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.

“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.

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.

David Copperfield: Timeline of Events

(This has been compiled and written by Molly Katz, a PhD student at Cornell. I provided only some light consulting, but we wanted to share it here as she doesn’t have a blog suited to the purpose.)

David Copperfield Timeline of Events:

All dates are based on the assumption that David is born in 1820, somewhat arbitrarily following Robert Graves in The Real David Copperfield. The ‘logical’ birth year for David is clearly 1812, Dickens’ own birth year. Graves may have used the construction of Pentonville Prison as his justification for locating David’s birth later than this. The main events of David Copperfield span 26 years, which would set David’s visit to a prison modeled on Pentonville in 1838 too early, as Pentonville opened in 1842.

Nevertheless, David stays at the Golden Cross during a visit to London. Graves’ birthdate would place this trip during 1838. According to the Penguin edition of the book, however, “Trafalgar Square was laid out between 1830 and 1841 (on the site of the King’s Mews): the Golden Cross, demolished 1827, was a famous coaching inn, the old Charing Cross (demolished 1647).” This would shift all the events of the book significantly earlier than the dates below, and support 1812 for David’s birth year.

Ultimately, given these contradictory historical benchmarks, the main value of this timeline lies in its internal consistency, NOT in its potential to align the events of David Copperfield with historical events of the Victorian period.

1770: Dr. Strong born
1780: David Copperfield Sr. born
1800: Clara Copperfield born
1807: Miss Larkins born
1811: Janet born
1812: Annie born
~1814: Steerforth born (“at least half a dozen years my senior”)
1816: Uriah born
1819: David’s parents marry
1819: Miss Mills born
September, 1819, David Copperfield Sr. dies
1820: David born (March)
~1821: Dora born
1826: Micawber son born
1827: Micawber daugher born
~1827: Uriah’s father dies, Uriah 11
~1827: Uriah goes to work for Wickfield
1829: David starts at Creakle’s, at age 8
1829: David’s brother born
1830: Comes back to school, there less than half a year
1830: Mother and brother die. Turns 10 soon after
1830: Caul auctioned off “down in our part of the country.” David present.
1830: Goes to work for Murdstone and Grinby. Reference to “his gracious majesty” during this period sets this definitively before 1837.
~1830: Dr. Strong marries Annie
~1831 (could be 1832 or even 1833): David has a birthday while still working for Murdstone and Grinby. Obliquely mentioned: he might have had more than one. “I had become, in the Murdstone and Grinby time, however short or long it may have been, so unused to the sports and games of boys”.
1832: Jack Maldon leaves for India
1837: David 17, in love with Miss Larkins
1838: David still 17 and has left school, thinking of a career. Wickfield already diminishing rapidly; cries at his desk, worst when Uriah calls him in.
1838: Steerforth at Oxford
1838: Dr. Strong retires
1838: Steerforth comes to Yarmouth with David
1838: David rents Mrs. Crupp’s room, commits to proctor as profession
1838: Uriah in London to work on becoming a partner in the firm
1838: Uriah and Agnes return to Canterbury
1838: David articled to Spenlow and Jorkins (term of articles usually two years)
1838: Very soon after he’s articled, meets Dora
1838: Barkis dies
1838: Miss Mills is “comparatively stricken in years” and almost 20 re: Dora
1838: David engaged to Dora
1838: Betsey’s fortune lost. David tries to get his articles back. Uriah now a partner, Heeps have moved into Wickfield house. Six Months still left on David’s lease w/Crupp
1838: David becomes secretary to Dr. Strong to bring in extra income
1838: Spenlow dies, Micawber becomes Uriah’s clerk. Strong family crisis takes place
1839-40: David in a new house, marriage to Dora impending. David begins writing
1841: David and Dora married
1842: David and Dora have been married about a year, Martha agrees to help in search for Emily
1842: David’s first book comes out, married a year and a half
1842: As their second year of marriage wraps up, Dora’s health seriously declines
1843: Emily recovered, “Explosion”
1843: Dora dies
1843: David plans to go abroad immediately following the Micawbers’ departure to Australia, Agnes plans to start a school
1843: Steerforth and Ham die
1843: David goes abroad
1846: David abroad a full 3 years
1846: Traddles married
1846: David returns to England around October, stays with Betsey while finishing a book, goes and sees Uriah in prison
1847: Having been home two months, David proposes to Agnes
1857: David married 10 years, more than 3 children. Mr. Peggotty comes back for a visit, shares tons of happy news from Australia.
Retrospective: unclear if this is written after 1857 or in 1857. Seems to me to be ‘in’. Traddles’ kids are getting a good education. Jack Maldon same as ever. Dr. Strong and Annie happy. Betsey now 80 years old. If it is 1857 that would mean she was born in 1777, and that she is 3 years older than David Sr.

Dickens’ The Battle of Life (1846)

The Battle of Life (1846)

800px-Battle_cover.jpg

Per Wiki: “Battle is the only one of the five Christmas Books that has no supernatural or explicitly religious elements. (One scene takes place at Christmas time, but it is not the final scene.) The story bears some resemblance to The Cricket on the Hearth in two respects: it has a non-urban setting, and it is resolved with a romantic twist. It is even less of a social novel than is Cricket.”

Battle is probably my least favourite of the Christmas Books, and it’s easily the one I find it most difficult to talk about. It’s not execrable, it’s just more fairy-taleish and more Christmas-pantomime in its structure, tone and characterisation than the others. Its protagonists are only allowed that ‘principal boy and girl’ level of subjectivity. In a different Dickens work Michael Warden—a rich and slightly dissolute young man who tries to seduce and run away with a young woman, is refused by her after he believes she’s consented and made to genuinely feel the shame of his actions, is compelled by her to participate in a theatrical kind of penance, and who eventually ends up, ‘off stage’, marrying this Marion after all—would be a compelling and fleshed out character, and the eucatastrophe of his ending could be deeply interesting. Length is part of what makes this story melodrama—that, and a lack of interiority. How different from Our Mutual Friend’s false identity and faked death are this story’s more ridiculous developments, really? It’s surprisingly easy to imagine this plot as serious and moving—if Dickens had given it time. But despite starting out his career in the short story format, with few exceptions Dickens can’t entirely bring his talents to bear on anything shorter than a three-volume. I imagine someone at some point or other has thought Dickens would be better for being compressed and curtailed (Graves in The Real David Copperfield, for example), but it turns out that’s entirely wrong: Dickens’ best stuff is in his ‘overflow’ (though I have some other thoughts about whether that excess is mess: I actually think Dickens is fairly micro-level meticulous, and that this often gets overlooked because of the volume, exuberance and colour of his production and imagination).

I am, it seems, not the only person to have thought something like this:

The novel’s earliest critics found flaws that emphasised its weakness when compared with other of Dickens’s popular works. The Times‘ reviewers summarise the strongest and most bitter of these attacks by way of a description that suggests the book is `intrinsically puerile and stupid,’ `a twaddling manifestation of silliness,’ and `simply ridiculous’ (Ford, 53). Later criticism, although less caustic in tone, recognises that the book’s chief fault was its attempt to tell a tale concerning the complexities of passion and self-denial in three inadequately short chapters. Harry Stone speaks for the majority of readers by referring to The Battle of Life as `a savagely reduced work that sometimes reads like a scenario, sometimes like a breathless outline’ (Stone, 132).

Breathless, no doubt, because Dickens was , at the time of writing the book, engaged on another consuming project: `I am horribly hard at work with my Christmas Book,’ he wrote to Thomas Talfourd from Lausanne where he had sequestered himself in September 1846, `which runs (rather inconveniently) in a Curricle just now, with “Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son” (Letters, IV, 631). Additionally, Dickens was later to admit that his subject had warranted greater development than the scope of a Christmas book would allow. But in satisfying the demand for narrative closure he was haunted by not fulfilling his intention to write what he described to John Forster as `both a love story in the common acceptation of the phrase, and a story about love’ (Letters, IV, 631). The distinction is, as I intend to argue, both exact and essential.”

