War Games Proposal

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I submitted a book proposal to the Black Archive’s Doctor Who series for “War Games”, then asked to un-submit it when I realised you only got two goes a year, and that given the upcoming schedule of calls I was already going to have to eliminate Three, Five or “Unquiet Dead”.

I thought you might enjoy the sketched-out book anyway. It’s not my BEST take–I didn’t have time to rewatch “War Games”, as I would have liked (it’s a COMMITMENT), but y’know, it’s some thoughts maybe someone else might like to take up.

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CHAPTER SUMMARY:

Let me begin by saying that I realise asking for The War Games is jammy beyond jammy, a vast vat of the viscous stuff. It’s the biggie: all ten plump little episodes, and all the plot and canon formation that goes on within those confines. Yet because it’s so important, even as one wonders how to do it justice, one is almost obligated to ask!

I love the whole idea of this range, of finally doing litcrit/textual work on Who in addition to production-focused criticism. Not that a production perspective doesn’t yield something valuable, but for so long we’ve been talking about Who as craft and never as art. Black Archive feels like such an exciting, past-due addition to (re-direction of?) the conversation, that chips away at that craft/art false binary and allows these approaches to productively speak to one another.

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1. Intro:

Precis of the serial. We might find this phatic–surely if you’ve bought this book you know this episode like the back of your hand? But often the memory does cheat. Beyond that, an attentive reading often draws my attention to things I hadn’t previously seen in a text, or changes my thinking about the relative weight of given elements. It also gets readers and author on the same page re: thematic concerns.

This is also a good place to nod to other critical treatments of the serial, and to do a quick ‘literature review’. There’s a great deal of spilt digital ink, fanzine material, etc., on this serial that I’d need to read and re-read. (There’s also a fun commentary on the War Chief’s project management skills: https://orangeanubis.com/tag/patrick-troughton/ .)

There’s something to be said here about the choice of periods or war-zones (euro-heavy, relatively temporally compressed), the BBC’s broader costume drama tendencies/this serial as historical fiction, and about War Games’ not wholly unprecedented but still ambitious exploitation of the show’s time-jumping formula.

2. “Man is the most vicious species of all.”

Having set up the plot, we can turn to the War Lords’ endeavours. I’d like to pay particular attention to a line of thinking the War Chief articulates:

“Consider their history. For a half a million years they have been systematically killing each other. Now we can turn this savagery to some purpose.”

Who pulls this ‘wicked, naughty humans!’ business almost as constantly as it pulls ‘x species spurred human development/x sits underneath the surface of the Earth like a fae kingdom’. It appears to be quite a mature critical gesture: the emerging British national epic holds up a mirror to the country which, until very recently, had an empire the sun never set on. Actually, however, I think the ‘savage humans’ accusation functions more like a Bakhtin carnival. This faux-criticism defangs anxiety about whether the viewers are at all implicated by the actions of the baddies: whether they’re ever more Dalek than Doctor. The important thing in this exoneration mechanic is not that the Doctor denies the War Chief’s charge in the next line (it is indeed patently ridiculous in the show-universe, often asserted but simply silly when Daleks et al exist). The important thing is that the charge is made, that we the audience roll around in a moment of liberal smugness at our own ability to see our faults, and then excuse ourselves of them. You can’t look at this instance of ‘consider their savage history’ without examining Who’s long fascination with this topic.

Despite having access to time-travel technology that could theoretically enable them to pluck human soldiers from wars yet undreamt of in our own time, the War Lords only collect combatants from the Great War and earlier. A line about the potential danger of ‘technological advancement’ allows the serial to elide World War II (‘too soon’ for contemporary viewers). This technological excuse is somewhat curious given that while atomic science was indeed playing out somewhere, a great deal of trench equipment, like the Fullerphone, remained consistent across the wars.

But where, in the War Lords’ cavalcade of conflict, is empire? Only five of the eleven conflicts might offer significant numbers of non-white European combatants on either side (and of these, WWI is often perceived, and here depicted, as a ‘white’ conflict—though granted we don’t hear much about the Greek and Roman zones). Imperial examples of human viciousness (the quality the War Chief suggests is being cultivated and selected for by these experiments) are erased because they aren’t classed as true ‘battles’ between equal opponents: war is collapsed down into a chivalry narrative, and history into ‘half a million years’ of people (all people, we must suppose) ‘systematically killing each other’, without particular ascriptions of blame or power imbalance implied. History becomes a sort of evo-psych pageant of inevitability. I think it’s actually fairly powerful that Two treats this as simply stupid: it’s a bad plan based on a bad take.

New Who’s post-empire masculinity crisis in part arises from the Classic Who’s refusal to think about empire during Decolonisation. Arguments that Classic Who was a children’s text (always dicey to begin with) can’t wave away the show’s preoccupations and the subjects it chooses to engage with. For this section I’d draw in part on Aishwarya Subramanian’s work on post-war British children’s fantasy and empire.

3. Kriegsspiel:

I think it’d be interesting to talk a little about ‘war gaming’ in the historical training scenario sense. I recently presented on class in Dickens adaptations over the decades at Historical Fiction Research Network’s annual conference (and there should possibly be a note about class in the war-zones, in this treatment). While there, I heard a rich paper on war games as historical fiction, part of (in this paper’s case) the British navy’s curation of its self-image. I think good stuff could come of returning to that scholar’s discussion of war-gaming as training tool and image curation.

Obviously there’s a doubleness to the serial’s title. The War Lords are engaging in literal war games, while the episode sets up a disturbing picture of war as always essentially homogenous, always run by and conducted at the behest of faceless, interchangeable outsiders. The Security Chief and the War Chief’s petty in-fighting adds to the serial’s sense that this is what war is always like. To the people playing with human lives, the war games might as well be Homeward Bounders. The idea of higher beings testing or playing with humans in this way has a pedigree in fiction and SF that could be usefully illustrated in this volume. (For example I would be a little surprised if Homeward Bounders didn’t derive somewhat from War Games–after all, Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series is so ‘I watch Who with my children’ I’d swear to it, with citations.)

