Dickens by Alfred Bryan, courtesy of The Morgan Library website

Dickens by Alfred Bryan, courtesy of The Morgan Library website

The Morgan Library, one of best places to spend an afternoon in New York, is having a Charles Dickens exhibition with things on display like the manuscript for A Christmas Carol, original illustrations for his books, and personal letters.

This kind of show always thrills me. Seeing rough drafts with all their cross-outs and marginalia, reading personal correspondence between Dickens and his illustrator (for Jenny Wren, the dressmaker of dolls in Our Mutual Friend: “A weird sharpness not without beauty, is the thing I want”). Among all this paper, written in his own hand, DICKENS becomes Dickens – a hardworking writer, serious and skilled, slogging it out.

I love hearing about how great writers write so I was excited when I came across a letter Dickens wrote to a young German novelist, Sophie Verena, who dedicated her first novel to him. She must have asked him the usual questions, because here’s what Dickens said to her:

“In reply to your second question whether I dictate, I answer with a smile that I can as soon imagine a painter dictating his pictures. No. I write every word of my books with my own hand, and do not write them very quickly either. I write with great care and pains (being passionately fond of my art, and thinking it worth my trouble), and persevere, and work hard.”

I will remember these words the next time I hear about a writer pumping out 5,000 words a day and it makes me want to die a little.

Dickens has good advice for Sophie about maintaining a work/life balance, a quandary as elusive during the first industrial revolution as it is today:

“You must remember that in all your literary aspiration, and whether thinking or writing, it is indispensably necessary to relieve that wear and tear of the mind by some other exertion that may be wholesomely set against it. Habitually, I have always had, besides great bodily exercise, some mental pursuit of a light kind with which to vary my labors as an Author. And I have found the result so salutary, that I strongly commend it to the fair friend in whom I am deeply interested.”

In other words, work out regularly and pursue a hobby. I’m sure everyone’s mother would agree.

Isn’t it weird when you read stuff about daily life 150 years ago (or a thousand years ago) and it’s just like today? Somehow I expect the passage of time to affect the human condition, but it doesn’t. Our combustion engines and wireless connections and social mores don’t change our basic needs and drives. I bet if I could sit down and chat with a 10th century Viking, we’d have a surprising amount in common.

If I could stand the smell.

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