Review: Dickens for Dinner

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Shakespeare for Breakfast is a venerable Edinburgh Fringe Festival institution that has been selling out its house for twenty-six seasons and is still going strong. Every year they offer a quality Shakespeare parody, free coffee and a croissant. They don’t need their gimmick, but by God they stick to it. I never regret going, and a Fringe trip would feel incomplete without it.

This year, the team that performs the morning show also gives you the lunchtime Dickens for Dinner. The title introduces something of a controversy, as in the south of England, where many if not most Fringe visitors hail from, the mid-day meal is known as lunch. Calling it dinner, and the evening meal supper or even tea rather than dinner, are far more common in north England and Scotland. These distinctions have class connotations as well as regional ones.

“So it’s not really for dinner, is it?” said my vexed girlfriend, who is very from the Home Counties, of the matinee performance.

“A Northerner will come and eat you if you keep saying that,” I begged.

“But it’s NOT ‘dinner’!” she pressed on, heedless. I’ll miss her.

Read full piece here.

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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.

***

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.

***

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.

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.

Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, 1845

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(scene from a staging of the theatrical version, per small caption)

The Cricket on the Hearth*

Here we are at the second-worst of Dickens’ Christmas books. It falls into that category of Dickens I’d read for elements I like rather than because I love the book as a whole. Chesterton writes that, properly considered, Dickens shouldn’t be thought of in terms of discrete novels, but rather in terms of slices of the overall personality of the writer. This point of view is a bit too author-driven for modern taste (though it is, after all, equally historically contingent and artificial to insist on the coherence of discrete works as analytic objects—and we do, no one is so Derridean as to actually overcome this tendency in practice for longer than the duration of a particularly pious article), but if this lens has its limitations it also has its appeal. Even bad Dickens has a lot to offer: I think of it like Classic Doctor Who, where I almost always find something to delight or interest me in a given episode (even one I quite dislike—bloody “and the Silurians”).

In The Cricket on the Hearth, a young woman nicknamed Dot (actually christened Mary) has wed an older carrier named John and produced a young child with him. Their household also includes a servant (a foundling girl) and Boxer (a dog). The family is friends with an older toy-maker, Caleb, and his blind daughter, Bertha. (Intergenerational friendship is so much more normal in this era than our own—it’s not just Dickens, it’s everywhere.) Caleb’s son was lost long ago whilst off making his fortune, but this son was once engaged to a girl named May Fielding, a friend and contemporary of Dot’s. May Fielding is now engaged once more, this time for purely practical reasons, to Tackleton the toymaker. May’s mother has egged on the match.

Tackleton is also Caleb’s tyrannical boss and landlord. To make her life easier, Caleb’s told Bertha that they live in a lovely house and that Tackleton is a wonderful man who’s forever smiling and winking while hateful crap topples out of his mouth. (Early troll-culture?) (No, not really.) Horribly, Bertha’s fallen a little in love with the person she thinks Tackleton is, and is saddened by his immanent marriage to May.

In the course of his rounds John picks up an old man who asks to stay with them for a few days due to some logistics snafu, and who’s willing to pay for the privilege. Some confusing business leads Tackleton to suspect that the old man is actually a young one in disguise, and to tip off John to Dot’s evident seduction by this mysterious stranger. After seeing some Othelloish ‘proof’ of their affair John contemplates terrible revenge, but after a hard night’s thinking (with supernatural (possibly? the book thinks it’s definitely magical, but more on why it doesn’t feel that supernatural in a moment) intervention in her favour) he decides to be kind to his young wife, and to bend over backwards to release her from their apparently ill-assorted union. Dot is pretty offended, but forgives him his mistake: it comes out that the old man was indeed a young one in disguise, but that he’s actually Caleb’s lost son, come back to confront May about her apparent desire to be with someone else and to marry her, if she’s still interested (and to her mother’s annoyance, she is). Dot is helping him in this endeavour. John and Dot make it up; Bertha is disabused of her illusions and forgives her father for having given rise to them, appreciating the huge efforts he’s gone to for her sake; and even Tackleton grudgingly forgives the bride he only wanted as a toy for choosing personal happiness instead of a life with him on such terms. Only May’s greedy mother is left piqued.

I know that’s a whirlwind summary, but one never knows how to deal with this! In academic criticism I’d assume you’d read this book already or were at any rate more here for critical/meta content than for a plot synopsis. In a book review I’d be positively discouraged from ‘spoiling’ the book (I do not personally believe in spoilage unless we’re discussing food, but I am aware other people are concerned about this (non-issue)). This is an awkward medium, so perhaps my awkward summary suits it.

Cricket is a simple story, designed to come out simultaneously with a theatrical production. Dickens was always getting plagiarised on the boards anyway, maybe he thought ‘why not gazump it?’ This type of simultaneous multi-media release is still rare even in our modern era of greater franchise-based organisation and marketing: it was something of a coup when Lloyd-Webber got out his Phantom sequel in every major market simultaneously, even if the musical itself was far from one. Dickens is deeply in conversation with Victorian pantomime and melodrama theatrical forms (he’s literally writing this for stage melodrama, with that dual-end in mind). As per last review, Simon Callow makes excellent points about the particular inherent interconnectedness of Dickens’ Christmas books and theatre. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that Dickens is, from a few antecedents, inventing the whole genre of ‘the Christmas story’ here. Cricket’s plot is perhaps best viewed as intentionally lean and silly, and thus potentially ideal for the several generic spaces it’s occupying. Dickens can certainly do dense: while I don’t love Cricket, some of the things I dislike about it are probably not errors, but choices.

