Women Talking by Miriam Toews



women talking.jpgWomen talking consists of deep dialogues under the situation of not being perturbed and disturbed by the authority of patriarchy. The book sets its background in a Mennonite colony, in which the author responded to the true-event of a crude crime in the style of a fictitious account. Between 2005 and 2009 girls and women of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia were put into unconscious state at nights and raped by the men of their community. When the women explained the wounds and pain the next day to the elder members and bishop they were deceived that those being marks of punishment from the sins they committed throughout their lives and the women should repent their reckless and devilish acts.

The main plot of the book centers around a group of female of two families holding a secret meeting in the loft dealing with the aftermath of the crime while the men in the city are trying the bail out the perpetrators who are awaiting on trials – not long after the men’s return, the bishop will demand an answer from the women whether they publicly forgive the men, stay in the community and live as normal; otherwise women would have to face excommunication. In the case, women need to decide the future before the men’s imminent return from the city.

The meeting is recorded by August Epp, a Mennonite who was excommunicated along with his parents during childhood. He was educated in England but incarcerated in jail for what he had done during the street protest against a bill passed in the British Parliament. After the imprisonment he is convinced to return to the community and being reintroduced under the Bishop’s watch. The Mennonite women are all victims of the Incident, in front of them are three different options, (1) Do Nothing; (2) Fight or (3) Leave. Three options were each debated in the meeting conducted through the mother dialect of Plautdietsch (Low German) and translated in English on package paper by August Epp.

“Ona asks the children if they know what a sea is, and they stare at her with four enormous blue eyes, sea-like. Ona describes the sea as another world, one that is hidden from us, one that lives underwater. It is the life in the sea that she defines as the sea, and not the sea itself. She talks about fish and other living things.”

Although the context of Women Talking is based on the aftermath of a tragic and depraved incident in a community, there are some interesting conversations arising from the book. At first I am not sure if I have absorbed wholeheartedly of the meaning of the words, but somehow I gradually grasp some ideas of the dialogues. They are somewhat philosophical and thought-provoking.

At one point of conversation, the women are contending whether they should be fighting or leaving to confront the cruelty of the men, and if there are any precedents to support the argument. Women responds that animals, like horses, would evade but some would fight in return – most examples are surrounded with animals’ behaviour in the farm as these are the creatures women often see in the homeland life. Following the discussion, one woman would rebuke – if we are compared to animals like pigs, horses, dogs or raccoons, we would not enter the gate of heaven as there are not much labouring and feeding going on in the eternity.

There is also another argument regarding the option of “Leaving”, what is the appropriate age range for the boys to leave with women? Would there be possible harm unforeseen in future if boys/men who were willing to follow the women? Would all this be a pretence of the men if they follow the women under the consent set between both sexes and a lie for the women taking charge of decision in the new land? How are we assessing the best option knowing that we actually are using our intellect and peace in mind rather than driven by hunger and fear like other animals do? Varied situations and hypotheses are being discerned and discussed between women talking in the meeting, they are endless, and some unanswerable; counted clocks being a dumb catalyst to propel and urge the women back to ponder the three options again practically.

As the meeting progresses, some beautiful notions come up in the book. It is actually showing that although the women in the community might also be the sticklers of belief to other members that “outsiders”, like readers, might disapprove, but the option they finally choose is reflecting an uncultivated and unwrought notion of “love” and “faith” in humanity that is without any intervention of a third-party’s influence, and is inbred in every life. The option and the reasons for it is in a nature no way regarded by outsiders as an act of resignation, and entirely not expounding the idea of forgiveness vulgarly –  the women would not “Do Nothing” under this situation, and they would not “Fight” as both acts are flouting pacifism. They are conscientious objectors, and they need to reflect pacifism through “Leaving” – to protect the children and the weak, to be acknowledged, and to think. – Consciousness is resistance, that faith is action. (p. 214)

Another beautiful idea is the relationship between August Epp and Ona. August Epp was excommunicated during boyhood, his mother passed away while he was incarcerated in prison and father disappeared during the time in England when he was a boy. Ona, on the other hand, was impregnated by the violent incident. Both are victims of the “Mennonite experiment”. But it is the tragic past which tied August Epp with the Bishop that makes the relationship with Ona more intimate. August Epp is suicidal because he is secretly known of his indelible past that he feels guilty being born. But in Ona’s eyes and perspective, Epp is the message of goodness and hope to both the community as well as her future in a physical form.

