Category Archives: Antiquarian Books

The Only Man Who Ever Hated Sherlock Holmes Also Happened to be His Creator

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On this day in July 1930, a true visionary breathed his last. Of course, he wasn’t born a visionary, he was born simply… Arthur. And as often as people assume his last name to be Conan Doyle, it is simply Doyle… Conan just one of his middle names. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22nd, 1859, and died on July 7th, 1930, almost a hundred years ago… yet he is a common household name still today. However, he is known to have said that in a hundred years if he was only known as the man who invented Sherlock Holmes, he would consider his life a failure. So let’s remember him for more than that, shall we?

 

Conan Doyle (for as much as we may know his last name is simply “Doyle” we also feel strange writing just Doyle to refer to him) was born to poor Irish Catholic parents, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father spent a good deal of Arthur’s early years suffering from alcoholism and mental illness, which had a great influence on his later works. Throughout his school-life he noted that he severely detested staunch religious practices in schools, disliking the lack of compassion and warmth, and favoring a more forgiving and compassionate atmosphere (which inspired his predisposition for spiritualism later in life).

 

From 1876 to 1881, Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School and botany at the Royal Botanic Garden, studies which would help mold his future writings in the Sherlock Holmes series – boggling the minds of civilians with science! It was during this time that he wrote his first short story, The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe, and tried (unsuccessfully) to submit it to Blackwood’s Magazine. A later story was published however, along with several scientific articles in different magazines and journals in Edinburgh. Upon graduating from medical school with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Master of Surgery, Conan Doyle became a ship’s surgeon on the SS Mayumba during their voyage to West Africa. Just a year later he found himself setting up his own independent medical practice in Portsmouth, with less than 10 pounds to his name. His practice did not prove entirely successful, neither did a stint in the field of ophthalmology, and in his free time Conan Doyle found himself drawn back to writing fiction.

 

doyle4Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first Sherlock Holmes installment, A Study in Scarlet, when he was only 27 years old. Written in just under three weeks, it is amazing to think that on how this work has endured and began a legacy, a series the likes of which may be unparalleled in fiction. A Study in Scarlet was popular and successful, and Conan Doyle was commissioned to write a sequel in less than a year. The next work, The Sign of the Four, was no less popular when it appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine. Amusingly enough, even early on in his Holmes works Conan Doyle felt contradictory emotions towards his most famous character. He wished to kill Holmes off after just a couple years, but was dissuaded (more like forbade) from doing so by his own mother! He raised the prices for his stories hoping to dissuade publishers from paying for them, but found that publishers were willing to pay exorbitant sums to keep the stories coming… consequently Conan Doyle accidentally became one of the best paid authors of all time. In all, Conan Doyle featured Sherlock Holmes (often against his will – public outcry was so great after Doyle had Holmes and Moriarty plunge off a cliff together that Holmes was forced to resurrect his famed detective in The Hound of the Baskervilles years later) in fifty-six short stories and four novels – a long and eventful life for a fictional character!

 

During the same years as his publication of Holmes’ adventures, Conan Doyle also worked on several historical novels, works which are commonly considered in academic circles his best, and were his favorite to write. Some of his historical novels include popular titles such as The White Company and Sir Nigel, both set in the Middle Ages. He also wrote dozens of short stories (some set in Napoleanic times), and even dramas for the stage. Later on in his life, Conan Doyle wrote the Challenger Series, a science fiction and fantasy series featuring Professor Challenger as the protagonist – a character that couldn’t be further from Sherlock Holmes if he tried! Where Holmes was calculating and quiet, Challenger was aggressive and hot-tempered. One could imagine writing about a character that was the antithesis of all that made Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes was a great enjoyment for Conan Doyle.

 

Similar to our main man Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (as he was knighted by the Queen in 1902) was one of the most prolific authors of the modern world. Not only that, but he was much involved in the justice system, fighting for those wrongly accused to be exonerated (succeeding in at least two cases, his work inspiring the setup of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907), and he was a staunch supporter of mandatory vaccinations! He stood for Parliament twice as a Liberal Unionist, and became a figurehead for the spiritualism movement that swept through England in the 1900s. While he was far from perfect (as we all are), he was certainly an intelligent, resilient individual who should go down in history for a lot more than simply inventing one of the most notable and fascinating characters of all time!

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For the Love of Thomas Hardy

 

A phrase I have said for literal years of my life is this… “well, for the love of Thomas Hardy”. I used it in situations when another might say “Oh, for the love of god.” Now I was not equating Thomas Hardy with anyone’s god by any means, I just picked it up somewhere and used it fairly frequently. Assuming that this was a well-known idiom, I never stopped to question the quizzical looks from people on the receiving end of the strange turn of phrase.

Turns out that it is NOT a real expression. I looked it up online, expecting some awesome intellectual to have done the dirty work for me and found its origins. And nothing, nada… zilch. I felt vaguely certain that I had heard someone say it before, some classy lady, somewhere. It turns out I had! After extensive research, I found it was a phrase said by none other than Helen Mirren in the movie Inkheart, which came out in 2008, based on the book of the same name. So my embarrassing question is this… why are we not using this phrase more often? Try it out, if anything we can guarantee it’s good for a chuckle (on your end, of course… don’t forget the quizzical looks from the receiver).

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Thomas Hardy was born on June 2nd, 1840, in a small hamlet east of Dorchester in Dorset, England. His family was of modest means, and though his father was a local builder, Hardy’s mother was well-read and literate and taught Thomas to read at an early age. He did well in school, but upon graduation at the age of 16 Hardy did not have the means to pursue a University education, and became an apprentice architect to a local man for several years. At the age of 22,  Hardy had worked enough to foster a move to London to attend King’s College where he did design work with his architectural skills. Despite his success there, Hardy never felt truly at ease in the city – he was keenly aware of the class divisions and became extremely interested in social reform – a key element that would make itself known in his later works. In 1867, after only five years in London, Hardy chose to return to the countryside and settled in Weymouth while beginning his writing career alongside working as an architect.

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Our beautiful 1958 copy of Far from the Madding Crowd put out by the Limited Editions Club and signed by the illustrator!

Hardy began writing novels the same year he chose to leave London. His first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, could not find a publisher willing to work with it due to its highly political nature. In fact, Hardy’s friend and fellow author George Meredith even concluded that attempting further to get the story published might harm Hardy’s ability to have work published in the future. Deciding the cons outweighed the pros, Hardy shelved the book and went on to publish several novels in the 1870s, including Desperate Remedies (1871), Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) – a work he is well-known for today. Hardy, beginning by being published anonymously, quickly took credit for his works and was a prolific writer through the rest of his life. He went on to publish ten more novels after Far from the Madding Crowd (including Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure - other popular Hardy titles), dozens of short stories, and several books of poetry.

Hardy’s written style has been classified as Victorian realism – he used his own experiences in London, seeing the detriments of such a classist society in England, to fuel his writing and criticisms of the social constraints found in all aspects of Victorian life. The human suffering caused by these limitations set upon people are constant themes in all of his works. In his own way, Hardy wished to banish the conventions found in society, religion, romantic relationships and friendships and live a freer life. Hardy also full-heartedly believed in fate, and its ability to change destiny, another theme commonly found in his characters’ journeys.

Hardy and his work were an influence on many, many creatives and authors both in his time and ever since – some of the more notable ones include D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin, John Cowper Powys and W. Somerset Maugham. His courage to bring attention to the disadvantages of common societal roles was admittedly brave for his time. He is a great example of an author who broke literary norms to help lead us into modern day life. (Which, despite the myriad of problems we still face and propagate, has the advantage of being a much more liberated, independent society where anything is possible.) So a very Happy Birthday to him… and for the love of Thomas Hardy!

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The Dangers of Pip’s “Great Expectations”

Charles Dickens - Portrait of the British novelist.

