A story in Doric by Pat Hutchison
Aal Mary MacDonald sat at the cheek o the fire an gave the coals a rummle up wi the poker wi the hope that she micht get the last heat oot o the grate. She shivered wi the caal an pulled her shawl a bittie closer. The Laird’s factor hid came that mornin an teen her coal an athing else o value tae pey the back rent o the hoose. He wiz weel suited tae work for the Laird for he wiz jist like him, Godless an athoot mercy. Mary looked aroon the room in the deein licht even the deepening shadas showed it wiz empty. Athing gone barr the chair she sat on, the clyse on her back and her wee three fittid callander porridge pot that hung fae the swye abeen the fire. They micht as weel hae teen it ana because ower the past fyowe days she’d niver hin a haanfae o meal tae pit in it. Jock her aal man wiz beeriett a week syne. He’d broke his back in een o the Laird’s mills fin the laidder he wiz on cairryin a bolt o canvas hid given fae ablow him. His body hid been teen hame on a cairt an left for Mary tae deal wi. Wi nae a penny aboot her the parish hid beeriett him in a pauper’s grave. The parish hid a special coffin for paupers. The body wiz transported tae the corner o the kirkyard an lowered intae the hole an aifter ony folk that hid been there tae pey the corp last respects hid left, the gravedigger pulled a pin in the coffin an the bottom opened an the corp fell oot. The box wiz removed tae await the next pauper. Nae marker wiz allowed.
Wi Jock workin in the mill the hoose wiz tied so Mary hid tae be oot o the hoose by the wikeyne or twa days hence. The worst thing aboot the factor takin aa her goods & chattles wiz he hidna even left her wi the comfort o her great granda’s bible. A big leather beuk that the factor said wid mak a fyowe shillins. She’d begged him tae leave her w’t but na na he wiz takin it richt reason or neen.Mary hid made a grab for it an he gave her a backhaan slap in the face an tore it fae her hands. A letter hid fell fae it in the struggle an that’s fit she hid in her hand as she sat at her noo oot fire shiverin wi the caal.
The letter wiz worn wi age an being handled. Thirty five years hid passed since she’d been sent it fae her son’s commandin officer in India tellin her that Daavid her son hid been killed on the North West frontier in November 1845. Her only bairn hid died at the age o twenty one far far awa fae hame.. He’d been aichteen the last time she’d saw him at the jile in Banff, that hid been the day he’d been teen awa tae the army. Mary sobbed at the memory but nae tears came tae her eyes, the tears were dried up lang syne. She shivered again but this time nae wi the caal but wi the memory as tae how her bairn hid ended up bein pitten tae the army in the first place. It hid been her fault for sendin him tae the big hoose wi the curtains she’d repaired for the Laird’s wife. Mary commin fae the Heilands as she did hid been weel taught by her aunties how tae sow. She’d ayee managed tae mak an extra sair nott shillin that wye afore her hands hid gotten twisted wi age. That forenicht she sent her laddie up tae the big hoose little thinkin she wiz sendin him tae his destiny. Daavid hid left wi the curtains hoping it wid be the bonny servant deemy that wid answer the back door o the big hoose but wiz tae be disappointed fin it wiz the aal hoosekeeper that answered it. On the wye back hame he’d teen a shortcut throwe the widdies and it wiz there he’d heard the screams. Hurrying towards the sound, in a clearin he’d come across the Laird’s son an anither laddie forcing themsels on a lassie as she lay on the grun screamin for them tae stop. Daavid didna wait but plooed intae the twa lads like a carronade at Waterloo. At first they’d been shocked an back fitted, but soon they’d turned the tables on Daavid for baith o them were weel trained at fisticuffs. Daavid kent there’d be nae wye he could beat this lads fairly so he’d picked up a lump o stick like a crummoch an gave baith o them a good beettlin. He’d cairriet the lassie hame tae his mither in an affa state an she washed the lassie an tended tae her wounds as best she could. Daavid wiz mair than upset because this wiz the bonny servant lassie he’d hoped tae see fin he delivered the curtains tae the big hoose. That nicht the dragoons hid come tae the hoose an teen Daavid an the lassie awa. Her tae an asylum an David tae seven years service in the East India company. The servant lassie hid died in the asylum soon aifter and naebody hid known if she’d died by fair means or foul. Daavid wi nae proof o fit really happened hid been sentenced tae twenty years hard labour or seven years service in the ranks o The Honourable East India Company. He’d chosen the army an ended up dyin on the North West frontier. Mary sobbed as she looked doon at the time worn letter, the only link she noo hid wi her lang lost son. At least the paper and the ink hid came fae the place her bairn hid breathed his last. Mary shivered in the noo freezin room, the last o the fire wiz gone. As the shadas deepened Mary thocht tae hersel she’d licht the last inch o cannle so she could read the letter an await fitiver the future noo hid in store for her. She teen oot the flint ‘n’ fleerish fae her apron pooch for tae licht the cannle but changed her mind. Instead she stood up slowly stiff wi the caal an wupped her threedbare shawl tichter aboot her shooders an made for the door. In the dark shadas o Glen Tanner street she made her wye oot o the toon thinkin tae hersel aa the while as she passed the dimly lit windaes o the folk sittin within maybe laughin as they sat doon tae dine on their simple fare. As she passed one windae she did hear somebody laughin an the fine smell o mutton broth waffted fae the same place as the laughter. Mary made her wye past aa the hooses an headed up the Montcoffer road towards the ruined waasteens o the ancient kirk. She’s find the first o fit she wiz seekin there. By the scam o the full meen she saw the sparse winter branches o the aal aspen tree that grew aside the kirkyard. The aspen is a pagan tree an niver allowed tae growe in a Christian kirkyard. She kneeled afore the pagan tree and asked permission o’t tae tak some fallen branches fae it. Then she crawled roon the tree three times widdershins (anti-clockwise) each time sayin oot loud three names. Aifter she’d peyed her devotions tae the pagan aspen tree she picked up an oxterfae o branches. Thankin the tree Mary turned three times widdershins. Mary’s aunties werena only good wi the needle ‘n’ threed they’d been weel versed in the Black Airts and hid shown Mary some maledictions as well. Mary a deeply religious person hid niver in her life imagined hersel using that knowledge o the Black Airts, until this very day fin the factor hid teen fae her the Holy Bible that hid meant so much tae her.
