Notes on Dickens’ “The Seven Poor Travellers” (1854)

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The Seven Poor Travellers

* While the preceding two essays and three of the four Christmas stories have been in first person, there was something snippetish about all four of the short stories. Two retreated into allegory, and the other two were something like the polylogues Simon Callow’s theatre-focused biography of Dickens cite as having had a strong influence on him. They were sprints, not marathons, or tableaux and not plays. In these next two longer stories, Dickens seems to be more thrown upon his own resources, and to an extent the narrative voice starts to feel like his own. Thus I’m going to speculate that in terms of writing in the first person, the David Copperfield-style autobiographical tone comes somewhat naturally to him, and to further conclude that it takes him a while longer to learn to write a serious, psychologically rich first-person voice that’s quite distinct from his own, a la Pip or Esther (or even the work he beings to do in “The Wreck of the Golden Mary”). Everything about the irritation, the restlessness, the anger at miserly charity and the whole-hearted entry into a project in “Poor Travellers” feels like Dickens himself: even the stupidly long walk does. I wonder whether Dickens authentically can’t help writing this character as Dickens, or whether this is some kind of Masterpiece Theatre performance for the magazine audience, where the magazine’s great Conductor will also winningly (and winkingly, as himself and not himself—for the events of the story are more obviously fictionalised than the POV) conduct you through this year’s collection of stories by means of establishing the frame narrative and starting it off? Against that, we have the fact that Victorian audiences only understood DC as autobiography in a shadowy, twilight way, so the extent to which they understood Dickens as nakedly present in his first person narration of this period is limited.

* Here’s some publication information.

But beginning with the extra Christmas number for 1854, The Seven Poor Travellers, Dickens put the stories within an overall framework by adding special openings and endings and providing brief links between the segments. Dickens himself usually wrote two of the segments (though he sometimes wrote one, sometimes three). He always set the overall theme, and he usually wrote all of the framework. At first the framework was spare and utilitarian (though the dramatic situation was often fanciful); the typical strategy was to bring together a group of strangers and have them while away their time by telling stories (the dramatic situation usually required such a diversion). In the later Christmas numbers, Dickens gave more attention to the framework and to creating a realistic and sometimes suspenseful situation for the storytelling. In the still later Christmas numbers he began to vary the formula itself by writing nonframework narratives in conjunction with a single collaborator.”

That’s an interesting prompt to set yourself. He keeps doing that, with the Christmas books et al: setting himself these chunky, fiddly tasks.

* This introduction is markedly better than any of the preceding short stories, with the possible exception of “Schoolboy’s”. (Is Dickens getting a bit better at short fiction as he goes along?) It’s funnier, for one, and allowed to be. The note of deep irritation with the charity’s miserly discharge of its ancient obligation rings clear, and the typography of the dinner theatre bill is so good I’m going to replicate it here via photo rather than trust ebook editions:

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* “The Seven Poor Travellers takes place on Christmas Eve in Rochester at the charity hospice founded in 1579 by Richard Watts – an actual hospice that Dickens knew well from his childhood days. “ (from Dickens Journal Online) And it shows—there’s strong architectural detail, etc.

* “The [other] stories themselves were written by George Augustus Sala, Wilkie Collins, Eliza Lynn [afterward Mrs. Lynn Linton], and Adelaide Anne Procter, respectively.” It’s 1854 and 2/5 (so almost half) of the contributors to this anthology are women. I’m just FUCKING SAYING.

* Dickens has sort of already done this ‘everybody tell stories’ frame (for no fucking reason, though I enjoyed it I guess) in Nicholas Nickleby, with that winter carriage ride up to Yorkshire.

* Slater points out in his lecture that the close of this Christmas story is suffused with the religiosity Ruskin claimed Dickens’ Christmas lacked. I don’t really get what people mean by saying anything like that, because clearly Dickens has a diffuse but strong emotional allegiance to Christianity, and a profound and driving allegiance to a moral framework derived from a non-doctrinal, fundamental/text- and praxis-based understanding of Christianity. I head someone at a Dickens Day conference a few years ago muse over what Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had meant by referring to him as ‘that great Christian writer’, but this could not be more self-evident as an emotional concept. The speaker also wondered whether Dickens meant he could LITERALLY feel the spirit of his dead friend/sister-in-law there with him while looking at the natural glory of Niagara falls, and started in on trans-continental ghost migration patterns, the mechanics and feasibility thereof. It was then I decided to have a somewhat distant relationship with formal Dickens fandom, such as it is. Then there was a talk about thing theory and chairs in Dickens. I died straight away, and my spirit may now be perceived in attendance on any natural wonders you choose to visit.

