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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Winter Aconite & Snowdrop

Spring is whimsical and wary right now, first appearing in a patch of sunlight and then fleeting away in an ice-cold breeze, only to reappear a little later in the liquid song of a redwing blackbird. I wear my winter coat one day, a hoodie the next, and then it’s back to the winter coat the next morning as a heavy frost sparkles on rooftops. Only recently have I given up my thick scarf, though if there’s a wind tomorrow, I may have to pull it out of the closet and wind myself up in it once more.

None but the bravest flowers are blooming, the winter aconite and snowdrop. Winter aconite is a small yellow flower that’s easy to overlook; it remains shut until the sun has deeply soaked its petals, then pops open like a tiny jewelry box to reveal gold petals centered on delicate pistils and stamens. The snowdrops this spring huddle close to the ground, nearly lost in the mud and dead leaves. As of yet, there are no daffodils blooming—their leaves have come up only an inch or so out the brown ground. They are cautious and since it freezes each night, I cannot blame them.

Beyond the flowers there is the ground itself: a muddle of browns, thick with the rotted tree leaves and the dead foliage of last year. There is nothing lovely to see here, only the form of the land itself. It swells and slopes up from the river, lies low along the horizon, and finally drops into a ditch.

On an unexpected day in early March, once the snow disappeared, city workers came to clean up the young trees and invasive species that have been growing avid and unchecked along the creek near my home. It is the first time I can see the contours of the land clearly in all the years I’ve been living here, and I’m struck by the curves and lines that slope down towards the creek, a rollicking bed of dark brown that makes a strong contrast to the bright blue overhead. The undulating land here is small but it’s a dream, a reason, a mysterious being that wraps through the neighborhood’s mind. Soon enough, this dark and curving space will be clad in green, heavily wreathed by plants, bushes and eager saplings. But for now, it is bare and exposed, revealing the dark space between winter and summer. This is where the wind snaps cold like a knife, but the brilliant sunshine keeps calling everyone out despite the drear.

Tips on Surviving the Never-ending Winter

It’s been a long, hard winter. Now that it’s mid-February, the cold days have started stealing into my bones, urging me to stay in bed and sleep until the warm weather comes. As much as I long to take a three month long nap, there’s stuff to be done and living to do.

I’ve gotten more intentional about warding off the winter blues this year and not let myself, mentally or physically, wander off into a nearby snowbank and fall asleep. I’ve been observing and writing down little notes to myself on what lessens the gloom. These notes have become guideposts of sorts, gently illuminating the path through a difficult winter.

  1. The first guidepost may be the most essential: drinking hot beverages continually and consistently helps to ward off the deep cold. I brew a small pot of my favorite breakfast tea blend in the morning, switch to ginger and lemon herbals mid-day, and then return to caffeinated teas like black or green at night. Other people love coffee and others their tisanes. Find one or many and slurp away happily all day. Hot drinks are so deeply comforting when it’s cold and dark.
  2. I’ve learned to take walks even when the weather is crap. Obviously if everything is sheeted in ice, a walk isn’t going to happen but for the those other days, time willing, I make an effort to head outside. There’s the exercise aspect but more than that, it’s important for my spirit and soul. I walk to de-stress, to come in contact with a bigger world than my own, and to climb out of my circular thinking. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that clears junk out of the mind and soul. Our bodies evolved to walk over this earth and so when we participate in it, the old rhythms occur. Walking is a way to feel freedom. And it’s a way to fight too. I feel incredibly alive upon coming inside after walking through high winds and bad weather.
  3. Reading extensively helps to cast off the smothering feel of an endless winter. Last winter I read Alexander Pushkin and discovered the joy of reading Russian literature during the dead of winter. This month, I read City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, one in a pair of sisters that wrote during the mid-1800’s. City Folk and Country Folk is a delightful satire, ridiculing a variety of “city folk” and everyone else besides. Among the cast of characters is the intellectual Ovcharov, a dead ringer for Austen’s Mr. Collins. The book centers on neighbors visiting each other, eating each other’s food, drinking each other’s tea and generally getting on each other’s nerves until they all decide to stop visiting one another. Needless to say, I adored this plot line.
    And after a three month long wait, I received The Library Book by Susan Orlean from the library with two week checkout period to read it. No way was I going to read part way through, return the book, and then have to go back into that long waiting line. I set up a rough estimate of how many pages I needed to read a day to make the two week goal and then started. To my surprise, I enjoyed having a book reading goal and  diving into Orlean’s generous and easy-flowing prose every evening.
    My last read for this month is Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom. February is Black History Month and the perfect time to read his work. I’m only a few chapters in but his thoughtful and beautiful prose has pulled me in hard into the tragedy of his story and it’s hard to stop reading his eloquent prose.
  4. Spring will come. It feels so far away and even the evergreens and pines are looking haggard but it will come. When the sky is a certain shade of blue, I remember that it will. I remind myself of this daily.