Next Mary made her wye back the road she’d came an wint tae the wee brigg far baith the living an the deed crossed. She struggled throwe fun bushes that tore at her legs and eventually near drappin reached the burn. She entered the freezin water wi a gasp as it came up tae her hochs and walked ablow the arch o the wee brigg. There wisna ony meenlicht here but she’d nae need o’t. Takin her shawl fae her shooders she bent doon an guddled aboot in the water till she got ten waterworn steens each aboot the size o an aipple. Pittin them intae her shawl she wint back up the bank near in a state o collapse. Her clyse were soakin aweet wi the freezin water but o that she peyed nae heed. On the side o the brigg she handled each o the ten steens in turn an threw yin back tae the water. Placing the nine chosen steens back intae her shawl she tied them up intae the mak dee bag. Pickin up the aspen branches on her wye she made the road hame. It wiz much later noo an hardly a licht showed as she passed the hooses. By the time Mary reached her ain door the bitter caal an the days athoot food were beginin tae tell on her. Exhausted she drapped the steens an the aspen branches tae the grun an thankfully sat on the seat she’d left oors afore.. Mary didna ken foo lang she sat there but wi a start she got tae her feet an staggered tae the shawl and teen oot the nine steens. She layed the steens in front o the fire and there turned each steen tae the widdershins nine times at each turn repeatin three names. Neist she teen the aspen branches an laid them oot ontae the caal fire grate then placed the nine stones on tap. Takin the flint ‘n’ fleerish fae her apron pooch she tried wi freezin hands tae garr it spark. It teen a gye few cracks at it afore the oo started tae smolder and blawin it tae flame she put it aneth the aspen and in nae time the green tinged flames were lickin roon the steens. As the aspen burned she said the names o the Laird, the Laird’s son and the factor an cursed them foriver-and-a-day. She keepit this up as she knelt afront the fire until the green flames wint oot. Aifter a while Mary teen the steens oot fae the fire an put them intae her shawl. Ower the next couple o oors Mary walked aboot the parish an ivery noo an then she’d cast awa een o the steens intae a place it wid niver be found. At each cast she cursed the three names and said “This curse will niver be lifted until the nine steens are githered once mair in one place!” Exhausted an freezin Mary made it hame tae her chair. She thocht tae hersef she micht pray for forgiveness for fit she’d jist done but thinkin hersel beyond redemption she jist sat an shivered wi the letter in her hand. How lang she’d been sittin there fin she felt a hand touch her on the richt shooder she didna ken. She slowly looked up and saw Daavd standin there smiling at her the wye he used tae. Mary stood up wi a gasp an teen her lang lost laddie in her bosie an sobbed oot his name ower an ower again while the saat tears ran doon her aal life-worn cheeks. Fin he spoke he sounded exactly the same “Mither I’ve come tae tak ye tae a far better place, nae mair pain Mam life his been far too cruel tae ye!”
The room seemed fulled wi murmuring shadas an here an there she got the glimpse o fit she thocht wiz faces. Fin she looked at Daavid again the bonny wee servant lassie wiz at his side an Mary teen her intae her bosie ana.. Sittin doon in her exhaustion Mary sat an sobbed fit tae brak yer hert. Daavid kneeld doon in front o his mither huddin her hand. Mary stroked his face an said “I canna come wi ye ma laddie for I’ve sinned against God by the turnin o the steens.” Daavid smiled an cuddled his Mam sayin “Faa div ye think sent me tae ye? Yer forgiven for ye hinna sinned ava. Fit is gan tae happen tae that three men is comin their wye an they’ll nae be dodgin it.”Daavid leaned ower an picked up something fae the floor an handed it tae her. “Here mither it’s yer beloved bible.”
A couple o days later Doctor Webster stood in Mary’s room shakin his heed. He’d already written the cause o death as a mixture o starvation and very low temperatures. Mary sat on her chair wi a bonny smile on her face and a letter in her hand. The doctor teen the letter and read it, unusually for him bein a doctor and used tae seein sichts like this he felt the hot tears rin doon his ain cheeks. At hame he’d a very similar letter tae this yin tellin him o the death o his only child at Bermuda. He’d contracted the fever fae the sojers he wiz treating and hid died. Doctor Webster dichtin his een turned tae see the factor and the undertakers waitin wi the pauper’s coffin. Doctor Webster nearly exploded wi anger an roared “Tak you that abomonation fae oot this hoose an bring tae me the very best coffin ye hiv in stock. This isna a pauper’s funeral! This is tae be the funeral o a devoted mither that died o a broken heart!” He looked doon an murmured “Thirty five years o unimaginable pain quine!” Turnin in anger he said “See tae it she’s layed tae rest wi aa honours and the best stone money can buy as her marker!” He teen one last look at the wee aal wifie shrunken in death but wi a bonny smile on her face an muttered “Though I think she’s awa tae a much better place.”
Sometimes, and rather too often of late, I become convinced that desperation is now the state of modern mankind. It's easy enough to believe that hopelessness is all there is. If you engage with current politics you'll know what I mean. The alternative seems to be to succumb to a life where culture has become commodified and is parcelled out to us in the sort of packages that makes the phrase 'bread and circuses' all too frighteningly real.
The hierarchical pyramid under which we serve (unless of course you are at the top of it, in which case I doubt you'll be reading my rantings) dominates every aspect of our lives. And how do we break free?
Inevitably as my thoughts turn to revolution, I look back to history and seek solace there - but a successful revolution seems as much a fantasy as everything else we are being 'sold'. And of course revolution is not in and of itself and end-game, its a state of being in the eternal flux of life.
I am well aware that I can do nothing to influence the wider world around me. But this does not mean all is lost. The political is in the personal, right?
I'm here to tell you that however dark the days may seem, if you keep alert, you can find something good. Even from the very bowels of the cesspit that is social media, a light arises.
This month, I was struggling for editorial. I didn't have any more to say about the state of the nation - either ours or America. I was feeling somewhere between numb, despondent and unattractively angry. The depths of moral depravity seem infinite. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, George W.Bush, Donald Trump anyone? The mantra of doom for honesty and a world of kind peacefulness. And then I met Pat.
