How Charles Dickens built Bleak House

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From The Guardian:

The problem with most biographies is that they tend to have only two pace settings. There is the plod of the episodic, one-thing-after-another accounting; parallel to that is the gallop that makes years vanish in pages. Momentum may build, and it may stall, depending on the life being investigated, but that dual speed is the halter that biographical writing struggles to break from.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst isn’t an innovator in restricting his scope to a specific time-frame – Alethea Hayter’s 1965 book A Sultry Month set the standard – but he is surely the first to compass the life of Charles Dickens this way. The year 1851 was momentous both in the writer’s personal circumstances and in the life of the nation and bouncing ideas between the two enables Douglas-Fairhurst to set his own narrative rhythm, at once irresistible and ominous. The Turning Point sees Dickens as a product of his age, “a living embodiment of its energy and ambition”, and identifies the book he was preparing to write, Bleak House, not only as the “greatest fictional experiment of his career” but as a signpost to the future of the novel itself. Typical of this book’s magpie eclecticism is that it notes “turning point” as a phrase gaining currency in mid-Victorian English.

Turning 39 in February, Dickens is found to be in restless mood (when was he not?), editing his weekly magazine, Household Words, consulting with his friend Angela Coutts on the running of Urania Cottage, his London refuge for “fallen” women, trying to set up a literary guild for needy authors and, perhaps closest to his heart, organising a production of his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Not So Bad As We Seem for a charity gala. Dickens might once have become an actor – an untimely cold had thwarted his audition years ago – but he now excelled himself as an actor-manager, directing, cajoling, inspiring, controlling. He even managed to persuade the Duke of Devonshire to loan him his grand London mansion as venue for the play’s royal premiere. The duke also made available his gardener, Joseph Paxton, to supervise the staging at Devonshire House.

Paxton’s name this year was almost as famous as Dickens’s, for in May his much-vaunted Crystal Palace in Hyde Park opened its doors and the Great Exhibition was under way. “A giant architectural exclamation mark”, in Douglas-Fairhurst’s words, this vast cathedral of glass and iron divided opinion. While some regarded it as a symbol of progress and a singular feat of engineering, others like Ruskin thought it chilly and lifeless. Dickens himself was not a fan, preferring buildings on a human scale. As one to whom “order” was sacred, he also deplored the exhibition’s higgledy-piggledy profusion – it’s notable that even he sometimes found things too much. On another visit in July, he was more taken by the sight of 100 schoolchildren wandering about the place. He later discovered that one of them had got lost and ended up in Hammersmith. Having spent the night in a workhouse, the boy was retrieved by his mother; he was supposed to have asked her when it would all be over. “It was a Great Exhibition, he said, but he thought it long.” You can hear Dickens’s laughter in that line.

As ever, family was close to his heart and to his nerves. In March, his father died after agonising surgery on his groin, a death that probably revived all his lifelong ambivalence towards this unsatisfactory parent. Recasting him as Micawber in David Copperfield, Dickens could make merry with his fecklessness, but in real life John Dickens had been a pest and a drain on his resources. Less than two weeks later, his infant daughter Dora suddenly died, news that he broke to his wife, Catherine, staying at Malvern, in a letter that gently tried to cushion the shock, as if she might have been a child herself. Pliant and plump, Catherine had borne him nine children in 13 years, during which time the vibrations of his impatience and discontent with her had grown stronger. Douglas-Fairhurst observes that the example of Bulwer-Lytton would have warned Dickens of how a bad marriage could pollute one’s life, but the parallel doesn’t quite hold: Rosina Bulwer-Lytton was a vengeful fury who pursued a public campaign against her husband, whereas Catherine Dickens simply became an unhappy encumbrance. A cache of recently discovered letters reveals that in the years prior to their separation Dickens tried to have her declared insane, a stratagem worthy of the ripest Victorian melodrama.

. . . .

