Bill curates: Charles Dickens and Australia

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

I’m such a fan of Monday Musings – I guess we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t all enjoy talking about books, and writing, and authors, and translators, and publishers – that all the posts that jump out at me, seem to be MMs. From Sept 2010 Sue discusses the Australianness of an author who was never in Australia. As Hannah Gwendoline D’Orsay Tennyson Bulwer [Last Name] wrote in Comments “I had no idea Dickens had such a connection with Australia.”

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My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Charles Dickens and Australia

Charles Dickens, c1860
Dickens, c. 1860 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Here’s something completely different for my Monday musings! Not an Australian author, not even a foreign born author who came to Australia (though, being the great traveller he was, he did consider a lecture tour), but Charles Dickens does have a couple of interesting “connections” with Australia. These connections are supported by the existence of some letters written by him at the National Library of Australia.

On convicts and migration in general

Transportation of convicts to Australia – actual, implied or threatened – features in several of his novels. These include John Edmunds in Pickwick Papers (1836-37), the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), Mr Squeers in NicholasNickleby (1838-39), Alice Marwood in Dombey and Son (1846-48), and Magwitch (probably the most famous of all) in Great expectations (1861)not to mention Jenny Wren who threatens her father with transportation in Our mutual friend (1864-65). Dickens apparently learnt quite a lot about convict life, and particularly the penal settlement on Norfolk Island, from his friend Alexander Maconochie (to whom I refer in my review of Price Warung’s Tales of the early days).

Clearly, it was this knowledge which inspired the letter he wrote to the 2nd Marquess of Normanby (George Augustus Constantine Phipps), who was Secretary of State for the Home Office . He suggests

a strong and vivid description of the terrors of Norfolk Island and such-like-places, told in a homely narrative with a great appearance of truth and reality, and circulated in some very cheap and easy form (if with the direct authority of the Government, so much the better) would have a very powerful effect on the minds of those badly disposed … I would have it on the pillow of every prisoner in England. (3 July 1840, Original in the National Library of Australia, Ms 6809)

He offers to write this narrative, gratis. As far as I know, although Dickens and the Marquess were friends, nothing ever came of this offer.

While Dickens deplored the treatment of convicts in the penal settlements, he also saw Australia as a land of opportunity. The transported Magwitch, as we know, made his fortune in Australia. Mr Micawber, debt-ridden at the end of David Copperfield, emigrates to Australia and becomes a sheepfarmer and magistrate. But, perhaps the strongest evidence of Dickens’ belief in Australia as a place where people could get ahead, is the emigation of his sons.

On his sons

Two of Dickens’ sons – Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens* (nicknamed Plorn) – emigrated to Australia, both with their father’s encouragement.

Alfred (1845-1912) migrated to Australia in 1865. He worked on several stations/properties in Victoria and New South Wales and as a stock and station agent, before partnering with his brother in their own stock and station agency, EBL Dickens and Partners. He died in the United States in 1912, having left Australia on a lecture tour in 1910. Dickens’  youngest son, Edward (1852-1902), went to Australia in 1869. He also worked on stations before opening the stock and station agency with his brother. He later worked as a civil servant and represented Wilcannia in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1889-94, but he died, debt-ridden, in 1902 at Moree. Australia did not quite turn out to be the land of opportunity for these two that Dickens had hoped, but fortunately he was not around to see it!

A couple of Dickens’ letters to his sons are held at the National Library of Australia. One was written in 1868, not long before Plorn left England, and includes some fatherly advice:

Never take a mean advantage of anyone in any transaction, and never be hard on people who are in your power …

The more we are in earnest as to feeling religion, the less we are disposed to hold forth on it. (26? September 1868, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 2563)

One does rather wish that Dickens had taken his own advice regarding not being “hard on people who are in your power” in his treatment of his poor wife Catherine.

Eighteen days before he died in 1870, he wrote this to Alfred:

I am doubtful whether Plorn is taking to Australia. Can you find out his real mind? I note that he always writes as if his present life were the be-all and end-all of his emigration and as if I had no idea of you two becoming proprietors and aspiring to the first positions in the colony without casting off the old connexion (1870, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 6420).

These are just two of the many letters that he wrote to (and about) his sons in Australia. More can be found in published editions of his letters. I have chosen these particular ones purely because we have them here in Canberra. It’s rather a treat to be able to see Dickens’ hand so far away from his home.

Do you enjoy close literary encounters of the handwritten kind?

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What an interesting choice of Bill’s but I am glad to be reminded of this post as I have been wanting to read more of Dickens’ journalistic writings. Whether I will is another thing but, you never know.

