The Battle of Life (1846)
Per Wiki: “Battle is the only one of the five Christmas Books that has no supernatural or explicitly religious elements. (One scene takes place at Christmas time, but it is not the final scene.) The story bears some resemblance to The Cricket on the Hearth in two respects: it has a non-urban setting, and it is resolved with a romantic twist. It is even less of a social novel than is Cricket.”
Battle is probably my least favourite of the Christmas Books, and it’s easily the one I find it most difficult to talk about. It’s not execrable, it’s just more fairy-taleish and more Christmas-pantomime in its structure, tone and characterisation than the others. Its protagonists are only allowed that ‘principal boy and girl’ level of subjectivity. In a different Dickens work Michael Warden—a rich and slightly dissolute young man who tries to seduce and run away with a young woman, is refused by her after he believes she’s consented and made to genuinely feel the shame of his actions, is compelled by her to participate in a theatrical kind of penance, and who eventually ends up, ‘off stage’, marrying this Marion after all—would be a compelling and fleshed out character, and the eucatastrophe of his ending could be deeply interesting. Length is part of what makes this story melodrama—that, and a lack of interiority. How different from Our Mutual Friend’s false identity and faked death are this story’s more ridiculous developments, really? It’s surprisingly easy to imagine this plot as serious and moving—if Dickens had given it time. But despite starting out his career in the short story format, with few exceptions Dickens can’t entirely bring his talents to bear on anything shorter than a three-volume. I imagine someone at some point or other has thought Dickens would be better for being compressed and curtailed (Graves in The Real David Copperfield, for example), but it turns out that’s entirely wrong: Dickens’ best stuff is in his ‘overflow’ (though I have some other thoughts about whether that excess is mess: I actually think Dickens is fairly micro-level meticulous, and that this often gets overlooked because of the volume, exuberance and colour of his production and imagination).
I am, it seems, not the only person to have thought something like this:
“The novel’s earliest critics found flaws that emphasised its weakness when compared with other of Dickens’s popular works. The Times‘ reviewers summarise the strongest and most bitter of these attacks by way of a description that suggests the book is `intrinsically puerile and stupid,’ `a twaddling manifestation of silliness,’ and `simply ridiculous’ (Ford, 53). Later criticism, although less caustic in tone, recognises that the book’s chief fault was its attempt to tell a tale concerning the complexities of passion and self-denial in three inadequately short chapters. Harry Stone speaks for the majority of readers by referring to The Battle of Life as `a savagely reduced work that sometimes reads like a scenario, sometimes like a breathless outline’ (Stone, 132).
Breathless, no doubt, because Dickens was , at the time of writing the book, engaged on another consuming project: `I am horribly hard at work with my Christmas Book,’ he wrote to Thomas Talfourd from Lausanne where he had sequestered himself in September 1846, `which runs (rather inconveniently) in a Curricle just now, with “Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son” (Letters, IV, 631). Additionally, Dickens was later to admit that his subject had warranted greater development than the scope of a Christmas book would allow. But in satisfying the demand for narrative closure he was haunted by not fulfilling his intention to write what he described to John Forster as `both a love story in the common acceptation of the phrase, and a story about love’ (Letters, IV, 631). The distinction is, as I intend to argue, both exact and essential.”
(The quoted article’s pretty good, by the by, and might warrant your attention. I would say that this:
“Beyond attention to the self-sacrifice is the acknowledgment that the book is commemorative of a real sister, or sister-in-law, Mary Scott Hogarth [Figure 1], who biographers stress held an almost magnetic attraction for Dickens both before and after her death. Biographical readings of the story have to date been preoccupied with the supposedly displaced affection for Mary that the book seems to foreground. Freudian approaches make obvious connections between a story about a man who loves two sisters that was written by a man who loved two sisters. During the narrative one of the two sisters, Marion, performs the obligatory act of self-sacrifice; However, my interest lies in another, less disinterested, aspect of her behaviour, an aspect I might add that the novel avoids fully investigating: her lapse in submitting wholly to the desire of others.”
is interesting because Dickens does marry the older, steady sister, and spends David Copperfield sort of re-negotiating that choice—Agnes performs some Catherine and some Mary functions in the text, which asserts itself grandly to shore up a fictional relationship that’s not very believable, which is itself a synecdoche for real life romantic triangulations that ultimately prove difficult to sustain. David Parker’s words herein about the irreducible nature of Dickens’ affection for Mary are about the first subtle, intelligent things I’ve read on the topic. You could also say something about anabasis in re: Marion’s journey in this, couldn’t you?)
That said, Battle’s plot is not serious or moving as it stands. Two sisters have grown up with a young man, Alfred, a ward of their father, about the place. Both of them love the young man, though the older, slightly plainer sister (Grace) keeps this an absolute secret and stands back while Alfred and Marion, her younger sister, conduct their love affair. Alfred goes off on a three-year tour of foreign schools of medicine, as his now-departed dad asked his guardians to arrange for him, and the very night he returns Marion seems to elope with the aforesaid Michael Warden. It later turns out Marion did absolutely adore her fiancé Alfred, but that she left because her self-sacrificing sister did too. In leaving Marion gave Grace and Alfred time to fall in love and be happily married for a while, and herself time to get over it. So Marion pretends to have ‘eloped’ while actually off living with her aunt. At some point she slips her dad the information that she’s fine, and later on she has Warden come weirdly imply she’s died (Why? It makes sense to generate narrative drama, but not really in-world.) before making her triumphant reappearance on the scene.
