Dickens’ Chamber of Horrors, Part 1

Dear Charlie,

If there’s one thing everyone can agree on when it comes to your body of work, it’s that you had a fantastic knack for creating memorable characters. Just mentioning Mr Pickwick, Sairey Gamp or Uriah Heep conjures vivid mental images.

Unfortunately, the popularity of these same characters has meant that the world is full of depictions of these same characters in some form or other. And while I commend the spirit in which these homages to your talents were undertaken, the result of this well-meaning adoration is that there exist some truly ugly and often terrifying depictions of your characters. I brought one of these creations to light in a previous post, but the more you look, the more they seem to leap out of the woodwork.

Be warned! What follows is not for the faint of heart.

Let’s start with one of the most terrifying paintings I’ve ever seen, Dickens-related or not.

Let’s take Little Dorrit‘s master of the Circumlocution office, Mr. Tite Barnacle. Yes, he’s inefficient, and yes he is one of society’s less benign elements, but Mr. Frederick Blanch has made him the stuff of nightmares:

TiteBarnacleEbay_FrederickBlanchard

Forget his career of manufacturing red tape – it looks more like this man would eat babies for breakfast and spend his afternoon torturing small animals <shudder>.

TurveydropEbaySilverJFFradleyNCoFar less terrifying, but still pretty damn ugly, is a silver bookmark depicting Mr. Turveydrop of Bleak House fame, who you described thus:

He was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear. […] He had under his arm a hat of great size and weight, shelving downward from the crown to the brim, and in his hand a pair of white gloves with which he flapped it as he stood poised on one leg in a high-shouldered, round-elbowed state of elegance not to be surpassed. He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had a snuff-box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world but a model of deportment.

Personally, I don’t think any physical depiction of the character could possibly be as vivid as your fabulous description is. This fellow here, apart from the hat and gloves, looks more the model of dopiness than the model of deportment.

But it is with Mr. Pickwick that your adoring fans have taken the most horrifying liberties. I find this especially distressing, since he’s one of the most adorable characters in your body of work, and I feel a bit protective of him.

Let’s start with a teapot, since it’s only a little cringe-worthy. I’m a little Pickwick, short and stout:

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Here is my boneless arm and here is my other boneless arm. And scarily oversized eyebrows. At least this Mr. Pickwick has eyebrows. And eyes.

Unlike this terrifying plaque:

PickwickPlaque

I admit that time has not been kind to this artifact, but the fact that almost all his facial features have been rubbed off changes it from sweet to seriously spooky.

And speaking of Pickwicks to which time has not been kind, let me show you a shaving brush (how popular was this character, that they made him into a shaving brush!):

PickwickBrush

Ack! Totally. Frickin’. Terrifying.

I have a couple more, if you’re still with me.

Here’s a Mr. Pickwick that looks as if he’s had some really terrible plastic surgery that has turned him into a Joker look-alike:

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Seriously, what is wrong with his face?!?

And I have no idea who this was supposed to be, with his no hair, lipstick, mascara and too-wide sunglasses, but Pickwick it most assuredly isn’t:

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And so ends our first installment of Dickens’ Chamber of Horrors. I’m sorry it ever came to this, Charlie.

Stay tuned for more exciting and horrifying finds from around the web.

Affectionately,

Melissa

A mostly satisfying wrap-up

Dear Charlie,

367px-Little_Dorrit,_Damocles,_by_Phiz

Oh Blandois/Rigaud/Lagnier, that house is propped up for a reason…

I raced through the final hundred or so pages of Little Dorrit yesterday, my friend, and on many levels, it was a very satisfying ending, as I’ve come to expect from you. Will Rigaud get his just desserts? Of course he will! And in another fantastically over-the-top dramatic death, no less. Will Tattycoram come around? Of course she will (although to be honest the feminist in me was kind of hoping that she’d be able to find a happy middle ground between the count-to-25 of Meagles and the everyone’s-out-to-get-you Mrs. Wade). Will Pancks free himself from his passive aggressive employer? You bet your quarterly rents he will! Will Flora calm down and back off? Well… maybe?