Are you a Dickens fan?

Margaret Mendelawitz, Charles Dickens’ Australia. Book 1, Convict stories

Charles Dickens' Australia, Book 1

Book cover (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

So true may fiction be in the hands of a genius
(from “Convict in the gold region”, by Richard Horne)

Richard Horne, in his article “Convicts from the gold region”, describes a scene from Don Quixote in which Quixote meets and sets free some convicts by driving away their guards, only to have his generosity (which included delivering them “a noble speech”) met by ridicule and “a volley of stones”. Horne suggests that the convicts he met would do “the same thing to any eccentric philanthropist in a broad-brimmed hat who should set them free and make them an address on liberty and humanity”. An interesting analogy to draw and one, I might add, that he doesn’t test, but I did like the way he used it to see the truth in fiction!

Anyhow, I have now read Book 1 in this fascinating set of books from the Sydney University Press, and it pretty well does what Mendelawitz says in her introduction. That is, it provides a first-hand, informative and entertaining insight into mid-19th century Australia – in this case, relating to the role of convicts in that society. The focus is on social conditions and social justice but there’s no heavy-handed proselytising. Dickens’ aim was to create a magazine that would be “cheerful, useful and always welcome” but that would also “assist the reader’s judgement in his observation of men”. Badness and wrongdoing aren’t glossed over but, wherever possible, mitigating circumstances are also provided.

There are 15 articles in the book, written by 9 different authors, some in collaboration. The last 6 are written by Australian-born barrister, journalist, novelist John Lang and are short case studies of individual convicts, including those who were unjustly (or, at least, unfairly) transported, those who deserved what they got but made good, and those who couldn’t give up their criminal ways. Representing this last group are the convicts described in “Three celebrities”. Fox, Pitt and Burke were three thieves who were “transported under the names of the three most celebrated orators of their time”. For whatever reason, they did not knuckle down to honest work in the colony, but instead escaped and operated as bushrangers. Even in their story, though, a positive is given: by the time they were captured they had set up a well-stocked farm with an abode that “was in the neatest order” and land that “was very well-tilled”. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the rather melodramatic tale of star-crossed love and a stolen horse resulting in the transportation of young “Kate Crawford”. Noticed by Mrs Macquarie, the wife of Governor Macquarie, and placed in the home of the chief constable in Parramatta, she was pardoned within three years and (eventually) died a very wealthy woman. These 6 stories are told with a light touch and in a conversational tone as tales relayed by a woman who knew the convicts in question.

A few of the articles are set in – or tell of – the Norfolk Island penal colony, a colony I have written about before in reviews of Jessica Anderson‘s The commandant and Price Warung‘s Tales of the early days. Both of those were written after the events and people they describe, and it is reassuring to our search for the “truth” that the articles here basically confirm the worst and best of the colony as conveyed by Anderson and Warung in their fictional pieces.

The centrepiece of this volume though is the story of William Henry Barber, who was transported to Norfolk Island in 1844. The story, told over two articles “Transported for life [Part One]” and “[Part Two]”, chronicles his imprisonment, trial and conviction for a crime he claims he did not commit,  his transportation to Norfolk Island (including details of the long boat journey) and subsequent removal  to Van Dieman’s Land from where he was, in 1847, released. Not long after, he received a free pardon with acknowledgement of his innocence. The articles are told first person but in fact were written by journalist and novelist William Moy Thomas. The Notes on Contributors suggest that the articles were based on the account Barber wrote in 1853 of his experiences, an account which is known to have been in Dickens’ library. The aim, as stated at the beginning of the first part, was to show “what transportation, at the present time, really is”.

In my overview of this set I wondered whether Dickens’ tight control over style would result in the articles being somewhat formulaic but I’m pleased to say that they aren’t. While the tone is overall more light than heavy and the content informative with a light persuasive edge, the style does vary. Some are factual chronicles of a life or situation while others have a more literary bent, some use dialog while others comprise descriptive prose, some are a little more obviously didactic while others simply present the situation for the reader to draw conclusions. The message, though, is always there, whether stated or not, and it is essentially this:

It is no miracle that has been here performed; men bred to crime in England by the ignorance and filth we cherish, are bred out of crime again in Norfolk Island, by a little teaching and a little human care. (from “Norfolk Island”, by Irwin and Henry Morley).

I must add, in the services of “truth”, that Norfolk Island had a mixed history regarding treatment of convicts but there was a short period, under Alexander Maconochie, when rehabilitation was taken seriously.

