The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens

“In the autumn month of September, eighteen hundred and fifty-seven, wherein these presents bear date, two idle apprentices, exhausted by the long, hot summer and the long, hot work it had brought with it, ran away from their employer..”

Now doesn’t that sound wonderful?

And doesn’t it become even more wonderful when you know that the employer was literature, and that the two escaping apprentices were a certain Mr Collins and a certain Mr Dickens?

Friends and collaborators who set out on a walking tour, and together wrote a picaresque account of their travels that was published, in five installments, in  Dickens’s weekly periodical, Household Words.

And, some time later, those five installments were put together in this lovely little book.

There is much to enjoy.

The two apprentices both wanted to be idle, but there ideas of just what that meant were rather different.

Mr Francis Goodchild saw idleness as doing nothing useful, wheras Mr Thomas Idle saw idleness as doing nothing whatsover.

And so the natures of the two idle apprentices were wonderful reflections of their creators.

I loved following the ups and down of their relationship as they travelled through northern England. I never doubted that both authors were having a wonderful time, gently caricaturing themselves and their relationship.

And for all that the apprentices may have been idle, they were wonderfully observant, reporting all of the pertinent facts about the journey, the places they visited, the conditions that they saw and the people that they met.

There was beauty, there was drama, and there was concern at the poverty in which many lived in the industrial towns.

And there were ghost stories. The kind of stories that I am quite sure had been told aloud time after time, that I am sure sent a shiver down the spine of anyone who listened.

The two authors brought everything together beautifully.

All too soon the trip was over.

But it was a lovely interlude between bigger books.

Sanctuary by Edith Wharton


I’m delighted to welcome back The Classics Circuit.

Delighted too that Edith Wharton is the subject of this tour. She was one of the first American greats I learned to love. Her novels, set in New York Society at the beginning of the 20th century introduced me to an extraordinary world, and I was won over by her writing style and her wonderful use of dramatic irony.

And the opening line of Sanctuary stunned me.

“It is not often that youth allows itself to feel undividedly happy; the sensation is too much the result of selection and elimination to be within the awakening clutch of life.”

It’s a sad view of the world. And maybe a reminder of just how much the world has changed in the last hundred years or so.

Kate Orme is happy though. She is in love, and all her hopes and dreams are built around one person: her fiancé, Denis Peyton. But there are things she doesn’t know. Things that her elders believe should not be discussed in front of the young.

But Kate finds out. That Denis has done something terribly wrong to protect his family’s position in society. Kate begs him to do the moral thing, to put things right, but he will not. The engagement is broken.

Then she learns that Denis’s family understand and support his actions. And that similar things have happened in her own family.

Kate searches her soul and decides that, although she no longer loves him, she must marry Denis and try to remove the character taint which his yet to be conceived son risks inheriting.

It’s an extraordinary decision. Hard to understand today, but entirely natural given Kate’s moral instinctive moral code- where did that come from I wonder –  and the strictures of the society she lived in.

Had Sanctuary ended then it would have been a striking short story, leaving behind much to ponder. But it went on.

The story is picked up several years later. Kate is a young widow, with a son. She does her best for her son, but the time comes when he is faced with a moral dilemma. What what will he do? Well the clue’s back in that opening line.

It’s much too neat and the second half of the story is rushed and not nearly as accomplished as the first half.

Maybe Sanctuary should have been developed into a novel. With a broader sweep, more depth and more room for character development the results could have been interesting.

As a novella, sadly, it doesn’t quite work.

Mugby Junction by Charles Dickens and others

Mugby Junction“Guard! What place is this?”

“Mugby, Junction, sir.”

“A windy place!”

“Yes, it mostly is, sir.”

“And looks comfortless indeed!”

“Yes, it generally does, sir.”

“Is it a rainy night still?”

“Pours, sir.”

“Open the door. I’ll get out.”

Right from that opening exchange, you know that Dickens is having fun with this work. Not one of the big books, but a serial launched in the Christamas edition of All The Year Round in 1866.

Interesting though that Dickens should choose to make trains his theme less than two years after the Staplehurst Disaster, when the train he was travelling in fell from a viaduct into a river. He and his party escaped injury, and he made efforts to assist the many who were injured and dying. The incident clearly left mental scars.

But Dickens, of necessity, continued to travel. And, of course, trains and the possibilities that they opened up were still relatively new.

The story opens at with an unnamed traveller descending onto an empty, dark platform at Mugby Junction. He took the train to try to escape from his old life and with the intention of alighting at a random station and leaving his future open to chance.

He first strikes up a relationship with Lamps, the station porter, and then with his invalid daughter Phoebe. And he decides to stay in the are a few days, talking to the inhabitants of Mugby about how they came to be there and where they hope to go, as he attempts to reach a decision about which of the seven lines in and out of Mugby Junction he might travell down. Ultimately though, he decides to stay in Mugby.

This framing story is told by Dickens. The small community centred on the station is comes to life, and the prose is peppered with railway rhythms and and expressions. A simple tale packed full of details, and so cleverly executed.

Six short tales follow – two from Dickens and four from other writers – testimonies from the people of Mugby representing the possibilities of the six other routes out of Mugby.

The stories are quite a mixture, covering a wide range of themes but drawn together by the ever-present theme of the railways. The quality is variable, but there is one gem among them – Dickens’ own The Signalman.

The signalman of tells of a ghost that has been haunting him. He receives ghostly signals that nobody else can hear. They foreshadow deaths on the railway, ultimately the signalman’s own. A simple concept but it is perfectly constructed, brilliantly executed and oh so spooky. I read it twice, picking up new things on the second reading, and would be more than happy to go back for a third reading.