In Epp’s conversation he has had with Ona, faith can always be restored. The rudiment of love is that it is a subject of supreme and unknown nature that God has taught individuals to reflect in lives rather than instilling strict rules for individuals to obey in solidarity to prove that you Love God. Also, the concept of “action” is important in the book, one should change other than being indulged with the past.

I think this book is not mainly written to us readers to judge whether being kept from and secluded from the patriarchal world under a religious belief, like Anabaptism, is a harmful notion to women / believers, but the focal point is that through the world of the women on this account, we should grip the idea of how to treat ourselves in our world, learn to deal, confront, and accept the past, of how to be resilient and  convert ourselves into good use.


The Mystery of Charles Dickens: A Tale of Mesmerism and Murder by John Paulits


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9781780921778Between 1844 an 1845, during the time of Dickens’ excursion with his family, he was acquainted with the de la Rues in Genoa. Emile de la Rue, a Swiss banker, confided to Dickens that his English wife Augusta was having troubles with facial tics and sleepless nights. Taught by Dr. Elliotson in London, Dickens returned to Genoa and underwent sessions of mesmerism to put Augusta into a trance-like state, so that she could be cured during the process of awakening and dreaming. However, the One and Only Dickens, the Great Original, the master that all men great and small who gravitated towards this resplendent being, was defeated in this one and only circumstance. During the trance, Augusta divulged to Dickens that she was actually haunted by a “phantom” in her subterranean mind, and little was known by Dickens that twenty-five years later, in doing the justice to the Swiss banker’s wife, and having a righteousness in mind to uncover the deepest depth of a gruesome truth in writing the Mystery of Edwin Drood (what excitement to find out this name is a play of anagram!), the inescapable jeopardy was awaiting Dickens to meet his accursed end.

“You have caused these attacks. You are the source of these attacks. Do not sit there and act as if your wife’s attacks are but a small price to pay to possess the likes of you! You talk as if you were some rare and precious prize. What you have done is to destroy the woman’s peace of mind, her health, and her stability.”(p. 122)

The Mystery of Charles Dickens is one of the most interesting books I have read. One of the aspects which makes this book unforgettable is that there is a great juxtaposition drawn between the nuptial/familial affections of Dickens’ and that of de la Rues. Some dialogues actually remind me of the biographies and fiction I read about Dickens with his wife Catherine.  In Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold, Catherine is also portrayed as an insecure wife, suffered from indisposition and stuck in a rotation of birth-giving confinement. In truth, before the separation in 1858, Dickens even made his instructions to set up a partition wall in the bedroom and accused of Catherine being suffered from mental disorder. In The Mystery of Charles Dickens, Catherine is more belligerent and acrimonious to Dickens, perhaps used to illustrate Dickens being the restless and unique character in search of the truth and justice in this mystery. But still, both Catherine Dickens and Augusta de la Rue were victims in a way that their misfortune was self-disguised as blessings that they believed the total darkness of their lives was illuminated by a rare and precious light like their husbands, but the truth is that the relationships were actually a deception, a psychological detriment, and they were only seen as impressionable beings.