During this week of Dickens’ 209th birthday, we thought to do a short exposé of sorts into one of his most famous works. Great Expectations has captured the hearts and minds of millions since its publication in 1860 with its story of presumptions, manipulations, love and fear. The novel centers on young Pip as he follows dreams that seem outside his reach, and his actions once his dreams are made a reality. But what can we learn from this beloved story that may still be relevant today? More than you might think!

pip magwitchStarting with a short overview of the story (for the .000001% of you that have been living under a rock these past 160 years), we can come to look at the “expectations” housed within and see what we can decipher from the moral tale it holds. When young orphan Pip encounters an escaped criminal hiding in a churchyard one Christmas Eve, it gives him the fright of his life. The young boy is scared into thieving for the convict, and though the criminal is recaptured and clears Pip of suspicion, the incident colors Pip’s outlook on life. The young boy is sent to the house of the spinster and slightly mad Miss Havisham, to be used as entertainment for the lady and her adopted, aloof and haughty daughter Estella. Pip falls in love with Estella and visits them regularly until he is old enough to be taught a trade as an apprentice blacksmith. Four years into Pip’s apprenticeship, however, a lawyer arrives with news that Pip has anonymously been provided with enough money to become a gentleman. An astonished Pip heads to London to begin his new life, assuming Miss Havisham is to thank for his unexpected new windfall. Once in London the young Pip is introduced into some society, and makes new friends. His heart still belonging to Estella, he is ashamed of his previous life and expects his social advancement, new wealth and sudden social standing to sway her emotions towards him more favorably. It does not, Estella remains cold as ever, and Pip’s illusions are finally shattered when he realizes that his benefactor is not Miss Havisham at all, but the escaped convict Magwitch whom he helped in the churchyard all those years before. Through many mishaps and misfortunes, Pip and his friends attempt to help Magwitch escape England (which is ultimately unsuccessful), where he had returned to simply to make himself known to Pip. Pip learns valuable lessons throughout the story – interestingly not necessarily from those with money and social standing, but more often than not from those in his own class. The story has a kind ending, with Pip and an altered, warmer Estella walking hand in hand over a decade after her initial rejection of him (though Dickens originally planned a more likely, yet more disheartening end to the story and was convinced by Edward Bulwer-Lytton to change it).

So what qualities does Pip have that give the book its title? Pip’s expectations are common in most of us, whether living in Dickens time or the here 21st century… Pip wants social advancement and wealth. He wants to be taken seriously and not looked down upon. He has a lifelong ambition to be something he is not, and when he is finally able to be such (wealthy and more respected), he finds it is not at all everything he ever dreamed of. By the end of the story, Pip certainly realizes that the qualities of loyalty, kindness and compassion are far more important than wealth and social standing. With the shadows that come to light in the story, Dickens mocks the very hypocritical idea of the “gentleman” as every man you meet in the story is not exactly what you think he is. With this realization, Pip finds he has chased a phantom dream, not a concrete one.

How do we see these expectations still in use today? Though “society” is not necessarily the boon it once was (I find the people who truly care about society are the ones in “society”… and the bulk of the population of the world outside it could really give two figs), aspects of the circumstances they enjoyed are still very much at large within us. Wealth, for instance, matters to most – not only is the cost of living in certain areas astronomical, but our materialistic society makes it more difficult for any to be raised without the wishes of privilege. Oftentimes, the factor of wealth is seen today in desperate competitiveness or harsh attempts for a raise or a promotion, even when one is happy and competent at their current job. A desire for the finer things in life leads most of us to spend money we shouldn’t, or don’t even have, in order to feel a sense of gentility or even simple belonging, when in reality it isn’t necessary! (Keep in mind Travis Bradberry’s thoughts on the matter: “Sure, things can make life more fun and comfortable in the short run, but they can’t make you happy in the long run. Too many of us expect a future event ['I’ll be happy when I get that promotion'] to make us happy, instead of looking more deeply into the real causes of our unhappiness. If you don’t fix what’s going on inside, no external event or item is going to make you happy, no matter how much you want it to.”) Our desires for respect are more understandable and able to be grasped, as a focus on gaining people’s trust and respect is hardly a quality to look down upon. As long as it is gained through acts of loyalty, kindness and compassion, you can’t go wrong!

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Perhaps we ought to keep these moral tales from Great Expectations in mind as we (very) slowly move into a post-Covid world. We may have to get back into the swing of things, but we can choose to re-focus our energy on the important things, rather than the silly. After all, if we’ve learned anything this year, I believe it is that the most important things in life are family, friends, respect, kindness and health… none of Pip’s “great expectations” factor in whatsoever!

