I well remember my introduction to the famous (or infamous) death-scene of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop:
which was also my first introduction to the idea that one could ridicule the work of a famous and respected author and get away with it. Aside from one teacher who disliked Betjeman (and apologised for it) my schoolteachers had approached texts as holy writ. They were the Given: it was our job to understand Them and to convey that understanding in such a way that it could be marked and graded. Scepticism, let alone ridicule, played no part in that process.
Enter Geoff Syer. Geoff was a lecturer at Isleworth College, an unashamed communist who wore a symbolic red tie: he was also a profound literary sceptic. So when we were discussing pathos in literature it was inevitable that Little Nell should arise from her grave like a shadow-puppet to be killed yet again:
She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird — a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed — was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless for ever. Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.1 (Chapter LXXI, p.524)
Victorians were as devastated by this scene as people more recently at the death of Princess Diana. They wept openly in the streets. But there were no Reichenbach Falls for Nell: Dickens was as implacable as death itself and refused to bring her back.
However, amongst the mourning there were even then dissenting voices. Oscar Wilde remarked: “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears . . . of laughter.” And that, I would guess, sums up the reactions of most modern readers. Though attempts have been made to explain Nell as symbolic of the victims of capitalism:
I don’t think that’s the way Dickens worked. His characters were visualised with an intensity rivalled only by Dostoevsky’s – and though he was deeply concerned with poverty and child mortality (the novel follows on from the death of his sister-in-law) such abstraction is not in his nature. Dickens dealt with concrete realities.
I have to say the above article expresses everything I dislike about post-modernism; inventing complex terms for something already ‘out there’ which could be expressed much more simply. That said, much has been written in the feminist era about Dickens’ women and how they tend to divide into the garrulous and the child-like; the figure of fun and the ‘angel in the house’. Give me garrulous and comic any day: besides, I wouldn’t have been married to Dickens for any money. Twelve children, a lifetime of unfaithfulness and ne’er a mention in any of his books. No, ta…
I can’t remember why I started on this topic at all. But there you go: I never could get the hang of Wednesdays…