52 books – 52 weeks: September

Still making slow and heavy work of the reading challenge this month.  I’ll get to 104 books by the end of the year, but Loupie’s dramatic attempt at 156 is perhaps beyond me. Two books in a month?  Too much Skyrim, clearly…

96: The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde, reviewed at length here.

97: The Uncommercial Traveler by Charles Dickens.

This is a series of magazine articles, I assume, as they are short pieces and he specialized in that form. They purport to be his reminiscences on minor events he has seen while traveling, although their veracity is impossible to confirm. They tend toward his usual themes, poverty, the suffering of the hidden underclass, the way terrible things happen just out of sight in Victorian England.

I thought that to the Victorian English, rural life was something of an idyll, but Dickens seems to suggest that rural life is basically part of the “just out of sight”, which is far more dystopian and disturbing that I thought was common in the era. Not to put too much weight on a parallel, I thought the Victorian view was basically like the opening ceremony of the Olympics. They thought the peasants had happy lives playing with apples, and that things were only really grimy and horrible in the cities.  Not so, in Dickens. Basically there’s a centre of art and culture and light and everything about it seems to be terribly bleak: indeed the bleakness seems to be the price of the light.

I found its lack of mangled, saintly children refreshing. I found the second chapter, which was about the shipwreck of the Royal Charter, genuinely touching. The chapter which repeats the stories which were told to him by his nurse, and recounts his terror at them, is incredibly personal and genuinely seems like a record of what we would consider his repeated emotional abuse. At the time, of course it would not be considered harmful – Dickens himself seems to see them as the genesis of his career as a writer of Christmas ghost stories.

The Library Service stocks many of Dickens’s major works, but I listened to the Librivox recording of this one, which is based on a free online version of the text hosted here, and readable on most portable devices.