We know from Oliver Twist (1837–39) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44) that Dickens was fascinated by, and loved imaginatively exploring, the psychology of those who contemplate murder. Indeed, it is still popularly claimed that the strain of repeatedly, ferociously performing the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes contributed to Dickens’s demise only five years after he completed Our Mutual Friend. In this month’s instalment, we find ourselves back on this familiar territory, as Bradley Headstone’s jealousy, confusion, frustration and rage begin to harden into murderous intent towards Eugene Wrayburn.
‘If great criminals told the truth – which, being great criminals, they do not – they would very rarely tell of their struggles against the crime. Their struggles are towards it. They buffet with opposing waves, to gain the bloody shore, not to recede from it.’
It’s interesting how Dickens slips and slides between metaphors and frames of reference in his feverish efforts to elucidate Bradley’s tortured and enraged state of mind. He imagines Bradley’s mind in proto-Freudian terms as ‘fitted with gloomy and dark recesses’, but he also deploys images of rust, poison and contagion to suggest how Bradley has been ‘infected’ by his obsessional thoughts (what nineteenth-century psychology would have termed ‘monomania’). But Dickens also deploys an older, almost medieval language of demonic possession, and hints even further back at Biblical stories of ‘Evil Spirits’ which themselves suggest pre-Christian mythologies. Dickens cleverly plays with the meanings of ‘haunting’ and, in chapter XI’s night-soaked atmosphere, Bradley appears as a ghost who haunts others, while he is himself haunted by his own obsessive thoughts and by other ‘nightbirds’ he encounters: ‘Bradley looked at him, as though he was claiming to be a Ghost.’
It’s telling that Dickens’s fraught scenes of murderous anticipation and guilty recrimination often take place by night and are accompanied by momentous feats of walking (think of Bill Sykes’ tormented, hallucinatory traipsing ‘over miles and miles of ground’ after he has killed Nancy, or Jonas Chuzzlewit, fanatically pursuing Montague Tigg from London into the darkened wood where he kills him). For most of recorded history, the night has been the time in which criminals, ne’er-do-wells and vagrants, as well as their supernatural referents – demons, ghosts and various otherworldly beings – walk unimpaired and threateningly. In his wonderful Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (2015), Matthew Beaumont commits considerable space to Dickens, exploring his obsessive, almost superhuman feats of nightwalking; at the time of writing Our Mutual Friend, Dickens thought nothing of nightwalking from his home in Gad’s Hill to his bivouac at the All the Year Round offices in Covent Garden (a distance interestingly commensurate with the 25 miles from London to Plashwater Weir Mill Lock described in this instalment). Like Bradley Headstone and his fictional primogenitures, Dickens seems to have used the night and great distances to discharge the mental tension that disturbed his rest. Like Bradley, Dickens himself haunted the night and was haunted in turn by the other shadowy figures he encountered. Nightwalking, Beaumont argues, allowed Dickens to experience the shadowy, unseen secrets of London and also to commune with, perversely enjoy, and cathartically eject his own shadowy, unseen, secretive thoughts and feelings.
We know that Dickens also used nightwalking to generate ideas and plots, loosen imaginative blockages and expel the stresses of writing serialised fiction to tight deadlines, (which, despite years of practice, seems to have caused him no end of strain). His initial intention with Our Mutual Friend of staying well ahead of deadlines was soon undermined by his ferociously hectic schedule of public readings, speeches, philanthropic endeavours, socialising and, of course, his ongoing secret relationship with Ellen Ternan which necessitated much vigilant and guarded dashing about. Like Bradley, Dickens was a man wrestling with a secret passion that he obsessively concealed to avoid the world’s censure. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Our Mutual Friend was a return to writing in monthly, rather than weekly, instalments after a gap of nearly ten years, which engendered its own strains. Beaumont observes that Dickens’s walks, which resembled endurance tests more than genial peregrinations, probably pushed Dickens to the brink of famished, exhausted, dehydrated mania. Nightwalking, in other words, allowed Dickens to push beyond the boundaries of his own self, which may have deepened his identification with his murderous characters and with the marginalised, despised and struggling poor who inhabited London’s empty streets by night. In journalistic pieces such as ‘Night Walks’, published five years before Our Mutual Friend (All the Year Round, 21 July 1860), Dickens presents his all-night walks in dream-like terms, which is probably how he experienced them after eight solitary hours drubbing the streets of London and the fields of Kent with little, if any, food, water or rest. Beaumont convincingly argues that the otherworldly city at night, which combines the familiar and strange to uncanny effect, both reflects and encourages fiction and we can certainly read chapter XI of this instalment as both powered by, and echoing, Dickens’s own nightwalking.