* The end section is strong.

* What’s a ‘proctor’ when this charity is established?

* I have laughed at lot at “The Story of Richard Doubledick” as a title.

* That said, woah this section about Taunton’s incredible eyes is homoerotic.

Now the Captain of Richard Doubledick’s company was a young gentleman not above five years his senior, whose eyes had an expression in them which affected Private Richard Doubledick in a very remarkable way.  They were bright, handsome, dark eyes,–what are called laughing eyes generally, and, when serious, rather steady than severe,–but they were the only eyes now left in his narrowed world that Private Richard Doubledick could not stand.  Unabashed by evil report and punishment, defiant of everything else and everybody else, he had but to know that those eyes looked at him for a moment, and he felt ashamed.  He could not so much as salute Captain Taunton in the street like any other officer.  He was reproached and confused,–troubled by the mere possibility of the captain’s looking at him.  In his worst moments, he would rather turn back, and go any distance out of his way, than encounter those two handsome, dark, bright eyes.”

Taunton’s function in the story is very Dickens-woman: he inspires Doubledick, calls him back to social responsibility via observation, is described as beautiful (handsome) and forgiving, and he gives Richard his mother, just as though they had married before he died. From Doubedick’s broken engagement to Taunton’s death (after a mourning period, he’s supplanted by Richard’s original fiancé, now wife), Taunton essentially serves as a wife to Richard.

* This section has that distasteful imperial bombast that Dickens mostly avoids throughout his career, which is actually somewhat remarkable given that he’s working in an era choking on the stuff—he’s a bit rightly suspicious of it perhaps, or at any rate it doesn’t do much for him. Even here glory comes in kind of vague terms, and the ending unsettles the morality of these achievements a little. Also this is set at a Napoleonic, ‘just war’ remove.

* I sort of like what little we see of Doubledick’s wife. I don’t love the marriage as an ending (it’d feel more earned in one of Dickens’ longer works, the very length would have worked to win me to it—in fact I like the deathbed marriage in Our Mutual Friend just fine), so I’m glad we go on and spend time with French post-war and then have the moral question about revenge as our tying-off.

* The way Dickens rewrote his contributions to present them independently afterwards is a lot like what Willa Shakespeare did when uploading her portions of the Atonement Cycle to Ao3 DON’T @ ME I KNOW WHAT I’M DOING OK

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Notes on Dickens’ Poor Relation’s, Child’s, Schoolboy’s and Nobody’s Stories (1852-1853)

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The Poor Relation’s Story” (1852)

* This is in the first person, which Dickens tends to favour for his Christmas stories (so far as I’ve read them). That’s somewhat odd, given that except for David Copperfield, Great Expectations and portions of Bleak House, Dickens tends to use third-person in his (longer) fiction. I just saw a scholar claim DC and GE were his only first person works, and though she was speaking off the cuff, that sort of strikes me as strange given all the short fiction she has to unremember (she’s an expert, she definitely knows about these) to generate that statement. I know the short fiction’s not as good (or rather perhaps it’s more fit for purpose, and thus more fixed to its publication circumstances and intended audience), but it should nonetheless still form part of our idea of How Dickens Writes.

They say, when you’re getting into bullfighting, that you should attend novilladas (apprentice bullfighters’ bouts) in order to understand the mechanics of the art (bullfighting is, whether one finds it moral or not, a cross between sport, art and religious ritual) and appreciate the toil involved on all fronts. Though the Christmas stories aren’t Dickens’ juvenilia, I’m relating to them a little in that way: they’re teaching me, I think, more about his mechanics and process than the more intimidating and better-finished novels. Or perhaps they’re just showing him in a weaker light? After all, what concrete and distillable things can I say about his process based on these short stories?

