Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Boreham and His Literary Models Part 4: Dickens

We have spent a lot of time and words in the last few postings discussing the ways that Charles Dickens influenced the writing and preaching of F W Boreham. This has been intentional because of the immense love that Boreham had for the books of Dickens (he read them all twice), the number of references to Dickens in Boreham’s books, the way Boreham saw many aspects of himself mirrored in Dickens’s life and the fact that Charles Dickens was the greatest shaper of Boreham’s literary approach. Here is the final posting on this literary model of F W Boreham:

Retentive Memory
Mention has often been made of “the extraordinary and capacious memory”[1] that Dickens possessed which astonished people “to note how at a first glance Dickens was able to assimilate and remember all the details of even a complicated scene”.[2] This gift aided his mental organisation and heightened his ability to express an image in words with freshness so that readers felt they were seeing it for the first time. Boreham similarly possessed an unusually retentive memory that enabled him to speak for a long time without notes, dispense with filing cabinets[3] and replay entire cricket matches in his mind.[4]

Power of Observation
He expressed admiration for Edmund Burke’s ability to paint a scene with words, when he wrote, “It seemed incredible that one who would speak with such picturesque realism had never actually witnessed the scenes that he so vividly and tellingly described.”[5] This power of observation was not only affirmed in others but became richly developed in Boreham, for his writing consistently revealed a fertile imagination and the rare ability not only to visualise a scene but to portray it as a skilled photographer or artist.[6] In an article about Boreham’s excellence in photography, religious editor, Laurence Rowston, says, “He really saw life. It was as if he saw life through a camera lens which concentrates on its subject and ignores the rest”.[7]

Love of Detail
While Walter Bagehot expressed amazement at the amount of detail in the novels of Charles Dickens, believing that “laughter-causing detail is Mr Dickens’ most astonishing peculiarity”,[8] other critics like George Orwell have written about Dickens’ “unnecessary detail”.[9] Boreham appreciated interesting detail in literature and sought to make this a feature of his own writing. He argued that attention to detail was a talent often found in skilful journalists, like the journalist and novelist, Daniel Defoe:

Why do boys take Robinson Crusoe so warmly to their hearts? It is because, in a journalistic way, Defoe is always giving us the small details; he tells us the very things that a boy is curious to know. He explains how many biscuits Crusoe ate, how he built his raft, and what the parrot talked about.[10]

Quaint and Whimsical
Boreham’s vivid imagination, whimsical mind and adventurous expression led him to write things to startle his readers and this approach caused reviewers to describe his writing as “unconventional and full of originality”.[11] His passion for unusual detail was also an important technique that made his stories arresting and often quaint. This was evident in his editorials about the successful Member of Parliament who could not muster the courage to address the House,[12] the worshipper so bored with church music that he wrote his own hymns[13] and the famous botanist who wore a thick scarf around his neck in Melbourne’s scorching heat.[14] It is interesting to note the modern American historian and Pulitzer Prize winner, Barbara Tuchman, pleading that historians and journalists might learn the discipline of supplying “corroborative detail” or writing “history by the ounce”. Her views amplify Boreham’s contention that such detail not only ensures that writers “cleave to the truth” but is often the element that makes writing “excel, [makes it] vivid and memorable”.[15]

Summary of Dickens’ Influence on F W Boreham
The spell cast by Dickens upon Boreham in his childhood convinced the emerging writer of the magical powers of stories to entertain and instruct. Sharing a shy temperament and training in journalism strengthened the affinity that Boreham felt toward Dickens. The master modelled a passion and a discipline for writing, an experimentation in a variety of genre and an enormous output that inspired Boreham in his career. Dickens’ popularity, which arose from his resolve to address the everyday things of life, shaped Boreham’s decision to address ordinary matters and to give to humdrum issues a certain dignity and to his writing a sense of reality. Dickens and Boreham both possessed a retentive and imaginative memory that was reflected in similar writing styles that were dramatic, filled with concrete images and a journalistic detail that was fascinating and sometimes quaint.

One cannot overestimate the influence of Charles Dickens on Boreham’s writing style.

Geoff Pound

Image: Charles Dickens

[1] Peter Ackroyd, Introduction to Dickens, 4.
[2] Ackroyd, Introduction to Dickens, 5.
[3] T Howard Crago, The story of F W Boreham, 91.
[4] Boreham, The last milestone, 7.
[5] Boreham, Mercury, 12 January 1946.
[6] Boreham writes about his ‘dabbling in photography’ in F W Boreham, The nest of spears (London: The Epworth Press, 1927), 176.
[7] Laurence F Rowston, ‘Life through a lens’, Tasmanian Advance, March 1993.
[8] Bagehot, ‘Charles Dickens’, 85, 91.
[9] George Orwell, ‘Charles Dickens’, in The collected essays, journalism and letters of George Orwell, eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, vol. 1 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), 450.
[10] Boreham, Mercury, 26 April 1947.
[11] Australian Baptist, 6 May 1913.
[12] Boreham, Mercury, 1 May 1948.
[13] Boreham, Mercury, 25 November 1944.
[14] Boreham, Mercury, 6 October 1946.
[15] Barbara Tuchman, Practising history (London: Papermac, 1981), 33-34.