The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Comparing Dickens and Carlyle using Voyant

My last post did some basic analysis of a selection of Thomas Carlyle’s writings using Voyant. Now I want to use Voyant to compare Carlyle’s writings to those of his contemporary Charles Dickens. Dickens was primarily a novelist, and I am going to use here four novels and one novella for analysis. Specifically:

Oliver Twist (1838)

The Chimes (1844)

Bleak House (1853)

Hard Times (1854)

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Dickens is, then, generically different from Carlyle. Carlyle was not a novelist or fiction writer. Indeed, from our point of view, it is difficult to place him generically at all. However, to his contemporaries he was a Sage. I have earlier noted that the Sage exhibited features of both the novelist and of the philosopher. Like the philosopher, he was concerned with life in the widest sense, but unlike the philosopher, the Sage did not employ logical argument to prove his validity as an interpreter of life. Rather, he used a myriad of techniques, including several from the novelist’s toolbox: narrative, characterization, dialogism, irony, sarcasm, parable, exhortation, sermonizing, and, in Carlyle’s case, sheer abuse. The abusive mode is one that is now rarely used, but it is not without power. Take this example from Carlyle:

Get out of that, you ugly and foolish windbags: do you think the Eternal God of Nature will suffer you to stand in the way of His work? If you cannot open your eyes and see that this is a thing that must be done, you had better betake yourselves elsewhere – to the lowest Gehenna were fittest – there is no place for you in a world which is ruled, in the long run, by fact and not by chimera. (Latter-day Pamphlets)

Carlyle is here contemptuous of his readers, the “foolish and ugly windbags” referred to. He does not try to convince through logic, but by the strength of his contempt for any opposing position. He almost orders the reader to convince themselves: If you cannot open your eyes… His position holds little logical authority, but its intensity is often effective. Ruskin, Carlyle’s disciple, also used this mode, as I have discussed elsewhere.

Dickens is an interesting comparison with Carlyle, both because he is the pre-eminent novelist of the time (in the Anglophone world, at least), and because his debt of influence to Carlyle is well established. He inscribed Hard Times (1854) “To Thomas Carlyle” and claimed to have read Carlyle’s French Revolution five hundred times. They had certain of the same social and perhaps even artistic aims, yet they were received very differently by the public and the press. Perhaps by comparing Carlyle with the great novelist, we can get a better idea of what the Sage was doing, and how he was doing it.

Most frequent words:

In the selective corpus inputted to Voyant, the most frequently used word is Mr, and it is followed by said, little, sir and know in that order. Remember Carlyle’s most used words were man, men, world, like, and shall. A major overlap appears to be the overwhelming male bias in their lexica. Both authors are far more interested in a specifically male experience of the world, with the female equivalents being far less commonly used. This bias is more pronounced in Carlyle, though, as woman, Miss and Mrs do also feature fairly high in Dickens’ list. The most surprising word on Dickens’ list is little, which appears 1959 times (for comparison, large is at 237; and big at 22).There is probably no other writer in whose corpus this adjective would be so prominent – and the books analyzed don’t even include Little Dorrit or The Old Curiosity Shop (protagonist: Little Nell), so the results could have been even more striking. The concept of littleness, then, is clearly central to Dickens’ work. Other than that, Carlyle’s choices are more distinctive and revealing than Dickens’. I will not repeat what I have already written about Carlyle, but regarding Dickens it is really striking how commonplace and unliterary are all of his most frequent words. Forty of the top 50 words are monosyllables, and the only entries of more than two syllables are the trisyllabic gentleman and Oliver (as in Twist, the only character name in the top 50).

Word cloud on Voyant showing Dickens’ most frequent words.

Vocabulary density:

Carlyle’s most dense text was Sartor Resartus at 0.137, with French Revolution the least dense at 0.073. With Dickens the range was from The Chimes at 0.138 to Bleak House at 0.065. Even from my few initial Voyant analyses, I can see that this measure is rather misleading if taken in isolation, as a shorter text will almost always have a higher density than a long text. So the two authors’ longest works are also the ones with the most repeated words and the lowest density. At the other end, the comparison is more revealing, as Chimes and Sartor have almost equal density, though the latter is much longer: 85251 words as opposed to 34124. So Carlyle actually demonstrates a much higher vocabulary density than Dickens, and a much larger vocabulary. In total Carlyle uses 32294 unique words, Dickens 22432. This is a strikingly large gap. Carlyle has a significantly larger vocabulary than Dickens.

Words per sentence:

I noted in the last post that Carlyle’s average wps ranged from 22.6 to 31.5 across the selective corpus. Dickens’ wps ranges from 15.7 in The Chimes to 18.6 in A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist. In fact, apart from Chimes having a noticeably lower wps, there is little variation across Dickens’ texts. But they all have much lower wps than Carlyle. Carlyle was particularly fond of long sentences and complex structures. At the same time, there may be a generic reason for the big difference here: Dickens’ fiction has a lot of dialogue, and this will generally be comprised of much shorter sentences, including one-word sentences (replies like “yes”, “no”, etc.).

To ascertain the role played by such factors as genre on wps would of course require analysis of a much wider range and larger number of texts. This initial analysis does raise several interesting points about the differences between Carlyle and Dickens. The biggest surprise for me is the degree to which the statistics seems to suggest a greater sophistication in Carlyle’s works. I may perform further comparisons using other Victorian writers – novelists, Sages and other – to get a more nuanced understanding of this.

Dickens Voyant analysis: https://voyant-tools.org/?corpus=dcc74d10fbfc6d00c4dc79b07670a90c

Carlyle Voyant analysis: https://voyant-tools.org/?corpus=38b0c430d5a5179d802fac046003b23d

Voyant analysis of my PhD thesis https://voyant-tools.org/?corpus=f259039874058130cc7d18fbf033b91d

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Analyzing Thomas Carlyle’s Writings with Voyant

A useful and user-friendly tool for basic digital analysis of texts is Voyant. I used it to analyze five works of Thomas Carlyle, taken from Project Gutenberg. The works chosen were:

Sartor Resartus (1834)

The French Revolution (1838)

On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History (1841)

Past and Present (1843)

Latter-day Pamphlets (1850)

These were partly chosen as they are perhaps Carlyle’s most important works, but also because Gutenberg doesn’t have all Carlyle’s works. For example, I would have considered Chartism (1840) had it been there, but it wasn’t (though it can be accessed online via Google Books). Similarly, the massively influential Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (1838) were not there.

There are a couple of other minor caveats:

1) The version of Latter-day Pamphlets used was not the complete version. Like many versions, it consists of only five essays, omitting the final three.

2) The Gutenberg pages analyzed contained not only the texts of the works, but also various paratexts: title and publication details, Gutenberg’s copyright statement, and so on. This is most important regarding Past and Present, which contained an introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson from the first US edition of the work. For a proper academic analysis, one would have to work on finding or creating a webpage or file with no such paratexts, but for the purposes of this blog, the superfluous material wasn’t enough to seriously upset the findings.

So, I simply copied and pasted the five links to the relevant pages on Gutenberg, then Voyant did the rest, returning a page filled with analysis of Carlyle’s works. First is a word cloud:

This can be adjusted to include from 25 words up. The adjustment bar, however, is very fiddly (at least on my iPad), and it’s hard to adjust the number of words with accuracy or tell what number of words are being shown. The cloud above has about 100 words, the 100 most common words across the texts. The larger the text, the greater the frequency. A quick look tells you that the most frequent word across all the texts is man. Still more pointedly, the second most frequent word is men. By clicking on the words in the cloud, we find that man gets 2293 mentions, men 1815. This tells us already a lot about Carlyle’s writing: he was interested in the male experience, he was troubled and obsessed by ideas of manhood, constantly working through these ideas. The words women and woman get only 182 and 56 mentions respectively. Already we see how Carlyle’s thought is out of kilter with these times.

