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Archive for the ‘dickens’ Category

fallen women and aggregate fiction

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John Bowen in the TLS on a new book about Urania College, a “refuge for fallen women” that Charles Dickens established in Shepherd’s Bush in the 1840s:

Hartley is fascinated by the lost “Casebook” in which Dickens recorded the stories of all the Urania women. They were obliged to tell him everything and, even if they sometimes lied or omitted things, it would still be an extraordinary document to read, for Dickens, we know, gained people’s confidence readily and was a deft and accurate reporter. Hartley has hunted widely, but the book probably went up in smoke in the great bonfire of his papers that Dickens lit one afternoon in the garden of Gad’s Hill. I think she overstates the case when she describes it as Dickens’s “ur-text, the book behind his other books” or posits that in filling it in he was writing “his sixteenth novel, but one he knew he could never publish”. She is on surer ground when she draws parallels between Dickens’s work at Urania Cottage and his own secret autobiographical writing. For, as he first imagined and then created the home for these young victims of bad parents or bad luck, he was also quietly exploring his own escape from childhood poverty and the street-life of nineteenth-century London. However different the successful and prosperous middle-aged novelist was from fifteen-year-old Emma Spencer, already a veteran of the Clerkenwell Workhouse and the Field Lane Ragged School when she arrived in Shepherd’s Bush, he also strongly identified with her and her kind. “A sloppy education”, he wryly confided to Miss Coutts, “is a kind of bringing up, that I think I can thoroughly understand.”

This is most clear in the dual obligation – storytelling, followed by silence – that marked the new beginning. Urania women were obliged to tell their story to Dickens but, once they had done so, were forbidden ever to refer to it again, either to each other, the staff at the home, or in their future lives. The parallel with the ways that Dickens handled his own family’s shameful secrets is striking. After John Dickens was freed from prison and the twelve-year-old Charles was released from Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, the Dickens family never spoke about the events again. His parents, Dickens wrote, were “stricken dumb upon it. I have never heard the least allusion to it, however far off and remote, from either of them”. He, by contrast, did tell the story but, like the Urania women, only to a single ear, that of his friend John Forster, who revealed nothing until after Dickens’s death. Telling the story once, then silence and a new start: for the Urania women, as for Dickens himself, a unique, taboo-breaking act of narration would act as a bridge to a new life.

All very thrilling, the proto-psychotherapeutic approach cum content-collection thing, the male author with notebook amid teenage fallen women (that he’s saving, that he’s transporting) thing.

But more pertinently, this semi-novelistic “Casebook” also would seem to provide one sort of model for the aggregate fiction (should I call it “aggregated realism”?) that I’ve been on about lately, no?

If I lived like Alain de Botton, I might might be tempted to throw myself into rewriting the Casebook as a historical novel at once accurate and blissfully anachronistic. It’s a fantastic idea, and if you have tons of free time, there – it’s yours. Credit me where the credits go. But given my lack of time (all that Dickens to teach, among many other things, all that other stuff to research), would be tempting in the shape of an updated and/or even dystopian model, that is if the dystopian genre hasn’t fizzled under the candlecap of the dystopia now were about to live through…

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February 21, 2009 at 12:03 am