Further thought about the catch-and-release plot business of the episode ought to go here, under the general rubric of the extent to which this is ‘war as game’ for the Doctor and his companions as adventurers, and thus for the audience at home. It’s a counter-intuitive story, more novelistic than reminiscent of modern television. So few of this serial’s events matter in a plot-arc sense, giving rise to questions about what we get out of television, making us question what we get out of television, how a story attains and sustains attention, and the relationship between narrative space and character construction. War Games is a story built on delay, escape, and characters never being in the right place at the right time for the real plot to occur. The serial’s confrontations are ducked and dodged until the last possible moment. This is a story about surviving a situation, not rushing in to face opponents. I wouldn’t claim this as an intentional artistic move, but the kind of Falstaffian attitude about war that emerges certainly suits the second Doctor. Yet the Doctor’s Hal in this story, too: taking up his portentous heritage and claiming responsibility in summoning and then reckoning with the Time Lords, throwing off his joker persona (which is both authentic and a front) even while contesting with the indifferent paternalistic authority of his people.

This element will probably get fleshed out as I think more about the precis.

4. “his own people, the Time Lords”

A really exciting section! Obviously this serial narratively develops the Time Lords, and there’s incredibly rich stuff to dig into regarding their presentation here. Gaiman finds this their only satisfying outing (http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2007/05/nature-of-infection.html):

“In my head the Time Lords exist, and are unknowable – primal forces who cannot be named, only described: The Master, the Doctor, and so on. All depictions of the home of the Time Lords are, in my head, utterly non-canonical. The place in which they exist cannot be depicted because it is beyond imagining: a cold place that only exists in black and white.”

Ultimately I really disagree with Gaiman on this. I love what the Time Lords do in War Games, but for somewhat different reasons, and I wouldn’t give up the sociological function the Time Lords play in other stories (which allows the Doctor’s characterisation to develop by providing him with a contextualising background). This book wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the serial’s treatment of the Time Lords, and the things this development of them enables the canon to do. It’s far beyond ‘they stick Three on Earth’—the Time Lords’ existence (and increasingly, their culture) illuminates the Doctor’s particular character from here on out. The Doctor also enters a new stage in his relationship to the Time Lords, here.

It’d be interesting to read this discussion of non-interference against Star Trek’s concurrently-developing prime directive. Both are narrative devices with clear story-world functions, but do also signify politically, in alignment with and against the shows’ broader aims.

I’ve previously mentioned the Doctor’s choice to call in the Time Lords at great risk to himself as a particular moral turn for him. I think the importance and severity of this are underscored by that desperate scene of he and his companions struggling to attain the TARDIS as the Time Lords arrive. The power and threat of the Time Lords in the episode merit extensive discussion. We slip quickly from hitherto unseen telekinetic technology (the summoning box) to the terrifying unhappening of the War Lord, galactic exile for his entire species, invasive memory erasure for all the humans involved (including well-loved companions), and a more serious violation of the Doctor’s autonomy and body (and perhaps of the program format itself) than the show will ever again undergo. It’s an incredibly dramatic, daring choice, and in some ways it’s hard to imagine a contemporary program taking these sorts of risks or establishing these sorts of stakes.

And of course, while we’re here, is the War Chief the master? What does such a reading offer, and in what ways is it unsatisfying? This isn’t a question that needs a singular, definitive answer: in fact such a thing is undesirable. Clearly he’s a production-side harbinger of that character, a sort of test-run of the idea. Within the text, however, the War Chief seems to suspect the presence of someone known to him from almost the first sign of trouble. He and the Doctor’s recognition of one another seems intensely specific. It weakens the Master’s character somewhat if the Doctor has a score of such old frenemies, and despite the War Chief’s plan and treatment of the Doctor fitting so neatly into the Master’s MO in many ways, it’s also difficult to imagine the Master subsuming himself for years in a plot in which he was merely a functionary for other forces, losing even his name in the process. It’s also dramatically unsatisfying, in this regard, that the War Chief expends so much of his energy on his rivalry on the Security Chief. There’s a lot to say here about back-readings, why the show wanted a ‘Master’ shaped character, how it came to develop one (which the War Chief, like the Monk, is and isn’t), influences and experimentation.

And of course, courtesy of our aforementioned hirsute friend, there’s that brilliant bit at the end of ep six/beginning of ep 7 with the shrinking TARDIS/SIDRAT. It’s one of a handful to times a TARDIS becomes an alien, hostile, dangerous environment. The Edge of Destruction, the Master’s booby-trapped TARDIS in Frontier and the beginning of Castrovalva also come to mind immediately, of course, but it’s a relatively rare development. The device de-naturalises the semi-domestic space of the TARDIS, stripping back some of the safety the viewer has come to associate with the ship and laying the groundwork for the serial’s deeply unsafe ending. The serial’s conclusion is itself full of de-naturings. By the end of the story the Doctor and the own TARDIS will be deeply divided, and the Doctor will be unable to fully access his own mind.

5. “Memory’s a funny thing out here. Can’t always remember things myself.”

We can’t help but conclude with a discussion of the forced regeneration and the similarly forced removal of Zoe and Jamie’s memories, which echoes the memory-distortion the War Lords imposed on their victims. Jamie is literally released back into his own war zone. It’d be good to say a word on this in terms of the experience of watching Who in that era, without much ability to ‘summon back’ the show when it was gone. This effect has been course exacerbated, or perhaps simply extended, by the loss of so much Two-era footage. Our current reception of the show is laden down with memory. For the modern viewer, Early Who always carries the weight of the intervening years between production and reception on its back. It’s also laden with the reception-drag of and the totality of Who that will come (like a sort of age-reversed Aeneas and Anchises).

