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

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 subconscious 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!

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Hide and Seek by Wilkie Collins (quote 2)

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)

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

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.

 

Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

41mGXz+lVxL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Suddenly, there is a brutal siren which wakes and lures one back into reality, a situation which instantly forces one to face and overcome his fear. Tidal Zone is a book full of emotions and sensitiveness and that is what it thrills me.

One such household waited for the arrival of two elderly sisters living next door who, believing that anything white was visible to the enemy pilot above, went out at night with colanders on their grey heads… [I] read of other instances of this belief; one woman, living in a village outside Coventry, responded to every siren by running outside to take white laundry off the line, as if the Luftwaffe had crossed the channel to bomb clean sheets, In the same village, an elderly man went around with shears chopping white blossom off fruit trees. I found these acts of superstition in some way reassuring. Not everyone, then, gathered with Spam sandwiches and a stiff upper-lip for a sing-song until the All Clear.

There is a historical story-line which works abreast with the main plot – the airraids, bombing and rebuilding of Coventry. Adam, the “anti-patriarchal” protagonist of the novel, “breaks down into pieces” while his daughter was admitted to the hospital in a loss of consciousness after two counts of incidents some years ago that Adam and his wife were in ignorance about his daughter’s uncertain but devastating illness. On one hand, while researching the cataclysmic bombing of Coventry, he failed to find the fear and brokenness in the residents. Instead, what he could dig out were their orderly manners, the ordinariness, with a bit of “fun” to live in the fear of mortality. “Normality” is the keyword that keeps popping up throughout the novel. He thought “living every day as if your last” – a phrase that is found ubiquitously in fridge magnets – is not in congruence with everyday intellects (this is the bit I find hard to understand); it is a roundabout way to say that we fear death.

  • OK, all right, phrases to which we cling, the comfort blankets or blindfolds of our time and place. There is no pre-twentieth century version of ‘OK’, which may or may not tell us that is a modern delusion that normality is not frightening, that it is normal not to be frightened. I personally don’t like depressing subjects, people say, as if mortality is a lifestyle choice, disease and violence and sorrow a matter of taste. 

“It’s the idea, Rosie-pose, that if you give people pleasure they won’t go looking for truth. You’d rather have a story about shiny apples and long dresses than listen to Dad talking about monarchy and power. Most people’d rather watch posh girls twiddling around with pastry than learn about what the food industry’s doing to our generation. There’s no point in history if it’s all just fantasy and self-congratulation.”  – Miriam

Adam is a character in the novel who craves for ideas relating to the past. There is the mental struggle and clash we could feel as Adam tries to confront, define, adapt and overcome the past with the present – Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds compared with its negative change towards modernity, the death of his mother, surrealistic, but there is the probability of it being connected with the health of his daughters. There is Adam’s Jewish ancestry, the inherent family values between the sexes and career slump he has to confront as a result of his pursuit of academic passion in his youth…the beautiful / poignant Past is always romanticised, crystallised and sanctified by the Present.

On the other hand, when it comes to the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral – the inspirations of West Screen, the baptistry window, the roof, and the tapestry that Basil Spence came about – of it being illustrated, healed and reconciled with history and remembrance work along with Adam’s healing of his heart really well. Although we could not deny the Past – that it is what shape us, that we and our emotions should accept its beauty, the evil; at the same time, we should not forget and lose the hopefulness for the present.

  • How could I wish anything other than what we had, since the slightest variation of the past, the slightest indulgence in fictional time-travel, would tamper with our extraordinary luck?

I wanted my daughter at home, her presence our benediction. As if I could no longer distinguish between an absent child and a lost one, as if I had lost what in babies is called object constancy, meaning the knowledge that something absent continues to exist out of sight and hearing. The acquisition of object constancy is said to be an important developmental stage. Mummy is not gone but elsewhere. Teddy is under the cot. The problem, it seemed to me in those days, is that object constancy is one of those lies we tell ourselves to make it possible to live. Important things may cease to exist when you look away.

The relationship and intimacy between Adam and his family is interesting. Adam’s family is challenging the patriarchal worldview, and Miriam is the reflection of the Family’s values. She is willing to differentiate herself. While Adam, although he might be forced to differentiate himself under forced circumstances; as a full-time staying home dad, he is devoted to his family wholeheartedly. Adam creeps over and opens his daughters’ door at night just to make sure he could hear them breathing. He is experiencing Miriam and Rose’s growth through their concerned health and letting it go. The conversations between Miriam and Adam are one of the humourous elements in the novel apart from the descriptions of the meetings held in the hierarchical academic institution.