* We’re in the first of a four-story little suite of tales, which perhaps evolves out of the conceit of Master Humphrey’s Clock as a sort of frame narrative and perhaps gives rise to the shape of the coming multi-authorial Christmas compilations. I wouldn’t want to say that absolutely without reference to Dickens’ correspondence et al.

* In large part, this story seems like it could be a not terribly inspiring but decent chunk out of one of the novels. The character, his catch phrase about being nobody’s enemy but his own**, his narration of his present circumstances and his way of conveying his earlier downfall (and the very nature of that downfall) all give that impression.

* Dickens deals with poor relations in Pickwick Papers (I haven’t read this but the Michael Slater lecture I listened to assures me they’re in attendance at Christmas, dutifully enlivening blind man’s bluff), Bleak House, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend. (There are probably more such characters, I’m just not remembering right now.) Dickens expresses a keen understanding of their peculiar situations and of the ridiculous pretentious and privations involved. His sympathy with them derives from this nuanced appreciation of the ridiculousness of their position, which he doesn’t attempt to deny or ameliorate at a surface level with socially anxious tact. His amusement isn’t at odds with his empathy. This is especially interesting given that Dickens ends up supporting his own ‘poor relations’. His sympathy seems more with them, literarily, than with the munificent benefactors he’s more akin to in his own middle age. This story’s example of the breed seems almost a forerunner of decent Mr. Twemlow in OMF.

* The ‘how I came to be in my present position’ section, with its list of things that ‘didn’t happen’, is particularly strong.

* The ‘castle in the air’ ending strikes me as a bit groan-worthy, and I wonder if it worked better at the time. Did it strike people as profound or powerful that the narrator might, if he’s being honest, live a better life than most of the assembled? If you read it that way, it could well be a strong reversal of the in-story and in-life audiences’ expectations, locating agency, the power to pity, etc. with the story-teller. Or do we take this claim, given the stark initial description of the narrator’s days, as merely a figure of speech? I do, and so the pathos comes on too strong for me here.

** That phrase also comes up in DC and GE:

‘Traddles,’ returned Mr. Waterbrook, ‘is a young man reading for the bar. Yes. He is quite a good fellow—nobody’s enemy but his own.’

‘Is he his own enemy?’ said I, sorry to hear this.

‘Well,’ returned Mr. Waterbrook, pursing up his mouth, and playing with his watch-chain, in a comfortable, prosperous sort of way. ‘I should say he was one of those men who stand in their own light. Yes, I should say he would never, for example, be worth five hundred pound. Traddles was recommended to me by a professional friend. Oh yes. Yes. He has a kind of talent for drawing briefs, and stating a case in writing, plainly. I am able to throw something in Traddles’s way, in the course of the year; something—for him—considerable. Oh yes. Yes.’” DC

““You silly boy,” said Estella, quite composedly, “how can you talk such nonsense? Your friend Mr. Matthew, I believe, is superior to the rest of his family?”

“Very superior indeed. He is nobody’s enemy—”

“Don’t add but his own,” interposed Estella, “for I hate that class of man. But he really is disinterested, and above small jealousy and spite, I have heard?”

“I am sure I have every reason to say so.”” GE

(uses of ‘charm’ words: 0 . I’ll have to do the math again, but I’m getting a sense that the % frequency with which Dickens uses charm words is less in this short fiction than in the books, despite how ‘Christmas numbers’ might make you think there’d be an uptick.)

The Child’s Story” (1852)

* I dislike this one, and it’s not entirely its fault. I dislike wise child narrators, and I dislike allegory as a mode. So this is… fine. And a well-written example of a thing I don’t like. But there we are.

* The wife’s death and the reunion with the child are still effective.

(uses of ‘charm’ words: 0)

The Schoolboy’s Story” (1853)

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* This one is genuinely fun, and I would recommend it outside this Christmas story context. It’s easily the most entertaining  story of this set. The voice and POV are engaging. Dickens really enjoys what he can do with schoolboys’ way of talking, the slang and the allusions.