In the course of a two hour conversation I remembered all that is good about being a human. We 'had a news' and if we didn't put the world to rights, at least I came away feeling that I was not alone. There are what Orwell (and others) used to call 'Fellow Travellers' I am pretty sure there's a lot of us out there. It's finding them that's hard. But once you meet one, you get a bit braver about reaching out in the hope there may be others. And reading is a great way to start on the journey.
I ‘found’ Pat Hutchison through social media. McStorytellers via Facebook to be precise. Now I’m very wary of Facebook in particular and Social Media in general. Whenever I give up on it as a site for hope, Brendan Gisby (Mr McStoryteller) says to me that at least in one respect, for those of us at the bottom of the Pyramid, ‘the internet is all we have’ and this reminds me that we cannot turn our back on it if we want to change our world. It is part of our landscape and we have to try and work with it to build the future we want rather than the one we are having forced upon us. it is, after all, a tool. We need to construct it as well as consume it.
I can heartily recommend Pat's story 'The Steens that Turned' (even if you struggle with 'the Doric'). It will take you out of yourself for a while, to a different time and place. And it's been known to make grown men cry. If you read it and weep, you'll have started on a journey towards a world which is better than the one being foisted on you by the profit-mongers.
I am minded of James Leatham, working tirelessly to improve the working hours (and so the freedom) of the print workers – and how they were even more resistant than the owners to his suggestions that they work fewer hours (for the same pay). They were suspicious of what they would lose. They couldn’t see that they had nothing to shake off but their mind-chains. That the most vital commodity any of us have is time. Leatham's review of the ILP 'Capitalist Press' pamphlet is interesting for so many reasons - not least because it's so hard to get hold of that original pamphlet. Even if you can't read it, you can think about that!
One of the reasons we keep plugging on at Gateway - now nearly a year into its new incarnation - is precisely to stand up (in a quiet way) against being 'sold' a version of the world that is constructed by others who do not have anyone but their own best interests at heart. We are not just consumers. We are also creators. And we can build worlds the way we want them to be.
It's a new twist on the 'possible worlds' theory. In fact I think we should start to admit there are many parallel worlds all around us, (mostly vying for our time and money) - and we have some responsibility for making the choice which one we join. For myself at least, I choose to turn my back on the Pyramid of Aspiration in favour of a type of Altruism that places personal responsibility at its core. I'm not trying to sell it to you - but it exists. Inspired by men (and women) I've met through reading my goal is to 'add my light to the sum of light'. I understand that 'words that do not match deeds are unimportant.' I don't mean to be 'in your face' or confrontational. But I'm not going away any time soon. And I'm always on the lookout for 'fellow travellers.'
This month (if you've been paying attention) you'll perhaps be asking yourself why it's so hard to find Public Domain information, and wondering quite why it is that so much 'free access' information seems to be well hidden or only available to those with academic privleges... We are in the business of providing open access to public domain work - because our concern is freedom of information not profit. There are other places and we can recommend that if you’re incensed enough to go looking for your own information rather than being spoon fed by profit driven algorythms.. a great place to look is the Public Domain Review site. For example, here’s a link to something we found about Conan Doyle PDR (Note this link will take you off Gateway. Enjoy your time away but don't forget to come back soon!)
Barrie, Conan Doyle and Buchan.
This month we look at the other half of our Edinburgh Boys, also blighted by their Bestsellers.
J.M.Barrie is best known for – and totally blighted by – Peter Pan. His writing on ‘the boy who wouldn’t grow up’ has permeated all aspects of knowledge about him, and led to all manner of frankly ludicrous claims about his personal life and proclivities. If ever a writer was blighted by a character, never mind a book (and indeed in Barrie’s case a drama) it was Barrie.
It seems that all discussion about Barrie and his work have to be mediated through the prism of Peter Pan. I think this is both unfair and inaccurate.
The seeds of the character of Peter Pan are generally thought to have been found in The Little White Bird, (1902) and of course in Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys – credited jointly as the inspiration for Peter. Barrie wrote: ‘I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. I am sometimes asked who and what Peter is, but that is all he is, the spark I got from you.’
But Barrie’s underlying interest in the psychology of childhood is also seen in his more autobiographical works Sentimental Tommy and its sequel Tommy and Grizel. If you note that Sentimental Tommy was first published in 1895, two years before Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies’, the seeds of a more complex and different story emerge.
The ‘Tommy’ stories challenge the Victorian view of ‘sentimentality’ and juxtapose fantasy with reality in a very interesting way. They also show that Barrie was already well along the path of considering the nature of childhood in general and ‘boys’ in particular before either the Llewelyn Davies boys or Peter Pan the character were ‘born.’
The often dragged out simplistic story which attributes a sort of macabre fascination on the part of Barrie with boys to the fact that his older brother David died in a drowning accident from which his mother never recovered, leaving Barrie like a puppet trying to fill his place – is developed through Tommy and through Peter to become something quite sophisticated. Obviously Barrie suffered some level of childhood trauma. But he was also well aware of and fascinated by the nature of childhood in all its conscience free state. He sets boys up as a kind of noble savage against the restrictions of ‘civilized’ Victorian/Edwardian society. His unique combination of socio-psychology meets socio-political commentary is, I believe, Barrie’s great legacy. Beyond the fiction, in his dramatic works he places his socio-pscyhological lens firmly at the mores of his own society and the class system (with ne’er a boy in sight). The Admirable Crichton, What Every Woman Knows, and even Dear Brutus and Mary Rose all show evidence of this. Barrie was not obsessed with boys and boyhood – but perhaps his audiences were. Childhood was undergoing a reappraisal in Barrie’s time as profound as that of the 1950’s/60s which saw the emergence of the teenager, and the more recent social phenomenon of kidulthood. It seems society is still obsessed with not growing up – and this is hardly a crime to be laid at Barrie’s door. He offers much in the discussion of this field but he is horribly blighted because of his candour. He still suffers under the mug slinging of ‘inappropriateness’ in his relationship with children, but for me, Barrie is only ‘inappropriate’ in the fact that – as he claims in The Admirable Crichton one may look at society and instead suggest that ‘what’s natural is right.’ Despite being knighted, he is not a fully paid up member of the establishment by any means.
For me, the further you delve into Barrie and the further you depart from Peter Pan mania, the more you learn of what a singularly great writer he was. A Well Remembered Voice both as a play and a short story, is incredibly moving and delves into some very uncomfortable places. Even his first foray into fiction Better Dead offers something quite unusual and unique.