This was also an interesting time for traumatic memory loss in the public discourse. Psychoanalysis was in the air and the then-contemporary thinkpieces, getting heavily re-worked by second wave feminists. These thinkers’ emphasis on female sexuality brought Freudian memory-constructions, which were developmentally associated with assault narratives, under particular scrutiny. Psychoanalysis also gave extensive attention of the Great War, trauma and memory. It’d feel remiss not to spend a few pages dealing with the analytic dimensions of the serial’s treatment of extraordinary forgetting.

Questions of agency abound for the human soldiers, the exiled War Lords, the Time Lords, the Doctor and his companions. Canon and paracanon attempt to address aspects of these, as does media fandom to an extent. What do these fictional readings tell us about the elements of War Games that resonated with or continued to disquiet people over the decades?

6. Closing:

A consideration of the aforementioned themes, in cross-chapter conversation, and a word about War Games’ legacy for the Who canon and in broader culture.

Tristan and Iseult, by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Wiki characterises this as ‘a children’s novel’, which feels odd to me. It’s somewhat simplistic and it’s a novella, but it’s not really terribly child-friendly? Like, I wouldn’t call The Stranger a kid’s book because the prose is stripped back. This Tristan and Iseult isn’t so obviously child-inappropriate as that, but neither can I see the youth clamouring for it. I suppose it feels possibly YA or New Adult in that the protagonists are youngish for much of the action? It’s not precisely clear how old they are by the story’s end/their deaths (Arthuriana spoilers). But sometimes we say a thing is ‘for children’ when what we mean is simply that it’s not long or deeply complex (which is, obviously, a bit crap as a generic description).
 
This was a light, pleasant read, but it’s a bit overshadowed by the skill and beauty of TH White’s psychological approach and prose. It does behove writers and critics to ask themselves what a contribution aims to do differently, to expand on, to rethink in a subfield that includes Once and Future King, because you’re never not going to have that signal reworking in mind. White does cut the Tristan arc to keep Lancelot and Guinevere’s story-line neat (as-is, Malory crams in two confusing, conflicting major Iseults, and Sutcliff follows suit), to make it work as a piece of psychological realism/a moral question. Thus Sutcliff is giving something to modern Arthuriana reworking here by even attempting this tale. Yet I sort of wish she’d thrown herself into the project more? I’ve not yet read anything else by her, I just felt a sense of limitation here. Nothing in this reworking really took me.
 
That may be related to how uninterested this novel is in charm as an affect. You don’t get a sense of it from the characters or their doomed love, from the world or moments in the text, or in the relationship it’s trying to stage with its readers. This, along with the story’s unalleviated central concerns–doomed, unhappy love and sad, crunching betrayals that ruin male-male relationships and lives, also makes it hard to think of this as a children’s book. Tristan and Iseult is a blue-gray sort of story, cold and sparsely populated, shot through and sometimes illuminated by the strange copper-blood-purple red of Iseult’s often-referenced hair. It picks up a little on the feeling of some patches of Malory, and slightly anticipates Ishiguro’s Buried Giant. There’s some magic here, but of a constrained variety. The dwarf’s star-gazing could be a kind of Hild-like careful processing. There’s a dragon, but it might be any really threatening mundane animal–its effects are near-identical to those of a series of human conflicts over Iseult of the White Hands/territory.
 
There were quite good elements. That hair, and a time Tristan feels deeply disgusted with Iseult and himself for living a lie and betraying King Marc, and Marc himself, who does honestly love them both. But that itself was frustrating, because (and a friend joked this impulse was very MZB, and fair cop) you did just want them to work out some amenable arrangement, het or queer, nephew/uncle or no, and halt the slow, pointless death-waltz of the oncoming plot. 
 
I often get irked when people even joke that complicated relationships should be resolved, melted down, into the crucible of a threesome, because it seems a stupid way to think about relationship issues and plots, intent on liquidating productive or necessary tensions via artificial means. A threesome could and should have all the tensions of its constituent relationships. But there are some tensions that call for resolutions between characters on grounds of greater and more life-altering intimacy than heteronormative plot structures are prepared to allow. There are also ‘marriage plot’ problems that strike you as more of the moment of their writing than trans-temporal, describing the period they depict and speaking to the present reader. With more embedded social and psychological writing, Sutcliffe might have sold me on the painful irresolubility of the characters’ situation by walking me through it. As is, I’m just ‘why not both?’ing. Or rather, the problem is that Iseult doesn’t love Marc–that’s the central imbalance here. But then I know very little about their relationship, from her perspective. I don’t know the dimensions of their marriage, and what possibilities it affords. 
 
I like and respect that Iseult of Cornwall née Ireland’s an intelligent but difficult woman, who makes Iseult of the White Hands roll her eyes with good reason at the concussion (‘I loved him mooooost’ ‘well idk about that bitch, but he loved YOU more, so sure, be First Wife’). Sutcliff’s decision to eschew the ‘doomed to love one another by fate/an accident with a magical cup’ impetus feels like a good one, but it cuts down on another wonder-element of the text and really, how different was her treatment for having made this change? She wants an irresistible, quick-setting, not deeply motivated pull between these characters (who have reason to be drawn to one another, she just doesn’t end up illustrating this process all that much) and she gets it, cup or no. Sometimes the Olde Timey Celtic dialogue feels odd and lumpy, which is all the odder because there’s little dialogue in the book. I don’t know how self-consistent this dialogue feels, and I wonder what sources she’s drawing from here. The first half works better for me than the second, which meanders a bit. This is somewhat consistent with the source material, but then she’s shaping this telling, so I do hold her a bit accountable.
 