* Dickens seems, as Molly Katz mentioned to me, particularly interested in relationships between younger and older schoolboys (David and Steerforth, John Jarndyce and Boythorn, Paul Dombey and Toots, possibly Oliver and the Dodger fit into this paradigm?). Is this a fantasy of his (To have been cared for by an older child when he needed it? To be a benevolent child?), or perhaps a reflection of some lived or witnessed relationship? The female pairings he stages don’t work in quite the same way (though there are several, and some of them are about as homoerotic as David/Steerforth: Florence/Edith, Kate Nickleby/Madeline, Esther/Caddy Jellyby). All this familiarity with school life might suggest to the reader (possibly intentionally, or semi-intentionally) a sort of school career Dickens never actually had. In fact how cagey he was about his family’s financially precarious periods might suggest that he wanted his audience to think him familiar with these environments due to personal experience. I suppose his actual familiarity with them must come from associating with his own well-educated children.

* We get an allusion to Julius Caesar that positions the play in reference to friendship. In DC, David also says something about JC making him think of friendship. Was this just Dickens’ interpretation of the text, or was this a common Victorian appraisal of the play? It strikes me now as strange and idiosyncratic, but perhaps at the time this was a standard reading? (I’ve gone and asked Sophie Duncan, who works on Victorian Shakespeare–she might know.)

* The leader of the conspiracy is perhaps overly-invested in the betrayal of Old Cheeseman. Though it’s not alluded to, I almost wonder if they were special friends ere Cheeseman’s elevation.

* I love the leader of the conspiracy’s claims about his father and fortune turning out to be bs. Like, you see it coming and it’s still good.

* The ending is a struggle. Belatedly, we’re told that our narrator wasn’t involved in any of the events he’s recounting. He’s just a later recipient of both the lore and Old Cheeseman’s munificence: there to prove it’s on-going, that Cheeseman does not forget his old associations and the school has not forgotten him, etc. That distance makes the earlier story of the uprising against Cheeseman less immediate and the narrator’s place among the conspirators both guiltless (and thus without shame and catharsis in the great forgiveness) and something of a presumption (why is he claiming partisanship when he never fought in the Cheeseman wars?!). It also makes it seem as though Cheeseman and wife have nothing to occupy them but this one scholastic institution and acts of charity associated with it (so like a kindly equivalent of the 20-something still trying to hang out at high school parties–though even that comparison speaks to my very temporally-located anxiety about inter-generational friendship, which Victorians didn’t really share). Again, from the narrator’s perspective, I’m sure that’s all that does go on in their lives: it’s all he sees of them, and he’s a child yet, not given to conjecturing into the interior lives or broader activities of adults. We also have only a short space in which these characters can develop, so we don’t get to see Cheeseman in the world. The piece is focused on these events, and reigns itself in. It’s also tasked with fulfilling Dickens’ desire (and the market’s?) for the Christmas stories to hit a tone, and to enact and inspire forgiveness, etc.

(uses of ‘charm’ words: 0)

Nobody’s Story” (1853)

* Here we’re back in an allegorical mode, and back, to some extent, in the territory of The Chimes.

* Even given that the first two stories had strong melancholy elements, it’s still a shock to be ripped from this middle or upper class family hearth (which we dimly glimpse behind the stories) and thrown into the working-class misery of Nobody’s Story.

* We’re also now in third person, but the Close Third that characterised our association with Trotty Veck.

* It’s interesting that Dickens is willing to turn this rather bleak piece, with its chill ending, out as a Christmas number. He fears neither poor sales nor being criticised for giving the people downer activism at Christmas, apparently, though both money and popularity matter a great deal to him. Maybe Dickens just wanted his big Christmas audience to get a strong dose of social justice? Or maybe his radicalism, as per Carol, was just genuinely popular, and not incompatible with big circulation numbers/sales.

* This is perfectly good social criticism, but it’s also very like the aforementioned Chimes, and the many other places where Dickens did god’s work and said wealth stratification and Calvinistic moral judgement of the poor was bullshit, etc.

This is the kernel of the story:

“But the Master said again, “O you labouring men! How seldom do we ever hear of you, except in connection with some trouble!”

“Master,” he replied, “I am Nobody, and little likely to be heard of (nor yet much wanted to be heard of, perhaps), except when there is some trouble. But it never begins with me, and it never can end with me. As sure as Death, it comes down to me, and it goes up from me.”