(The quoted article’s pretty good, by the by, and might warrant your attention. I would say that this:

“Beyond attention to the self-sacrifice is the acknowledgment that the book is commemorative of a real sister, or sister-in-law, Mary Scott Hogarth [Figure 1], who biographers stress held an almost magnetic attraction for Dickens both before and after her death. Biographical readings of the story have to date been preoccupied with the supposedly displaced affection for Mary that the book seems to foreground. Freudian approaches make obvious connections between a story about a man who loves two sisters that was written by a man who loved two sisters. During the narrative one of the two sisters, Marion, performs the obligatory act of self-sacrifice; However, my interest lies in another, less disinterested, aspect of her behaviour, an aspect I might add that the novel avoids fully investigating: her lapse in submitting wholly to the desire of others.”

is interesting because Dickens does marry the older, steady sister, and spends David Copperfield sort of re-negotiating that choice—Agnes performs some Catherine and some Mary functions in the text, which asserts itself grandly to shore up a fictional relationship that’s not very believable, which is itself a synecdoche for real life romantic triangulations that ultimately prove difficult to sustain. David Parker’s words herein about the irreducible nature of Dickens’ affection for Mary are about the first subtle, intelligent things I’ve read on the topic. You could also say something about anabasis in re: Marion’s journey in this, couldn’t you?)

That said, Battle’s plot is not serious or moving as it stands. Two sisters have grown up with a young man, Alfred, a ward of their father, about the place. Both of them love the young man, though the older, slightly plainer sister (Grace) keeps this an absolute secret and stands back while Alfred and Marion, her younger sister, conduct their love affair. Alfred goes off on a three-year tour of foreign schools of medicine, as his now-departed dad asked his guardians to arrange for him, and the very night he returns Marion seems to elope with the aforesaid Michael Warden. It later turns out Marion did absolutely adore her fiancé Alfred, but that she left because her self-sacrificing sister did too. In leaving Marion gave Grace and Alfred time to fall in love and be happily married for a while, and herself time to get over it. So Marion pretends to have ‘eloped’ while actually off living with her aunt. At some point she slips her dad the information that she’s fine, and later on she has Warden come weirdly imply she’s died (Why? It makes sense to generate narrative drama, but not really in-world.) before making her triumphant reappearance on the scene.

The whole end of this deception, and indeed the level of the deception and the theme of stupidly selfless sisterly love, are all turn-offs for me. I’m all for sorority, but the element of the ridiculous grates on my sensibilities. Just bloody write a note. I know it’d make Grace feel bad, but shit, be adults and talk. Interestingly this is just the kind of authorial treatment of people Simon Callow draws our attention to in his biography of Dickens, noting Dickens’ decision not to tell his wife Catherine their daughter had died, but to instead soften the blow by delivering the information in stages. Dickens believes in controlling the narrative, in not telling people things it’d hurt them to know just for the sake of some objective commitment to truthfulness or communication and mutualistic decision making. It’s an interesting argument, but it runs so against contemporary thinking about respecting the agency of your loved ones by giving them all the information, letting them make decisions and supporting them in these. (I am also, incidentally, indebted to Callow for his comments on Dickens’ pantomime-logic in re: the Christmas stories.)

The ball scene in which Alfred is riding ever closer and preparations for the homecoming have been undertaken and anticipation is swelling and the crowd is dancing and Marion is slipping away has an undeniable vigour. This strong set-piece pulls on the emotional energy of something like Cinderella’s half-shod escape from the palace or the revels of the twelve dancing princesses. Or perhaps it’s an adventure story? It feels slightly Baroness Orczy or something (of course whatever Dickens was drawing on would have to be earlier—and, I hope, better (‘cleverest woman in Europe’ my ass, the whole climax of Pimpernel is literally stumbling through brambles right behind a dude for miles, hoping he doesn’t bloody turn around)). The set up of the story’s conclusion mixes, however, an irksome, tedious and unnecessary series of reveals (not a Gallifrey audios level of REVEALS, but more than enough) with this fairy-tale logic: it’s not so happy a marriage as the ones we are told the four young people will henceforth enjoy.

What Battle is a little like, perhaps, is a femme!Two Gentlemen of Verona, which also doesn’t play well for a modern audience. You’re supposed to throw over your romantic object for the sake of your same-sex companionable bond, and then it’s all right in the end: love is transferable, replaceable, assignable, and the neat hand wave of ‘time passed’ is enough to channel all these torrents of feeling to productive and sociable ends. Time heals all wounds, leaving no scars in the form of resentments and longings, making you wonder if the feelings mattered in the first place. Without having inhabited the time-lapse and the psychologies involved, the sacrifices and the growing into new directions and the thoroughly-won forgivenesses and redemptions Dickens loves to write and give audiences in a Christmas book come off thin and cheap—which is especially damaging in a Christmas book, where what you want is a rich, full, sensual experience to compliment the season.

I do love this final paragraph:

TIME—from whom I had the latter portion of this story, and with whom I have the pleasure of a personal acquaintance of some five- and-thirty years’ duration—informed me, leaning easily upon his scythe, that Michael Warden never went away again, and never sold his house, but opened it afresh, maintained a golden means of hospitality, and had a wife, the pride and honour of that countryside, whose name was Marion. But, as I have observed that Time confuses facts occasionally, I hardly know what weight to give to his authority.”

(Incidentally, how dare Dickens be so young at this point, and have already produced so much? God I hate him. But even in a bad book he still gives me so much—I’m still so happy to be in his writing. He’s hard not to be fond of, once you spend proper time with him.)

The opening of the book is strikingly bleak and interested in long-term change and the continuity of the land. It almost puts me in mind of Alan Garner (ATTN: MAUREEN). I’ll give you the whole of it, you can skim it if you like.

Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought. It was fought upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a wild flower formed by the Almighty Hand to be a perfumed goblet for the dew, felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day, and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour from harmless leaves and herbs, was stained anew that day by dying men, and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track. The painted butterfly took blood into the air upon the edges of its wings. The stream ran red. The trodden ground became a quagmire, whence, from sullen pools collected in the prints of human feet and horses’ hoofs, the one prevailing hue still lowered and glimmered at the sun.

Heaven keep us from a knowledge of the sights the moon beheld upon that field, when, coming up above the black line of distant rising- ground, softened and blurred at the edge by trees, she rose into the sky and looked upon the plain, strewn with upturned faces that had once at mothers’ breasts sought mothers’ eyes, or slumbered happily. Heaven keep us from a knowledge of the secrets whispered afterwards upon the tainted wind that blew across the scene of that day’s work and that night’s death and suffering! Many a lonely moon was bright upon the battle-ground, and many a star kept mournful watch upon it, and many a wind from every quarter of the earth blew over it, before the traces of the fight were worn away.

They lurked and lingered for a long time, but survived in little things; for, Nature, far above the evil passions of men, soon recovered Her serenity, and smiled upon the guilty battle-ground as she had done before, when it was innocent. The larks sang high above it; the swallows skimmed and dipped and flitted to and fro; the shadows of the flying clouds pursued each other swiftly, over grass and corn and turnip-field and wood, and over roof and church- spire in the nestling town among the trees, away into the bright distance on the borders of the sky and earth, where the red sunsets faded. Crops were sown, and grew up, and were gathered in; the stream that had been crimsoned, turned a watermill; men whistled at the plough; gleaners and haymakers were seen in quiet groups at work; sheep and oxen pastured; boys whooped and called, in fields, to scare away the birds; smoke rose from cottage chimneys; sabbath bells rang peacefully; old people lived and died; the timid creatures of the field, and simple flowers of the bush and garden, grew and withered in their destined terms: and all upon the fierce and bloody battle-ground, where thousands upon thousands had been killed in the great fight. But, there were deep green patches in the growing corn at first, that people looked at awfully. Year after year they re-appeared; and it was known that underneath those fertile spots, heaps of men and horses lay buried, indiscriminately, enriching the ground. The husbandmen who ploughed those places, shrunk from the great worms abounding there; and the sheaves they yielded, were, for many a long year, called the Battle Sheaves, and set apart; and no one ever knew a Battle Sheaf to be among the last load at a Harvest Home. For a long time, every furrow that was turned, revealed some fragments of the fight. For a long time, there were wounded trees upon the battle- ground; and scraps of hacked and broken fence and wall, where deadly struggles had been made; and trampled parts where not a leaf or blade would grow. For a long time, no village girl would dress her hair or bosom with the sweetest flower from that field of death: and after many a year had come and gone, the berries growing there, were still believed to leave too deep a stain upon the hand that plucked them.

The Seasons in their course, however, though they passed as lightly as the summer clouds themselves, obliterated, in the lapse of time, even these remains of the old conflict; and wore away such legendary traces of it as the neighbouring people carried in their minds, until they dwindled into old wives’ tales, dimly remembered round the winter fire, and waning every year. Where the wild flowers and berries had so long remained upon the stem untouched, gardens arose, and houses were built, and children played at battles on the turf. The wounded trees had long ago made Christmas logs, and blazed and roared away. The deep green patches were no greener now than the memory of those who lay in dust below. The ploughshare still turned up from time to time some rusty bits of metal, but it was hard to say what use they had ever served, and those who found them wondered and disputed. An old dinted corselet, and a helmet, had been hanging in the church so long, that the same weak half-blind old man who tried in vain to make them out above the whitewashed arch, had marvelled at them as a baby. If the host slain upon the field, could have been for a moment reanimated in the forms in which they fell, each upon the spot that was the bed of his untimely death, gashed and ghastly soldiers would have stared in, hundreds deep, at household door and window; and would have risen on the hearths of quiet homes; and would have been the garnered store of barns and granaries; and would have started up between the cradled infant and its nurse; and would have floated with the stream, and whirled round on the mill, and crowded the orchard, and burdened the meadow, and piled the rickyard high with dying men. So altered was the battle-ground, where thousands upon thousands had been killed in the great fight.