A solid, middle of the road sort of book, but I’m not sure there’s a reader who’ll LOVE it. At least it doesn’t feel as awful, forced and unnecessary as all the on-trend ‘my publisher made me do it’ fairy tale retellings glutting the market.

Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift

This is the first instalment of my new Strange Horizons column. “Kirk Drift” is a long-read essay on Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, popular memory, gender politics, radical nostalgia and the unicorn dog.

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Section 1: What a lousy party!

Good parties diverge widely; all bad parties are bad in the same way. I am trapped at a dull dinner following a dull talk: part of a series of dinners and talks that grad students organise, unpaid (though at considerable expense to themselves—experience! exposure!), to provide free content for the dull grad program I will soon leave. The Thai food is good. The man sitting across from me and a little down the way, a bellicose bore of vague continental origin, is execrable. He is somehow attached to a mild woman who is actually supposed to be here: a shy, seemingly blameless new grad student who perpetually smiles apologetically on his behalf, in an attempt to excuse whatever he’s just said. One immediately understands that she spends half her life with that worry in her eyes, that Joker-set to her mouth, and that general air of begging your pardon for offences she hadn’t even had the pleasure of committing. There is always such a woman at bad parties. She has always either found herself entrapped by a clone of this man, or soon will.

We reach the point of no return when the omnijerk (really I suspect there’s just one vast eldritch horror sitting in another dimension that extrudes its thousand tentacles into our own, and that each one of This Guy is merely an insignificant manifestation of the beast: they couldn’t all be so boring in precisely the same way by chance, surely) decides to voice some Dinner Party Opinions on original-series Star Trek. God knows why. It’s not five seconds before he’s on ‘Kirk and the green women’. He’s mocking the retrosexist trope, but smiling a little weirdly while doing it. His own insufficiently private enjoyment is peeking out, like a semi-erection on his face. A sort of Mad Men effect: saying, “isn’t it awful” and going for the low-hanging critical fruit while simultaneously rolling around in that aesthetic and idea of masculinity. Camp, but no homo!

Read the full essay here.

“Take Care of Him. He Bites.”: Dogs in David Copperfield

by Molly Katz and Erin Horáková

David Copperfield’s idyllic childhood is marked by the absence of dogs. He is brought into the world by Dr. Chillip, “the meekest of his sex, the mildest of little men…he hadn’t a word to throw at a dog. He couldn’t have thrown a word at a mad dog” (Dickens 18; ch. 1). His home explicitly has “a great dog-kennel in a corner, without any dog”, in a garden that is “a very preserve of butterflies” (Dickens 24; ch. 2). This husbandless household is safe, somewhat insulated from class (the servant Peggotty and David’s mother Clara socialise affectionately and co-rule the house), loving and female.

Read the full post here.

Hive (Game Review)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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Everyone in board gaming goes on about how high-quality X’s of Whatever’s cardboard bits are, but Hive doesn’t fuck around: it has thick, pleasing Bakelite tiles that stack nicely in the (admittedly shoddy) plastic insert. (My edition does, at least: I know there are some wood ones going as well.) The insect-etching colours aren’t my fav, but overall: noice.

I can overlook the accompanying weird, 90s plastic tile-bag that looks like a soccer ball or a Bop-It accessory. It’s a good thing to include though, for portability’s sake. I just wish it wasn’t quite so Toys R Us.

The game mechanic involves simple strategy. This will explain the rules, though you don’t really need to know them to follow along. Suffice it to say, it’s a bit chessy. Not like the expansive, tactical/logistic chess midgame, more like the tight, ‘move in for the kill’ endgame. Which isn’t my favourite part of chess, really? If I sat down and did endgame puzzles I’d get better I guess, but it wouldn’t be *fun*, exactly. It’s this chessy quality that makes my girlfriend, who is very good at all kinds of the trad Euro games Hive doesn’t really feel like–games that certainly involve thinking and some planning–really dislike Hive. She’s not super-practiced at the ‘causal chain’ thinking chess demands (which might be a native leaning or a learned skill, or both). If you don’t enjoy or have a knack for that, if you’re really more a Eurogames person than someone who could really go for a round of checkers when the mood takes them, there’s a chance Hive won’t do it for you.

Neither of us find Hive that fun–and not just because of the win-imbalance. For me, there’s not enough to do in this game. If I wanted this sort of strategy experience I’d play chess (or I would if bloody anyone in the house wanted to play chess with me*), or maybe like, Chinese Checkers? That’s the sort of game this feels like, and it is interesting to see someone developing games along those lines, even if the result isn’t really for me. The rounds are quick, which was both a bonus and a sign that the game wouldn’t hold my interest. If they weren’t quick, it’d probably be due to analysis paralysis. I feel like if I really learned Hive I could potentially develop strategies etc., but I’m not grabbed enough for that. Hive doesn’t have chess’s complexity, glam lore or variants to draw you in.

VERDICT: We traded it on for ‘Hey! That’s my fish!’ I was not involved in this decision. We’ll see, mate. We’ll see.

* I don’t miss chess in a ‘casual game once in a while’ way, though? Either I’m in a period and situation where I’m playing 5 games a day with people around me or I’m not. I don’t really want the online experience or a game once a month. I don’t NEED chess, either. I think that part of my brain gets, for the most part, satisfied by Eurogaming. But it’s odd–I do feel I have a certain quality of itchy, compulsive thinking these hobbies answer in a way my chiefest pursuits (reading, watching, writing, cooking) don’t, really. I sometimes get the vague sense that it’s ‘healthy’ for me personally to do some gaming, that it gives me a feeling of Having Done Something which is not to be dismissed when you have depression and honestly often don’t. Accomplishment breeds accomplishment.** Maybe.

