Noticing is a creative act— David Perkins, Harvard University Mar 12
Charles Dickens as Tongue-in-Cheek Comedian? Surely, You Jest!
It’s hard for me to imagine this man being funny. The Charles Dickens who gave us Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Uriah Heep? The man whose father was put in prison for debt, resulting in Dickens’ mother and siblings also going to live in the prison? Charles escaped living in prison with his family by being boarded with an impoverished elderly lady and then in a back-attic of an insolvent court agent. He still ended up, however, working 10-hour days as child labor in a boot-blacking paste factory. Not the stuff of comedy, one would say.
As an adult, when Dickens moved into Tavistock House in 1851, he decided to have a bunch of fake books made to fill up the two bookcases in his study. He sent a list of made-up book titles to a book binder and requested him to make fake books with titles like these:
Five Minutes in China. 3 vols.
Forty Winks at the Pyramids. 2 vols.
Jonah’s Account of the Whale.
The Art of Cutting the Teeth.
Drowsy’s Recollections of Nothing. 3 vols.
Heavyside’s Conversations with Nobody. 3 vols.
King Henry the Eighth’s Evidences of Christianity. 5 vols.
Lady Godiva on the Horse.
Hansard’s Guide to Refreshing Sleep. As many volumes as possible.
So, what I thought I knew about Charles Dickens has proven to be incomplete. This man was also funny. He may have written novels that, according to his own assertion, “needed always to have a moral purpose and to encourage virtuous behavior in readers,” but when he entertained guests in his study in his new home, he must have sat there with an impish smile hovering, waiting to see who first commented on the most interesting books on his bookshelves.
[I learned about this list of Dickens’ fake books from a fascinating website www.listsofnote.com which I highly recommend for fascinating reading.]