(As a side note, “Vladimir Lenin left during a performance of the Cricket play in Russia, as he found it dull and the saccharine sentimentality got on his nerves. This incident might now be little remembered if George Orwell had not mentioned it in his essay on Dickens (from Wiki). One day, I will write an entire counter-essay on what a piece of malformed shit this Orwell essay on Dickens is. Orwell even manages, in this essay, not to get Lenin. ORWELL does. Stoppard whoops his ass in Travesties, it’s so embarrassing. I cannot think of Orwell’s Dickens essay without an eye twitch. Even now. And his review of Gaudy Night—I have to move on here before I black out and kill again.)

As with Our Mutual Friend and Battle of Life, here we have a familial relationship wherein one person conceals important information from another as an act of love, undertaking a great, burdensome feat of disguise and deceiving their loved one in order to help them. Lying to Bertha about the conditions in which they live exhausts and perpetually confuses Caleb, who lives in a clashing Orwellian (aha, yeah) double-think miasma. It also drains his already-limited finances; he buys her presents ‘from their kind benefactor’. Bertha’s blindness is a great opportunity for Caleb and a curse and a ‘blessing’ for Bertha, in that she can be thus insulated from the realities of her life.

Victorians, or at least Dickens, are far more comfortable with this kind of patronising treatment of truth and agency than we might be today. It seems unfair to entirely dismiss Caleb and John Harmon’s (OMF) acts as exercises of paternalistic control, when they demand real sacrifice from their perpetrators, and loss of agency and control. They also necessarily involve taking on labour and suffering, and are sometimes undertaken by the disempowered ‘child’ in the relationship. In Battle, the somewhat-infantilized younger sister deceives her elder sister/mother.  In addition to the great deception of OMF, i.e. John’s serving as the secretary for his own estate, Lizzie also deceives her father a little about her brother’s desertion, which she herself planned.

Caleb spends his days performing happiness for Bertha, telling her how wonderful things are in an attempt to enchant their domestic space, their enemies and their life. In doing so he even accidentally enchants his daughter into falling in love with the unworthy Tackleton. It’s a bit Life is Beautiful, really—perhaps we do still have some cultural space for this sort of lie, but only in the case of the very young, and in the direst possible circumstances. But consider Caleb as an actor/enchanter—and one within a play, as well. Charm is very associated with enchantment, manipulation, witchcraft, and a Freudian control over others’ psychologies. These elements also emerge strongly in Our Mutual Friend’s Bella/John fairy-tale romance arc.

Is there, perhaps, a core relationship between a willingness to hide unpleasant things from people as an act of love in Dickens’ work, charm, our current attitude towards charm and our current attitude towards agency? Is there something about our neo-liberal, almost Objectivist moment of strongly asserted independence, self-control and agency that is opposed to charm, opposed to the idea of our being swayed by external forces and actors? This frantic claim of self-determination occurs before the backdrop of the vast hierarchy of late capitalism, which makes a mockery of such assertions. Effectively resisting these hierarchies would require forms of solidarity we aren’t currently organised to employ. Does this insistence that we stand proud in our oysertish self-containment actually render us less able to understand and reckon with demagoguery, when it comes calling? Do (neo-liberal?) ‘independence’ formulations blind us to the play of hierarchies in our lives, and to the potential for collective resistance?

Questions of agency are especially fraught here because of Bertha’s blindness. There is something deeply uncomfortable and perhaps especially unethical about lying to Bertha, who depends on her father for information about the world she is unable to gather herself (to a perhaps unrealistic extent: you can smell and feel damp, etcetera, in a way the fairy-tale logic of Bertha’s deception cannot admit). Bertha is not a child, she is a young woman. This is not a temporary condition, but a permanent one. Her father’s lies have already caused her to feel heartbreak on Tackleton’s account: they have not shielded her from all harm, and have in some ways exposed her to additional pain.

Elsewhere Dickens has a tendency to ask people to contribute, in a hard situation, to the wellbeing of the family, and to measure their maturity by their willingness to try to do so. The siblings in Nicholas Nickleby chip in, and David Copperfield’s Dora is a bit of a failure for being unwilling and unable to do so. Bertha works hard at her father’s side, and yet doesn’t share the psychological and logistical burdens of their position. Her disability thus bars her from adulthood in a way that is disquieting. Her father is complicit in this process, and exacerbates it.

Yet one thing I hate is when people take a few examples from the canon and say Dickens ‘thinks’ (as though that’s quite the word we want, or something we care about—we all know his thinking is difficult to encapsulate, and that it isn’t entirely want matters to us as readers now) this or that about a topic important to contemporary discourse (a topic often constructed very differently, now, and in a wholly removed rhetorical context: imagine reading one person’s singled out memes and tweets in 100 years, without recourse to The Discourse). The fact is that Dickens has so many depictions of disability. He’s deeply interested in disabled people in the world (a topic that was perhaps more visible to Victorians than it is to us today), and gives them any range of personalities and experiences: vile Wegg; wonderful Jenny Wren; glorious Sloppy; ascendent, towering little Mowcher (who was apparently, quoth Cowell, going to be a villain until Dickens got a FURIOUS LETTER from a local dwarf chiropodist, along the lines of I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU WOULD INSULT ME THUS SIR!! Dickens was super embarrassed, though he’d no pre-existing idea of the woman’s existence, and re-wrote the whole ending so that Mowcher would be awesome and the real-life hairdresser proud to own the connection). These physically and mentally disabled characters are canny, productive, good-hearted, turned nasty by their situations and treatments, sulky, loyal, etc. They are, in short, people. **

