Thursday, February 23, 2012

Our Mutual Friendship with Language

For me, the joy of Dickens is not his stories or his plots, but his language. The best bits are the connecting tissues of the narrative, the little gears and rods that move the big spinners and flashy chunks of plot around.

'Good-night, Miss!' said Lizzie Hexam, sorrowfully.

'Hah!--Good-night!' returned Miss Abbey with a shake of her head.

'Believe me, Miss Abbey, I am truly grateful all the same.'

'I can believe a good deal,' returned the stately Abbey, 'so I'll try to
believe that too, Lizzie.'

It's that "try to" which is brilliant here.

As that was all the rum and water too, or, in other words, as R. W.
delicately signified that his glass was empty, by throwing back his head
and standing the glass upside down on his nose and upper lip, it might
have been charitable in Mrs Wilfer to suggest replenishment. But that
heroine briefly suggesting 'Bedtime' instead, the bottles were put away,
and the family retired; she cherubically escorted, like some severe
saint in a painting, or merely human matron allegorically treated.

"Allegorically treated" by whom? By the narrator, of course. This is all delicious in a Laurence Sterne sort of way, isn't it? Yes, it is.

Here Boffin is hiring Wegg to read to him every night, from Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

'Half a crown,' said Wegg, meditating. 'Yes. (It ain't much, sir.) Half
a crown.'

'Per week, you know.'

'Per week. Yes. As to the amount of strain upon the intellect now. Was
you thinking at all of poetry?' Mr Wegg inquired, musing.

'Would it come dearer?' Mr Boffin asked.

'It would come dearer,' Mr Wegg returned. 'For when a person comes to
grind off poetry night after night, it is but right he should expect to
be paid for its weakening effect on his mind.'

'To tell you the truth Wegg,' said Boffin, 'I wasn't thinking of poetry,
except in so fur as this:--If you was to happen now and then to feel
yourself in the mind to tip me and Mrs Boffin one of your ballads, why
then we should drop into poetry.'

'I follow you, sir,' said Wegg. 'But not being a regular musical
professional, I should be loath to engage myself for that; and therefore
when I dropped into poetry, I should ask to be considered so fur, in the
light of a friend.'

At this, Mr Boffin's eyes sparkled, and he shook Silas earnestly by the
hand: protesting that it was more than he could have asked, and that he
took it very kindly indeed.

'What do you think of the terms, Wegg?' Mr Boffin then demanded, with
unconcealed anxiety.

Silas, who had stimulated this anxiety by his hard reserve of manner,
and who had begun to understand his man very well, replied with an air;
as if he were saying something extraordinarily generous and great:

'Mr Boffin, I never bargain.'

'So I should have thought of you!' said Mr Boffin, admiringly.

'No, sir. I never did 'aggle and I never will 'aggle. Consequently
I meet you at once, free and fair, with--Done, for double the money!'

There's so much in just this short passage. The joke about poetry, Wegg's superior attitude and Boffin's snobby innocence, and the raising of the price at the end! It's all hy-sterical. Any of this is better than the heroes and the heroines, the brave men and ladies and their struggles. Any of this is better than the social commentary; you can get that anywhere, really. Does Dickens say anything regarding society that Voltaire hasn't already? I don't know. No, what I value in Dickens is his shrewd eye for detail and his honest portrayals of human weaknesses. And his humor. And his Shakespearean way with dialogue. It's all priceless, lads.

No comments:

Post a Comment