We can toggle between cloud view and list view of most popular words, and while the former is perhaps more immediately striking and certainly more redolent of digital humanities, the latter view is better for a more exact picture. It allows us to ascertain for certain that he third most popular word is world. This presence illustrates the grandeur of Carlyle’s ambitions. He was a wide-gazing sage, not the narrowly focused expert that is valued in the 21st century. The frequency with which the word world occurs defines perhaps the most important difference between the Victorian intellectual and the contemporary scholar: he is not an expert an any particular thing, but rather strives to comprehend the world as a totality.

Shall is also in the top five. By clicking on the word, we can also see which work it is most popular in. In this case, it’s The French Revolution by quite a distance. So Carlyle is using shall to slip back and forth in time, to predict the future of the past, such as in the word’s very first appearance. This comes in a passage which is very typical of Carlyle, an address to the poverty-stricken masses of pre-revolutionary France on the occasion of a police crackdown on public protests/riots:

O ye poor naked wretches! and this, then, is your inarticulate cry to Heaven, as of a dumb tortured animal, crying from uttermost depths of pain and debasement? Do these azure skies, like a dead crystalline vault, only reverberate the echo of it on you? Respond to it only by ‘hanging on the following days?’—Not so: not forever! Ye are heard in Heaven. And the answer too will come,—in a horror of great darkness, and shakings of the world, and a cup of trembling which all the nations shall drink. [My italics and underlining]

The cup of trembling was of course the French Revolution itself, which struck fear into the rich and privileged of all countries, and Carlyle is here tapping into the fear among his British readers that the Revolution could spread. So the use of shall here and in other parts of this work is a function of Carlyle’s particular mode, which might be called retroactive prophecy. It harnesses the power of the prophetical voice, with little of the epistemological risk (that is, it can hardly be wrong, because the things prophesied have for the most part already happened)

Table in Voyant showing relative frequency of “shall” in Carlyle’s works.

Voyant also supplies word count for each text. The French Revolution is the longest; Latter-day Pamphlets the shortest – though it is, as noted above, missing part of the originally published material. Not much to analyze there. Potentially more interestingly, there is considerable variation in vocabulary density across the works. Vocabulary density refers to the ratio of different words used to total word count. Carlyle’s highest vocabulary density occurs in Sartor, indicating that it is a more linguistically varied text, perhaps a more demanding and difficult text. As a particular admirer of Sartor, I think it also indicates that this work is the product of a more supple and questioning mind than the other works. The least vocabulary density is found in On Heroes. When one remembers that this work began as a series of lectures, this seems a deliberate choice by Carlyle, streamlining his vocabulary to make his ideas more accessible to a listening audience without the possibility of going back and reading over difficult parts.

Average words per sentence is another indicator of complexity. Here On Heroes has lowest wps, showing it again as the least complex text. The highest wps, though, is Pamphlets. This is an interesting development, as Carlyle’s wps had previously fallen from the heights of Sartor, but here hit a new peak. This anomalous situation warrants more developed study than I can give it here.

In the screenshot above, the final category is Distinctive Words. This means the words which characterize individual works but rarely or never appear in the other texts analyzed. Most of the words involved are proper nouns, generally the names of the works’ main characters: so Teufelsdrockh is the most distinctive word in Sartor, because Diogenes Teufelsdrockh is the book’s protagonist; abbot is the most distinctive word in Past and Present, because Abbot Samson is that book’s focus. Thus, this category seems too predictable to be really insightful, at least in the examples here.

I have only scraped the surface of the many possibilities of Voyant, not only for studies of a single author, but also, and perhaps especially, for comparison between authors. Thus I will undoubtedly return to this tool sooner rather than later, perhaps to compare Carlyle’s texts to those of some of his contemporaries. The most impressive things about the tool, in my opinion, are its astonishing ease of use (fiddly bar accompanying word cloud aside) and user-friendliness, and the fact that it is, as of now, totally free.

Sherlock Hound The Four Signatures: Dogs, Blondes and Lestrade as Saviour

The Italo-Japanese animated series Sherlock Hound produced 26 episodes in 1984-5 (production actually started in 1981 and was held up because of disputes with the Doyle estate). The series looks like a cousin of the better known Spanish-Japanese 80s cartoon series Dogtanian and the Muskehounds and Around the World with Willy Fog. The Great Detective is, in Hound, an anthropomorphic dog, but characterologically broadly similar to standard Holmeses. The series was aimed at children, so there are some differences in character and theme from other avatars. This is clear in the first episode, rendered in English as “The Four Signatures”, obviously based on Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1888). Several of the episodes in the series were directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, but this is not one of them.

The title slide, reproduced here in the Spanish-language version (as this version, and not the English, is readily available online), pays obeisance to the fetishistic nature of Sherlock Holmes. More than an individual, the Holmes of screen adaptations is a clutter of objects that hang together to form the outline of a Great Detective: a deerstalker cap, a magnifying glass, a curved pipe.

The first episode opens with an idyllic rural scene, as Sherlock Hound drives contentedly along a quiet country road amidst rolling greenery and distant hills. Above are blues skies with wisps of cloud. The setting reflects the classical perception of the “green and pleasant land” of England.

Hound himself looks younger than other avatars. In so far as one can age an anthropomorphic cartoon dog, he looks to be in his twenties. This youth is especially evident in scenes where he take off the deerstalker to reveal a spiky hairstyle.

Deerstalker, check; curved pipe, check; Inverness cape, check; dog face, check

Hound meets with a slight adventure on the journey when he tries to pass a carriage which blocks him and within which is a young lady who hurriedly closes the shades when she sees Hound trying to glimpse inside. Here are the initiating mysteries of the episode, elements of the hermeneutic code described by Barthes: Who is driving the carriage? Why are they driving it so fast and erratically? Who is the nervous-seeming young lady? And what lies behind the air of secrecy that surrounds the carriage and its occupants?

The young lady in the carriage

Having finally made the overtaking maneuver, Hound soon finds himself at the port from which he is to embark by ship. At the dock, he sees the young lady from the carriage, and its driver, a bulky older gentleman. He is behaving in a suspicious manner: “That man is hiding something”, Hound announces to himself.

As Hound embarks, we are introduced to Watson, who is also boarding. Watson is an apparently older man/dog, thickset where Hound is slender, and heavily moustached. It is Watson, not Hound, who quickly finds out extensive information on the mysterious young lady and her older man, who is her father and whose name is Lord George. The young lady’s name is Barbara, and she is 20 years old. Watson’s infodump prompts the following exchange:

Hound: When it comes to blondes, your spirit of observation is truly exceptional.

Watson: Don’t you always say that the deductive capacities improve in the presence of beautiful blondes?

Hound: Elementary, my dear Watson.

Thus H&W are given a rather surprising and certainly non-canonical preoccupation with blonde females, a theme in the series which I will return to later on.

[Important note: this exchange is translated from the Spanish-language version of the episode, which I found here. On watching the English version, I found that no such exchange was present, and the scene had been dubbed entirely differently! Neither English nor Spanish was the original language of the series, so I’m not sure which version best reflects the original. For now, then, I’m leaving it as I first found it in the Spanish version.]

Bluff and sturdy Watson

At this point, H&W’s reflections are cut short by a ship containing “Bengal Pirates”. H&W descend to Lord George and Barbara’s cabin, wherein Holmes effectively concludes the mystery element of the episode by explaining that the Bengal Pirates have come to kill Lord George, who was once part of their number, but betrayed them and stole their treasure. This plot line is very similar to The Sign of Four, including the presence of the beautiful daughter. In Doyle’s novel, Watson goes on to marry the daughter, named Mary Morstan.

Now mystery gives way to adventure, as the BPs attempt to board the passenger ship, leading to a chase between the BPs and H&W, who embark in a small boat (rigged up from Holmes’s car) with Lord George’s jewels. They lead the BPs into the treacherous waters around some pillars of rock.

