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)

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