Barrie is in the process of being reinvented or ‘claimed’ by modernists as a ‘fantasy’ writer – a modernist before modernism really came into being, but I think this is just another branding exercise and I think Barrie resists such confines. Yes it’s right to free him from the blight of Peter Pan – but not to simply pigeonhole him into another straightjacket. He deserves better. He deserves readers who set aside their prejudices and come to read him where he was, with an understanding of all that he has to say about society. It is time for us, the reader, to grow up in our attitude to J.M.Barrie.
(Sir) Arthur Conan Doyle was as blighted by a character as Barrie. In his case, Sherlock Holmes was the bane of his life, the character and story no reader could get beyond.
There is something else shared by Barrie and Conan Doyle and it is an interest which was broadly prevalent at the fin de siécle and which found increased public interest post First World War. This was spiritualism. In several of Barrie’s stories and plays you find an exploration of otherwise seemingly rational people ‘dealing’ with the supernatural elements. I think this can be reasonably well explained – at least in its latter stages – as a ‘shock’ response to the horrors of the First World War. But Conan Doyle took the baton and charged with it. His interest in Spiritualism had been sparked as early as 1886 but in 1916 he ‘came out’ as a Spiritualist. This rocked a world who had seen in Sherlock Holmes, the father of scientific rationalism as the way to be.
But Conan Doyle felt (and was) eternally blighted by Sherlock Holmes. He created not just a character, but an entire genre and was unable to escape from it, however hard he tried. It is interesting, then, to speculate how far Doyle was aware (or cared) that his reputation as the creator of Sherlock Holmes was damaged by his later adoption of Spiritualism. Was it a determined and conscious effort to free himself from a blight he did not want?
Most, if not all young writers (especially if they need money) dream of achieving greatness through their work – either through a style or a character. But it’s often a case of be careful what you wish for. Many writers discover that once they are ‘discovered’ they are then pigeon-holed and it becomes difficult to impossible to write outside of the box of fame. It is often claimed that writers only have one story and retell it time and again. I think this is unfair. I think that writers generally have a range of areas of interest which they play with time and again – twisting and turning and exploring all sides of the matter in their stories – but this is not the same thing as retelling the same plot endlessly (which is what market-driven publishing demands).
Conan Doyle is a salutatory example (as is John Buchan after him) of a writer who could not escape from his bestseller blight.
Sherlock Holmes first saw the light of day in the story A Study in Scarlet published in the 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual. He next appeared in serial form in The Sign of the Four in 1890. And thence in short story/serial formats almost continuously from 1891-1893 by which time he had fully caught the imagination of the mass market. Trying to kill him off in The Final Problem in 1893 didn’t work and following The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901-1903, Conan Doyle offered more Sherlock Holmes stories in a steady stream from 1903 right through till 1927. Conan Doyle was like a rock star who kept disappearing from live touring only to return once he’d done his ‘studio albums.’ For extended periods he wrote other things – things that he would much rather be remembered by – but it was Sherlock Holmes who brought home the bacon. It is also important to note that, as with other of our Edinburgh Boys, the money to be made was primarily in serial fiction. Novels were spawned out of this but the ‘siller’ as S.R.Crockett called it, was in the serialisation. Barrie of course broke this mould with his dramatic works, but the serial form was lucrative for our ‘boys’ from the 188o’s onwards. Stevenson was less affected by this form and of course Scott died before it came into its own.
To get a truer picture of Conan Doyle it’s worth reading some of his lesser known works – The Lost World, The White Company and The Crime of the Congo are just three which stand out – but there are plenty more to choose from. Whereas for ‘success’ it seems that an ability to create variations of the same thing infinitely is what gets one noticed, for me, it is in the breadth of skill that we should praise writers for – and if you want to relieve our Edinburgh Boys from the blight of the bestseller, the onus is on you to read around their other work. I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Last but not least this month, we come to John Buchan. His status as Edinburgh Boy is perhaps more tenuous than the others, given that he was not educated at Edinburgh University, but came to it as Rector in later life (once already successful.) However, like Conan Doyle before him, Buchan was blighted by his bestseller – The Thirty Nine Steps (1915) and the character it spawned Richard Hannay. Like Conan Doyle, Buchan produced a number of Hannay Novels –including Greenmantle, (1916), Mr Standfast (1919) The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep (1936). Hannay, to my mind, stands as a kind of precursor of James Bond but his creation had at least as much to do with Buchan’s status as foremost propaganda writer during the first world war as anything else.
Buchan was much more than a writer of fiction though. He was a lawyer, historian, politician and he wrote in all of these fields. Like Conan Doyle, Hannay was a foil who became a blight. Be careful what you wish for strikes again. It is well worth remembering that the young Buchan experimented (not entirely successfully) with historical fiction at a time when it was dominated by S.R.Crockett. A comparison of the Covenanting novels of Buchan and Crockett showed how much Buchan had to learn in the art of writing historical fiction in the 1890s. He was, of course, just a young man then - and when his ‘chance’ came he took it. He was hugely successful in the thriller/spy genre but it was certainly not his first love, nor his favourite topic to write about. He was as blighted by the rest.
In conclusion, we should consider who is responsible for the continuing blight? The fact is that with all our Edinburgh boys, the blight continues only as long as readers act like sheep and succumb to the marketing hype. If readers develop a habit of reading around the bestsellers they can lift the curse. We do not need to ask if you believe in fairies – but simply to suggest that if you believe in writers you do them the best service you can by reading their work in its entirety, not being too captivated by the ‘bestseller’ claims. Because as we have seen in this series of posts, none of the writers would self-define by their bestsellers and all of them have a lot more to offer than first meets the eye. Happy reading.
Next month I will consider the role of memorials in the lives of our Edinburgh Boys.
Was Dickens what is called a Gentleman?
By Way of Preface
The question with which this page is headed is more or less answered, incidentally, in the body of the essay. Accepting the etymology of the word ‘Gentleman,’ there can be no safer definition of it than that which is usually given last, though that, as we shall see, is not adequate. The first dictionary I open gives: ‘A man that is well born; one that is of good family; one that bears arms, but has no title’; and last and best of all, ‘One of gentle or refined manners.’ None of these definitions covers the ground. Men who have been cretins physically and blackguards morally have been both ‘well born’ and ‘of good family.’ There were Richard Crookback, the Dauphin who gave up Joan of Arc, and John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough.
