Sounding the keynote

David McAllister, Lecturer in Victorian Literature at Birkbeck and Course Director of its MA Victorian Studies, writes about Dickens’s recycling, Harmon’s dust, imaginary electric messages and some entries in Dickens’s notebook.

On his own small estate the growling old vagabond threw up his own mountain range, like an old volcano, and its geological formation was Dust. Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust,—all manner of Dust (p. 10).

In his famous watercolour ‘Dickens’s Dream’, R. W. Buss shows Dickens asleep in his study surrounded by a transparent, almost spectral crowd of his fictional creations.Image


Buss left the painting unfinished when he died in 1875, and I’ve always felt that this is the key to its success; there’s something weirdly evocative in how those intense bursts of colour cluster round Dickens’s head in the finished section, and an aptness in the way that his fictional characters seem to vaporize as they drift towards the window, and out towards the world beyond. It gives a sense of the author as creative factory: his restless imagination pumping out characters even while he sleeps: like one of his own Coketown chimneys, billowing fire and smoke. It not only fits Dickens’s image as a writer of seemingly inexhaustible imaginative power, but also corresponds to a lingering view of the Victorian period as a time of headlong industrial overproduction in which the earth’s natural resources were wastefully put to use.

But the Victorians were thriftier than this popular image allows: this was a culture which hoarded, recycled and repurposed its raw materials to try and minimise waste and maximise profit. Dickens hints at this immense recuperative energy in the first number of Our Mutual Friend, in which we see Gaffer Hexam and Rogue Riderhood scour the river for corpses to exchange for cash, hear of driftwood and an abandoned basket being fashioned into a makeshift cot, and of stray coals used to heat a home whose walls are papered with ‘Found Drowned’ handbills.

It’s this carrion economy that gives Harmon’s dust heaps their immense financial (and symbolic) value. In a culture where everything has a price, and nothing is allowed to rest in peace, even ‘vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust’ will eventually be worth something to someone. Perhaps this focus on waste and its disposal or recovery explains why Buss clustered the characters from Our Mutual Friend beside Dickens’s waste paper bin?

Dickens, too, was something of a hoarder, and more cautious to preserve his creative powers than Buss’s painting implies. Michael Slater’s wonderful introductory blog sent me back, for the first time in years, to the notebook Dickens kept between 1855 and 1866, in which he recorded fragments that might be used in future projects: plot ideas, lists of names and story titles, brief character sketches and snatches of dialogue (see Charles Dickens’ Book of Memoranda, ed. Fred Kaplan, New York Public Library, 1981).

To read the notebook’s entries is to enter an alternate Dickensian dimension, populated by the ‘what-might-have-beens’ of literary history. Here, never-written characters such as ‘Tertius Jobber’, ‘Zephania Fury’ and “Sarah Goldsacks’ rub shoulders with the more familiar Rogue Riderhood, Noddy Boffin and Mr. Podsnap, while unwritten stories named Memory Carton and Felled Trees jostle for shelf space with Great Expectations and Hard Times. The counterfactuals accumulate: would the course of musical history have been altered if Dickens had gone ahead with his plan to name one story Rolling Stones? And what if he had beaten Ricky Gervais to the punch by working up his idea for a story called ‘The office’, which would focus on ‘The life of the office [and the] men in it’? Might we have been spared Derek?

It’s not the unused material that I find most striking about Dickens’s notebook, however, but the amount of stuff that does find its way into the novels, and what it reveals about Dickens’s working habits and creative thriftiness. He regularly went back through his notes, reusing old ideas and adapting them to his current projects. Once an entry had been used it would be crossed through with a vertical line, and he occasionally left a note to remind himself which ideas had been used, and where he’d used them. For example, one entry, written in faint ink and reading ‘Found Drowned. The descriptive bill upon the wall, by the waterside’, is crossed through, and followed, in a much darker ink, by the words ‘Done in Our Mutual’.

With other entries its less clear whether Dickens actually used them or not. Take, for instance, an idea that he (probably) noted down in the summer of 1862, just as he was beginning to make plans for Our Mutual Friend.

‘Open a story by bringing two strongly contrasted places and strongly contrasted sets of people, into the connexion necessary for the story, by means of an electric message’, it reads. ‘Describe the message – be the message – flashing along through space – over the earth and under the sea’ (p. 19).

Was this an idea that Dickens recycled, or not? He certainly never wrote from the perspective of an electrical signal pulsing down a wire. And while on balance it’s probably a good thing that Memory Carton never saw the light of day, I can’t help but feel disappointed when I think what Dickens, with his intense feel for the quiddity of things, could have made of this message as it journeyed through the network. It would indeed (as Dickens wrote to Forster) be ‘a curious way of sounding the keynote’ to a novel, but potentially a brilliant one.

And yet, given the timing of this entry, it seems likely that Our Mutual Friend was the story that Dickens planned to open with this sequence. Indeed, many of the other notes made at around the same time found their way into the novel in some form or other. Perhaps just as significant is the fact that we can still hear, in the novel’s first number, ‘the keynote’ that this flashing message was intended to sound. Dickens still brings together ‘strongly contrasted sets of people’; the Hexam/Riderhood group, scratching out a living on the margins of Victorian London, the socially-climbing Veneerings and their confused aristocratic and commercial connections, and the Wilfers, who cling doggedly to the fringe of the respectable middle class. Dickens also stakes out a similarly contrasting fictional terrain, which takes in the Veneerings’ ‘bran new quarter of London’ (p. 4), the City offices of Chicksey, Veneering, and Stobbles, the ‘suburban Sahara’ (p. 25) that separates King’s Cross from Holloway (a ‘desert’ that’s now dominated, appropriately enough, by the Emirates Stadium) and the unembanked riverside of Limehouse Hole, where the ‘accumulated scum of humanity seemed to be washed from higher grounds, like so much moral sewage’ (p. 15).

And what makes ‘the connexion necessary for the story’ amongst these various characters and places? A message, albeit one delivered by the low-tech means of a coarse-faced boy in a cab, rather than a hi-tech pulse in a wire. A message which Lightwood summarises as ‘Man’s drowned’, and which initiates the first of many encounters between the living and the dead in a novel where even corpses can be recycled.

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter whether this is the same opening—repurposed, de-electrified—or another one altogether: the novel’s keynote has been sounded, and it’s one that combines such familiar Dickensian themes as the unacknowledged connections between disparate social groups, intergenerational dysfunction, the past’s encroachment into the present, and the deadening effect of replacing affective relationships with financial obligations. It also includes the novel’s major symbolic presences in the shape of the dust heaps and the river. Reading at the pace of Dickens’s first readers requires us all to act like hoarders, storing fragments of information which might prove useful at a later date. When so much of the novel’s detail will inevitably be forgotten, or lie buried somewhere in our memories, perhaps these broad themes and patterns will assume an even greater significance. Time will tell.

The keynote of the Our Mutual Friend Reading Project has been sounded too. And, this time, it does depend upon electric messages ‘flashing along through space – over the earth and under the sea’. Into the cloud, perhaps, as well. In this first month we’ve had thousands of readers from 31 different countries across five continents: ‘strongly contrasted places and strongly contrasted sets of people’, no doubt, and all ‘brought into…connexion’ by a desire to share the experience of reading Dickens’s final completed novel. It’s been a great start, and as we head towards June 1st and the ‘publication’ of the second number, I’d like to encourage you all not just to read, but to comment as well: ‘be the message’, as Dickens might have put it.

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Filed under Books, Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

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