The dangers of befriending the dead

Dear Charlie,

One of the dangers of striking up a friendship with a dead Victorian author such as yourself is that, as much as you find you have in common, you will be periodically reminded of how different you sometimes are. I’ve been amazed time and again by just how much connects your time and my own, and it’s made me feel closer to you as we’ve become better acquainted.

Don’t get me wrong, my friend, I’ve come to love you dearly, but there was one article in my volume of reprinted pieces (reprinted, mostly, from your journal “Household Words” which ran from 1850 to 1859) that made me pause and question my affections.

The article in question is called “The Noble Savage,” and it doesn’t pull any punches. In the very first paragraph we have such gems as

I don’t care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth.

And

Yielding to whichsoever of these agreeable eccentricities, he is a savage – cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails, and beastly customs; a wild animal with the questionable gift of boasting; a conceited, tiresome, bloodthirsty, monotonous humbug.

Ouch.

You don’t see that quoted on tea towels and coasters in the local gift shops, now do you?

Please, sir, I hope you’re not this unbelievably racist.

The whole article continues along much the same lines as the opening, and is so vitriolic that even now I wonder if it’s tongue in cheek or whether you actually did feel this strongly. I really hope it’s the former, because it’s hard to believe that this article was penned by the same hand that used a whole novel to persuade readers that the working class should be treated like human beings, who changed his American travel plans to avoid slave-owning states, and who felt so badly about his anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin that he deliberately changed the text when reading from “Oliver Twist” in later years. This seems mighty out of character for someone whose sympathies generally lie with the underdog.

Seriously, what’s the deal, Charlie?

The rest of the volume, on the other hand, is an absolutely fascinating mixture of journalism, short fiction, criticism and recollections that present a completely different picture of you – an enthusiastic, curious, amiable person prone to sea- and motion-sickness, fond of travelling, and ready to expose government bureaucracy and inefficiency. It was especially interesting to see the forerunners of characters and plot lines that would emerge in later novels, including one about an inventor and the hoops he had to jump through (and the money he had to spend) in order to get a patent, which I’ve just discovered appears in the first part of Little Dorrit (which I’ve just started).

Law and Order: Victorian London style

There are also several articles that emerged as the result of a series of interviews and ride-alongs with London police officers (including Detective Field, who was later to be transformed into Detective Bucket of “Bleak House”). You recount their daring detective work with a gusto that makes me think you’d be addicted to Law and Order if you were around today. I also get the feeling that when you were invited to accompany the police on their rounds you were outwardly trying to be very serious, while inwardly aquiver with excitement that you were actually walking the policeman’s local beat.

 

My personal favorite, however, is the article called “Bill Sticking,” recounting your conversation in the back of a wagon-turned-moving billboard with an ancient bill sticker. I could just imagine you, too curious to resist climbing in and sharing a pipe and some rum with a complete stranger in order to learn about the history of London advertising. It also made me realize that ubiquitous advertising is not a new invention. Again, just one more of those things that link us across time.

All in all, I leave this volume with mostly positive feelings and a new respect for your talents as a journalist and your powers of observation in these more mature ‘sketches’ of your surroundings. I just wish that your “Noble Savage” article hadn’t left such a bad taste in my mouth and lingering questions in my brain.

I still remain, however,

Yours affectionately,

Melissa

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