CHARLES DICKENS «THE TALE OF TWO CITIES»
The Victorian period gave the English language some of its greatest romantic poetry and novels. Charles Dickens, like Shakespeare before him, only intended to write in order to make a good living and please the most number of readers, but the product far exceeded the purpose and many would consider Dickens the foremost novelist of the language. He was not only a great storyteller, but a genius of description, and hie use of English could vary, according to his intent, between powerful literary images and light comic observation... mixing wildly funny passages with sober social realism. Here is the unforgettable beginning of «The Tale of Two Cities»:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was
the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of 'despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
There were a king with a large jaw, and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw, and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loves and fishes, that things in general were settled forever. It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy five.
And listen now to the highly amusing description of Mr. and Mrs. Veneering character from «Our Mutual Friend»:
Mr and Mrs Veneering were brand new people in a brand new house in a brand new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneering was spic-and-span and new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a brand new baby, and, if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.
For, in the Veneering establishment, from the hall chairs with the new coat-of-arms to the grand pianoforte with the new action, and upstairs again to the new fire-escape, all things were in a state of high varnish and polish. And what was observable in the furniture was observable in the Veneering -the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop, and was a trifle sticky.
MARK TWAIN «TOM SAWYER»
This was also the period of America's greatest novelists -Hawthorne, Melville and Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. In this scene from his famous novel «Tom Sawyer», Tom's Aunt Polly has just given him, as a punishment, the task of painting, or rather whitewashing, the garden fence on a day when all the other children in the village of St.Petersburg, Missouri, are free and at play.
Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long handled brush. He surveyed the fence and the gladness went out of nature, and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. He began to think about the fun he had planned for this day and his sorrows multiplied... thirty yards of broad fence four-foot high! Sighing, he dipped his brush in the paint and passed it along the topmost plank.
Thirty yards of broad fence four foot high, Life is just a hollow and a sorrowful sigh, Four foot of broad fence thirty yards long, Life, for me, will always be an off-key song. Just then Jim, the Negro boy who worked for Aunt Polly, came skipping out with a bucket to fetch water from the town pump.
«Say Jim,» said Tom, «I'll fetch the water for you if you'll whitewash some of this fence.»
Jim shook his head and said «Can't, Master Tom, I got to go and got this water.» «Jim, I'll give you a marble if you'll do it.»
Tom considered - was about to consent - but he altered his mind.
«Ho not I reckon that wouldn't do. Aunt Polly's very particular about this fence - right here on the street, you know. I reckon there isn't one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand that can do it the way it's got to be done.» «Oh come on, let me try, only just a little. I'll be just as careful as you will. Say r I'll give you my apple - all of it.» Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart, and while Ben sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat in the shade close by enjoying his apple and planning the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material: boys happened along every little while – they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash and Tom collected payment from each. (The village boys sing «a round" as they paint)
Thirty yards of broad fence four foot high, Painting is a pleasure, makes the time fly by, Pour foot of broad fence thirty yards to go, Life can all be leisure if you make it so.
If he hadn't run out of whitewash, Tom would have bank-ruped every boy in the village.
Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it - namely that in order to make a man or boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain, and that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. This would help him understand why constructing artificial flowers is work, while climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement.
OSCAR WILDE “THE IMPORTANCE
OF BEING EARNEST”
Certainly one of the greatest comedies of the English language was written by an Irishman, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wilde. But like his countryman George Bernard Shaw, he drew his inspiration not from Ireland but from English society. From «The Importance of Being Earnest» here is the famous tea party scene between two young ladies, Cecily and Gwendolen, who discover they are engaged to be married to the same young man. (Garden of the Manor House - July) (Enter Merriman, the butler)
Merriman: A Miss Fairfax has just called to see Mr Worthing. On very important business, Miss Fairfax states.
Cecily: Isn't Mr Worthing in his library?
Merriman: Mr Worthing went over in the direction of the Rectory some time ago.
Cecily: Pray ask the lady to come out here: Mr.Worthing is sure to be back soon. And you can bring tea.
Merriman: yes, Niss. (goes out)
Cecily: Miss Fairfax! I suppose one of the many good elderly women who are associated with Uncle Jack in some of his philanthropic work in London. I don't quite like women who are interested in philanthropic work. I think it is so forward of them.
Merriman: Miss Fairfax.
(Enter Gwendolen. Exit Merriman)
Cecilys: Pray let me introduce myself to you My name is Cecily Cardew.
Gwendolen: Cecily Cardew? What a very sweet name! Something tells me that we are going to be great friends. I like you already more than I can say. My first impression of people is never wrong.
Cecily: How nice of you to like me so much after we have known each other such a comparatively short time. Pray sit down.
Gwendolen: I may call you Cecily may I not? Cecil's With pleasure!
Gwendolen: And you will always call me Gwendolen, won't you? Cecil's If you wish.
Gwendolen: Then that is all quite settled, is it not? Cecil's I hope so. Gwendolen! Perhaps this might be a favourable opportunity for my mentioning who I am. My father is Lord Bracknell. You have never heard of papa, I suppose? Cecil's I don't think so.
Gwendolen: Outside the family circle papa, I am glad to say is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don't like that. It makes men so very attractive. Cecily, mamma, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely shortsighted, it is part of her system, so do you mind my looking at you through my glasses?
Cecily: Oh! not at all, Gwendolen. I am very fond of being looked at.
Gwendolen: (after examining Cecily carefully through a lorgnette) you are here on a short visit, I suppose.
Cecily: Oh no! I live here.
Gwendolen: Really? Your mother, no doubt, or some female relative of advanced years resides here also?
Cecily: Oh no! I have no mother, nor, in fact, any relations.
Cecily: My dear guardian, with the assistance of Miss Prism, has the arduous task of looking after me.
Gwendolen: Your guardian?
Cecily: Yes, I am Mr Worthing' s ward.
Gwendolen: Oh! It is strange he never mentioned to me that he had a ward. How secretive of him! He grows more interesting hourly. I am not sure, however, that the news inspires me with feelings of unmixed delight. I am very fond of you, Cecily; I have liked you ever since I met you! But I am bound to state that now I know that you are Mr Worthing's ward, I cannot help expressing a wish you were - well, just a little older than you seem to be - and not quite so very alluring in appearance. In fact, if I may speak candidly.
Cecily: Pray do! I think whenever one has anything unpleasant to say one should always be quite candid.
Gwendolen: Well, to speak with perfect candour, Cecily, I wish that you were fully forty-two, and more than usually plain for your age. Ernest has a strong upright nature. He is the very soul of truth and honour. Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception. But even men of the noblest possible
moral character are extremely susceptible to the influence of the physical charms of others. Modern, no less than Ancient History, supplies us with many most painful examples of what I refer to. If it were not so, indeed, History would be quite unreadable.
Cecily: I beg your pardon, Gwendolen, did you say Ernest?
Cecily: Oh, but it is not Mr Ernest Worthing who is my guardian. It is his brother - his elder brother.
Gwendolen: Ernest never mentioned to me that he had a brother.
Cecily: I am sorry to say they have not been on good terms for a long time.
Gwendolen: Ah! That accounts for it. And now that I think of it I have never heard any man mention his brother. The subject seems distasteful to most men. Cecily, you have lifted a load from my mind. I was growing almost anxious. It would have been terrible if any cloud had come across a friendship like ours, would it not? Of course you are quite, quite sure that it is not Mr Ernest Worthing who is your guardian?
Cecily: Quite sure. In fact, I am going to be his.
Gwendolen: I beg your pardon?
Cecily: Dearest Gwendolen, there is no reason why I should sake a secret of it to you. Our little country newspaper is sure to chronicle the fact next week. Mr Ernest Worthing and I are engaged to be married.
Gwendolen: My darling Cecily, I think there must be some slight error. Mr Ernest Worthing is engaged to me. The announcement will appear in the «Morning Post» on Saturday at the latest.
Cecily: I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest proposed to me exactly ten minutes ago. (shows diary) It's here in my diary.
Gwendolen: (examines diary through her lorgnette carefully) It is very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5.30, If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so. (produces diary of her own) I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. I am sorry, dear Cecily, if this is any disappointment to you, but I am afraid I have the prior claim.
Cecily: It would distress me more than I can tell you, dear
Gwendolen: if it caused you any mental or physical anguish, but I feel bound to point out that since Ernest proposed to you he clearly has changed his mind.
Gwendolen: If he poor fellow has been entrapped into any foolish promise I shall consider it my duty to rescue him at once, and with a firm hand.
Cecily: Whatever unfortunate entanglement my dear boy may have got into, I will never reproach him with it after we are married.
Gwendolen: Do you allude to me, Miss Cardew, as an entanglement? You are presumptuous. On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind. It becomes a pleasure.
Cecily: Do you suggest, Miss Fairfax, that I entrapped Ernest into an engagement? How dare you? This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.
Gwendolen: I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.
(Enter Merriman, carrying tea on a tray)
Merriman: Shall I lay the tray here as usual, Miss?
Cecily: Yes, as usual.
Gwendolen: Are there many interesting walks in the vicinity, Miss Cardew?
Cecily: Oh, yes! a great many. Prom the top of one of the hills quite close one can see five countries.
Gwendolen: Five countries! I don't think I should like that; I hate crowds.
Cecily: I suppose that is why you live in town. May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?
Gwendolen: Thank you. Detestable girl! But I require tea!
Gwendolen: No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more. (Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup)
Cecily: Cake or bread and butter?
Gwendolen: Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen in the best houses nowadays.
Cecily: (cuts a very large slice of cake and puts it on the tray)
Hand that to Miss Fairfax.
(Merriman does so. Gwendolen drinks the tea and makes a grimace, puts down cup at once, reaches out her hand to the bread and butter, looks at it, and finds it is cake)
Gwendolen: You filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake. I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warm you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far.
Cecily: To save my poor, innocent, trusting boy from the machination of any other girl! There are no lengths to which I would not go.
Gwendolen: From the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt that you were false and deceitful. I am never deceived in such matters. My first impressions of people are invariably right.
Cecily: It seems to me, Miss Fairfax that I am trespassing on your valuable time. No doubt you have many other calls of a similar character to make in the neighborhood.