Friday, 27 July 2012


With the Olympics upon us, quite a lot is being written about London and its distinctive personality. In this context, here is the passage I've just reached in Becoming Dickens by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst:

"Where Dickens differed from ... other writers was in recognising that London was not only a celebration of sociability. It was also a place that magnified loneliness. Although many people feel isolated from time to time, London seemed especially adept at transforming such moods into a way of life, like that of the pinched man Boz observes walking mechanically up and down in St. James's Park, 'unheeding and unheeded; his spare, pale face looking as if it were incapable of bearing the expression of curiosity or interest' ('Thoughts about People'). This was not a new concern: as early as The Prelude (1805), Wordsworth had been 'baffled' by the thought of 'how men lived/Even next-door neighbours, as we say, yet still/Strangers, and knowing not each other's names.' Nor was it solved by a growing population. William Booth arrived in London from Nottingham in 1849, and when he came to write his autobiography the notes he made under the heading 'London' amounted to a solitary word: 'Loneliness!' 'There is no place,' James Grant observed in 1836, 'in which the injunction, "Mind your own business," is so scrupulously attended to as in London.' More optimistically, there is nobody who more scrupulously ignores this injunction than Dickens. Whether he is describing in The Old Curiosity Shop those 'who live solitarily in great cities as in the bucket of a human well,' or showing in Bleak House how Charley Neckett 'melted into the city's strife and sound, like a dewdrop in an ocean,' his writing repeatedly zooms in on isolated individuals and keeps them company on the page."


  1. 'There is no place,' James Grant observed in 1836, 'in which the injunction, "Mind your own business," is so scrupulously attended to as in London.'

    Stendhal has Julien Sorel overhear something like this about Paris, but clearly in praise:

    "Je vais chercher la solitude et la paix champêtre au seul lieu où elles existent en France, dans un quatrième étage donnant sur les Champs-Élysées."

    ( -- Stendhal in English hasn't arrived yet at Gutenberg.)

  2. I think the 'paix champêtre' makes the one attractive and the lack of it makes the other not.

  3. Indeed, the speaker in Stendhal has retired to live on his investments--no doubt one could have been left alone very comfortably that way in London also.

  4. ZMKC, what do you think of this biography? I haven't read it but I've heard good things. I remember you not being impressed by the Tomalin.

    The first thing I think of, when I see you posting about Dickens and loneliness and observation in London, is the story he told in one of his letters -- I think it was quoted in the Ackroyd biog -- of the child behind the row of decaying houses, and the pale horse eating oyster shells, the child staring at the horse and the horse staring at the child and himself staring at both of them and feeling that they were all part of a dismal allegory -- caught there forever in place, is what I imagine, so that if I managed to get to London and turned the right corner I might still see there the child, the horse, and the collapsing houses, myself taking the place of Dickens, or perhaps Dickens is there as well -- it's a quietly predatory idea and like a perpetual diorama.

    1. It isn't really a biography which is why I find it tolerable - it doesn't try to speculate a life into being. What it does do is quote from things around at the same time and from early works of Dickens (including things he wrote in school magazines) and tries to see how the circumstances of the period seeped into his writing. There is nothing about his other life, or not much, and that's great by me. The only thing I don't like is that fairly regularly the writer draws rather long bows in finding analogies or coincidences - I can see how tempting it is for him, but from time to time they seem very clever but not quite strong enough to stand much scrutiny.