Notes on Dickens’ “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners” (1857)

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The Perils of Certain English Prisoners

* God, where to start.

* For an incredibly prolific 19th c British writer, Dickens has relatively few moments of racism to his discredit. I don’t say that to baby him, but because I think it would impoverish our reading not to say it. I’m not going to link it here, but before I sat down to do this I was glancing at a not-great treatment of Dickens and racism, summarising the course of thinking on the subject. (Wiki, obviously.) I think people think it’s productive in this sort of summary of scholarship, and perhaps in the scholarship itself, to be really reductive here: that nuance would be compromising. But I don’t think that actually serves criticism or a historical understanding of the mechanisms of empire. I believe we need to be very, very fair to 19th c writers and the complexity of their thought so that we can discuss how it’s still deeply problematic. I felt like Grace Moore (Dickens and Empire) was doing real work to that end. I’ve not read her book, but from these notes on her conclusions she seems to care about contexts and psychology… at all.

Otherwise… scholarship isn’t Tumblr. This is the space for academia to dig deep and show how racism gets enabled and built and how it’s still happening. I really question the strategy and motives behind a treatment so reductive it pretends Dickens was responding to India’s First War of Independence/‘the Sepoy mutiny’ in a vacuum, without a huge swell of popular opinion informing his thinking and, on a personal level, a son in the armed forces, serving in India directly after the events. I really question a treatment that thinks an angry, heat of the moment, private letter to a friend represents one’s settled opinion on anything—my god. And separately, covering someone’s reactions to a news-item about cannibalism, wherein they blamed a hostile attack force rather than accept that a party of explorers had been poorly prepared and resorted to eating each other, with no reference to the deep cultural taboos surrounding cannibalism (and with no thought about how deeply this particular person, with his fanatical, almost desperate humanism, would have feared and felt threatened by the idea of such a turn of events), strikes me as so pointless. What wasted ink.

Obviously I have time for the Inuit in question being pissed about this, but scholarly coverage of the incident can acknowledge and honour the absolute justice of Inuit anger and simultaneously look at the context the statements were made in, or what is it good for?

You could say the source texts do better than the summary (which, let’s face it, is also a document by a professional Dickens scholar—who do you think writes that Wiki page, yer da?), and I’m sure they do. A bit. But I also feel like I got the gist of these arguments, and that frankly, they suck.

When is the call out useful, and when is it no longer the appropriate tool? When are often-WASP scholars Spotting/Debunking Daddy for other reasons? I don’t know, I’m looking at a weak-ass discussion of anti-semitism in Dickens and thinking

1. up your reading comprehension game at any time, and

2. as a Jewish woman threatened by the rise of international neo-fascism, THIS DOES SHIT FOR ME. If you want your historical Oliver criticism debate I guess you can have it, but in terms of staging this now, I feel like it’s fucking Case Closed, and this research summary wants to Teach the Controversy.

I know I’m Freudian and retro, but I do honestly think people can have a lot invested in ‘but he wasn’t all good!’ hot takes, and that we need to interrogate the smug complacency of our own neoliberal moment there and also ask, constantly and rigorously, why do we want this? What do we get from it? We have to ask that as rigorously and ruthlessly as we interrogate our desire for unblemished heroes, and to locate where we are, as social and psychological actors, in these analyses.

So, what do we want? Who is this for? What does Jane Smiley get from the assertion that “we should not interpret [Dickens] as the kind of left-liberal we know today-he was racist, imperialist, sometimes antisemitic, a believer in harsh prison conditions, and distrustful of trade unions”[7]? I like Smiley—I attended a very engaging lecture by her, and we’re from all the same places. But frankly, that’s a shitty historical condensation, and it’s fairly embarrassing. I could go into the details, but like—mister prison reform? ‘Let’s publish North and South for a huge national audience’ dude? It’s a lot more fucking nuanced than that. Racist compared to what? Where are we locating that? Also what do you want, for time not to have passed and all these conversations not to have changed? And for the love of god I am over the anti-semitism thing. I am over it! BECAUSE I HAVE READ OUR MUTUAL FRIEND SO. WE’RE FUCKING GOOD. Saying he’s ‘sometimes’ anti-Semitic is such a fucking mis-characterisation of the whole field research/Eliza Davis situation. It’s like how Pound never gets nailed for anti-semitism (it’s a footnote) but GK ‘guys I take a lot of it back’ Chesterton unfailingly does (it’s a conversation-ender, a legacy-killer, despite his frankly admirable clarification-cum-major-walk-back in the early ‘30s). Some of this is so obstinately stupid and so utterly unhelpful to activism and to scholarly appraisal alike that I am furious thinking about it.

All that said, I’m pissed with Dickens for writing a fairly racist short story here. It’s hurtful, it’s short-sighted, it’s angrier than it is kind, it’s not particularly good, and it is beneath him.

Here are some of the problems in play:

1. The way Dickens talks about Christian George King is sort of how he talks about some white people. But because it’s racialized, it’s doing more, both then and now. That’s irreducible. We’re in the territory of ‘punching down’ humour with this discussion (though Dickens predominately punches up). Christian George King writhes, and he smiles in your face while plotting to destroy you, and how different is that really from Uriah Heep? But it is, because it reflects on King’s blackness in a way Heep’s perfidy is never allowed to reflect on his marked othering characteristic, his class (it’s charity schools that are toxic, it’s not necessarily even Heep himself’s soul—in fact, due to how doubled with David and Steerforth Heep is, to a degree we’re supposed to view Heep’s position as contingent, ‘there but for the grace of god’). There’s something interesting in the huge problem of King’s character being falsity: engendering trust to betray it. It’s big and Shakespearian (and Dickens is a giant Shakespeare fanboy who draws on the playwright with confidence–he gives a towering, unsettling Shakespeare villain speech to Heep for example at the end of “Explosion”, letting his antagonist win that argument–so what does it mean for him to give that kind of backing to King?) but we don’t get much time with it.