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See our holding of All the Year Round (1859-1868) containing the first appearances of both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations here! It is certainly a sight to behold.

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Five Things Bibliophiles can Accomplish in Fall of 2020

We know, we know… 2020 hasn’t been the easiest of years. If we can, we work with no exciting breaks in sight, we have given up on lofty ideas of promotions or raises. We are tired of spending hot days inside, away from friends and family. It hasn’t been easy, and yet – we’re powering through. It seems almost crazy that we will be coming up on the new year in just a few short months. We thought that with the dawn of one of our favorite seasons, it might be time to review how we book lovers can spend some of our days or nights, keeping our distance but hanging out with some of our closest friends, all at once. Read on!

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1. Read, of course! It’s the season to curl up with a good book and a cup of tea (or coffee… or wine) and begin to enjoy the changing of the seasons – which still change, despite Covid-19. (We checked.) On the plus side… reading is a solitary activity, which means that you don’t have to get together with a group of people, or risk your health to travel far and wide. Perfect! If you are able to head to your local booksellers to pick up a title (online or in person), great. If you don’t have book funds at the moment, look around your city or town for neighborhood Little Lending Libraries, or just a regular library!

 

2. An active mind is a healthy mind. For some of us, just reading simply isn’t enough. Perhaps it is time to start up that book blog you’ve always wanted. Blogging is remarkably easy (if we can do it, we know you can too), and nowadays the internet is widely accessible, and it is so easy to publish! It doesn’t have to be perfect. Perhaps you can start off focusing on character development, or things titles say about the books themselves. Perhaps you review books you read! Or maybe reviewing and blogging isn’t for you. Look into online book clubs, download Zoom and have at it! As long as books are at the crux of your activities, you’ll never be bored or lonely. <3

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3. For you antiquarian book lovers out there… maybe it is finally time to set up the book collection you’ve been dying for. If you have the means to do so, go ahead and make a list of those titles missing from your shelves and turn to the internet to find them! Of course we fully recommend combing www.tavbooks.com first and foremost to find them (shameless plug), but there are so many sites available to you to help expand your collection. Some of our favorite platforms for searching a wide range of antiquarian inventory are www.abebooks.com, www.vialibri.net, and www.biblio.com. There are also a range of online virtual book fairs happening in the upcoming months… check us and our colleagues out there! Fill up your shelves with your favorites. At the rate we’re going, they might be what keep us all company in the upcoming winter months.

 

4. Organize! Now that the summer is over, and the days are getting shorter, the nights longer, take the time to go through your items and see what texts no longer serve you. I am in my thirties and up until a month or so ago still held onto college textbooks that I did not once look at after passing the class. Someone else could read those! This is less an idea for an antiquarian collection, but more a general shelf-weariness. Perhaps you could find one of the Little Lending Libraries we spoke of and drop off some used books of yours… make space for your favorites and the masterpieces you enjoy.

 

5. And last but not least… discuss your bibliophilia! There’s nothing like hearing a rave book review from a friend to make you want to jump out and read it for yourself. When we can’t be as social as we once were, it is still important to connect with other people. Perhaps it looks like joining an online book club, but perhaps it is also calling your friends and telling them about your current book squeeze. Get creative! Share what you read, and others will share back.

 

Happy Autumn, book friends! Bundle up and get cozy… it will be winter before we know it. 

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A 100 Year Old Victory

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In the grand scheme of things, what is 100 years? In terms of your lifespan, it may seem like a lot. In terms of history, on the other hand? Well, in terms of history it is a mere slip in time. Now what would you say if you were to realize that American women have only had certain rights – specifically the right to vote – for this amount of time? 100 years ago today, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment… stating that American citizens could not be denied the right to vote based on their sex – effectively giving women the chance to make their voices heard. It was not an easy battle! In fact, in the US, support for the suffrage movement began as early as the 1840s! It would take over 80 years for their demands to be instituted. Let’s take a look back at this time in history and see how lives were changed for the better, 100 years ago today.