The new fashion for bloomers in 1851 provoked his ridicule – women wearing trousers, or indeed the trousers, was an outrage against the social order, he argued in print, making clear that their doing anything much beyond home-management ought to be discouraged. He organised his own household with rigour, recreating a near-lookalike of his previous domicile when he moved the family to a new home in Tavistock Square. 

Link to the rest at The Guardian

About the OP, PG asks, “Why can’t we accept historic figures as individuals who were shaped by the times and places they inhabited?”

The OP mentions Dickens’ “reactionary attitudes to class, race and women’s liberation.”

Those who are applying 21st century moral strictures to 19th century figures are failing to understand the completely-accepted social mores that shaped the historical figures because of when they were born, how they were raised and what they were taught.

Speaking of women’s liberation, here’s a photo of the Guardian’s Editorial, Financial and Wire Room staff members in 1921:

Does anyone wish to speculate concerning the gender of the bosses and and the tasks that the women performed? And the relative paychecks of the genders?

The Guardian opposed the creation of the National Health Service in 1951 as it feared the state provision of healthcare would “eliminate selective elimination” and lead to an increase of congenitally deformed and feckless people.

PG can assure one and all that “attitudes to class, race and women’s liberation” were different in 1960 than they are today. He will also predict that “attitudes” toward all sorts of things will be much different in 2121 than they are today. (And, yes, that includes attitudes at The Guardian.)

Such contemporary attitudes toward those long-dead also assume that societal norms have only advanced toward greater absolute good over time.

Was the Germany of 1935, ruled by Adolf Hitler, morally superior to the Germany of 1835, ruled by Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria?

End of rant. PG feels much better now.

6 thoughts on “How Charles Dickens built Bleak House”

  1. One might suggest that were Mr Dickens to publicly espouse contemporary “progressive” thoughts he would quickly find himself making an extended acquaintance of the interior of Bedlam hospital.

  2. PG is not entirely happy with the way in which ‘The OP mentions Dickens’ “reactionary attitudes to class, race and women’s liberation.” This is the Guardian, so such genuflection to current left wing shibboleths is to be expected rather than being subject to the editor’s red pen.

    However, this does though raise the question of what “the completely-accepted social mores that shaped the historical figures” actually are. Whilst talking about Dickens’ attitude to women’s liberation is strangely anachronistic, and whilst the general male view may then have been that women’s lives should be controlled by their male relatives, this was certainly not “completely accepted”. For example, plenty of women, and some men, believed that a married women should be able to own property.

    Once social mores become subject to dispute, at what point do we cease to simple accept the historical figure’s views as a reflection of his society and agree that they are worthy of criticism. Or to put it another way, when does presentism cease to be presentism? The question is not whether the personage agreed with the – no doubt transitory – moral viewpoint of today’s critics but where they stood in the disputes of their own days.

    This becomes a matter of current day political dispute when we come to a “hot” issue like slavery. No sensible person is going to criticise Cicero for his acceptance of slavery (though taking pot shots at Aristotle is perhaps allowable given that slavery as it then existed is inconsistent with his philosophy). But at what point do we reject the “completely-accepted social mores” explanation? Being British I do not have to respect traitors like Washington and Jefferson and can therefore feel free to claim that their (reluctant? pragmatic?) acceptance of slavery was not morally viable at a time (1777) when Dr Johnston could write his brief to the Court of Session in Edinburgh for the freedom of the slave Joseph Knight (and see the court reject slavery in Scotland).

    I do not expect the majority of my American friends to accept such criticism of the revered Fathers of their Country and suspect that I am in danger of coming down on the wrong side of today’s political line (especially as I am sympathetic to the pragmatic approach to the slave trade of someone like Pitt – but consistency is a somewhat overrated virtue, at least outside mathematics where it is essential).

    • Emerson’s quote comes to mind, but in its full version:

      “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

      The second clause makes a big difference, no?
      George and Tom were working in a complex environment that required compromise, something the current crop of absolutists are incapable of grasping.

    • Good points, M., but I wonder if there are some exceptions-proving-rules examples you’re citing.

      In more than a few US campus intellectual circles, Washington and Jefferson are very much out of favor because each owned slaves.