2. Genre is also constructing the piece’s racist underpinnings. Dickens is writing a pirate adventure, and just as a Western brings in troubling Native American issues because they’re foundational to the genre, the set-pieces of 19th c pirate adventure are kind of fundamentally racist (though I think we talk about this less). We do get a big crew of pirates, and of the principals only King is explicitly black, I think? The captain is European (Portuguese), and his seeming right-hand man is explicitly an English escaped convict. Our protagonist tells the civilians not to trust any of the mixed black and native american villagers King is one of during the pirates’ raid on the colony, but this is a heat of the moment response to what’s going on: it’s not clear whether the villagers actually are all in league with King and the pirates. (Also, they’re Native American and black: their very make-up tells a story of white transportation and exploitation, probably via slavery: their existence here is historically contingent and ethically implicating, especially given Dickens’ hard anti-slavery stance.)

This story is doing strange, strange things with ridiculous colonial mismanagement and wrong-doing. An incompetent boob is in charge of the English settlers. Before we come on the scene, he’s gotten the former leader of King’s people drunk and coerced him into signing the legal title to the island over to the English. This ass has been rewarded for his con with his current job.

The story knows this guy is awful and shouldn’t lead so much as a horse to water. It’s built in a strong Caliban grievance for King, made the pirates multi-racial and given big villainous roles to an Englishman and a Portuguese man. It’s locating racialized dislike of King in its narrator-protagonist, a lower-class white man with a lot of anxiety about his ignorance and status and a lot of hostility to everyone at large. There’s also a strange moment when the narrator and King are working on a project together and the narrator feels he could like King.

“A quick sort of council was held, and Captain Maryon soon resolved that we must all fall to work to get the cargo out, and that when that was done, the guns and heavy matters must be got out, and that the sloop must be hauled ashore, and careened, and the leak stopped. We were all mustered (the Pirate-Chace party volunteering), and told off into parties, with so many hours of spell and so many hours of relief, and we all went at it with a will. Christian George King was entered one of the party in which I worked, at his own request, and he went at it with as good a will as any of the rest. He went at it with so much heartiness, to say the truth, that he rose in my good opinion almost as fast as the water rose in the ship. Which was fast enough, and faster.”

There’s so much there. This isn’t a ‘they’re just evil!’ explanation for King’s betrayal. We’re told the English colonists ‘treat the villagers kindly’, but Dickens is elsewhere a thorough thinker on the ways charity can patronise and infantilize and a ruthless critic of self-serving, insufficient, interfering ‘beneficence.’ What does it mean that the governor is utterly undeserving of respect? How much of the story’s racism is just the pov of the narrator character—but to what extent is that ‘okay’ even if it is? What does it mean that the protagonist’s anxieties are a very real route misanthropic and racist thinking take? That’s well-observed, if nothing else.

I think it means something that this story is smarter than itself. It has the seeds of its critique right there. You almost expect the “Nobody’s Story” ‘actually you brought this on yourself at every point’ turn, or the balancing ‘good’ native character. It almost feels like more of a betrayal when nothing like that materialises.

3. Dickens is good on injustice when he understands it intimately, but not as good when he’s not thinking/doesn’t know he situation up close. He has to be in there to smell bullshit, though no one is better at unpacking bullshit and examining it from every angle. But Dickens’ words have a longer reach than that of an ordinary man, did then and do now, and so in a way less clemency can be extended to him on this point.

4. This is deeply, deeply about India’s First War of Independence/‘the Sepoy mutiny’, and in complicated ways. It was written in reaction to that still-current conflict. I can’t summarise British reaction to that event–I keep thinking of the massive paintings in the Tate Modern’s poorly constructed Empire exhibition last year. Here’s a piece you could read, if interested, that covers this positioning to a limited extent while chiefly outlining the piece’s South American imperial context. There’s a lot of historical background in play, and you really need a paper to unpack England’s reaction to the ‘mutiny’, without which Dickens’ personal reaction and this story’s position as a comment on those events can’t hope to be understood.

I also read some stuff on this story and imperialism as a class tension safety valve.  Admittedly I was just skimming, but I didn’t find it very convincing. There doesn’t seem to be that much work on “Perils”.

He needed called on this. Just all of it. Because he has the unusual and great talent of being good at apologising and changing his mind, and he has some perfectly acceptable characters of colour elsewhere (we could debate whether some of the people I’m thinking about are PoC, but that’s a different question). Just last Christmas story there was a black servant (Dickens certainly has a wealth of white ones) who we hear no ill of while a white guy flips out and is a total asshole. Admittedly we don’t know much about Snow. He’s not a great, complex figure or anything. But his presence hints at Dickens’ capacity for a diversity of portrayals and a greater fairness on this point.

So: he can do this. It would have been worth calling him out in 1857. How did no one tell him he was talking shit? Again, I think we’re back at popular opinion in that moment, both in terms of general Victorian literary racism and the response to the ‘Sepoy uprising’. Maybe no one we have a record of thought he was full of it here?

I don’t need writers to be perfect and incongruously contemporary in their beliefs and political expressions, but this does disappoint me deeply. Yet I also know I need to have a wary critical relationship with this writer that doesn’t justify his fuckups. In a way the danger of Dickens’ activism is that it promises you the moon. The danger to the reader of Dickens’ craving to be the ‘shadow at your shoulder’, a presence you feel as you interact with his work, a person you know and like and trust, is the erosion of distance between you and him, and an ensuing desire to excuse his faults, to swap his good qualities for his bad like you’re trying to make an equation balance and/or to hide his shortcomings. I know I experience these urges, but I’m not wholly prepared to eliminate the feeling of broad sympathy his work engenders to chase a general objectivity for purity points (it’s not like you can Win Academia anymore—what jobs?). I think it’d make me less responsive to the work, and again, I question the motives of doing it (oh god I’m the fucking Wickfield). But I guess a piece like this serves as a reminder of the dangers of fondness, and a warning not to get too close, not to let Dickens (who may well be constantly working to do it) absorb you.

* As was Dickens’ stated purpose, this story gives us quite good ‘women in action’. They’re practical, courageous and efficient as well as good-hearted. So this odd little paean to imperialism, which I find at odds with the general tenor of his work, is also surprisingly white-feminist. Make of that what you will.

* It’s not even a great naval adventure—I’d rather read Forester for this and get my dubious Imperial jollies that way.

* The ‘WERE THEY HIDEOUS PIRATES? No they were the rest of our party’ fake out is a bit fun. Idk, I’m not rag-picking for treasures and lost wills in this trash-heap, it feels gross to do it. I haven’t th heart.