The whole end of this deception, and indeed the level of the deception and the theme of stupidly selfless sisterly love, are all turn-offs for me. I’m all for sorority, but the element of the ridiculous grates on my sensibilities. Just bloody write a note. I know it’d make Grace feel bad, but shit, be adults and talk. Interestingly this is just the kind of authorial treatment of people Simon Callow draws our attention to in his biography of Dickens, noting Dickens’ decision not to tell his wife Catherine their daughter had died, but to instead soften the blow by delivering the information in stages. Dickens believes in controlling the narrative, in not telling people things it’d hurt them to know just for the sake of some objective commitment to truthfulness or communication and mutualistic decision making. It’s an interesting argument, but it runs so against contemporary thinking about respecting the agency of your loved ones by giving them all the information, letting them make decisions and supporting them in these. (I am also, incidentally, indebted to Callow for his comments on Dickens’ pantomime-logic in re: the Christmas stories.)
The ball scene in which Alfred is riding ever closer and preparations for the homecoming have been undertaken and anticipation is swelling and the crowd is dancing and Marion is slipping away has an undeniable vigour. This strong set-piece pulls on the emotional energy of something like Cinderella’s half-shod escape from the palace or the revels of the twelve dancing princesses. Or perhaps it’s an adventure story? It feels slightly Baroness Orczy or something (of course whatever Dickens was drawing on would have to be earlier—and, I hope, better (‘cleverest woman in Europe’ my ass, the whole climax of Pimpernel is literally stumbling through brambles right behind a dude for miles, hoping he doesn’t bloody turn around)). The set up of the story’s conclusion mixes, however, an irksome, tedious and unnecessary series of reveals (not a Gallifrey audios level of REVEALS, but more than enough) with this fairy-tale logic: it’s not so happy a marriage as the ones we are told the four young people will henceforth enjoy.
What Battle is a little like, perhaps, is a femme!Two Gentlemen of Verona, which also doesn’t play well for a modern audience. You’re supposed to throw over your romantic object for the sake of your same-sex companionable bond, and then it’s all right in the end: love is transferable, replaceable, assignable, and the neat hand wave of ‘time passed’ is enough to channel all these torrents of feeling to productive and sociable ends. Time heals all wounds, leaving no scars in the form of resentments and longings, making you wonder if the feelings mattered in the first place. Without having inhabited the time-lapse and the psychologies involved, the sacrifices and the growing into new directions and the thoroughly-won forgivenesses and redemptions Dickens loves to write and give audiences in a Christmas book come off thin and cheap—which is especially damaging in a Christmas book, where what you want is a rich, full, sensual experience to compliment the season.
I do love this final paragraph:
“TIME—from whom I had the latter portion of this story, and with whom I have the pleasure of a personal acquaintance of some five- and-thirty years’ duration—informed me, leaning easily upon his scythe, that Michael Warden never went away again, and never sold his house, but opened it afresh, maintained a golden means of hospitality, and had a wife, the pride and honour of that countryside, whose name was Marion. But, as I have observed that Time confuses facts occasionally, I hardly know what weight to give to his authority.”
(Incidentally, how dare Dickens be so young at this point, and have already produced so much? God I hate him. But even in a bad book he still gives me so much—I’m still so happy to be in his writing. He’s hard not to be fond of, once you spend proper time with him.)
The opening of the book is strikingly bleak and interested in long-term change and the continuity of the land. It almost puts me in mind of Alan Garner (ATTN: MAUREEN). I’ll give you the whole of it, you can skim it if you like.
“Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought. It was fought upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a wild flower formed by the Almighty Hand to be a perfumed goblet for the dew, felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day, and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour from harmless leaves and herbs, was stained anew that day by dying men, and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track. The painted butterfly took blood into the air upon the edges of its wings. The stream ran red. The trodden ground became a quagmire, whence, from sullen pools collected in the prints of human feet and horses’ hoofs, the one prevailing hue still lowered and glimmered at the sun.
Heaven keep us from a knowledge of the sights the moon beheld upon that field, when, coming up above the black line of distant rising- ground, softened and blurred at the edge by trees, she rose into the sky and looked upon the plain, strewn with upturned faces that had once at mothers’ breasts sought mothers’ eyes, or slumbered happily. Heaven keep us from a knowledge of the secrets whispered afterwards upon the tainted wind that blew across the scene of that day’s work and that night’s death and suffering! Many a lonely moon was bright upon the battle-ground, and many a star kept mournful watch upon it, and many a wind from every quarter of the earth blew over it, before the traces of the fight were worn away.
