Sketches by Boz is a collection of short pieces published by Charles Dickens in 1836. Dickens' career as a writer of fiction truly began with this collection in 1833, when he started writing humorous sketches for The Morning Chronicle, using the pen-name "Boz". The sketch "Mr. Minns and his Cousin" (originally titled "A Dinner at Poplar Walk") was the first piece of fiction that Dickens ever had published.
Although not a novel, more a collection of short pieces - as the blurb says - Sketches by Boz - does have a certain continuous narrative. The first section contains a collection of vignettes entitled Our Parish, and describes certain personages inhabiting the parishes of the London of the late Georgian/ early Victorian period. The second part is entitled Scenes and concentrates more on individual scenes, for instance, The Streets - morning, The Streets - night, The River, etc. Part Three is entitled, Characters, and begin to read more like short stories, combining the focus of Part One and Part Two. Part Four - taking up a good half of the book - breaks out entirley into short stories, entitled as it is, Tales.
Dickens was famed as a the sharpest of the political commentators of the time, and his cutting wit is displayed on every line of the book - with many laugh out loud moments. Dickens perenial themes of poverty, social inequality, and the plight of children are present throughout. The writing, of course, is not just insightful and playful, but utterly beautiful.
The vignettes and tales present scenes and characters in misunderstandings, clashes of class situations and expectations of the male of the species being unflatteringly, and quite rightly, rebutted. All is, more or less, light and fluffy. Until we get to the very final tale in the book, entitled The Drunkard's Death. This story is by far the most powerful piece of writing I have ever read. The tale tells the demise of an unnamed man due to his dependence on alcohol, his children, his wife, his life itself, all falling victim to his addiction. Here is an extract:
'At last, one bitter night, he sank down on a door-step faint and ill. The premature decay of vice and profligacy had worn him to the bone. His cheeks were hollow and livid; his eyes were sunken, and their sight was dim. His legs trembled beneath his weight, and a cold shiver ran through every limb.
And now the long-forgotten scenes of a misspent life crowded thick and fast upon him. He thought of the time when he had a home - a happy, cheerful home - and of those who peopled it, and flocked about him then, until the forms of his elder children seemed to rise from the grave, and stand about him - so plain, so clear, and so distinct they were he could touch and feel them. Looks that he had long forgotten were fixed upon him once more; voices long since hushed in death sounded in his ears like the music of village bells. But it was only for an instant. The rain beat heavily upon him; and cold and hunger were gnawing at his heart again.'
Just so bleak. Of course, the story reaches its inevitable conclusion. And Dickens does not reach for sentiment, even at the last . . .
'A week afterwards the body was washed ashore, some miles down the river, a swollen and disfigured mess. Unrecognised and unpitied. It was borne to the grave; and there it has long since mouldered away.'
Harsh and beautiful, insightful and hilarious. Sketches by Boz is a wonderful collection of Dickens writing. And, as the world knows, just the very beginning . . .