* That is such an odd ending. I was expecting a romantic conclusion, and we instead get this muddled weirdness about how people tried to promote the narrator (who gets lavishly praised in the story, though I’m not exactly sure why, given that most of the people involved seem to have worked about equally hard) but it didn’t work that well because he’s not bright. The romantic interest married someone else, and he’s telling her about the course of their shared adventures and his long love for her when they’re very old. We’re told he’s happy not without her in a rushed and under-explained way.

I was brought so low by all this that I briefly wondered whether Robert Graves was right and Dickens has a Thing about lower class men marrying up, and tries to put it down in fiction. Fortunately I remembered Graves is never right, as well as several examples of just this happening in Dickens. But nothing fixes this strange end to a regrettable story that I generally wish did not exist.

Charm words: 0

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Notes on Dickens’ “The Wreck of the Golden Mary” (1856)

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The Wreck of the Golden Mary

* I don’t have that much to say about this one. It’s hard to guess what the whole looked like, other than probably ‘not like this’? I’ve glanced at someone else’s summary, and they do get rescued, as I expected.

* This story’s grim. The fall from the high energy, jolly beginning feels almost like a betrayal. I wasn’t really expecting the child Lucy’s death, and I wasn’t really expecting the captain’s apparent demise, or where we’re left in the narrative (at least when it’s published in this form, which has a legitimate existence in its own right, as I think Dickens revised it as an independent piece for collected editions of his work).

* The narration flip from the Captain to the first mate and the matter of the shoes (the Captain has been without them since the wreck, hiding the problem and getting dangerously sick because there was nothing to be done) feels like a doubt-twist ending. It’s a small thing but also fairly powerful that, from the captain’s own account, we didn’t know about his suffering. It’s a gesture at once schmaltzy and subtle. This feels like something Dickens would normally do from the outside, as it were, but here it’s leant a kind of shocking power because of our hitherto apparently transparent relationship with the captain’s pov. We can suddenly abandon that close pov, entering a sort of epistolary log from the mate, and the Captain can have been withholding information from us.

* This is the first time we’ve been embedded in one of these Christmas stories where the sustained interiority has felt fairly distinct from Dickens’ own, and has been supported in a convincing character with a different backstory and general perspective.

* Maybe in a sense “The Wreck of the Golden Mary” is about living well under awful conditions and, if it comes to it, dying well. Even if the story “really” rescues them, it can’t save Lucy (and it possibly can’t save the Captain), and it’s still brought them to the brink, and thus pushed us into thinking about what it is to die decently in circumstances of extreme deprivation. That would still, in a strange way, be consistent with his broader redemptive Christmas story project.

* Steadiman is such a morality play name.

* Rarx is interesting (again, what a name for a vile, avaricious man!), I bet he does more in the full version.

* I’ll include Callow’s thoughts on this here:

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Charm words: 1

I proposed that, whenever the weather would permit, we should have a story two hours after dinner (I always issued the allowance I have mentioned at one o’clock, and called it by that name), as well as our song at sunset. The proposal was received with a cheerful satisfaction that warmed my heart within me; and I do not say too much when I say that those two periods in the four-and-twenty hours were expected with positive pleasure, and were really enjoyed by all hands. Spectres as we soon were in our bodily wasting, our imaginations did not perish like the gross flesh upon our bones. Music and Adventure, two of the great gifts of Providence to mankind, could charm us long after that was lost.”

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Notes on Dickens’ The Holly-Tree Inn (1855)

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The Holly-Tree Inn (1855)

* Nominally, this is a story about a young man who throws a paddy because he believes his best friend and his finance are into one another. (“From our school-days I had freely admitted Edwin, in my own mind, to be far superior to myself; and, though I was grievously wounded at heart, I felt the preference to be natural, and tried to forgive them both.”) We must assume that his evidence for throwing said paddy was circumstantial, given that we later learn Edwin was actually gunning for the finance’s live-in cousin. The (nameless, I think) narrator has nonetheless decided, on the strength of this supposition, to abandon his life and make for America. He’s got time to kill before the ship sails, and so he decides to go north, where he gets snowed in at the titular inn. He spends a shitty Christmas alone, then seeks out stories from the inn’s other inhabitants and has a better time listening to these and bonding with the tale’s tellers before fortuitously running into the Happy Ending in the form of Edwin and Cousin, en route to Gretna Green. This final reversal isn’t hugely comic, but it’s pleasing.

* What we actually get is a bit of frame narrative, enlivened by a strong snowy coach sequence and a fun description of the vast fucking freezing room the narrator’s staying in, succeeded by an essay reminiscent of Dickens’ first two Christmas pieces for HW. This is followed by Dickens’ short story, and some other short stories by other writers, and then the whole is bookended by a tail bit of frame-narrative.

The ‘recollections of various inns’ are just Dickens. This (presumably) young male narrator is probably not possessed of a mysterious knowledge of everywhere Dickens himself has been. He’s a bit young to be such a world-traveller, and his description of American inns sits oddly with his final “I never went to America”. Yes, he could simply refer to the abandonment of his current scheme to emigrate, but I think it makes more sense to view this as ‘basically another essay’, tucked into a  kind of disposable frame narrative/scenario. (The cold room also feels rather Drawn From Life.) Dickens spends some pages giving us his more interesting Bill Bryson before he gets bored of it and moves on.

* The ‘reminiscences of inns’ section whirls you through various scenes and even various story-telling modes: there’s something of a folk tale/Christmas ghost story/true crime anecdote of a cock crowing out a murderer’s guilt.

There are also:

– a creepy druid

  great bitchy remarks on American mega-hotels that ring true as descriptions of conference hotel monstrosities today: “I put out to sea for the Inns of America, with their four hundred beds apiece, and their eight or nine hundred ladies and gentlemen at dinner every day. Again I stood in the bar-rooms thereof, taking my evening cobbler, julep, sling, or cocktail. Again I listened to my friend the General,–whom I had known for five minutes, in the course of which period he had made me intimate for life with two Majors, who again had made me intimate for life with three Colonels, who again had made me brother to twenty-two civilians,–again, I say, I listened to my friend the General, leisurely expounding the resources of the establishment, as to gentlemen’s morning-room, sir; ladies’ morning-room, sir; gentlemen’s evening-room, sir; ladies’ evening-room, sir; ladies’ and gentlemen’s evening reuniting-room, sir; music-room, sir; reading-room, sir; over four hundred sleeping-rooms, sir; and the entire planned and finited within twelve calendar months from the first clearing off of the old encumbrances on the plot, at a cost of five hundred thousand dollars, sir. Again I found, as to my individual way of thinking, that the greater, the more gorgeous, and the more dollarous the establishment was, the less desirable it was.”

