Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I Read Dickens: A Child's History of England

1. Old History
This history is old school. It is about Kings and Queens, battles, dates, Bishops and Popes, nobles and laws. Occasionally a commoner becomes prominent to be named, and even more occasionally the common people as a group are mentioned, usually when they are being oppressed, or when laws are passed to stop oppressing them. A few times Dickens mentions technological advances, usually comparing them to the advanced infrastructure of his day (c.1850).

As a history of England, other countries make an appearance only when they impinge on our shores. The Pope, France, Spain and, especially, Scotland and Ireland, are regularly featured. I was pleased that Dickens gave quite a fair account of Canute and his successors; the Danish Kings seem to get short shrift in modern times.

As I said, it's an old school history about what kings did, rather than, say, an economic history about why they had those decisions to make and what the consequences were for the wider society. One reason why it's old school is, of course, that it was used as a textbook in old schools, apparently up to WW2 in some cases.

2. Think of the Children!
For Dickens, as a child's history, it must also be a moral history.  Dickens is not shy in declaring actions good or bad, and will then happily tell us that this makes the king (or queen) a bad person who did bad things or a bad person who did a few good things, usually forced to do so by parliament[1]. This includes some events which modern historians do not consider as cut and dried as Dickens does.

As a history for children there are a few events that are lightly glossed over. Not people being burned at the stake or being executed in horrific ways, that's educational. However some ladies are "insulted" and some king's favourites are "favourites" rather than favourites, if you know what I mean.

3. A History of Histories
You know, this was kind of interesting. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this book is the source of many historical stories that "everyone" knows, but Dickens' choice of which stories to tell, followed by the adoption of the book as a textbook, certainly seems to have influenced general knowledge of history in this country for nearly a hundred years. His occasional statement that he doesn't know some things but it seems likely to him gives the rest the stamp of truth, even for unproven and glossed over events.

I don't think I can recommend this as a history even as an introduction. As a historical curiosity though, it's amusing, moves along swiftly and not totally divorced from the facts.

Read This: If you're curious about old school history.
Don't Read This: If you're looking for unembroidered facts, or even a clear labelling and division of facts, analysis of facts, conclusion and opinion.

[1] He does approve of a few monarchs, but in general doesn't like most of them. Somehow he never draws the obvious conclusion from this.

Friday, August 24, 2012

I Read Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit

Both the theme and the plot of the novel is concerned with fraud and hypocrisy. The actual, technical frauds are generally pretty simple to explain. Mr Pecksniff, an architect, passes off the work of his students as his own. He also takes their fees, teaches them nothing and tell the world what a fine, upstanding, generous man he is, who unfortunately is blighted by ungrateful former students.

The Eden land fraud, in Dickens satirical version of America, is also simple. The land office shows a map of a bustling town out West* and sells you a prime plot for $150 dollars. You travel for several days upriver past such grand holes in the mud as New Thermopylae, to find that Eden is a swamp, and then you die of fever**.

The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company is relatively straight forward in essence. It is a Ponzi scheme***, in which the early investors are paid from the premiums of later investors. There are a few flourishes that make it of interest. They offer loans, but then insist that the person getting the loan, and the two offering security for the loan, get policies; then having charged the maximum lawful interest they then charge for the bond, the secretary, the man who does enquiries. Their medical officer makes it clear that he is not a member of the company, so gets no benefit, but what a great opportunity it is. Also, they have very fine offices, and Montague Tiggs, or Tiggs Montague as may be, is a generous host and very active in talking up how rich he is and how his company is safe thanks to his large Indian estates acting as surety.

This links into the themes; that people who talk about their great moral probity may just be talking about their moral probity rather than doing some actual moral probing action.

Dickens turns a harsh, harsh eye on America. It is full of blowhards and ignorant people who nevertheless hold opinions and hold forth on them. The cities are filled with cheats and scoundrels, and the rest is wilderness. Slavery also takes a battering, juxtaposed with Americans, usually described as one of the most remarkable men in the country, talking about liberty, sometimes with violent threats. It is unsubtle and not as clever as Dickens' usual satire; the joke gets stale fairly quickly.

The satire of the Pecksniff's (Mr Pecksniff has named his daughters Charity and Mercy) is not exactly featherlight, but compared to the American chapters is at least well designed and moves the plot forward. As the family try to get in with Martin Chuzzlewit the elder, in the hope of becoming beneficiaries of his will, Mr Pecksniff strikes a disinterested pose in order to cut out everyone else. He mixes lies and truth to send everyone away from Chuzzlwit grand-père, then plots to marry his companion Mary, the very thing that he sent Chuzzlewit the younger away for. This is some pretty great hypocrisy.

Jonas Chuzzlewit, thinking everyone is dishonest, is naive in his roguery. When Tiggs/Montague explains the fraud of the Anglo-Bengalee etc. he then trusts him implicitly, never suspecting that Tiggs intends to blackmail him for his terrible crimes.

Meanwhile it all wraps up neatly, due to Chuzzlewit elder being more cunning than everyone else, in one of those annoying reveals that Dickens likes so much, but which seem cruel and arbitrary. All in all, enjoyable, if disjointed.

Read This: For some heavyhanded satire on America, and some interesting frauds
Don't Read This: For the usual Dickens reasons; longwinded Victorian prose, coincidences****, nonsense plots. Also domestic abuse in this one. Dickens does not approve.
More on Cons: The Ponzi scheme.
Online editions: One here from Australia.

* I need hardly tell you that the investors explain what a great opportunity it is, a bargain for the architects Chuzzlewit & Co.
** The surprising thing is that the township of Eden actually exists, although I suppose it's more difficult to get people to travel a week from civilisation if the boat captain has never heard of the place.
*** Although it predates Charles Ponzi. There are no new cons etc.
**** Many of the characters are members of an extended family, making some of the coincidences a bit more likely, as they have existing connections.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Abandoned Outline

Back last year I wrote a fantasy novel [1], which doesn't work for structural reasons. A heavy rewrite could probably solve that, but more importantly it has a problem in that our protagonists travel about for ill defined reasons to places where they can fight people and tell each other stories. If I was going to rewrite then I would do better to follow a tangent to my original story which will throw up an identifiable plot to follow earlier in the story and give the protagonists problems that deserve clever solutions and a more interesting climax. Hence I outlined and began Novel 2.0.

It's now a week later and I look at it, and it's fine[2] but I think I can make it cleverer and more interesting and weirder. So today's task, and probably for the rest of the week, is to take some elements from Novel 1.0, the outline of Novel 2.0 and other stuff that is just in my head and clever it up, give it some interest and weird it out.

While I'm at it, the outline is below. It is not self explanatory; it needs a character list, some geography exposition (maybe a map), and a couple of political infodumps to make sense of. By happy chance these are some of the things I will be writing weirded etc. up versions of as the week goes on.

Will I follow this story? I'm hoping that, at the very least, some good plot will drop out of my weirder, cleverer and more interesting people, places, situations and so forth; this may mean some minor changes or it may mean back to the blank page. Anyway, enough of this, time to weird up the Stennish[3]

[1] Currently enjoying the somewhat austere title Novel 1.0
[2] If the outline is tl;dr then it's In an empire shattered by a (now) dead general, man previously bodyguard to dead general comes out of retirement to be bodyguard to general's daughter who is having an arranged marriage to a barbarian warlord. Complications ensue.
[3] Current two word description: fantasy Huns.