Nowhere more altered, perhaps, about a hundred years ago, than in one little orchard attached to an old stone house with a honeysuckle porch; where, on a bright autumn morning, there were sounds of music and laughter, and where two girls danced merrily together on the grass, while some half-dozen peasant women standing on ladders, gathering the apples from the trees, stopped in their work to look down, and share their enjoyment. It was a pleasant, lively, natural scene; a beautiful day, a retired spot; and the two girls, quite unconstrained and careless, danced in the freedom and gaiety of their hearts.”

Now, that’s the type of scene Dickens almost never does, isn’t it? The martial conflict? There’s a Christmas story with one (ah, the hilariously-named Richard Doubledick), but that feels as though Dickens is mentally copy-pasting from all the other Tales of Courage and Military Brotherhood stuff he’s read. Fundamentally, Dickens can never wholeheartedly engage in the romance of empire because for all his fuzziness on some matters of history (Chesterton alleges as much, at least), he has a fundamental sense of deep time. Think of the dinosaur opening of Bleak House, which is like Ballard’s Drowned World except it deserves to exist. And here’s this, too. I suspect Dickens can’t emotionally connect to ‘the glory of battle’ because he’s too domestic. He takes the long-view. His mind is on what comes of battles: grief, a mess and eventual healing. It’s interesting that this story is set within such a powerful metaphor for healed internal wounds: it ought to be mimetic for the girls’ pain, first Grace’s and then Marion’s, but these characters are too insufficiently psychologically established to give much payout on that front. Further, this grown-over Flanders Field they live in seems so much BIGGER than Grace and Marion’s heartache. You could say that Dickens wants you to feel their problems as in conversation with the epic, ennobled and made valid because they are real human problems, but if so that kitchen sink naturalism sits awkwardly with his melodrama/fairy-tale storytelling mode.

The moral relativism and nihilism of the girls’ father is, from the beginning, undercut by his actually caring a good deal about Arthur and the girls. The story itself lovingly says as much. (I want to talk sometime about the sense of fondness for characters you can get from Dickens, and how this affects the reading experience.) This treatment is both a great call-out of a certain kind of Deep Thinker and an interesting meditation on what the contemplative life can do to people:

“Doctor Jeddler was, as I have said, a great philosopher, and the heart and mystery of his philosophy was, to look upon the world as a gigantic practical joke; as something too absurd to be considered seriously, by any rational man. His system of belief had been, in the beginning, part and parcel of the battle-ground on which he lived, as you shall presently understand.”

“The Doctor never dreamed of inquiring whether his children, or either of them, helped in any way to make the scheme [of life] a serious one. But then he was a Philosopher.”

“A kind and generous man by nature, he had stumbled, by chance, over that common Philosopher’s stone (much more easily discovered than the object of the alchemist’s researches), which sometimes trips up kind and generous men, and has the fatal property of turning gold to dross and every precious thing to poor account.”

Dr. Jeddler, in spite of his system of philosophy—which he was continually contradicting and denying in practice, but more famous philosophers have done that—could not help having as much interest in the return of his old ward and pupil as if it had been a serious event. So he sat himself down in his easy-chair again, stretched out his slippered feet once more upon the rug, read the letter over and over a great many times, and talked it over more times still.”

Knowing Dickens’ DEEP love for Shakespeare (which actually—may account for some of the melodrama/fake-death here in Battle, to be honest—perhaps we don’t talk enough perhaps about Shakespeare As Panto/Melodrama, about continuities between him and these later forms of popular theatre), maybe this is a sort of melancholy Jacques turn?

I see I’ve left a note to myself here to ‘rethink this in the morning’. Well, it’s some mornings later, and I suspect that what I meant to say is that while others may have handled the material between Shakespeare and Dickens (melancholy being a fairly popular subject) who the later had read and I have not, it feels possible to me that Dickens, who asserted that Hamlet would absolutely suck to know in life, might be playing with just that here. He could be contending with the slightly elitist contention that the unexamined life is not worth living (who has the luxury of examining their life, and what rhetorica; frameworks do we consider valid in drawing up such accounts?), and also thinking about what life lived according to ideology/the contemplative life is and does to people, in a way not many writers have. I’m sorry, this feels like a huge topic actually, and it seems I’m still having trouble coming to grips with it, so I’m going to back off from it a little.

We talk about Dickens not writing many intellectuals, by the by, but Doctor Jedder should be remembered in the lists, and also you could profitably talk about him in relation to depression (‘thinking of the old ‘un’ as well—though I’ve seen people talk about Mrs Gummidge as depressed). There’s something especially poignant at the present moment about being driven to depression by regarding the present and past with too conscientious and too intelligent an eye. This also makes me think that the ‘existential horror of the 20th century’ crowd should possibly… historically contextualise their claims to a unique modern subjectivity a little more thoroughly, because Jedder’s oppressive awareness of history feels a little like ‘intellectual reactions to the holocaust’.

I love the lawyers in this. There are almost bloody always a suite of lawyers in any given Dickens production. They roll up here named Snitchy and Craggs, “Self and Craggs”, and I’m like here we go again, those names sound evil af, I bet they are about some mischief. But no! surprisingly!

Instead, they do a bit of comedy Chatting Shit About The Amazingness of the Law:

“’With a purpose and intention in it, I was saying,’ resumed Snitchey, ‘that commands respect. Life a farce, Dr. Jeddler? With law in it?’

The Doctor laughed, and looked at Alfred.

‘Granted, if you please, that war is foolish,’ said Snitchey. ‘There we agree. For example. Here’s a smiling country,’ pointing it out with his fork, ‘once overrun by soldiers—trespassers every man of ’em—and laid waste by fire and sword. He, he, he! The idea of any man exposing himself, voluntarily, to fire and sword! Stupid, wasteful, positively ridiculous; you laugh at your fellow- creatures, you know, when you think of it! But take this smiling country as it stands. Think of the laws appertaining to real property; to the bequest and devise of real property; to the mortgage and redemption of real property; to leasehold, freehold, and copyhold estate; think,’ said Mr. Snitchey, with such great emotion that he actually smacked his lips, ‘of the complicated laws relating to title and proof of title, with all the contradictory precedents and numerous acts of parliament connected with them; think of the infinite number of ingenious and interminable chancery suits, to which this pleasant prospect may give rise; and acknowledge, Dr. Jeddler, that there is a green spot in the scheme about us! I believe,’ said Mr. Snitchey, looking at his partner, ‘that I speak for Self and Craggs?’

Mr. Craggs having signified assent, Mr. Snitchey, somewhat freshened by his recent eloquence, observed that he would take a little more beef and another cup of tea.

‘I don’t stand up for life in general,’ he added, rubbing his hands and chuckling, ‘it’s full of folly; full of something worse. Professions of trust, and confidence, and unselfishness, and all that! Bah, bah, bah! We see what they’re worth. But, you mustn’t laugh at life; you’ve got a game to play; a very serious game indeed! Everybody’s playing against you, you know, and you’re playing against them. Oh! it’s a very interesting thing. There are deep moves upon the board. You must only laugh, Dr. Jeddler, when you win—and then not much. He, he, he! And then not much,’ repeated Snitchey, rolling his head and winking his eye, as if he would have added, ‘you may do this instead!’”

But then when Warden shows up to tell them his plan for running off with Marion, they’re not into it. They’re good people and good characters and I love them.

Behold:

Snitchey and Craggs had each, in private life as in professional existence, a partner of his own. Snitchey and Crags were the best friends in the world, and had a real confidence in one another; but Mrs. Snitchey, by a dispensation not uncommon in the affairs of life, was on principle suspicious of Mr. Craggs; and Mrs. Craggs was on principle suspicious of Mr. Snitchey. ‘Your Snitcheys indeed,’ the latter lady would observe, sometimes, to Mr. Craggs; using that imaginative plural as if in disparagement of an objectionable pair of pantaloons, or other articles not possessed of a singular number; ‘I don’t see what you want with your Snitcheys, for my part. You trust a great deal too much to your Snitcheys, I think, and I hope you may never find my words come true.’ While Mrs. Snitchey would observe to Mr. Snitchey, of Craggs, ‘that if ever he was led away by man he was led away by that man, and that if ever she read a double purpose in a mortal eye, she read that purpose in Craggs’s eye.’ Notwithstanding this, however, they were all very good friends in general: and Mrs. Snitchey and Mrs. Craggs maintained a close bond of alliance against ‘the office,’ which they both considered the Blue chamber, and common enemy, full of dangerous (because unknown) machinations.

