Great southern expectations
Charles Dickens, who would have been 200 this week, was long fascinated by Australia, writes MICHAEL MCGIRR.
There is a scene near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust in which an inept character, Tony Last, is in the Brazilian rainforest. He is rescued by a Mr Todd, who has hidden in the jungle for about 60 years, supported only by basic necessities and his love of Dickens. Unfortunately, Todd is illiterate and relies on travellers such as Last getting stuck in his web to read to him. Once he recovers, Last realises he will be required to spend the rest of his life reading the works of Dickens over and over again from Mr Todd’s mouldy collection. Todd tells him he is free to leave but this is impossible. Dickens is all the civilisation Mr Todd either wants or needs. It is hard to know if Last has stumbled into paradise or the opposite. The answer depends, in part, on how much you like Dickens.Photos: Peter Rae, Getty Images
Dickens’s output was vast in every respect. Throughout his life, he pushed himself to breaking point to build an entire world, the product of a vibrant blend of experience and imagination. His characters are enormous; his stories, nearly all set in urban contexts, are jungles: you have not really experienced Dickens until you have been completely lost inside one of his novels with neither hope nor desire of finding your way out. Dickens was a wonderful celebrant of humanity; he observed it closely by magnifying it, often to the point of the absurd.
Dickens was born in Portsmouth on February 7, 1812, and this week he has been receiving cards and messages for his 200th birthday from every corner of the world, with plenty from Australia, a place he planned to visit but never did.
Dickens’s relationship with Australia is multifaceted. On at least one occasion in the early 1860s, he considered mounting one of his famous reading tours here and even imagined a collection of tales to be called The Uncommercial Traveller Upside Down.
He had numerous reasons for wanting to make the long voyage to this side of the world. He believed he could return home with £10,000 or more, a princely sum, and, although Dickens was habitually generous, he knew the value of a shilling. Money is a character in almost all his novels, a dark angel that comes and goes on strange whims, one whose chaotic behaviour Dickens had observed from the choppy years of his own childhood.
Dickens’s renowned business instincts changed the atmosphere on his first visit to the US in 1842, where he was initially greeted as a conquering hero. The mood soured when Dickens started to complain, with good reason, that the Americans were helping themselves to his copyright in the same way they were helping themselves to the wide, open spaces of the west.
Dickens was a pioneer in the fight for the rights of creators; he would be astonished that this battle is still being fought on his 200th birthday. He knew his work was loved in Australia and that his ornate fiction was a place in which lonely immigrants found shelter. To take one item of evidence, the exuberant work that made his name, The Pickwick Papers, was published in England in 20 monthly instalments, concluding in November 1837. By the following year, an Australian edition had already been brought out in Tasmania. The first Australian-grown novel, Quintus Servinton, had appeared as recently as 1831, also in Tasmania.
Nevertheless, Dickens’s interest in visiting Australia was about more than making money. He was a man of remarkable energy who never sat still for long. From the early years of his adulthood, he walked the streets of London at all hours, sometimes from midnight to dawn. Indeed, it was from this pacing through the small hours that Dickens became intimate with a city in the way few writers ever have been.
By the early 1860s, Dickens’s restlessness was even worse, largely because of the breakdown of his relationship with Catherine Hogarth, whom he had married in 1836 and with whom he had 10 children. The story of the separation is painful and does not cast Dickens in a positive light. His emotional life was as convoluted as his novels. As time went by, Dickens pushed himself harder to maintain a dizzying schedule of public readings. He felt loved on stage, embraced by the laughter and tears of an audience that was, nonetheless, safely at arm’s length. The thought of going to Australia was exhausting but it was not too far to satisfy a need for the applause he mistook as love.
The tour did not come about because it appears that in 1862 Dickens’s young lover, Ellen Ternan, was expecting a child and had been discreetly tucked away in France. Sadly, the child did not survive.
Australia fascinated Dickens in countless ways. It represented the furthest reach of his imagination. As early as The Pickwick Papers, he was consigning villains to this place, a turn of plot he continued with Mr Squeers, the appalling school master in Nicholas Nickleby, and with both Mr Littimer and Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. Australia could also represent a fresh sheet of paper. Most famously, Abel Magwitch is transported to Australia, where he works to create Pip’s great expectations, returning to England at the risk of his life. In David Copperfield, the Micawbers and the Peggottys sail to Australia under the flag of hope. David, the narrator, says of Micawber: ‘‘ When he went from London to Canterbury, he should have talked as if he were going to the furthest limits of the earth; and, when he went from England to Australia, as if he were going for a little trip across the channel.’’
