Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Grip the raven and spontaneous combustion - More! cried Grip. More!

Barnaby Rudge, star of Barnaby Rudge, has a pet raven. Grip is quite a talker ("I'm a devil," "Never say die," dog noises, popping corks), and is probably smarter than his owner:

"The raven flapped his wings, and, croaking his satisfaction, hopped to the feet of his master, and there held his bill open, ready for snapping up such lumps of meat as he should throw him. Of these he received about a score in rapid succession, without the smallest discomposure.

'That's all,' said Barnaby.

'More!' cried Grip. 'More!'" (Ch. 17)

What I most like about Grip the talking raven is that Dickens feels the need to begin the Preface to Barnaby Rudge by insisting that the exploits of the bird are entirely plausible, being just like those of two ravens that he himself personally owned:

"The first act of this Sage [Dickens' second raven], was, to administer to the effects of his predecessor, by disinterring all the cheese and halfpence he had buried in the garden--a work of immense labour and research, to which he devoted all the energies of his mind. When he had achieved this task, he applied himself to the acquisition of stable language, in which he soon became such an adept, that he would perch outside my window and drive imaginary horses with great skill, all day. Perhaps even I never saw him at his best, for his former master sent his duty with him, 'and if I wished the bird to come out very strong, would I be so good as to show him a drunken man'--which I never did, having (unfortunately) none but sober people at hand."

This bird dies after three years, possibly because he "tore up and swallowed, in splinters, the greater part of a wooden staircase of six steps and a landing," or perhaps because "he was too bright a genius to live long."

The raven Preface is the early version of the Preface to Bleak House, in which Dickens insists, loudly and at length, that the great spontaneous combustion scene, one of the best things he ever wrote, is entirely accurate and based on the most solid empirical facts. As with the preternaturally gifted Grip, Dickens identifies the least plausible aspect of the novel and audaciously defends it in the Preface, in other words before the reader* has any idea what he's talking about.

Maybe my favorite Dickensian joke.

* Today's reader. Some contemporary readers. The Prefaces appeared with the complete published volumes, not as part of the serialization.


  1. When I stop laughing, that parrot in Trollope comes to mind. Hmm. Parrot? Railway carriage? Can't think of the novel. Darn.

    A quick search shows Ch. 27 of The American Senator (1877). Great scene. Trollope usually does not try to sustain his little jokes this long. Dickens wrote Grip a couple of decades earlier.

  2. "Peas, peas, peas," said the parrot.

    That chapter looks pretty good. How does the rest of the novel compare?

  3. I liked The American Senator, but then the many fox hunting scenes would probably be tedious to a reader who did not get into the spirit of the thing--and Trollope was into it full force. In fact, what I remember best several years after reading the book is the fox hunting, which is tincture of Trollope, and which served as metaphor in relation to the plot. It would probably not be a good first Trollope. The miserable heroine is not easy to like, and that puts off some readers.

  4. Thanks for the detail. I'm not sure about fox hunting, but I like miserable heroines, so I will AITML.*

    * Add It To My List.