The only safe ground is stated by Shakespeare when he says of Brutus, ‘His life was gentle.’ He was a giver, not a taker. He worked for his livelihood, and did not take money from the poor by force of arm, either legal or lethal. John Milton’s idea of a gentleman was to
Defend the poor and desolate,
And rescue from the hands
Of wicked men the low estate
Of him that help demands.
And Dickens said: ‘I have systematically tried to turn fiction to the good account of showing the preventable wretchedness and misery in which the masses of the people dwell.’
That is a better title to gentlehood than ‘gentle and refined manners,’ which may be, and often are, quite compatible with the robbery of the poor and the intensification of their misery. One of the gentlest men I have known was an owner of rack-rented slum property. Dickens’s championship of the poor did not help him. It was not a stunt. And although Queen Victoria sent him her book as from ‘The Least to the Greatest of Authors,’ there were others besides Macaulay who thought they decried Dickens’s Humanity when they called it Socialism.
The Dual Purpose of the Dickens Novels
I have just been asked if I proposed to attend a lecture by a professor of belles lettres on ‘The Art of Charles Dickens.’ Those in the confidence of the lecturer explained to me that it was ‘the art of Dickens, not his teaching,’ with which the lecturer proposed to deal.
Now, I am very far from being uninterested in the art of Dickens, even as so delimited and narrowed. I should, indeed, say that I was interested in the craft of literary composition in all its minutiae beyond even most authors. I have been writing myself, and considering the writing of others, too long and too practically to be indifferent to ‘the form of sound words.’ As regards Dickens, I have had for many years a facsimile copy of the manuscript of his ‘Christmas Carol,’ which I sometimes show to young people as an example of how Dickens actually wrote English with his very hand. He was a very deliberate artist with as little as possible of the hasty improviser about his methods. His printed works shows that. His manuscript shows it. We know it from his correspondence. As a reporter he could and did write descriptive journalese very rapidly, and transcribed many columns of short-hand notes in coach journeys, in spite of the bad light, the jolting, and the distractions caused by his fellow passengers. But his early career as a reporter is not reflected in the mechanism of his style. There is no easy journalistic writing in his novels. In its animation and concentration, his style is, after that of Thomas Carlyle, the most individual and instantly recognisable of any prose in the language. He got the last scintilla of imaginative suggestion out of all situations, characters, appearances, and incidents.
A Matter that Matters
With these features I shall deal in detail later on. But before proceeding further I wish to say that to divorce Dickens’s style from the varying message by which it was always inspired and informed, to confine one’s attention to his manner and discount his matter, is as if we admired a carpenter’s dexterity in throwing off shavings or driving nails, with no thought of what he was actually engaged in making.
There is a dull colourlessness of character which chooses neither good nor evil, neither truth nor error, but does not choose at all. It drifts, and is swept up by one current of movement after another, no matter how mutually exclusive and contradictory these tendencies may be, voting Tory at one election and Liberal or Labour at the next, according to what may appear to be the prevailing opinion in the constituency at the moment. There is a gaping gawkiness, by no means confined to yokels, which sits astonished at all manifestation of ability, while paying no noticeable heed to its value, if any – positive, comparative, or superlative. This cataleptic passivity has no standards of judgment, because it is without sincerity. On all settled questions there was a right and a wrong even before they were settled. But they never would have been settled if the men who settled them, instead of being men of strong and declared convictions, had been careless Gallios who could not make up their minds one way or the other on the moral merits. The ability to define, distinguish, and decide is the basis of all capacity whatever. The absence of it is a defect. In my hotly propagandist days, working from Manchester as a centre, I used to have the curiosity to ask what sort of speaker so-and-so was– meaning someone whom I frequently preceded or followed, but whom I had never heard. ‘A champion speaker!’ was, in the nineties, the most customary formula, with such indeterminate variants as ‘fine,’ ‘At,’ or ‘grand.’ Once in a while you met a person who had the moral sincerity to be dissatisfied with the descriptive adjectives that did not describe. Such an one would tell you that the object of your inquiry was ‘an analytical speaker,’ or ‘witty,’ or ‘emotional and powerful,’ or ‘homely and picturesque,’ or ‘very fond of statistics,’ or – best of all – he would give specific points or lines of argument or illustration used by the speaker. This was the descriptive method of persons interested in both the matter and the manner, and all the more interested in the one because interested in the other.
‘What are you reading my lord?’ asks Ophelia. ‘Words, ‘ answers Hamlet. That is intended for sarcasm: but to those for whom style is the great, almost the only, thing the sarcasm in its full impact must be lots. Ophelia naturally adds: ‘But I mean the matter?’ To Ophelia the matter seemed to be a matter that supremely mattered. And there we shall leave the matter for the present.
We read of successful novelists who dictate to a stenographer, the lady (it is usually a lady) taking down off the hand words in shorthand and then transcribing the notes into typescript. Making all due allowance for the superior readiness of the modern mind, as also for the extent to which practice in dictation perhaps makes for tense accuracy, it is difficult to believe that anything like the best results can be achieved by dictation.
This facsimile of the MS of the ‘Christmas Carole’ shows that Dickens made many changes in his phrasing. The interlineations, substitutions, and erasures are carefully and thoroughly made, and all the alterations are improvements. Thus the first chapter had been headed ‘Old Marley’s Ghost’; but the ‘Old’ is struck out. The small improvement is undoubted. Marley’s partner is describes as ‘old Scrooge.’ They had both been old men; but apart from the fact that too much use of the word ‘old’ was to be deprecated, the ghost was not old. Marley had just died, so that his ghost would really be a new ghost. Then brevity is good in itself – ‘the soul of wit,’ said Pope; while Byron said, ‘brevity is good, whether you are or are not understood.’