They lurked and lingered for a long time, but survived in little things; for, Nature, far above the evil passions of men, soon recovered Her serenity, and smiled upon the guilty battle-ground as she had done before, when it was innocent. The larks sang high above it; the swallows skimmed and dipped and flitted to and fro; the shadows of the flying clouds pursued each other swiftly, over grass and corn and turnip-field and wood, and over roof and church- spire in the nestling town among the trees, away into the bright distance on the borders of the sky and earth, where the red sunsets faded. Crops were sown, and grew up, and were gathered in; the stream that had been crimsoned, turned a watermill; men whistled at the plough; gleaners and haymakers were seen in quiet groups at work; sheep and oxen pastured; boys whooped and called, in fields, to scare away the birds; smoke rose from cottage chimneys; sabbath bells rang peacefully; old people lived and died; the timid creatures of the field, and simple flowers of the bush and garden, grew and withered in their destined terms: and all upon the fierce and bloody battle-ground, where thousands upon thousands had been killed in the great fight. But, there were deep green patches in the growing corn at first, that people looked at awfully. Year after year they re-appeared; and it was known that underneath those fertile spots, heaps of men and horses lay buried, indiscriminately, enriching the ground. The husbandmen who ploughed those places, shrunk from the great worms abounding there; and the sheaves they yielded, were, for many a long year, called the Battle Sheaves, and set apart; and no one ever knew a Battle Sheaf to be among the last load at a Harvest Home. For a long time, every furrow that was turned, revealed some fragments of the fight. For a long time, there were wounded trees upon the battle- ground; and scraps of hacked and broken fence and wall, where deadly struggles had been made; and trampled parts where not a leaf or blade would grow. For a long time, no village girl would dress her hair or bosom with the sweetest flower from that field of death: and after many a year had come and gone, the berries growing there, were still believed to leave too deep a stain upon the hand that plucked them.
The Seasons in their course, however, though they passed as lightly as the summer clouds themselves, obliterated, in the lapse of time, even these remains of the old conflict; and wore away such legendary traces of it as the neighbouring people carried in their minds, until they dwindled into old wives’ tales, dimly remembered round the winter fire, and waning every year. Where the wild flowers and berries had so long remained upon the stem untouched, gardens arose, and houses were built, and children played at battles on the turf. The wounded trees had long ago made Christmas logs, and blazed and roared away. The deep green patches were no greener now than the memory of those who lay in dust below. The ploughshare still turned up from time to time some rusty bits of metal, but it was hard to say what use they had ever served, and those who found them wondered and disputed. An old dinted corselet, and a helmet, had been hanging in the church so long, that the same weak half-blind old man who tried in vain to make them out above the whitewashed arch, had marvelled at them as a baby. If the host slain upon the field, could have been for a moment reanimated in the forms in which they fell, each upon the spot that was the bed of his untimely death, gashed and ghastly soldiers would have stared in, hundreds deep, at household door and window; and would have risen on the hearths of quiet homes; and would have been the garnered store of barns and granaries; and would have started up between the cradled infant and its nurse; and would have floated with the stream, and whirled round on the mill, and crowded the orchard, and burdened the meadow, and piled the rickyard high with dying men. So altered was the battle-ground, where thousands upon thousands had been killed in the great fight.
Nowhere more altered, perhaps, about a hundred years ago, than in one little orchard attached to an old stone house with a honeysuckle porch; where, on a bright autumn morning, there were sounds of music and laughter, and where two girls danced merrily together on the grass, while some half-dozen peasant women standing on ladders, gathering the apples from the trees, stopped in their work to look down, and share their enjoyment. It was a pleasant, lively, natural scene; a beautiful day, a retired spot; and the two girls, quite unconstrained and careless, danced in the freedom and gaiety of their hearts.”
Now, that’s the type of scene Dickens almost never does, isn’t it? The martial conflict? There’s a Christmas story with one (ah, the hilariously-named Richard Doubledick), but that feels as though Dickens is mentally copy-pasting from all the other Tales of Courage and Military Brotherhood stuff he’s read. Fundamentally, Dickens can never wholeheartedly engage in the romance of empire because for all his fuzziness on some matters of history (Chesterton alleges as much, at least), he has a fundamental sense of deep time. Think of the dinosaur opening of Bleak House, which is like Ballard’s Drowned World except it deserves to exist. And here’s this, too. I suspect Dickens can’t emotionally connect to ‘the glory of battle’ because he’s too domestic. He takes the long-view. His mind is on what comes of battles: grief, a mess and eventual healing. It’s interesting that this story is set within such a powerful metaphor for healed internal wounds: it ought to be mimetic for the girls’ pain, first Grace’s and then Marion’s, but these characters are too insufficiently psychologically established to give much payout on that front. Further, this grown-over Flanders Field they live in seems so much BIGGER than Grace and Marion’s heartache. You could say that Dickens wants you to feel their problems as in conversation with the epic, ennobled and made valid because they are real human problems, but if so that kitchen sink naturalism sits awkwardly with his melodrama/fairy-tale storytelling mode.
The moral relativism and nihilism of the girls’ father is, from the beginning, undercut by his actually caring a good deal about Arthur and the girls. The story itself lovingly says as much. (I want to talk sometime about the sense of fondness for characters you can get from Dickens, and how this affects the reading experience.) This treatment is both a great call-out of a certain kind of Deep Thinker and an interesting meditation on what the contemplative life can do to people:
“Doctor Jeddler was, as I have said, a great philosopher, and the heart and mystery of his philosophy was, to look upon the world as a gigantic practical joke; as something too absurd to be considered seriously, by any rational man. His system of belief had been, in the beginning, part and parcel of the battle-ground on which he lived, as you shall presently understand.”
“The Doctor never dreamed of inquiring whether his children, or either of them, helped in any way to make the scheme [of life] a serious one. But then he was a Philosopher.”