“Dickens seemed now to control the very respiration of his audience. There were passages where taking a breath, making a disturbance, however slight, would have been a sacrilegious impossibility.” (p.138)

On the other aspect, Dickens, when put onto paper in fiction, biographies, and projected on screens as the protagonist of possessing restless and inquisitive mind, is a character who makes one very excitable to dissect, devour, and admire in words. “Dickens’ command over his audience amazed de la Rue. The Room no longer seemed a collection of individuals but had become one attentive thing, pushed, pulled, driven, frightened, amused, and entertained by the man in the small circle of light.” (p. 138) I really enjoy reading these kinds of enlivened passages in the book narrating Dickens with his reading desks, citing aloud his works during his farewell reading performances on stage, and every time he has read the murder scene of Nancy by Sikes in Oliver Twist, Dickens was described as being too exhausted and overwrought that he needed to stagger off from the stage being flanked by two men in assistance.

Vengeance plays a major part in the book. There is Dickens’s vengeance against Emile de la Rue’s immoral filth that he needed to make it come alive in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (admittedly I still haven’t read it), and on the other side, Emile de la Rue’s mistaken vengeance against Dickens for ruining his life and hopeful possibility to attain a high social status in London is ubquitious in the story. Emile de la Rue’s sinful tramps around Rochester is especially making one feel really tense while reading it, even better than the mesmerising chapters on Augusta (I find some dialogues quite humourous, especially the bits when Dickens was convinced he had a great pair of visual rays that could subdue Augusta). Emile was really one of a rogue in the book, and those chapters make me really want to explore Gad’s Hill once in a lifetime. (Although I think it has been turned to a school for a long time but I really hope someday I could visit this place).

By the way, Dr Elliotson is also another interesting person in the book, apart from him being an expert of mesmerist, little did I know he was also an eminent phrenologist. But most importantly, he actually underwent a successful operation of amputating a patient’s penis using mesmerism as an anesthetic. So, one must get hold of this book to dig more information!

Hide and Seek by Wilkie Collins (quote 2)


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Our faculties are never more completely at the mercy of the smallest interests of our being, than when they appear to be most fully absorbed by the mightiest. And it is well for us that there exists this seeming imperfection in our nature. The first cure of many a grief, after the hour of parting, or in the house of death, has begun, insensibly to ourselves, with the first moment when we were betrayed into thinking of so little a thing even as a daily meal.

Hide and Seek by Wilkie Collins (quote)


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Nothing was more characteristic of Mrs. Blyth’s warm sympathies and affectionate consideration for Madonna than this little action. The kindest people rarely think it necessary, however well practiced in communicating by the fingers with the deaf, to keep them informed of any ordinary conversation which may be proceeding in their presence. Wise disquisitions, witty sayings, curious stories, are conveyed to their minds by sympathizing friends and relatives, as a matter of course; but the little chatty nothings of everyday talk, which most pleasantly and constantly employ our speaking and address our hearing faculties, are thought too slight and fugitive in their nature to be worthy of transmission by interpreting fingers or pens, and are consequently seldom or never communicated to the deaf. No deprivation attending their affliction is more severely felt by them than the special deprivation which thus ensues; and which exiles their sympathies, in a great measure, from all share in the familiar social interests of life around them.

Hide and Seek, Wilkie Collins

“If love is the law then this is a crime…” Blind Love by Wilkie Collins


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9781551114477[T]he one unassailable vital force in this world is the force of love. It may submit to the hard necessities of life; it may acknowledge the imperative claims of duty; it may be silent under reproach, and submissive to privation – but, suffer what it may, it is the master-passion still; subject to no artificial influences, owning no supremacy but the law of its own being.

Blind Love is the last novel which Wilkie Collins assiduously worked on until the forty-eighth chapters followed by Walter Besant with the remaining sixteen under “actual detailed scenario” and “fragments of dialogue” left by Wilkie’s instructions. Moral obligations are ubiquitous in this story; the nature of relationships gives powerful impact upon the characters with relative consequences.