He then pulls back and says something nice about Americans, because he’s gotten in hot water for this one before. Also I love that ‘dollarous’ coinage, which is so temptingly close to ‘dolorous’.

– Rhineland hotels where “where your going to bed, no matter at what hour, appears to be the tocsin for everybody else’s getting up”

(tocsin: alarm bell or signal)

– “I departed thence, as a matter of course, to other German Inns, where all the eatables are soddened down to the same flavour, and where the mind is disturbed by the apparition of hot puddings, and boiled cherries, sweet and slab, at awfully unexpected periods of the repast. “

I love ‘awfully unexpected’.

* We see a very interesting use of ‘bashful’ here that doesn’t entirely align with a current understanding of the term. It’s more like ‘social awkwardness’? The history of social awkwardness would be a great project for someone.

* In with this good coach journey, Dickens expresses some nice wryness about how contemporary people lament the lost stage coaches, but they dreaded stage journeys enough at the time. Dickens is always a little more subtle than a reductive view of him as sentimental and nostalgic would lead you to believe. He has these surprising self-reflexive turns, and is both unabashedly sentimental and capable of steely analysis. He’s at odds with his own indulgences.

* Dickens talks a lot about the stabling and the inns involved, but I still think of stage coaches as more like ‘arrangements’ than the railroads’ infrastructure, and thus have some trouble parsing them as technology and a transportation network. I think this might generally be a late-capitalist viewpoint: things like Uber are transportation networks, but they’re somehow illegitimate, flexible and transient. We have trouble quite mentally accounting for non ‘official’ industry, perhaps.

* Good prose bit:

“THIRD BRANCH–THE BILL


I had been snowed up a whole week. The time had hung so lightly on my hands, that I should have been in great doubt of the fact but for a piece of documentary evidence that lay upon my table.”

* It’s somewhat hard to get a good sense of the bashful narrator’s increasing comfort with the other people at the inn without hearing their stories and seeing them told to him. This rewrite isn’t quite so smooth as it might be.

* Dickens’ story-within-a-story is about man working at the hotel who, when younger, knew a couple of seven and eight years old who tried to elope together. Simon Callow rolls his eyes at this short story in his biography, finding it mawkish, so I came in girded. But actually I thought it was quite funny, and that Dickens is aware of the several forms of ridiculousness herein, and that that was kind of the point? (Dickens’ defenders are often in the position of defending him from half-true popular opinions and of apologising for their own strong emotional reactions to him: elaborately excusing his faults real or imagined, or building the case for him as literary and thus their reactions to him as valorous. Thus you get a lot of kind of OTT desperate apologies for problems Dickens doesn’t quite have. I’d like to spend a lot more time on charges like ‘psychologically unrealistic’, because I think what’s going on is a lot more complex than that, and that we need to talk about how we’re coming to that assessment and whether what we’re asking for is even always valuable.) The story’s almost, with its undercurrent of unkindness towards the girl, who isn’t as invested in or faithful to the project as her eight year old swain, and its notes of pessimism about couples going to be married in general, a bit of an old-fashioned chivalric or cavalier ‘bitches, eh?’ It’s much gentler than those, but there are some generic echoes.

I don’t feel this amusement about women’s reactions (which is another layer of ridiculousness re: the elopement) is particularly harsh, and it’s some of the best-written stuff in the story:

The way in which the women of that house–without exception–every one of ’em–married _and_ single–took to that boy when they heard the story, Boots considers surprising. It was as much as he could do to keep ’em from dashing into the room and kissing him. They climbed up all sorts of places, at the risk of their lives, to look at him through a pane of glass. They was seven deep at the keyhole. They was out of their minds about him and his bold spirit.”

“There the father lifts the child up to the pillow, and he lays his little face down for an instant by the little warm face of poor unconscious little Mrs. Harry Walmers, Junior, and gently draws it to him,–a sight so touching to the chambermaids who are peeping through the door, that one of them calls out, “It’s a shame to part ’em!” But this chambermaid was always, as Boots informs me, a soft-hearted one. Not that there was any harm in that girl. Far from it.”

That feels affectionate and even approving. Which, come to think of it, is such a rare attitude to women’s pleasure? Think of the ‘hysterical fan’ characterisations that are common as muck. This enters into their squee, into the very pleasure of over-reaction, and seems to find a moral and aesthetic justice there.

The whole thing is more fun than twee, though there’s definitely a twee component? I don’t know, it’s not The Story I’d pick for over-preciousness. Also, when talking about it, we really have to remember it’s a Christmas number for the whole family, and that some of the other stories might have hit a darker note Dickens had to balance or reign back (authors failed to hit his brief all the damn time, I feel fairly sorry for him as an editor). It feels unfair to discuss this very situationally located work just as some shit Dickens thinks.

* The young boy is a sort of precocious Artemis Fowl type. The sub-narrator’s restlessness is convincingly described.

(0 charm words)

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Notes on Great Expectations at Wimbledon Library (2016)

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* YOU ONLY HAVE UNTIL DECEMBER 18TH TO SEE THIS, and I really recommend you do!

* This production has found Trevor Nunn’s epic Nicholas Nickleby like some people find Jesus, and it’s working pretty well. I love that production, and thus another in that tradition, which has not been built upon as it ought to have been, works great for me. I think both Nunn’s Nickleby and this Great Expectations demonstrate a way of adapting Dickens that’s too often passed over. What we mostly see, in the endless bad adaptations that waste Gillian Anderson et al’s talent and time, is a totalising, slavishly naturalistic ‘period piece’ gaze. This renders not only the texts in question internally homogenous (turning the lovely and varying textures of Dickens into a smooth, unappetising thin paste, like an English person’s inevitably tragic attempt to make soup), but every Dickens book (all of which have their own distinct tones and moods) essentially the same. Worse still, such a gaze renders every ‘period’ piece from Dickens to Downton equally samey. The Hollow Crown is shot like Bleak House is shot like Parade’s End, essentially.