In this office, nevertheless, Snitchey and Craggs made honey for their several hives. Here, sometimes, they would linger, of a fine evening, at the window of their council-chamber overlooking the old battle-ground, and wonder (but that was generally at assize time, when much business had made them sentimental) at the folly of mankind, who couldn’t always be at peace with one another and go to law comfortably. Here, days, and weeks, and months, and years, passed over them: their calendar, the gradually diminishing number of brass nails in the leathern chairs, and the increasing bulk of papers on the tables. Here, nearly three years’ flight had thinned the one and swelled the other, since the breakfast in the orchard; when they sat together in consultation at night.”

Or:

“‘I think it will be better not to hear this, Mr. Craggs?’ said Snitchey, looking at him across the client.

‘I think not,’ said Craggs.—Both listened attentively.”

And:

‘You’ll live to see me making a good use of riches yet. Henceforth the star of my destiny is, Marion!’

‘Take care of the stairs, sir,’ replied Snitchey; ‘for she don’t shine there. Good night!’”

Then:

Mr. and Mrs. Craggs came arm in arm, but Mrs. Snitchey came alone.

‘Why, what’s become of HIM?’ inquired the Doctor [Jedder, their host].

The feather of a Bird of Paradise in Mrs. Snitchey’s turban, trembled as if the Bird of Paradise were alive again, when she said that doubtless Mr. Craggs knew. SHE was never told.

‘That nasty office,’ said Mrs. Craggs.

‘I wish it was burnt down,’ said Mrs. Snitchey.

‘He’s—he’s—there’s a little matter of business that keeps my partner rather late,’ said Mr. Craggs, looking uneasily about him.

‘Oh-h! Business. Don’t tell me!’ said Mrs. Snitchey.

‘WE know what business means,’ said Mrs. Craggs.

But their not knowing what it meant, was perhaps the reason why Mrs. Snitchey’s Bird of Paradise feather quivered so portentously, and why all the pendant bits on Mrs. Craggs’s ear-rings shook like little bells.

‘I wonder YOU could come away, Mr. Craggs,’ said his wife.

‘Mr. Craggs is fortunate, I’m sure!’ said Mrs. Snitchey.

‘That office so engrosses ’em,’ said Mrs. Craggs.

‘A person with an office has no business to be married at all,’ said Mrs. Snitchey.

Then, Mrs. Snitchey said, within herself, that that look of hers had pierced to Craggs’s soul, and he knew it; and Mrs. Craggs observed to Craggs, that ‘his Snitcheys’ were deceiving him behind his back, and he would find it out when it was too late.

At the very same moment Mrs. Craggs was oracular on the cross subject. Was it possible, she said, that Craggs could so blind himself to his Snitcheys, as not to feel his true position? Did he mean to say that he had seen his Snitcheys come into that room, and didn’t plainly see that there was reservation, cunning, treachery, in the man? Would he tell her that his very action, when he wiped his forehead and looked so stealthily about him, didn’t show that there was something weighing on the conscience of his precious Snitcheys (if he had a conscience), that wouldn’t bear the light? Did anybody but his Snitcheys come to festive entertainments like a burglar?—which, by the way, was hardly a clear illustration of the case, as he had walked in very mildly at the door. And would he still assert to her at noon-day (it being nearly midnight), that his Snitcheys were to be justified through thick and thin, against all facts, and reason, and experience?

Neither Snitchey nor Craggs openly attempted to stem the current which had thus set in, but, both were content to be carried gently along it, until its force abated. This happened at about the same time as a general movement for a country dance; when Mr. Snitchey proposed himself as a partner to Mrs. Craggs, and Mr. Craggs gallantly offered himself to Mrs. Snitchey; and after some such slight evasions as ‘why don’t you ask somebody else?’ and ‘you’ll be glad, I know, if I decline,’ and ‘I wonder you can dance out of the office’ (but this jocosely now), each lady graciously accepted, and took her place.

It was an old custom among them, indeed, to do so, and to pair off, in like manner, at dinners and suppers; for they were excellent friends, and on a footing of easy familiarity. Perhaps the false Craggs and the wicked Snitchey were a recognised fiction with the two wives, as Doe and Roe, incessantly running up and down bailiwicks, were with the two husbands: or, perhaps the ladies had instituted, and taken upon themselves, these two shares in the business, rather than be left out of it altogether. But, certain it is, that each wife went as gravely and steadily to work in her vocation as her husband did in his, and would have considered it almost impossible for the Firm to maintain a successful and respectable existence, without her laudable exertions.”

It’s such an odd and lovely eucatastrophe that they should turn out to be so good, and it renders the ending (when, after some years, Craggs has died) actually very affecting:

“Self and Craggs (deceased) took a chop here sometimes, and had it very comfortably served. Mr. Craggs, sir,’ said Snitchey, shutting his eyes tight for an instant, and opening them again, ‘was struck off the roll of life too soon.’

‘Heaven forgive me for not condoling with you,’ returned Michael Warden, passing his hand across his forehead, ‘but I’m like a man in a dream at present. I seem to want my wits. Mr. Craggs—yes – I am very sorry we have lost Mr. Craggs.’ But he looked at Clemency as he said it, and seemed to sympathise with Ben, consoling her.

‘Mr. Craggs, sir,’ observed Snitchey, ‘didn’t find life, I regret to say, as easy to have and to hold as his theory made it out, or he would have been among us now. It’s a great loss to me. He was my right arm, my right leg, my right ear, my right eye, was Mr. Craggs. I am paralytic without him. He bequeathed his share of the business to Mrs. Craggs, her executors, administrators, and assigns. His name remains in the Firm to this hour. I try, in a childish sort of a way, to make believe, sometimes, he’s alive. You may observe that I speak for Self and Craggs—deceased, sir – deceased,’ said the tender-hearted attorney, waving his pocket- handkerchief.”

It’s also almost a joke about Scrooge and Marley, or Dickens’ other shady and unfeeling lawyers who form little part of the community, and whose business relationships are not also personal relationships.

Because the protagonists are somewhat disembodied in Battle, it’s the minor characters who do all the work of appealing to you. (And I want the charm-labour component of that stressed.) The marriage of Clemency and Britain, for example, is winning in a weird way:

Though the host of the Nutmeg-Grater had a lively regard for his good-wife, it was of the old patronising kind, and she amused him mightily. Nothing would have astonished him so much, as to have known for certain from any third party, that it was she who managed the whole house, and made him, by her plain straightforward thrift, good-humour, honesty, and industry, a thriving man. So easy it is, in any degree of life (as the world very often finds it), to take those cheerful natures that never assert their merit, at their own modest valuation; and to conceive a flippant liking of people for their outward oddities and eccentricities, whose innate worth, if we would look so far, might make us blush in the comparison!

It was comfortable to Mr. Britain, to think of his own condescension in having married Clemency. She was a perpetual testimony to him of the goodness of his heart, and the kindness of his disposition; and he felt that her being an excellent wife was an illustration of the old precept that virtue is its own reward.”

Dickens doesn’t even hate Britain for this, he’s just like lol whatever men. Clemency is great throughout, like a kind of daffy Peggotty. I am apparently not alone in this opinion either: “The character of Clemency Newcome produces the most enjoyable part of the book, many feel she foreshadowed Clara Peggotty in David Copperfield.”

CHARM IN ‘BATTLE OF LIFE’

There should be some charm in the central characters, but they’re not people enough for that, and we don’t feel them as aesthetic objects either. The aforementioned lawyers and servants-cum-innkeepers charm us with their eucatastrophe, their gentle ridiculousness, their idiosyncrasy, and their inherent sensibility and worth as people.

Dickens often establishes charm via a sense of place. It may seem odd that there’s any such thing in Battle, given its apocalyptic beginning, but there’s an Inn in this, and Dickens has A Thing about inns.

The Nutmeg-Grater Inn

Dickens’ description of the Nutmeg-Grater Inn in The Battle of Life is enough to make any weary traveler yearn for such a comfortable respite:

At such a time, one little roadside Inn, snugly sheltered behind a great elm-tree with a rare seat for idlers encircling its capacious bole, addressed a cheerful front towards the traveller, as a house of entertainment ought, and tempted him with many mute but significant assurances of a comfortable welcome. The ruddy sign- board perched up in the tree, with its golden letters winking in the sun, ogled the passer-by, from among the green leaves, like a jolly face, and promised good cheer.