      I can tell you that I took American history classes from elementary school through college without learning the following facts (beyond Washington being a slave owner):

      Washington inherited his first ten slaves by when he was eleven years of age.

      Washington reportedly became skeptical about the economic efficacy of slavery before the American Revolutionary War when his transition from tobacco to grain crops in the 1760s left him with a costly surplus of enslaved workers.

      In 1774, Washington publicly denounced the slave trade (not necessarily the ownership of slaves) on moral grounds in the Fairfax Resolves in connection with a meeting of Washington and a group of like-minded Virginia freeholders (men who owned property) in Alexandria, Virginia, on July 5, 1774. During the meeting, a committee was selected to draft the document, including George Mason, who was the primary author. Washington and Mason met at Washington’s home on July 17 to review and revise the document. The following day, the draft of the document was approved at another meeting of the freeholders, chaired by Washington, and thereafter widely-circulated and published.

      The Fairfax Resolves were both a bold statement of fundamental constitutional rights and a revolutionary call for an association of colonies to protest anti-American actions by the British. Among other things, the Resolves included a condemnation of the practice of importing slaves as a “wicked, cruel, and unnatural trade” and advocated the termination of this practice.

      After the war, Washington expressed support for the abolition of slavery by a gradual legislative process, a view he shared widely but always in private, and he remained dependent on enslaved labor.

      By the time of his death in 1799 there were 317 enslaved people at his Mount Vernon estate, 124 owned by Washington and the remainder managed by him as his own property but belonging to other people.

      Would these actions, standing alone, be heartily endorsed by 21st century Americans if they had occurred in the past 150 years? Definitely not.

      Were these actions a beginning of the end of slavery in the United States, endorsed by men who themselves owned slaves? I would argue in the affirmative. Certainly the United States Constitution, created by a gathering of representatives from all the states in 1787, and The Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791, provided the basis for legislation and court rulings in the 20th century that eventually eliminated all federal and state laws that required or permitted discrimination on the basis of race by any government entity.

      Jumping forward nearly one hundred years, the American Civil War, was fought primarily to force the Southern States (a minority of the total US population at the time) to stop the practice of slavery and resulted in the deaths of more Americans than all the cumulative American deaths resulting from all the other wars American had ever fought up until about half-way through the Vietnam War, which formally ended in 1975. (Estimating war deaths for wars before the 20th Century is an extremely imprecise activity, but this is, to the best of my knowledge, the most common comparative estimate of deaths. The Civil War resulted in a large number of civilian deaths in addition to military deaths due, in part, to the scorched-earth tactics used by Union General (later President) Ulysses S. Grant.)

      The Southern Confederate states where slavery was permitted were economically-devastated by the Civil War and didn’t even begin to have the comparable economic wealth and prosperity enjoyed by their former Civil War adversaries for at least a hundred years following the end of the Civil War. Some would argue that there is still a substantial wealth difference between the Northern and the Southern states. I just checked and Louisiana and Mississippi in the deep south are the two states with the highest level of poverty in the US.

  3. There’s also a converse danger, though. So as to avoid invoking Godwin’s Law at PV, consider Torquemada, whose attitudes were perfectly acceptable at the time. As were his methods (take a look at the conduct of the last few Crusades… and their within-Europe counterparts after the fall of Constantinople; just read a certain set of 93 short statements pounded into the door of a church in Wurttemburg and ponder that at least a third of them would be considered completely out of bounds in public discourse today).

    The purpose/objective of judging a person matters to that judging. My judgment of Thomas Jefferson within the scope of “participated in creating full-of-warts representative democracy” is different than is my judgment of him regarding “personal hypocrisy regarding race relations”; my judgment of George Orwell is different when I’m considering “political rhetoric” than it is “gender relations” (and believe me, the latter does him no credit by early-21st-century standards).

    And all of that is before considering the difference between “celebrating accomplishments” and “hero worship as an exemplar that everyone should strive the follow.” The latter is, because we’re all flawed human beings, A Problem as to anyone

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