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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