Confined, both morning and afternoon, to the bus, by my still mending shoulder, I do my best to pass these wearisome rides with a bit of enjoyable literature. My current book of choice is Hard Times, the shortest, which is not to say short, novel by Charles Dickens. Previously, my acquaintance with this man of letters has been brief: a couple of readings of A Christmas Carol, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and a force-feed helping of Great Expectations, which I most certainly did not. After a week of bumpy rides, I am halfway through the book, and, despite its somewhat wandering plot, I am enjoying it. Dickens had such an uncommon gift with words that it is easy to see why his works have survived, while most of his contemporaries have been forgotten (like so many of the words that Dickens uses!).
There is one sentence in particular that I thought proved a great example for the joys and trials of reading Dickens, which I thought I might share with you all now.
‘In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering and trampling, and pressing one another to death; in the last close nook of this great exhausted receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it; among the multitude of Coketown, generically called ‘the Hands,’ – a race who would have found more favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs – lived a certain Stephen Blackpool, forty years of age.’
Wow. I have no doubt that some literary critics could write an entire essay just on that one sentence. Personally, I have just a few points to make. The first reaction by most modern readers will almost certainly be to the sentence’s extraordinary length. Although I’ve seen longer (thank you James Fenimore Cooper), it is still an impressive work, containing, as it does: 17 commas, 4 semi-colons, and 2 dashes. I have little doubt that any student who tried to turn in such a sentence in an essay or school paper would draw the ire of the red-pen and be told-off for using a ‘run-on sentence’. Certainly such writing is no longer in vogue, in fact, his use semi-colons is most curious. I remember a brief note from school that a semi-colon can be used in place of a comma, where the use of a comma might cause confusion, but I only ever saw this applied to lists, and never in fiction.
Leaving length and punctuation aside, it is a tremendous sentence. In the first half, he paints a portrait of a horrible mill town in such imaginative strokes, that I almost felt myself choking on the smoke pouring out of the mill chimneys, while the ugly brick walls closed around me. In fact, I got so caught up in this description, that when halfway through the sentence, he makes a grim joke about the population, I was momentarily lost. Upon further reading, I believe the whole sentence is really one grim joke. He goes on for line after line, clause after clause, about the town, before, finally, introducing an important character, with only a single, semi-useful fact. Stephen Blackpool is forty. He might have well have said that Stephen Blackpool is grist in the mill, except that he's writing about woolen mills.
Well, that’s thirteen sentences I just spent, talking about one by Charles Dickens. I suppose that says something pretty important right there.