Naturalism is of course far from the only way to represent life, so it’s nice to see this theatrical production making good use of the magic of its particular mode both to achieve a greater sympathy with the hyper-reality of the source text and to produce something much richer than I’m used to getting from filmed adaptations.

* The blending of dialogue and prose from the original allows the text room, refuses to relinquish Dickens’ power and multifaceted appeal.

* The library venue was fun.

* I haven’t actually read this one! I did see a puppet version once, performed with the original Victorian toy theatre from Pollock’s. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a tiny puppet Miss Havisham die in a horrible conflagration: you are not living now.

* The stripped down lighting and blend of (I believe?) recorded and live-voice sound effects was very effective. The physicality and work with small props really show what a company can do with a small space and a limited budget. If I saw this at the Fringe it would probably rank as one of the strongest offerings (and that’s a highly competitive context!). But this staging also relies on the company to be on beat in order to generate its effects, and I felt they could have been a bit stricter about that. Without the huge cast Nunn relied on to create his London (which this show strongly draws on, especially for Pip’s big initial entrance), for example, they people on stage need to be Rockette-disciplined in order for the simultaneous and/or handed-over vocal and physical effects not to look shoddy. Nothing is seriously harmed by the cast’s moments of imprecision, but there were times where they were all supposed to say a word in unison (‘Pip’, for example), and it was a little sloppy. Y’all ain’t singin’ a round here.

Not to denigrate a largely well-executed effect! I like that entry to London, that way of making the city a theatrical character. The waterside scene before the fateful boat trip was particularly well-done.

* I know it’s a pain to stage fight calls, but this show needs to be bolder on physical violence, especially where Pip’s sister is concerned. She always seemed as though she might be half-joking, in this production. If we don’t feel Pip’s distress and lowness, we can’t fully dramatically engage with the poisoned chalice of his elevation. It Pip’s sister isn’t truly awful, we can’t have the huge Dickensian catharsis and forgiveness. This is always a vital element of his work, but it seems especially so at Christmas, given that Dickens’ Christmas stories in Household Words and All The Year Round always stressed redemption and forgiveness. These were key elements of the civic religiosity Dickens painstaking constructed around Christmas from the publication of the Carol up into the very end of his life.

* There’s a lot of quick-change doubling in this production, singled by actors’ bearing, voice and small alterations of costume. This, interestingly, reminds me of the monopolylogues which Dickens absolutely lived for as a young legal clerk, which Simon Callow (in his theatrically-focused Dickens biography) convincingly argues influenced both Dickens’ character-writing and his later readings. The term ‘readings’ makes one think of a sort of thin experience, but Dickens threw himself into the embodiment of his characters in a way that was, by all contemporary accounts, riveting. Someone called him a man possessed, and he sold out American and British theatres on the strength of his performance as much as his literary celebrity.

We had a good Pip (who was never tasked with playing anyone else that I recall) and, via these changes, a great Herbert Pocket and a powerful Jaggers/Magwitch. I wanted Estella to come off fiercer, though, eviscerating in her pride and contempt, and for Havisham to be towering. These are titanic roles, and I feel actresses can be too afraid of taking up the requisite space sufficiently definitively. For all we talk about femininity as a performance and spectacle, I think actresses have to work harder than actors to demand attention—that they risk and do more in giving that to a role and an audience, and that the audience is not necessarily fair to them when they do. Still, this is a piece in part about power, gender and social appearances, and given that thematic content I think it’s especially incumbent on actresses in these roles to screw their courage to the sticking place and go huge. This isn’t Merchant Ivory territory.

* I didn’t notice until now that Pip in GE and David in DC both use almost the same language for Estella ( “Do you admire her?” Everybody must who sees her, Miss Havisham.”) and Agnes (“She has great admiration for Miss Agnes. And I’m sure you have too, Master Copperfield.” “Everybody must have,” I replied.” / “you said one day that everybody must admire her”). I suppose Dickens did re-read DC directly before writing GE, in order to make sure they weren’t too similar (Sidenote: he cried re-reading DC, which. What a wet sock, bless.), so he might have accidentally picked up his own phrasing. Still, such different women to say the same thing of! And to Miss Havisham and Uriah Heep, both of whom are the protagonists’ hidden enemies, and both of whom ask a leading question to provoke the response. Though nominally, Heep is trying to warn David off and Havisham to lead him on…

* The big conflict scenes (Magwitch’s first appearance, the fire, and the boat-non-escape) could all be crisper and clearer in their action.

* The interval comes when Pip arrives in London, and I felt the second half was superior to the first—the play picked up energy here.

* The arc of this adaptation is neatly curtailed.

* Joe was well-acted, and was the most effective emotional nexus in the piece. At times I thought the source text rather than this play generated and bore the emotion of the work, and I wanted the play to make itself felt more. I’m not sure how I wanted that to happen, but it was like the emotion was in the background, and I wanted it to move to this layer, to the foreground: for the play to own the narrative, at this moment, more than it was doing, to really nail its good intentions.

* The show had good costuming (in a historically vague way, but that wasn’t really the point) except for adult Estella—I liked her cape, but in general the silhouette didn’t work for me. Estella’s costuming is particularly difficult, though, as her outfit is tasked with embodying and helping convey the living display of power Havisham has made her into.

* I really feel they ought to have gone with the iconic ‘no shadow of a second parting’ closer. The current ending feels a little ‘…oh’, and that line is so classic, even if it wasn’t Dickens’ first choice—he was wrong, like Shaw was wrong about “Pygmalion”. It happens. It happens to Dickens kind of a lot.

Notes on Dickens’ “The Seven Poor Travellers” (1854)

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The Seven Poor Travellers

* While the preceding two essays and three of the four Christmas stories have been in first person, there was something snippetish about all four of the short stories. Two retreated into allegory, and the other two were something like the polylogues Simon Callow’s theatre-focused biography of Dickens cite as having had a strong influence on him. They were sprints, not marathons, or tableaux and not plays. In these next two longer stories, Dickens seems to be more thrown upon his own resources, and to an extent the narrative voice starts to feel like his own. Thus I’m going to speculate that in terms of writing in the first person, the David Copperfield-style autobiographical tone comes somewhat naturally to him, and to further conclude that it takes him a while longer to learn to write a serious, psychologically rich first-person voice that’s quite distinct from his own, a la Pip or Esther (or even the work he beings to do in “The Wreck of the Golden Mary”). Everything about the irritation, the restlessness, the anger at miserly charity and the whole-hearted entry into a project in “Poor Travellers” feels like Dickens himself: even the stupidly long walk does. I wonder whether Dickens authentically can’t help writing this character as Dickens, or whether this is some kind of Masterpiece Theatre performance for the magazine audience, where the magazine’s great Conductor will also winningly (and winkingly, as himself and not himself—for the events of the story are more obviously fictionalised than the POV) conduct you through this year’s collection of stories by means of establishing the frame narrative and starting it off? Against that, we have the fact that Victorian audiences only understood DC as autobiography in a shadowy, twilight way, so the extent to which they understood Dickens as nakedly present in his first person narration of this period is limited.