I really like this novel. I like the cover portrait. I really like the heading of each chapter. The novel is relevant to a person with sensitive feelings who also like reminiscing the past and how one deals with it. Written in first-person narrative, it is full of emotions. The author spends a great deal of writing historical accounts of places about Coventry Cathedral, the Cotswolds, Cornwall and other places like Black Bear ranch, which are interesting as well as deep and insightful regarding Adam’s feelings and circumstances. The book deserves to be read again just so I can dig out something new and important.

I was of a roving adventurous temperament

(A Rogue’s Life, Wilkie Collins)

  • I was of a roving adventurous temperament, and I should have liked to go into the army. But where was the money to come from, to pay for my commission? As to enlisting in the ranks, and working my way up, the social institutions of my country obliged the grandson of Lady Malkinshaw to begin military life as an officer and gentleman, or not to begin it at all. The army, therefore, was out of the question. The Church? Equally out of the question: since I could not pay for admission to the prepared place of accommodation for distinguished people, and could not accept a charitable free pass, in consequence of my high connections. The Bar? I should be five years getting to it, and should have to spend two hundred a year in going circuit before I had earned a farthing. Physic? This really seemed the only gentlemanly refuge left; and yet, with the knowledge of my father’s experience before me, I was ungrateful enough to feel a secret dislike for it. It is a degrading confession to make; but I remember wishing I was not so highly connected, and absolutely thinking that the life of a commercial traveler would have suited me exactly, if I had not been a poor gentleman. Driving about from place to place, living jovially at inns, seeing fresh faces constantly, and getting money by all this enjoyment, instead of spending it – what a life for me, if I had been the son of a haberdasher and the grandson of a groom’s widow!
  • Whatever may be said about it in books, no emotion in this world ever did, or ever will, last for long together. The strong feeling may return over and over again; but it must have its constant intervals of change or repose. In real life the bitterest grief doggedly takes its rest and dries its eyes; the heaviest despair sinks to a certain level, and stops there to give hope a chance of rising, in spite of us. Even the joy of an unexpected meeting is always an imperfect sensation, for it never lasts long enough to justify our secret anticipations – our happiness dwindles to mere every-day contentment before we have half done with it.
  • Not knowing the name of it, and not daring to excite surprise by asking, I found the place full of vague yet mysterious interest. Here I was, somewhere in central England, just as ignorant of localities as if I had been suddenly deposited in Central Africa. My lively fancy revelled in the new sensation. I invented a name for the town, a code of laws for the inhabitants, productions, antiquities, chalybeate springs, population, statistics of crime, and so on, while I walked about the streets, looked in at the shop-windows, and attentively examined the Market-place and Town-hall. Experienced travelers, who have exhausted all novelties, would do well to follow my example; they may be certain, for one day at least, of getting some fresh ideas, and feeling a new sensation.

Heart and Science (1883) by Wilkie Collins

Mouchy, Emile Edouard, 1802-1870; A Physiological Demonstration with the Vivisection of a Dog
Physiological Demonstration with the Vivisection of a Dog, by Émile Édouard Mouchy (1802–1870). (ArtUK.org)

“A Christian can’t be expected to care about beasts—but right is right all the world over. Because a monkey is a nasty creature (as I have heard, not even good to eat when he’s dead), that’s no reason for taking him out of his own country and putting him into a cage. If we are to see creatures in prison, let’s see creatures who have deserved it—men and women, rogues and sluts. The monkeys haven’t deserved it. Go in—I’ll wait for you at the door.”

A young person, possessed of no more than ordinary knowledge, might have left the old woman to enjoy the privilege of saying the last word. Miss Minerva’s pupil, exuding information as it were at every pore in her skin, had been rudely dried up at a moment’s notice. Even earthly perfection has its weak places within reach. Maria lost her temper.

“You will allow me to remind you,” she said, “that intelligent curiosity leads us to study the habits of animals that are new to us. We place them in a cage…”

Since the publication of Woman in White (1859), the master of sensation fiction examines moral issues and human weaknesses of the contemporary societies across Europe and the Atlantic. This time, Heart and Science, which has a subtitle named “A Story of the Present Time”, reflects Wilkie Collins’s doubts, or even inflicts severe reprimand regarding animal experiments and vivisection. Just as he quotes words of Walter Scott in the preface, “I am no great believer in the extreme degree of improvement to be derived from the advancement of Science; for every study of that nature tends, when pushed to a certain extent, to harden the heart.”

Knowledge for its own sake, is the one god I worship. Knowledge is its own justification and its own reward. The roaring mob follows us with its cry of Cruelty. We pity their ignorance. Knowledge sanctifies cruelty. The old anatomist stole dead bodies for Knowledge. In that sacred cause, if I could steal a living man without being found out, I would tie him on my table, and grasp my grand discovery in days, instead of months.