“A kind and generous man by nature, he had stumbled, by chance, over that common Philosopher’s stone (much more easily discovered than the object of the alchemist’s researches), which sometimes trips up kind and generous men, and has the fatal property of turning gold to dross and every precious thing to poor account.”
“Dr. Jeddler, in spite of his system of philosophy—which he was continually contradicting and denying in practice, but more famous philosophers have done that—could not help having as much interest in the return of his old ward and pupil as if it had been a serious event. So he sat himself down in his easy-chair again, stretched out his slippered feet once more upon the rug, read the letter over and over a great many times, and talked it over more times still.”
Knowing Dickens’ DEEP love for Shakespeare (which actually—may account for some of the melodrama/fake-death here in Battle, to be honest—perhaps we don’t talk enough perhaps about Shakespeare As Panto/Melodrama, about continuities between him and these later forms of popular theatre), maybe this is a sort of melancholy Jacques turn?
I see I’ve left a note to myself here to ‘rethink this in the morning’. Well, it’s some mornings later, and I suspect that what I meant to say is that while others may have handled the material between Shakespeare and Dickens (melancholy being a fairly popular subject) who the later had read and I have not, it feels possible to me that Dickens, who asserted that Hamlet would absolutely suck to know in life, might be playing with just that here. He could be contending with the slightly elitist contention that the unexamined life is not worth living (who has the luxury of examining their life, and what rhetorica; frameworks do we consider valid in drawing up such accounts?), and also thinking about what life lived according to ideology/the contemplative life is and does to people, in a way not many writers have. I’m sorry, this feels like a huge topic actually, and it seems I’m still having trouble coming to grips with it, so I’m going to back off from it a little.
We talk about Dickens not writing many intellectuals, by the by, but Doctor Jedder should be remembered in the lists, and also you could profitably talk about him in relation to depression (‘thinking of the old ‘un’ as well—though I’ve seen people talk about Mrs Gummidge as depressed). There’s something especially poignant at the present moment about being driven to depression by regarding the present and past with too conscientious and too intelligent an eye. This also makes me think that the ‘existential horror of the 20th century’ crowd should possibly… historically contextualise their claims to a unique modern subjectivity a little more thoroughly, because Jedder’s oppressive awareness of history feels a little like ‘intellectual reactions to the holocaust’.
I love the lawyers in this. There are almost bloody always a suite of lawyers in any given Dickens production. They roll up here named Snitchy and Craggs, “Self and Craggs”, and I’m like here we go again, those names sound evil af, I bet they are about some mischief. But no! surprisingly!
Instead, they do a bit of comedy Chatting Shit About The Amazingness of the Law:
“’With a purpose and intention in it, I was saying,’ resumed Snitchey, ‘that commands respect. Life a farce, Dr. Jeddler? With law in it?’
The Doctor laughed, and looked at Alfred.
‘Granted, if you please, that war is foolish,’ said Snitchey. ‘There we agree. For example. Here’s a smiling country,’ pointing it out with his fork, ‘once overrun by soldiers—trespassers every man of ’em—and laid waste by fire and sword. He, he, he! The idea of any man exposing himself, voluntarily, to fire and sword! Stupid, wasteful, positively ridiculous; you laugh at your fellow- creatures, you know, when you think of it! But take this smiling country as it stands. Think of the laws appertaining to real property; to the bequest and devise of real property; to the mortgage and redemption of real property; to leasehold, freehold, and copyhold estate; think,’ said Mr. Snitchey, with such great emotion that he actually smacked his lips, ‘of the complicated laws relating to title and proof of title, with all the contradictory precedents and numerous acts of parliament connected with them; think of the infinite number of ingenious and interminable chancery suits, to which this pleasant prospect may give rise; and acknowledge, Dr. Jeddler, that there is a green spot in the scheme about us! I believe,’ said Mr. Snitchey, looking at his partner, ‘that I speak for Self and Craggs?’
Mr. Craggs having signified assent, Mr. Snitchey, somewhat freshened by his recent eloquence, observed that he would take a little more beef and another cup of tea.
‘I don’t stand up for life in general,’ he added, rubbing his hands and chuckling, ‘it’s full of folly; full of something worse. Professions of trust, and confidence, and unselfishness, and all that! Bah, bah, bah! We see what they’re worth. But, you mustn’t laugh at life; you’ve got a game to play; a very serious game indeed! Everybody’s playing against you, you know, and you’re playing against them. Oh! it’s a very interesting thing. There are deep moves upon the board. You must only laugh, Dr. Jeddler, when you win—and then not much. He, he, he! And then not much,’ repeated Snitchey, rolling his head and winking his eye, as if he would have added, ‘you may do this instead!’”
But then when Warden shows up to tell them his plan for running off with Marion, they’re not into it. They’re good people and good characters and I love them.