I find it more productive to say that some Victorian story forms such as melodrama and some currents of popular thought exercise influence of various degrees in and through Dickens’ thinking and texts, as stories demand or as a project is more vulnerable to the pressure of them. Greater length and more of a sense of creative vision from Dickens himself can dispel these forces of cliche: they retreat or ‘come out of the cart’ in order to make more room for his developed characters and his own creative expressions. This is not to absolve Dickens from complicity in his poor representations and to reserve for his personality and agency only his contemporarily-laudable decisions and great works. It’s simply to say that without an understanding of Victorian contexts and how stock-tropes exert force on the creation of art, and without considering the breadth of his representations, it’s fairly useless to chat about ‘how Dickens thought about disability’.

Another thing that really bears some discussion is the erotic energy Caleb’s portrayal of a Tackleton generates. Bertha falls in love with her father’s words. Her affections are focused in part on:

1. something her father has created, so a sibling,

2. her father-as-artist,

3. on her father himself, the giver of gifts and ‘embodiment’ of her affection, and

4. on a refracted father-figure: Tackleton is, supposedly, their provider-benefactor, and of an age with Bertha’s sire.

When this deception collapses, Bertha credits her father with the benevolent spirit she romantically loved in Tackleton. She recommits her affections to her providing father. She has no mother to stand in the way of her serving as the lady of her father’s house, or to absorb or deflect her devotional, romantic energy. Her brother’s return does complicate this family circle, but his marriage draws him away from it, into a new family unit. I’m not saying anything as simplistic as ‘this is soft incest’. It decidedly isn’t. It is, however, a somewhat uneasy family romance that is a little difficult to reconcile neatly. 

I mean, were I a character in this story, especially Bertha or Caleb, I’d be fairly uncomfortable with this turn of events and what it might say about my affections and desires. Then again I am a psychoanalytic reader, and by definition a Dickens character cannot be. Freud himself was deeply influenced by Dickens, and his system of thinking about consciousness was influenced by the Victorian novel. I would not even hesitate to say that it was derived from it (and particularly from Dickens) in some measure, because Freud cops to exactly that on numerous occasions.

Caleb’s deception involves the use of performativity to express the authenticity of his love for Bertha. Performativity and authenticity are two important terms when we’re thinking about charm, but this also aligns with Dickens’ thinking about the theatre as enabling and accessing essential truth or hyper-reality by means of show in Nicholas Nickleby. (A theme Callow picks up on and deals well with: his biography really has much to offer. It is not perfect, but like the similarly-situated Chesterton work, it is insightful, loving and informed.) Charm arising from artifice and display is sometimes considered pernicious, a particularly feminised evil (painted whores, lying bitches). Dickens himself is somewhat down on artifice in the orchard dancing sequence of Battle of Life. But I think in general his attitude about artifice and charm is relatively nuanced, evincing positivity towards premeditation and the theatrical and also a vexed, complicated attitude towards coquetry. I’m thinking of Dora in DC, and perhaps Mrs. Nickleby, as well as the avatar for his own ex-fiancé in Little Dorrit.

Dickens is shockingly cruel to Mrs. Nickleby for still imagining herself desirable. But then he’s young when he writes cruelly of her, and latently furious with his mother, who Mrs. Nickleby is said to resemble. And like Austen, he doesn’t so much learn to play nice or blunt his edge as learn his kindness with time (this process becomes obvious when you consider Austen’s satiric juvenilia). It’s striking how kind Little Dorrit ultimately is to the character who serves to provide a parody of aged girlish affectations of unaffectedness. Dickens comes back to re-write Mrs. Nickleby and his former fiancé alike here, and to do better justice to them as a more mature man. He really gets the theatricality of performed gender, and doesn’t condemn it. I’m fairly confident in saying that Dickens is pretty mature about performance, especially feminised modes thereof, and sees no strong divide between it and The Real. (As a side-note, it’d be the worst hypocrisy for Dickens to come down against premeditation, theatricality and coquetry. Deprived of these, he would have neither career nor character-traits.)

This is of a piece with his general understanding of the performativity of marginal life: the charm-effort needed to survive for those who lack power, agency and resources. Uriah Heep probably expresses Dickens’ most brutal deconstruction of these social demands, and how we repudiate such shows with visceral dislike even while demanding their execution. Besides, not everyone ‘gets’ what Heep is doing and is made uncomfortable by his hypocritical fawning, as David is. This tactic serves Uriah well. We have the proof of this in his various ascensions. It’s almost impossible to divide Heep’s motives from his show cleanly, though these at times twist in opposite directions. Heep is one of Dickens’ most theatrical and pre-meditating characters (all his life is a play), and yet Dickens is fascinated by this manipulative creep: he always loves his grotesques more than his pantomime-pretty protagonists.

