I spent many delightful hours one summer reading David Copperfield to Mrs. Vera Wardner Dougan in a log cabin overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay in New Brunswick, Canada. She was in frail health and couldn’t see. But she was dressed impeccably, gracious, and was a very attentive and appreciative listener. I was reading the Modern Library’s edition of David Copperfield, published in 1950. It contained the original illustrations by “Phiz.”
Mrs. Dougan and I laughed heartily at one particular scene in Chapter 5. Mr. Barkis is speaking to David, wondering if he might be writing to Peggotty any time soon. If so, he has a message he would like David to pass on to Peggotty.
‘Well. I’ll tell you what,’ said Mr. Barkis. ‘P’raps you might be writin’ to her?’ ‘I shall certainly write to her,’ I rejoined. ‘Ah!’ he said, slowly turning his eyes towards me. ‘Well! If you was writin’ to her, p’raps you’d recollect to say that Barkis was willin’; would you?’ ‘That Barkis is willing,’ I repeated, innocently. ‘Is that all the message?’ ‘Ye-es,’ he said, considering. ‘Ye-es. Barkis is willin’.’
David is young and has no idea what Mr. Barkis is talking about. Here’s the letter he wrote to Peggotty that very afternoon while waiting for a coach in Yarmouth.
‘My dear Peggotty. I have come here safe. Barkis is willing. My love to mama. Yours affectionately. P.S. He says he particularly wants you to know—BARKIS IS WILLING.’
Mrs. Dougan had a wonderful laugh, and the two of us roared with laughter at the courtship of Barkis and Peggotty. Mrs. Dougan passed away in 1988, ten days short of her 93rd birthday. Her memory is a blessing. My granddaughter, Mrs. Dougan’s great-great-grandaughter, Vera Anne Allen, is named in memory of Mrs. Dougan.
I minored in English in college. I took a great many courses in literature. In none of them did I get the opportunity to read and study Charles Dickens. He was out of favor at the time. What a tragedy to think of Charles Dickens as “out of favor.” Not having the opportunity to read him in college, I read him on my own, and still do.
This past December, I read his “A Christmas Carol” again. Of course, it was the perfect time for such reading, but there is profit in reading the book no matter when you do so. There are five “staves” in the book. Dickens used the word stave since the story’s a “carol.” The first stave introduces Ebenezer Scrooge, the book’s primary character. The last one demonstrates the changes that were wrought in Scrooge’s personality by what happened in the middle three staves.
I want to share two quotes from Stave Four. First: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”
There are two great lessons here. The first is that we must be careful concerning the activities we repeatedly perform, for they can become habits. And habits can be challenging to change. I waited until I was eighteen to take up cigarette smoking. I remember my father telling me that it’s an effortless thing to begin but extremely difficult to stop. Boy, was he right! Due in no small measure to the persistent nagging of someone who cared about me, I did stop.
The second lesson, and it is easy to become discouraged here, is understanding that we can change. I know many people who no longer make New Year’s resolutions because they have failed to fulfill them so many times in the past. So what? I still make New Year’s resolutions, two sets really: one for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the second for the Gregorian New year. The two groups differ in type. The first focuses on religious or spiritual goals; the second emphasizes health, reading, and secular learning goals. Some of them I don’t meet. But some of them I do. And I wouldn’t succeed with changing things if I didn’t take time to think about them, to write them down.
The second quote is also from Stave Four. Scrooge is speaking.
I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.Charles dickens, A christmas Carol, Stave 4.
We often receive advice to live only in the present, never look back, and have no regrets. Clearly, Dickens is suggesting something else. Of course, we must live in the present. However, our past memories can inform our present, enrich it, prevent us from repeating prior mistakes. It’s not a terrible thing to make mistakes if we learn from them, and we learn from them by remembering them, what they taught us, good or bad.
While living in the present, we should also think about how what we are doing affects the future, ours, and that of others. I was once speaking with a man whose young daughter came in while he and I were talking. She asked her father if she could use his stapler to staple some of her school papers together. He told her “no;” he didn’t want to waste any of his staples on stuff like that. He gave no thought then, as far as I could tell, to the effect of his words on his daughter, not just then, but forever.
I’ve continued reading Dickens over the years. I don’t really care what literary critics have to say about him. This year, for example, I will slowly be working my way through The Pickwick Papers. My pace will be slow, not only because I am an extremely slow reader, but because I want to read it in the way it was delivered initially, serialized. I will be reading the chapters according to the serialization schedule found in the Wikipedia article about the novel. I will be starting in March of 2021 and finishing in October 2022.
If you’ve never read Dickens, or not read him for a while, I recommend giving him a try. Not only did he create some of the most memorable characters in English literature, but his stories, like all good stories, can change you.
All the best,