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

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