To conclude I can’t resist a quote from pickpocket Barrington in another of John Lang’s case studies, “An illustrious British exile”:

There was a time when ladies boasted of having been robbed by Barrington. Many whom I never robbed gave it out that I had done so; simply that they might be talked about. Alas! such is the weakness of poor human nature that some people care not by which means they associate their names with the name of celebrity.

And we thought the celebrity culture was new? Once again history tells us otherwise!

Margaret Mendelawitz
Charles Dickens’ Australia: Selected essays from Household Words 1850-1858. Book 1, Convict stories
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2011
187pp
ISBN: 9781920898670

(Review copy courtesy Sydney University Press)

Margaret Mendelawitz, Charles Dickens’ Australia: Selected essays from Household Words 1850-1859

It was not to be a high-brow intellectual periodical. Above all he wanted to reach and entertain the masses and, at the same time, help shape discussion and debate on the important social questions of the time. (from Introduction, by Margaret Mendelawitz)

Five covers for the Charles Dickens' Australia set

Set book covers (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

Charles Dickens‘ Australia is a set of five volumes containing essays, stories and poems relating to Australia from the magazine, Household Words, that Dickens established and editedThe magazine was published from 1850 to 1859 which, as Margaret Mendelawitz says in her introduction, was an “extraordinary decade in Australian and British history”. The discovery of gold in Australia (and California) transformed the world. Social justice was becoming a serious issue for debate and action. And it was when “the age of capital” really began.

So, it is rather fortunate that a writer of Dickens’ calibre produced a magazine in this period – and that he was sufficiently interested in Australia (as I described in a post last year) to actively seek and commission articles about life and social conditions here for his magazine. As you might expect, the magazine is available online (in gorgeous facsimile and for electronic downloading) but the value of these five volumes is that they have been carefully researched by Mendelawitz and contain the articles specifically relating to Australia. According to the Sydney University Press website, of the 3000 articles published in the magazine over its lifetime, only 100 dealt with Australia in some way. Unless you like the fun of the chase, these volumes are an excellent way to get to the Australian content without having to do the searching and sifting yourself.

This isn’t the only reason though for reading the articles via this set. It is a beautifully conceived anthology. Firstly, the articles have been thematically organised into five manageable volumes:

  1. Convict Stories
  2. Immigration
  3. Frontier Stories
  4. Mining and Gold
  5. Maritime Conditions

And there’s more. Each article  starts with a small panel containing a brief description of its content, its publication details (the volume and issue numbers, pagination, and date) and the amount paid for it! The articles are footnoted, with those original to the article clearly identified as such. Curiously, the editorial additions – the introduction, etc – are referenced differently, with the notes placed at the end of each piece rather than in footnotes. The additions are: a foreword by Geoffrey Blainey; an introduction by Mendelawitz; a list of contributors providing a brief, targeted biography and a list of their articles included in the set; and, a short but appropriate bibliography. These are all repeated in each volume, presumably so the volumes can stand alone.

I was initially perturbed that the article authors are not named in the table of contents, but then I read the introduction which tells us that “regardless of their source, all articles appeared anonymously”. Mendelawitz has followed that practice in her table of contents, but has identified the author/s on the articles themselves, providing another reason for reading this set because knowing the authors and their backgrounds adds a further dimension to the reading.

Mendelawitz covers a lot of ground in her introduction. She talks a little about Dickens himself and about the history of Household Words, she describes the era in which it was written, and she discusses the writers, the content and the “house” style. I found these last two particularly interesting. The articles, as I’ve said, were published anonymously. They were also carefully edited to meet what Elizabeth Gaskell called a “Dickensy style”. This meant they had to be bright, regardless of how dry the subject, and would characteristically start with a snappy, provocative paragraph. It also meant that those that did not accord with Dickens’ views were rewritten. I can’t help thinking that, if slavishly enforced, this adherence to a set style could result in the articles feeling formulaic. It’s something I’ll check out as I read the volumes in depth.

The final point I’d like to make in this overview concerns the issue of fact versus fiction. Mendelawitz argues that the articles are “literature, not history”. They are valuable, she says, for the insight they provide into 19th century Australia but this “does not depend on them being the literal truth”. She writes:

As a collection they demonstrate the complementary nature of storytelling between the writing of history and fiction. The stories in Household Words frequently draw a fine line between fact and fiction, giving voice to characters and events that could easily go unrecognised and unrecorded. In many ways they exemplify the fundamental problem  encountered by historians through the ages of how to separate and present fact, fiction, myth and truth.

