This guest post was contributed by Claire Wood, Research Associate at the University of York. It revisits and expands upon material from her forthcoming monograph, Dickens and the Business of Death, due to be published by Cambridge University Press in February 2015.
Our Mutual Friend is a novel permeated by cycles of death and renewal. From the opening sequence in which a modern-day Charon profits by towing corpses ashore instead of ferrying them to the afterlife, the text plays out numerous iterations of life after death and death-in-life, and is profoundly interested in those who make death their living. Despite the general atmosphere of deathliness and the appearance of several notable corpses, the December number is the first to feature an ‘onstage’ death. The choice of subject is interesting – why does Dickens decide to have readers witness this gentle passing away instead of the more dramatic scene of Gaffer Hexam drowning in Number Five? In part this is a question of timing and sympathy. Little John Harmon’s death compels us to remember the poor and suffering during the festive season; his youth and innocence readily elicits sympathy in the hope that it will be directed towards charitable ends, as in Mrs Boffin’s adoption of Sloppy. Gaffer is a more ambivalent character and the manner of his death, when he becomes a substitute for the corpse that he had hoped to catch, reflects this. Instead of narrating the waterman’s death as it happens, Dickens has Mr Inspector reconstruct it second-hand, limiting the emotive content. The body is still a moving spectacle, not least because nature seems so cruelly disposed towards it: ‘the wind sweeps jeeringly over Father, whips him with the frayed ends of his dress and his jagged hair, tries to turn him where he lies … and force his face towards the rising sun, that he might be shamed the more’ (132). However, because a direct account of Gaffer’s final moments is suppressed, the overt cues for sympathy – such as thoughts of redemption – are lacking.
Dickens could be said to have form for killing off prepossessing children, particularly orphans. The death of Little Nell in 1841 had increased the circulation of The Old Curiosity Shop to 100,000 copies, while in 1847 the demise of Paul Dombey ‘threw a whole nation into mourning’. Both in his own time and since, Dickens has been mocked for the quantity and sentimental quality of his deathbed scenes, with one contemporary reviewer commenting:
No man can offer to the public so large a stock of death-beds adapted for either sex and for any age from five-and-twenty downwards. There are idiot death-beds, where the patient cries ha, ha! and points wildly at vacancy — pauper death-beds, with unfeeling nurses to match — male and female children’s death-beds, where the young ladies or gentlemen sit up in bed, pray to angels, and see golden water on the walls. (Saturday Review, 8 May 1858)
This critique draws upon the language of advertising to suggest that Dickens is in the business of supplying generic deathbed scenes to the mass market, which cynically manipulate the feelings of readers by deploying stock formulations, such as the pathos of dying in poverty being heightened by the insensitivity of the pauper’s attendants. Yet to dismiss these scenes as perfunctory is to underestimate their artistry and power. Death is always meaningful in Dickens’s work, and while the author was fully aware of the profitable and popular function of deathbed scenes in his fiction, he was also keenly interested in their nuances.
Thus although the death of little Johnny contains several features of the conventional child deathbed scene (a willingness to accept death, a painless sleep-like passing, assurance of a spiritual afterlife), it remains distinct from it. This becomes clear when Johnny’s death is compared with that of Lucie Manette’s son in A Tale of Two Cities (1859):
Even when golden hair, like her own, lay in a halo on a pillow round the worn face of a little boy, and he said, with a radiant smile, ‘Dear papa and mamma, I am very sorry to leave you both, and to leave my pretty sister; but I am called, and I must go!’ those were not tears all of agony that wetted his young mother’s cheek as the spirit departed from her embrace that had been entrusted to it. (219)
In Tale the child deathbed scene has no worldly taint: the dying boy’s ‘radiant’ expression, elevated language, and golden halo of hair render him ethereal. In contrast, Johnny’s speech and actions are more natural; his small, ailing body is made substantial through references to its weight (‘heavy eyes’, ‘heaved his body on the sustaining arm’). Although Johnny’s passing ultimately conforms to the ideal, spiritualised model, much of the scene oscillates between material and spiritual concerns, as when Johnny goes from seeming to grip the spirit world (‘he clenches his little hand as if it had hold of a finger that I can’t see’) to gripping the mane of his new toy horse. At the hospital the dying child is framed by a ‘coloured picture beautiful to see’, which represents ‘as it were another Johnny seated on the knee of some Angel surely who loved little children’ (250). This tableau resonates with George Cattermole’s depiction of Little Nell’s deathbed, in which the Virgin Mary watches over Nell’s corpse. However, the scene is more complex when viewed from the child’s perspective because the painting is out of the line of sight. Instead the orphan gazes at the platform positioned across the body at chest-height, on which are placed a selection of expensive new toys, signifying, as Katharina Boehm has already noted ‘the working-class child’s temporary access to the experience of middle-class childhood’. Johnny is therefore poised between spiritual and material persuasions, and gazes on the Noah’s ark which combines the two. Johnny renouncing these toys and bequeathing them to his neighbour is more than a sentimental high-point: in removing the toys from the platform, Johnny creates a dematerialised, spiritualised child deathbed scene for the doctor and the secretary, ‘looking down with compassion on him’ (251). Like Nell’s framed corpse and the unnamed Manette child with his golden hair aureole, Johnny is haloed by a picture depicting himself (‘as it were another Johnny’) in the spiritual afterlife with an angel. The presence of the original John Harmon (John Rokesmith), looking on, further complicates the scene.