This novel might be drawing upon lots of arguments suggested by National Anti-Vivisection Society found by Frances Power Cobbe in the 1870s. “[W]hat proof there is that the effect of a poison on an animal may be trusted to inform us, with certainty, of the effect of the same poison on a man….a pigeon will swallow opium enough to kill a man, and will not be in the least affected by it; and parsley, which is an innocent herb in the stomach of a human being, is deadly poison to a parrot.” The Cruelty to Animals Act (1876) stipulates that a vivisection being licensed and made legal should be based upon the circumstances that objects were anesthetized throughout the test and used only once in the same experiments for purposes which are helped towards medical and scientific researches of human goods; however, the book confronts the law which reflects how society defines and visionalises the position of species that are categorised as inferiors  to humans (which is also resonant to the deplorable and voiceless state and treatment of fairer sex in relation to, e.g., Married Women’s Property Acts in Wilkie Collins’s previous novels), and questions our truest pursuits of knowledge – whether we could attribute this tendency of stocking and application of information to our inbred altruistic virtue of inquisitiveness and humility as a whole, or conversely, degeneration that is owing to avarice in egoism and reputation, which, again, could be alluded to concerns of human relationships between masses and individuals of the Victorian age as well, for instance, regarding the irony of telescopic philanthropy (self-congratulatory egocentrism) at the expense of households prevailing in literature.

after-the-ball-afred-stevens“‘Teresa, my well-beloved friend, – I have considered the anxieties that trouble you, with this result: that I can do my best, conscientiously, to quiet your mind. I have had the experience of forty years in the duties of the priesthood. In that long time, the innermost secrets of thousands of men and women have been confided to me. From such means of observation, I have drawn many useful conclusions; and some of them may be also useful to you. I will put what I have to say, in the plainest and fewest words: consider them carefully, on your side. The growth of the better nature, in women, is perfected by one influence – and that influence is Love. Are you surprised that a priest should write in this way? Did you expect me to say, Religion? Love, my sister, is Religion, in women. It opens their hearts to all that is good for them; and it acts independently of the conditions of human happiness. A miserable woman, tormented by hopeless love, is still the better and the nobler for that love; and a time will surely come when she will show it. You have fears for Carmina – cast away, poor soul, among strangers with hard hearts! I tell you to have no fears. She may suffer under trials; she may sink under trials. But the strength to rise again is in her – and that strength is Love.’”

Wilkie Collins emphasize the importance of Heart over Science, that is to say, the importance of “character”. Throughout his many novels, Wilkie Collins examines egoistic disposition of characters through their reactions towards the confrontation of circumstances. In Man and Wife (1870), Geoffrey Delamyn’s degeneration owning to the extremity of athleticism is shown through by the circumstances. This is also the case in Heart and Science regarding his pleasant didactic approach. Just as his preface says, to the readers in general, “from first to last, you are purposely left in ignorance of the hideous secrets of Vivisection. The outside of the laboratory is a necessary object in my landscape – but I never once open the door and invite you to look in. I trace, in one of my characters, the result of the habitual practice of cruelty (no matter under what pretence) in fatally deteriorating the nature of man – and I leave the picture to speak for itself, and that is Doctor Benjulia, a competitive specialist ambitious in rising to fame but being ignorant of human emotions and kindness, as well as Mrs. Gallilee, a “chatelaine” whose devotion to scientific discussions made her end up being a woman who sticks to nothing by all means. Last but not least, Mr. Le Frank, a gentlemanly looking but a nasty-in-heart and retributive piano master whose vanity and vindictive nature sets a trap on himself in the end. All these characters show that avid passion on one thing does not necessarily improve a person on his/her moral grounds. On the other hand, we have characters such as Mr. Gallilee, Teresa the Italian nursemaid, and Frances Minerva the governess, who implies that there exists universal affections among God’s creations. And among all, Miss Minerva, who resembles Marian in the Woman in White, is the most enigmatic and interesting character in the Novel who is the “goddess” exemplary figure in an unrequited love, with an echo to tragic Rosanna Spearman in the Moonstone. Provided with this hostile dichotomy, this is a duel of survival reality show between humans of avaricious quest of knowledge and humans whose hearts exist a selfless love.

Last but not least, I think Wilkie Collins could be deemed as one of the pioneers who discovers the connectivity of sexism and speciesism of his day. Many ideas, such as animal experiments, regarding the use of cosmetic products, is also relevant today. Heart and Science, to me, is a thought-provoking novel which deserves readers to delve deeply into. It is humourous and nonetheless a moralistic Victorian classic of how a criticism of a big idea could lead to and reflects many social perspectives and human relationships of the contemporaries.