Now, all these erasures and interlineations and substitutions represent not only second, but third or fourth thoughts. On the evidence of his highly-wrought manuscript, Dickens was the last man who could or would have cared to dictate to an amanuensis. Dictation may be good enough for the easy requirements or mere formulas of commercial correspondence; but literature is made of distilled words, and dictation and distillation are not very near relations. It was a defect of the old-fashioned typewriter that the writing was not visible to the typist at work; and the desirability of seeing one’s words while composing is so evident that inability to see them is one of the great drawbacks of dictating. The presence of a second party, too, prevents one from feeling alone with the idea and turning it over in one’s mind at leisure, and without the awkwardness involved in keeping the stenographer waiting. H.G.Wells tells of a novelist whose typist used to show by a scarce perceptible shrug and hesitation when she disapproved of what was dictated to her. Wells much have realised this from his own experience. Even the signs of approval from an amanuensis would be detraction from the intense, the more than intimate privacy and brooding, the hatching slowness, the tentative, tortuous, oft-abandoned attempts, with recastings of phrase, sentence and paragraph, that go to the best writing.
We could not conceive of Shakespeare dictating. Stevenson and Gibbon wrote passages and chapters over and over again, and improved them, we may be sure, at each re-writing
The Hasty Improver.
Scott and Dumas would probably represent the opposite method of composition – the method of hasty improvisation. Scott’s facility was so great that, at a time when he was suffering from prolonged and acute neuralgia, he was nevertheless able to dictate to his secretary, Willie Laidlaw, the whole of the powerful tale ‘The Bride of Lammermuir,’ with its fine and laughable portrayal of the shifts of Caleb Balderstone to cover the nakedness of the land at Ravenswood. Often Scott’s enunciation would be broken by an irrepressible groan; the devoted Laidlaw shed tears of sympathy while he wrote or waited; and when the finished story was put into its author’s hands it was almost as a new book to him.
Dumas, again, was always writing against time, the printer’s messenger coming and taking away instalments of ‘copy,’ for which he sometimes had to wait. These instalments, moreover, would often be comparatively small; just enough to keep the compositors going and complete the sheet of ‘eights’ or ‘sixteens’ immediately in hand.
Dumas, indeed, was so much the improver, bent on filling the sheets, that he is said to have been the first to adopt the practice of making every sentence a paragraph – a device which fills a sheet with many blanks, but certainly gets you down the page.
Scott also, like Arnold Bennett today, had to do his daily stent. But even at his worst, Scott wrote from a mind so full as well as so fine and big that there is an appearance of inevitableness about his language and the development of his story such as do not belong to Dumas. The Frenchman’s heroes come out for adventures, and they have them in endless chain; but often one has the feeling that the story might take any one of a hundred courses; that Dumas does not in the least know what is to come next; that anything might have happened as readily as the thing that does happen.
In Arnold Bennett, it must be confessed, in spite of his oft-quoted habit of matter-of-fact word-stringing, it is difficult to see that waiting for inspiration, or taking longer time over his work, would have made much difference. In his newspaper articles he is careless as to whether he finds a synonym or not, and works the same noun or adjective as hard as he would in ordinary slack conversation. Even this is better than stilted writing; but good writing has the charm of variety in the choice of synonyms, in addition to all its other charms.
The Purpose, always the Purpose.
But while Dickens was all the time an artist, his artistry is only an incidental in the value of his work. The merely literary critic, the belles lettristic commentator, professional or other, is almost from the nature of the case, not concerned about the essentials of Dickens’s art as a whole. Surely to discern the purpose as well to enjoy the art; to accept the teaching with what modifications may be necessary to our own standpoint, is to get vastly more out of these creations than is possible to the non-sociological reader. To read for the art’s sake, to regard the man of fiction as a complete identity – what Whitman calls ‘a simple, separate person’ without regard to the potent social circumstances which shape him, and which he ought to help to shape in turn, is to ignore the better part of even the ‘art’ that has created him. There are no simple, separate persons: we are all members of one another.
There are millions of readers, however, who are so little impressed with an author’s purpose that they are not conscious of it. One has met Conservatives who were very much surprised to learn that Dickens was hotly Radical, and as such the first editor of the Daily News, which began as a Radical newspaper and has continued to be so during the whole course of its fourscore years’ existence.
Not to recognise that Dickens was, in all he wrote, distinctly and strongly Socialistic in tendency is sheer mental blindness. It is quite true that charity, benevolence, and the Christmassy feeling are not politics – are not anything like so good as old age pensions, the ‘dole’ or even a humane Poor Law; but the humanity Dickens loved to propound had to come as preparation of the individual for these legislative changes. With most people the enlightened humanity has still to come.
Let us see, without too much of pedestrian summarising, something of what Charles Dickens did accomplish with those dual purposes always before him of writing a great story and at the same time aiming at the redress of social scandals.
Even in his early ‘Sketches by Boz,’ Dickens showed himself as the High Priest of Humanism in Fiction. These sketches were actual pictures of London life, in which the seamstress and the poor street-singer arouse the pity of the young journalist, while the gas-bag of the public-house parlour – that enemy of real reform – equally comes in for realistic treatment. The very name of Boz suggests the source of Dickens’s inspiration. He admired so much the writings of Oliver Goldsmith – a social reformer in all he wrote – and the name of Moses, the son of the good Vicar of Wakefield, was so often on his lips, that his younger brother called him Boz as a child’s attempt at the name. And just as the ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ was the first novel – indeed the first book of any kind – that advocated prison reform and a lightening of the penal code, so in the ‘Pickwick Papers’ the demoralising life of the debtor’s prison was depicted in striking colours derived from the novelist’s own experience while his father was an inmate of the Marshalsea prison.
His own experience, gained in the blacking factory where he spent a miserable time with several London guttersnipes, is not less vividly reflected in ‘Oliver Twist,’ with its sketches of the young criminals Charley Bates and the Artful Dodger as trained by old Fagin the Jew. In the brutality and unhappiness of Bill Sikes and Nancy he shows the real misery of the crook’s life and its inevitable tragic end. Bumbledom, also, is so presented here that, on the whole, it can scarcely be said to have survived it, and the inmates of workhouses are now comparatively pampered. Similarly, the cruel magistrates of Dickens’s day, of whom he had not only the special knowledge derived from his experience as a reporter in the courts, but had studied afterwards in the true portrait of Justice Fang and in that alone; for the city stipendiary of today is wonderfully understanding and clement, and regularly acts as a buffer between the public and an officious police force, in which the promotion of individuals has a tendency to depend upon the number of convictions secured.