* Here’s some publication information.

But beginning with the extra Christmas number for 1854, The Seven Poor Travellers, Dickens put the stories within an overall framework by adding special openings and endings and providing brief links between the segments. Dickens himself usually wrote two of the segments (though he sometimes wrote one, sometimes three). He always set the overall theme, and he usually wrote all of the framework. At first the framework was spare and utilitarian (though the dramatic situation was often fanciful); the typical strategy was to bring together a group of strangers and have them while away their time by telling stories (the dramatic situation usually required such a diversion). In the later Christmas numbers, Dickens gave more attention to the framework and to creating a realistic and sometimes suspenseful situation for the storytelling. In the still later Christmas numbers he began to vary the formula itself by writing nonframework narratives in conjunction with a single collaborator.”

That’s an interesting prompt to set yourself. He keeps doing that, with the Christmas books et al: setting himself these chunky, fiddly tasks.

* This introduction is markedly better than any of the preceding short stories, with the possible exception of “Schoolboy’s”. (Is Dickens getting a bit better at short fiction as he goes along?) It’s funnier, for one, and allowed to be. The note of deep irritation with the charity’s miserly discharge of its ancient obligation rings clear, and the typography of the dinner theatre bill is so good I’m going to replicate it here via photo rather than trust ebook editions:

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* “The Seven Poor Travellers takes place on Christmas Eve in Rochester at the charity hospice founded in 1579 by Richard Watts – an actual hospice that Dickens knew well from his childhood days. “ (from Dickens Journal Online) And it shows—there’s strong architectural detail, etc.

* “The [other] stories themselves were written by George Augustus Sala, Wilkie Collins, Eliza Lynn [afterward Mrs. Lynn Linton], and Adelaide Anne Procter, respectively.” It’s 1854 and 2/5 (so almost half) of the contributors to this anthology are women. I’m just FUCKING SAYING.

* Dickens has sort of already done this ‘everybody tell stories’ frame (for no fucking reason, though I enjoyed it I guess) in Nicholas Nickleby, with that winter carriage ride up to Yorkshire.

* Slater points out in his lecture that the close of this Christmas story is suffused with the religiosity Ruskin claimed Dickens’ Christmas lacked. I don’t really get what people mean by saying anything like that, because clearly Dickens has a diffuse but strong emotional allegiance to Christianity, and a profound and driving allegiance to a moral framework derived from a non-doctrinal, fundamental/text- and praxis-based understanding of Christianity. I head someone at a Dickens Day conference a few years ago muse over what Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had meant by referring to him as ‘that great Christian writer’, but this could not be more self-evident as an emotional concept. The speaker also wondered whether Dickens meant he could LITERALLY feel the spirit of his dead friend/sister-in-law there with him while looking at the natural glory of Niagara falls, and started in on trans-continental ghost migration patterns, the mechanics and feasibility thereof. It was then I decided to have a somewhat distant relationship with formal Dickens fandom, such as it is. Then there was a talk about thing theory and chairs in Dickens. I died straight away, and my spirit may now be perceived in attendance on any natural wonders you choose to visit.

* The end section is strong.

* What’s a ‘proctor’ when this charity is established?

* I have laughed at lot at “The Story of Richard Doubledick” as a title.

* That said, woah this section about Taunton’s incredible eyes is homoerotic.

Now the Captain of Richard Doubledick’s company was a young gentleman not above five years his senior, whose eyes had an expression in them which affected Private Richard Doubledick in a very remarkable way.  They were bright, handsome, dark eyes,–what are called laughing eyes generally, and, when serious, rather steady than severe,–but they were the only eyes now left in his narrowed world that Private Richard Doubledick could not stand.  Unabashed by evil report and punishment, defiant of everything else and everybody else, he had but to know that those eyes looked at him for a moment, and he felt ashamed.  He could not so much as salute Captain Taunton in the street like any other officer.  He was reproached and confused,–troubled by the mere possibility of the captain’s looking at him.  In his worst moments, he would rather turn back, and go any distance out of his way, than encounter those two handsome, dark, bright eyes.”

Taunton’s function in the story is very Dickens-woman: he inspires Doubledick, calls him back to social responsibility via observation, is described as beautiful (handsome) and forgiving, and he gives Richard his mother, just as though they had married before he died. From Doubedick’s broken engagement to Taunton’s death (after a mourning period, he’s supplanted by Richard’s original fiancé, now wife), Taunton essentially serves as a wife to Richard.

* This section has that distasteful imperial bombast that Dickens mostly avoids throughout his career, which is actually somewhat remarkable given that he’s working in an era choking on the stuff—he’s a bit rightly suspicious of it perhaps, or at any rate it doesn’t do much for him. Even here glory comes in kind of vague terms, and the ending unsettles the morality of these achievements a little. Also this is set at a Napoleonic, ‘just war’ remove.

* I sort of like what little we see of Doubledick’s wife. I don’t love the marriage as an ending (it’d feel more earned in one of Dickens’ longer works, the very length would have worked to win me to it—in fact I like the deathbed marriage in Our Mutual Friend just fine), so I’m glad we go on and spend time with French post-war and then have the moral question about revenge as our tying-off.