There was so much reason in what he said, that the Bigwig family, getting wind of it, and being horribly frightened by the late desolation, resolved to unite with him to do the things that were right–at all events, so far as the said things were associated with the direct prevention, humanly speaking, of another pestilence. But, as their fear wore off, which it soon began to do, they resumed their falling out among themselves, and did nothing. Consequently the scourge appeared again–low down as before–and spread avengingly upward as before, and carried off vast numbers of the brawlers. But not a man among them ever admitted, if in the least degree he ever perceived, that he had anything to do with it.”

Fair, but Dickens has said similar stuff more potently elsewhere.

* I think my final thought is that this probably did a fair amount of work as the Christmas number, but that it can do less work for posterity, given that we now have access to the whole of the Dickens canon and its many fine passages of righteous anger at our fingertips.

(uses of ‘charm’ words: 0)

Notes on Dickens’ “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older” (1851)

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  • This has a bit of a slow start, but I eventually got into the affective rhythm of it and found it fairly moving: Dickens is really, really good at eliciting response. (Not a very original statement, but.)
  • I was listening to Michael Slater’s lecture on Dickens and Christmas today, and he pointed out that all the Christmas books involve memory–not incidentally, but as a theme they’re working with. They’re also the run-up to David Copperfield, which is a complicated working-through of Dickens’ personal memory, especially the grimmer portions thereof (written right after Haunted Man dramatised the futility of refusing that aspect of life). “What Is Christmas As We Grow Older” convincingly stages the loss of the child’s entire, consuming Christmas as actually fairly beneficial: an intellectual and moral development. This essay gives us a subtle and mature way of looking at failure and abandoned plans. I tend to obsessively hate myself over this, but Dickens, who had too many plans for some of them not to come to nothing (or fall apart more spectacularly than that), has a rather appealing and sensible-seeming way of thinking about failure itself as useful, enlarging and part of one’s personality. This is especially interesting as Dickens also writes (in “Poor Relation’s Story” and elsewhere) about the immense granular psychological strain on people eroded by time and misfortune. There’s a lot in the Christmas works about good and bad ways to interact with failure, and about good and bad failure, as well as the oppressive social relations and forces that engender The Bad Failure.
  • There’s an allusion (probably?) to Maria Beadnell, and another (probably?) to Dickens’ deceased sister in law (“There was a dear girl–almost a woman–never to be one–who made a mourning Christmas in a house of joy, and went her trackless way to the silent City”). The Probably Maria Beadnell section is funny, in a slightly but very forgivably mean way.
  • Strangely ‘“Pause,” says a low voice. “Nothing? Think!”’ strikes me as how Dickens’ relatively analytical mind must turn over logistical questions. Part of this essay’s in a staged, familiar dialogical mode (that doesn’t quite announce itself as such), but this also feels very like How Dickens Must Think to arrive where he does on social questions.
  • Everything about the City of the Dead gets me because I’m so weak for this civic religiosity shit. “Oh shall they not, from sand and sea and forest, be brought home at such a time?” “Would his love have so excluded us?” SHUT UP DICKENS. Anyway it’s a nice building of a trans-temporal Christmas, doing almost eschatological work.  

Read it here.

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Notes on Dickens’ “A Christmas Tree” (1850)

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* You can really feel the immanence of the market in Dickens’ “A Christmas Tree”. This was the first of the annual Christmas stories that ran in Dickens’ then brand-new magazine, Household Words (a draw for the Christmas edition). Dickens is filling the market/public connection gap created by his five previous almost-annual Christmas books. People wanted to read him, so he’s presenting himself in a format suitable for public consumption. Dickens is always at once self-contained and stubborn and eminently flexible and available, demonstrating the opposite of Bob Dylan’s ire at being introduced thus: You know him, he’s yours: Bob Dylan.” That’s exactly the relationship Dickens wants with his audience, and what he needs them to give him, even as he’s never prepared to budge on his social justice stances to make himself more lovable. How do you even go about making a kind of radical populism popular? What a delicate balance of contradictions!

* I love the description (bottom page 4/top page 5 in my volume) of his toys as both scary/grotesque and delightful/charming. They’re such close feelings (as my thesis explores at length).