** I have always thought this and then I ran smack into mad, manic-depressive Dickens saying exactly the same thing in a letter and thought ‘oh christ,’ so I’m er, more aware it may be self-justifying bullshit, at this point.

Five Dickens Articles: the JoJo/Ridiculous Dog Edition

ARTICLE 1:

How Dickens Invented Christmas — and Why it Matters

Dr. Goldie Morgentaler

I’ve very mixed feelings about this lecture.

“I swallowed that book whole. Truly in one enchanted gulp. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I fell in love then and there with the author and his work, and especially with the extraordinary inventiveness of his mind, that still gives me endless delight. And with his use of language, and his idiosyncratic construction of sentences. To this day, although I’ve read through all of Dickens several times, I still get great pleasure out of just reading a Dickens sentence.” about 4:30-4:57

This is lovely, and what’s more it’s useful to me.

“…Christmas had become a holiday primarily of the lower classes, and was largely ignored by anyone with a claim to gentility.” circa 5:55-6:05

Is this true? The Geffrye Museum’s Christmas exhibition really led me to believe the divide was more rural/urban, as did Michael Slater’s lecture on the Christmas books. I’m not sure she’s right about this? I’m not certain she’s wrong, but.

Dickens’ “father was a naval clerk, and his mother came from a family that was in service to an Earl”. 6:10-6:16

Now that’s just wrong. Correct me please if I’m in error, but she’s gotten his parents’ backgrounds reversed.

The pushcart girl in Covent Garden father Christmas anecdote gets aired. (6:40)

“So he established a tradition of specialised holiday stories all by himself”.

This is misleading in a few ways. Slater points out how important Irving was as a predecessor here, and of course the Household Words/All The Year Round Christmas stories, which really establish the genre, are collaborative. Substantially though, it’s true that he popularises/’invents’ this genre, and that we tend to understate his importance as a generic innovator.

“In fact today’s common greeting of ‘Merry Christmas’ only came into wide circulation after the publication of A Christmas Carol.” 7:00-7:11

To the extent I trust her at this point, that’s interesting.

“The plot of this very long short story draws on the tradition in Britain of telling ghost stories at Christmas time. A Christmas Carol is a ghost story with a fairy tale ending.” 7:12-7:26

Nicely put.

“Dickens was, and still is, often accused of being cloyingly sentimental…”

Honest question: was he, at the time? Is this more of an after-the-fact formation? Who was saying it, contemporarily, and to be honest… to what extent did they pronounce that to rhyme with ‘chav’? Were such accusations of sentimentality coded language about how he was popular, uneducated and not highbrow?

“…especially in indulging a fondness for describing the deaths of children…”

This is often repeated, but it’s simply incorrect. Dickens will hardly ever show you an on-screen death. In the whole of the canon, you find it but rarely.  You may–often very quickly–see a body, but the death, especially of a child, you will mostly not be in the room for. David’s being downstairs when Dora dies is, if anything, the model for a Dickens death. It honestly surprises me that specialists, who ought to know better, are so sloppy on this point: it ain’t subtle.

“…Tiny Tim being a case in point.”

Yes. In that you do not fucking see him die. How hard is this?

Perhaps that ‘describing’ is meant simply to allude to the fact that people die in these (at a normal rate for Victorian children, tbh, especially considering the event-centred novelistic context), but I am not inclined to largess on this point. ‘Describing’ means describing, like Brexit means ‘what the shit’. You either see something happen in the narrative or you don’t. People use a word that suggests ‘lavishly dwelt on’ when the reality is that the events in question are ‘only alluded to’. That is so misleading as to be false.

“The fondness caused Oscar Wilde to come up with the witticism that ‘one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Tiny Tim without laughing.” (9:00-9:18)

Look, I know this is a lecture given to a mixed group of non-specialists, some of whom are possibly even barbarians from STEM. But even so, the quote is:

“One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.”

So you’ve got the wrong child there. And it’s too integral to your argument for that to be a voiced typo. And we also don’t see Nell die. People repeat this quote like Wilde wasn’t in active daddy-issues rebellion against the cultural ascendency of Dickens. Chesterton, who is in the same position vis a vis Wilde and is, for this and for personal reasons, inclined to get on better with Dickens, flat tells you this. Why are we repeating this as if it’s not a very specifically contextualised clap-back, as well as not being true? My god, it’s like reading cavalier poetry without knowing about the English civil war or listening to a Drake without knowing who Meek Mill is.

I really admire this woman’s passion and she says some good things, but an abridgement does not need to be active disinfo. I mean this is a shanda fur die goyim, Goldie.

Apparently the “Queen of Norway famously said that no one can be really bad who can cry over the death of Tiny Tim.” (9:50-9:59)

But you know, how much can I believe Morgentaler now, etc. It looks to be quoted in a 1906 newspaper from my home state, but now I am a facts nihilist who believes in nothing, and Bevier’s just in Macon county, what do they know about Norway or indeed about anything? I drive through that town and don’t notice.

Decently funny Tiny Tim does not die joke delivery.

“Dickens actually lost money on [the Carol]”.

Well, yes, though not in the long term, Callow tells us. (Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World) That’s fine, it’s true as far as it goes.

“they represent the underbelly of Victorian society: the desperate poverty lying hidden beneath the outer robes of respectable middle-class Victorian prosperity.”

That is REALLY nicely put.

“To Dickens’ credit, he resists the temptation to prettify these children.” (13:55-14:04)

Why are you so embarrassed to like him? ‘To Dickens’ credit’, like he doesn’t know what he’s doing here. It’s that very common casual condescension where he’s concerned, like you’re surprised he managed to get his shoes on in the morning. It’s his book. This is his point about child poverty. Of course he didn’t sentimentalise them here, the analytic object you are working in is his argumentative conception.

“We know that the inspiration for the Carol had grown out of Dickens’ visit a few months earlier to a ragged school, which is what the Victorians called charity schools for poor children.”

This is what I mean? It suggests that Dickens made such a visit once, rather than being intimately familiar with such institutions in his own country and every one he visited and being mired in the minutiae of his city, as well as extensively researching and working actively on school reform circa Nicholas Nickleby. It makes him into the Sultan of Agrabah: in the animated Aladdin series Jasmine, at the close of one episode, says they need to do something about the poor people in Agrabah. Her father blinks and says, with wonder, poor people? In Agrabah? Dickens isn’t a shocked, sweet but clueless micro-reformer.

I’d forgive these little isolated incidents, but as the lecture goes on they coalesce into something much more substantial and weirder.

Callow also specifically cites the Children’s Employment Commission Reports (pages 105, 138, 142) as the impetus for Carol, quoting letters to that effect. You see the difference between seeing how the other half lives (the implication being ‘for the first time’) and being shocked by an extensive, in-depth report in a field you work on that is also a popular longread in the sector, right? So I’m reasonably confident saying Morgentaler’s wrong here, or at least that her statement is fairly misleading (and misleading in an increasingly clear direction…).

“…he was obliged to do this work in front of a large window, so that the people passing on the street could look in and witness his humiliation.” (16:45-16:51)

Welllllll, not the whole time. Only when the premises moved. But that’s largely true.

I wonder a little whether Dickens suppressed the blacking factory origin story not just because he associated the time with pain and humiliation, but because he had some suspicion of what it might do to the idea of him? Biographers wheel out this period as a major incident in the standard hagiography, and it’s used to turn him into a narrow Personal Interest Crusader. He’s Explained by this. His interest in social justice is somehow excused by this.

Morgentaler suggests the blacking factory period was only a few months. (17:12) Callow (pgs. 19-28) suggests it was something over two years. I trust him much more.

“…he worked with other boys whom he considered his social inferiors.”

That’s… something you could possibly pull out in a reading of that letter, but it’s doesn’t seem that fair, and it’s such an ungenerous reading of him, his general thought and a period of trauma. Why do people who claim to like Dickens so often hate Dickens, or at least engage in some massive performative disavowal? What is going on with that?

“…mention of Warren’s Blacking Factory occurs in almost every one of his novels.” (18:30-18:35)

What? In what sense is that true? How does she mean that? Her explanation doesn’t really clear it up.

Scrooge’s “increasing avariciousness as he grows older can therefore be seen as a psychological defence against the fear of loss: an impulse to horde money because unlike humans, money can never abandon or harm him emotionally. By having the ghost of christmas past take Scrooge back to revisit his childhood, Dickens is anticipating Freud’s perception that one way to lay to rest the ghosts of the past (and I use the word ‘ghosts’ advisedly) is to revisit them, and so try to come to terms with them.” (19:30-20:20)

That’s a good point, though I’d clarify that Freud strongly draws from Dickens, and pretty much tells us that. It’s interesting in light of the weird period where Dickens tries to develop the talking cure early, but Catherine gets annoyed and puts a damper on it.

“the celebration of joyous, unlimited human reproduction” (circa 23:00)

This is a nice argument about reproduction, class, Malthus and an aesthetic of fecundity. Also a good reminder that sex-segregated workhouses imposed abstinence on the indigent, even those who were married.

On this note: “Dickens was writing against the grain of contemporary ideology that blamed the poor for their poverty and defined them as profligate in their sexual indulgence.” (25:50-26:00)

There’s a degree of radicalism in that we don’t fully appreciate as contemporary lay-readers.

At about 24:20 she mentions that Fred’s wife is supposed to be pregnant! I NEVER SAW THIS!

Looking around though, MAN is that oblique:

“Abbey strategically places Fred in front of his wife so that the viewer cannot see that she is pregnant, a fact which Dickens only obliquely conveys by Scrooge’s embarrassment at having “started her” and about her having to keep her feet up (“Scrooge had forgotten, for the moment, about her sitting in the corner with the footstool,” 39). Indeed, Abbey has omitted the footstool, and thereby one of the strongest connections to Scrooge’s visit in company with the Spirit of Christmas Present in Stave Three, when she “was made comfortable with a large chair and a footstool, in a snug corner, where the Ghost and Scrooge were close behind her” (31). Fred in welcome holds out both hands, his arms fully extended as he leans forward on his left leg. Mrs. Fred (no Christian name supplied: she is simply “Scrooge’s niece, by marriage,” 29-30) seems dubious as to how best to receive her curmudgeonly uncle, rather than startled or surprised, although she does momentarily support herself by holding onto the dining chair (left). This interior, like the Cratchits’ in the previous illustration, is decorated with Christmas greenery, particularly around paintings and mirrors; as befits their better economic condition, however, Fred and his wife have decanters and deserts laid out on their table. While Mrs. Fred’s dress is a nondescript white, Abbey has carefully attired Scrooge’s nephew in the fashions of the 1840s, with tailcoat, fob, stirrup-trousers, and high collar. Significantly, Abbey has made Fred resemble Scrooge in height, figure, and facial features.”

Victorians really were euphemistic about pregnancy, hell.

“when he was younger and his children were few, fatherhood seemed to him a rather pleasant state. But as time went on, and his wife was continually pregnant […] Dickens found himself forced to provide for an ever-increasing brood, and his appreciation of the supposed joys of limitless fatherhood underwent a sea change.”

