Here are two pages from an 880-word novel I have embarked on reading:
“ ‘These, young ladies,’ said Mrs. Pardiggle, with great volubility, after the first salutations, ‘are my five boys. You may have seen their names in a printed subscription list (perhaps more than one) in the possession of our esteemed friend, Mr. Jarndyce. Egbert, my eldest (twelve), is the boy who sent out his pocket-money, to the amount of five-and-threepence to the Tockahoopo Indians. Oswald, my second (ten-and-a- half), is the child who contributed two-and-ninepence to the Great National Smithers Testimonial. Francis, my third (nine), one-and-sixpence-halfpenny; Felix, fourth (seven) eightpence to the Superannuated Widows; Alfred, my youngest (five), has voluntarily enrolled himself in the Infant Bonds of Joy and is pledged never through life, to use tobacco in any form.’
“We had never seen such dissatisfied children. It was not merely that they were weazened and shrivelled --- though they were certainly thattoo --- but they looked absolutely ferocious with discontent. At the mention of the Tockahoopo Indians, I could really have supposed Egbert to be one of the most baleful members of that tribe, he gave me such a savage frown. The face of each child, as the amount of his contribution was mentioned, darkened in a peculiarly vindictive manner, but his was by far the worst. I must except, however, the little recruit into the Infant Bonds of Joy, who was stolidly and evenly miserable.
“ ‘You have been visiting, I understand,’ said Mrs. Pardiggle, ‘at Mrs. Jellyby’s?’
We said, yes, we had passed one night there.
“ ‘Mrs. Jellyby,’ pursued the lady, always speaking in the same demonstrative, loud, hard tone so that her voice impressed my fancy as if it had a sort of spectacles on too --- and I may here take the opportunity of remarking that her spectacles were made the less engaging by her eyes being what Ada called ‘choking eyes,’ meaning very prominent: ‘Mrs. Jellyby is a benefactor to society and deserves a helping hand. My boys have contributed to the African project --- Egbert, one-and-six, being the entire allowance of nine weeks; Oswald, one-and-a-penny-halfpenny, being the same; the rest, according to their little means. Nevertheless I do not go with Mrs. Jellyby in her treatment of her young family. It has been noticed. It has been observed that her young family are excluded from participation in the objects to which she is devoted. She may be right, she may be wrong; but, right or wrong, this is not my course with my young family. I take them everywhere.’
"I was afterwards convinced (and so was Ada) that from the ill-conditioned eldest child, these words extorted a sharp yell. He turned it off into a yawn, but it began as a yell.
“ ‘They attend Matins with me (very prettily done), at half-past six o’clock in the morning all the year round, including, of course, the depths of winter,’ said Mrs. Pardiggle rapidly, ‘and they are with me during the revolving duties of the day. I am a School lady, I am a Visiting lady, I am a Reading lady, I am a Distributing lady; I am on the local Linen Box Committee, and many general Committees; and my canvassing alone is very extensive --- perhaps no one’s more so. But they are my companions everywhere; and by these means they acquire that knowledge of the poor, and that capacity of doing charitable business in general, in short that taste for the sort of thing --- which will render them in after life a service to their neighbours, and a satisfaction to themselves. My young family are not frivolous; they expend the entire amount of their allowance in subscriptions, under my direction; and they have attended as many public meetings, and listened to as many lectures, orations, and discussions, as generally fall to the lot of few grown people. Alfred (five), who, as I mentioned, has of his own election joined the Infant Bonds of Joy, was one of the very few children who manifested consciousness on that occasion, after a fervid address of two hours from the chairman of the evening.’
“Alfred glowered at us as if he never could, or would, forgive the injury of that night.
“ ‘You may have observed, Miss Summerson,’ said Mrs. Pardiggle, ‘in some of the lists to which I have referred in the possession of our esteemed friend Mr. Jarndyce, that the names of my young family are concluded with the name of O.A.Pardiggle, F.R.S.,one pound. That is their father. We usually observe the same routine. I put down my mite first; then my young family enrol their contributions, according to their ages and their little means; and then Mr. Pardiggle brings up the rear. Mr Pardiggle is happy to throw in his limited donation, under my direction, and thus things are made not only pleasant to ourselves, but, we trust, improving to others.’ ”
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Well, I hope I may assume that most of my 22 readers will have spotted from the first lines that the author in question is Charles Dickens, and that the book these passages are extracted from is Bleak House, widely acknowledged to be his greatest novel. I am always so amazed by Dickens’s almost inhuman literary energy, the way he can pile memorable, indeed unforgettable, characters one on top of the other as he proceeds with his convoluted stories, that I suddenly thought most of you would enjoy this famous passage about Mrs. Pardiggle and the Infant Bonds of Joy, scowling and grimacing at her coattails, as I myself have enjoyed it. And what about poor Mr. Pardiggle, a template for the dominated husband, evidently having no say in the upbringing of his young family, but confined to making his charitable contributions “under my direction,” as Mrs. Pardiggle says. It is many years since I first read Bleak House or any other of Dickens’s novels, for that matter, and I confess that in the age of Twitter and its limit of 240 printed characters, they may seem to drag from time to time as he indulges himself in some long-winded description of a room and its furnishings. But already in the first 100 pages of this book we have been introduced to Mrs Jellyby’s young family by first meeting a child --- “one of the dirtiest little unfortunates I ever saw,” says Miss Summerson, with his head stuck between two iron railings, crying loudly as a milkman and a beadle try to drag him back by the legs, “under a general impression that his skull was compressible by those means.” Mrs Jellyby, whose eyes had “a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off as if they could see nothing nearer than Africa,” was so occupied with sending off 200 circulars a week in support of the Borrioboola-Gha tribe that she didn't have time even to realize that her own children were living in indescribable filth.
I confess I often find myself muttering phrases that come directly from Dickens as I go about my nowadays more or less solitary life. Phrases like, “Barkis is willin’,” from a coachdriver in David Copperfield, or “It’s bein’ so jolly as keeps me goin’,” from Mark Tapley, a character whose relentless jolliness kept Martin Chuzzlewit afloat even when things turned against him in America and he found the Florida land he had speculated in was almost under water. Or “I will never desert Mr. Micawber," from, of course, Mrs. Micawber, And then there is Mr. Micawber’s classic advice to young people, "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. “
That’s a bit of folksy wisdom that I have always tried to live by.