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Charles Dickens as journalist

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“A change of performance takes place every day during the fair, but the story of the tragedy is always pretty much the same. There is a rightful heir, who loves a young lady, and is beloved by her; and a wrongful heir, who loves her too, and isn’t beloved by her; and the wrongful heir gets hold of the rightful heir, and throws him into a dungeon, just to kill him off when convenient, for which purpose he hires a couple of assassins.... Then the rightful heir is discovered in prison, carefully holding a long chain in his hands, and seated despondently in a large armchair; and the young lady comes in to two bars of soft music, and embraces the rightful heir; and then the wrongful heir comes in to two bars of quick music.... The interest becomes intense; the wrongful heir draws his sword, and rushes on the rightful heir; a blue smoke is seen, a gong is heard, and a tall white figure (who has been all the time, behind the armchair, covered over with a tablecloth), slowly rises to the tune of ‘Oft in the stilly night.’ This is no other than the ghost of the rightful heir’s father....”

And so on, with ever more hilarious complications, until the curtain drops.

While there is a good deal of fancy in Dickens’ reportage, the second half of "Sketches by Boz" consists of what are, in fact, out-and-out short stories. Some of these are highly sentimental, several farcical, and one, “The Black Veil,” is both Gothicky and melodramatic in its account of a young surgeon commissioned by a poor woman to revive her hanged son. (Given his own tastes in such matters, Edgar Allan Poe, in a review, naturally singled out this last story as  “an act of stirring tragedy, and evincing lofty powers in the writer.”)  Still, the most powerful pages in "Sketches by Boz" are those titled “A Visit to Newgate.” After depicting the claustrophobic oppressiveness of the notorious prison, Dickens puts himself in the mind of a condemned felon on the night before he is to be executed:

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