The horse-trough, full of clear fresh water, and the ground below it sprinkled with droppings of fragrant hay, made every horse that passed, prick up his ears. The crimson curtains in the lower rooms, and the pure white hangings in the little bed-chambers above, beckoned, Come in! with every breath of air. Upon the bright green shutters, there were golden legends about beer and ale, and neat wines, and good beds; and an affecting picture of a brown jug frothing over at the top.

Upon the window-sills were flowering plants in bright red pots, which made a lively show against the white front of the house; and in the darkness of the doorway there were streaks of light, which glanced off from the surfaces of bottles and tankards.”

So what constitutes the charm in this passage? We get colour: contrasts, glints of light in darkness, brightness offset by clean white. Ruddy, golden, green, clear, crimson, pure white, bright green, golden, brown, bright red, white, darkness, light. Other colours are implied but not specifically named: this is a dense, saturated image, like a still of Peter Jackson’s filmic Hobbiton (Tolkien of course owing more to Dickens than he was interested in directly acknowledging). Dickens often does sort of ‘filmic’ writing, and was very interested and involved in theatre throughout his life. Theatrical spectacle often ‘tells’ in his writing. Notice that this is almost starting with an establishing shot. The ‘camera’ then flicks over details: exterior, then ‘visible from the exterior’ windows, then the doorway, then glimpses of that interior. The whole passage is drawing the ‘eye’ onwards and inwards.  Entertain, encircle, address, beckon: the verbs of the passage also welcome you, the reader-traveller, in. There are emotional words: jolly, cheer, affecting. These don’t just describe, they insist on your sympathetic response.

There’s food, there are promises of comfort. There’s excess: the brown jug is ‘frothing over’. There is more than enough. ‘Excess’ is perhaps the key Dickensian affective condition: the whole universe of his writing is governed by surplus rather than scarcity. Even his misers have jewels and notes and deeds positively crammed into some chest or other. Here excess generates the feeling of welcome and charm. The commercial enterprise of the inn is demonetised. There is enough for you too, no trouble. The inn’s financial reasonableness is not mentioned: labour is everywhere, but money has ceased to exist, and the transaction is rendered invisible (you could say something there about Silvia Federici and emotional labour and the processes of rendering that work always inexplicit, which would be both pertinent in re: charm in this context and an unfair, Orwellish bad take on Dickens, who is bringing you the LABOUR as well, even here: entertainment, perched, hangings—someone did and is doing all this, and we are also told who and in what manner).

The inn is both natural and the clear and explicit product of (female) labour: ‘snugly sheltered behind a great elm-tree with a rare seat for idlers encircling its capacious bole’, ‘[t]he ruddy sign- board perched up in the tree, with its golden letters winking in the sun, ogled the passer-by, from among the green leaves’, plants in pots on the window sill. This is nature preserved but improved, encircling and sheltering the inn, which both participates in nature and the Victorians’ strict, morally-coded cleanliness, which separates man from dirt until death reunites them, and does so much of the work of class-distinction in anticipation of that eventual equalising oblivion.

Look too at this sly evocation of an English green man: ‘ogled the passer-by, from among the green leaves, like a jolly face, and promised good cheer’. The super-mundane, the canny, here touches the uncanny. There’s something dryad-like and supernatural encircled in and constituted by the man-made quotidian and the natural. Chesterton talks about the nearness of enchantment and the mundane, and it’s probable that he feels this in part due to his long association with Dickens’ work.

There are a few direct uses of the word ‘charm’ in some form or other in this piece:

“Still, Mr. Craggs, without much heeding these remarks, looked uneasily about until his eye rested on Grace, to whom he immediately presented himself.

‘Good evening, ma’am,’ said Craggs. ‘You look charmingly. Your –
Miss—your sister, Miss Marion, is she—’”

The construction strikes me as strange. Craggs is distracted, but also it’s possible this sounded more natural to a Victorian ear. ‘You look charmingly’—a transient, contingent state, how Grace looks done up for the party rather than what Grace is. An action of ‘Grace’, as well: to look Charmingly. There’s something of ‘charisma’, in the Pauline sense, about that. And it’s significant that Craggs is here not lying, exactly, but concealing information about a proposed elopement from someone it will nearly effect: in fact, trying to elicit information about it from her. ‘Charm’ always has some association with fronts, with lies. Here the compliment is itself something of a lie: Craggs possibly doesn’t think this of plainish Grace, and in the moment he’s certainly more preoccupied with worry than charmed by her appearance.

Nowhere more altered, perhaps, about a hundred years ago, than in one little orchard attached to an old stone house with a honeysuckle porch; where, on a bright autumn morning, there were sounds of music and laughter, and where two girls danced merrily together on the grass, while some half-dozen peasant women standing on ladders, gathering the apples from the trees, stopped in their work to look down, and share their enjoyment. It was a pleasant, lively, natural scene; a beautiful day, a retired spot; and the two girls, quite unconstrained and careless, danced in the freedom and gaiety of their hearts.

If there were no such thing as display in the world, my private opinion is, and I hope you agree with me, that we might get on a great deal better than we do, and might be infinitely more agreeable company than we are. It was charming to see how these girls danced. They had no spectators but the apple-pickers on the ladders. They were very glad to please them, but they danced to please themselves (or at least you would have supposed so); and you could no more help admiring, than they could help dancing. How they did dance!

Not like opera-dancers. Not at all. And not like Madame Anybody’s finished pupils. Not the least. It was not quadrille dancing, nor minuet dancing, nor even country-dance dancing. It was neither in the old style, nor the new style, nor the French style, nor the English style: though it may have been, by accident, a trifle in the Spanish style, which is a free and joyous one, I am told, deriving a delightful air of off-hand inspiration, from the chirping little castanets. As they danced among the orchard trees, and down the groves of stems and back again, and twirled each other lightly round and round, the influence of their airy motion seemed to spread and spread, in the sun-lighted scene, like an expanding circle in the water. Their streaming hair and fluttering skirts, the elastic grass beneath their feet, the boughs that rustled in the morning air—the flashing leaves, the speckled shadows on the soft green ground—the balmy wind that swept along the landscape, glad to turn the distant windmill, cheerily—everything between the two girls, and the man and team at plough upon the ridge of land, where they showed against the sky as if they were the last things in the world—seemed dancing too.”

The association of charm with music and witchcraft is coming through strongly here. I’ve heard it mentioned that this agricultural scene is more drawn from Dickens’ composition environment, rural Italy, than it is an English harvest, and that does make some sense. But the scene still has about it as much of the air of a pre or extra-Christian agricultural ritual as it does a spontaneous display. The very proto-national nature of the dance seems to suggest such pagan connections.

There’s quite a coy game going here with the idea of display. It’s not to be desired, yet Dickens is very much displaying these ‘natural’ young women in a studied way for you. The display can be simultaneously innocent and a bit sexualised: here they are amidst fecundity, in a female space, unaware of your gaze on them. (It’s surprising how often Dickens inserts himself as an authorial figure into female spaces. It often doesn’t feel sexual, voyeuristic: when he talks about his childhood experience of Scheherazade, for example (in “Christmas Tree”), he seems to identify with her, or at least to feel his place is in the harem being menaced by exterior male presences rather than out amongst the menacers.) A ‘finished’ stye of dancing would associate the girls’ action with audience and intent, with sexually appealing to men. This is here rejected, even as that’s part of the process of this passage: to interest the audience, via Grace and Marion’s sexual/marital appeal, in their sexual/marital fates.

The charm of the dance derives from the girls’ pleasure in it, their self-willed vigour. Dickens is always more drawn to passion and feeling than to sophisticated apathy and distance. It’s not about you, not even about the other women watching. Still, conviviality’s important here too, and your helplessness as the unseen spectator to resist the ‘charm’ of their dance is a proof of its power: you’ve been drawn into feeling with them, feeling for them, whether you will or no. This is also what Dickens wants for you as a reader of his text. It’s striking that Grace and Marion are both childlike here in their dance, when Grace’s mothering of Marion is about to distance them beyond the span of years that actually separates them.

I think Dickens must know, in re: “a trifle in the Spanish style, which is a free and joyous one, I am told, deriving a delightful air of off-hand inspiration, from the chirping little castanets”, that he’s talking about flamenco. Flamenco is indeed spontaneous, but the signature ‘duende’ that moves its performers to spontaneous, trace-like physical expressions is typically spoken of in a more serious fashion than this. 