Concerns about performativity and authenticity also wind through John and Dot’s conflict. John wonders whether his wife’s affection and duty have just been shows to dupe him, or even efforts to convince herself that she’s happy when she isn’t. Performativity becomes reputation and chastity: Dot is seen doing something that is perhaps suspicious-looking, aiding in a disguise, and thus her own authenticity comes into question. Chastity and reputation are of course always domestic and public performances, even where underlying feelings of love and loyalty are their origin. I’m thinking a little of Paul Dombey Sr.’s ill-assorted second marriage. While his (decidedly unloving) wife Edith is still faithful to him (indeed she is never actually adulterous), it is insufficient for Dombey that she simply be so. She must come and dance at his party before his associates, like Esther’s predecessor, despite the fact that Edith prides herself on having never hitherto implied more feeling towards him than was actually in her.

Like David Copperfield, Cricket features May-December romantic relationships and apparent tension concerning them. We are supposed to believe Dot may be faithless or unhappy because her husband is older, even as we and the other characters are supposed to believe Annie Strong might be (though it seems to me as though Dot’s conduct is intended to be more suspect than Annie’s). Dot might have made a foolish marital choice, even as Betsey Trotwood implies Clara Copperfield might have done (though Betsey’s blame largely accrues to David Senior, there). Tackleton seems to have an easy time reducing his prospective marriage to May to a Dombeyish transactional affair because of her youth and beauty, while Bertha is able to cathect Tackleton a little like a father-lover. Indeed Tackleton finds the prospect of a young woman feeling real affection for him a proof of her insanity. Bertha’s tactfully-demonstrated affection is contemptible to him.

Possibly, across the Dickens canon (and maybe in Victorian thinking more generally?), May-December marriages are acceptable and even productive if they’re somewhat paternalistic (and it’s always father-daughter). But if they don’t fall into that model, they may be objectifying and exploitable. There’s not really a model for older wife-younger man. It’s not impossible that there would be—remember the Hot Widows of Regency theatre? There’s also not really a model for age-stratified relationships that are radically egalitarian (possibly the Dedlocks?). Bleak House threatens a paternalistic Jarndyce/Esther union, rendered especially familial because he’s her guardian and employer and has known her since childhood. It then curves around to favour a match between Esther and her age-mate, Allan Woodcourt. May-December marriages in general, though, seem to bear special risks of exploitation and infidelity.

Michael Slater made an excellent point in his lecture on Dickens and Christmas that all the Christmas books are, in some way or another, about memory. In Cricket, it’s Dot’s qualities and her past good behaviour, as well as the memories the couple share, that enable John to snap out of his Othello-ish rage and to be more than decent to May when he believes she’s cheated on him (or wants to), forgiving her fully the very next day and acting to promote her happiness at the expense of his own. John travels from a murderous rage, a dangerous excess of chauvinism, to a state of superlative goodness and self-transcendence. There is a feminising process in play: a magical quintessence of the forces of domestic preservation, in the form of the preserved cricket, gentles and elevates him. Even Tackleton is eventually impressed by John’s forbearance, and is himself gentled and elevated by it. The fantastic agent, the cricket, simply enables a supernatural expansion of natural processes of memory, thought and reflection, and serves as a fairy-repository of the common and ritual actions Dot has done and the couple have undertaken together in order to make their homelife successful.

This is a somewhat unusual treatment of a common theme: cheating wife, vengeful and jealous husband. Again, Dickens could be directly rethinking his adored Shakespeare. (Molly Katz points out that she’s not entirely sure this is a ‘counterblaste’ to Othello so much as, possibly, a development of the themes of Emilia’s speech. I think that could be right!) But Dickens’ emphasis on the Christmas book as a vehicle for explorations of forgiveness makes something strange and appealing out of the material. The husband is in a Deep Jealous Rage, but when he sits down, rather than concocting a revenge plot, he’s visited and affected by an externalised karmic essence of the goodness of the household and the love and work he and his wife have put in to it. He is forced to consider all these memories of her having been a good person and good to him, and by morning he’s transformed, through a night of thinking, from murderous to absolutely clement, understanding and releasing Dot.

This is the sort of incredibly bold transformation few writers besides Dickens really have the balls to just tell you can happen. We’re all afraid of it being unbelievable, but Dickens is just as head-down set in this in Christmas Carol. Cricket is not a good book, but there’s a power and feminism here. I could hedge on that term, but I choose not to. Cricket confronts the then-terrifying possibility of the angel in the house being a betrayer and insists that infidelity would not make her one. It says that whatever unfaithful women do, they do not deserve violence or even less physical forms of cruelty at the hands of the men who exercise power over their lives. John says a lot of quite keen stuff about having thought now about how Dot was young when she married. He suggests that she perhaps felt pressured, or simply found the union not to her liking after the fact. This method of forcing this character and the male reader to consider womens’ positions is really remarkable: how many ‘Why DID that woman do that thing you find reprehensible? Really enter her perspective, her gendered situation.’ takes do we have coming out now? I have trouble thinking of a contemporary popular, mass-culture narrative as invested in deconstructing toxic masculinity as Cricket is.

Thus it’s a little weird for Wikipedia to flatly say that in Cricket Dickens “abandoned social criticism, current events, and topical themes in favour of simple fantasy and a domestic setting for his hero’s redemption.” This formulation only works if your conception of the political issues does not include gendered violence: still a huge killer of women in England and elsewhere today. You’d have to shunt gender right out of your whole idea of the political, like Orwell does. (Ooooooh.)