“Snitchey and Craggs had each, in private life as in professional existence, a partner of his own. Snitchey and Crags were the best friends in the world, and had a real confidence in one another; but Mrs. Snitchey, by a dispensation not uncommon in the affairs of life, was on principle suspicious of Mr. Craggs; and Mrs. Craggs was on principle suspicious of Mr. Snitchey. ‘Your Snitcheys indeed,’ the latter lady would observe, sometimes, to Mr. Craggs; using that imaginative plural as if in disparagement of an objectionable pair of pantaloons, or other articles not possessed of a singular number; ‘I don’t see what you want with your Snitcheys, for my part. You trust a great deal too much to your Snitcheys, I think, and I hope you may never find my words come true.’ While Mrs. Snitchey would observe to Mr. Snitchey, of Craggs, ‘that if ever he was led away by man he was led away by that man, and that if ever she read a double purpose in a mortal eye, she read that purpose in Craggs’s eye.’ Notwithstanding this, however, they were all very good friends in general: and Mrs. Snitchey and Mrs. Craggs maintained a close bond of alliance against ‘the office,’ which they both considered the Blue chamber, and common enemy, full of dangerous (because unknown) machinations.
In this office, nevertheless, Snitchey and Craggs made honey for their several hives. Here, sometimes, they would linger, of a fine evening, at the window of their council-chamber overlooking the old battle-ground, and wonder (but that was generally at assize time, when much business had made them sentimental) at the folly of mankind, who couldn’t always be at peace with one another and go to law comfortably. Here, days, and weeks, and months, and years, passed over them: their calendar, the gradually diminishing number of brass nails in the leathern chairs, and the increasing bulk of papers on the tables. Here, nearly three years’ flight had thinned the one and swelled the other, since the breakfast in the orchard; when they sat together in consultation at night.”
“‘I think it will be better not to hear this, Mr. Craggs?’ said Snitchey, looking at him across the client.
‘I think not,’ said Craggs.—Both listened attentively.”
“‘You’ll live to see me making a good use of riches yet. Henceforth the star of my destiny is, Marion!’
‘Take care of the stairs, sir,’ replied Snitchey; ‘for she don’t shine there. Good night!’”
“Mr. and Mrs. Craggs came arm in arm, but Mrs. Snitchey came alone.
‘Why, what’s become of HIM?’ inquired the Doctor [Jedder, their host].
The feather of a Bird of Paradise in Mrs. Snitchey’s turban, trembled as if the Bird of Paradise were alive again, when she said that doubtless Mr. Craggs knew. SHE was never told.
‘That nasty office,’ said Mrs. Craggs.
‘I wish it was burnt down,’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
‘He’s—he’s—there’s a little matter of business that keeps my partner rather late,’ said Mr. Craggs, looking uneasily about him.
‘Oh-h! Business. Don’t tell me!’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
‘WE know what business means,’ said Mrs. Craggs.
But their not knowing what it meant, was perhaps the reason why Mrs. Snitchey’s Bird of Paradise feather quivered so portentously, and why all the pendant bits on Mrs. Craggs’s ear-rings shook like little bells.
‘I wonder YOU could come away, Mr. Craggs,’ said his wife.
‘Mr. Craggs is fortunate, I’m sure!’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
‘That office so engrosses ’em,’ said Mrs. Craggs.
‘A person with an office has no business to be married at all,’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
Then, Mrs. Snitchey said, within herself, that that look of hers had pierced to Craggs’s soul, and he knew it; and Mrs. Craggs observed to Craggs, that ‘his Snitcheys’ were deceiving him behind his back, and he would find it out when it was too late.
At the very same moment Mrs. Craggs was oracular on the cross subject. Was it possible, she said, that Craggs could so blind himself to his Snitcheys, as not to feel his true position? Did he mean to say that he had seen his Snitcheys come into that room, and didn’t plainly see that there was reservation, cunning, treachery, in the man? Would he tell her that his very action, when he wiped his forehead and looked so stealthily about him, didn’t show that there was something weighing on the conscience of his precious Snitcheys (if he had a conscience), that wouldn’t bear the light? Did anybody but his Snitcheys come to festive entertainments like a burglar?—which, by the way, was hardly a clear illustration of the case, as he had walked in very mildly at the door. And would he still assert to her at noon-day (it being nearly midnight), that his Snitcheys were to be justified through thick and thin, against all facts, and reason, and experience?
Neither Snitchey nor Craggs openly attempted to stem the current which had thus set in, but, both were content to be carried gently along it, until its force abated. This happened at about the same time as a general movement for a country dance; when Mr. Snitchey proposed himself as a partner to Mrs. Craggs, and Mr. Craggs gallantly offered himself to Mrs. Snitchey; and after some such slight evasions as ‘why don’t you ask somebody else?’ and ‘you’ll be glad, I know, if I decline,’ and ‘I wonder you can dance out of the office’ (but this jocosely now), each lady graciously accepted, and took her place.
It was an old custom among them, indeed, to do so, and to pair off, in like manner, at dinners and suppers; for they were excellent friends, and on a footing of easy familiarity. Perhaps the false Craggs and the wicked Snitchey were a recognised fiction with the two wives, as Doe and Roe, incessantly running up and down bailiwicks, were with the two husbands: or, perhaps the ladies had instituted, and taken upon themselves, these two shares in the business, rather than be left out of it altogether. But, certain it is, that each wife went as gravely and steadily to work in her vocation as her husband did in his, and would have considered it almost impossible for the Firm to maintain a successful and respectable existence, without her laudable exertions.”
