See you next time

That's it for this lesson. Even though it was in some ways a simple lesson, just writing a list really, there are some big ideas to take away.

With Bleak House, Dickens was writing at the peak of his powers, and the opening is one of the great passages of English writing, sketching out an entire city in just a few pages.

Certainly a lot of 19th century writing could be exhuastingly loquacious. For example, here's a single sentence from later in Bleak House:

There are deferential people in a dozen callings whom my Lady Dedlock suspects of nothing but prostration before her, who can tell you how to manage her as if she were a baby, who do nothing but nurse her all their lives, who, humbly affecting to follow with profound subservience, lead her and her whole troop after them; who, in hooking one, hook all and bear them off as Lemuel Gulliver bore away the stately fleet of the majestic Lilliput.

Most people, in fairness, would have to read that sentence a few times to follow it, because modern readers read more quickly by default. We're a DM multi-tab skim-and-click culture now, and it's hard for us to slow down and read carefully enough to process such elaborate sentences.

Which is why it's kind of thrilling to encounter 19th C writing that sounds as modern as:

Fog everywhere.

The deepest idea in this snippet is that good description organises details in a meaningful way.

We saw how Dickens systematically describes London on multiple axes, and how he finds contrasting poles or points along those axes:

  • West-east (upstream-downstream, natural-industrial)
  • North-south (low-high, marsh-heights)
  • Boats (sizes: small, medium, large)
  • Sailors (ages: young, middle-aged, old)

The effect is that we feel like we are going on a tour and following a path even if we can't quite perceive as we read how that path is organised.

We hope you can try some of these ideas the next time you need to describe something big like an entire city.

See you next time!

London Social and Functional Analysis 1943