Some tend to trace the modern suffrage movement (knowing and understanding that women should have always had equal rights as men) back to a specific publication that we all know – Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 UK publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft was known for being revolutionary in her ideas, and a stalwart for women’s intelligence and respect. It is said by some that her work helped inspire Sarah Grimké’s 1838 The Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women – the work which made abolitionist Grimké to be considered the “mother of the women’s suffrage movement”. Her work, widely circulated from Boston throughout the early United States, helped inspire many hundreds (if not thousands) to begin the quest for women’s rights. The main hurdle that women had to jump before these rights could be established, however, was the idea of the pure, innocent woman – one who did not belong in the public sphere. Long considered roles for men only, women becoming part of the public and even political spheres was shocking and highly looked down upon in the early 1800s. In the 1830s and 40s, the abolition of slavery and women’s rights seemed to partner well together, as most women speaking publicly were speaking out condemning slavery… and the act of doing so was automatically a boon for the rights of women. The radical wing (both men and women) of the abolitionist movement were well-known for their support of women’s rights. Unfortunately, towards the beginning, that radical wing consisted of very little of the general population. 

opposedThe opposition of female public speaking wasn’t simply a hurdle. Much of the opposition was so strong that it led to violence. Many female conventions and rallies were disrupted with extreme forcefulness and cruelty, inciting suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony to state this: “No advanced step taken by women has been so bitterly contested as that of speaking in public. For nothing which they have attempted, not even to secure the suffrage, have they been so abused, condemned and antagonized.” Her statement cemented the fact that it was not so much the idea of women voting that bothered their contemporaries, but rather it was women breaking out of the cages they had for so long been held and standing up for themselves publicly that was the problem. 

The Seneca Falls Convention in New York in 1848 marked a specific shift in women’s suffrage. Abolitionist activists, both men and women, gathered to discuss women’s civil rights. Almost all of the delegates agreed… women were autonomous beings, independent of their husbands, and ought to share the same rights as their brothers and husbands. Adopting the Declaration of Independence to their beliefs, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments proclaimed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Amen to that!

Though the women’s movement lost a bit of momentum and support during the Civil War (rightly so), almost as soon as it ended the issues of suffrage and equality reared up again, what with the 14th and 15th Amendment changes for the rights of men of color. Over the next few years, several associations formed to highlight women’s rights, suffrage being only a part of the demands of their followers. Shockingly, equal pay for equal jobs was a large demand of the women in this period. Throughout the Civil War, women picked up the slack needed as men were away fighting. They performed men’s tasks and men’s jobs (all while keeping house and raising children), and some kept this work up even after the war. Their significantly lower pay for the same work highlighted an extreme disparity with how men and women were treated at the time. Associations like the Women’s Loyal National League, the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), and the New England Woman Suffrage Association (NEWSA) all held strong beliefs and fought for similar rights (though even they were sometimes on opposing sides of the same team).  

Elizabeth Cady StantonIn 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (two of the main “heavy hitters” in the suffrage movement) joined forces to create the National Woman Suffrage Association, and began the fight for a “universal suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution” (History.com). It was Stanton’s belief early on that the only way to change the way women were treated was through government political reform. While some believed that though women deserved rights, support, protection (from domestic abuse) and equal pay – they did not necessarily require the right to vote, Stanton believed the right to vote was integral to all the other matters listed. And she was not wrong. The same year, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe and Henry Blackwell formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). These two leagues were enmeshed in a bitter feud that would last decades, their participants disagreeing on the Fifteenth Amendment – allowing African American men the right to vote. Some, like Stanton and Anthony, rejected the Amendment, believing that woman’s suffrage was more important, and mistakenly believing that African American men opposed women’s suffrage and would fight against their cause. Stone and other members of AERA, on the other hand, supported their previously oppressed fellow citizens and supported their victories, in hopes they would help support the women’s movement in return. This is not to say that racial bias did not exist in both organizations, as it most definitely did, despite both groups being strongly associated with the abolitionist movement. Their rivalry would last until 1890.