Australia was not just a place in fiction. In 1850, Dickens visited Caroline Chisholm in London; Chisholm had returned from eight years in Australia, where she had been helping female migrants. The plight of young women in vulnerable situations was often the object of Dickens’s philanthropy. But he was so impressed by Chisholm (who is said to be the model for Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House) that he not only supported her work but published a moving collection of letters she showed him (‘‘A bundle of emigrants’ letters’’) in the first edition of a new magazine he was editing called Household Words.
Dickens was instrumental in humanising statistics about life in Australia. In the following years, he published scores of articles from Australia, dealing with every conceivable aspect of life in the new country, including one by Marcus Clarke, the author of For the Term of His Natural Life. This recognition was significant for the fragile Clarke.
Following in the footsteps of Micawber, Dickens sent two of his own sons to Australia. The elder, Alfred, was 20 when he arrived in 1865 and moved to the land. He had his struggles but, on the whole, did reasonably well. The story of Dickens’s youngest son, Edward (always known as Plorn), is more thought-provoking. Plorn was born in 1852 and lived his childhood in the stormy weather of the Dickenses’ worsening marriage. His siblings believed his father loved him more than any other child but there is evidence that Dickens treated his youngest child severely, dispatching him to the other side of the world at 16. Dickens said Plorn ‘‘seems to have been born without a groove’’, meaning he lacked character. Only 20 days before he died, Dickens wrote to a friend in Australia that Plorn ‘‘has always been the most difficult of boys to deal with’’. An academic, Julian Croft, has made a case that Plorn was partly the model for Tom Collins, the narrator of Joseph Furphy’s masterpiece, Such Is Life.
Dickens is a major presence in the imaginative life of just about everybody who had a role in early Australian history and culture. He sat on the shoulder of Henry Lawson, who lamented that he didn’t have the patience to create either a novel on the scale of Dickens or to edit a magazine with the same reach as any of those Dickens ran. Others were harder to impress. John Shaw Neilson wrote in his autobiography: ‘‘I think Dickens is over-boomed altogether.’’ Of course, Dickens’s reach is much broader than this. He was an important influence on Tolstoy, who loved David Copperfield and found in it a springboard to his first major work, Childhood. Dickens has spread through the entire Western imagination, like ink through water, and changed its colour.
Two of the more heartfelt literary essays of the 20th century, one by George Orwell (1939) and the other by G. K. Chesterton (1906), are about Dickens. For Orwell, Dickens is an angel from the other side, ‘‘a man who lives through his eyes and ears rather than through his hands and muscles’’. He professes a grudging admiration for Dickens, especially for his depictions of childhood, but criticises him for a lack of concrete thinking, an inability to propose detailed social reform and a lack of real rapport with the economic lives of the working classes, believing ‘‘individual kindliness is the remedy for everything’’. Orwell says of Dickens that ‘‘his imagination overwhelms everything, like a kind of weed’’ and ‘‘no modern man could combine such purposelessness with so much vitality’’.
Curiously, Chesterton’s brilliant essay about Dickens was written before Orwell’s but seems to respond to most of what Orwell says. Chesterton said of Dickens: ‘‘If he learnt to whitewash the world, it was in a blacking factory that he learnt it.’’ Chesterton believed that laughter reached deep and that ‘‘exaggeration is the definition of art’’. He said Dickens was ‘‘always most accurate when he was most fantastic’’ and that he was ‘‘ridiculous in order to be true’’.
The chief fountain in Dickens of what I have called cheerfulness and some prefer to call optimism is something deeper than a verbal philosophy. It is, after all, an incomparable hunger and pleasure for the vitality and the variety, for the infinite eccentricity of existence. Much as I admire Orwell, I am firmly on the side of Chesterton here. Dickens has been one of the liberators of my life. The first time I laughed aloud with a book in my hands was as a 16- yearold who had stumbled into The Pickwick Papers; I still haven’t fully found my way out.