But H&W are eventually cornered and it seems the game is up. Unusually, however, and certainly in marked contrast to the Ronald Howard Holmes I wrote on recently, Lestrade arrives to save the day. A naval battalion arrives, manned by a corpus of blue-suited policeman, their look clearly based on English policemen, fronted by Lestrade. For Lestrade to become the detective’s saviour is a very unusual development in a Holmes story, especially in an introductory episode to a series.

Finally, the episode ends with Watson declaring his intention to court Barbara [In Spanish. The English version includes no reference to any intended courtship. In its place is a line about H&W’s “future sports”.] Both Watson’s earlier admiring comments and comparisons with The Sign of Four made this a predictable outcome. It appears to provide a setup for the rest of the series.

The end of the adventure: Holmes and Watson shake hands, while Barbara and Lord George await them on the ship.

In fact, Barbara doesn’t appear or even get mentioned again, but her centrality here prefigures the most notable character change in this series: Mrs Hudson becomes Marie Hudson, a central figure rather than the peripheral figure she is in most adaptations. She is also much younger than most versions, and an object of romantic longing for most of the characters. Her lovableness forms the basis of one of the Miyazaki episodes, “Mrs Hudson is Taken Hostage” (Ep. 4), in which Moriarty kidnaps and then falls hopelessly in love with her, as do his two henchmen.

Mrs Hudson, angel in the house, and agent of justice in some episodes.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): Spicy Latinas, Class Exploitation and Excellent Steepling

Fresh from their success with Dracula, England’s Hammer studios re-engaged the acting talents of Peter Cushing (Holmes) and Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville) in their take on Doyle’s classic tale.

It had been 20 years since Basil Rathbone had initiated his Holmes career in Hound of the Baskervilles, so the story was due a revisit. Cushing’s Hound would be of another genre to Rathbone’s. Hammer was a horror studio so an accentuation of the gothic horror elements of Hound was on the cards: more hellhound, more ruined churches, more direct evocations of the horror of being immersed in Grimpen Mire itself.

For openers, though, Hammer went with a longish prologue (about 9 minutes) recounting the legend of Sir Hugo and the Hound. Doyle, as was his custom, opened with a long and not unamusing dialogue between Holmes and Watson in Holmes’s quarters. Most adaptations, however, stay away from Doyle’s talky openings. This film simply lifts the legend recounted by Dr Mortimer in Chapter 2 of Hound and presents it directly at the beginning.

Placement in the narrative aside, the legend is lifted almost intact from Doyle. There are a couple of changes: the young village girl who the “wild, profane and godless” Sir Hugo pursues flees to a ruined abbey on the moor and it is caught and murdered there by Sir Hugo; in Doyle, there is no church, and the girl dies “of fear and of fatigue” on the moor before Hugo can catch her.

Village girl hides out in a ruined abbey while being sought by Sir Hugo

This prologue works thematically as it sets up the ideas of class relations that plays a surprisingly large role in this adaptation. This opening shows Sir Hugo treating the local peasantry as objects for his exploitation and enjoyment, and milder forms of this upper-class arrogance echo through the film.

Hugo himself, of course, quickly gets his comeuppance, when, the legend says, the Hound appears and rips his throat out. And, thereafter, the Baskervilles are prone to sudden and mysterious death, still paying for the sins of their ancestor.

Such is the tale, my sons, of the coming of the hound which is said to have plagued the family so sorely ever since. If I have set it down it is because that which is clearly known hath less terror than that which is but hinted at and guessed. Nor can it be denied that many of the family have been unhappy in their deaths, which have been sudden, bloody, and mysterious. Yet may we shelter ourselves in the infinite goodness of Providence, which would not forever punish the innocent beyond that third or fourth generation which is threatened in Holy Writ. To that Providence, my sons, I hereby commend you, and I counsel you by way of caution to forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted. – The Hound of the Baskervilles, Chapter 2

In the context of Sir Hugo’s actions, our first introduction to Sir Henry Baskerville is notable. In a key early scene of the film, H&W enter Sir Henry’s hotel room and greet him. He is fixing his tie in the mirror and doesn’t bother to look around to acknowledge them. Instead, assuming he is speaking to the hotel manager, he begins to complain in an overbearing and arrogant manner about his (the manager’s) tardy arrival and the disappearance of a boot.

Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) fixes his tie.

The superciliousness of Sir Henry’s behavior is of course accentuated by the choice of actor to play him: Christopher Lee. Lee had just played the archetypal upper-class predator in Hammer’s Dracula, and another recent role was as the villainous Marquis St Evremonde in A Tale of Two Cities (1958). In the latter, indeed, his character rapes a peasant girl in scenes very reminiscent of this film’s opening. Lee’s characteristic lordliness was used to effect in villainous roles, but in this adaptation the same lordliness is an element of a benevolent character.

When he finally realizes that he is not speaking to a member of the serving classes, Henry is appropriately apologetic, and he soon builds a friendly relationship with H&W. This close relationship is only threatened late on when Holmes makes a jeering remark about Henry’s “peasant friends”. Holmes is here being rude with a strategic purpose rather than making a straightforward expression of class prejudice, but the form his remark takes is also important. It annoys Henry greatly, getting at the root of his class consciousness, and that of the film.

Peter Cushing is seen by many as one of the best Holmeses and physically he fits the role very well: tall, slim, grave expression, keen eyes, ghostly pallor, sharp features. Intelligent and alert but slightly otherworldly. He may also have been reading up on Holmes’ physical mannerisms, for he makes copious use of the steepled fingers pose, a favorite of Holmes and one in which he engages in Hound among other of Doyle’s works.

Sydney Paget illustration from Hound showing Sherlock Holmes in finger-steepling mode.

Cushing with steepled fingers, index of intellectual engagement.

If Cushing is a classical Sherlock Holmes, the most radical character change in the film is that of the novel’s Beryl Stapleton, Henry’s love interest in novel and film. Her first name is now Cecile, she is Stapleton’s daughter, and the central emphasis is on her having Spanish blood and being a variation on the spicy Latina/Latina spitfire stereotype. (Doyle mentions at the end of HOTB that she has Costa Rican blood.) As such, she is deeply sexualized but emotionally volatile, and ultimately as dangerous as the murderous Stapleton himself. It is his lust for her that brings Henry into danger, and it is implied by Cecile herself that lust has been the curse of all the Baskervilles, from Sir Hugo onwards.

Sir Hugo died here. His throat was torn out because of a girl. And Sir Charles, your dear uncle. He died here, didn’t he? Died because he wanted me, like you!

Cecile mocks Henry as she waits for the hound to tear his throat out. Her triumph, alas, is short lived.

Cecile is a product of the prurient, even perverse, attitude to sexuality in Hammer films: these films are predicated on the indulgence followed by the harsh punishment of sexual impulses. The viewer can watch with voyeuristic enjoyment, then join the gentlemanly protagonists in condemning with puritanical vigor.

Our first glimpse of Cecile Stapleton, a sullen yet passionate young lady of Spanish extraction.

Somewhat in line with this Puritanism, perhaps, is the portrayal of Bishop Frankland (Mr Frankland in the novel). The Bishop is an eccentric, treated with amused indulgence in the film, which thus answers to Žižek’s definition of cynical ideology, wherein the dominant ideology is reinforced not by strict enforcement of strict obedience, but by toleration of and encouragement of an attitude of cynical but resigned distance to it. In this context, the real political danger is the true believer, the one who takes it all too seriously. (I also discuss this here with regard to Joseph Conrad’s Chance.) Holmes is more straightforwardly ideologically aligned to Frankland when he asks him:

Will it help if I tell you I am fighting evil? Fighting it as surely as you do.

Holmes and Bishop Frankland have an important conversation.

