A Dickensian Christmas Eve

“The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squat and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner... The Grocers’! oh, the Grocers’! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose."

Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, & Spinach

Watching Gina Rinehart's son talk about the law suit in which he and his sisters are embroiled put me in mind of wretched Richard Carstone in Bleak House. A man whose life is ruined by false expectations, and wasted in a fruitless suit. Here's Esther worrying at the earliest signs of Richard's disintegration:

He was as vivacious as ever and told us he was very industrious, but I was not easy in my mind about him. It appeared to me that his industry was all misdirected. I could not find that it led to anything but the formation of delusive hopes in connexion with the suit already the pernicious cause of so much sorrow and ruin. He had got at the core of that mystery now, he told us, and nothing could be plainer than that the will under which he and Ada were to take I don't know how many thousands of pounds must be finally established if there were any sense or justice in the Court of Chancery—but oh, what a great IF that sounded in my ears—and that this happy conclusion could not be much longer delayed. He proved this to himself by all the weary arguments on that side he had read, and every one of them sunk him deeper in the infatuation. He had even begun to haunt the court. He told us how he saw Miss Flite there daily, how they talked together, and how he did her little kindnesses, and how, while he laughed at her, he pitied her from his heart. But he never thought—never, my poor, dear, sanguine Richard, capable of so much happiness then, and with such better things before him—what a fatal link was riveting between his fresh youth and her faded age, between his free hopes and her caged birds, and her hungry garret, and her wandering mind.

On Dickens (Part 2): Heavenly creatures

Reading Dickens at university, I found myself searching, thirsting in the end, for a female character that united strength with charm in something resembling reality. All I could see were grotesques at one extreme, coquettes at the other, and in the middle spineless, simpering, mawkish Agnes Wickfield or Ada Clare - veritable Victorian angels. Though there were many to amuse, I couldn’t find a single female character that inspired admiration. The only one that came close was Mrs Bagnet in Bleak House, but even she was a caricature. 

Miriam Margulyes’ one-woman show places the women in Dickens’ life alongside the women in his books. As an answer to my question about where these women came from, it’s illuminating, and a little bit scary. A writer of comic genius and apparently boundless sympathy, he was a man of strong, strange and often cruel passion towards women. 

It begins with his mother, who famously sent him back to the blacking factory after his father rescued him. He wrote with palpable bitterness, “I never afterwards forgot, I never can forget, I never shall forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” She is punished for this in the character of Mrs Nickleby, one of the most unwise, unfeeling mothers to be found in his work.

Then there’s his first love, Maria Beadnell, on whom Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield is based. Pretty, silly, shallow and utterly self-absorbed, Dora dies early in their marriage. After a horrifying reunion with Maria years afterward, Dickens resurrected Dora as Little Dorrit’s Flora Finching. Flora is Dora twenty years older, fatter and giddier. A spoiled and artless girl might be enchanting, but to be spoiled and artless in rotund middle age was unforgivable. 

Catherine Hogarth DickensPerhaps most disquieting is Dickens’ ultimate marriage to Catherine Hogarth, who doesn’t seem to have warranted a literary vengeance, though Dickens came to regard his marriage to her as his greatest mistake. Two of Catherine’s sisters lived with the couple, first Mary and then Georgina; Dickens was deeply attached to both these women, but less and less to his wife, from whom he separated after 22 years of marriage. It’s hard to imagine and impossible to guess what estranged them, but it looks as though an original personal incompatibility was compounded by Catherine’s severe depression. 

This seems to have begun after the birth of their first baby, whom Catherine had trouble breast-feeding. Mary wrote, “every time she sees her baby she has a fit of crying.” Not long afterwards, Mary died suddenly, causing Catherine to have the first of several miscarriages, and causing Dickens acute misery from which he never recovered. He wore her ring and carried a lock of her hair, called her a “perfect creature,” and expressed a wish to be buried in her grave. Whatever state of mind this portended in Dickens, it cannot have conduced to Catherine’s mental health. Nine more children followed, including a baby girl that died at nine months. Dickens seemed baffled by the arrival of so many children. Of their last, a son, he said: “on the whole I could have dispensed with him.”  Soon after this they separated, surrounded by rumours of Dickens' infidelity. 

Perhaps the most heart-tearing glimpse into the truth of their marriage comes from a comment Dickens’ friend Henry Morley made after he had met Mrs Dickens. “One sees in five minutes that she loves her husband and her children, and has a warm heart for anybody who won't be satirical.” How was such a temper to be the wife of the greatest satirist of the age? 

It seems she looked in vain, as I did, for something in Dickens that would allow women who were less than angelic to escape satire.