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After tireless years of working to promote ideas of women’s suffrage, the two associations put aside their differences (which by then were somewhat moot points, anyway) to join forces and create the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the massive organization’s first president. “By then, the suffragists’ approach had changed. Instead of arguing that women deserved the same rights and responsibilities as men because women and men were ‘created equal,’ the new generation of activists argued that women deserved the vote because they were different from men. They could make their domesticity into a political virtue, using the franchise to create a purer, more moral ‘maternal commonwealth.’” (History.com) This argument gained them new followers from multiple arenas. Advocates of the temperance movement wanted women to have the vote because they believed it would create a cleaner, purer, more chaste country. The middle class enjoyed the idea of introducing homeliness and kindliness into larger, wealthy political parties.

NYC parade 1917In 1910, some of the Western states slowly began extending the vote to their female citizens. State by state, women were gaining rights (though there was still a significant ways to go). States in the South and the Northeast resisted. WWI once again slowed the momentum of the party, but women’s work in the war effort helped to engender support for their intelligence and abilities in the long run. Their aid proved their patriotism and that they were as deserving of rights as men were. A parade for women’s rights in 1917 in New York City consisted of hundreds of women, carrying placards with over 1 million female signatures on them… a far cry from where they started out, with less than 1% of the population’s support. 

Finally, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee (the last of the 36 states needed to adopt the law) narrowly ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, making voting legal irregardless of sex throughout the United States. A few days later, on August 26th, 1920, 100 years ago today, the Nineteenth Amendment was certified, bringing to culmination an almost 100 year battle by women and men throughout the country. The passing of this amendment enfranchised 26 million American women in time for the 1920 U.S. presidential election. The Amendment states, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” 

We are a far cry away from a perfectly equal country – in terms of race, sex and economy. We still have a mighty hill (or a few) to climb in order to reach Utopia. But one thing we do know… 100 years ago, women had fought tooth and nail for the right to vote. The right to make their voices heard, and the right to assist with change on a national level. They wanted to be seen for who they were, not who they were expected to be, and they wanted more than anything to be taken seriously. In celebrating their great victory, let us not forget what they fought for. An election is upon us, and let’s do them proud. Get out there and VOTE!!!!

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AN AGENT OF CHANGE

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On this auspicious occasion – the 150th Anniversary of Dickens’ death – there is no shortage of notional blog topics. We could discuss the strange diet he had on days when he did his public readings (a raw egg beaten in a glass of sherry was part of it), the curious nicknames he had for his children (“Skittles” was probably a joy – who knows what went wrong with “Lucifer’s Box”), or perhaps the ivory toothpick he once used that sold at auction for $9,000.

Given everything going on in the world at the moment, we decided to give whimsy a pass and focus on a single, defining aspect of Dickens. Relevance.

As an author – arguably the most famous in the world during his lifetime – Dickens was well-known and widely read. But that can be said of many authors in many times. Part of what continues to make Dickens fascinating was how he leveraged both his literary gifts and the attention they commanded. Despite his many faults, Dickens was a force for positive social reform and change. One might even argue that for his time, he was a radical agent for social change. It seems a good time to talk about how one man used his pen to give voice to those without one, to infuse entertainment with informing empathy, and to leverage personal fame to help others less fortunate than himself.

It is impossible to look at Dickens’ interest in the poverty-stricken, down-trodden members of society without a brief introduction to his early life. Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on the 7th of February, 1812 into a modest Portsmouth household that boasted his mother, father, and an older sister. Dickens’ father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, and for a time the family enjoyed a modest but happy life – a lifestyle some have referred to as “gentile poverty”. At just three years old, the young Charles and his family relocated to bustling London, where his father was transferred after the end of the Napoleonic War. London proved to be a difficult life for the constantly growing family, and the charismatic John Dickens began to fall into serious debt.

At the age of twelve, young Charles was packed off to Warren’s Blacking – a boot polish manufacturer. For a time, the young boy would work from early morning until late into the night. However, soon after Charles began work his father was arrested and the entire family moved into debtor’s prison. It was only after John Dickens’ mother died, leaving behind a small inheritance for the family to pay their debts and survive on, that they were able to leave Marshalsea Prison. This period would have an immense impact on Charles Dickens’ view of the world and on his writing. He would never forget the way being so unspeakably poor had opened his eyes to the world. In short, Charles Dickens lived a truly “Dickensian” childhood, surviving in extremely poor social conditions. Though the term may have been coined based on the living conditions of characters in his books, we can see that Charles did not invent the lifestyle – nor did he have to imagine it.