No it didn’t? He was always a good dad? Like you could have a complicated opinion of he and Catherine’s marriage and of his fiscal relationships with the children as (often profligate and dependent) adults, but this is such a reductive, catty framing, and again, god, those descriptions of how much work he put into fatherhood, of how good he made the kids’ holidays, are difficult to imagine bettering. Why invent flaws to dispute with, when the material is complicated enough? I’m sure you could string a few quotes into some kind of support for this, but that wouldn’t make it better than a sad Alternative Facts kinda reading.

She then smugly comments on his having ‘sent the kids off to the corners of the globe’, but to be honest I have some news for you about the British Empire. You know how in Holmes stories literally every other case someone’s going off to make their fortune in the colonies? Yeah. I mean this is seen at the time as securing a post for one’s adult children, and providing for them, especially if they’re struggling to find work and keep themselves out of trouble domestically? It’s like being shocked at the cruelty of people fostering out their children under feudalism. The logistics and ethics of child-rearing change with the period.

At 29:00ish she mentions Dickens’ great description of an onion. It’s so good I’m going to pop it in:

“There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe.”

Good spot on her part.

At about 30:00 she starts talking about the Christmas pudding “the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm” and saying she’s not sure she wants to eat something firm and shaped like a cannon-ball. It becomes clear that this woman does not know much about how one makes a pudding, especially in the 1840s. This becomes inescapable when she says puddings were good food for poor people because they required very little fat. What? What? Suet. Come on.

I don’t think you have to be a great cook or an expert in historical cuisine to write about this, but if you’re going to make analytic points about food in a text, I do think you probably need to understand that food to say something particularly valuable, yes. I remember being 20 and American and thinking a ‘cream tea’ was tea with whole cream poured in instead of milk. (Oy.) This was very, very stupid, but to still make that kind of mistake as a professional specialist is perhaps less excusable.

To really round it off, she comments that in Victorian England even the food you wat for holidays was a matter of class distinction. This is when my notes become a series of furious underlined scrawls. It still is. In modern England. And everywhere. That is how food works. That is how class works.

I wonder to what extent the ‘extraordinary inventiveness’ of Dickens, praised by Dr. Morgentaler and others, is a function of temporal and geographic distance between them and the text?

At 35:30 she makes a fun, good argument about dance as a social equaliser, but it is too late. At 36:55 I lose it completely. This is what alllllll the little sniping de-politicisations have been working towards and building up to. I cannot believe this woman, with her weaksauce liberal Donald Trump quotes and her failure to reckon with class as an active force in the world today, is offering up such a childish, wilful misreading of this text and Dickens’ activist projects, all the while exuding a strong sense of ‘of course we know better now’ that is synonymous with ‘of course I know better’. Y’ain’t a better socialist than Dickens, and I am so done.

At some point I start to ask myself how many flat mistakes are normal and excusable in a prepared lecture by a specialist. I’m not trying to be pedantic and nasty here: the problem’s not just Morgentaler. I could make a case at length, and may yet do, though it’s hardly liable to win friends and influence people. Dickens scholarship is often casual with plots, with readings, with period details. Some of this shit comes in from non-specialist academics using Dickens (though they also ought to know better), but some of it is specialists. Catch Shakespearians being so lazy, they’d be buried and left for dead like Aaron in Titus. It’s a parable of the heap (insert DC pun here) situation: how wrong do we have to be before what we’re doing is unreliable, and without worth? Perhaps more importantly, why is this happening? What about the canon and the biographical personage and the development of academia and this subset thereof creates these conditions?

ARTICLE 2:

Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens (BBC documentary)

While this documentary comes from a good place and has some fun elements, I can’t in good conscience recommend it because it’s really not to be trusted. It’d take someone who already knows and likes the subject, who essentially doesn’t need this documentary, to identify what’s ‘misleading to outright untrue’ and what isn’t.

Paul Kincaid suggests that now the BBC is liable to buy an out of house, pre-made documentary that’s literally never seen a fact-checker. Forgive me, but the fuck? You’re going to let something go out with your official stamp, as a sort of matter of record, and you have no real idea the goods you paid for are genuine? I don’t really know why this happens: grad students aren’t expensive? All you have to do is let them watch a cut/read your material/vet it on the BBC end? If they did have someone doing this, m’colleague was asleep at the wheel. Too many awkwardnesses to lay before you. Gchat squawked to a friend the way through, making irate goose noises.

There’s pretty good commentary on Mr Dick, and some of the comedians Iannucci speaks to are fun. But ‘core unreliability’ is my bette noir right now.

Also, popular history lays a ghoulish emphasis on Ellen Ternan’s being 18 when she and Dickens met. Not the period between their meeting and their romantic entanglement, and then the period between that and the consummation. Not the professional, artistic and class similarities between Ternan and Dickens (greater than those of he and Catherine), not his relationship with her family as a whole (he knows her sister and mother very well, and in a professional capacity–the sister especially, as she’s a writer married into another famous writer’s family who occasionally does pieces for Dickens’ magazine), not how he’s with ‘the young actress’ for years, so of course after a while she isn’t so 18 anymore. Even Katey Dickens, who hated Ellen and stanned hard for her mom (though that rather ill-conceived early marriage (she was nice but basic, a bit Victorian pumpkin spice latte, and for better and worse he was Dickens) had been breaking down for years due to incompatibility, sexual issues, then-unmerited jealous and the stressful death of a baby), admitted Ellen was really clever.

In all these depictions Ellen becomes a fixed figure of scandal. She’s so young!! Well… she’s been out working as an adult for years by the time they meet, she’s not young for a Victorian woman entering a relationship (age isn’t fully a fixed thing, it’s socially constructed, and to be 18 in the 1850s is in many ways different than being 18 today)–Dickens himself had been out in the workforce for several years by that age, and she doesn’t stay the same age for the 12 years (from 1858) they’re actually together in any form? There’s also thing where we’re at once more Victorian than the Victorians about Dickens, sneering at his marital breakdown (imagine freaking out like this about a modern divorce, it’s laughable), and simultaneously a smug sort of modern, expecting sex and gender norms to work like they do right now in 1857. Why do we fudge Austen’s age differences in adaptations and give them a cheerful pass in books but then turn around and find this significant age difference especially remarkable? You’re either okay with that aspect of Colonel Brandon/Marianne or you aren’t.