Let’s look for a moment at duende (an ‘artistic and especially musical term […] derived from the duende, an elf or goblin-like Magic creature in Spanish mythology’) as an aesthetic concept:

According to Christopher Maurer, editor of “In Search of Duende”, at least four elements can be isolated in Lorca’s vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is an earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding them that “ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head”; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps them create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca’s lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity, to God-given grace and charm (what Spaniards call “angel”), and to the classical, artistic norms dictated by the muse. Not that the artist simply surrenders to the duende; they have to battle it skillfully, “on the rim of the well”, in “hand-to-hand combat”. To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort. It is, in Lorca’s words, “a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience… the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual.” The critic Brook Zern has written, of a performance of someone with duende, “it dilates the mind’s eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable… There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal…”.[3]

Lorca writes: “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”. He suggests, “everything that has black sounds in it, has duende. [i.e. emotional ‘darkness’] […] This ‘mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains’ is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio’s siguiriya.” […] “The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.” […] “All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.” [2]

Duende is STRONGLY identified with the uncanny, and is thus here brought into contact with the canny, the ‘angel’, charisma, the heimlich displayed by these young women. Again, we see the very strong, mutually-constituting  relationship between charm and the uncanny. It is really striking that Dickens goes here. Sure it’s an accidental misfire sort of thing, but I’m with Freud on accidents, namely in believing they’re usually pretty fucking significant. ‘Chirping little castanets’ is a sort of cricket on the hearth attempt to domesticate a visceral, sexual, pain-filled art-form. Such an unexpected relationship also serves, perhaps inadvertently, to strengthen Dicken’s association of this ancient battlefield with the current orchard.

Again, the passage is super-adjectival, and again it almost evokes Shakespearean set-pieces: I’d say this was the Branagh/Thompson Much Ado.

Look at the centrifugal motion of this passage, and the way Dickens is creating his signature expansiveness via repetition, building, moving outwards:

Not at all/Not the least

the list of styles of dancing it’s not, piling them

‘and back again, and twirled each other lightly round and round, the influence of their airy motion seemed to spread and spread’

‘the sun-lighted scene’

‘like an expanding circle in the water’

streaming hair/fluttering skirts/elastic grass beneath their feet<— things in motion, rippling out (and not even the grass is harmed, it’s bouncing back)

‘the balmy wind that swept along the landscape, glad to turn the distant windmill, cheerily—everything between the two girls, and the man and team at plough upon the ridge of land, where they showed against the sky as if they were the last things in the world—seemed dancing too.’

Again, we have conviviality: the girls’ charm charms the people watching them, the agricultural proceeding, the world. Private pleasure is irresistibly communicable.

‘Oh, bless you, nothing an’t the matter with me,’ returned Clemency – and truly too, to judge from her well-soaped face, in which there gleamed as usual the very soul of good-humour, which, ungainly as she was, made her quite engaging. Abrasions on the elbows are not generally understood, it is true, to range within that class of personal charms called beauty-spots. But, it is better, going through the world, to have the arms chafed in that narrow passage, than the temper: and Clemency’s was sound and whole as any beauty’s in the land.”

Clemency’s good-will is internal, pressing out: the world cannot get at her, cannot muffle or change her. This encysted quality is somewhat at odds with the charm of people with great sensibility (I haven’t yet exactly worked out the relationship between these forms of charm). And again, Clemency here is presented as outside the marriage market—but in fact her ‘personal charms’, her hard-working abraded elbows and good temper, are about to win her a husband. This also reminds me of a Roald Dahl passage (Dahl is also decidedly an inheritor of Dickens’):

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Oblique Reviews: In Summary

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Oblique Reviews #11
SUMMARY

I’m so amazed and delighted you have come through, traveler–that you have kept up your strength through all 56 Oblique B/A fic reviews! In a way, the activity would be pointless without our pausing here to draw some conclusions. So, here are some notes. (Please feel free to comment with your own.)

Almost immediately, we can pick up on Oblique’s House Style. Edgelordy, with shades of But Of Course It Can Never Be. Inevitable Doom, Mandatory 90s Promiscuity (see also: 90s comics). Darkness is Adult (see also: 90s comics–these trends aren’t developing in isolation from the culture). Glasgow writes a significant amount of these fics. She gives us a lot of ‘Avon and Vila have known each other a long while’ (totally undeveloped in these stories in question as an reading of the source text) and a significant number of B/A/V triangles. I would say that overall, Oblique is no better written than your average zine. Out of this run of 57 stories there are perhaps 5 really exceptional works and 10 additional pieces of respectable competence. That’s not–a good average. It’s significantly worse than some, and the monotony of the ways the house can displease exerts extra wear and tear on your correspondent, who positively fought through her way through some of these stories.

What it is is ‘gritty’, in that way that often passes for ‘harder-hitting, more thoughtful, riskier and more skilful’ than more sentimental offerings. In case it needs saying, the artistic capital and seriousness we afford to Darkness!! is bullshit. There is nothing a priori better written, more thoughtful, or even more IC/truer to this text about an Oblique fic versus a piece of fluff. ‘Grimdarkness’ has its own ideology and purposes: it’s not simply ‘more realistic’ than other fiction traditions. In fact it’s quite marked, loud in its biases and at times obvious in its objectives. ‘Realism’ is itself a mode, and not the end-all be-all goal of fiction, but don’t let anyone tell you Grittiness has a unique claim to access and represent art or life.  There is nothing sexier or more morally necessary or more intellectually challenging or more fun about that register, per se. Oblique’s sort of shared-world is not a particularly reliable or authoritative interpretation of the characters and canon.

I hope I’ve shown at a few points that a lot of what Oblique takes as read is actually not terribly established fanon, which we accept unblinkingly because it’s been said so many times, with such complacent knowledge. A wider diversity of readings and tones and an interaction with the source-text less fettered by this not particularly great aspect of our fic tradition is both possible and desirable. There is good stuff to be gleaned from Oblique, but to have let it dominate fandom to the extent it has, for as long as it has (and don’t make the mistake of thinking it vanished when Judith, Nova and Willa turned up: it was still alive in that era’s work, and is still with us now) is frankly silly. We’re not exactly at ‘de-colonise your mind’ levels of seriousness here, but do try and think of where you’re impacted by this, and about what it would be to relate to canon without these frames, without readers trained to expect and writers trained to recapitulate them. It’s HARD for me, personally, but one has to start somewhere.

NOTES:

  • B/A/V is almost always really unkind and damaging to all three characters. It can but rarely come to any good. Perhaps it could be balanced better, but I do not care to discover if this three-way is salvageable. I think Good A/V and Good B/A (no point talking about B/V: a non-thing) operate on too different of registers, perhaps, for that mingling to be particularly successful (or possibly in different genres–they might each hinge on very different readings of the text).
  • Editor’s notes are difficult to do well, and before engaging in any such thing you should ask questions about audience and intent. Who is this for, what do you wish it to do, and will it accomplish that? Editor’s notes are a feature of the publication or era, though, and you don’t have to worry about them (in fandom, at least) much anymore. (SFF, maybe.)
  • It’s kind of odd how little variation there is in Oblique: it feels like there are relatively few story types. For the most part these aren’t plot-heavy fics, and the emotional arcs fall into only a few camps. The team knew what they liked and what they wanted to read and publish (again, and again, and again).
  • It’s interesting how many one-offs there are, and how many people have only a few appearance within these pages (at least under these pen names). Even someone great like Jane Baron has so few fics!
  • The way zines came out must have REALLY exerted a strong influence over your development as a fic writer. It must really have really affected your ability to hit your stride, to expand out, to shake up your typical schtick, etc. I don’t know that I’d want to be judged on my first three fics in the fandom. It’s also very odd to think that I’ve easily written more even than Nova, who I think of as a Big Name, and in a shorter time, in part probably just because I can hit ‘post’ and she couldn’t. TBH I’m obviously Me off the bat in my first B7 fics, showing some indication that I’d come to write the sort of stuff I’m writing now, but that’s also BECAUSE I was in Who first, and this was not my first rodeo. The way I thought about and wrote the pairing developed immensely over the course of multiple publishing opportunities. Not so much via feedback, here, outside of immediate conversations with friends, but that was certainly true of my time in Who.
  • It’s easy to see that Oblique has a house style, but we can similarly detect and discuss the house style and operating assumptions of lj comms, lj as a platform, Ao3, given fandoms, given pairings, etc. And perhaps we ought to? They shape fics and trends, and merit analysis.
  • Even as the ghost of Oblique haunts us still, it’s in some ways almost unfair to say there’s a continuity between what this magazine was doing and us now. We received a tradition, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, via reading, but we’re not in the same spaces or the same medium. We don’t share the same level of access to material (this is the elephant in the room when talking about Oblique: did they have good access to visual copies and transcripts?), the same assumptions, the same social moment of queerness or the same social conditions of fandom: are we the same pairing? There are a few people knocking around who remember these people, but they aren’t them, and I have no such direct contact. Is there a meaningful sense in which we’re equally ‘the B/A community’, or the SAME B/A community? Or are we into the realm of imagined affective trans-historical queer communities?
  • The serious weirdness of Americans looking at Britain and the Edwardian class-fetishism of these fics has me in my ‘write a paper’ feelings, but no one needs ‘Britpickier: Figurations of British Class in Fanfic’.
  • I’m really uncomfortable with what a lot of these fics, Glasgow’s in particular, want to do with Vila’s class position. It gives me deep cringe, and I’m about as sure as I can be that that’s down to the feeling of exoticism/fetish than a straightforward manifestation of classism on my part.
  • You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You cannot make Avon victimised and blameless and cool and really in control and a moral authority and amoral!sexy. You have to, for the sake and duration of the fic, choose your Avon and also your (tyrant vs manchild vs canon) Blake. This can be complicated or, if you’re careful, ambivalent or uncertain, but that shit’s for advanced players who’ve mastered the basics. What you can’t be is: serving a pizza topped with cake topped with sushi topped with thai green curry because you wanted to eat out and you wanted the best of EVERYTHING at once and you have a primitive desire for fusion cuisine. I don’t want to eat that, no one does.
  • Likewise, you cannot have Blake ALWAYS be wrong so Avon is ALWAYS right, or whatever it is you want. You can’t bend the plot and the moral weight thereof around how you want a character to come off: you can write a plot that facilitates what you want, but you can’t just assign meaning where you want it to fall.
  • THIS SHIT IS NOT EVEN HEALTHY FOR YOUR BELOVED WOOB, WHO YOU ARE TRYING TO USE IT TO VENERATE. When you impoverish a character in the fic via bashing, every action and decision connected to that character is dragged in a different direction accordingly. This is true anywhere: you can’t have awful cunt Buffy and ‘loving refugees from her awfulness’ Spander without raising questions as to why Xander is friends with Buffy, and Spike obsessed with her. You are saying things about the characters you like, their circumstances and persons and relationships, in saying something about other figures in the story who their lives are intertwined with. The more weight you want that bashed character to bear, the more distorting the effects of this decision. It does less to the story to be mean to Tarrant in an S3 fic than it does to be mean to Blake in an S2 fic, if the focus of your relationship is Avon’s Choices, because Avon’s S3 choices and actions are less involved with Tarrant than his S2 choices and actions were with Blake. Also, being mean is sour and distasteful, potentially alienating some readers and limiting your reading of the text/impoverishing your own story: do it with caution. On the other hand, however, to some extent a rising tide does lift all boats. Avon looks better when Blake looks better. Mutually-constructed competence is a neat plot mechanic and also a great character mechanic. It’s also canon, not just in that both these characters ARE competent but also in that Boucher does this trick all the time (Redemption has some good examples).
  • Trying to scrub out all your beloved woob’s faults and to consistently locate the sympathy of the whole moral universe with him evacuates and deranges said woob as surely as the worst character bashing. It is really violent?
  • For an example of what Oblique-hangover has done to fandom: You cannot post the MOST candy-ass Nice Blake without people rolling up to say they loved how Blake was dark and terrible and probably beating a puppy in this one. Meanwhile THERE IS LITERALLY NOTHING YOU CAN WRITE AVON DOING THAT ANYONE WILL ASCRIBE EVEN AN INSTANT’S BLAME TO.  If Oblique has one lasting legacy, it is these particular bad B, A and B/A characterisations and dynamics, which are now hard-wired in reception. I am exhausted by this weaksauce meme that constantly crops up in what I read and in responses to my own work. The emperor is nude. Kirk doesn’t actually fuck that many women. Ferrero Rocher aren’t even really fancy. THAT THING ABOUT LEAVING FOOD TO COOL BEFORE REFRIGERATING IT IS AN URBAN LEGEND!!
  • We think of plot as determining the course of a story’s possibilities, and also about genre doing this, to some extent. We’re also willing to discuss the writer in this capacity: Bob Holmes wouldn’t do X, Nova would do Y. But we don’t necessarily account similarly for mood. There’s an Indian theory of aesthetics wherein ‘mood’ is the fundamental interpretive category, the thing announced and appreciated. I’m thinking about that in re: Oblique fic. The house mood of the venue/the pieces is perhaps THE THING determining where these plots can go and what stuff will mean, and sympathy with this house mood is perhaps the chief factor and deciding whether you as a reader will ‘Buy In’ and successfully engage with a fic. In Oblique fic, whatever happens will be constrained by that pervasive But It Can Never Be. Even ostensibly happy Oblique fics almost seem to need to nod to this.
    Perhaps more could be said about mood as determinative in other art expressions?

Oblique Reviews #11

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SUMMARY

STORY: The Things We Do for Love
MUSE OF FIRE RESPONSIBLE: M. Fae Glasgow
HAS POOR VILA BEEN DRAGOONED INTO THIS SHITSHOW? Vila, but almost as a prop? He’s so not psychologically important to this story.
WHY ARE BLAKE AND AVON DOOMED THIS WEEK? Avon has been too sex-abused, Blake is too stupid for life.
EDITOR’S NOTE: a weird dare to leave this section alone I wish I could take
PROSE: In the initial section she can’t reconcile herself to the fact that the voyeuristic POV she’s chosen means giving up on some experiential details of the sex. She wants the frisson and surprise of the having the telling given over to an observer, but also to give readers all the details of the porn. Which–undercuts both modes, to be honest? It could have been better managed with a more omniscient narrator, capable of dipping into the three people in the room.

We’re in ‘the big rebel’ lands.

The descriptions are at times quite competent, if businesslike. ‘Cream’ and ‘lifeseed’ though. ‘The timbre of his voice was indigo velvet’. Cause with a capital C.
OVERALL: This story loses me at ‘hello’ with something about Blake, in Avon’s room prying on legit business, hiding in the closet when Avon comes in. Metaphorically it’s very slightly amusing, but come the fuck on, Roj Blake lifestyle revolutionary doesn’t hide in the closet when he believes himself to be Right and on Necessary Business. Duh. Duh! ALL THIS IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH. WHICH IS NOT YET DONE!

Cod Freud Cally–my old nemesis. We meet again! She is here to provide a Womanly Explanation of All This. WHY IS ALIEN CALLY THE DOYEN OF THE BIG BAD UNDERBELLY OF FEDERATION SOCIETY??

Apparently Avon is SO FREE with information about his life, but Blake just won’t ask, he won’t SEE!! It’s fucking ridiculous I’m sorry. Why do such violence to Blake and Avon alike to make this story work? Key traits Blake has to lose for this story to function: perceptiveness, emotional intelligence (inconsistent but definitely something he has a lot of at times), assertiveness, pragmatism, concern for his ship/work/life/lives of his friends, resourcefulness, experience of the world, intelligence, sense of humour. BLAKE responds to Cally informing him that Vila was abandoned as a child with “but the social services–“, as if Blake has any reason whatever to trust the state. As if he doesn’t know the shit the state gets up to, and as if his entire life is not dedicated to unseating it. Even if Blake were unaware of this detail of their fuckery, it would never, ever surprise him. Glasgow brings it back a little with ‘oh he’d heard shit like this before’, but you can’t have Blake be a rube and an arse in this sense and then back-read in plausibility and THEN strip Blake’s experience out again for the next paragraph. Where was her beta??

Key traits Avon has to lose to make the story function include his general reserve or guardedness. He also wobbles between being a Metatron speaking with the Voice of God, tuned in to the authorial fiat re: how psychology works in this story, and randomly utterly unwilling to act on his own insights of a moment ago. How good was this story, that the writer wanted to strip down the characters this completely to get here? Could it have been told about anyone, really, so long as class distinctions and the bdsm frame were preserved?

It most annoys me that this fic makes awkward little stabs towards thinking seriously about Blake as a subject, and indeed marshals them into its greater project of dehumanising Blake in order to tell a story about the self-help book sexual psychology it’s so invested in. Is this really elitist of me? It’s not necessary that someone have done a lot of work on psychoanalysis to write a fucking fanfic, and what I’m demanding from them is a treatment of the subject that satisfies someone who’s read up on it to a grad school level. The demographics of earlier and current fandom have shifted, there–this education level is more common in fandom now, and in part it’s due to larger cultural shifts in the discourse and the availability of higher ed to women (the primary readers and writers in this field). I guess what I’d ask is that the stories, regardless of their era of composition, not FOCUS on this if they’re going to do it really badly: not come out swinging and didactic and complacent in their knowledge, offering one absolute solution and interpretation of people and their actions within the world they’ve created, and having that solution be this facile.