All toys at first, I find. Up yonder, among the green holly and red berries, is the Tumbler with his hands in his pockets, who wouldn’t lie down, but whenever he was put upon the floor, persisted in rolling his fat body about, until he rolled himself still, and brought those lobster eyes of his to bear upon me–when I affected to laugh very much, but in my heart of hearts was extremely doubtful of him. Close beside him is that infernal snuff-box, out of which there sprang a demoniacal Counsellor in a black gown, with an obnoxious head of hair, and a red cloth mouth, wide open, who was not to be endured on any terms, but could not be put away either; for he used suddenly, in a highly magnified state, to fly out of Mammoth Snuff-boxes in dreams, when least expected. Nor is the frog with cobbler’s wax on his tail, far off; for there was no knowing where he wouldn’t jump; and when he flew over the candle, and came upon one’s hand with that spotted back–red on a green ground–he was horrible. The cardboard lady in a blue-silk skirt, who was stood up against the candlestick to dance, and whom I see on the same branch, was milder, and was beautiful; but I can’t say as much for the larger cardboard man, who used to be hung against the wall and pulled by a string; there was a sinister expression in that nose of his; and when he got his legs round his neck (which he very often did), he was ghastly, and not a creature to be alone with.

When did that dreadful Mask first look at me? Who put it on, and why was I so frightened that the sight of it is an era in my life? It is not a hideous visage in itself; it is even meant to be droll, why then were its stolid features so intolerable? Surely not because it hid the wearer’s face. An apron would have done as much; and though I should have preferred even the apron away, it would not have been absolutely insupportable, like the mask. Was it the immovability of the mask? The doll’s face was immovable, but I was not afraid of HER. Perhaps that fixed and set change coming over a real face, infused into my quickened heart some remote suggestion and dread of the universal change that is to come on every face, and make it still? Nothing reconciled me to it. No drummers, from whom proceeded a melancholy chirping on the turning of a handle; no regiment of soldiers, with a mute band, taken out of a box, and fitted, one by one, upon a stiff and lazy little set of lazy-tongs; no old woman, made of wires and a brown-paper composition, cutting up a pie for two small children; could give me a permanent comfort, for a long time. Nor was it any satisfaction to be shown the Mask, and see that it was made of paper, or to have it locked up and be assured that no one wore it. The mere recollection of that fixed face, the mere knowledge of its existence anywhere, was sufficient to awake me in the night all perspiration and horror, with, “O I know it’s coming! O the mask!””

* I often see a fragment from this piece in which Dickens asserts his first love was Little Red Riding-Hood (“She was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding-Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.”) quoted as straight up autobiographical. The irresponsibility of this framing frankly surprises me for several reasons.

1. As stated above, this is Dickens packaging himself. He is and isn’t engaged in autobiography, acting a part, and salesmanship. He’s definitely ‘playing it up’: the Saleable Dickens.

2. The over-arching image of this piece is a Christmas tree, which Dickens supposedly remembers from his own childhood. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s absolutely no way that could be autobiographical? He’s just cannily using the image as a structuring device. Dickens is a child in the 1810s and 20s, and Queen Victoria popularised the Christmas tree in the 1840s. Ergo we are, in a way that is clearly flagged up, not in a diaristic mode (and even that is an act of self-presentation).

Being now at home again, and alone, the only person in the house awake, my thoughts are drawn back, by a fascination which I do not care to resist, to my own childhood. I begin to consider, what do we all remember best upon the branches of the Christmas Tree of our own young Christmas days, by which we climbed to real life.

Straight, in the middle of the room, cramped in the freedom of its growth by no encircling walls or soon-reached ceiling, a shadowy tree arises; and, looking up into the dreamy brightness of its top– for I observe in this tree the singular property that it appears to grow downward towards the earth–I look into my youngest Christmas recollections!”

3. The school-days Dickens describes, featuring certain classical authors and a boarding school-style ‘coming home for Christmas’, are markedly not his own. Dickens only ‘boarded’ in any fashion for a short time while his parents moved to London, and not, I think, during a lead up to Christmas. He had three years of schooling total, and his ‘high school’ education consisted of two years (post-blacking factory) at a decent but not excellent local day school. I’m really not sure he could have had the rigorous classical education he alludes to here (except as the autodidact he was), and he certainly never ‘came home’ from school for Christmas. This, again, is Dickens giving the public the childhood they expect he had, or that he wants them to believe he had: a few class-rungs above his actual origins.

