Sketches by Boz. Illustrative of every-day life and every-day people. CD's first book, a collection, with some additions, of the sketches and tales he had published between 1833 and 1836 in The Monthly Magazine, The Morning Chronicle, Bell's Life in London, and other periodicals. What became known as the First Series was published by Macrone in two volumes in Feb. 1836 with 16 illustrations by Cruikshank. A second edition was published in Aug. 1836, and a third and fourth in 1837. — The Dickens Index, 236.
The earliest of the Sketches, notably "A Dinner at Poplar Walk" (later entitled "Mr. Minns and his Cousin"), coincide with Dickens's ending his romantic relationship with Maria Beadnell (1833), and subsequently becoming a reporter on The Morning Chronicle, through which position he met Catherine Hogarth. The preponderance of these periodical offerings (twenty-three), however, date from 1834-35. The reviews were not long in coming after the initial volume publication early in 1836.
The first critical response to any piece by 'Boz' was was that of George Hogarth, intimate friend of Sir Walter Scott, music critic, and editor of The Morning Chronicle, in connection with "A Visit to Newgate" (11 February 1836). Not yet familiar with his future son-in-law, Hogarth remarked that the haunting sketch was "evidently the work of a person of various and extraordinary intellectual gifts," Comparing the 'Boz' piece to Washington Irving's "A Christmas Dinner," Hogarth is struck by "the terrible power" of "A Visit to Newgate." The Court Journal of 20 February 1836 cleverly compared the new journalist to the biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnston: "Boz is a kind of Boswell to society — and of the middle rank especially" (cited in Churchill, 38). Praised as "a close and accurate observer of events" (Morning Post, 12 march 1836), Boz possesses the gifts of humorous caricature and accurate reporting — Albany Fonblanque, editor of the Examiner, that same year dubbed the writer of the London Sketches "another Swift." He wrote prophetically, for in the 1836 social critique Sunday Under Three Heads young Dickens revealed a sharper, less genial side: "dead earnest, hard, bitter, cynical, without a jest on his lips, a fierce defender of the scanty rights of the poor" (J. M. Dent, 1933, cited in Church, 40). The spirit of Reform had found its popular voice in Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People.
This, then, is the preliminary assessment of Boz, who unveiled a rich vein of physical humour and character comedy in the Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which sharper critics such as Edgar Allen Poe in The Southern Literary Messenger pronounced a collection of "absurd" caricatures and "impossible incidents happening to beings that have no existence in nature" (September 1837, cited in Churchill, 41). There were deeper notes sounded, particularly in the prison house episodes and "The Stroller's Tale", but the public loved the quixotic Pickwick and his picaresque companions — although later kill-joys have found the episodic novel "callow" (F. R. Leavis, 1970). With these periodical works in mind, critics in late 1838 began to respond to Boz's foray into social realism: The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress. For example, T. H. Lister, responding anonymously in the Edinburgh Review for October 1838, did not merely find the new novel "excessively interesting" (as Queen Victoria remarked of it in her diary on 30 December 1838): rather, Lister praised the young author's pathos and humanity:
One of the qualities we most admire in him is his comprehensive spirit of humanity. The tendency of his writings is . . . to excite our sympathy in behalf of the aggrieved and suffering in all classes; and especially in those who are most removed from observation . . . the orphan pauper — the parish apprentice — the juvenile criminal . . . . His humanity is plain, practical and manly. It is quite untainted with sentimentality. — Anon., October 1838, cited in Churchill 45.
Rival novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, author of the Newgate Novel parody Catherine in Fraser's Magazine (May 1839-May 1840), was amazed at Dickens's power to elicit sympathy even for the brutal murderer of Nancy, Bill Sikes, and to make the pickpocketing urchin with the distinctive Cockney voice, The Artful Dodger, utterly loveable despite his iniquities. This success with underworld characters, contended Thackeray, led the reading public to yearn for "something more extravagant still, more sympathy for thieves, and so [William Harrison Ainsworth's] Jack Sheppard makes his appearance" (cited in Churchill, 45). As a revelation of London low life, juxtaposed against the middle-class respectabilities of Brownlow, Grimwig, and the Maylies, Richard Ford, writing anonymously in the Quarterly Review (June 1839) found Dickens's descriptions of the White Chapel underworld searingly believable, but felt that the young author was being unfair in his exaggerated satires of the poor law and the workhouse.
Later critics continued to respond positively to Dickens's handling of the problematic relationship of Sikes and Nancy, but found Dickens's plot construction shaky. Wilkie Collins, for example, as the master of Crime and Detective "back-plotting" in the Pall Mall Gazette (20 January 1890) some twenty years after the death of his friend and mentor Charles Dickens, derided the plot construction as "helplessly bad," but was thoroughly engaged by Dickens's development of Nancy as the fallen woman with the heart of gold:
The character of Nancy is the finest thing he ever did. He never afterwards saw all sides of a woman's character — saw all round her. That the same man who could create Nancy created the second Mrs. Dombey is the most incomprehensible anomaly that I know of in literature — note in copy of Forster [cited in Churchill, 46].
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
Bentley, Nicholas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1990.
Churchill, R. C. A Bibliography of Dickensian Criticism 1836-1975. London, Basingstoke, and New York: Macmillan, 1975.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z. The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Checkmark and Facts On File, 1998.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress. Illustrated by George Cruikshank. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1846.
Dickens, Charles. Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.(1836-37). London: Chapman and Hall, 1837.
Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People. Illustrated by George Cruikshank. London: Chapman and Hall, 1839; rpt., 1890.
Last modified 21 June 2016