ertainly, a discussion of Dickens as a professional writer should always begin with the genre for which he was first paid for working within. For his first published piece, "A Dinner at Poplar Walk," The Monthly Magazine paid him nothing. It received from the would-be writer a further eight stories gratis over the first six months of 1834. In August, he used the pseudonym 'Boz' for the first time. From September, 1834, The Evening Chronicle paid young Charles Dickens for a series of "Street Sketches." Since, as both recent Dickens biographers, Fred Kaplan and Peter Ackroyd, point out, Dickens's early reputation rested on his Sketches , he must be regarded as a short story writer who made the transition to novel writing through the highly episodic Pickwick Papers , whose early numbers contain no less than nine framed tales. In her June, 1980, article entitled "Dickens and Christmas: His Framed-Tale Themes," Ruth Glancy suggests that throughout his career as a short-story writer Dickens was looking for an almost Chaucerian framework that would enable him to achieve "a cohesive relationship among narrator, tale, and audience" (55), his childhood favourite, The Arabian Nights, providing a possible model of a story-telling compact or club. As editor of the weekly journals Household Words and All the Year Round , Dickens had attempted to explain for his contributing writers his notion of the controlling theme of the framed stories for a given Christmas number.
Beginning with the extra Christmas number for 1854, Dickens attempted to construct a narrative framework that would enable him to establish the overall theme and to write the opening segment and the links between stories contributed by writers from his 'stable'. Stone reprints in Charles Dickens' Uncollected Writings from Household Words 1850-1859 (1968) Dickens's detailed instructions to his colleagues: "Mem. for Christmas Number," 30th September 1856 (II: 665-6). As opposed to the humorous and casual invitation that he had sent to the Reverend James White on 19 October 1852 regarding A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire , these later instructions are in earnest. For example, he stipulates that contributors may use either first- or third- person point of view, and that "The adventures narrated need not of necessity have happened in all cases to the people in the boat [i. e., the life-boats of the Golden Mary ], themselves" (II: 665). Significantly, he specifies to White that "There are persons of both Sexes in the boat" (II: 666), implying that there may well be female personas. However, with the exception of Wilkie Collins (who was given command of the Golden Mary 's second lifeboat, for example, in the 1856 project) seldom did Dickens's collaborators fully grasp the interdependent relationship between the framework, the narrators, and their tales which would (he hoped) "illuminat[e] and complet[e] each other primarily through auto-biographical storytelling" (Glancy 58). Again and again at Christmas, whether in The Christmas Books , Christmas chapters in novels, or in the Christmas numbers of his weeklies, Dickens returns to his concern for memory as an integral aspect of the moral life, especially "the importance of retaining through memory the child's imaginative capacity, and through that imagination, the adult's understanding of compassion"�(59). Glancy argues that Dickens's most successful framed tale is Somebody's Luggage (1862), and that afterwards Dickens began looking for "self-contained frameworks" such as those in Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings and Dr. Marigold's Prescriptions . The Haunted House and The Perils of Certain English Prisoners (the latter written in close collaboration with Collins) show the dangers Dickens braved in erecting bookends for other writers to fill, since the others could sustain neither the narrative voice (or voices) nor the theme of moral regeneration through forgiveness.
Glancy is most thorough in her analysis (and synopsis) of Mugby Junction , but begins, as it were, in medias res (with the framed tale of "The Baron of Grogzwig" in the early novel Nicholas Nickleby), totally disregarding any possible patterns in Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers at the early stages of Dickens's career and A Holiday Romance at the close. In fact, Dickens seems to have been interested in producing narrative designs that would permit him to use a range of voices, so that, for example, in Pickwick 's lighter moments the narrative voice of the framed tale is somber and moralizing, whereas, when the shades of lawsuit and prison darken the tone of the main story, the narrative voice of the framed tale is buoyant, sprightly, and cheerily anecdotal. In short, what Dickens wanted was a Shakespearean balance of the comic and tragic elements so that he could appeal to the whole range of his reader's emotions. Then, too, with the pressures of writing the longer novels, of editing a weekly journal, and of public tours and familial responsibilities came a natural desire to slough off some of the periodical writing, delegating or, as Dickens himself put it, 'conducting' an orchestra of authorial voices. Towards the end of his career, frustrated with the inability of the orchestra members to interpret his symphonic designs, Dickens abandoned the notion of having others write for him, producing shorter framed tales with such controlling narrative voices as Mrs. Lirriper's and William Tinkling's in A Holiday Romance .
Deborah A. Thomas in Dickens and the Short Story (1982) has been criticized already for certain shortcomings in her approach. Moreover, in relating the short fiction to Dickens's major novels, she tends to underrate much of Dickens's work in the short story genre. Her thesis, if it may be termed one, is that Dickens' Christmas writing is concerned with "asexual juvenile passion" (67), an idea which ties in nicely with Arthur Clennam's attachment to Flora Finching in Little Dorrit , but does not incorporate the short stories' main themes of memory and moral life, of tolerance for foibles and contempt for baseness, of the need for compassion and understanding in contemporary society. Thomas is very much aware of the range of Dickens's narrative voices, but seems unappreciative of the infinite pains Dickens takes to construct each of them. Her best piece of analysis is that of "George Silverman's Explanation," although even here she exhibits a tendency to summarize and contextualize rather than to interpret.
- An Overview of Dickens's Short Fiction, 1833-1868
- Dickens' Aesthetic of the Short Story
- A Comprehensive List of Dickens's Short Fiction, 1833-1868
- Dickens and the Prose Farce: and "The Tuggses at Ramsgate"
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Last modified Novermber 2, 2000