“This misplaced love of mine that everybody condemns has, oddly enough, a virtue that everybody must admire. It offers a refuge to a woman who is alone in the world.” – Iris Henley

“Blindness” refers to one’s inescapable irrationality within the scope of relationships and the self. In this story, the historical backgrounds of  “Irish business”, under the unionist’s point of view, was irrational, and the underlying meaning of “being insured for life” in the 19th century would ironically lead to a life destruction.

Indeed, this novel has a pessimistic tone in it; every character has life’s little uncontrollables which are completely not sober in human nature out of his and her own being. However, gleams of hopeful light are shed on the readers the moment when each character is awakened by his or her own circumstances. One of the reasons for Wilkie Collins’s works being so enticing is the enlightenment and empowerment when a character who is always regarded inferior by his or her ranks toughens up against the hard life’s necessities.

In Blind Love, the female voice is one of the strongest and remarkable in Wilkie’s works, and we should not disregard the significance of this story being more inferior to his other notable works. We see the struggle of the three female characters in this story – Mrs Vimpany (a former actress and an infamous doctor’s wife), Iris Henley (whose husband was of a noble rank but being disinherited from his family’s fortune), and last but not least, Fanny Mere (a fallen woman / housemaid). Each was once impressionable and fettered by a distorted love.

In Iris’s case, however, the feeling of implicit trust in her husband was still ambivalent and not being destructed nearly until the end of the story. She was infatuated with the man and married to the scope of Norland’s domesticity against her friends’ wishes. In her solitary hours, she was more sober to see through the veil of his recklessness, but in the darkness of time, Lord Harry’s sweet tooth, high spirits and talks of “self-reproach” filled her up with hope again. The veil was not lifted up until she could discover a vile conspiracy concerning Lord Harry’s association with a bad company – Mr Vimpany, a notorious doctor in his profession, alike Count Fosco in The Woman in White with a pecuniary greed.

“You have been brought up to believe, perhaps, that people in service are not men and women. That is a mistake – a great mistake. Fanny Mere is a woman – that is to say, an inferior form of man; and there is no man in the world so low or so base as not to be able to do mischief. The power of mischief is given to every one of us. It is the true, the only Equality of Man – we can all destroy. What? a shot in the dark; the striking of a lucifer match; the false accusation; the false witness; the defamation of character; – upon my word, it is far more dangerous to be hated by a woman than by a man. And this excellent and faithful Fanny, devoted to her mistress, hates you, my lord, even more”… – Mr Vimpany

The inner struggle of Iris Henley might try readers’ patience, but it is the duel against the misandristic (a treat for us reader, but thankfully she wasn’t one in the end) Fanny Mere (the hunter) and Mr Vimpany (the prey) which makes the plot much more exciting. It is an unexpected rival of the ranks. Each has own secrets not to be divulged. Fanny Mere’s background, unluckily, was not a mystery. We get to know where her hard life came from, and from there she got hold of her strength and stamina to compete against the villain of the story.

Regarding the plot, some are disappointing to me, for example, the story does not touch on the grief of Hugh Mountjoy concerning the assassination of his brother, and the restitution and payback of the money to the insurance company is a bit unbelievable.

However, readers who are familiar with Wilkie Collins’s works might feel bits of excitement when some of his notable elements are drawn into the story, for instance, the mental seclusion from society with an ill-fated marriage, the banishment of the man and wife, and the domestic environment likened to the living of a solitary confinement set within the prison walls…the extremity would always imply that main characters, normally a heroine, would proactively conduct her next move to defy the current hardship and life, with satisfactory outcomes to us readers.

Although the plot and the tension might not be up to my liking compared with his other works, the female voice, the doppelgänger, the atonement (one of my favourite elements of his works) are within in this novel, so I would want more fellows who like his works not to evade this story nevertheless.