School-books shut up; Ovid and Virgil silenced; the Rule of Three, with its cool impertinent inquiries, long disposed of; Terence and Plautus acted no more, in an arena of huddled desks and forms, all chipped, and notched, and inked; cricket-bats, stumps, and balls, left higher up, with the smell of trodden grass and the softened noise of shouts in the evening air; the tree is still fresh, still gay. If I no more come home at Christmas-time, there will be boys and girls (thank Heaven! ) while the World lasts; and they do! Yonder they dance and play upon the branches of my Tree, God bless them, merrily, and my heart dances and plays too!”

4. If anything, what it sounds more like is David Copperfield’s school-years at what must be the King’s School in Canterbury (strange side-note: this means some centuries later, Gareth Thomas, who among other things once played Mudstone, attended the same school as David’s supposed to have done). Dickens is actually writing David Copperfield when this little number is coming out, and Dickens once, maybe only part-jokingly, said he was performing a theatrical role as Vincent Crummles playing the part. My point is that Dickens is already engaged in a sophisticated first-person game where he’s writing as both himself and as a younger, ‘better-bred’ version of himself (who nonetheless shares his own childhood trauma, or some of it). So Dickens could easily be writing this in a first-person me-and-not-me mode, or even writing it as David Copperfield, wittingly or un. Taking this Little Red Riding-Hood business, as some psychoanalytic critics have, as a genuine disclosure of the writer’s recollections or feelings seems to miss the mark, and to not give Dickens due authorial credit for crafting and shaping his experience and biographical presentation in the knowing fashion we have absolute proof he does in David Copperfield.

We know “Monk” Lewis was a big fixture on the London literary scene in his slightly-antecedent day (the title conflates the author with his work, which Lewis actively encouraged), and we know, as Molly Katz reminded me, that Tristam Shandy was a big influence on David Copperfield. Laurence Sterne often appeared/spoke of/and was referred to as Tristram and Yorick.” I think we assume complex, self-aware interactions of person and performance are relatively post-modern, which, I’m sorry, is self-indulgent bullshit that frames earlier creators as simpler, less artistically competent and less media-savvy than us. Trust Butler-Lytton’s annoyed grousing on the subject: Dickens was incredibly media-savvy. Media just had a different shape and substance at the time.

* None of that’s to say I don’t think we should panhandle for psychoanalytic gold in this rich stream! Just, framing is vital. Handle Dickens’ multi-layered claims about himself with care.

* Gold nuggets from the stream:

1. Simon Cowell doesn’t go out and say it, but when, in his popular biography of Dickens, he discusses Dickens’ “The Life of Our Lord” and flags up Dickens’ desire to heal, and to exert benevolent power hands-on via mesmerism, public readings, fiction and social reform (Siobhan Harper is also doing academic work on this), he strongly implies Dickens has a (possibly-unacknowledged?) Jesus complex. Here’s a fragment that makes me raise my eyebrow and think, yep.

a baby in a manger; a child in a spacious temple, talking with grave men; a solemn figure, with a mild and beautiful face, raising a dead girl by the hand; again, near a city gate, calling back the son of a widow, on his bier, to life; a crowd of people looking through the opened roof of a chamber where he sits, and letting down a sick person on a bed, with ropes; the same, in a tempest, walking on the water to a ship; again, on a sea-shore, teaching a great multitude; again, with a child upon his knee, and other children round; again, restoring sight to the blind, speech to the dumb, hearing to the deaf, health to the sick, strength to the lame, knowledge to the ignorant; again, dying upon a Cross, watched by armed soldiers, a thick darkness coming on, the earth beginning to shake, and only one voice heard, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.””

I could go into how that feels really Implicating to me, but no one’s publishing this, so idc to.

2. “of doting on the little Fairy, with the wand like a celestial Barber’s Pole, and pining for a Fairy immortality along with her. Ah, she comes back, in many shapes, as my eye wanders down the branches of my Christmas Tree, and goes as often, and has never yet stayed by me!”

That’s… an awkwardly revealing thing to say about your love-life, thanks.