* The way Dickens rewrote his contributions to present them independently afterwards is a lot like what Willa Shakespeare did when uploading her portions of the Atonement Cycle to Ao3 DON’T @ ME I KNOW WHAT I’M DOING OK

Notes on Dickens’ Poor Relation’s, Child’s, Schoolboy’s and Nobody’s Stories (1852-1853)

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The Poor Relation’s Story” (1852)

* This is in the first person, which Dickens tends to favour for his Christmas stories (so far as I’ve read them). That’s somewhat odd, given that except for David Copperfield, Great Expectations and portions of Bleak House, Dickens tends to use third-person in his (longer) fiction. I just saw a scholar claim DC and GE were his only first person works, and though she was speaking off the cuff, that sort of strikes me as strange given all the short fiction she has to unremember (she’s an expert, she definitely knows about these) to generate that statement. I know the short fiction’s not as good (or rather perhaps it’s more fit for purpose, and thus more fixed to its publication circumstances and intended audience), but it should nonetheless still form part of our idea of How Dickens Writes.

They say, when you’re getting into bullfighting, that you should attend novilladas (apprentice bullfighters’ bouts) in order to understand the mechanics of the art (bullfighting is, whether one finds it moral or not, a cross between sport, art and religious ritual) and appreciate the toil involved on all fronts. Though the Christmas stories aren’t Dickens’ juvenilia, I’m relating to them a little in that way: they’re teaching me, I think, more about his mechanics and process than the more intimidating and better-finished novels. Or perhaps they’re just showing him in a weaker light? After all, what concrete and distillable things can I say about his process based on these short stories?

* We’re in the first of a four-story little suite of tales, which perhaps evolves out of the conceit of Master Humphrey’s Clock as a sort of frame narrative and perhaps gives rise to the shape of the coming multi-authorial Christmas compilations. I wouldn’t want to say that absolutely without reference to Dickens’ correspondence et al.

* In large part, this story seems like it could be a not terribly inspiring but decent chunk out of one of the novels. The character, his catch phrase about being nobody’s enemy but his own**, his narration of his present circumstances and his way of conveying his earlier downfall (and the very nature of that downfall) all give that impression.

* Dickens deals with poor relations in Pickwick Papers (I haven’t read this but the Michael Slater lecture I listened to assures me they’re in attendance at Christmas, dutifully enlivening blind man’s bluff), Bleak House, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend. (There are probably more such characters, I’m just not remembering right now.) Dickens expresses a keen understanding of their peculiar situations and of the ridiculous pretentious and privations involved. His sympathy with them derives from this nuanced appreciation of the ridiculousness of their position, which he doesn’t attempt to deny or ameliorate at a surface level with socially anxious tact. His amusement isn’t at odds with his empathy. This is especially interesting given that Dickens ends up supporting his own ‘poor relations’. His sympathy seems more with them, literarily, than with the munificent benefactors he’s more akin to in his own middle age. This story’s example of the breed seems almost a forerunner of decent Mr. Twemlow in OMF.

* The ‘how I came to be in my present position’ section, with its list of things that ‘didn’t happen’, is particularly strong.

* The ‘castle in the air’ ending strikes me as a bit groan-worthy, and I wonder if it worked better at the time. Did it strike people as profound or powerful that the narrator might, if he’s being honest, live a better life than most of the assembled? If you read it that way, it could well be a strong reversal of the in-story and in-life audiences’ expectations, locating agency, the power to pity, etc. with the story-teller. Or do we take this claim, given the stark initial description of the narrator’s days, as merely a figure of speech? I do, and so the pathos comes on too strong for me here.

** That phrase also comes up in DC and GE:

‘Traddles,’ returned Mr. Waterbrook, ‘is a young man reading for the bar. Yes. He is quite a good fellow—nobody’s enemy but his own.’

‘Is he his own enemy?’ said I, sorry to hear this.

‘Well,’ returned Mr. Waterbrook, pursing up his mouth, and playing with his watch-chain, in a comfortable, prosperous sort of way. ‘I should say he was one of those men who stand in their own light. Yes, I should say he would never, for example, be worth five hundred pound. Traddles was recommended to me by a professional friend. Oh yes. Yes. He has a kind of talent for drawing briefs, and stating a case in writing, plainly. I am able to throw something in Traddles’s way, in the course of the year; something—for him—considerable. Oh yes. Yes.’” DC

““You silly boy,” said Estella, quite composedly, “how can you talk such nonsense? Your friend Mr. Matthew, I believe, is superior to the rest of his family?”

“Very superior indeed. He is nobody’s enemy—”

“Don’t add but his own,” interposed Estella, “for I hate that class of man. But he really is disinterested, and above small jealousy and spite, I have heard?”

“I am sure I have every reason to say so.”” GE

(uses of ‘charm’ words: 0 . I’ll have to do the math again, but I’m getting a sense that the % frequency with which Dickens uses charm words is less in this short fiction than in the books, despite how ‘Christmas numbers’ might make you think there’d be an uptick.)

The Child’s Story” (1852)

* I dislike this one, and it’s not entirely its fault. I dislike wise child narrators, and I dislike allegory as a mode. So this is… fine. And a well-written example of a thing I don’t like. But there we are.

* The wife’s death and the reunion with the child are still effective.

(uses of ‘charm’ words: 0)

The Schoolboy’s Story” (1853)

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* This one is genuinely fun, and I would recommend it outside this Christmas story context. It’s easily the most entertaining  story of this set. The voice and POV are engaging. Dickens really enjoys what he can do with schoolboys’ way of talking, the slang and the allusions.

* Dickens seems, as Molly Katz mentioned to me, particularly interested in relationships between younger and older schoolboys (David and Steerforth, John Jarndyce and Boythorn, Paul Dombey and Toots, possibly Oliver and the Dodger fit into this paradigm?). Is this a fantasy of his (To have been cared for by an older child when he needed it? To be a benevolent child?), or perhaps a reflection of some lived or witnessed relationship? The female pairings he stages don’t work in quite the same way (though there are several, and some of them are about as homoerotic as David/Steerforth: Florence/Edith, Kate Nickleby/Madeline, Esther/Caddy Jellyby). All this familiarity with school life might suggest to the reader (possibly intentionally, or semi-intentionally) a sort of school career Dickens never actually had. In fact how cagey he was about his family’s financially precarious periods might suggest that he wanted his audience to think him familiar with these environments due to personal experience. I suppose his actual familiarity with them must come from associating with his own well-educated children.

* We get an allusion to Julius Caesar that positions the play in reference to friendship. In DC, David also says something about JC making him think of friendship. Was this just Dickens’ interpretation of the text, or was this a common Victorian appraisal of the play? It strikes me now as strange and idiosyncratic, but perhaps at the time this was a standard reading? (I’ve gone and asked Sophie Duncan, who works on Victorian Shakespeare–she might know.)

