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Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 7 – 6 May

I’ve been immersing myself in the world of Charles Dickens—not only his novels, but Peter Ackroyd’s biography. And the more I read, the more I feel he inhabited language the way Mozart did music. Here’s just one example: in a letter home from his trip to America in 1842 he described the constant flashes of spittle from the railway carriage windows expectorated by his fellow-travellers, “as though they were ripping open feather-beds inside, and letting the wind dispose of the feathers”. Isn’t that great (if gross)?

Dickens has a wonderful sense of the absurd, too, and in Martin Chuzzlewit this reaches something of a high point. The landlady of a boarding house for single gentlemen describes how wearing the life can be: “The gravy alone is enough to add twenty years to one’s age, I do assure you.” Elsewhere two women have a loud quarrel and the landlord, who owns the pet shop downstairs, complains: “You were pelting away, hammer and tongs! It’ll be the death of the little bullfinch in the shop, that draws his own water. In his fright, he’s been a-straining himself all to bits, drawing more water than he could drink in a twelvemonth. He must have thought it was Fire!” (From this to Monty Python isn’t really so very far.)

The Soldiers’ Tower, with Wick in the distance

There’s not much to relate in gansey news this week, except progress. I’ve finished the back of the Scarborough gansey and am something over halfway up the front. And the Wick gansey continues to grow as just over an inch a week: it’ll soon be time to think of the yoke pattern. Meanwhile, for someone who makes as many little mistakes as I do, and has to go back and have them corrected (sometimes two or three inches), it’s a relief to be knitting patterns that (a) are simple and repetitive, and (b) instantly show up any mistakes.

Ackergill Tower

Oh, and shall I tell you another reason I love Dickens? In Oliver Twist he created Fagin, the evil, almost supernatural villain, who was Jewish. To Dickens, Fagin’s race and religion was incidental—as he pointed out, all the other villains in the book were English Christians. But Fagin is such a powerful creation, and the evil and the Jewishness of his character were so indelibly presented, that a lasting connection was made. Well, years later Dickens became friends with a Jewish couple and the wife, Mrs Eliza Davis, pointed out to him that to her Fagin represented “a great wrong”.

Dickens came to see her point of view, and was mortified. So in his next book, Our Mutual Friend, he created a wholly beneficent Jew, Mr Riah, who is used by another character—a wholly repellant Englishman—as the public face of a moneylenders’ business. The Englishman squeezes the customers ruthlessly and lets the Jew take the blame, trading on the stereotype of Jews and finance, until the wrong is righted and justice prevails. In this and in other ways, Dickens tried to make amends. Of course, everyone knows Fagin and hardly anyone remembers Mr Riah, but perhaps this says more about us and the superficial glamour of evil than it does about Dickens.

And so, as Tiny Tim observed in A Christmas Carol, “Mother always taught me: never eat singing food”—no, wait, that’s the Muppets. Here we are: “God bless us, every one!”

9 comments to Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 7 – 6 May

  • =Tamar

    I don’t recall reading _Martin Chuzzlewit_… I shall put it on my list.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, the first half feels pretty laboured, some of the humour rather obvious (especially the satire on America when young Martin goes there to seek his fortune), but the second half is as good as anything he wrote, I think. And of course it has the wonderfully appalling nurse, Mrs Gamp (“Gamp is my name, and Gamp my nater” as she mysteriously introduces herself.)

  • Gordon

    One other quote from Martin Chuzzlewit. There’s a funeral, and Dickens puts himself into the minds of the horses drawing the hearse in a really rather extraordinary passage (I mean, seriously?!):

    “The four hearse-horses, especially, reared and pranced, and showed their highest action, as if they knew a man was dead, and triumphed in it. ‘They break us, drive us, ride us; ill-treat, abuse, and maim us for their pleasure — But they die; Hurrah, they die!’”

  • Judit M. / Finland

    “God bless us, every one!” and God bless you for this blog .

  • Dave

    You’ve got to love Dickens – the zenith of victorian sentimentalism – I still haven’t found my way out of the Bleak House description of the fog – “slipshod beggar in his worn out shoes”

    • Gordon

      Hi Dave, I know what you mean – though there are two revealing quotes from Dickens that show his tough underside. One was a theatrical adaptation of one of his works: a sentimental song had been added about “the pretty little robins”. When Dickens saw it he exclaimed, “Damn the robins; cut them out!”

      The other was a note to himself for Bleak House, deciding the fate of the poor boy crossing-sweep: “Jo? Yes. Kill him!”

  • charles cameron carruthers

    Dicken`s relation, I think his son, was an officer in Northwest Canadian Mounted Police later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the 19th century.

    • Gordon

      That’s right Charles – it was his son Francis. Like so many of Dickens’s children he had a troubled life, but on the plus side his father nicknamed him “Chickenstalker” after a character in one of his books, which may be my favourite nickname ever!

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