Male biographers and fans seem to want Their Dickens to be a sort of conquering Lothario, and are content to make him one out of very little evidence. The guy’s married once, separates from his wife with a big fat settlement, has another LTR that lasts until his death and very probably sleeps with these two people ever. I don’t know what to tell you. So why do they want or need that? What’s it doing? Like… how absolutely pathetic, on the face of it.

ARTICLE 3:

Charles Dickens has been ruined by the BBC

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson does a wonderful reading of this documentary, an awful-sounding Sue Perkins Dickens special, some of the issues mentioned above and Great Expectations. A solid premise well-argued. Very very worth reading.

ARTICLE 4:

“I and my fellows are ministers of Fate”: Dickens and his beloved Ariel, Priscilla Horton

by Katie Bell

“Ariel is referred to in the play as a mostly gender-neutral character (the pronoun “he” is used only a handful of times) and, up until the twentieth century, Ariel was typically played by female actresses. Perhaps this gender relationship can be best understood with comparison to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Although Peter is born a human boy, he does possess fairy-like qualities including his ability to be non-gender specific. Thus, Peter has always been played onstage and in film by females, most famously by Mary Martin. As we see, gender constraints do not apply to those in the fairy world, like Peter and Ariel, who are free to change gender forms, or even be gender neutral.”

I think this would work better for me if Bell specified when Ariel started being played by a woman rather than saying ‘up until the twentieth century’. Obviously initially this was not the case (as you almost certainly know, actresses weren’t allowed to perform on stage in Shakespeare’s day). Plus I’m just interested in the answer to this.

“On 26 October 1838, Dickens penned a poem “To Ariel” in honour of Horton’s depiction of Ariel. One can conjecture that Dickens must have been very taken with Horton’s performance to have penned such an impromptu poem for her.”

Hm. Not to nitpick, but is that necessarily true? I’d want to know the context. Is this a done thing? “This work appears in Horton’s autograph book”. Is, for example, her autograph book teeming with such tributes? Is one obliged to do it, really? We know Dickens wrote a similarly-contextualised poem for his first fiancé, in a commonplace book. I’d want to know more about the social etiquette surrounding the visit and the autograph or commonplace book.

ARTICLE 5:

Embarrassing bodies: what did the Victorians have to hide?
by Kathryn Hughes

This is a lively, well-written article, but I’m not sure it’s terribly trustworthy.

Take, for example:

“Dickens, meanwhile, was so self-conscious about his weak chin, especially now that he was besieged by requests to sit for photographic portraits, that he grew his trademark door knocker as a kind of prosthesis (a full beard was beyond him).”

Again, to what extent can I trust this when Callow, who I trust more (who has accumulated his authority with my by extensively showing his work and demonstrating his enthusiasm for the subject), describes the beard-growing as more of a boys’ adventure?

“The walking trip, which started in Switzerland, was on an epic scale; neither Collins nor Egg were ever in the best of health, and the pace must have been severely daunting to them. Dickens, needless to say, was renewed and exhilarated by the challenge. At the beginning of the tour, they all grew beards, or tried to, as if to indicate that they were rugged men of nature; but the outcrop of hair was disappointingly exiguous, so Dickens shaved his off, pour encourager les autres.” p. 225, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World

This was in 1853. In 1856, while both were acting in The Frozen Deep, Dickens and Collins again grew beards for their characters. Dickens then kept his.

“He and Collins (who was to play Aldersley, the man whose life Wardour refrains from taking) both grew beards: Dickens finally began to look like Dickens.” p. 253, ibid.

Besides, fashion was changing to favour beards anyway. Surely the choice was bound-up in that? Dickens used to be something of a dandy (he once punched a guy in the street for an insult along these lines): he did like flash clothes and keeping himself neat. He can’t have been immune to the great beard craze.

Was Dickens self-conscious? He was always very insistent on his own worth, though self-confidence and a lack thereof can of course co-exist, and one’s valuation of oneself isn’t terribly stable or universal. He was, however, always thought very pretty. Callow cites contemporaries’ enthusiastic praise of him in this regard, and this Frank Stone painting of him when young (the brunette, the blonde’s Tennyson), which is pretty consistent with other depictions, doesn’t really suggest much cause for self-consciousness about his chin (or indeed about portraiture). (Incidentally, the ridiculous dog is also his.)

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If anything, he might share his semi-autobiographical character David’s slight concern about appearing adult and masculine. Dickens was always slight, short, and preserved his almost oddly youthful appearance until suddenly, in late middle age, due to stress and illness, starting to look like the bank-note version of himself. I could see him getting older and being self-conscious about this change (which startled friends), or earlier about still looking somewhat effeminate or boyish, but that’s not quite the same as ‘oh horrors, my weak chin!!’ If she’s working off a specific quote, even (which she doesn’t nod to), there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it was a bit more complex than that (also we shouldn’t necessarily take sources at face value as to why they did things).

This seems a small thing, and the article is but an abridgement of the book, but it is the author’s own document. If I cannot trust her to be sufficiently precise about her subject matter here, on the aspect of her topic I happen to be aware of, how should I trust her where I am less informed?

And a small point from the article: ‘Or, to put it another way, what we are looking at is the first sighting of artistic modernism.’

oh god, don’t let me interrupt the majestic progress to that illustrious end-point, which seems to have its Clear Origin in every action undertaken by man previous to 1920.