The night was when Dickens, like Bradley, came face to face with London’s considerable, often invisible population of the houseless, itinerant, unemployed and impoverished, who continuously fed into his fiction, journalism and philanthropic endeavours. In ‘Night Walks’ (which was number 12 of ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ series), Dickens discusses ‘Dry Rot’ in the destitute wanderers he encounters, by which people deteriorate from productive members of capitalist society to slovenly, purposeless, indigent and miserable wretches who haunt the night. Rogue Riderhood perhaps stands as a fictional example of Dickens’s evocative, yet rather harsh categorisation of people barely surviving in a capitalist economy that cruelly regarded poverty as a personal failing and a just punishment. In this essay, Dickens also recounts a terrifying encounter with a tramp – ‘persecutor, devil, ghost’ – who flees, leaving Dickens ‘standing alone with its rags in my hands.’ Again, we encounter Dickens’s metaphors of ghostliness and haunting, although it remains tantalisingly unclear who is haunting and who is haunted.
There is, then, something enthralling about Dickens’s identification with the guilty, criminal, impoverished and outcast who demonically possess the empty city at night. Beaumont separates the ‘noctivagator’ – the ‘common nightwalker’ who wandered the streets through indigence (Dickens’s ‘nightbirds’) – from the ‘noctambulator’ – the ‘uncommon nightwalker’ who strolled (or, in Dickens’s case, furiously stomped) the night streets to discover himself (for this figure was, for reasons of personal safety and social respectability, almost always male). We also know that Dickens was haunted by memories of his own family’s poverty during his boyhood and his reduction to a ‘labouring hind’ in the blacking factory. In ‘Gone Astray’ (Household Words, 13 August 1853), Dickens recounts a childhood experience where he was separated from his parents and wandered through the slums of St Giles. This journalistic essay may also convey the mingled fear and adventurousness of Dickens’s solitary time as a child labourer, as depicted in David Copperfield (1849–50), when he often tramped the streets, hungry, alone and sharply vulnerable to unscrupulous adults (think also of young David, robbed of his meagre possessions, reduced to penury and forced to tramp from London to Kent). For Dickens, then, the space between the common and the uncommon nightwalker was not always a great one and this instalment of Our Mutual Friend, as in ‘Night Walks’, ‘Gone Astray’ and other pieces, crackles with the tensions of Dickens’s ambivalent and complex relationship to those who wander because of poverty, unbearable emotional and mental strain – or with darker, more murderous intent.
Throughout Our Mutual Friend, Dickens humorously considers how respectability, wealth and morality can be feigned and how outwards appearances can conceal poverty, immorality and evil purposes. When Bradley and Rogue stop at a shabby pub in the grimy dawn, ‘not one of the nightbirds hovering about the sloppy bar failed to discern at a glance in the passion-wasted nightbird with respectable feathers, the worst nightbird of all.’ Chapter XI ends with the exhausted, haunted Bradley methodically reassuming his carapace of respectability to face the day; one can’t help but wonder how much of Dickens, recovering from one of his punishing twilight peregrinations, is in this extraordinary moment. While lighter in tone and taking place during the day, with ‘the sun, streaming all over London’, chapter XII offers a portrait of genteel poverty, of middle-class struggles with cash-flow, debt, credit and household bills, in which the veneer of comfort and respectability conceal furious efforts to remain secure. In this novel of the river and the craft that navigate it, of swimming and drowning, we are reminded of the many metaphors by which the effort to survive and thrive in a capitalist society are founded on images of water and swimming: the Lammles struggle to keep their head above water, to stay afloat, to navigate the rapids of encroaching poverty. Like Bradley and Rogue Riderhood, Mr and Mrs Lammle are also suspicious, unwilling partners in a devilish pact. In this instalment, Dickens sketches his good characters with a rueful, sentimental affection, while also depicting their abuse at the hands of darker, more manipulative figures: Miss Peecher’s ‘simply arranged little work-box of thoughts’ cannot contain the dark urges of Bradley; Jenny Wren, although sharp-eyed, is fooled by Fledgeby into doubting kind-hearted Riah; Silas Wegg prepares a ‘grindstone’ for unsuspecting Mr Boffin; while Tremlow is extolled as a ‘Good childish creature! Condemned to a passage through the world by such narrow little dimly-lighted ways, and picking up for few specks or spots on the road!’ Thus, the shadowy, confusing thoroughfares and byways of the night-time city – through which Bradley compulsively pursues Eugene while also being pursued by his own obsessive thoughts – stand in for the architecture of the human mind and, Dante-esque, for the moral journeys we all make through the world. And in the figure of ‘childish’, good-hearted Tremlow, blindly stumbling along the dark routes of the world, we perhaps glimpse Dickens, the impoverished, lonely child ‘noctivagator’ who transformed himself into a ‘noctambulator’ who used nightwalking as the epic generator that both powered his imagination and vented the painful excretions of his childhood and his writerly life.