The serious or the smirk: Charles Dickens in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations

The serious or the smirk: Charles Dickens in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations

Today I return to an old category, Browsing through Bartlett's. For those who aren't yet familiar with such posts, let me explain that my 1955 edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is a frequent source of joy when I'm looking for inspiration about words. As I developed the idea for this category, I decided on three different types of quotations worth sharing: those already familiar to me (and, I hope, to fellow lifelong readers); those I recognize, but hadn't attributed to the correct author; and wonderful turns of phrase I hadn't known, but admire and want to make more familiar.

I confess that among many bookmarks in my copy of Bartlett's, I don't use onefor Charles Dickens (1812-1870  ). After struggling with him at length -- and at length -- early in my school years, I simply gave up on him, apart from the occasional look at "A Christmas Carol" (one of his shorter works). I was not the least surprised to learn that Dickens was often paid by the word.

But then this caught my eye:

"There are only two styles of portrait painting, the serious and the smirk."

--  from "Nicholas Nickelby" (1838-1839), Chapter 10

Immediately after that was a familiar phrase, but one I'd have thought was anyone's work but Dickens:

"Oh! they're too beautiful to live, much too beautiful!"

-- Ibid, Chapter 14

Maybe it's been too long since I read "A Christmas Carol," or maybe it was due to collecting these quotations just after I'd been playing cello. For whatever reason, I have a warning for the next time my cello's out:

"In came a fiddler -- and tuned like fifty stomach-aches."

-- from "A Christmas Carol" (1843), Stave Two

I thought I'd come up with a fine, clear point for the end of this collection. Then this "modern" phrase jumped off of the page of Bartlett's:

"Not to put too fine a point upon it."

-- from "Bleak House" (1852-1853), Chapter 32


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  • The Dickens, you say.

    Also, he seems to have predated Jack Benny by approximately 50 years, even though Benny said he was a violinist.

  • Thanks -- should I call you Jackson in this case? Jack Benny would have loved that quote, I'm sure (or his writers would). It seems that much of the stomachache-style that "Jackson" Benny played was some of his finest acting. I've read that he was much more capable on the violin than he acted being, but there was simply more money in comedy. I'm grateful that he did both!

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Actually, he was Benjamin Kubelski, so that didn't work.

    Most of his "character" was an act. He gave classical violin concerts, was extremely generous because he had the cheap persona, and although it was before my time, really wasn't feuding with Fred Allen. It also appears that when George Burns was a guest. George really did crack Jack up (sort of like Tim Conway and Harvey Korman).

  • In reply to jack:

    OK, we're agreeing that Jack Benny was great and that his violin playing was far better than it appeared on his shows. Thanks for the Tim Conway-Harvey Korman comparison; I understand that better than George Burns making Jack Benny laugh.

  • What would you call that iconic Benny facial reaction? A double take? A deadpan? It always made me laugh.

    BTW, he was a good Polish lad.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Well, more a good Waukegan lad. There is some debate whether the two ethnic or religious groups that lived in the undefined borders of 19th century Poland really got along.

  • In reply to jack:

    I forgot that I should have bolded the Well!.

  • In reply to jack:

    Wait a minute -- wait a minute -- WAIT A MINUTE! Wasn't this about Dickens?

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I think I'd call it a deadpan. Once I finally saw it on TV (long after I found radio reruns, much to my parents' amusement), I thought of it as one expression falling off and nothing being left. (A double take, on the other hand, seems to me to be a sort of second look.)

  • Reading Bleak House was one of the hardest tasks I have ever accomplished. As I said to book club, the first 500 pages were the hardest. I am thrilled that a quote from that tome made it into your post.
    I want to say I remember reading it but, I am not sure I actually do or if I just want to remember.
    Interesting quotes and post all around!

  • In reply to Kathy Mathews:

    Thank you, Kathy, for bringing Dickens back in! This is as much as I've read of "Bleak House," but for me, Waterloo was "Great Expectations." I made it through, with help from a great teacher, and I remember it, but it convinced me of the opinions of Mr. Dickens I wrote above.

  • In defense of Charles Dickens, he tells much of life in 19th century England, especially the poor, of whom most English writers of the day knew and cared little. In the process, he penned a number of quotable descriptions. My favorite is from Chapter 2 of Oliver Twist.

    "So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it."

  • "In came a fiddler...." made me laugh aloud. Although I am quite a reader, I must confess that I have yet to tackle any of Dickens's major works.

    On another note: I think you should take a photo of your 1955 edition of Bartlett's and post it for your readers at some point. Personally, I like to view old editions of favorite books.

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