Wednesday, December 18, 2013

his nerves were rendered stouter and more vigorous, by showers of tears

Being only familiar with David Lean’s film Oliver Twist and with the Lionel Bart musical “Oliver!” I was not prepared for the long midsection of Dickens’ novel, where the author introduces a complete additional story arc and set of additional characters and also gives us the subplot of Mr Bumble’s difficult marriage (the first downward steps in Bumble’s “pride comes before the fall” didactic story). As I said to Mighty Reader last night, it’s as if someone has taken all of the characters I know from Oliver Twist and written a new story with them. “It’s Oliver Twist fan fiction,” I said. You know, like that Peter Carey book Jack Maggs.

I have to admit that I don’t enjoy a lot of this midsection story arc and I’ve had to bear down and push through some chapters just to make it to the safety of the following one, but on the other hand I can see how Dickens is now interlocking this central section with the Fagin/Sikes/Nancy/Brownlow plot and I really am impressed with that. If I had that sort of plotting ability, all of my books would be twice as long as they are because if you can work the materials this way, why not? But as I say, I lack the sort of imagination to create this kind of Dickensian controlled sprawl.

This, then, is a lovely (long, too) excerpt from Mr Bumble’s new married life. I laughed out loud on the bus this morning:

There are some promotions in life, which, independent of the more substantial rewards they offer, require peculiar value and dignity from the coats and waistcoats connected with them. A field-marshal has his uniform; a bishop his silk apron; a counsellor his silk gown; a beadle his cocked hat. Strip the bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his hat and lace; what are they? Men. Mere men. Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.

Mr. Bumble had married Mrs. Corney, and was master of the workhouse. Another beadle had come into power. On him the cocked hat, gold-laced coat, and staff, had all three descended.

'And to-morrow two months it was done!' said Mr. Bumble, with a sigh. 'It seems a age.'

Mr. Bumble might have meant that he had concentrated a whole existence of happiness into the short space of eight weeks; but the sigh—there was a vast deal of meaning in the sigh.

'I sold myself,' said Mr. Bumble, pursuing the same train of relection, 'for six teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a milk-pot; with a small quantity of second-hand furniture, and twenty pound in money. I went very reasonable. Cheap, dirt cheap!'

'Cheap!' cried a shrill voice in Mr. Bumble's ear: 'you would have been dear at any price; and dear enough I paid for you, Lord above knows that!'

Mr. Bumble turned, and encountered the face of his interesting consort, who, imperfectly comprehending the few words she had overheard of his complaint, had hazarded the foregoing remark at a venture.

'Mrs. Bumble, ma'am!' said Mr. Bumble, with a sentimental sternness.

'Well!' cried the lady.

'Have the goodness to look at me,' said Mr. Bumble, fixing his eyes upon her. (If she stands such a eye as that,' said Mr. Bumble to himself, 'she can stand anything. It is a eye I never knew to fail with paupers. If it fails with her, my power is gone.')

Whether an exceedingly small expansion of eye be sufficient to quell paupers, who, being lightly fed, are in no very high condition; or whether the late Mrs. Corney was particularly proof against eagle glances; are matters of opinion. The matter of fact, is, that the matron was in no way overpowered by Mr. Bumble's scowl, but, on the contrary, treated it with great disdain, and even raised a laugh thereat, which sounded as though it were genuine.

On hearing this most unexpected sound, Mr. Bumble looked, first incredulous, and afterwards amazed. He then relapsed into his former state; nor did he rouse himself until his attention was again awakened by the voice of his partner.

'Are you going to sit snoring there, all day?' inquired Mrs. Bumble.

'I am going to sit here, as long as I think proper, ma'am,' rejoined Mr. Bumble; 'and although I was _not_ snoring, I shall snore, gape, sneeze, laugh, or cry, as the humour strikes me; such being my prerogative.'

'_Your_ prerogative!' sneered Mrs. Bumble, with ineffable contempt.

'I said the word, ma'am,' said Mr. Bumble. 'The prerogative of a man is to command.'

