‘In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark Bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.’ The sinister search on the water has begun, and the first chapter of Dickens’ sinister masterpiece. We find ourselves on the water, and muddy water is to trickle and seep through all the following pages. The two figures in the boat are Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie. Lizzie shows a strong dislike for her father’s occupation, which is that of robbing the pockets of drowned men. Gaffer remonstrates with her in such terms as these: ‘How can you be so thankless to your best friend [the river], Lizzie? The very fire that warmed you when you were a baby was picked out of the river alongside the coal barges. The very basket that you slept in, the tide washed ashore. The very rockers that I put it upon to make a cradle of it, I cut out of a piece of wood that drifted from some ship or another.’ Such rhetoric from the mouth of a man who is pictured as the roughest of waterside scavengers is likely to seem to us, in our day, as Dickens at his most improbable. And when his daughter answers in speech of even greater refinement and purity of grammar, the question arises: How realistic did the works of Dickens seem to his contemporary Londoners?
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