The shabby genteel people of ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ the warm-heartedness and open-handedness of ‘show folk,’ the mockery of education as carried on in places of the Dotheboys Hall type, the brainlessness of the aristocracy as exemplified in Lord Verisopht, and its occasional turpitude as in Sir Mulberry Hawk, are further indications of Dickens’s strong class feeling and the steadiness of his humanistic purpose.
‘Martin Chuzzlewhit,’ hits off Yankee vulgarity and embalms to immortality Mrs Gamp, the private-enterprise nurse, with her snuff-taking and tippling irresponsibility, and Pecksniff the pharisaicial fraud.
‘Domby and Son’ reproves the pride of wealth with unforgettable and pathetic realism. That it contains such characters as Mrs Pipchin and poor little Paul gilds the philosophic pill; but it seems necessary to point out that the pill is there, since its presence is not always observed apparently. I have known people who were ardent admirers of Dickens, yet continued to believe in the institutions and failings he satirised.
‘Bleak House’ illustrates the folly of those who busy themselves with foreign missions while neglecting domestic concerns. Among much else, it shows how wealth may be punished by the consequences of the poverty itself has made, epidemic disease from the hovel of Tom-All-Alone invading the homes of the wealthy. It reveals the mischief done by the law’s delay in the case of Arthur Jarndyce and poor Miss Flite; and it fastens the responsibility for the miserable life and premature death of Poor Jo upon society as a whole.
While Dickens’s social instinct was sound, his specific approach to a given problem was not always unerring. ‘Hard Times,’ based upon his experience of a strike in Preston, is wrong as to the place and value it accords to trade unionism, and unjust to trade union leaders as personified in Slackbridge the agitator. Stephen Blackpool is, say what Dickens will, an abetter of blacklegging. No workman can afford rightly to stand off from the union of his calling on the plea that he does not approve of its every act. Broadly, trades unionism has improved the status of all workers, and the benefits it has won cannot rightly be enjoyed while the agency itself is belittled and denied. But the characters of Gradgrind the man of facts, and Bounderby the bully of humility , with his boasting of how ‘I was brought up in the gutter, sir,’ are immortal; their names have become epithet; and the influence of the satire is a long way from being spent because unnecessary. There are still public men who are not ashamed to tell that their parents sent them to work at ten and twelve years of age.
‘Little Dorrit’ exposes the methods of the Barnacles and the Cirumlocution Office, evidently not in vain; for the Civil Service is now prompt and efficient, and is open to entrants by examination. The character of the financier Merdle, who makes such wholesale shipwreck of other people’s fortunes and his own, shows that Dickens realised a very long time ago the true inwardness of the methods of the class of Hooleys, Jabez Balrours, and Whittaker Wrights, who now more than ever prey upon the cupidity of the large class that seeks to secure something for nothing.
Was Dickens a ‘Gentleman?’
But it matters not to which of the tales we turn. The social purpose is so obvious that critics who resent Dickens’s Humanist tendency long since discovered, first, that he had never portrayed a gentleman, and then that he was not a gentleman himself.
It depends upon the definition. Etymologically the word means a man who is gentle, in speech, manner and action. ‘His life was gentle,’ says Mark Anthony of Brutus, in Shakespeare’s panegyric.
If to be a gentleman means to be a useless person, one who has ‘never soiled his hand with trade,’ then Dickens had very obviously nothing but contempt for that character. This he shows again and again. It is the whole motif of the powerful tale ‘Great Expectations,’ in which the nominal hero, Pip, is corrupted from the very first hint of his great expectations, and passes from one failure to another till his expectations come to an end and he enters upon a career of self-supporting effort. The most loveable figure of the book is the honest blacksmith Joe Gargery, whose forbearance and kindness are inexhaustible, and whose good nature is not mere lumpish inertia, but has its basis of reason as stated by him when he points out that his own mother had suffered so much at the hands of a brutal husband that he is, as he says, ‘dead afeerd of going wrong in the way of not doing what’s right by a woman. I’d fur rather of the two go wrong the tother way and be a little ill-conwenienced myself.’ His wife is one of the great shrews of imaginative literature; but he, the powerful smith, has reasoned out his philosophy of forbearance as being the line of wisdom, even when Mrs Joe takes a handful of whiskers in one of her rampages.
The Sir Leicester Deadlock of ‘Bleak House’ is the essence of pompous futility, and the character of the conventional ‘gentleman,’ lightly but significantly touched in Sir Leicester, has all the t’s crossed and all the I’s dotted in the full-length figure of Podsnap in ‘Our Mutual Friend.’
It is the manifest intention of this great creator of character in fiction that we should admire most the minor useful and kind people in his stories – Mark Tapley the optimist servant rather than Martin Chuzzlewit the selfish young master; Sam Weller, with his sense and fun, rather than the conventional and somewhat footling Pickwick.
There is no more moving or graphic view of the causes that led to the French Revolution than the series of vignettes in ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ When the cinema producer wishes to show what the Bastille did to its prisoners, how the marquis’s coach ran down the poor in the streets, and how, at the breaking of a wine-cask, the starving poor chewed the very staves, after they had lapped up all they could of the escaping liquor, the cinema producer turns, not to Mignet, or Michelet, or even to Carlyle, but to Dickens.
A Crusade within a Crusade.
Each novel is a crusade, but there are even crusades within the crusades, as where in ‘Great Expectations’ Dickens pours scorn upon the severity of a penal code which would hang a man who has lived down his past because he dared to come back, a man of property, from the penal settlement to which he has been exiled. Dickens was immensely concerned about the housing of the people, about sanitation, education, the reform of the judicial procedure, the abolition of executions in public, the lightening of the penal code, the improvement of the conditions of servile labour, the improvement of prisons, the adjustment of copyright, and the abolition of American slavery, the blighting influence of which in the Southern States he powerfully described both in his private correspondence and his published writings.
To emphasise the social and political aims of Dickens is the less superfluous because a race of novelists has arisen which discounts ‘missions’ and ‘messages’ and regards the novelist simply as the purveyor of entertaining pot-boilers. This is a departure from the whole motive of the novel as originally conceived and as carried out in practice by the masters of the art. From Cervantes down by way of Fielding, Smollett, Swift and Goldsmith, to Dickens, the Brontes, Mrs Beecher Stowe, Charles Reade, Mrs Gaskell, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, George Eliot, Bulwer Lytton, George MacDonald, Sir Walter Besant, H.G.Wells, and Biasco Ibanez, the outstanding writers of prose fiction have all been crusaders, more or less pronounced and declared.
One has nothing to say against the mere entertainers. That they are content to forego one-half of the raison d’être of their art, to fight with a single broadside, is their affair and the affair of their readers. Even Shakespeare and Scott are supreme historical expositors, of whom many a student can say, as the Duke of Marlborough did, that they owe more of their knowledge of, and interest in, history to the reading of Shakespeare’s plays and Scott’s novels than to direct study of the professed historians.
Types that are Real Characters.
Nobody can say that Squire Western is a less lifelike character because historians appropriately choose him as the type (as he was intended to be) of the rough, ignorant, fox-hunting squire of two centuries. The art of Tobias Smollett is not lessened by its true portraiture of the doddering Duke of Newcastle, long Prime Minister of Britain, or the figures of Commodore Trunnion and Bo’sun Pipes as drawn by the same satirical ex-navy surgeon. Bulwer Lytton’s admittedly best fiction, ‘My Novel,’ gains its merits from its didactic purpose as a view of the ‘Varieties of English Life,’ as its subtitle declares it to be. The varieties are types, not merely people to whom things happen – not merely ‘the sweepings of a Pentonville omnibus,’ as Ruskin unflatteringly declared casual collections of ordinary people to be. All this is no mere gratuitous arrogance. In the increasing complexity and difficulty of life, there is so much necessary informative and educative reading to be done that one grudges the time wasted on books that are merely entertaining, since it is possible to have better entertainment along with the serious teaching, as the writings of Charles Dickens abundantly show. An ignorant and frivolous democracy is at its worst when international danger on an unprecedented scale, and at its best a sad drag upon sound social progress. It is possible to go to the public and circulating libraries for ‘best sellers’ during a whole lifetime, and yet be as ignorant as dirt on most of the things that really matter.
The Dickens Spirit Not Out of Date.
If Dickens can draw types that afford us unique enjoyment, it is a pure extra to the crusading. The crusading itself is not at all out of date – very far from that. There are still people who live idly upon great expectations and unearned incomes. The law still has its delays. Financiers still swindle the public. Honest industry is still despised. The law still musters the corporate force of society to break butterflies on the wheel, and to make the lives of those already miserable more miserable still. People still worship pedigrees and swell with family pride, the pride being always in inverse ratio to the achievements of the ancestry. Dickens was up against the established order at every turn; and it is a tribute to the efficacy of his assault that mere ornamental persons, and not much of that, should find that they cannot read him and that he was not a gentleman.
PART TWO WILL BE AVAILABLE IN VOLUME 1 NUMBER 11 – NOVEMBER 2016
The Capitalist Press (originally published in The Gateway –1920)
[This is a review of a pamphlet I’ve been trying to track down for a year now – ed]
There is a story of an innocent man who boasted his impartiality, saying ‘The Daily Mail comes to the house in the morning. I take home the Evening News at night. We get the Weekly Despatch and the Sunday Pictorial on Sundays, and my daughter takes in the Daily Mirror. So that we hear all sides at our house.
If this poor man should read ‘The Capitalist Press’ (I.L.P. Information Committee, 5 York Buildings, London WC2, 2d) he will find that all his ‘sides’ emanate from the same Harmsworth Group of journalists and business managers. This very useful pamphlet shows what the newspaper press is (an agency for ‘the preservation of capitalist supremacy’): who owns each paper, who directs policy, and what this means to the nation in practice.
Thus the Western Mail opposes the findings of the Sankey Commission and systematically denounces the nationalization of the mines; and it transpires, as is here pointed out, that the paper is controlled by Lord Rhondda, and other colliery owners, one of whom stated in court, under cross-examination, that ‘Lord Rhondda was largely interested in coal mines, and is getting control of the Western Mail… he would have an opportunity of advocating the non-nationalization of the coal mines… He was to use his own control for his own benefit… and that control was looked upon as a matter of great financial importance… great commercial value.’
But as a newspaper director Lord Rhondda was not at all singular. All the directors here listed are directors of many other companies. That the capitalist press should denounce collective control of what should be public undertakings is no more than natural when we find the owners and controllers of that press figuring as directors, also, of concerns whose dividends would be socialised if the public interest were considered. Thus William May, one of the directors of the London Daily Express, is also a director of the Reading Electrical Supply Co. (chairman), the South Metropolian Electric Light and Power Co; the West Kent Electrical Co, and the Electrical Times Co. Sir E.A.Goulding, M.P, another member of the Express board, is also a director of two electrical companies, a gas company, a mining company, and five other companies, all of whose interests are up against the public advantage.
But I am not to say that there is not here and there a disinterested newspaper proprietor whose views are reflected in the paper he controls. This pamphlet shows that 234,050 shares of the Daily News are held by members of the Cadbury family. But the eldest of the Cadburys, George is, or used to be, a member of the Independent Labour Party, and the other day he wrote in the Daily News explaining that he was 81, had been for sixty years a supporter of the Liberal Party, ‘but during the last few years my sympathies have been with the best aspirations of Labour.’ His bona fide sympathies were proved by the fact that he founded the Garden Village of Bournville, which he handed over to a guild of the villagers to manage as seemed best to them. What is fully as much to the point, his paper supports all Collectivist tendencies and Labour aspirations and movements.
I have tried for some time to get hold of the original pamphlet ‘The Capitalist Press’ and after months have sourced it – but cannot actually read it. Though a public domain document it is in library/copyright ‘prison’ which seems ironic for a Socialist publication in this day and age when the more we know about the history of Socialism the better. If you are able to visit London School of Economics Library you can read it – the following links are appropriate. It’s a case of hidden in not too plain sight. It’s very frustrating not to be able to access such information directly online and perhaps serves to illustrate why at Gateway, we are doing all we can to bring ‘lost’ public domain work back into free access for all.
For the collection of the ILP papers:
And for details of the 1923 version of the pamphlet link HERE
The rest, I’m afraid, is up to you the interested reader. If anyone manages to source a copy of this pamphlet, we’d be happy to reprint it at Gateway. Of course, I know, it’s a lot easier just to buy some trivia from Amazon with one click, isn’t it? Now think for a minute why that might be? Could it be something to do with the Capitalist press?
To find past articles please use monthly archives.