Dickens is using the structure of melodrama to empathise in convincing ways with Dot’s position, and her having been ‘innocent’ all along does not unmake the central climax and the importance of the key work of forgiveness. Again we see emotional labour recognised as work, and as valuable. It’s interesting to see forgiveness staged, and the act of forgiving presented as itself redemptive. Dot’s resentment and hurt at having been thought unfaithful is also valuable, as is the maturity with which she herself forgives the suspicion and rises above it. (Dickens himself was never so sanguine, where he felt himself in the right: one of the stickiest points of his character was his defensiveness where he felt guilty, but also felt he hadn’t actually done wrong. Perhaps Dot’s comparative sang froid is due to her more total innocence.)

Dot’s true feeling eventually reveals itself via display, and this is what ultimately convinces John she is honest. But is such display also what made him feel her honesty could be in doubt? Perhaps it’s even possible to question Dot’s ‘womanhood’ (because to be a woman is, in some ways, to be a wife, a mother, a ‘good’ woman—I say this not in agreement with that position, but as an analysis of the cultural nexus that constitutes gender) and her marriage because, from the start, the occupation of such categories relies on performance. As Butler would tell us, womanhood is always performatively enacted.

Look at the mannered, intentional, ludic wifely displays Dot engages in:

Then, Dot—quite well again, she said, quite well again—arranged the great chair in the chimney-corner for her husband; filled his pipe and gave it him; and took her usual little stool beside him on the hearth.

She always would sit on that little stool.  I think she must have had a kind of notion that it was a coaxing, wheedling little stool.

She was, out and out, the very best filler of a pipe, I should say, in the four quarters of the globe.  To see her put that chubby little finger in the bowl, and then blow down the pipe to clear the tube, and, when she had done so, affect to think that there was really something in the tube, and blow a dozen times, and hold it to her eye like a telescope, with a most provoking twist in her capital little face, as she looked down it, was quite a brilliant thing.  As to the tobacco, she was perfect mistress of the subject; and her lighting of the pipe, with a wisp of paper, when the Carrier had it in his mouth—going so very near his nose, and yet not scorching it—was Art, high Art.

Art is specifically flagged up! We also have Dot’s ritualistic fussing over the baby (which must itself be dressed and displayed), Dot’s concern over her appearance (specifically her well-formed and well-attired legs), and this passage:

The packages and parcels for the errand cart, were numerous; and there were many stoppages to take them in and give them out, which were not by any means the worst parts of the journey.  Some people were so full of expectation about their parcels, and other people were so full of wonder about their parcels, and other people were so full of inexhaustible directions about their parcels, and John had such a lively interest in all the parcels, that it was as good as a play.  Likewise, there were articles to carry, which required to be considered and discussed, and in reference to the adjustment and disposition of which, councils had to be holden by the Carrier and the senders: at which Boxer usually assisted, in short fits of the closest attention, and long fits of tearing round and round the assembled sages and barking himself hoarse.  Of all these little incidents, Dot was the amused and open-eyed spectatress from her chair in the cart; and as she sat there, looking on—a charming little portrait framed to admiration by the tilt—there was no lack of nudgings and glancings and whisperings and envyings among the younger men.  And this delighted John the Carrier, beyond measure; for he was proud to have his little wife admired, knowing that she didn’t mind it—that, if anything, she rather liked it perhaps.

Like Agnes in DC, Dot is like a portrait of herself. Dot spectates, and herself invites spectation. She likes to be admired, and her husband, rather than being jealous, likes that she likes it, or even likes her being admired for his own part. In this figuration perhaps it is Dot’s beauty that charms, or her extensive preparations. But equally, it is her position overlooking others at work, the display she makes now and the thwarted desire of men.

Tackleton also speaks of the appearance of their happiness as a show, making John subconsciously doubt the validity of their feelings:

‘Tchah!  It’s of no use to be anything but free with you, I see,’ said Tackleton.  ‘Why, then, the truth is you have a—what tea-drinking people call a sort of a comfortable appearance together, you and your wife.  We know better, you know, but—’

‘No, we don’t know better,’ interposed John.  ‘What are you talking about?’

‘Well!  We don’t know better, then,’ said Tackleton.  ‘We’ll agree that we don’t.  As you like; what does it matter?  I was going to say, as you have that sort of appearance, your company will produce a favourable effect on Mrs. Tackleton that will be.  And, though I don’t think your good lady’s very friendly to me, in this matter, still she can’t help herself from falling into my views, for there’s a compactness and cosiness of appearance about her that always tells, even in an indifferent case.  You’ll say you’ll come?’

Other people—though not Tackleton himself, by his own account—are ‘taken in’ and think this couple, mis-matched in years, as happy as they seem. ‘Tea-drinking’ people. It’s not necessary that Dot actually agree with Tackleton about the advisability of Tackleton’s own May-December match: the fact that she looks attractive and well-kempt, and thus appears happy, will support his argument.

In the next passage Tackleton suggests that Dot and John should kill the noisy, irritating cricket on their hearth:

‘Bah! what’s home?’ cried Tackleton.  ‘Four walls and a ceiling! (why don’t you kill that Cricket?  I would!  I always do.  I hate their noise.)  There are four walls and a ceiling at my house.  Come to me!’

‘You kill your Crickets, eh?’ said John.

‘Scrunch ’em, sir,’ returned the other, setting his heel heavily on the floor.