* The leader of the conspiracy is perhaps overly-invested in the betrayal of Old Cheeseman. Though it’s not alluded to, I almost wonder if they were special friends ere Cheeseman’s elevation.

* I love the leader of the conspiracy’s claims about his father and fortune turning out to be bs. Like, you see it coming and it’s still good.

* The ending is a struggle. Belatedly, we’re told that our narrator wasn’t involved in any of the events he’s recounting. He’s just a later recipient of both the lore and Old Cheeseman’s munificence: there to prove it’s on-going, that Cheeseman does not forget his old associations and the school has not forgotten him, etc. That distance makes the earlier story of the uprising against Cheeseman less immediate and the narrator’s place among the conspirators both guiltless (and thus without shame and catharsis in the great forgiveness) and something of a presumption (why is he claiming partisanship when he never fought in the Cheeseman wars?!). It also makes it seem as though Cheeseman and wife have nothing to occupy them but this one scholastic institution and acts of charity associated with it (so like a kindly equivalent of the 20-something still trying to hang out at high school parties–though even that comparison speaks to my very temporally-located anxiety about inter-generational friendship, which Victorians didn’t really share). Again, from the narrator’s perspective, I’m sure that’s all that does go on in their lives: it’s all he sees of them, and he’s a child yet, not given to conjecturing into the interior lives or broader activities of adults. We also have only a short space in which these characters can develop, so we don’t get to see Cheeseman in the world. The piece is focused on these events, and reigns itself in. It’s also tasked with fulfilling Dickens’ desire (and the market’s?) for the Christmas stories to hit a tone, and to enact and inspire forgiveness, etc.

(uses of ‘charm’ words: 0)

Nobody’s Story” (1853)

* Here we’re back in an allegorical mode, and back, to some extent, in the territory of The Chimes.

* Even given that the first two stories had strong melancholy elements, it’s still a shock to be ripped from this middle or upper class family hearth (which we dimly glimpse behind the stories) and thrown into the working-class misery of Nobody’s Story.

* We’re also now in third person, but the Close Third that characterised our association with Trotty Veck.

* It’s interesting that Dickens is willing to turn this rather bleak piece, with its chill ending, out as a Christmas number. He fears neither poor sales nor being criticised for giving the people downer activism at Christmas, apparently, though both money and popularity matter a great deal to him. Maybe Dickens just wanted his big Christmas audience to get a strong dose of social justice? Or maybe his radicalism, as per Carol, was just genuinely popular, and not incompatible with big circulation numbers/sales.

* This is perfectly good social criticism, but it’s also very like the aforementioned Chimes, and the many other places where Dickens did god’s work and said wealth stratification and Calvinistic moral judgement of the poor was bullshit, etc.

This is the kernel of the story:

“But the Master said again, “O you labouring men! How seldom do we ever hear of you, except in connection with some trouble!”

“Master,” he replied, “I am Nobody, and little likely to be heard of (nor yet much wanted to be heard of, perhaps), except when there is some trouble. But it never begins with me, and it never can end with me. As sure as Death, it comes down to me, and it goes up from me.”

There was so much reason in what he said, that the Bigwig family, getting wind of it, and being horribly frightened by the late desolation, resolved to unite with him to do the things that were right–at all events, so far as the said things were associated with the direct prevention, humanly speaking, of another pestilence. But, as their fear wore off, which it soon began to do, they resumed their falling out among themselves, and did nothing. Consequently the scourge appeared again–low down as before–and spread avengingly upward as before, and carried off vast numbers of the brawlers. But not a man among them ever admitted, if in the least degree he ever perceived, that he had anything to do with it.”

Fair, but Dickens has said similar stuff more potently elsewhere.

* I think my final thought is that this probably did a fair amount of work as the Christmas number, but that it can do less work for posterity, given that we now have access to the whole of the Dickens canon and its many fine passages of righteous anger at our fingertips.

(uses of ‘charm’ words: 0)

Notes on Dickens’ “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older” (1851)

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  • This has a bit of a slow start, but I eventually got into the affective rhythm of it and found it fairly moving: Dickens is really, really good at eliciting response. (Not a very original statement, but.)
  • I was listening to Michael Slater’s lecture on Dickens and Christmas today, and he pointed out that all the Christmas books involve memory–not incidentally, but as a theme they’re working with. They’re also the run-up to David Copperfield, which is a complicated working-through of Dickens’ personal memory, especially the grimmer portions thereof (written right after Haunted Man dramatised the futility of refusing that aspect of life). “What Is Christmas As We Grow Older” convincingly stages the loss of the child’s entire, consuming Christmas as actually fairly beneficial: an intellectual and moral development. This essay gives us a subtle and mature way of looking at failure and abandoned plans. I tend to obsessively hate myself over this, but Dickens, who had too many plans for some of them not to come to nothing (or fall apart more spectacularly than that), has a rather appealing and sensible-seeming way of thinking about failure itself as useful, enlarging and part of one’s personality. This is especially interesting as Dickens also writes (in “Poor Relation’s Story” and elsewhere) about the immense granular psychological strain on people eroded by time and misfortune. There’s a lot in the Christmas works about good and bad ways to interact with failure, and about good and bad failure, as well as the oppressive social relations and forces that engender The Bad Failure.
  • There’s an allusion (probably?) to Maria Beadnell, and another (probably?) to Dickens’ deceased sister in law (“There was a dear girl–almost a woman–never to be one–who made a mourning Christmas in a house of joy, and went her trackless way to the silent City”). The Probably Maria Beadnell section is funny, in a slightly but very forgivably mean way.
  • Strangely ‘“Pause,” says a low voice. “Nothing? Think!”’ strikes me as how Dickens’ relatively analytical mind must turn over logistical questions. Part of this essay’s in a staged, familiar dialogical mode (that doesn’t quite announce itself as such), but this also feels very like How Dickens Must Think to arrive where he does on social questions.
  • Everything about the City of the Dead gets me because I’m so weak for this civic religiosity shit. “Oh shall they not, from sand and sea and forest, be brought home at such a time?” “Would his love have so excluded us?” SHUT UP DICKENS. Anyway it’s a nice building of a trans-temporal Christmas, doing almost eschatological work.  

Read it here.

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