Organized religion and its representatives, then, can’t always be taken seriously, but must be respected at moments of crisis. (The 1954 War of the Worlds also performs an interesting ideological repositioning of H.G. Wells’ text.) Hammer thus perform a delicate maneuver in tapping into a conservative strain of their audience while also being purveyors of horror and sex. They foreground sex in the story, but make it Spanish. They foreground class tension, too, and hint at a regret for the loss of the old days of aristocratic domination. But even here, perhaps rather than adding their own spin, they are picking up on a thread from Doyle. Recall Watson’s reflections as he gazed upon the visage of Sir Henry:

[A]s I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery, and masterful men. There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils, and his large hazel eyes. If on that forbidding moor a difficult and dangerous quest should lie before us, this was at least a comrade for whom one might venture to take a risk with the certainty that he would bravely share it. (HOTB, Ch. 6)

It would take Hammer to take this strain of the original and run with it, turning it into an intriguing addition to the extended Holmesian corpus.

Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes in The Case of the Cunningham Heritage (1955); and the Function of Lestrade’s Stupidity

“The Case of the Cunningham Heritage” is the first episode of the 1954-55 US-produced series starring British actors Ronald Howard and H. Marion Crawford as Holmes and Watson. It is available from the Internet Archive, and so are all the rest of the episodes in the series. “The Case of the Cunningham Heritage” opens with a classic high shot of a London street replete with cobblestones, gas lamps, and a passing Hansom cab. The fetishization of late-Victorian London in Holmes adaptations was already well underway.

As the credits sequence continues, two men appear walking along the street towards us. One wears a deerstalker cap and smokes a pipe. This is of course Holmes. The other, then, can only be John Watson. As with the depiction of Victorian London, the series here opts for a fetishistic approach to Holmes, announcing him by his most well-known accessories. This is still at a time when Holmes’ manner and appearance are reassuringly familiar, but not yet problematically cliched. There is, as yet, no need for the edgy ambivalence towards, for example, the deerstalker shown in Sherlock.

As the credits cease, Holmes walks with a confident swagger. This, if nothing else, seems to reflect the American roots of the show. It is worth noting that Howard had a particular vision of his own Holmes. As quoted on Wikipedia:

In my interpretation, Holmes is not an infallible, eagle-eyed, out-of-the-ordinary personality, but an exceptionally sincere young man trying to get ahead in his profession. Where Basil Rathbone’s Holmes was nervous and highly-strung, mine has a more ascetic quality, is deliberate, very definitely unbohemian, and is underplayed for reality.

Credits over, and the first shot of the episode proper is another establishing shot of a London street, this time prosperous and suburban, bearing a carriage. Simultaneously, a narrator announces himself. In voiceover we hear a voice we can easily establish as John Watson, and the setup is derived from Doyle’s first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887): Watson is recently returned from Afghanistan; has been injured, etc. The words, however, are different, simplified, with no direct quotes from Scarlet.

The camera moves inside the carriage to show Watson’s face: broad, cheerful, middle-aged, moustached, eminently Watsonian in many respects. Newly returned to the Modern Babylon, he is looking around him with a naive curiosity which we might recognize, too, as eminently Watsonian.

Eminently Watsonian?

It is to be several minutes before we are introduced to Holmes. First Watson meets Stamford, who sends him on his way to Holmes for a possible rent share. Stamford gives Watson that immortal detail of Holmes beating corpses with a stick. In Scarlet, Watson sees this for himself, but here he only hears it, and expresses the expected mixture of surprise and intrigue. This corpse-beating is one of the great touches that immediately and unforgettably inscribe the character of Holmes in the reader’s consciousness, but perhaps in the context of this more conventional, “definitely unbohemian” Holmes, to see it would be too much.

Watson tracks Holmes down to a laboratory, and Holmes’ classic reading of Watson from Scarlet is reproduced: “You’ve just come back from Afghanistan”, and so forth.

“How did you know I was in Afghanistan!?”

It is the familiar tale, a nice introduction that devotes the first third of this first episode to set up the series. It is only thereafter that the detective story per se begins. It is an original one, rather than from Doyle. The episode description on the Internet Archive says it’s very loosely based on Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Reigate Squires“, but I saw no significant resemblance. There is an important plot point towards the end that may come from “Charles Augustus Milverton“, but it is generic enough that it might have been picked up elsewhere.

The plot is unremarkable, unworthy of recap, but we get what we came from. A smart, aloof Holmes; a perennially befuddled Watson; a Victorian setting. And, also, a particularly stupid Lestrade, detectional incompetence and deductive fallacy personified. He exists for one reason alone: to be wrong – stubbornly, arrogantly, incorrigibly wrong – and thus to throw Holmes’ perennial rightness into relief. His chronic and aggressive wrongness, indeed, serves not only to highlight Holmes’ rightness, but also to distract us from the suspect methodology which often lies beyond Holmes’ deductions. That is why so many adaptations have had to ask us to laugh at Lestrade; for, were we not doing so, we would become uncomfortably aware that Holmes is a spoofer, and that the various authors, from Doyle onwards, have colluded with him in presenting his guesswork as logical virtuosity.

Lestrade: a vessel of pure wrongness in all related to criminal detection.

It is nevertheless satisfying, of course, to have Holmes’ genius demonstrated by contrast, and to see Lestrade bested by episode’s end. The individual defeats the bureaucratic might of the police, while remaining on the side of law and order. The individual can tweak the nose of authority, without having to hate it, or feel disempowered by it. The dynamic is a gentle one.

The Carlylean Hero and Zero Dark Thirty

The Carlylean type of hero is not a major presence in our society. There are certain aspect of contemporary heroism that don’t fall in with Carlylean ideals. The 21st-century Hero is much more domesticated. This is a contemporary trait that is often seen in adaptations of 19th-century fiction, most clearly, perhaps, in North & South, wherein Thornton as Carlylean Captain-of-Industry type enters into dialogue with contemporary conventions and emerges a gentle, father-type figure more interested in his children than in organizing and subduing the urban proletariat. Or just think about the recently anointed best-selling movie of all time, Avengers: Endgame, whose central hero, Tony Stark, has to balance the needs of the universe with those of being a father – and puts the latter first, though still managing to save the universe. The male hero, then, is far more domesticated and indulgently paternal than he used to be. But if we want to understand the Carlylean hero, there are a small number of contemporary narratives that provide suitable protagonists.

The single most Carlylean figure in contemporary Hollywood is Maya (Jessica Chastain) in Zero Dark Thirty (2012). There are many similarities. In discussing Sherlock Holmes in an upcoming publication I noted three elements of the Carlylean Hero that Holmes displayed. In short:

1 The Hero evinces an absolute dedication to work in a cause which transcends him or herself as an individual

2 The Hero possesses an immediate and infallible insight. Insight truly Heroic, and is always superior to knowledge:

The healthy Understanding, we should say, is not the Logical, argumentative, but the Intuitive; for the end of Understanding is not to prove and find reasons, but no believe […]. [T]he man of logic and the man of insight; the Reasoner and the Discoverer, or even knower, are quite separable — indeed, for most part, quite separate characters. (Carlyle, Characteristics, 1831)

A Hero, as I repeat, has this first distinction, which indeed we may call first and last, the Alpha and Omega of his whole Heroism, That he looks through the shows of things into things. (On Heroes, 1841)

3 The Hero is not prone to self-consciousness. Carlyle posits it as a maxim that: “The sign of health is Unconsciousness” (Ibid.)

