Dating Advice from Dickens: A Collection of Victorian Vignettes
By Michelle Legro
1837 was a good year for Charles Dickens. Sketches by Boz, his collected essays on London life, and the first volumes of The Pickwick Papers were both in circulation, and his publishers were eager to cash in on this rising star with the satiric voice.
The next year, a slim book of short vignettes appeared with the title Sketches of Young Ladies. It had a certain Dickensian flair, each lady named and tagged and organized in an encyclopedia of of feminine characters. Immediately popular, its author was, like Boz, anonymous.
Six months later, another similar book appeared, Sketches of Young Gentlemen, and then another, Sketches of Young Couples, specially timed to Queen Victoria’s 1839 engagement to the future Prince Albert. Also hugely popular, the three sketches were bound up and sold together over the second half of the nineteenth century before disappearing in the twentieth.
But who was the author? There was always “gold to be got out of Dickens,” as one newspaper put it in 1884, but the truth was not revealed until the turn of the century: the first book, Sketches of Ladies, had been written by the young humorist Edward Caswall; the others, Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Sketches of Young Couples, were written, as everyone had expected, by Charles Dickens himself.
All three books were recently resurrected by Oxford University Press as Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Young Couples: With Sketches of Young Ladies by Edward Caswall, revealing a taxonomy of archetypes that is at once amusingly outdated and surprisingly timely.
The “Extremely Natural Young Lady” might be a cousin to today’s manic pixie dream girl:
[She] is always doing some out-of-the-way-thing, that she might appear simple and girlish… She enjoys nothing so much as getting her gown torn and arranging her hair out of doors.
Indeed, Dickens had been inspired by a Dickens stylist — because everything was, and still is, a remix.
The “Petting Young Lady” would no doubt be delighted with today’s cat videos:
Her favorite term for expressing intense admiration is ‘little.’ Thus if she sees a hose which pleases her, she instantly cries out ‘What a dear little horse!’ although the horse be as big as a hay-stack.
The “Manly Young Lady” would surely put you in your place:
In conversation, she is most spectacularly positive, and should you sit next to her at dinner, ten to one but she puts you down half a dozen times at least.
The “Out-and-Out Young Gentleman” had time only for parties:
[He] is employed in a city counting house or solicitor’s office, in which he does as little as he possibly can; his chief places of resort are, the streets, the taverns, and the theaters.
And the “Poetical Young Gentleman” was as you would expect:
He has a great deal to say about the world, and is given much to opining, especially if he has taken anything strong to drink, that there is nothing in it worth living for.
This new collection of Dickens’ Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Young Couples: With Sketches of Young Ladies gives Caswall his due both as a satirist and as an inspiration for one of the nineteenth century’s greatest caricaturists. And though its blend of humor and astute cultural observation captures a bygone era beautifully, its tease-points could easily apply to today’s crop of hipsters, techies, and other social performative roles we all don.
Published April 5, 2012