Friday, November 7, 2014

Master Humphrey’s Clock, by Charles Dickens

Even the greatest authors are sometimes taken by surprise at their own work.  Case in point is Master Humphrey’s Clock, by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).  I had been dipping into it the week prior to Halloween, and a tasty treat it is.

But it is not, however, anything like Dickens intended it to be.

Master Humphrey’s Clock tells of a lonely, elderly cripple (Master Humphrey), who lives in a spacious home complete with ornate longcase (grandfather) clock.  The clock case holds a wealth of papers – stories told by members of a private club, called Master Humphrey’s Clock.

Members of the club include Jack Redburn, a gentleman of a free-and-easy sort; an older, unnamed deaf gentleman; retired merchant Owen Miles; and Mr. Pickwick, so well remembered from the book The Pickwick Papers.  Downstairs, the servants have a mirror society, Mr. Weller’s Watch, run by Mr. Weller (Pickwick’s servant), the barber and Mr. Humphrey’s maid.

The book, then, is a frame story about Humphrey and his friends and servants, and the stories they tell.  Serendipitously for the time of year, English story-tellers when confronted with glowing hearths and bottles of port usually tell stories with a grim or macabre flavor.  Master Humphrey’s Clock contains one rather somber, medieval revenge tale, as well as a splendid “ghost story,” complete with a gibbet, masked aristocrats, midnight runs and mysterious witches.  It is almost impossible to put down.

This being Dickens, his natural inclination towards comedy cannot be suppressed, and Mr. Weller’s tale is one rich with low comedy and dialect shtick.  If your taste runs towards that sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

Dickens’ greatest critic – author G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) – thought Master Humphrey’s Clock to be mid-level Dickens at best.  But, Chesterton also argued that it was incredibly emblematic of the way the great man’s mind worked – the central ideas of home and warm hearth, the delight in story-telling, the larger-than-life characters who seem like old friends upon meeting them.  Also in evidence are Dickens' untrammeled flights of fancy, his pawkish humor, and his taste for the outlandish.  And GKC may be right … many writers with a particularly distinctive voice sometimes sound like imitations of themselves, and Master Humphrey is the greatest imitation of Dickens mimicked by the great man himself.

If this sounds as if I were not recommending Master Humphrey – do not be deceived.  It is a wonderful romp that can be enjoyed without hesitation.  Indeed, as autumn progresses and winter approaches, there are few better places to be than beside the hearth and longcase clock of Master Humphrey.

All of which would be a surprise, to some extent, to the author himself.  Master Humphrey’s Clock started not as a collection of short stories, but as a magazine written entirely by Dickens.  The premise of the publication was Humphrey and his friends gathering weekly to read stories stored in the clock.

Initially, the magazine was a success, but sales soon slumped.  Dickens then started telling the story that would become The Old Curiosity Shop, the serialization of which took over the entire magazine.  Sales soared to 100,000 weekly; he then started Barnaby Rudge in the same magazine, which also met with marked success.

Though not a great book in itself, Master Humphrey’s Clock made The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge possible; to this reader’s view, that makes it a very important book, indeed.  It is available for free download at the indispensable, and comes highly recommended.

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