So work, insight and the absence of self-consciousness. These are three of the central traits of Carlylean Heroism, and the three I found most applicable to the figure of Sherlock Holmes. They are dealt with in more detail in the essay linked above. To begin with, we can map these onto Maya:

1 Maya is dedicated to her work at the expense of all else. Interestingly, though this is a perfectly obvious observation to make regarding the film, there is no explicit textual reference to Maya’s attitude to work in the film. However, she is almost never seen doing anything other than work, and the attitude of focused intensity she shows at work contrasts with the lethargy and disinterest she displays on other occasions (e.g. when having dinner with Jessica). In the film’s shooting script, there is a direction that sums it up: “Maya is here too, working. She’s always working.”

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Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. (IMDb)

2 Maya brings about the death of Bin Laden (according to the movie) through her irrational confidence that she is right about his whereabouts in Abbotabad, Pakistan. As one of the soldiers’ about to undertake the mission says: “Her confidence is the one thing that’s stopping me getting ass-raped in a Pakistani prison. I’m cool with it.” As this soldier knows, there is no sufficient proof that Bin Laden is in there. As the committee approving the mission note, there was better evidence for WMD in Iraq than for this mission. It, and several previous steps in the process, is based on an insight of Maya’s rather than concrete proof. An insight that transcends rationality is the pre-eminent characteristic of the Carlylean Hero.

3 The theme of self-consciousness is not dealt with directly in Zero Dark Thirty. Of course, a person who is not self-conscious does not talk about their lack of self-consciousness; they are, by definition, not conscious of it. But that is the whole point. Unselfconsciousness does not know itself. That is its strength and its Heroism.

Aside from these elements Maya holds in common with Sherlock Holmes, there are several further points that link Maya to the Carlylean Hero:

4 The lack of importance of personal relationships in her life. This is something of a corollary to Point 1, and is central to a number of Carlyle’s portraits, from the fictional Diogenes Teufelsdrockh (Sartor Resartus) through Abbot Samson (Past and Present), Dr Francia and Frederick the Great. It is almost unheard of for a modern Hollywood film to show its protagonist as friendless, sexless, family-less and unconcerned about this state of affairs. Even Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films rely heavily on his friendship with Watson and give him a sexual life of sorts. But Zero Dark Thirty is truly radical is this sense: Maya never speaks to or of any friend, partner or family member. In a scene with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Maya is gently prodded about her love life:

Jessica: Little fooling around wouldn’t hurt you

Maya: [Sigh]

J: So no boyfriend

M: Mmm-mmm

J: You got any friends at all?

This last question is greeted with a long silence, mercifully broken by Jessica’s phone ringing. The implication is No, Maya has no friends, and this is borne out throughout the film.

5 The dissociation from the concept of happiness. Carlyle was very big on this idea, that happiness was not the goal of man. It was not something that could be attained, or should be striven for. Historically, he felt mankind had never been motivated by happiness, but rather the opposite: “They wrong man greatly who say he is to be seduced by ease. Difficulty, abnegation, martyrdom, death are the allurements that act on the heart of man” (On Heroes, Lecture II). Maya’s refusal to ever show or, it appears, feel happiness or contentment is of a piece with the Carlylean conception of heroism rather than that of our culture, which almost invariably ends with the Hero in domestic bliss. Maya doesn’t end in domesticity, or in bliss. At the end of the film, in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Bin Laden, as the men congratulate each other, Maya stands aloof and inscrutable, physically present but emotionally inaccessible. Just after this, in the final scene of the film, she takes a seat alone in a cargo plane. The pilot enters and asks her where she wants to go. She doesn’t answer but her eyes well with tears as she gazes into the empty distance. It is at this moment that Maya becomes truly heroic in the Carlylean sense. Nothing could be more Carlyleanly heroic than to meet with total triumph and to be unable to enjoy, unable to feel happiness for even the briefest moment, a moment of absolute triumph over one’s greatest foe.

It this point it would have been easy to show Maya overcome with happiness, or returning to the bosom of a loving family. That Zero Dark Thirty does not do this removes it from mainstream contemporary depictions of heroism.

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6 The willingness to indulge in violence in the name of the great goal towards which one is working. This was the most contentious element of Zero Dark Thirty – not violence per se but more specifically torture. Zizek, among others, has had much to say on this topic. Maya was readily prepared to participate in torture, to Zizek’s chagrin:

When Maya, the film’s heroine, first witnesses waterboarding, she is a little shocked, but she quickly learns the ropes; later in the film she coldly blackmails a high-level Arab prisoner with, “If you don’t talk to us, we will deliver you to Israel”. Her fanatical pursuit of Bin Laden helps to neutralise ordinary moral qualms.

Maya looks on while her colleagues torture their detainee into submission, and (according to the film) important information leading to Bin Laden is attained thereby.

In sum, in her attitudes to work, relationships, self-consciousness, happiness and violence, Maya is the closest thing contemporary Hollywood has to a true Carlylean hero. The distinguishing feature is that she is a woman. Carlyle never conceived of a female hero in On Heroes. Yet in a 21st-century when male heroism has moved away from the Carlylean vision, the Carlylean Hero as Woman is finally born.

Exceptional Violence and the Hero: Todd McGowan on Nolan’s Batman Trilogy

The age of heroes is past. In Heroes: Saviors, Traitors and Supermen (Harper Collins, 2013, kindle version loc 76), Lucy Hughes-Hallett reflects:

It is fashionable to lament the littleness of those accorded celebrity within our culture – so many footballers and rock stars and models, so few great spirits – but such collective frivolity should be cherished as one of the privileges of peace. It is desperation that prompts people to crave a champion, a protector, or a redeemer and, having identified one, to offer him their worship.

But while we might not talk about the role of heroism in public life, fictional narratives about heroic figures are enduringly popular. The superhero genre is one that is often seen as being divorced from realistic concerns, but some such narratives do indeed have their heroes deal with dilemmas recognizably drawn from contemporary political situations. The possibility of real heroism is still alive in the imagination of storytellers and their audiences.

One of the more interesting analyses of what heroism looks like in a contemporary narrative context comes from Todd McGowan’s The Fictional Christopher Nolan  (University of Texas, 2012). In this book, McGowan analyses in some depth all of Nolan’s films up to Inception, but here I will look briefly at his chapter on The Dark Knight, the second in Nolan’s massively successful Batman trilogy. The Dark Knight is an interesting film in the context of contemporary political thought, a film that provoked much critical debate and has proven good to think, as Lévi Strauss would say. McGowan introduces the various debates in initial reaction to the film. He notes that several conservative commentators saw it as a clear vindication of G.W. Bush’s “War on Terror”, while others took an opposite view. The film does not yield up its position lightly, but provides plenty of fodder for considering war, evil, heroism and terrorism in the contemporary context.

One reason why it might not yield up a position lightly is that it doesn’t have one. Indeed, Jonathan Nolan (co-screenwriter of the films with Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer) in an interview included in The Dark Knight Trilogy: The Complete Screenplays dismissed the idea of political relevance: “[W]hen The Dark Knight was released, there was a lot of talk about the echoes and resonances with the global war on terror. He has nothing to do with that” (xiii). Nolan’s dismissal seems slightly arrogant. He didn’t write the entire screenplay for one thing, so he cannot speak for his co-writers’ intentions. And, in any case, the author does not have control over how his film is to be read. One doesn’t need to go full Barthes “Death of the Author” to affirm this. Meanings proliferate and the opposed readings of TDK confirm this. It is also rather obtuse to believe that one can create a complex narrative that somehow floats free of all surrounding political structures, cultural conditions and ideas and ideologies. In fact, if TDK did somehow manage to do this, it would be a much less interesting film.

With regard to TDK, the portrayal of the figure of the hero and this figure’s relation to the surrounding society has a distinctly contemporary twist. McGowan argues that TDK “takes as its overriding concern the problem posed by the hero and the hero’s exceptional status in relation to the law” (125). That is an ideologically problematical and dangerous feature of superhero films in general: the hero is above the law. He or she behaves like a criminal in order to protect the good as they define it. This is a large part of the reason for the persistent arguments that the superhero genre inherently tends towards fascism. McGowan males a good argument that Nolan escapes this generic trap:

As the film portrays it, the form of appearance of authentic heroism must be that of evil. Only in this way does the heroic exceptionality that the superhero embodies avoid placing us on the road to fascist rule (127).