Dum Spiro Spero


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I first heard of Kuching, Sarawak was the time I read a novel called Ghost Cave by Elsie Sze. A story that transcends three generations – a Hakka labourer ancestor embarked to Kuching to search for a better life during the nineteenth century, a young man who belonged to a communist guerrilla in the 1950s Sarawak fought in the jungles for his believed ideology, and a girl who traced her own roots and questioned her own identity while spending a time in the City of the modern-day. This captivating novel highlighted the rebellion we must each have to confront with at some certain points of our lives and only that we could eventually define ourselves who we are as humans. It also captures the importance of family and traditions that should be cherished and treasured.


Since I had read the book a few years ago I always wanted to go to Kuching. Since I had visited the place in late March it occupies a special place in my heart. There is no direct flight to Hong Kong to Kuching so I am thankful that my parents came along with me to take an international transfer flight and roamed around the City for this short but unforgettable five-day holiday. They were daunted at first because they always found something negative to say about a place and the availability of food spots which were unbeknownst to them. “The place is notorious for motorbike robbery”, “it’s very inconvenient not to have metro transport system.” However soon we got there, the disadvantages that are pointed toward this City were over-weighed by the laid-back aura there. Provided with the newly completed bridge being set as a backdrop to the waterfront esplanade the spectacle becomes really peerless indeed and my feeling was quite overjoyed.


One of my ultimate destinations was to see the Fort Margherita. Commissioned by the second white rajah, Charles Brooke, and being built in 1879, it initially served as a fort to fend of potential enemy and later transformed into a police museum before turned into a gallery which recounts and commemorates the Brooke Dynasty. In this case, the Fort oversees four generations of Sarawak governance. The Gallery mainly comprises of a few sections: (a) the start of civilisation of Sarawak, exploration of Borneo Island by European precedents and early life and exploits of James Brooke; (b) deprivations of the locals by Sultanate of the early Bruneian Empire, piracy operated by Dayaks, crushing of turmoil in Sarawak by James Brooke and his allies, and finally the proclamation of a new Kingdom by the first White Rajah Brooke; (c) Brookes’ governance, dissidents and uprisings against Brooke Dynasty; (d) centenary celebrations of Brooke Dynasty before WWII, Japanese Occupation; (e) Charles Vyner Brooke, Anthony Brooke, and anti-cession movement; and (f) Today’s Sarawak and Malaysia Borneo.


Some of the most interesting parts of the Brooke stories are the exploits of James Brooke and his setting sail on the Royalist. It is incredible how a veteran who had a bullet shot with a wound in the lung during his fight could be inspired by stories of the East while in Bath and had such an adventurous heart that made him the first White Rajah (which, could somewhat overlooked his controversial rule), Brookes’ wives, and post-war Sarawak on which how the anti-cession movement turned “dirty”, how the Sarawakians fought about their future and interests. It seemed like roles and identity are always the concerns that entrenched many Sarawakians all the time. While many displays are very interesting and gripping, some definitely give me a heart attack, like that badger encased in a glass. I didn’t expect a taxidermy on display at all!


However, I think this gallery is operated to commemorate Brookes and unfortunately only one side of the coin is shown. It should somewhat include more on the controversial sides of White Rajahs, for example, the massacres around the Dynasty, as well as the the effect and aftermath of colonisation as well. Apart from that, I also went to the Chinese History Museum, Sarawak Natural History Museum (although only the  building about history of Sarawak is open to visitors, but I never get tired to it), and Sarawak Cultural Village (only one hour and a half because the taxi cab is waiting outside).


The most surprising bit is that I’ve got to try Seafood Ngare at the Waterfront. If I had visited this city alone I would have doubted whether I had the heart to do it! After spending a few days in Kuching, I really enjoy being surrounded by the place and the people, and the motto of “unity”. My goal would be to return to this city someday, and hopefully to have learned much more about the history of Sarawak beforehand to be more culturally indulged in the beauty of it.