Curiously and typically, Dickens delights both in the family that cherishes and preserves and never would smash a cricket, but just as much, if not more, in his grotesques. He relishes cricket-smashing Tackleton, describing his flawed character with great interest and vigour and giving us (in addition to Tackleton’s delightful name) a great deal of information on his backstory and person:

Tackleton the Toy-merchant, pretty generally known as Gruff and Tackleton—for that was the firm, though Gruff had been bought out long ago; only leaving his name, and as some said his nature, according to its Dictionary meaning, in the business—Tackleton the Toy-merchant, was a man whose vocation had been quite misunderstood by his Parents and Guardians.  If they had made him a Money Lender, or a sharp Attorney, or a Sheriff’s Officer, or a Broker, he might have sown his discontented oats in his youth, and, after having had the full run of himself in ill-natured transactions, might have turned out amiable, at last, for the sake of a little freshness and novelty.  But, cramped and chafing in the peaceable pursuit of toy-making, he was a domestic Ogre, who had been living on children all his life, and was their implacable enemy.  He despised all toys; wouldn’t have bought one for the world; delighted, in his malice, to insinuate grim expressions into the faces of brown-paper farmers who drove pigs to market, bellmen who advertised lost lawyers’ consciences, movable old ladies who darned stockings or carved pies; and other like samples of his stock in trade.  In appalling masks; hideous, hairy, red-eyed Jacks in Boxes; Vampire Kites; demoniacal Tumblers who wouldn’t lie down, and were perpetually flying forward, to stare infants out of countenance; his soul perfectly revelled.  They were his only relief, and safety-valve.  He was great in such inventions.  Anything suggestive of a Pony-nightmare was delicious to him.  He had even lost money (and he took to that toy very kindly) by getting up Goblin slides for magic-lanterns, whereon the Powers of Darkness were depicted as a sort of supernatural shell-fish, with human faces.  In intensifying the portraiture of Giants, he had sunk quite a little capital; and, though no painter himself, he could indicate, for the instruction of his artists, with a piece of chalk, a certain furtive leer for the countenances of those monsters, which was safe to destroy the peace of mind of any young gentleman between the ages of six and eleven, for the whole Christmas or Midsummer Vacation.

What he was in toys, he was (as most men are) in other things.  You may easily suppose, therefore, that within the great green cape, which reached down to the calves of his legs, there was buttoned up to the chin an uncommonly pleasant fellow; and that he was about as choice a spirit, and as agreeable a companion, as ever stood in a pair of bull-headed-looking boots with mahogany-coloured tops.

Still, Tackleton, the toy-merchant, was going to be married.  In spite of all this, he was going to be married.  And to a young wife too, a beautiful young wife.

He didn’t look much like a bridegroom, as he stood in the Carrier’s kitchen, with a twist in his dry face, and a screw in his body, and his hat jerked over the bridge of his nose, and his hands tucked down into the bottoms of his pockets, and his whole sarcastic ill-conditioned self peering out of one little corner of one little eye, like the concentrated essence of any number of ravens.  But, a Bridegroom he designed to be.

In fact Dickens so loves this crabbed old sinner that he cannot resist giving him a redemption arc, unearned but fun anyway:

There was a tap at the door; and a man came staggering in, without saying with your leave, or by your leave, with something heavy on his head.  Setting this down in the middle of the table, symmetrically in the centre of the nuts and apples, he said:

‘Mr. Tackleton’s compliments, and as he hasn’t got no use for the cake himself, p’raps you’ll eat it.’

And with those words, he walked off.

There was some surprise among the company, as you may imagine.  Mrs. Fielding, being a lady of infinite discernment, suggested that the cake was poisoned, and related a narrative of a cake, which, within her knowledge, had turned a seminary for young ladies, blue.  But she was overruled by acclamation; and the cake was cut by May, with much ceremony and rejoicing.

I don’t think any one had tasted it, when there came another tap at the door, and the same man appeared again, having under his arm a vast brown-paper parcel.

‘Mr. Tackleton’s compliments, and he’s sent a few toys for the Babby.  They ain’t ugly.’

After the delivery of which expressions, he retired again.

The whole party would have experienced great difficulty in finding words for their astonishment, even if they had had ample time to seek them.  But they had none at all; for the messenger had scarcely shut the door behind him, when there came another tap, and Tackleton himself walked in.

‘Mrs. Peerybingle!’ said the Toy-merchant, hat in hand.  ‘I’m sorry.  I’m more sorry than I was this morning.  I have had time to think of it.  John Peerybingle!  I’m sour by disposition; but I can’t help being sweetened, more or less, by coming face to face with such a man as you.  Caleb!  This unconscious little nurse gave me a broken hint last night, of which I have found the thread.  I blush to think how easily I might have bound you and your daughter to me, and what a miserable idiot I was, when I took her for one!  Friends, one and all, my house is very lonely to-night.  I have not so much as a Cricket on my Hearth.  I have scared them all away.  Be gracious to me; let me join this happy party!’

He was at home in five minutes.  You never saw such a fellow.  What had he been doing with himself all his life, never to have known, before, his great capacity of being jovial!  Or what had the Fairies been doing with him, to have effected such a change! […] Well! if you’ll believe me, they have not been dancing five minutes, when suddenly the Carrier flings his pipe away, takes Dot round the waist, dashes out into the room, and starts off with her, toe and heel, quite wonderfully.  Tackleton no sooner sees this, than he skims across to Mrs. Fielding, takes her round the waist, and follows suit.