'And what's the prerogative of a woman, in the name of Goodness?' cried the relict of Mr. Corney deceased.

'To obey, ma'am,' thundered Mr. Bumble. 'Your late unfortunate husband should have taught it you; and then, perhaps, he might have been alive now. I wish he was, poor man!'

Mrs. Bumble, seeing at a glance, that the decisive moment had now arrived, and that a blow struck for the mastership on one side or other, must necessarily be final and conclusive, no sooner heard this allusion to the dead and gone, than she dropped into a chair, and with a loud scream that Mr. Bumble was a hard-hearted brute, fell into a paroxysm of tears.

But, tears were not the things to find their way to Mr. Bumble's soul; his heart was waterproof. Like washable beaver hats that improve with rain, his nerves were rendered stouter and more vigorous, by showers of tears, which, being tokens of weakness, and so far tacit admissions of his own power, pleased and exalted him. He eyed his good lady with looks of great satisfaction, and begged, in an encouraging manner, that she should cry her hardest: the exercise being looked upon, by the faculty, as strongly conducive to health.

'It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper,' said Mr. Bumble. 'So cry away.'

As he discharged himself of this pleasantry, Mr. Bumble took his hat from a peg, and putting it on, rather rakishly, on one side, as a man might, who felt he had asserted his superiority in a becoming manner, thrust his hands into his pockets, and sauntered towards the door, with much ease and waggishness depicted in his whole appearance.

Now, Mrs. Corney that was, had tried the tears, because they were less troublesome than a manual assault; but, she was quite prepared to make trial of the latter mode of proceeding, as Mr. Bumble was not long in discovering.

The first proof he experienced of the fact, was conveyed in a hollow sound, immediately succeeded by the sudden flying off of his hat to the opposite end of the room. This preliminary proceeding laying bare his head, the expert lady, clasping him tightly round the throat with one hand, inflicted a shower of blows (dealt with singular vigour and dexterity) upon it with the other. This done, she created a little variety by scratching his face, and tearing his hair; and, having, by this time, inflicted as much punishment as she deemed necessary for the offence, she pushed him over a chair, which was luckily well situated for the purpose: and defied him to talk about his prerogative again, if he dared.

'Get up!' said Mrs. Bumble, in a voice of command. 'And take yourself away from here, unless you want me to do something desperate.'

Mr. Bumble rose with a very rueful countenance: wondering much what something desperate might be. Picking up his hat, he looked towards the door.

'Are you going?' demanded Mrs. Bumble.

'Certainly, my dear, certainly,' rejoined Mr. Bumble, making a quicker motion towards the door. 'I didn't intend to--I'm going, my dear! You are so very violent, that really I--'

At this instant, Mrs. Bumble stepped hastily forward to replace the carpet, which had been kicked up in the scuffle. Mr. Bumble immediately darted out of the room, without bestowing another thought on his unfinished sentence: leaving the late Mrs. Corney in full possession of the field.

Mr. Bumble was fairly taken by surprise, and fairly beaten. He had a decided propensity for bullying: derived no inconsiderable pleasure from the exercise of petty cruelty; and, consequently, was (it is needless to say) a coward. This is by no means a disparagement to his character; for many official personages, who are held in high respect and admiration, are the victims of similar infirmities. The remark is made, indeed, rather in his favour than otherwise, and with a view of impressing the reader with a just sense of his qualifications for office.

When Dickens gets to the word “coward,” he has made the whole scene pay off brilliantly. Well done, Charles. Well done indeed.


  1. Yes, that's a good line, too--all those delaying tactics of pauses and parenthetical till one arrives at final reversal and judgment!

  2. I should've found a way to edit the scene down to something shorter, but the whole thing is so good, so perfectly structured, the strategies of the combatants so amusing; each development is built directly upon what comes before it, Mr Bumble sort of ricocheting off Mrs Bumble's counter-attacks. A lesser writer would've begun the scene at the end of this passage, giving us Bumble's fall in retrospective summary.

