Monday, December 2, 2013

A Christmas murder from Dickens and Collins - All the lesser London churches strain their metallic throats

The year-end magazine stories of Charles Dickens were collected in 1871, just after his death, under the comical title Christmas Stories.  At first I was reading them for the sake of completeness and curiosity, but as the years passed (Dickens's years, not mine) they become more interesting.  The last one, “No Thoroughfare” (1867) (along with the 1857 “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices”), is co-written with Wilkie Collins.  The "Lazy Tour" is a picaresque ragbag, "No Thoroughfare" a short novel.  Both are good.  This was a period not just of Peak Dickens, but of Peak Collins – The Moonstone was published in 1868.

The title of “No Thoroughfare” is not so good.  I will stick with that one today.

“No Thoroughfare” is a kind of murder mystery.  Part of it is set in an orphanage.  A little bit of sensation, a little bit of tear-jerking.  It hits a lot of Dickens and\or Collins buttons.  They are recycling, but Dickens always recycled, that is how he moved forward.  A dangerous trip across a snow-filled Alpine pass is something new to Dickens.

The editor of the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition has identified who wrote what, although I could mostly tell.  I want to save that for “The Lazy Tour,” though, where she does not say but I could always tell.

The mystery as such is not bad.  It is centered on a love triangle, and what else, I ask, given that the murder (attempted) in Our Mutual Friend (1864) and murder (completed, probably) in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) are caused by love triangles, with the man who cannot possibly win the woman becoming twisted and evil from frustration and jealousy – likely more from the latter.  Dickens had become occupied with the idea of evil, and this is how he explored it.  If the exploration is not so profound in “No Thoroughfare” it is still surprisingly interesting as a bridge between the two novels.

I would like to quote from the eventful and even exciting murder scene, but I am not sure the keenest touches make much sense without the context.  How about the very beginning, then:

Day of the month and year, November the thirtieth, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-five.  London Time by the great clock of Saint Paul’s, ten at night.  All the lesser London churches strain their metallic throats.  Some, flippantly begin before the heavy bell of the great cathedral; some, tardily begin three, four, half-a-dozen, strokes behind it; all are in sufficiently near accord, to leave a resonance in the air, as if the winged father who devours his children, had made a sounding sweep with his gigantic scythe in flying over the city.

It may not be the muddy megalosaurus that introduces Bleak House, but it is pure, clear Dickens.  It is another bit of recycling, too, evoking his little 1844 Christmas book The Chimes.  Those excessive commas are a guide to whoever is reading the passage aloud.  There is one more chime lagging, “lower than most of the rest,” that belongs to the orphanage and pulls me down from the steeples to the ground where a veiled lady “flutters to and fro,” about to launch the mystery.


  1. I have to say I love excessive commas, that's a very Portuguese thing, we put commas everywhere. Eça was a master of commas.

    I haven't read a lot of Dickens save a few short-stories, my attempts at his big novels failed; of Collins I love The Moonstone and The Woman in White, but I haven't touched him again since that. There's something very funny about these two co-writing fiction, though.

  2. I find myself adopting 19th century comma habits, and then, if I am lucky, purging them. But if I do not, who cares. I like them too.

    The two writers were converging in the 1860s. Or perhaps, given the size of the talents, it was more like restless Dickens was swallowing Collins, learning how to adapt Collins concerns and plotting to Dickens purposes.

    I neglected Collins in this post, but I will make up for it in the next one.

  3. As a (mostly) reformed zealous comma placer, I appreciate Dickens' comma profligacy. And thank you for clearing up my confusion over why these are called Christmas stories. I've only read a few and expected them to be about Christmas like A Christmas Carol, but now I see it has nothing to do with the holiday only the time of year they were published.

  4. I was confused for a long time, for hundreds of pages. It is not just A Christmas Carol - The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth are also quite clearly Christmas stories. So that's the first three, and the next two novellas at least brush against Christmas.

    From 1850 on, though, the "Christmas" story was whatever Dickens happened to put in the Christmas edition of his magazine.

    There is the extra wrinkle that the English tell ghost stories at Christmas, so anything with a ghost story actually is in some sense a Christmas story. Maybe a murder story counts, too.

  5. I'm reading Stevenson, and what struck me right off was how clearly Stevenson was influenced by Dickens. RLS doesn't have Dickens' virtuosity with imagery, of course, nor Dickens' sense of play and wonderment with language itself, but there's Dickens all over Jekyll and Hyde and, if I remember correctly, all over Treasure Island as well. This is what you get from me instead of discussion of the story you read. Also, a few spare commas: ,,,,,,,. Use them as you will.

  6. Dickens mixed with Dumas. Stevenson could build some wonderfully long, winding sentences.

    Thanks for the commas.

  7. I see that I will finally have to read Dumas. I would bet that we likely possess the standard works.

    There's plenty of murder-for-gain in Dickens. Murder-for-love is the new development, yes?

  8. The mental Dickens database is spinning and the result is "I think so." The love triangle plot allows Dickens to take someone normal - Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend - I must be misremembering his name - no, I was right - Bradley Headstone becomes evil through jealousy and so on. He does not begin as a weird villain like Rogue Riderhood or - that can't be right - no, it is - or that cat-faced fellow in Dombey and Son. So it is a new dimension of evil that Dickens can explore, and a more disturbing one because more normal people are susceptible to it.

    Stevenson loved Dumas. He wrote a marvelous essay on his childhood favorite, "A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas's."

  9. Yeah, Headstone. He's like the anti-Sydney Carton.

    I will also finally have to read Wilkie Collins. We have loads on the shelf.

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  11. Collins has a couple of unusual gifts. Plotting, of course, but he is able to create grotesques who feel close to plausible. Dickens characters usually belong in Dickens World. I do not mean that the Collins characters are better, but they are unique, at least once I subtract out how much they have been imitated.

    RT - they make a good team. So it ain't The Moonstone, it's still pretty good.