Chesterton says that Christmas Carol’s Scrooge goes about villainy in such a jolly, full-tilt fashion that he was probably always sneaking toys to children when the narrative’s back was turned. Tackleton is something of a delightful demon even as Scrooge is, and his unnecessary, superlative redemption arc is reminiscent of Scrooge’s. Dickens just can’t stand to end the story with anyone he likes left out of the tableaux, out in the cold, barred from the final feast.

A few final notes:

Some of the description of Tackleton’s terrifying toys is very reminiscent of “Christmas Tree”’s. I have here the note “god, nursemaid, toys, journey”, but no more idea than that what the hell I might have meant when I wrote it. Something pertaining to this!

May’s grasping mother slides somewhere into the spectrum of ‘Dickens’ mothers’. Someone must have done a very good paper or even infographic about them all, yes? I love her surly resentment when the plan doesn’t come off, and how she has to be coaxed out of it.

The restoration of Bertha’s brother is some great melodrama shit, and his fairy-taleish return as an old man, disguised thus to test his love’s fidelity (Could he have so disguised himself? Eh, who cares—), does that peculiarly Dickens trick of building and establishing the charm of his own work out of the elements of, or within the skeleton of, pre-existing forms of charm.

***

SUMMING UP:

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS IN CRICKET:

Again, the key theme for all the Christmas’ books use of the supernatural is memory, and the key frames are theatrical/pantomime/melodrama and fairy tale (possibly with a side of himself-supernaturally-interested Shakespeare). Cricket is perhaps the most ‘for the stage’ of any of the Christmas books, with the closest relationship to pantomime structures, but its particular iteration of ‘supernatural memory’ is perhaps also the most mundane. John is literally just remembering things: the force causing him to do so and organising his perceptions is said to be a sort of Shintoish house spirit, but it could just as easily be his own conscience or reason. It’s an interesting depiction of forces outside one’s own person and resources directing and curbing one’s behaviour, or of an intervention in personal life by some greater power: perhaps Christian Victorian readers took that element somewhat more seriously than I do? Memory itself could be said to be magical, here: it transports you to other times, it alters your mood, it exercises a great and unstoppable power over you.

HOW CRICKET CONSTRUCTS CHARM:

We’ve already talked about Cricket as fairy tale and theatrical performance, specifically as melodrama, pantomime and as Shakespeare reworking. We’ve also looked at artifice and authenticity and gendered charm (including something like amae behaviour) in terms of Dot, and about Caleb as a deceiving enchanter/performer. Both Dot and Caleb’s charming perhaps throw light on Dickens’ own charm labour. Charm is an audience effect, both performed and seen in story (characters charm and are charmed) and at a meta level: the reader is charmed, sometimes by the charming and charmed qualities or states of characters within the text.

If Dickens, a consummate and enthusiastic semi-professional director, can be seen as writing theatre in his prose, it’s possible that he wants characters to function as a the ultimate actors. Characters are actors Dickens can utterly control, and whose whole lives are ‘authentically’ available for the audience and useful as performance. They have no private, ‘off-stage’ existences to disrupt this. They look and emote exactly as he wants them to; they never tire of rehearsal or flub their lines. Dickens also wants living subjects to act for him on the stage and to take part in his real-life proto-psychoanalytic efforts, but here he’s making his own (which he becomes increasingly good at: Dickens gets better at character as he goes on). The actors he makes are by turns psychologically realistic and bigger than life, as he needs them to be.

Dickens is also making bank out of the Christmas stories, inventing and promoting a highly marketable nascent genre. He’s charming his contemporary reader for money, and for love: he needs that sustaining audience relationship, both for his bread and for his sense of self (more on this in re: Christmas Carol and touring). Your love is his posterity, too. It’s charm’s capacity to get the charmer what they need and want, at others’ expense (someone must Be Charmed) that really disquiets people: that, and the realisation that emotional labour is being monetised. That it is always-already labour, in ways that exist outside of and exceed capitalist definitions of the term. “They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.” Silvia Federici can tell us so much about why acknowledging the connections between feeling and work is deeply uncomfortable and difficult to do. She would suggest it’s because capital is interested in mystifying these connections and obscuring the fact that  it’s predicated on the large-scale uncompensated appropriation of female labour (including feminised emotional labour). (Fanon would say something similar (though by no means contradictory—quite the reverse!) about capital’s reliance on the uncompensated appropriation of the labour of ‘raced’ peoples.)

There are only three specific uses of the word charm or any form thereof in the text. One is in the passage quoted at length above:

Of all these little incidents, Dot was the amused and open-eyed spectatress from her chair in the cart; and as she sat there, looking on—a charming little portrait framed to admiration by the tilt—there was no lack of nudgings and glancings and whisperings and envyings among the younger men.  And this delighted John the Carrier, beyond measure; for he was proud to have his little wife admired, knowing that she didn’t mind it—that, if anything, she rather liked it perhaps.

This element of a female audience herself being watched makes me think strongly of Molly Katz’s work on female audiences on stage and off in Shakespearean and Jacobite drama (specifically Malfi, which works with the same themes—female spectatorship, jealousy, mismatched marriage—to very different ends).

Another, here:

She sat plying her needle, before the fire, and singing to herself.  Such a blithe, thriving, steady little Dot!  The fairy figures turned upon him all at once, by one consent, with one prodigious concentrated stare, and seemed to say, ‘Is this the light wife you are mourning for!’