‘Somehow, it seemed worse for Avon.’ And therein lies the poisonous strain of ‘imperial woobie’ that has fucked this fandom more thoroughly than any other single thing. Vila’s been orphaned and made a child prostitute. And yet, ‘somehow’, Avon’s porcelain-throated pain is more important, don’t you see? Sadder, sexier. He’s like a poor suffering Edwardian mite, simultaneously feminised into a towered princess and in full retention of the rights and privileges of a class-coded masculine subjectivity. This may seem a stretch, but as a friend pointed out, “I think that “somehow it seemed worse” is like at the core of SO MUCH racist discourse now etc”. Exactly?

In this particular story, the ‘abuse by someone he trusted and loved’ being uniquely bad makes a kind of sense, sure. But we can’t divorce this from the whole territory of Avonistan, a land in which it is always, ‘somehow’, worse when things happen to a character cathected in these particular ways.

I just can’t fucking stand stories that take Blake elaborately to task for objectifying and using the others and leave the rest of the crew’s motivations untouched. They are all on a prison ship to start with. They collectively escape. They are collectively on the run. They collectively choose to stay here rather than run off, either because they don’t wish to or don’t feel it would be safe. They don’t have to do as Blake says–really, they physically do not. Cally isn’t shooting Vila for mutiny. They are all using each other, and that’s both interesting if you’re going to get into it and boring because it’s normal. In your job, in your social circle, everyone is similarly entwined. Calling Blake out here!! Is not provocative, it’s a slightly awkward stubborn misreading of the spirit of the text to no certain purpose. It’s also the. dumbest. double standard.

This is one of the MANY stories of this era that thinks a history of sexual abuse is like, a cool dark past character enhancer, and to be honest that fic trope is as dull as it’s disgusting. Because it is a fetishising of Avon’s woobie status, as constructed by assault–it’s glamorising and voyeuristic and frankly wholly unlike dealing with real child sexual assault victims, while the story’s off lauding itself on its dark grittiness. And yes, romance and fic aren’t always realistic and hard-hitting, and that’s not even necessarily a bad thing, and yes, fic should be able to explore anything, but I’m also calling shenanigans on this whole trend of fic that locates character and its own authority as a story in this very real issue and then handles that issue in this cack-handed way, while assuming a tone of smug lecturing superiority and/or racking up Gritty Coolness Points on these terms.

STORY: The Truth Will Out
MUSE OF FIRE RESPONSIBLE: M. Fae Glasgow
HAS POOR VILA BEEN DRAGOONED INTO THIS SHITSHOW? —
WHY ARE BLAKE AND AVON DOOMED THIS WEEK? because they knew each other before and Blake didn’t tell him about the rebellion and Avon got interrogated and raped a lot because of him and has internalized homophobia and Anna Angst and also now Blake’s a bitch for poorly-explained reasons. Also Avon is cross about having been forgotten. It’s been a Time.
EDITOR’S NOTE: stupid but short (like Vila, Avon sneered)
PROSE: awkward
OVERALL: Is this a Wila fic? Because it wants to be several different stories and throws out too many lures and idk where I am now even (but, as Aralias points out, if this were a Wila fic, Blake would be cleverer and nicer, and the ending wouldn’t be a stupid GAUDA PRIME IS COMING!! wink wink bullshit thing (Aralias didn’t say that last, that was me)).

STORY: Virtual Reality
MUSE OF FIRE RESPONSIBLE: Sebastian
HAS POOR VILA BEEN DRAGOONED INTO THIS SHITSHOW? —
WHY ARE BLAKE AND AVON DOOMED THIS WEEK? The ending is a bit ???, but they are deeply (and damagingly–it makes both of them do unwise, risky, morally dubious things) in love with one another, and even though it can be a very bad idea Blake seems to get that there’s no back-button on this, it’s something they have to work with (I kind of wonder whether they’ll try some of Avon’s Things now, and whether that’ll make Avon, at least in the moment, SUPER pleased–though was it the VR that was losing its charm versus Actual Blake, or was it *being* the sadist in the equation?)
EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘Here is a chain of events, of interlocking actions that, once begun, lead to a promised ultimate doom’ ahahah oh Oblique, that’s everything you do p much/same
PROSE: actually very good
OVERALL: So Avon’s sadistic and makes himself virtual-reality fan videos about Blake, who he’s kind of obsessed with. Vila finds out and there’s social awkwardness/tension.

I really like Avon’s reaction to Vila finding out, that’s consistently well done.

Nice writing. Especially great physicality for Avon.

One saving grace of this fic is that it doesn’t think Blake’s dumb. That just FORCES the fic to go better directions. Interestingly the narrative voice is unusually loud, and unusually with Blake.

Time/event-flow is a bit awkward in this. How long have they been fooling around before Blake watches the tape?

I don’t really have a problem with Blake watching the disc–they’re dating, he’s been told it’s About Him, he’s expected here, he wants to watch it to make Avon happy–feels like an honest mistake. Though I have real trouble with the idea of Avon’s pornography as equivalent to a physical violation? The fic takes that contention fairly seriously.

I really like ‘I was supposed to be enjoying it, was I?’/’Didn’t it look as if you were?’ There’s a sort of–wistfulness to that. All along the back of this fic I sort of feel an intense emotional craving, maybe two-way: it works for me. The whole axis of ‘normal’ sexuality is interesting here, as is Avon’s comment about inadequacy, and the fact that he’d *say* it. The closing conversations end up being really powerful, even if I do think–everyone in this fic acts like fairly hardcore sadism is CRAZY RARE, rather than… something within the compass of imagination/practice?

I could do with a bit more thought/emotional arc from them re: WHY they are crazy in love.

I enjoy this story and think it does valuable things in the fandom even if it’s not *exactly* my cuppa.

STORY: The Warm Patch
MUSE OF FIRE RESPONSIBLE: Adrian Alexander
HAS POOR VILA BEEN DRAGOONED INTO THIS SHITSHOW? —
WHY ARE BLAKE AND AVON DOOMED THIS WEEK? They had sex once and Avon is afraid to sex again because the Feelings will come for him. Then they do sex again. And Avon’s like ‘oh I can’t love you, there is no love within me!!’ and the story seems to think this is a factual statement, rather than in direct contradiction with the immediately-preceding motives and events. Then they’re not going to have sex again because Avon thinks it’ll only hurt them both. Even though there is no love within him. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
EDITOR’S NOTE: baffling
PROSE: fine
OVERALL: Avon ‘killed and cooked a bird’ for them. Series 1 Avon. … ……….if you fucking. say so.

God I’m so tired of under-explained It Can Never Be. The through-line here needs work. Perhaps the story needs a stronger editorial hand? This is something I often think about Oblique, but I’m not sure where beta tradition was then.

STORY: Witness
MUSE OF FIRE RESPONSIBLE: Jane Baron
HAS POOR VILA BEEN DRAGOONED INTO THIS SHITSHOW? Vila
WHY ARE BLAKE AND AVON DOOMED THIS WEEK? They can be together! Good for them. Bad for Vila. Oh well, so long as someone’s made miserable! ****Oblique****
EDITOR’S NOTE: no
PROSE: good
OVERALL: I don’t think this does Vila any favours, and I think he’s cooler than this, but it’s NICE sex writing and kind of unusual for the pairing/an interesting outsider perspective. It’s decent to Blake even while being too SPECIAL SPECIAL AVON!!

This feels like it COULD be post-Fugue? Possibly?

STORY: You’re It: A Game of Tag, Part I
MUSE OF FIRE RESPONSIBLE: Caroline Dare
HAS POOR VILA BEEN DRAGOONED INTO THIS SHITSHOW? Vila
WHY ARE BLAKE AND AVON DOOMED THIS WEEK? They can be together, but also with other people. It’s nice, but casual and low stakes
EDITOR’S NOTE:

Screen Shot 2017-01-23 at 06.28.40.png

fuck you specifically, this editor’s note

PROSE: fine
OVERALL: It’s fine, but a bit–what’s the point/90s ‘everyone is having casual sex with everyone for no reason really, just de facto and without consequences’. The sex is all right?

WE ARE DONE. DONE. WE MADE IT. WE HAVE ONLY THE SUMMARY, NOW. OH HAPPY DAY! OH, CONGRATULATIONS TO ANY SURVIVORS!!