Definitely the highlight of an intriguing period-piece.

short story peril

Lady Into Fox by David Garnett


Lady into Fox? Yes – quite literally!

Richard and Silvia Tebick have been married for just a few months and are living quietly in a house on the outskirts of a quiet English village when, suddenly and without warning, Silvia turns into a fox.

At first Silvia is unhappy with her animal form. She tries to walk upright, dress, eat, play cards, wear clothes as she always has.

Over time though, Sylvia’s characteristics become less human and more vixen. Her husband is dismayed and the time comes when he can no longer confine his wife to their house and garden. An unhappy ending seems inevitable.

This would be an easy story to dismiss. Yes, it is absurd. Yes, it is unbelievable.

Somehow though, it works. Why?

David Garnett’s narrative voice is quite perfect. And, though his style is quite matter-of-fact, his story has the sense of a modern myth.

Most of all though, it is because very real emotions shine through. At first the couple’s love holds them together, but as their natures diverge they are both torn between the love that pulls them together and the differing desires that pull them apart.

And so, if you can suspend disbelief, you might just fall in love with this book!

Teaser Tuesdays / It’s Tuesday where are you?


I am at Rylands, near Stokoe in Oxfordshire. Richard and Silvia Tebrick have lived here since they married a few months ago. They are a nice couple and they seem to be very happy, but something seems to be not quite right. They dismissed all the staff a while ago, saying they would be going away, yet they show no sign of leaving. And they haven’t been seen at in the village at all. Of course there may be a perfectly simple explanation.

It’s Tuesday, where are you? is hosted by raidergirl3.


Just quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences the book you’re reading to tempt other readers.

Here is mine:-

“A grown lady is changed straightway into a fox. There is no explaining that away by any natural philosophy.”

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB

This all comes courtesy of Lady Into Fox by David Garnett

Memoirs of a Novelist by Virginia Woolf


This is a slim volume of five of Virginia Woolf’s earliest stories, offering glimpses of the themes and style to come in her later work.

It is a fairly diverse collection, but each story is beautifully drawn and will live on in your mind long after reading.

Phyllis and Rosamond are two of five Victorian sisters. They have been brought up in the expectation that they will marry. There is talk of love, but their place in society is paramount – a good marriage will give them freedom from their family, their own households and a role that they understand. A simple story, but it whets the appetite for what is to come.

The Mysterious Case of Miss V is the story of one of many London society ladies. She attends tea parties, concerts and functions and she always dresses and behaves appropriately, but this conformity serves only to render her invisible. Nobody notices that she is no longer there, that she has been sick and that she has died. This is more a fragment than a short story, but it is a particulary beautiful fragment that rings true.

The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn is by far the longest story in this collection. The narrator, Miss Merridew, is an academic studying the history of land tenure in mediaeval England and building a picture of what life was like then. While travelling through Norfolk visits an old house in the hope of finding more documents to further her research. And she does – masses of them. One document is a diary and in it is recorded the daily life of Joan Martyn, dating back the 15th century. She writes of her impending marriage and her daily life, but much more is going on around her. But while the owner will allow her to study the documents them he will not sell. Miss Merridew wants to build an objective history while he values his own family story. Different approaches to history …..

A Dialogue Upon Mount Pentelicus follows six Englishman on a trip, with local guides, to the mountain of the title. Are they tourists or are they visitors? The distinction is important! There are hints of satire as Woolf makes fun of her protagonists without ever losing her wonderful evocation of the land in which they travel.

Memoirs of a Novelist provides a thought provoking ending to this collection. Miss Willat is the titular novelist and her friend Miss Linsett is her biographer. Miss Willat did not want her life made public, but her friend persuaded her that she should write her biography. Rather than just telling the tale, this story reports on the biography and its writing. And so questions are asked, about the roles of writers of both fact and fiction.

A lovely collection!

Teaser Tuesdays


Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Jenn

Just quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences the book you’re reading to tempt other readers.

Here is mine:-

“There was a sudden twittering in the ivy overhead and a little bird, pushed out of its nest into the cold night air, came fluttering down, and flew against the lighted panes. In an instant, his dog, which had been uneasy at my vicinity before, stood baying in the window, and I only had time to escape and hide myself among the shrubs when he opened it, and stepped out upon the terrace.”

From The Haunted House by Charles Dickens.

It’s a short portmanteau novel, originally published for Christmas 1963 and recently reissured by the wonderful Hesperus Press.

Lesley Castle by Jane Austen


Lesley Castle was my introduction to the wonderful world of Hesperus Classics. Hesperus has republished a wide range of titles, from lesser known works by famous writers through to major works by neglected authors.

This is a beautifully presented book, containing three of Jane Austen’s short early works.

The first is a hilarious sequence of letters, with the correspondents less than mature young ladies. Margaret Lesley, frets about her appearance and social life and grumbles about her new stepmother, while Charlotte Lutterell is concerned with meals and the maintenance of the household and aggrieved that family events disrupt her routine.

The second is an ironic History of England, with little history but much opinion – pro York and Stuart and anti Lancaster and Tudor.

The third, entitled Catharine, comes closest to the themes and style of Jane Austen’s later work. Having lost her two best friends, Catharine has lost her two best friends, but hopes to find friendship with two visitors. Sadly they do not live up to her expectations.

All three pieces are readable, and there are glimpses of the writer that Jane Austen will become, but they read more like test runs than finished works. So this was great fun, but not unmissable.