There were sounds of gaiety outside, musical instruments, and noisy tongues, and laughter.  A crowd of young merry-makers came pouring in, among whom were May Fielding and a score of pretty girls.  Dot was the fairest of them all; as young as any of them too.  They came to summon her to join their party.  It was a dance.  If ever little foot were made for dancing, hers was, surely.  But she laughed, and shook her head, and pointed to her cookery on the fire, and her table ready spread: with an exulting defiance that rendered her more charming than she was before.  And so she merrily dismissed them, nodding to her would-be partners, one by one, as they passed, but with a comical indifference, enough to make them go and drown themselves immediately if they were her admirers—and they must have been so, more or less; they couldn’t help it.  And yet indifference was not her character.  O no!  For presently, there came a certain Carrier to the door; and bless her what a welcome she bestowed upon him!

Again the staring figures turned upon him all at once, and seemed to say, ‘Is this the wife who has forsaken you!’

It’s Dot’s beauty, but also her domestic skill and her self-contained defiance that render her charming, here: her show of indifference, but also her keen feeling.

And the last:

‘Father,’ said Bertha, hesitating.  ‘Mary.’ [i.e. Dot]

‘Yes, my dear,’ returned Caleb.  ‘Here she is.’

‘There is no change in her.  You never told me anything of her that was not true?’

‘I should have done it, my dear, I am afraid,’ returned Caleb, ‘if I could have made her better than she was.  But I must have changed her for the worse, if I had changed her at all.  Nothing could improve her, Bertha.’

Confident as the Blind Girl had been when she asked the question, her delight and pride in the reply and her renewed embrace of Dot, were charming to behold.

Here Bertha’s delight and pride in her friend, and their embrace, are charming to behold. For who? Perhaps her father, who’s relieved to be forgiven—are we the audience supposed to experience this relief with him, or in sympathy for him, and to be charmed as a part of that process? Or are we supposed to be charmed simply by their affection? Or is Caleb supposed to be the one charmed to see their affection? Feeling between women, and spontaneous expressions thereof not aimed at producing success in courtship, are constructed as charming here, as they were in Battle.

***

* Some sections of this essay feel repetitive and clumsy to me, and for that I’m sorry. I suspect I need a beta to make the whole thing better, but this is just a blog post, and I’ve no intention of putting my girlfriend to the trouble of 8,000 odd words of editing when she just did the 12k “Kirk Drift” for me Saturday, over a book she’s not read, and again—for my blog. You want this article-polished, you can email me with a publication offer, can’t you.

** Funnily enough, Molly Katz points out I unconsciously stole the thrust of this from the ‘actually-quite-imitable-as-it-turns-out’:

to Mary Hurnall:

Dear Madam.

I have been in Scotland for some weeks past, and find so many letters to answer on my return, that I am obliged to send a more brief reply to yours than I desire. Accept my sincere thanks, both for your note, and the Invitation it contains. I fear it is not likely it will ever be in my power to accept it in deed, but in spirit I do, and so do Mrs. Dickens and my children—you are right; I have four. Be assured that I am not unmindful of my promise, and that if you should come back to London at any time, I shall, please god, make a point of seeing you. Your remark—a very natural and proper one—on the blind man in Barnaby, is only another proof to me, among many others which present themselves in various forms every day, of the great disadvantages which attend a detached and desultory form of publication. My intention in the management of this inferior and subordinate character, was to remind the World who have eyes, that they have no right to expect in sightless men a degree of virtue and goodness to which they, in full possession of all their senses, can lay no claim—that it is a very easy thing for those who misuse every gift of Heaven to consider resignation and cheerfulness the duty of those whom it has deprived of some great blessing—that whereas we look upon a blind man who does wrong, as a kind of monster, we ought in truth and justice to remember that a man who has eyes and is a vicious wretch, is by his very abuse of the glorious faculty of sight, and immeasurably greater offender than his afflicted fellow. In a word, I wished to show that the hand of God is at least as manifest in making eyes as in unmaking them, and that we do not sufficiently consider the sorrows of those who walk in darkness on this earth, when we set it up as a rule that they ought to be better than ourselves, and that they are required to be by their calamity. Calamity with us, is made an excuse for doing wrong. With them, it is erected into a reason for for their doing right. This is really the justice of rich to poor, and I protest against it because it is so. All this you would have seen if you could have had the whole book before your mental vision. As it is, I can only hope to bring my meaning before you by very slow and gradual degrees, and after you have formed a first impression on the subject. That it is a real pleasure and delight to me to know that I afford you any consolation or amusement, you may believe with your whole heart. And believe also that I am,

Dear Madam with an unaffected interest in your happiness

Faithfully Yours

CHARLES DICKENS

Quoth Katz:

Also interesting that Uriah also brings up “cheerfulness” in a very similar phrasing: “from nine o’clock to eleven, that labour was a curse; and from eleven o’clock to one, that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness”.  And I also wonder about “very slowly and by gradual degrees” when we have the “slow fire” that Uriah puts David on. He means “I will slowly bring the reader into this consciousness”, but there’s an element of Uriah’s signature slow roast to it, to me.

That sort of hint of vindictive ‘forcing to see’ might look ahead to a rather more modern, social justice call-out formulation. Also, the extent to which Dickens isn’t just represented by David in Copperfield is often overlooked.