And the big question: Will Amy and Arthur get together? Well, duh, this is you, Mr. Dickens, and you wouldn’t let me down. Thanks Charlie. After being scarred by Game of Thrones recently, I truly appreciate your only killing off the characters who deserved it, and then seeing everyone else happily off into the sunset.

But that central mystery of Clennam’s: what does the ‘do not forget’ in the watch mean and was there some injustice perpetrated against the Dorrits by the Clennams? You remember, the one Arthur spends the entire book trying to figure out. Well, it turns out to be not that big a deal. It is to Mrs. Clennam, of course – the poor woman has been stewing in righteous anger and feelings of grim betrayal for decades, and taking it out on poor Arthur. And she gets nothing for her martyrdom but a nice, juicy dose of blackmail by a cheesy stage villain.

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NOT Arthur and Amy, thank god!

But really, once you get right to the nitty gritty of Mrs. Clennam’s angry explanation, shocking as it may have been during your era, Charlie, it didn’t really have any huge ramifications for anyone else but her (and maybe Flintwich). That, and even after reading the section through twice, I’m still not entirely clear on why, exactly, Amy was due anything at all (and since she doesn’t seem to mind not getting it, I’m not going to lose sleep over it). There was a moment there where I thought that Amy and Arthur were somehow related, in some surreal Dickensian Luke and Leia kind of way, but I’m pretty sure my fears are groundless (whew!). Regardless, the new Mr. and Mrs. Clennam can start their new lives with a clean, if poor, slate.

The bigger deal is what happens when Merdle’s speculations crumble, taking everyone down with him. Merdle may take the coward’s way out, but if there’s a real villain of the piece, it has to be him. It’s interesting to put his quiet, self-effacing character beside Rigaud’s sinister flamboyance. Sure Rigaud is up to no good, but he’s after small game in a small sphere, and even there he’s far from successful. Merdle, on the other hand, plays the game on a grand scale, and yet he remains an enigma – was his quiet, socially uncomfortable demeanour simply a ruse to hide his crimes? Or were people so blinded by his apparent wealth and success that they assumed he had a competence in money matters that he never had or claimed to have? Here, you’re rich, have some of my money too! It’s interesting, Charlie, that you who have such a flare for creating memorable characters, have left Mr. Merdle so ambiguously drawn. Very sneaky.

So now I’m off to the French Revolution! And thinking back to how well you fused fiction and history in Barnaby Rudge, I have high hopes.

Affectionately,

Melissa

P.S. Oh, and we hit our 20,000th visitor, my friend! I’m in happy awe (awppy? hawe?), and I hope you are too.

Great book, odd villain

Dear Charlie,

I’m making steady progress through Little Dorrit’s second volume, and as far as the Dorrits themselves are concerned, it’s like I’m reading an entirely new book. Correct me if I’m wrong, my friend, but I get the feeling you got half way through and said ‘that’s it. I’ve had enough of the Marshalsea. It’s depressing and is bringing up painful memories. Let’s go to frickin’ Italy already.’

nothing like a grand tour

nothing like a grand tour

So here we are in Italy, where the Dorrits are doing their level best to forget there ever was a debtor’s prison and are generally behaving like entitled assholes. And while I think Amy Dorrit is just a touch too angelic for her own good, I really do feel sorry for her, so far removed from anything remotely familiar. And just to go off on a tangent for a moment, I have to wonder if E.M. Forester was inspired by the Dorrits and their new companion Mrs. General when he wrote A Room With a View. Or perhaps the ‘varnishing’ of young ladies was a ubiquitous activity that both of you sought to ridicule.

And while Amy is foremost in my affections, as she’s supposed to be, I’m also kind of rooting for Fanny. It may not be the morally upstanding thing to do, but watching her single-mindedly exacting her revenge on the Merdles by stringing along the besotted Mr. Sparkler appeals to my dark side. I suspect that her scheming will not end well, but for now I’m thoroughly enjoying watching her use her newfound wealth to bring Mrs. Merdle down a peg or two. Money may not buy happiness, but in Fanny’s case it can certainly buy one big-ass dose of revenge.

OK, so maybe Rigaud isn't this bad, but you get the idea.

OK, so maybe Rigaud isn’t this bad, but you get the idea.