Thus at the close of TDK, Batman is denounced as the murderer of Harvey Dent, while the evil Dent is presented as a hero. This strategy is put into play by Commissioner Gordon, who believes that a fragile Gotham couldn’t handle the truth that their beloved Dent is a murderous psychopath. Batman, on the other hand, is an already ambivalent figure, so an appropriate figure for the populace’s hate to be directed towards. Batman’s truly heroic act is not in violently punishing criminals, it is in embracing the appearance of criminality, for this is what prevents the slide into fascism and this is what ensures that the violent act remains exceptional. Gordon watches Batman flee into the night, and memorably intones: “[H]e’s the hero Gotham deserves… but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero.”(323)

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Harvey Dent, Gotham’s White Night, In TDK (from here)

McGowan offers a novel and convincing reading of TDK. The only problem with it is, from this vantage point, that TDK was the second in a trilogy and now cannot really be read in isolation. The ending of TDK must be read as merely provisional. The film’s sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, makes a few things clear. First is that rebuilding Gotham on the lie of Batman’s evil/Dent’s heroism is a catastrophic failure. As Carlyle would say, A Lie Cannot be Believed (I discuss this elsewhere here; I also discuss the ending of TDKR in more detail here) and beneath the veneer of Dentian heroism (the necessary counterpoint to Batmanian evil), the city-state rots. Nolan’s vision in TDKR is puritanical and violent: lies must be purged, and they go so deep that the city must be destroyed. In the final act of the film, we see ranks of blue-shirted policeman take over the streets as the politicians have already been expelled from the city. The denouement of this film, and of the trilogy, is by no means so sophisticated and intellectually satisfying as that McGowan reads into TDK. But it is the real ending of this Batman saga. To adapt one of the trilogy’s most famous lines, it’s not the ending we wanted or needed, but maybe it’s the ending we deserved.

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Cops ready for battle at the climax of TDKR

Earnestness or Death: The Tragedy of Richard Carstone in Bleak House (1852-53)

The idea of earnestness was a key one in Victorian times. Thomas Carlyle was perhaps the prime ideologue of earnestness:

It is a most earnest thing to be alive in this world; to die is not sport for a man; man’s life never was a sport to him; it was a stern reality, altogether a serious matter to be alive! (On Heroes, Lecture 1)

So, life is earnest. Reality is stern. If we try to conceive with this means in terms of the practice of living, we can find a good example in Dickens’ Bleak House. Dickens was, of course, a great admirer of Carlyle: “I would go at all times farther to see Carlyle than any man alive“, he said. In the 1850s, in particular, Dickens was all about Carlyle: 1854’s Hard Times was inscribed to the great Sage, and 1859’s A Tale of Two Cities used Carlyle’s French Revolution as its main historical source. Bleak House, too, is a Carlylean exercise in documenting the condition of England. We don’t have to look far in this book for the influence of Carlyle, but here we will concentrate on the concept of earnestness and its relevance to the character of Richard Carstone.

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Richard is a character whose trajectory and fate have always troubled me somewhat. He is, along with the novel’s partial narrator Esther Summerson and Ada Clare (who becomes Richard’s fiance early in the novel), a ward of the benevolently patriarchal John Jarndyce. Richard is first introduced by Esther thus:

He was a handsome youth with an ingenuous face and a most engaging laugh […]. [H]e stood by us, in the light of the fire, talking gaily, like a light-hearted boy. (Bleak House, Ch. 3 [Oxford, 1999, p. 39])

This is evidently intended to predispose us in Richard’s favour. Richard’s appearance announces him as ingenuous, engaging and (in the older sense of the word) gay. This announcing of character through appearance is a common device in Dickens, and to do it in such positive terms tends to imply a hero or at least helper character. Surpisingly, though, Richard – though not a villain in a conventional sense – will function as an obstacle of sorts to the protagonist, Esther, a disturber of the domestic tranquillity in the Jarndyce household. Richard is actually an antagonist, though a somewhat sympathetic one.

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Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House (2005)

The trouble for Richard starts when he moves in with his guardian, John Jarndyce. Richard is 19 at this point, and Jarndyce immediately starts casting around for a career for the young man. He does this in an odd way, not by speaking to Richard directly, but by conspiring with his other ward, Esther:

“However,” said Mr. Jarndyce, “to return to our gossip. Here’s Rick, a fine young fellow full of promise. What’s to be done with him?”

Oh, my goodness, the idea of asking my advice on such a point!

“Here he is, Esther,” said Mr. Jarndyce, comfortably putting his hands into his pockets and stretching out his legs. “He must have a profession; he must make some choice for himself […].”

“Perhaps it would be best, first of all,” said I, “to ask Mr. Richard what he inclines to himself.”

“Exactly so,” he returned. “That’s what I mean! You know, just accustom yourself to talk it over, with your tact and in your quiet way, with him and Ada, and see what you all make of it. We are sure to come at the heart of the matter by your means, little woman.” (Ch. 8 [p. 111])

This is a curious passage: Richard is now figured by Jarndyce as a man, in that the time has come for him to undertake a profession; and as a child, in that his course is in the hands of others, and he is not privy to the discussions about his own prospects. Secrecy is a pivotal theme in Bleak House, and here Jarndyce initiates a secretive manipulation of Richard’s life and prospects. It seems, perhaps, that Jarndyce is using the excuse of Richard’s prospects to get close to Esther, to establish an intimate bond of conspiracy and secrecy between them.

That is a fateful discussion between Jarndyce and Esther, for it problematizes Richard’s career before it has even begun, and thereafter Richard is a bewildered figure at the centre of various schemes for his professional advancement. It soon becomes clear that Richard has no clear preference regarding a profession – no earnest attachment to any particular field. He just hasn’t given it much thought. This is a major problem for Jarndyce and Esther, and becomes a central plot point through the novel:

We held many consultations about what Richard was to be, first without Mr. Jarndyce, as he had requested, and afterwards with him, but it was a long time before we seemed to make progress. Richard said he was ready for anything. When Mr. Jarndyce doubted whether he might not already be too old to enter the Navy, Richard said he had thought of that, and perhaps he was. When Mr. Jarndyce asked him what he thought of the Army, Richard said he had thought of that, too, and it wasn’t a bad idea. When Mr. Jarndyce advised him to try and decide within himself whether his old preference for the sea was an ordinary boyish inclination or a strong impulse, Richard answered, Well he really HAD tried very often, and he couldn’t make out.

“How much of this indecision of character,” Mr. Jarndyce said to me, “is chargeable on that incomprehensible heap of uncertainty and procrastination on which he has been thrown from his birth, I don’t pretend to say; but that Chancery, among its other sins, is responsible for some of it, I can plainly see[…].” (Ch. 13 [pp. 179-180])

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Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce in the BBC Bleak House

In the above extract, conversations with Richard about his career take place, as well as conversations between Jarndyce and Esther about Richard. These later feature complicated and searching explanations for Richard’s “indecision of character”.

What is striking in the treatment of this plot thread is how Esther immediately and unquestioningly brings herself over to Jarndyce’s side. From the first moment on, she subscribes entirely to the notion that Richard must immediately choose a career and be resolute in following it up. She accepts Jarndyce’s dramatic problematization of Richard’s lack of earnestness, and reflects all Jarndyce’s opinions and assumptions back to him, and together they come to adverse judgements on Richard’s character. Esther’s speed to reach these judgements is all the more surprising given that she is Richard’s close friend, and before Jarndyce suggests it, she has no doubts about Richard’s character, but likes him very much (or so she says). It all suggests an excessive obedience to paternalistic authority, and a wish to be on the side of power, even when it means sacrificing her own friends.

