a tendency to go hand in hand.

Also…Esther Summerson. So of course, I love her because she’s a sweetie but whot? Seriously? You must be joking. To quote Wharton:

“How this miracle of fire and ice was to be created, and to sustain itself in a harsh world, he had never taken the time to think out; but he was content to hold his view without analysing it…”

That’s Newland Archer but it might as well be Dickens. How Esther is supposed to be so sweet and dear and good when she was raised by a neglectful, demeaning aunt and servant is beyond me. The girl had no outside contact till her aunt died. And yet here she is, the dearest, sweetest of women, sprung fully formed out of a void. Not only is she such a blushing rose but she grows stern and severe when the pathetic Guppy proposes to her. So she’s harsh when she needs to be but a dear all the other times. There are no break downs. Self-hatred is sort of holy halo on Esther. To be perfect in action but demean yourself internally…the pinnacle perhaps of Victorian womanhood and womanhood even now, I would say.

Comments (2):

  1. Cindi

    October 9, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    I remember a present day author, who grew up with a mother reading Dickens to her, used to frustrate Jeff as well (in the good way). He’d swear off reading any further after she killed off a very much loved character. But then, still a bit upset at the author, he would pick up the book again & read a bit. He would find himself drawn into the story again (I think out of curiosity lol) and find that everything worked out there as well.

    I haven’t read Bleak House. I don’t think I’ve gotten past the name lol. Hmmm, wondering if it would be a good movie or mini series to watch.

  2. Cindi

    October 9, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Your last statement leaves me something to ponder. I didn’t comment on that because I’m still pondering.

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How to Get Through a Big Book

How to get through a Big Book and have a little fun too.

  1. Make and eat food mentioned in the book (big books always include food, usually in meticulous detail).
  2. Read a little bit each day.
  3. Make a soundtrack.
  4. Dress like a character from the book for a day. Or a week. Or a month if it really grabs you.
  5. Ten minutes to kill? Daydream about the landscape or what the characters are seeing as they move through their day.
  6. Read passages you enjoy out loud. If you’re in the right mood, record yourself reading passages and share it (Instagram is great for this). Include illustrations if you like (thank you, Shirin).
  7. Whip out a highlighter or some sticky tabs for those great parts.
  8. Pace yourself and remember, reading gigantic books isn’t a race. It’s about the journey. Might as well bring along snacks, good drinks, great lighting, and enjoy the ride.

How to Search for Story Settings

A big city not far from mine has a casino. I’ve heard a few stories from friends that have worked there. Most center on being treated badly by a customer and revenging themselves by throwing the customer’s car keys into the Fox River. Karma is enacted on a regular basis at the casino.

There’s something about that river, flowing by, murky green during the day and black at night, a bottomless pit for car keys.

The river divides the city in half, east to west. The Fox flows along the old warehouses, limestone and brick, built back when the city had manufacturing plants and industry. Now the warehouses sit sturdy and silent, crumbling ever so slowly. Their roofs are flat and give the illusion of brick walls running straight into the sky. Some were built like prosaic wedding cakes, higher and higher, until the final topping is small square with tiny windows. Industry has never been about aesthetic needs and wants.  And yet by some miracle, these old turn of the century warehouses have achieved it just the same.

I observed the warehouses from the back deck of the riverside café, clutching my cup of earl grey and wishing I had put sunscreen on. It was the first time I had ever been to this café and I came because I needed a new setting for a fiction story I was working on. None of the cafes I remembered from the past were working for me. I needed this kind of café, one that hung out in an old manufacturing city where there wasn’t much industry left. There was, at least, a casino and many local businesses and this café hung on, here at the water’s edge.

A little further up was the casino where my friends had thrown those keys into the water. From my point on the deck, I could see the grimy metallic white heel of the building jutting out. Another friend told me that he goes there regularly to play black jack. It relieves stress and earns a little extra cash for his family.

The wind picks up a little and despite the sun, it’s chilly. Spring plays these tricks on us.

There is no sign of life in the warehouses all around me. We’re all boxed in together and the light plays off their empty windows, open and blank to the sun. I sip some tea and play “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin just to see if this café will work for my story. It only takes a few bars of listening to the song and I know that this place is perfect. This spot on the river is perfect for many stories. It’s  been perfect for all the stories I know nothing about and the ones that I’ve caught the smallest glimpses of.

A mallard suns himself in the weeds that line the water’s edge. The river moves fast and sure and I turn off the music. No need to for further noise. The song is already there.