The Travelling Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

Despite appearances, I’m a pretty intelligent, well-mannered cat, and I worked out how to use the toilet right away and never once soiled the floor. Tell me not to sharpen my claws on certain places, and I refrain. The walls and door frames were forbidden so I used the furniture and rug for claw-sharpening. I mean, he never specifically mentioned that the furniture and the rug were off limits. (Admittedly, he did look a little put out at first, but I’m the kind of cat who can pick up on things, sniff out what’s absolutely forbidden, and what isn’t. The furniture and the rug weren’t absolutely off limits, is what I’m saying.)

I think it took about two months to get the stitches out and for the bone to heal. During that time, I found out the man’s name. Satoru Miyawaki.

9780857524195Five years ago, Nana, a stray cat in Tokyo, met his first and ever human friend whom he believed himself destined to belong to, and mutually endeared one to another. At first, their encounter didn’t start off smoothly without a doubt, because Nana was a stray cat who had gone through the fiercest and fittest theory of survival as well as several “carnage” on the streets. But staying with his owner, Satoru, Nana not only developed a “worldly wisdom” that was confined to the feline world but also experienced a nobility, once it’s in a humans’ heart, could be invaluable.

Then one day, Satoru, a young man who was in his thirty odd years, notified one friend after another that he would be setting off to make a visit along with Nana. First was an elementary school friend (now a photo studio proprietor), second a junior high school pal (farmer), third a couple (owners of a B&B / orchard field) who were his high school classmates – hence provided the titular cat on a silver van with his owner and an unforgettable journey on the roads of Japan. The third-person narrative recounted the inescapable helplessness, weaknesses and self-doubt that each of the friends they had at some points of their lives while sharing a friendship with Satoru, and how those points from then on transferred onto their adulthood with guilt, regrets, and remorse. Satoru and Nana, after some years, came to mend their wounds and help them confront and embrace the past.

One of the enchanting elements of the story is Satoru’s nobility. He never thought fate was miserable to him; he appreciated that little collateral’s beauty in life –  that things and people are intertwining to crotchet stories surrounding us that make lives meaningful; and while reading the book, my tears are always racing against the plot before it unveiling itself. It’s very overwhelming to lock myself into the aura of devotion and preciousness of love shared between Nana and Saturo; they deserved to have one another, and Saturo was a very likeable owner to be so incomparably observant and perceptive to Nana’s feelings that only pets are contained to do towards humans. “[A] proud cat like me wasn’t about to abandon his pal. If living as a stray was what it took to be Satoru’s cat to the very end, then bring it on.” I must say, I really like this book and while reading it, I have a feeling that I very much eager to be liked by none other creature than Cats; and I am proud to say that there was once in my life during my boarding school years a cat that I very much endeared to had licked my hand.

By the way, inspired by a novel I had read around two years ago, I’m travelling to Kuching, Malaysia within a month. It’s very exciting if those days I am spending in Kuching could be posted up here very soon! 🙂

I Say No (1884) by Wilkie Collins

books_isay_ybcw“Literature has hardly paid sufficient attention to a social phenomenon of a singularly perplexing kind. We hear enough, and more than enough, of persons who successfully cultivate the Arts – of the remarkable manner in which fitness for their vocation shows itself in early life, of the obstacles which family prejudice places in their way, and of the unremitting devotion which has led to the achievement of glorious results.

But how many writers have noticed those other incomprehensible persons, members of families innocent for generations past of practicing Art or caring for Art, who have notwithstanding displayed from their earliest years the irresistible desire to cultivate poetry, painting, or music; who have surmounted obstacles, and endured disappointments, in the single-hearted resolution to devote their lives to an intellectual pursuit – being absolutely without the capacity which proves the vocation, and justifies the sacrifice. Here is Nature, ‘unerring Nature,’ presented in flat contradiction with herself. Here are men bent on performing feats of running, without having legs; and women, hopelessly barren, living in constant expectation of large families to the end of their days.”

