Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Our Mutual Friend

What a week it is for anniversaries! Can lifting, reigning, and, now the 200th observation of the birthday of one of the Café's favorite writers, the estimable Mr. Charles Dickens.

I was raised in a reading household. The Classics - defined as a radiating series of circles with the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dickens at the center, and Tennyson, Austen, Galsworthy, Hawthorne, and Alice Duer Miller not far off - were held in both reverence and familiarity. David Copperfield was one of the first Huge Long Books I ever read (and still, I think, my favorite Dickens), and A Christmas Carol, inevitably, featured heavily most Decembers.

Today, I got caught in traffic for a good long time, stuck in the heavy construction that is a more or less permanent feature of this city that is at once built on a rigid grid plan and, beyond that, as poorly planned as anywhere you can imagine. It was a less wearing go-slow than most, though, because the BBC World Service was playing a remarkably good program in honor of today's bicentennial: a look at how Dickens is perceived today in India, where his legacy looms large even in the post-colonial school curricula and where his brand of extravagant, sentimental, and episodic fiction strikes a chord with a public accustomed to Bollywood and enamored with its coventions (which are indeed as extravagant, sentimental, and episodic as the wildest Victorian three-volume novel).

Dickens and India - Mutual Friends is available here should you like to enjoy it yourself.

So anyway, there I am, idling away surrounded by construction barriers, ripped-up sidewalks, discommoded pedestrians, and the jumpsuited laborers who keep this whole place running (in this case undertaking with great pains the kind of large-scale grading that could be done in a morning with proper large machinery), listening to some very lovely people talk about how Dickens has shaped their educations, experiences, lives.

Interspersed here and there were readings from the Great Man's works, and that is how I found myself, on a fine Tuesday morning, bawling like a child at the death of Little Nell. Now, I know that dear Oscar has had written that one must have a heart of stone not to laugh at this particular passage, but in the right hands (or rather, voice), it's a killer:
She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death.

Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. 'When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.' Those were her words.

She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird—a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed—was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child mistress was mute and motionless for ever.

Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.

And still her former self lay there, unaltered in this change. Yes. The old fireside had smiled upon that same sweet face; it had passed, like a dream, through haunts of misery and care; at the door of the poor schoolmaster on the summer evening, before the furnace fire upon the cold wet night, at the still bedside of the dying boy, there had been the same mild lovely look. So shall we know the angels in their majesty, after death.

The old man held one languid arm in his, and had the small hand tight folded to his breast, for warmth. It was the hand she had stretched out to him with her last smile—the hand that had led him on, through all their wanderings. Ever and anon he pressed it to his lips; then hugged it to his breast again, murmuring that it was warmer now; and, as he said it, he looked, in agony, to those who stood around, as if imploring them to help her.

She was dead, and past all help, or need of it. The ancient rooms she had seemed to fill with life, even while her own was waning fast—the garden she had tended—the eyes she had gladdened—the noiseless haunts of many a thoughtful hour—the paths she had trodden as it were but yesterday—could know her never more.
Pardon me a moment; there's something in my eye.

Well, of course, I pulled it together Minnelli and headed back to the office. But this evening I think I need to go off and find a book - a good old-fashioned book, dusty and slightly musty and lovely - and see what's been going on at Miss Betsy Trotwood's since last I looked her up.

And what, you might ask, are those rather twee bibelots there up top? Well, one thing the Villa Muscato is replete with is Dickensiana, as Mother Muscato (of sainted memory) collected it. It's not the sort of thing to appeal to the Evil Stepmother, and so in due course a series of packing boxes showed up all the way across the seas where we were living at that point, full of things like yellowed editions of the Illustrated London News, plates with scenes from A Tale of Two Cities et al, an endearingly repulsive jug in the form of the great author himself (looking contemplative, for a jug), and a great many of these little figurines. That's Little Nell herself, third from left.

I suppose Dickens isn't terribly fashionable, or more properly dwells out somewhere beyond fashion. Still, I love him dearly, and as we head into his third century, I hope that somewhere there's a small boy sitting, perhaps, in his grandmother's living room, and opening, for the first time, one of those books, to read. "Chapter One: I am born..."


  1. As a youngster, I developed a bit of a crush on Pip. What can I say?

    Ironically, I grew up to become Miss Havisham. So it goes.

  2. Sorry, I got distracted by the idea of Upen Patel as an estate lawyer who takes his shirt off in Bleak House.

  3. ...with, doubtless, Hard Times to follow. In real life, of course, Great Expectations are all too often dashed.