In Johnny’s decease there are also persistent echoes of one of Dickens’s most powerful ‘onstage’ deaths: Jo the crossing-sweeper in Bleak House. In addition to more obvious similarities in name and status (both boys are orphans and Jo’s fate could easily have been that of Johnny, without Betty’s intervention), there are some interesting parallels in the function and imagery of both scenes. In both cases society is called upon to bear witness: Our Mutual Friend compels ‘my lords and gentlemen and honourable boards’ (248) to recognise that Betty Higden’s fear of persecution under the New Poor Law is partially responsible for Johnny’s death; in Bleak House Dickens furiously brings the death of this neglected and forgotten child to the attention of all – ‘Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. … And dying thus around us, every day.’ (734) While Jo’s impending death is suggested by his breath drawing ‘heavy as a cart’ (560), Sloppy describes how Johnny’s breathing seems bound to the turning of the mangle, providing a poignant variation on the novel’s interest in animated objects and lifeless subjects:
‘It begun beautiful, then as it went out it shook a little and got unsteady, then as it took the turn to come home it had a rattle-like and lumbered a bit, then it come smooth, and so it went on till I scarce know’d which was mangle and which was Our Johnny.’ (247)
In linking the turning of the mangle’s handle with the infant’s breath, the fragile clockwork mechanism of the body is exposed. Finally, both scenes stage acts of bequest that contrast with the damage inflicted by official wills in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. In the chapter titled ‘Jo’s Will’, the crossing-sweeper seeks only to make amends for having unwittingly spread disease, by asking for the words ‘I wos wery truly sort that I done it and that I never went fur to do it’ to be written publicly, ‘wery large so that any one could see it anywheres’ (570). ‘In which the Orphan Makes his Will’ has Johnny dying at the moment that his bequest is completed:
With a weary and yet a pleased smile, and with an action as if he stretched his little figure out to rest, the child heaved his body on the sustaining arm, and seeking Rokesmith’s face with his lips, said:
“A kiss for the boofer lady.”
Having now bequeathed all he had to dispose of, and arranged his affairs in this world, Johnny, thus speaking, left it. (252)
As well as giving away his toys, little Johnny bequeaths a kiss for Bella via the first John Harmon, undoing some of the spitefulness of Old Harmon’s testament by willing a loving action. The legacy of this bequest is yet to be seen, but what is clear is death’s potential in fiction to bring out the best in people (except for Wegg!) and unite them in a community of sympathy.
Katharina Boehm, ‘Dickens, the Children of the Poor and the Hospital as Home (Month 8: December 1864)’, Dickens Our Mutual Friend Reading Project, 2014
Charles Dickens, Bleak House, ed. Nicola Bradbury (London: Penguin Books, 2003)
——— Our Mutual Friend (London: Chapman and Hall, May 1864-November 1865)
——— A Tale of Two Cities, ed. Richard Maxwell (London: Penguin Books, 2003)
Review collected in Philip Collins (ed.), Dickens: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), 383-84