It’s such an odd and lovely eucatastrophe that they should turn out to be so good, and it renders the ending (when, after some years, Craggs has died) actually very affecting:
“Self and Craggs (deceased) took a chop here sometimes, and had it very comfortably served. Mr. Craggs, sir,’ said Snitchey, shutting his eyes tight for an instant, and opening them again, ‘was struck off the roll of life too soon.’
‘Heaven forgive me for not condoling with you,’ returned Michael Warden, passing his hand across his forehead, ‘but I’m like a man in a dream at present. I seem to want my wits. Mr. Craggs—yes – I am very sorry we have lost Mr. Craggs.’ But he looked at Clemency as he said it, and seemed to sympathise with Ben, consoling her.
‘Mr. Craggs, sir,’ observed Snitchey, ‘didn’t find life, I regret to say, as easy to have and to hold as his theory made it out, or he would have been among us now. It’s a great loss to me. He was my right arm, my right leg, my right ear, my right eye, was Mr. Craggs. I am paralytic without him. He bequeathed his share of the business to Mrs. Craggs, her executors, administrators, and assigns. His name remains in the Firm to this hour. I try, in a childish sort of a way, to make believe, sometimes, he’s alive. You may observe that I speak for Self and Craggs—deceased, sir – deceased,’ said the tender-hearted attorney, waving his pocket- handkerchief.”
It’s also almost a joke about Scrooge and Marley, or Dickens’ other shady and unfeeling lawyers who form little part of the community, and whose business relationships are not also personal relationships.
Because the protagonists are somewhat disembodied in Battle, it’s the minor characters who do all the work of appealing to you. (And I want the charm-labour component of that stressed.) The marriage of Clemency and Britain, for example, is winning in a weird way:
“Though the host of the Nutmeg-Grater had a lively regard for his good-wife, it was of the old patronising kind, and she amused him mightily. Nothing would have astonished him so much, as to have known for certain from any third party, that it was she who managed the whole house, and made him, by her plain straightforward thrift, good-humour, honesty, and industry, a thriving man. So easy it is, in any degree of life (as the world very often finds it), to take those cheerful natures that never assert their merit, at their own modest valuation; and to conceive a flippant liking of people for their outward oddities and eccentricities, whose innate worth, if we would look so far, might make us blush in the comparison!
It was comfortable to Mr. Britain, to think of his own condescension in having married Clemency. She was a perpetual testimony to him of the goodness of his heart, and the kindness of his disposition; and he felt that her being an excellent wife was an illustration of the old precept that virtue is its own reward.”
Dickens doesn’t even hate Britain for this, he’s just like lol whatever men. Clemency is great throughout, like a kind of daffy Peggotty. I am apparently not alone in this opinion either: “The character of Clemency Newcome produces the most enjoyable part of the book, many feel she foreshadowed Clara Peggotty in David Copperfield.”
CHARM IN ‘BATTLE OF LIFE’
There should be some charm in the central characters, but they’re not people enough for that, and we don’t feel them as aesthetic objects either. The aforementioned lawyers and servants-cum-innkeepers charm us with their eucatastrophe, their gentle ridiculousness, their idiosyncrasy, and their inherent sensibility and worth as people.
Dickens often establishes charm via a sense of place. It may seem odd that there’s any such thing in Battle, given its apocalyptic beginning, but there’s an Inn in this, and Dickens has A Thing about inns.
“The Nutmeg-Grater Inn
Dickens’ description of the Nutmeg-Grater Inn in The Battle of Life is enough to make any weary traveler yearn for such a comfortable respite:
At such a time, one little roadside Inn, snugly sheltered behind a great elm-tree with a rare seat for idlers encircling its capacious bole, addressed a cheerful front towards the traveller, as a house of entertainment ought, and tempted him with many mute but significant assurances of a comfortable welcome. The ruddy sign- board perched up in the tree, with its golden letters winking in the sun, ogled the passer-by, from among the green leaves, like a jolly face, and promised good cheer.
The horse-trough, full of clear fresh water, and the ground below it sprinkled with droppings of fragrant hay, made every horse that passed, prick up his ears. The crimson curtains in the lower rooms, and the pure white hangings in the little bed-chambers above, beckoned, Come in! with every breath of air. Upon the bright green shutters, there were golden legends about beer and ale, and neat wines, and good beds; and an affecting picture of a brown jug frothing over at the top.
Upon the window-sills were flowering plants in bright red pots, which made a lively show against the white front of the house; and in the darkness of the doorway there were streaks of light, which glanced off from the surfaces of bottles and tankards.”
So what constitutes the charm in this passage? We get colour: contrasts, glints of light in darkness, brightness offset by clean white. Ruddy, golden, green, clear, crimson, pure white, bright green, golden, brown, bright red, white, darkness, light. Other colours are implied but not specifically named: this is a dense, saturated image, like a still of Peter Jackson’s filmic Hobbiton (Tolkien of course owing more to Dickens than he was interested in directly acknowledging). Dickens often does sort of ‘filmic’ writing, and was very interested and involved in theatre throughout his life. Theatrical spectacle often ‘tells’ in his writing. Notice that this is almost starting with an establishing shot. The ‘camera’ then flicks over details: exterior, then ‘visible from the exterior’ windows, then the doorway, then glimpses of that interior. The whole passage is drawing the ‘eye’ onwards and inwards. Entertain, encircle, address, beckon: the verbs of the passage also welcome you, the reader-traveller, in. There are emotional words: jolly, cheer, affecting. These don’t just describe, they insist on your sympathetic response.
There’s food, there are promises of comfort. There’s excess: the brown jug is ‘frothing over’. There is more than enough. ‘Excess’ is perhaps the key Dickensian affective condition: the whole universe of his writing is governed by surplus rather than scarcity. Even his misers have jewels and notes and deeds positively crammed into some chest or other. Here excess generates the feeling of welcome and charm. The commercial enterprise of the inn is demonetised. There is enough for you too, no trouble. The inn’s financial reasonableness is not mentioned: labour is everywhere, but money has ceased to exist, and the transaction is rendered invisible (you could say something there about Silvia Federici and emotional labour and the processes of rendering that work always inexplicit, which would be both pertinent in re: charm in this context and an unfair, Orwellish bad take on Dickens, who is bringing you the LABOUR as well, even here: entertainment, perched, hangings—someone did and is doing all this, and we are also told who and in what manner).
The inn is both natural and the clear and explicit product of (female) labour: ‘snugly sheltered behind a great elm-tree with a rare seat for idlers encircling its capacious bole’, ‘[t]he ruddy sign- board perched up in the tree, with its golden letters winking in the sun, ogled the passer-by, from among the green leaves’, plants in pots on the window sill. This is nature preserved but improved, encircling and sheltering the inn, which both participates in nature and the Victorians’ strict, morally-coded cleanliness, which separates man from dirt until death reunites them, and does so much of the work of class-distinction in anticipation of that eventual equalising oblivion.
Look too at this sly evocation of an English green man: ‘ogled the passer-by, from among the green leaves, like a jolly face, and promised good cheer’. The super-mundane, the canny, here touches the uncanny. There’s something dryad-like and supernatural encircled in and constituted by the man-made quotidian and the natural. Chesterton talks about the nearness of enchantment and the mundane, and it’s probable that he feels this in part due to his long association with Dickens’ work.
There are a few direct uses of the word ‘charm’ in some form or other in this piece:
“Still, Mr. Craggs, without much heeding these remarks, looked uneasily about until his eye rested on Grace, to whom he immediately presented himself.
‘Good evening, ma’am,’ said Craggs. ‘You look charmingly. Your –
Miss—your sister, Miss Marion, is she—’”
The construction strikes me as strange. Craggs is distracted, but also it’s possible this sounded more natural to a Victorian ear. ‘You look charmingly’—a transient, contingent state, how Grace looks done up for the party rather than what Grace is. An action of ‘Grace’, as well: to look Charmingly. There’s something of ‘charisma’, in the Pauline sense, about that. And it’s significant that Craggs is here not lying, exactly, but concealing information about a proposed elopement from someone it will nearly effect: in fact, trying to elicit information about it from her. ‘Charm’ always has some association with fronts, with lies. Here the compliment is itself something of a lie: Craggs possibly doesn’t think this of plainish Grace, and in the moment he’s certainly more preoccupied with worry than charmed by her appearance.
“Nowhere more altered, perhaps, about a hundred years ago, than in one little orchard attached to an old stone house with a honeysuckle porch; where, on a bright autumn morning, there were sounds of music and laughter, and where two girls danced merrily together on the grass, while some half-dozen peasant women standing on ladders, gathering the apples from the trees, stopped in their work to look down, and share their enjoyment. It was a pleasant, lively, natural scene; a beautiful day, a retired spot; and the two girls, quite unconstrained and careless, danced in the freedom and gaiety of their hearts.
If there were no such thing as display in the world, my private opinion is, and I hope you agree with me, that we might get on a great deal better than we do, and might be infinitely more agreeable company than we are. It was charming to see how these girls danced. They had no spectators but the apple-pickers on the ladders. They were very glad to please them, but they danced to please themselves (or at least you would have supposed so); and you could no more help admiring, than they could help dancing. How they did dance!
Not like opera-dancers. Not at all. And not like Madame Anybody’s finished pupils. Not the least. It was not quadrille dancing, nor minuet dancing, nor even country-dance dancing. It was neither in the old style, nor the new style, nor the French style, nor the English style: though it may have been, by accident, a trifle in the Spanish style, which is a free and joyous one, I am told, deriving a delightful air of off-hand inspiration, from the chirping little castanets. As they danced among the orchard trees, and down the groves of stems and back again, and twirled each other lightly round and round, the influence of their airy motion seemed to spread and spread, in the sun-lighted scene, like an expanding circle in the water. Their streaming hair and fluttering skirts, the elastic grass beneath their feet, the boughs that rustled in the morning air—the flashing leaves, the speckled shadows on the soft green ground—the balmy wind that swept along the landscape, glad to turn the distant windmill, cheerily—everything between the two girls, and the man and team at plough upon the ridge of land, where they showed against the sky as if they were the last things in the world—seemed dancing too.”
The association of charm with music and witchcraft is coming through strongly here. I’ve heard it mentioned that this agricultural scene is more drawn from Dickens’ composition environment, rural Italy, than it is an English harvest, and that does make some sense. But the scene still has about it as much of the air of a pre or extra-Christian agricultural ritual as it does a spontaneous display. The very proto-national nature of the dance seems to suggest such pagan connections.