Skipping ahead, after Dickens achieved success with his writing (after all, the point of this blog is to bring attention to his efforts in social reform, not to his literary successes), we see Dickens becoming an advocate for many of the less fortunate. The Victorian period in England saw many advances in industry and technology – creating a rising tide of urbanization. Industrialism was at its height, but the division of wealth between the wealthy aristocracy and the poor was beyond considerable. The working class was on the rise, true, but the poverty stricken lower class life experience would be considered untenable today in the western world. The extortion of child labor, abuse of labor practices in general, homelessness and/or a lack of sanitation in housing, prostitution and general squalor were only some of the problems facing the lower classes in Victorian England. Though many upper class citizens remained ignorant of these many difficult subjects, Dickens chose to write about them. And because he did so with compelling craft and deeply engaging stories, he was able to command attention that no conventional soapbox could rival.

Combining his skills of humor and satire with a keen observation of society at large, Dickens brought attention to the many injustices against the downtrodden in Victorian England. He did not just write about them fictionally, however. When he could, he donated his own money. When he couldn’t, or wanted to do more than simply contribute cash, he pushed the wealthy to donate their time and resources. Most often, however, he used his fame and celebrity, but most of all talent to aid charitable institutions. Dickens was no stranger to giving speeches, performing readings, or writing articles for causes he believed in. Over his lifetime, he in some way supported at least 43 charitable institutions. Some of these included the Poor Man’s Guardian Society, the Birmingham and Midland Institute, the Metropolitan Sanitary Association, The Orphan Working School, the Royal Hospital for the Incurables, and the Hospital for Sick Children.

 

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One of Dickens’ most well-known and sustained philanthropic efforts was his work with the notable (and extremely wealthy) Miss Angela Burdett Coutts. The two met and became close friends in 1839, and were in contact for many years before Dickens approached her with an idea – a home for homeless and “fallen” women. Dickens wanted to get these women off the streets – many of whom had turned to a life of prostitution to survive – and teach them skills to make a living or marry and have a family. Dickens oversaw every part of this project – from finding the home to helping pick out candidates. Urania Cottage, as it was called, provided safety, a home and support to homeless and fallen girls and turned out dozens of recharged women over a ten year period. Until a rift with Coutts developed in 1859, Dickens worked tirelessly on behalf of his charity for women.

Now, Urania Cottage is just a single example of Dickens’ generosity. He gave to organizations, institutions, and even to families and individuals as often as he could. We have already mentioned how he was able to use his talents in both writing and readings to bring attention and awareness to difficult subjects. He also put forth tireless efforts into the Field Lane Ragged School – a school for destitute children, run by Evangelicals. Though Dickens had reservations about the religious leader of the school, he enthusiastically gave his time, money and resources into creating a safe space for these children to learn “religious instruction, elementary education, training in trades and food” (J. Don Vann) through volunteers in evening classes. He believed in free education, and thought that through equal (and therefore free) tuition throughout England, crime and destitution would decrease. He was not wrong.

The take away from these stories is this… here was arguably the most famous writer in the world since Shakespeare, scouting homes and schools himself for the poor and the homeless, using his time and influence to gain money and support, and keeping involved in the running of the charities even after they were set up. Dickens was not simply an armchair philanthropist. He put himself in the thick of it and wanted desperately to make a difference. Though scholars have occasionally thought it impossible to legitimately trace any direct reform legislation to Dickens’ work, there can be no doubt that he opened up discussions and used intelligence and humor to bring attention to social abuses and system deficiencies. Charles Dickens showed us one path that could be used to direct change – not the only path.

Though as Dickens scholars and purveyors of his work we adore the satire and intelligence of his literature, we realize this does not absolve him of any wrong doings in his personal life and sphere. We are not, under any circumstances, promoting Dickens as the perfect humanitarian. As we stated earlier, he certainly had his faults. But what we can learn from Mr. Dickens, especially in a time such as this – a time of radical positive change, but also of confusion and pain – is that nothing at all will happen if we don’t first put forth the effort.