As the above paragraph indicates, many persons, who with an enormous passion for what they do, are often overlooked as anonymity and unacknowledged due to their failure of not attaining remarkable results regardless of the hardship they endure and the diligence they put in. I Say No: or the Love-letter Answered, in my idea, is that Wilkie, through the story, avuncularly and humorously gives a nod of encouragement to the persons, including us readers, who work persistently, morally and assiduously for their passions, and guides those stray suffered ones back on the right track of fortitude, perseverance, and hope.

“The passion of revenge, being essentially selfish in its nature, is of all passions the narrowest in its range of view.”

After James Brown received that letter replied with only three words – “I Say No”, the love-worn man incurred an unexpected death. Arrest warrant issued, people who were acquainted with James Brown were shadowed by his tragic death and each suffered mentally in a great deal. But four years after James’s daughter, Emily, was imparted by her beloved aunt that her father died of heart diseases, the “acknowledged” truth that Emily knows was later on challenged and concealed by her admirers, as well as a self-absorbed friend for different reasons. The good self-denying ones concealed it purely out of love and interests towards Emily. However, the merciless antagonist irrigated it as the seed of retribution: when obstacles were in the way, the revelation of the truth was used as shortcuts to achieve the means.

So some would say, what really happened to the mysterious death? “The wound could not have been inflicted, in the act of suicide, by the hand of the deceased person…” Based on this court hearing, it made the ending all the more of a anti-climax. The solution of the mystery was solely based on Emily’s trusting attributes and belief without any proof of evidence. Nobody including Miss Jethro, Mrs Rook, and Reverend Mirabel was blamed in the end. I thought Reverend Mirabel was the murderer as it seems like the authors of the contemporaries tend to attack the false philanthropy and pretentiousness of a person who induces an interesting and extreme contrast between his social position and character. But all Reverend Mirabel possesses was disconcert and fear. Mrs Rook, on the other hand, was only atoned for her sin of greed. Therefore this ending was a bit disappointing. I actually could not figure out why Wilkie chose to end the narrative in this way.

All in all, the case why I always adore Wilkie’s works is the way he masters the skills of dissecting characters’ emotional ambivalence, which makes long paragraphs a satisfying read. I Say No has a lot of paragraphs and element about indecisiveness, confusion, and puzzlement, and I somewhat enjoy it.



“Observant persons, accustomed to frequent the London parks, can hardly have failed to notice the number of solitary strangers sadly endeavoring to vary their lives by taking a walk. They linger about the flower-beds; they sit for hours on the benches; they look with patient curiosity at other people who have companions; they notice ladies on horseback and children at play, with submissive interest; some of the men find company in a pipe, without appearing to enjoy it; some of the women find a substitute for dinner, in little dry biscuits wrapped in crumpled scraps of paper; they are not sociable; they are hardly ever seen to make acquaintance with each other; perhaps they are shame-faced, or proud, or sullen; perhaps they despair of others, being accustomed to despair of themselves; perhaps they have their reasons for never venturing to encounter curiosity, or their vices which dread detection, or their virtues which suffer hardship with the resignation that is sufficient for itself. The one thing certain is, that these unfortunate people resist discovery. We know that they are strangers in London—and we know no more.”  – I Say No (1884), Wilkie Collins

A Portrait-Painter’s Story – a ghostly encounter unveiled to Dickens in 1861

HeaphyLast year I randomly downloaded an American podcast doing a Halloween special about the history of ghosts and supernatural writings in the nineteenth century. The hosts came across a ghost story which was published in a journal edited by Dickens, All the Year Round, in September 1861, entitled A Portrait-Painter’s Story.  I was intrigued by that time while I listened to the podcast and today I dug out some information regarding the curious anecdote of Dickens.

The story set against the backdrop during autumnal time in 1858. A portrait painter occasioned to get acquainted with a beautiful young lady who got in the carriage at the Doncaster stop and sat down opposite to him while he was travelling on a morning train from York to London.