There’s quite a coy game going here with the idea of display. It’s not to be desired, yet Dickens is very much displaying these ‘natural’ young women in a studied way for you. The display can be simultaneously innocent and a bit sexualised: here they are amidst fecundity, in a female space, unaware of your gaze on them. (It’s surprising how often Dickens inserts himself as an authorial figure into female spaces. It often doesn’t feel sexual, voyeuristic: when he talks about his childhood experience of Scheherazade, for example (in “Christmas Tree”), he seems to identify with her, or at least to feel his place is in the harem being menaced by exterior male presences rather than out amongst the menacers.) A ‘finished’ stye of dancing would associate the girls’ action with audience and intent, with sexually appealing to men. This is here rejected, even as that’s part of the process of this passage: to interest the audience, via Grace and Marion’s sexual/marital appeal, in their sexual/marital fates.
The charm of the dance derives from the girls’ pleasure in it, their self-willed vigour. Dickens is always more drawn to passion and feeling than to sophisticated apathy and distance. It’s not about you, not even about the other women watching. Still, conviviality’s important here too, and your helplessness as the unseen spectator to resist the ‘charm’ of their dance is a proof of its power: you’ve been drawn into feeling with them, feeling for them, whether you will or no. This is also what Dickens wants for you as a reader of his text. It’s striking that Grace and Marion are both childlike here in their dance, when Grace’s mothering of Marion is about to distance them beyond the span of years that actually separates them.
I think Dickens must know, in re: “a trifle in the Spanish style, which is a free and joyous one, I am told, deriving a delightful air of off-hand inspiration, from the chirping little castanets”, that he’s talking about flamenco. Flamenco is indeed spontaneous, but the signature ‘duende’ that moves its performers to spontaneous, trace-like physical expressions is typically spoken of in a more serious fashion than this.
Let’s look for a moment at duende (an ‘artistic and especially musical term […] derived from the duende, an elf or goblin-like Magic creature in Spanish mythology’) as an aesthetic concept:
“According to Christopher Maurer, editor of “In Search of Duende”, at least four elements can be isolated in Lorca’s vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is an earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding them that “ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head”; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps them create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca’s lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity, to God-given grace and charm (what Spaniards call “angel”), and to the classical, artistic norms dictated by the muse. Not that the artist simply surrenders to the duende; they have to battle it skillfully, “on the rim of the well”, in “hand-to-hand combat”. To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort. It is, in Lorca’s words, “a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience… the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual.” The critic Brook Zern has written, of a performance of someone with duende, “it dilates the mind’s eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable… There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal…”.
Lorca writes: “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”. He suggests, “everything that has black sounds in it, has duende. [i.e. emotional ‘darkness’] […] This ‘mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains’ is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio’s siguiriya.” […] “The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.” […] “All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.” ”
Duende is STRONGLY identified with the uncanny, and is thus here brought into contact with the canny, the ‘angel’, charisma, the heimlich displayed by these young women. Again, we see the very strong, mutually-constituting relationship between charm and the uncanny. It is really striking that Dickens goes here. Sure it’s an accidental misfire sort of thing, but I’m with Freud on accidents, namely in believing they’re usually pretty fucking significant. ‘Chirping little castanets’ is a sort of cricket on the hearth attempt to domesticate a visceral, sexual, pain-filled art-form. Such an unexpected relationship also serves, perhaps inadvertently, to strengthen Dicken’s association of this ancient battlefield with the current orchard.
Again, the passage is super-adjectival, and again it almost evokes Shakespearean set-pieces: I’d say this was the Branagh/Thompson Much Ado.
Look at the centrifugal motion of this passage, and the way Dickens is creating his signature expansiveness via repetition, building, moving outwards:
Not at all/Not the least
the list of styles of dancing it’s not, piling them
‘and back again, and twirled each other lightly round and round, the influence of their airy motion seemed to spread and spread’
‘the sun-lighted scene’
‘like an expanding circle in the water’
streaming hair/fluttering skirts/elastic grass beneath their feet<— things in motion, rippling out (and not even the grass is harmed, it’s bouncing back)
‘the balmy wind that swept along the landscape, glad to turn the distant windmill, cheerily—everything between the two girls, and the man and team at plough upon the ridge of land, where they showed against the sky as if they were the last things in the world—seemed dancing too.’
Again, we have conviviality: the girls’ charm charms the people watching them, the agricultural proceeding, the world. Private pleasure is irresistibly communicable.
‘Oh, bless you, nothing an’t the matter with me,’ returned Clemency – and truly too, to judge from her well-soaped face, in which there gleamed as usual the very soul of good-humour, which, ungainly as she was, made her quite engaging. Abrasions on the elbows are not generally understood, it is true, to range within that class of personal charms called beauty-spots. But, it is better, going through the world, to have the arms chafed in that narrow passage, than the temper: and Clemency’s was sound and whole as any beauty’s in the land.”
Clemency’s good-will is internal, pressing out: the world cannot get at her, cannot muffle or change her. This encysted quality is somewhat at odds with the charm of people with great sensibility (I haven’t yet exactly worked out the relationship between these forms of charm). And again, Clemency here is presented as outside the marriage market—but in fact her ‘personal charms’, her hard-working abraded elbows and good temper, are about to win her a husband. This also reminds me of a Roald Dahl passage (Dahl is also decidedly an inheritor of Dickens’):