Richard chooses a career in medicine and undertakes an apprenticeship. But his master’s first report, given informally, is as follows:

He is of such a very easy disposition that probably he would never think it worth-while to mention how he really feels, but he feels languid about the profession. He has not that positive interest in it which makes it his vocation. (Ch. 17 [p. 246])

Richard is guilty of no particular act or omission, but the adjective languid is an extremely loaded one. Languidity is the opposite of earnestness, uncomfortably close to laziness. Shortly afterwards, Esther converses with Richard and she extracts from him the confession that his work is “monotonous” (Ch. 17 [p. 248]). She also tells him that his master has noted his lack of enthusiasm and Richard expresses surprise that he has been a source of disappointment. The upshot of it is that Richard, encouraged by Esther, gives up medicine and decides to go in for law.

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Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson in the BBC Bleak House.

It needs to be emphasized here that it is through the intervention of Esther that Richard leaves his post. Until their conversation, he has no intention of doing so, believing that “[i]t’ll do as well as anything else” (ibid). So Esther is the direct cause of Richard’s failure in medicine. Esther and Jarndyce’s worries about Richard have a self-fulfilling force, and have now created the difficulties they anticipated.

In encouraging him to change careers, Esther is motivated by the following reflection:

Consider how important it is to you both, and what a point of honour it is towards your cousin, that you, Richard, should be quite in earnest without any reservation. I think we had better talk about this, really, Ada. It will be too late very soon. (ibid).

So Richard must leave his post because he is not sufficiently in earnest about it; and his being in earnest is a point of honour with his cousin (i.e. Jarndyce). This is a high standard indeed: not only must he perform his work duties competently, he must do them earnestly, and any less dishonours his cousin. So his position as ward of Jarndyce has made Richard’s duties far more complex. The idea of honouring Jarndyce is now assumed to be central to his choices, abstract as that idea is.

It’s worth noting also that Richard’s reflection on the monotony of medical work is rejected by Esther:

“Then,” pursued Richard, “it’s monotonous, and to-day is too like yesterday, and to-morrow is too like to-day.”

“But I am afraid,” said I, “this is an objection to all kinds of application—to life itself, except under some very uncommon circumstances.” (ibid).

So Esther does not accept that Richard should find less monotonous work, but insists that he do his necessarily monotonous work more earnestly. There is a great deal of complacency from Esther here; and an unearned sense of her own wisdom and superiority in terms of life experience. She is Richard’s age, and has led a more sheltered existence. Yet her closeness to Jarndyce grants her an authority over him. Richard accepts her arguments meekly and without apparent rancour.  From this point on, with his own desires so roundly ignored, and the added pressure of working for the honour of his overbearing guardian Jarndyce, it is inevitable that Richard will find it impossible to settle into his work.

Upon undertaking his new career, Richard soon gets into debt, and on finding this out Jarndyce forces a break in the engagement between Richard and Ada (another ward of Jarndyce). In Inside Bleak House (Duckworth, 2005), John Sutherland questions this deviation from the “habitual good nature” of Jarndyce, noting that “[a]t this stage, Richard is by no means a lost cause (no more than Pip, for example, in Great Expectations, in the period before Magwitch’s return” (p. 145). I suggest, however, that it is less a deviation than the natural development of Jarndyce’s proprietorial and overbearingly authoritarian attitude towards Richard, and that there is no “good nature” evident in Jarndyce’s treatment of Richard at any point. He is motivated, rather, by two things: he enjoys flexing his power over Richard; and he is invested in getting close to Esther via earnest and intense discussions about Richard. His insistence that Richard evince earnest devotion to a respectable profession is also rather hypocritical in that he himself does not work at all and seems never to have done so.

Things get no better for Richard as the novel progresses. But why go over the whole sorry saga? The young man was ill served by those closest to him. With friends like Esther, who needs enemies? With benefactors like Jarndyce, who needs malefactors? By sticking to the Victorian party line about earnestness, they were able to destroy Richard’s prospects and peace of mind, and make him think it was all his fault. Earnestness has rarely been less attractive than when coming from these characters. Bleak House is a book that one has to admire in many respects, but sometimes it is a hard book to like. Esther’s excessive modesty has often been noted – Charlotte Bronte called her a “weak and twaddling” character – but her relations with Richard show her to be worse than that. Esther is a hypocrite whose assumptions of moral superiority disguise her cringing and self-serving adherence to the bullying dictats of Jarndyce. A pair of sanctimonious and pettily power-hungry hypocrites, perhaps their marriage would have been a good match after all!

Poverty, Domestic Violence and Rapacious Benevolence: The Brickmaker from Bleak House (1852-53)

The English social novels of the 1840s-50s were concerned with analysing the relations between the haves and have-nots. Generally, the conclusions suggested in novels like North and South (1854-55) was that there was misunderstanding between these sectors, and if they both listened to each other, they would get along and work productively together. In North and South, the protagonist Margaret Hale befriends a household of poor factory workers, the Higginses, and at times mediates between them and mill-owner John Thornton.

Margaret is welcomed into the Higgins household. But the course of trans-class friendship does not always run smooth. The charitable instincts of a middle-class lady are not necessarily met with gratitude from the working class. There is a compelling scene quite early in Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-53) wherein a group of would-be philanthropists enter a brickmaker’s house. The house and its environs are a scene of dismal poverty. Characteristic of Bleak House, the initial description of the setting emphasizes dirt, grime and an overall sense of decay and stagnation:

[I]t was one of a cluster of wretched hovels in a brick-field, with pigsties close to the broken windows and miserable little gardens before the doors growing nothing but stagnant pools. Here and there an old tub was put to catch the droppings of rain-water from a roof, or they were banked up with mud into a little pond like a large dirt-pie. At the doors and windows some men and women lounged or prowled about, and took little notice of us except to laugh to one another or to say something as we passed about gentlefolks minding their own business and not troubling their heads and muddying their shoes with coming to look after other people’s. (Bleak House, Ch. VIII)

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Dickens’ narrator here is Esther Summerson, and she implicitly raises one of the key themes of the book when she notes the “gentlefolk” passing by “minding their own business”. Like Gaskell, Dickens is concerned with the lack of interaction between classes, and the middle-class disinterest in the problems of the working class. But Dickens’ passage here goes on to show the difficulty in initiating an inter-class exchange. In this passage, it is not Esther who initiates the exchange, but Mrs Pardiggle, a philanthropist whose efforts are characterised by “rapacious benevolence” according to Dickens/Esther. As far as the characters with whom she interacts are concerned, Mrs Pardiggle is both tireless and tiresome:

“Well, my friends,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, but her voice had not a friendly sound, I thought; it was much too business-like and systematic. “How do you do, all of you? I am here again. I told you, you couldn’t tire me, you know. I am fond of hard work, and am true to my word.”

“There an’t,” growled the man on the floor, whose head rested on his hand as he stared at us, “any more on you to come in, is there?”

“No, my friend,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, seating herself on one stool and knocking down another. “We are all here.”

“Because I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?” said the man, with his pipe between his lips as he looked round upon us.

The young man and the girl both laughed. Two friends of the young man, whom we had attracted to the doorway and who stood there with their hands in their pockets, echoed the laugh noisily.

Esther maintains a critical attitude towards Mrs Pardiggle, characterizing her as “too business-like and systematic”. It is clear that her charitable efforts are not approved of by Dickens, and he also satirizes organized charity through the characterization of Mrs Jellyby elsewhere in the book. In a manner that is somewhat typical for Dickens, the energy from the scene doesn’t really come from any of the main players. It comes, instead, from the brickmaker himself, who only appears in this scene and plays no part in the plot of the novel. He doesn’t even have a name. His role in this scene is to frustrate Mrs Pardiggle’s attempts at charity, and to express the anger and hostility that Esther also feels, but is too respectable to say.  The brickmaker’s first sally is the sarcastic observation that “I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?”. Then he is given the opportunity to launch into a powerful speech.