  3. Sometimes Dickens does go off on annoyingly irrelevant discursions, but those meanderings might be more endurable of the reader keeps in the mind the original format. Dickens was writing the serialized novel. He had to produce certain word counts for regularized periodical publication. Sometimes, the basic storyline needed to be embellished in order to make each installment long enough. Remember, Dickens was a pay-per-word writer. Sometimes, those words are not the best or the most relevant to the plot. For my money, the most outrageous but most successful of Dickens' meandering and padded plots is Bleak House. One of the least successful is Pickwick Papers. I am glad you're hanging in there with Oliver Twist. Perhaps we modern readers ought to approach Dickens in the same way that his readers were forced to approach him: installments at intervals. Read an installment each fortnight. Then wait for before going on to the next installment.

  4. I have not read Bleak House or Pickwick Papers, so I don't know about those. I will say that if I hadn't been familiar with the abridged versions, I'd have no problem with what Dickens does in Oliver Twist. In fact, as his actual plot diverges from the one David Lean created for the film (which was then copied in "Oliver!"), I like the book more and more. What Dickens does is better and more interesting than what Lean had, not just because it's more complex, but because it allows him to make better use of the characters, including the additional cast members. As usual for Dickens' novels, though, the main character remains a sort of empty suit. Oliver himself is dull as dishwater, an abstraction with a few spoken lines. Dickens was always good at showing how people really are, but (like every other author) he failed when attempting to create a wholly noble character, because he could think of no interesting character traits to go along with pure nobility. Which is an interesting philosophical problem, yes? This is one reason I think that the lives of saints are worth reading; they are characters touched by grace, but they are not pure in that Dickensian sense; they are fully human until they are transported by grace beyond humanity.

  5. Scott! You simply must, must, must read "Bleak House." It's a book I reread periodically, and rereading it is even better than reading it for the first time, so you need to read it now so you can reread it later!

    Tough for many of the rest of us to identify with the noble character... though I think that I have known a few.

  6. P. S. Now I want to know what the comment was that you removed.

  7. "Paid by the word" is a myth.

    The Pickwick Papers is an entirely different beast. It was meant to be a series of "sporting sketches," whatever those are. It took a while for Dickens to figure out that he had a novel on his hands.

    Bleak House has a noble, fully human character. The solution to the problem turns out to be so easy. He never repeats it.

  8. Paid by the word? Paid by the installment? A distinction without a difference.

  9. Paid by the word, paid by the story. What's the difference?

    If you are actually interested in this topic, there is a super article in the Norton Critical edition of Vanity Fair on how Thackeray constructed the serialized installments, which was itself a complex and creative process.

    These writers had standards that were much to high to allow thoughtless filler.

  10. Marly, I have made plans to read Bleak House after Christmas. I'll take in a non-Dickens novel between Oliver Twist and it. I reposted my deleted comment; you can go read my crankiness if you like but you will not profit thereby in any way.

    Tom, I will look for Dickens' solution to creating a character both noble and fully human.

    There are plenty of reasons to believe that Oliver Twist was planned out, that the plot was plotted and not improvised. The more Dickens I read, the less inclined I am to believe the idea that his books are so long only because he was writing middles that did little but keep the front and back covers of the books away from each other (or conintue his sorce of monthly income, or whatever). He had so many ideas that he could've written dozens more books than he did if he'd written short books. But he wrote long books because he told labyrinthine tales. I guess. I am now talking out of my hat. It's a fetching hat, but it doesn't know a thing about literature.

  11. Oh, I'm fairly much with you on that crankiness. Except I wasn't cranky, that is... I had avoided commenting on the core of the post, you notice... But I went back and did, as well as on the Bloom-citing one.

    As for Dickens, I do think sometimes he didn't know where the proper end of the book was. At least that's true for "David Copperfield," which should have ended much, much earlier than it does. Although that's probably a singular case, being so autobiographical in the first half, and so wish-fulfilling as it moves on.

  12. You should see The Old Curiosity Shop (his first weekly serial) - Dickens had no idea whatsoever where he was going. It is novel writing as jazz. He took a set of chords and blew.

    He learned to plan books to a certain extent, but he always left himself a lot of freedom.