Sunday, November 29, 2009

Stockwood on Dickens1: a satire

Charles Dickens did not write fiction.

I begin categorically with the conclusion I have reached after many long years of study, the ongoing perusal of the work itself, the intensive investigation of the personal record–epistles private and epistles public, diaries, journals, account books, memoirs, drafts rough and drafts polished, editorial annotations, as well as the exhaustive examination of dusty periodical archives and journalistic ephemera, not to mention the many anecdotes and mots bon and otherwise, perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not handed down orally from generation to generation.

Charles Dickens did not write fiction.

If fiction is invention out of slender air,2 if fiction is that which has never existed but in the imagination of its author, if fiction is that pleasant falsehood which beguiles its readers into the suspension of their skeptical reluctance to believe,3 then I say, with complete and uncompromising confidence in my assertion–Fiction, Charles Dickens did not write.

It is not so much a question of the actual occurrence of the events he describes, or even he actual existence of those–the Pickwicks, the Copperfields,4 or even the Chuzzlewits–who people these events, historical record demonstrates with authority that these are indeed events that never happened to people that never were. Never was a Pickwick imprisoned for breach of promise, indeed never was Pickwick. Never did a Copperfield meet a Murdstone. No Chuzzlewit foot ever touched American shore.

Yet if there weren’t ever a Dorrit bundled off to the Marshallsea, a Magwitch hidden among the gravestones, a Gradgrind bound in chains of fact, if, in fact, they never were, it is demonstrable to any and all thinking readers, that they have, despite that fact, become. They are. Incontrovertibly and without the slightest of doubt, they are. Who is there who is not aware of their being? Who is it who has not heard the words of the orphan Twist asking for more, smelled the reek of Fagin’s lair, cringed with terror at Bill Sykes? Who is it who does not know of Scrooge surnamed Ebenezer visited upon a Christmas Eve by that trio of spirits as real in their unreality as the man himself? And is this man’s Christmas song5 etched so finely into the collection of consciousnesses that define the modern psyche in the modern world to be dismissed as mere spanish castle simply because it was birthed on a page and suckled at the breast of the muse rather than the midwife.6

If this Scrooge be not reality, are we to conclude then that reality lies in some long forgotten Ebenezer Somebody–some Ebenezer Doe–who ate his Christmas turkey surrounded by whatever family and friends he had managed to accumulate over his years, are we to conclude that reality lies with this Ebenezer Somebody, of whom we have never heard, of whom we know nothing whatever, of whom we are certain that if indeed he ever were, he might just as well never have been. Ebenezer Somebody is fiction. Ebenezer Scrooge is.

There are worlds of Ebenezer Somebodies. People who were, but are no longer; gone and forgotten, it is they who are the stuff of fiction. Puffs of smoke, it is they who have no reality. Truth is that which lasts. Truth is not here today and gone tomorrow. Truth is what remains when the ephemera is washed away. Ebenezer Somebodies are fictions written by God. They along with their works are writ in water.7

Moreover, the lives that Dickens creates beget the life of the world in which they live: Boffin begets dust heaps. Mrs. Jellyby begets telescopic charity. Mr. Bumble begets the workhouse. The Infant Phenomenon begets the theatre.

Without Dickens the nineteenth century in England would exist on a forgotten back shelf in the stacks of some little used library.

There would be no Yorkshire schools for the twenty first century were there no Nicholas Nickleby; no poor laws, were it not for Oliver Twist. There would be no Court of Cancery were it not for Jarndyce and Jarndyce; no dying brickmakers and stricken crossing sweeps, were it not for Esther Summerson. Old Krook’s spontaneous combustion is no more a fact to be debated than the opening of the Crystal Palace, and surely an event with a wider currency.

Again, Charles Dickens did not write fiction. Charles Dickens birthed living beings, living then and living now.


1Being the transcript of a lecture delivered by Professor Sumner Stockwood of the University of New Thermopylae to the annual meeting of the Associated Dickensians of Eden in 2004, with annotations by Dr. Farber L Fenwick. Adjunct Instructor, Coketown Community College.

2The reader must forgive Professor Stockwood’s less effective attempts at humor (ed.)

3I here paraphrase the comments of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his 1798 letter to Dorothy, the sister of his erstwhile colleague in that year’s publication of the Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth. [Since as of this date, no such letter has come to light, conjecture has it that Professor Stockwood may well have in mind the more famous statement about “suspension of disbelief” in Coleridge’s Biographia Litteraria (ed.)

4Some scholars may quarrel with this assertion with reference to such events as young Copperfield’s sojourn in the boot blacking factory. Such quibbles would seem to be mere matters of semantics (ed.)

5See note 2 (ed.).

6The reader will forgive my use of what some may consider a cliche metaphor for the production of art, but in the light of my contention, it does seem fitting.

7Stockwood’s reference is to the inscription on the grave of the young Romantic poet.

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