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Phiz’s original illustration for “A Visit to the Brickmaker’s” http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/phiz/bleakhouse/6.html 

 

“You can’t tire me, good people,” said Mrs. Pardiggle to these latter. “I enjoy hard work, and the harder you make mine, the better I like it.”

“Then make it easy for her!” growled the man upon the floor. “I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom—I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she IS a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty—it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don’t never mean for to go to church. I shouldn’t be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she’s a lie!”

As well as powerful, this speech from the brickmaker is a rather complicated one. It indicts Mrs Pardiggle’s arrogance and insensitivity. It also refers with brutal frankness to the infant mortality rate. It characterizes the brickmaker as a violent tyrant in his domestic setting, as well as a drunk. Dickens is well known for sentimentality, and rightly so, but here there is no sentimentality, just a vision of degradation, and an unjudgemental portrait of an individual who is both a victim and a bully. All of Dickens’ condemnation seems to be directed against intrusive philanthropists. The brickmaker’s frank assumption of all the worst traits of the “undeserving poor” gives him a momentary heroism, a breaking through of all social conventions that is riveting to read. Say what you like about the brickmaker, he has no cant – an important point for such 19th-century commentators as Dickens and Carlyle, and certainly not something that one could say for Mrs Pardiggle.

The brickmaker’s black-eyed wife is also nursing a baby. As the scene goes on, there is more Dickensian drama:

Ada, whose gentle heart was moved by  [the baby’s] appearance, bent down to touch its little face. As she did so, I saw what happened and drew her back. The child died.

“Oh, Esther!” cried Ada, sinking on her knees beside it. “Look here! Oh, Esther, my love, the little thing! The suffering, quiet, pretty little thing! I am so sorry for it. I am so sorry for the mother. I never saw a sight so pitiful as this before! Oh, baby, baby!”

[…]

Presently I took the light burden from her lap, did what I could to make the baby’s rest the prettier and gentler, laid it on a shelf, and covered it with my own handkerchief. We tried to comfort the mother, and we whispered to her what Our Saviour said of children. She answered nothing, but sat weeping—weeping very much.

When I turned, I found that the young man had taken out the dog and was standing at the door looking in upon us with dry eyes, but quiet. The girl was quiet too and sat in a corner looking on the ground. The man had risen. He still smoked his pipe with an air of defiance, but he was silent.

[…]

We felt it better to withdraw and leave them uninterrupted. We stole out quietly and without notice from any one except the man. He was leaning against the wall near the door, and finding that there was scarcely room for us to pass, went out before us. He seemed to want to hide that he did this on our account, but we perceived that he did, and thanked him. He made no answer.

This is the last we see of the brickmaker, stepping quietly aside to let Esther and Ada pass outside. We presume he returned to his errant ways, but that simple final gesture of respect and decorum is subtly powerful, in the circumstances. It is Dickens at his most unsentimental and dignified. Sometimes, in Bleak House and elsewhere, he lays it on with a trowel, but there are moments where he transcends.

George Orwell famously said of Dickens: “He is all fragments, all details — rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.” The Brickmaker is a gargoyle: he doesn’t need to be there. He doesn’t return later to tie up any loose ends in the plot. But he does provide one of the most compelling, if narratively inessential, characterizations in the novel. In that, he is classic Dickens.

 

 

The Intensity of the (Quasi-)Maternal Relation in North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-55) is known both as a love story in the Pride and Prejudice lineage, and as a social novel dealing with class conflict of the quintessentially mid-Victorian type. One of its most striking passages, though, is little remarked. It comes from late in the novel, before the final reconciliation between Margaret Hale and John Thornton. Margaret is living with her sister, Edith, and her family. Margaret has a particularly intense relationship with her young nephew Sholto:

One of the great pleasures of Margaret’s life at this time, was in Edith’s boy. He was the pride and plaything of both father and mother, as long as he was good; but he had a strong will of his own, and as soon as he burst out into one of his stormy passions, Edith would throw herself back in despair and fatigue, and sigh out, ‘Oh dear, what shall I do with him! Do, Margaret, please ring the bell for Hanley.’

But Margaret almost liked him better in these manifestations of character than in his good blue-sashed moods. She would carry him off into a room, where they two alone battled it out; she with a firm power which subdued him into peace, while every sudden charm and wile she possessed, was exerted on the side of right, until he would rub his little hot and tear-smeared face all over hers, kissing and caressing till he often fell asleep in her arms or on her shoulder. Those were Margaret’s sweetest moments. They gave her a taste of the feeling that she believed would be denied to her for ever. (Oxford, 2008, ed. Angus Easson, 405)

This passage is surely worthy of more attention than it has hitherto received. Margaret takes over the role of mother from Edith, and her mode of disciplining Sholto has surprisingly erotic overtones. The battle in which the “firm power” of one party subdues the other into peace is a central dynamic of North and South. Margaret is constantly through the novel being described in terms of her personal power, as in Dr Donaldson’s reaction to her:

Who would have thought that little hand could have given such a squeeze? But the bones were well put together, and that gives immense power. What a queen she is! With her head thrown back at first, to force me into speaking the truth […].  (127)

There is also Margaret’s taming of her (initially) insubordinate servant Dixon:

[S]he, who would have resented such words from anyone less haughty and determined in manner, was subdued enough to say, in a half-humble, half-injured tone-

‘Mayn’t I unfasten your gown, Miss, and undo your hair?’ […]

From henceforth Dixon obeyed and admired Margaret […]. [T]he truth was, that Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature. (48)

Throughout North and South, there is a theme of dominance in Margaret’s personal relationships: she likes dominating people, and people – such as Dr Donaldson and Dixon – like being dominated by her. In case it wasn’t made sufficiently clear in the plot, the third-person narrator states it as a general truth: “Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature.” So Margaret’s relationship with Sholto, and her power to subdue him, is an extension of this. It is an emotionally intense process for both parties: Sholto’s face becomes tear stained, while to Margaret the emotional affect is even more profound:

“Those were Margaret’s sweetest moments. They gave her a taste of the feeling that she believed would be denied to her for ever.”

What exact feeling is referred to? In the context of the story, Margaret has just been separated from Thornton, and the loss informs her response to Sholto. She is to be denied both conjugal and maternal relations, and this explains why she reacts so strongly. There is a certain excess in the passage, considered in the light of a (pseudo-)mother-child encounter. Margaret is somewhat too intense about Sholto. The physicality of their encounter – tears, kisses, caresses and the final swoon into sleep by the finally subdued Sholto – along with Margeret’s use of “every sudden charm and wile she possessed” recalls the conjugal relationship more than the maternal one. In this sense, Margaret is a forerunner of Henry James’ governess in The Turn of the Screw, whose lack of appropriate outlet for affection leads her into an obsessive and emotionally destructive relation with her young charges. Gaskell doesn’t imply any emotional failing in Margaret that leads to this incident, nor does she find an inappropriacy in it as a modern reader might. Indeed, this scene is not included in the popular 2004 series adaptation, and it is difficult to see how it could have been without raising uncomfortable questions about Margaret.

margaret north and south

Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale in the BBC series North & South (2004).

For Gaskell here seems to have anticipated a piece of Freudian knowledge abut the parental relationship:

[T]he parents — or as a rule the mother — supplies the child with feelings which originate from her own sexual life; she pats it, kisses it, and rocks it, plainly taking it as a substitute for a full-valued sexual object.  (Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905; trans. A.A. Brill, 1920)

In a footnote, Freud acknowledges that some readers will find this contention “wicked” but cites Havelock Ellis in support. Had he read Gaskell, he might have found in North and South another reference point, a piece of Freudian psychology avant la lettre.

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