What a tease!

I think by far the biggest hurdle to get over in this project, whether contributors have read the book before or not, is trying to imagine a context in which the story is utterly unknown and new to them. I was thinking this in particular as I was reading the opening lines – forever entrenched in the public consciousness – and realising that, without the blurb on the back of the book, or a handy cover picture, readers had no idea when this story was set or what it was about. So the first two paragraphs are essentially this magnificent tease as Dickens hints at the period, but delays confirming it.

And of course there are many other instances you can see throughout where questions are being constantly flung at the reader, some answered within this volume and some not – which two cities is this story about? Who is being recalled to life, and why were they “buried alive” in the first place? Dickens really dances the line between enticing and frustrating in this opening part!

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About Pete Orford

I'm an English lecturer at the University of Buckingham, with a research background in both Dickens and Shakespeare; I am also a father of three, with a research background in dinosaurs and moshi monsters. I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com).

5 thoughts on “What a tease!

  1. I am coming to the text with very few preconceptions; I know little about the book and have made sure I didn’t find out any more before starting this project. I also made sure I read the text from the original scanned copy rather than the very modern san serif font version on the right. (I stopped short of dressing up in period costume!) I tried to imagine that I had picked up the journal for the first time. I was impressed by the grand sweep of the opening chapter, and then disturbed by the eerie atmosphere of the coach trip. I know now that this is a historical novel but is it a ghost story? Whose lives does it touch on? What will be the relationship with the politics of the time? The ‘cliff hanger’ is compelling enough that I will certainly remember the theme of being buried alive, but although the characters were deftly drawn I’m not sure if they will stay fresh in my mind for a week with the little information I have to go on so far.

    • It also struck me that Dickens’ metaphor is not immediately apparent – Jarvis’s dreams of someone being risen from the grave, along with the coded message “recalled to life” could be interpreted literally, until the final paragraph reveals the unfortunate prisoner to be “buried alive”. Our only reason for assuming it to be a metaphor – and not the opening of a gothic novel – is our assumptions of Dickens as a writer; so we know from his canon that he tended towards realism in his novels, leaving the supernatural for his short stories and Christmas books. So even without knowing the rest of the book, expectations of genre and author can still shape our interpretation of the text.

    • Kudos to you loutreleaven for being able to read the “real” scanned copy of ATOTC. I can’t squint that hard at the screen for three whole chapters. And I agree with you that the metaphor Dickens uses in these opening chapters wouldn’t necessarily grab audiences. There’s very little action, hardly any dialogue, but it is very creepy. Edgar Allen Poe would have loved it!

  2. Although I have read most of Dickens’s novels (and two of them – Great Expectations and Dombey – twice), ATOTC is one I’ve hesitated over. Maybe dim recollections of screen adaptations and parodies of the opening sentences have put me off; also I think I’ve read somewhere that the novel was one of CD’s weakest.
    So I am coming to this novel without much knowledge of how it’s all going to turn out, but with a determination to try following in “real time”, not finishing until November. However, I have to come clean and admit that I was one of the volunteer proofreaders on the Dickens Journals Online project, and one of the magazines that I was “assigned” was an issue of All the Year Round from 1859. Which means that I have read through a later episode already, albeit without understanding much of what was going on in the plot.
    As for the serial itself, it’s an odd opening chapter, isn’t it? Is it unusual among Dickens’s first chapters in not introducing any actual named characters? In some ways, though, it’s like other Dickens vamp-till-ready passages, where he lets his pen run away with him, as it were, as if to fill space. At the same time, he’s being very emphatic that this is a historical novel, stressing the date (1775) and the political situation in Europe. Not that it’s so long ago for ATOTC’s original readers: the equivalent today would be reading a new novel set in the late 1930s.
    When we come to ch 2, having been warned about the terrible unrest and crimes of the 1770s, the reader is prepared for some criminal activity, perhaps. But all we have is a mail coach toiling up Shooters Hill. Still, we now have some named people to focus on, though it’s not clear whether (e.g.) the driver of the Dover mail will feature any more in the story. We can be fairly certain, though, that Jarvis Lorry will be heard of some more … and Jerry the messenger?
    The first three chapters, taken together, don’t seem to have told us much; there’s undoubtedly an air of mystery about, though. And it’s all been happening in the dark. As yet, no daylight has intruded on any of the characters …

    • Forgive the lack of a more academic comparison, but your closing comments about daylight immediately brought to mind “24” (because as we all know, if Dickens was alive today he’d be writing hit American dramas for Keiffer Sutherland) and how long characters were suspended in a certain time of day until the next adventure. Already at this early stage I’m beginning to realise how long a week is…

      As for opening chapters without named characters, there are some precedents for this in Dickens’s works. Martin Chuzzlewit opens with an extended pedigree of the family that manages to omit the members who feature in the main plot. There is a similar occurrence in Bleak House, where the opening chapter focuses on the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce while barely mentioning any major characters, and even when Dickens finally does they are referred to anonymously as “the young people” and their cousin. I guess Dickens liked these grand panoramic openings before zooming in on an event or character.

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