3. “When I wake in bed, at daybreak, on the cold, dark, winter mornings, the white snow dimly beheld, outside, through the frost on the window-pane, I hear Dinarzade. “Sister, sister, if you are yet awake, I pray you finish the history of the Young King of the Black Islands.” Scheherazade replies, “If my lord the Sultan will suffer me to live another day, sister, I will not only finish that, but tell you a more wonderful story yet.” Then, the gracious Sultan goes out, giving no orders for the execution, and we all three breathe again.”

I guess it makes sense because they’re both desperate story-tellers who need the act to live, but it’s interesting that Arabian Nights is one of the most important books to Dickens (Cowell calls it his bible), and that Dickens is firmly identifying w Scheherazade here (he could almost be her, in the ST:TMP novelisation K/S footnote level grammatical tangle of this paragraph). He’s also left with the women when the threatening male presence goes.

‘Gracious’ is also odd as (as Samira recently reminded me) this king is a mass-murdering fuck. (This is Esther territory, too.) But then the fictive&material relationship with audience Dickens is constructing can only have sublimated violence: he relies on their love.

As far as identification goes, people are eager to retroactively butch this writer. Cowell was just going on about how his playing more with girls than other boys as kid is sexual—not, as I’d suggest, indicative of identification or greater comfort with women. I wonder how much of relative importance of Dickens’ male and female friendships is biographical tradition, though? Do we want Collins and not Angela Burdett-Coutts? It’s fairly common to say Dickens wrote bad women, had bad relationships with women, etc. But he had equal reason to be mad at his dad, and so many more close female friendships than most men have, and his sort of last blessing, as it were, goes to Katey, the child he sits up all night talking to shortly before his death. I don’t think Katey was the Jacob, stealing a blessing intended for Esau. Cowell contends she was the child most like her father, and if that’s true, this feels like an acknowledgement of that (as does Dickens’ crying over Katey’s wedding dress, convinced that she married not for love, but because her big personality clashed with his big personality and she wanted to get out of the house, away from him).

So If we’re talking about poorly-written women, we’re excluding Betsey, Jenny Wren, Bella Wilfer, Pleasance Riderhood—a lot of women from that category. (And is Dickens more interested in Walter from Dombey than he is in Agnes? Goodness and prettiness are never really his bag: he cuts many male and female Stock Characters from panto and melodrama for his romantic leads and doesn’t love them as much as he loves the vibrant casts of ridiculous people around them.) If we’re saying ‘bad with women in life’, again, we’re rendering Burdett-Coutts, Katey, and a lot of other women with whom he had ambivalent, close, rich relationships invisible. If what we mean is ‘bad with a certain type of woman’, in fiction or in life, we need to clarify how that’s working in relation to male characters and people, and possibly to think about how our own moment of heteronormativity and its associated narratives are interacting with the itself-evolving Georgian/Victorian span of Dickens’ life. I’m also not sure that the end of Dickens’ marriage to Catherine can serve as a sort of template for his relationship with the entire gender, in our thinking. Maybe that ‘we’ is arrogant to say, and it’s work scholars are doing all over the place, but in the admittedly popular biography I just read, which was very good, assumptions about the relative closeness and importance of Dickens’ friends were stated rather than proved.

* This description of toys is a little like the one in Cricket on the Hearth (the Noah’s arc, the doll house), and this description of coming home from school a little like the one in Carol.

* I wish he’d stay in the ghost stories a little more, lingering in them. He’s willing to do it in Nickleby!

* Robinson Crusoe is crap, Victorians are all confused.

* panniers: baskets, especially a pair carried by a beast of burden.

* This has only partly clarified what the hell ‘lazy-tongs’ are for me.

* The ‘waits’: The tradition of caroling from door to door originated with the “waits,” an ancient English custom of going from house to house and singing in exchange for food. Singing carols outdoors on the front porches of houses became popular in both England and the United States as early as the late 19th Century and continued into the 20th. The English carol “Here We Come a-Wassailing” best describes the tradition of the waits.”

* “Philip Quarll among the monkeys, Sandford and Merton with Mr. Barlow, Mother Bunch”, “not Valentine, not the Yellow Dwarf (I have passed him and all Mother Bunch’s wonders, without mention)”, lots of stuff from plays: no idea

* I feel like I’m going to have to read Arabian Nights, and I’m a little annoyed about it.

Read it here.