Regular readers of this blog know that this issue interests me. I expect to come back to it when I review the first volume in the near future … from what I’ve read so far, I think I’m in for a fascinating ride.

Margaret Mendelawitz
Charles Dickens’ Australia: Selected essays from Household Words 1850-1858
5 volumes
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2011

(Review copies courtesy Sydney University Press)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Charles Dickens and Australia

Charles Dicken, c1860

Dickens, c. 1860 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Here’s something completely different for my Monday musings! Not an Australian author, not even a foreign born author who came to Australia (though, being the great traveller he was, he did consider a lecture tour), but Charles Dickens does have a couple of interesting “connections” with Australia. These connections are supported by the existence of some letters written by him at the National Library of Australia.

On convicts and migration in general

Transportation of convicts to Australia – actual, implied or threatened – features in several of his novels. These include John Edmunds in Pickwick Papers (1836-37), the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), Mr Squeers in NicholasNickleby (1838-39), Alice Marwood in Dombey and Son (1846-48), and Magwitch (probably the most famous of all) in Great expectations (1861), not to mention Jenny Wren who threatens her father with transportation in Our mutual friend (1864-65). Dickens apparently learnt quite a lot about convict life, and particularly the penal settlement on Norfolk Island, from his friend Alexander Maconochie (to whom I refer in my review of Price Warung’s Tales of the early days).

Clearly, it was this knowledge which inspired the letter he wrote to the 2nd Marquess of Normanby (George Augustus Constantine Phipps), who was Secretary of State for the Home Office . He suggests

a strong and vivid description of the terrors of Norfolk Island and such-like-places, told in a homely narrative with a great appearance of truth and reality, and circulated in some very cheap and easy form (if with the direct authority of the Government, so much the better) would have a very powerful effect on the minds of those badly disposed … I would have it on the pillow of every prisoner in England. (3 July 1840, Original in the National Library of Australia, Ms 6809)

He offers to write this narrative, gratis. As far as I know, although Dickens and the Marquess were friends, nothing ever came of this offer.

While Dickens deplored the treatment of convicts in the penal settlements, he also saw Australia as a land of opportunity. The transported Magwitch, as we know, made his fortune in Australia. Mr Micawber, debt-ridden at the end of David Copperfield, emigrates to Australia and becomes a sheepfarmer and magistrate. But, perhaps the strongest evidence of Dickens’ belief in Australia as a place where people could get ahead, is the emigation of his sons.

On his sons

Two of Dickens’ sons – Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens* (nicknamed Plorn) – emigrated to Australia, both with their father’s encouragement.

Alfred (1845-1912) migrated to Australia in 1865. He worked on several stations/properties in Victoria and New South Wales and as a stock and station agent, before partnering with his brother in their own stock and station agency, EBL Dickens and Partners. He died in the United States in 1912, having left Australia on a lecture tour in 1910. Dickens’  youngest son, Edward (1852-1902), went to Australia in 1869. He also worked on stations before opening the stock and station agency with his brother. He later worked as a civil servant and represented Wilcannia in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1889-94, but he died, debt-ridden, in 1902 at Moree. Australia did not quite turn out to be the land of opportunity for these two that Dickens had hoped, but fortunately he was not around to see it!

A couple of Dickens’ letters to his sons are held at the National Library of Australia. One was written in 1868, not long before Plorn left England, and includes some fatherly advice:

Never take a mean advantage of anyone in any transaction, and never be hard on people who are in your power …

The more we are in earnest as to feeling religion, the less we are disposed to hold forth on it. (26? September 1868, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 2563)

One does rather wish that Dickens had taken his own advice regarding not being “hard on people who are in your power” in his treatment of his poor wife Catherine.

Eighteen days before he died in 1870, he wrote this to Alfred:

I am doubtful whether Plorn is taking to Australia. Can you find out his real mind? I note that he always writes as if his present life were the be-all and end-all of his emigration and as if I had no idea of you two becoming proprietors and aspiring to the first positions in the colony without casting off the old connexion (1870, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 6420).

These are just two of the many letters that he wrote to (and about) his sons in Australia. More can be found in published editions of his letters. I have chosen these particular ones purely because we have them here in Canberra. It’s rather a treat to be able to see Dickens’ hand so far away from his home.

Do you enjoy close literary encounters of the handwritten kind?