But when it comes to scheming, the ever-present Rigaud takes the cake. And while I love his pervading sense of barely restrained evil, it does feel as if he accidentally wandered onto the page from the penny dreadfuls next door. I’d say you were channeling Mr. Stoker, but your story predates him. You’ve created a cast of characters in this novel that, for the most part, are much less caricatured and more realistically drawn than in some of your earlier works (the Meagles, for instance, could easily have been overdone, but Mr. Meagles’ sorrow at his daughter’s marriage is subtle and genuine). The story, too, feels less episodic, more sophisticated and finely wrought. And yet, lurking around every corner is this black-eyed, cape wearing, dog-poisoning, moustachioed villain that makes me want to hiss and boo every time he makes an entrance. I know you love the stage, Charlie, but I think you got a little carried away, unless this novel will suddenly turn into an action/horror, which knowing you I kind of doubt.

Which is not to say that I’m not anxiously awaiting the outcome of whatever Rigaud’s agenda is. I love that certain characters, like Amy and Minnie, have an instinctive distrust of the man, and can see beneath his cultivated exterior. I hope that Clennam can extricate himself from the Circumlocution Office in time to do something exciting (red tape may be a great topic for satire, but it doesn’t lend itself to action). I hope Flora, bless her verbose heart, learns to grow up a little. And I really want to find out what Miss Wade and Tattycoram are skulking around for.

I guess that means I should get back to the book, doesn’t it?

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

 

Where fiction and reality meet

Dear Charlie,

When I went to London with my mom and sister in my early twenties, one of the highlights was visiting the Sherlock Holmes museum at 221b (ish) Baker Street. As we stood in Sherlock’s ultra-Victorian living room, I was in ecstasies, pointing to things and whispering, “look! There’s his violin! Look! There’s his pipe! Look! There’s where he shot Queen Victoria’s initials into the wall!” Finally, my sister turned to me with a pitying look and said, “you know he didn’t actually exist, don’t you?”

The weird thing was that this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm in the slightest. If anything, I returned the pitying look because she didn’t share my joy. And I still can’t explain that while, yes, I know very well that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, there was something inexplicable about standing in his living room.

I was reminded of this moment yesterday, Charlie, because I had a similar moment with one of your characters. I recently bought a book called “Lost London” by Philip Davies. It’s a collection of photographs of London streets and buildings taken in the early years of the Twentieth century. The buildings have almost all been demolished, so it’s an absolutely fascinating look into the city as you would have known it.

Anyway, I must have spent a good couple of hours engrossed in the photos, when I came across a photo taken of the back of the Marshalsea debtor’s prison. By the time the photo was taken the building had been converted to warehouses, but in this back view you can see the high, spiked fence that marked the exercise yard on the other side, and which Little Dorritt sees from her room’s window.

Many combinations did those spikes upon the wall assume, many light shapes did the strong iron weave itself into, many golden touches fell upon the rust, while Little Dorrit sat there musing.

Knowing that your own father had been imprisoned here for debt made it a very poignant photo, since he, and most probably you, spent a lot of time staring at that same high wall and those imposing spikes.

But what got me thinking back to Baker Street was that on the facing page there was a photo of Little Dorrit’s own tiny garret room! What an unexpected and amazingly timely find!

A garret, and a Marshalsea garret without compromise, was Little Dorrit’s room.

Yes, Little Dorrit doesn’t exist, but there’s something thrilling about seeing the room that you had obviously seen (maybe even slept in yourself?) and which you had given over to your character. It’s not even that it makes me feel closer to you. I feel closer to her. It was the same when I saw a photo of an old coaching inn and suddenly felt that I knew Sam Weller a bit better than I did before.

And it’s not just me. What makes us treat fictional characters as real people? Why visit Highclere Castle and pretend it’s “Downton Abbey”? Why go to New Zealand and tour the settings from “The Lord of the Rings”? Why stand in a room in Baker Street and get so excited? In the end, not even my sister was immune, since she unashamedly visited the village which was the setting for “Ballykissangel” while she was travelling in Ireland. (Although she still insists that there’s a difference between seeing something that was on tv in real life and seeing something completely made up. Potato potahto.) 😉

All I know is that finding that unexpected photo has made me enjoy reading Little Dorrit even more. I can’t explain it, but maybe I don’t have to.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa