Somebody’s Luggage by Charles Dickens

So, as it turns out, all that good stuff about “[w]hat is lost when Dickens abandons his own excess baggage” applies even more to Somebody’s Luggage (which it was, of course, meant to apply to) than it does to The Wreck of the Golden Mary. The frame story here is more traditionally Dickensian, and could certainly stand on its own, but to think of standing it with only Dickens’s other contributions to the story seems so wrong. At least one of those other contributions was my favorite, after all!

But how does the collaboration work in Somebody’s Luggage, anyway? First, the frame: a waiter by the name of Mr Christopher who works in a hotel becomes interested in some luggage that was left behind and never sent for years earlier. Christopher is by any measure “traditionally Dickensian,” anchoring the whole work in London, bringing in some very Dickensian humor, that sort of thing. He’s a bit long-winded, but everyone will like Christopher. But try as he might, he just can’t get that luggage—“Somebody’s luggage”—off his mind:

My speculating it over, not then only but repeatedly, sometimes with the Mistress, sometimes with one, sometimes with another, led up to the Mistress’s saying to me—whether at first in joke or in earnest, or half joke and half earnest, it matters not:

‘Christopher, I am going to make you a handsome offer.’

(If this should meet her eye—a lovely blue—may she not take it ill my mentioning that if I had been eight or ten year younger, I would have done as much by her! That is, I would have made her a offer. It is for others than me to denominate it a handsome one.)

‘Christopher, I am going to make you a handsome offer.’

‘Put a name to it, ma’am.’

‘Come,’ says she, ‘Christopher. Pay me Somebody’s bill, and you shall have Somebody’s luggage.’

So, you see what I mean about the humor too. And the long-windedness—it takes nearly a page to get to her actual proposition.

When Christopher buys himself the luggage, he finds he has made a good deal. All of Somebody’s possessions are crammed full of paper, which is crammed full of writing. Everything else is in good condition and can be sold for more than the “investment.” And the writing can be printed and shared with us.

So the writings stuffed into Somebody’s luggage make up the bulk of Somebody’s Luggage (you see what I did there?), and include contributions from Dickens, John Oxenford, Charles Allston Collins, Arthur Locker, and Julia Cecilia Stretton. Each story is named after the place it was found, e.g., “His Boots” and “His Umbrella.” Collins and Stretton each have two contributions that really go together as a single story; Dickens has two that are truly separate. As in The Wreck of the Golden Mary, the stories have some nice variety: a sad, heartwarming tale about a stiff Englishman finding his heart in France; a ghost story; a match-making tale that ends in tragedy; an extremely silly shipwreck where the passengers and crew are saved by the iceberg that has stove in their hull; a story of artistic jealousy that leads to social ostracism; and a completely lovely one about an enchanted truth-chair and a man in search of a wife.

That last, by Stretton and made up of “His Portmanteau” and “His Hatbox,” is probably my favorite, though competition is fierce—especially against “His Brown Paper Parcel,” Dickens’s story about a street artist. I would say that Stretton is as good as Dickens, at least in the realm of “amusing short stories about drink and indigestion leading to visions of supernatural creatures that help us find our way to a heartwarming end,” except for how he wrote “A Christmas Carol” and stuff. And it’s probably not as good as “His Brown Paper Parcel,” which is better developed psychologically in its darkness. But it’s so snuggly!

Which is where Somebody’s Luggage, while again totally not actually Christmassy, seems much more Christmassy than The Wreck of the Golden Mary. Except for “His Brown Paper Parcel,” it’s a parcel of stories about redemption, with bonuses about family and marriage. That counts for the frame story as well. All in all a much cuter holiday number.

The Wreck of the Golden Mary by Charles Dickens

Captain Ravender and first mate Steadiman are bringing the Golden Mary from England to California, for the gold rush, when they run into an iceberg rounding Cape Horn. Crew and passengers make it into boats, as the ship is clearly going down, and row and drift around the South Pacific until being picked up just as they are all about to expire.

The captain and the first mate are both first rate: the captain steady and respectable, eating dinner with the lady passengers, threatening to shoot the bad seed who almost panics the escape operation, and the first mate hypercompetent, playful, serious, and taking over, seeing everyone through to the rescue even though he wishes for the benefit of the captain’s experience the whole time. And there are some very good scenes at sea:

The light shone up so high that I could see the huge iceberg upon which we had struck, cloven at the top and down the middle, exactly like Penrith Church in my dream. At the same moment I could see the watch last relieved, crowding up and down on deck; I could see Mrs Atherfield and Miss Coleshaw thrown about on the top of the companion as they struggled to bring the child up from below; I could see that the masts were going with the shock and the beating of the ship; I could see the frightful breach stove in on the starboard side, half the length of the vessel, and the sheathing and timbers spirting up; I could see that the Cutter was disabled, in a wreck of broken fragments; and I could see every eye turned upon me. It is my belief that if there had been ten thousand eyes there, I should have seen them all, with their different looks. And all this in a moment. But you must consider what a moment.

Before the rescue, there is “The Beguilement in the Boats,” the section of the book written by Dickens’s and Collins’s collaborators. Percy Fitzgerald, who makes two contributions, is my favorite. Both of the stories themselves are the best. “The Armourer’s Story” is an English country village tale of romantic frustration leading as far as violence, and “The Supercargo’s Story” is a lovely ghost-ship yarn set in the North Sea on Christmas night. And there was a definite something I liked about his writing style (PS, I should really find out who this guy actually is). Here, describing the ruins of of an old abbey or nunnery where they form an arch now used as a forge:

This might have been the clergymen’s pantry, or wine vaults, may be, in the old times. Whatever use they had for it, it was a very snug place. I recollect there were all sorts of queer faces with horns and hoods, all carved out in the bunch; and I often lay awake at nights looking at them, and studying them, and thinking why they were grinning and winking at me in that way. I remember one creature that always aimed straight at you with his tail pointed, holding it like a gun.

I mean, picture that little guy!

So, where was the Christmas in Household Words‘ 1856 Christmas issue (aside from its being the night Jan Fagel haunts the coast)? It’s Christmas in the way Dickens is always Christmas: a motley cast of characters—all, of course, Dickensian—goes through a tribulation and comes together as a society to overcome, and, you know, humanism, that sort of thing. (I kind of devolved there but I think you get the idea.) And I think that’s fine! But I might just have been disappointed if this were really supposed to be my Christmas number and it had none of the snugness-and-chill of “A Christmas Carol” or “The Chimes.”

The mishmash of a Dickens Christmas

The Wreck of the Golden Mary is one of Charles Dickens’s “other” Christmas stories—that is, other than “A Christmas Carol.” It was published in Household Words at Christmas 1856 and, apparently like many (some?) of Dickens’s Christmas works of about that time, was a group effort. It’s structured all around this. Dickens writes the first part, a first-person narration by the captain of The Golden Mary that introduces the story and goes up to the captain’s illness, after the wreck, when he’s too weak to continue.

The thread is picked up by the first mate, in Wilkie Collins’s portion of the story. Then Percy Fitzgerald, Harriet Parr, Adelaide Anne Procter and the Rev. James White provide stories within the story, meant as the ones the passengers told each other in the boats. Then Wilkie Collins picks up again to narrate “The Deliverance.”

The collaboration sounded a bit strange to me, and there are bits less good than others. But it’s not disjointed. In their introduction to the Hesperus Press edition of Somebody’s Luggage, another Dickens-led Christmas collaboration, Melissa Valiska Gregory and Melisa Klimaszewski make a claim that I think applies here, too, though this story doesn’t have the same textual history. They argue against the omission of the bits not written by Dickens from his 1867 edition of the story and also against critics who ignore the full context of the work:

What is lost when Dickens abandons his own excess baggage? Without the stories by the other authors, both the entire text of Somebody’s Luggage and Dickens’ individual contributions to it appear less aesthetically remarkable. …The excision of the other contributors dilutes the entire Christmas number, draining it of its tonal richness and regularising the quirky narrative rhythms created by the odd juxtaposition of such a diverse array of texts. It is true that the plot of Dickens’ frame story holds together without the internal support of the other writers’ tales, but the text becomes livelier, if a little less coherent, when read as a whole. Its eccentric mishmash of tragic melodrama and farce, not to mention good and bad writing, makes for a dynamic reading experience….

I haven’t, ahem, actually finished Somebody’s Luggage yet (I was reading it when I got Stuck), but I’d just come off The Wreck of the Golden Mary and thought that put things very nicely. The nested stories from Dickens’s collaborators bring depth to the frame story by adding several histories to the main plot, and the stories themselves break up the interminable wait in the ocean for the reader just as they do for the shipwrecked characters.

Getting slowly Unstuck, I seem to have written more about a book I haven’t read than about the one I have. There will have to be more on The Golden Mary. Did I mention it’s a Dickensian sea yarn? It turns out Dickens is as good at this as he is at just about anything else.

Burrowing, Aspiring, Mouldering, Unintelligible

While on my Dombey and Son journey, I’ve also been reading a bit about Bleak House. Mostly because it’s included in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, and I felt like flipping throught that. Before getting into things, he says, “If it were possible I would like to devote the fifty minutes of every class meeting to mute meditation, concentration, and admiration of Dickens.” That is actually how I like to read, when I’m sitting there doing it. Him too:

All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle.

This kind of aesthetic enjoyment is so wholesome and natural that it can be hard, or even unhelpful, to talk about it. In the spirit of Rohan Maitzen’s new Index to Novel Readings, I decided to read her “chapters” on Dickens. In Fog. Mud. Smoke. Soot. Gas. Fog., she says, of the opening passage of Bleak House, “I consider it an aesthetic accomplishment self-sufficient enough to render critical commentary not just redundant, but irritating.” Her commentary, of course, is not the least bit irritating and I think captures the exclamatory admiration for the passage while at the same time saying something worth reading. It is a hard thing to do and something I hope to succeed at least a little bit at myself.

I find it interesting that in Dickens it is so often the exposition where he becomes “the enchanter” (not that I have anything against the yarn spinner or the teacher, but…*). His descriptive passages are where he is decried for filler, for being long-winded, for being boring—horrors! And it is slow, in terms of action, and not the sort of thing you find in anything like popular contemporary literature. But it’s also not slow at all, it’s practically tumbling on itself, that’s how the enchantment works, like here, in Dombey:

Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.

In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railway was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.

And that’s for a neighborhood that, so far, we have only spent a single afternoon in. We may well return; if we do it will be to a completed railway though, and presumably a further changed Camden Town.

*“As is quite clear, the enchanter interests me more than the yarn spinner or the teacher.” —Vladimir Nabokov

“The Chimes”; in which I experience a cultural gap that is not there

“The Chimes” is one of Charles Dickens’s “other” Christmas stories—except that it is actually a New Year’s story. Wuthering Expectations has an excellent post about it, and there’s a bit of a discussion at The Valve as well.

First, let me say that while somewhat baffling it was a really fun story, and anyone familiar with “A Christmas Carol” should really read this too. The beginning of the third quarter, with the goblins, and especially the illustrations of the goblins, was my favorite. Look at these guys.

As Amateur Reader sums it up:

As a result of either supernatural forces or a combination of stress and indigestion, [Trotty Veck] 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.

Now, before this happens, Trotty, a ticket porter, is hanging out with some of his well-to-do clients, getting lectured by his betters on how wasteful the poor are, how incorrigible, &tc., and Trotty tends to agree that they are “born Bad.” He’s clearly so overwhelmed by how Good his betters are that he can’t help but agree with them. And later, soon before bed, he reads the paper, putting him in mind of “the crimes and violences of the people”:

In this mood he came to an account (and it was not the first he had ever read) of a woman who had laid her desperate hands not only on her own life but on that of her young child. A crime so terrible, and so revolting to his soul, dilated with the love of Meg, that he let the journal drop, and fell back in his chair, appalled!

“Unnatural and cruel!” Toby cried. “Unnatural and cruel! None but people who were bad at heart, born bad, who had no business on the earth, could do such deeds. It’s too true, all I’ve heard to-day; too just, too full of proof. We’re Bad!”

Now, how did I miss, in my first reading, the fact that this, this is the very moment when the Chimes begin to “haunt him and hunt him”? But I must have done, because there I was, thinking like I do so many times (at least I am not alone), that there is an unbridgeable gap between my sense of morality and that of the author, and that while I may enjoy the story perfectly well I won’t be able to get the full force of it because who on earth thinks a poor woman must be born Bad to do away with herself and her child in a moment of desperation?

In my annoyance I practically swept the incident aside, because otherwise I was so enjoying “The Chimes” and deeply sympathizing with Trotty. (Plus, since when do I have a problem understanding Dickens, über-humanist that he was?) Of course, this left me with the problem of understanding what on earth he was being punished for. And then, finally, there it was: poor haunted Trotty is made to understand that there are circumstances in which someone he knows to have been not only born Good but who has lived a terrible virtuous life would do just what the mother in the paper did.

The idea of false consciousness has been raised at The Valve. Certainly there is some of that going on in Trotty’s interactions with Alderman Cute & Co., but his reaction to the infanticide story is visceral and certainly his own. And it is that reaction that the Chimes pick out most clearly. Is the false consciousness not that big a deal? Does the lesson of Will Fern in the future speak more to that? Is it just by chance that the vision stops dead when Meg goes to jump in the river?

Also interesting to me was the level of sexuality in the story, really orders of magnitude greater than I remember seeing with Dickens. I was almost scandalized.

[Illustration scanned by Philip A. Allingham, courtesy The Victorian Web (here’s hoping they consider me educational and/or scholarly).]