Charles Dickens, On travel

Charles Dickens, On travel

On travel bookcover (Hesperus Press, via LibraryThing)

In the 3rd essay in Hesperus Press’s lovely little volume On travel, which comprises a selection of Dickens’ travel essays, Dickens (1812-1870) makes a reference to Laurence Sterne’s character Yorick. In one of those lovely bits of reading synchronicity, Hungry Like the Wolf posted last week on Laurence Sterne’s A sentimental journey through France and Italy which features said Yorick. In it Yorick lists various types of travellers including Idle travellers, Vain travellers, and Sentimental travellers. Yorick’s type that best suits Dickens would, I think, be his Inquisitive type. However, I think Yorick needed another category to describe a traveller like Dickens: the Observant traveller. (Hmm…I wrote this before checking out the Introduction by Pete Orford. In the first para he praises Dickens’ “talent of observation”. Great minds, and all that!)

There are 6 essays in this slim but rather gorgeously produced volume – don’t you love the allusion to the “armchair traveller” on the cover?:

  • The last cab driver and the first omnibus cab (1836)
  • The passage out (1841)
  • By Verona, Mantua and Milan, across the Pass of the Simplon into Switzerland (1843)
  • A flight (1851)
  • The Calais Night Mail (1863)
  • Some account of an extraordinary traveller (1850)

Reading these reminds me yet again why I love Dickens. I enjoy his acute observation of humankind and his sense of humour. He makes me laugh. Regularly. And then there is his versatile use of the English language. The man can write.

Four of the essays describe train and boat travel, including to America, and to and through Europe. His descriptions of the actual experience of travel and of the various passengers (such as the Compact Enchantress, Monied Interest and the Demented Traveller) he meets on the way are highly evocative. You feel you are on the trains and boats with him because he captures that sense of being tossed about in the sea and of rushing in a train through landscapes and – “bang” (his word) – through stations. But it’s not all sensory – as engaging as that is. There is satire here too – against others, and against himself. For example, in “The Calais Night Mail” he sends up his own love-hate relationship with Calais as well as the behaviour of an English traveller who “thinks it a quite unaccountable thing that they don’t keep ‘London time’ on a French railway”. (It was ever thus, eh?)

The thing about his writing is its diversity – he mixes up his rhythm; he uses allusions, irony and metaphor; he plays with tense and punctuation; and he uses repetition, to name just a few of the “tricks” in his writer’s bag. Just look at the variety in the following examples.

A wickedly satirical description of a man who was transported twice to Australia:

If Mr Barker can be fairly said to have had any weakness in his earlier years, it was an amiable one – love, love in its most comprehensive form – a love of ladies, liquids and pocket handkerchiefs. It was no selfish feeling; it was not confined to his own possessions… (“The last cab driver and the first omnibus cab”)

On a rough crossing to Calais:

I am bumped rolled gurgled washed and pitched into Calais Harbour… (“The Calais Night Mail”)

A description of the Demented Traveller:

Faculties of second Englishman entirely absorbed in hurry. Plunges into the carriage, blind. Calls out of the window concerning his luggage, deaf. (“A flight”)

And then this little pointed comment written in 1863 but alluding to an earlier trip in 1843:

and I recognise the extremely explosive steamer in which I ascended the Mississippi when the American civil war was not, and only its causes were. (“The Calais Night Mail”)

Dickens was, as we realise from the last essay in the collection, more than aware of the horrors of slavery, not to mention the plight of “the fast-declining Indians”. His willingness to express such awareness did not always endear him to Americans but, as Pete Orford writes in the Introduction, Dickens was equally prepared to be satirical of home as abroad.

These essays provide a fascinating insight into how Dickens viewed his world and the people in it, and present wonderful exemplars of his writing. They also demonstrate how widely travelled he was, which, by broadening his understanding of humanity, must have fed his fictional muse too. Orford concludes his Introduction with some lines from the last essay. I can’t really think of a better way to end this than to repeat some of them too. Dickens wrote:

The more man knows of man, the better for the common brotherhood among us all. (“Some account of an extraordinary traveller”)

Some of Dickens’ words and allusions (though there are “notes” in this edition) may be a little obscure now, and some sentence structures are a little complicated to our modern eyes, but if you have any interest in Dickens or travel writing in general, you will enjoy this. I certainly did.

Charles Dickens
On travel
Hesperus Press, 2010
91pp.
ISBN: 9781843916123
(Review copy supplied by Hesperus Press via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program)

NOTE: I must apologise for once again hitting the Publish button too early and sending some half-finished gobbledy-gook to your various readers and email accounts. I should either take Tony’s advice and draft in Word or adopt Farnoosh’s recent “Slow down” admonition (to herself), because clearly I’m not getting it right at present! I beg your forgiveness.