As actor and Dickens scholar Simon Callow once said: “The reason I love him so deeply is that, having experienced the lower depths, he never ceased, till the day he died, to commit himself, both in his work and in his life, to trying to right the wrongs inflicted by society, above all, perhaps by giving the dispossessed a voice… From the moment he started to write, he spoke for the people, and the people loved him for it, as do I.”

 

Further Dickens reading & information:

Dickens in a Crisis 150th Anniversary YouTube video

Bleecker Street Media

Denton Dickens Fellowship

 

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An Environmentalist Before Her Time

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Rachel Carson was born on May 27th, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Surprisingly, Carson was not born near an ocean! And why might we say that? Well, Carson would go on to become one of the foremost nature writers and ocean conservationists of the 20th century. However, before her foray into the ecological world, Carson spent her childhood exploring her family’s rural farm. She graduated high school in the neighboring Parnassus, Pennsylvania, at the top of her class.

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Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women (today known as Chatham University). Though she first declared as an English major (having been an avid reader her whole life), she quickly switched her major to biology. After graduating magna cum laude, Carson began her graduate studies in zoology and genetics at John Hopkins University. In June, 1932, Carson earned her master’s degree in zoology. Though she had planned to continue her education and eventually receive her PhD, the world had other plans. The Great Depression hit her family hard, and Carson was forced to leave school and begin a full-time teaching position to help support them. A couple years later her father died suddenly, putting even more stress on Carson to be the sole caretaker of her mother.

carson1Carson eventually got a temporary position with the United States Bureau of Fisheries, a job which she had been on the fence about but was persuaded to take by one of her college mentors. She spent her time there writing radio copy for “weekly educational broadcasts entitled Romance Under the Waters.” With 52 programs in the series, Carson had her work cut out for her. The episodes focused on aquatic life and was meant to prompt interest in biology of fish and the work the Bureau did. During this time, Carson’s interest in marine life grew, and soon she was submitting articles on aquatic life in the Chesapeake Bay to local newspapers and magazines. She impressed her superiors with her dedication and knowledge to the point where they offered her the first full-time position that became available, as a junior aquatic biologist.

Carson continued to write, articles and journals, essays and copy – detailing marine life. Her writing career would be changed forever after the publishers at Simon & Schuster saw an article by Carson entitled “Undersea” that had been published in Atlantic Monthly. This journey along the sea floor impressed the publishers so much so that they contacted Carson and implored her to turn the essay into a book… one that they would publish. Carson not only wrote the book, but continued publishing in journals and magazines all over the country at this time.

carson2Over ten years at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (as it was by then called) were good to Carson – she had become the chief editor of publications. Years after the first interest shown by publishers, Carson was once again on the book-publishing path. This time, Oxford University Press expressed interest in a life history of the ocean. Her completed work would eventually become The Sea Around Us. Several chapters were published serially in the Yale Review, Science Digest and The New Yorker, until it was finally published as a book in July 1951. It was an immediate bestseller, remaining at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List for 86 weeks straight. This success gave Carson the ability to give up her job at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and focus on her writing full time.

carson6Her books on the ocean life continuing to be popular, best selling works across the country, Carson began focusing much of her research on pesticide use in the United States, something she had been interested in for over a decade, but finally had the time and space to work on it. By 1957, the USDA was proposing widespread pesticide spraying – to eradicate fire ants and other pests. Carson was suspicious of some of the toxic chemicals they were proposing using, including DDT – a now known carcinogen. She worried what kind of effect the runoff from this activity would have on coastal life, and for good reason. Carson would spend the rest of her life focusing her efforts on conservation, with a great emphasis on “the dangers of pesticide overuse.” In September 1962, Houghton Mifflin published what would become Carson’s best-known book, Silent Spring. This work described in detail the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment, and is credited worldwide with helping begin the modern environmental movement.  “Carson was not the first, or the only person to raise concerns about DDT, but her combination of “scientific knowledge and poetic writing” reached a broad audience and helped to focus opposition to DDT use.” She also poetically noted the dangers of human nature on the environment, a verifiable fact . Carson was, truly, ahead of her time. Unfortunately taken from us much too soon (passing away at the age of only 56 after a battle with breast cancer), Rachel Carson will live on with every moment that we choose to put the good of the planet above ease of our lives.

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