Tuesday, June 9, 2020

This Day in Literary History (Charles Dickens, ‘Generously Angry’ Champion of the Underdog, Dies)

June 9, 1870—Charles Dickens, whose prolific career included forerunners of the modern crime novel, left a few mysteries of his own when he died at age 58 of a stroke at his country home Gad’s Hill Place, in Rochester, England, including:

*How did he intend to finish the novel on which he was working at the time of his death, The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

*Was he at home at the time of his fatal stroke?

*Why were his wishes for a simple burial disregarded?

The following is what we know—or don’t—about these questions:

*Drood: Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished The Last Tycoon, Dickens left no notes for how his book might turn out. We only know, based on the number of installments, that he had reached the halfway mark of the novel. Writing in installments for magazine publishing helped him to adjust plots and characterizations by gauging ongoing reader reaction, but it also deprived us of knowing his final destination for what turned out to be his last book.

*Dickens’ whereabouts on the day before his death: In her judicious 2011 biography, Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin reviewed the recollections of his beloved daughter, sister-in-law, and a local doctor called to Gad’s Hill. His careful concealment of involvement with his much younger mistress, Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, led Tomalin to offer an alternative scenario for the day of his stroke, one that she admitted was “a wild and improbable story, but not an entirely impossible one”—i.e., that, instead of suffering his stroke at home, Dickens collapsed at the home of Nelly, who—to preserve her lover’s reputation and her own—got him, with some help, into a hackney cab, where he was conveyed back to his own home.

*Burial: Dickens’ will specified that he wished to be “buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner; that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial; that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed; and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity.” That is hardly what occurred. In the end, his remains were brought to the Valhalla of English literati: Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. In a very revealing article this past February in Smithsonian Magazine, Leon Litvack disclosed that this circumvention of Dickens’ wishes was engineered by his friend and eventual biographer, John Forster, and the dean of Westminster, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, both of whom stood to gain by creating an unstoppable groundswell of public opinion on behalf of this move.

(Incidentally, the involvement of Nelly Ternan in this closing chapter of Dickens’ story remains as murky as much else: At the final services, Dickens’ estranged wife Catherine was excluded; accounts of those present note that 14 mourners were in attendance. Many, but not all, were specifically named. It is possible that Nelly was the unnamed attendee.)

It is natural that Dickens, a spellbinding storyteller given to astonishing plot twists, left a few in his own life. But I could not write this post without considering his larger legacy.

Dickens pioneered so much in the writing and marketing of modern fiction, but his influence on the crime novel receives less attention than it should. From Oliver Twist to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he continually turned his attention to its significant presence in Victorian England. 

Just as masters of the genre have discovered in the past century, such subjects offers unique and abundant opportunities to consider both twisted individual psychology and larger social pathologies. In other words, the forces of injustice create the preconditions for crime, its exploiters and victims.

In contemporary America, where the police are increasingly regarded as abusers of power, it may come as a shock that Dickens sees the London police force as a bulwark of the moral order. The Dickens novel I was assigned in a college Victorian Literature course, Bleak House, even creates one of the first detectives in fiction: Inspector Bucket.  

A post from the Web site “Read Great Literature” offers the presence of this character as a reason to love this novel, noting his resemblance to my favorite TV sleuth, Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo: his humble nature, his dogged pursuit of clues, and even a beloved wife!

Above all, Dickens recognized that crime, like injustice, left untold victims in its wake, and it needed to be countered not just with the highly rational faculties of Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but with a fearless commitment to truth and a stout heart. That type of person would be a champion of the underdog like Dickens himself, as summarized by George Orwell:

“In the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

No comments: