Monday, December 8, 2008

I can prove it, by tables - in which I discover that The Chimes is about something other than what I thought it would be about

In The Chimes (1844), an old porter, Trotty Veck, has an eventful New Year's Eve. As a result of either supernatural forces or a combination of stress and indigestion, he is shown a horrible vision of the future which leads him to reform his selfish ways.

This sounds a bit, just a bit, like A Christmas Carol, published the Christmas before, with two minor changes. First, Trotty, unlike Scrooge, is poor, and second, he's a fine fellow with no selfish ways whatsoever. Maybe these are not such minor differences. They sure do muddle the story, although not to the extent of the last Dickens Christmas novella, The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848), which approaches incomprehensibility. I suspect that running a poor man through Scrooge's trials was a challenge Dickens set for himself in The Chimes. Anyway, it allowed him to get at something else, something obscured in A Christmas Carol.

Early in the story, Trotty meets the three fellows to the left; Trotty's the one with the rumpled hat. The three gentlemen are investigating Trotty's supper of tripe.

"'But who eats tripe?' said Mr. Filer, looking round. 'Tripe is without exception the least economical, and the most wasteful article of consumption that the markets of this country can by possibility produce... I find that the waste on that amount of tripe , if boiled, would victual a garrison of five hundred men for five months of thirty-one days each, and a February over. The Waste, the Waste!'" (Ch. 1 aka "First Quarter")

Ah ha, Mr. Filer seems to be some sort of Utilitarian. The second fellow is another kind of reformer - a magistrate who is determined, whatever the problem, starvation, young mothers, suicide, to Put It Down. And the third is perhaps a nostalgist, or perhaps something else:

"'The good old times, the good old times,' repeated the gentleman.' What times they were! They were the only times. It's of no use talking about any other times, or discussing what the people are in these times. You don't call these, times, do you? I don't. Look into Strutt's Costumes, and see what a Porter used to be, in any of the good old English reigns.'

'He hadn't, in his very best circumstances, a shirt to his back, or a stocking to his foot; and there was scarcely a vegetable in all England for him to put into his mouth,' said Mr. Filer. 'I can prove it, by tables.'"

You tell him, Filer! I was actually planning to save my tables for later in the week. This talk of how things were better in the olden days by the unnamed gentleman with the red face and blue coat* sounds suspiciously like it was drawn from another book from the previous year, Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present. Which means - and there's more evidence than just this - that The Chimes is not just about charity or compassion or combatting one's selfishness.

No, this is a topical novel. A novel about social issues. A Condition-of-England novel! That's what Carlyle called England's Hard Times, the Condition-of-England question. For some reason, it stuck, and scholars still use it. I felt perfectly happy floundering around in the swamp - no, mire - no, no, cesspool - strike all that, crystalline fountain - of Victorian religion last week, and since many countries seem to be facing a new round of Hard Times, why not test my ignorance about the Condition-of-England question. Tomorrow: what exactly is Thomas Carlyle going on and on and on about?

* A little mystery with this fellow. He's never named, and later in the book only mentioned once more. My first question for The Valve: who is he?

I hope I'm attracting people to the Chimes event at The Valve, rather than scaring them away. I think those passages up there are hilarious.

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