The next few minutes were occupied in locating herself. There was the cloak to be spread under her, the skirts of the dress to be arranged, the gloves to be tightened, and such other trifling arrangements of plumage as ladies are wont to make before sitting themselves comfortably at church or elsewhere, the last and most important being the placing back over her hat the veil that concealed her features. I could then see that the lady was young, certainly pot more than two or three and twenty; but being moderately tall, rather robust in make and decided in expression, she might have been two or three years younger.

The protagonist was supposed to leave the lady to get on with his journey and interchanged at Retford Junction so as to meet up a Kirkbeck family in Lincolnshire. However, as soon as he arrived at the host’s house he against bumped into the mysterious young lady who stood near the chimney-place and warmed her feet. Since then several times did the mysterious young woman appear to him inadvertently and besought him to make some sketches of her with his own recollection. To ease the painter’s burden to his work, she also produced from her belongings an engraving of a woman  whom her family considered to be very much like her.

“Do you think you could paint my portrait?” the lady inquired.

“Yes, 1 think I could, if I had the opportunity.”

“Now, look at my face well; do you think you should recollect my features?”

“Yes, I am sure I should never forget your features.”

“Of course I might have expected you to say that; but do you think you could do me from recollection?”

“Well, if it be necessary, I will try; but can’t you give me any sittings?”

“No, quite impossible; it could not be. It is said that the print I showed you before dinner is like me; do you think so?”

“Not much.” I replied; “it has not your expression. If you can give me one sitting, it would be better than none.”

“No; I don’t see how it could be.”

Weeks later the portrait painter unexpectedly stayed with a family called Lute, which the story is brought to the climax in that the young lady, who actually named Caroline, “died near four months previously; that her father had never yet recovered from the shock of her death”. Through violent paroxysms, the father saw images of the deceased daughter engaging with the protagonist; and being taken care by the circumstance of fate and the portrait painter’s sketches, the once indisposed yet convalescing father could finally reunite with his beloved Caroline through the memories they shared with each other. “The portrait now hangs in his bedroom, with the print and the two sketches by the side, and written beneath is: “C. L., 13th September, 1858, aged twenty-two.”

Victorians those days were all obsessed with spiritual encounters, mesmerism, prophecies, premonitions, inexplicable fate and coincidences that befell upon them in life, just the same as we are today, which made supernatural and Gothic tales irresistible to the reading public (One example was that a young girl aged fifteen was suffered from fits and died horribly as she was much worried by Mother Shipton’s prophecy that the world would end in 1881). The publication of A Portrait-Painter’s Story soon aroused an incredulous response, especially from a miniature painter, Thomas Frank Heaphy (1813 – 1873). Heaphy wrote in a letter to Dickens attached with his own copy of the story  claiming that the incident, who Heaphy thought “originated” by Dickens, was more or less true – but he himself was the actually none other than the real “protagonist” who encountered this seemingly young and beautiful apparition. Dickens was much amazed and shocked by the coincidence displayed through the series of correspondence he had with Heaphy, especially as to the date that he himself inserted while revising the proof for the publication – “Why that date should have come into my head rather than any other I am profoundly unable to say.” The Story, according to Dickens’s account, was second handed to Sir Edward Lytton from a young writer named Edward Ward, and timely Mr Layard, a friend of his, also heard Sir Edward Lytton retold it in a gathering party.

Dickens thought the version of Heaphy’s was far more striking as well as superior and requested to procure Heaphy’s manuscript upon his approval to be published in the October issue of  All the Year Round. After Heaphy’s death several years later, his wife republished the later husband’s supernatural account enriched by the long-kept correspondences between Heaphy and Dickens.

As a side-note, we might not know what Dickens first reaction was while reading Heaphy’s letter. Enraged? Annoyed? Surprised? Shocked? He might be irritated that his dear fellows implicated him to his being accused of “stealing people’s ideas” again as he was not only once beset by these similar cases before. And never did he know that around four years later, he would incur a railway incident yet again, this time, which was actually a matter of life and death.