00004940…But then,
All crib from skulls and bones who push the pen.
Readers crave bodies. We’re the resurrection men.
— George Macbeth, The Cleaver Garden

Resurrection men made their living providing dead bodies to surgeons and medical schools, generally for dissection, but also for collection and experimentation. It was always a distasteful job in the public’s eyes. Legitimate resurrection men had business relationships with hangmen, and in other cases were able to claim unclaimed bodies. Illegitimate resurrection men would steal from graves and, for those of a more actively entrepreneurial spirit, would shorten the chain of title and kill people outright before selling the bodies. (Burke and Hare are the most famous of the infamous resurrentioners.)

Resurrectionists c.1886 by Camden Pelham © Museum of London

Mantel borrows some of that macabre tone in the epigraph she chooses for The Giant O’Brien. Writers, too, in a sense, are Resurrection Men. They dig up bodies and sell those bodies to us, the reader, in books. George Macbeth’s line, readers crave bodies, has a doubling effect to it: not only to readers want to read about people, a not insignificant number of people want to read about crime and grime and murder and death. We want to read about people; and we want to read about their deaths. (I’m being pretty careless with the word “we” and you may be saying, “But I don’t want to read about dead bodies!” and of course, beloved, I believe you; it’s only generalities I’m dealing in at this point.)

Mantel aligns herself with the resurrectionists; she leaves it up to us to decide what we are in this drama.

Our two protagonists share some similarities:

  • They’re both outsiders to London — the giant, O’Brien, is Irish; Hunter, the surgeon, is Scottish. England has never thought much of, or well of, Ireland; and Scotland had just suffered a defeat at English hands in the years leading up to our novel. Both are outsiders, but that doesn’t lead to any unity between them.
  • They’re both self-taught. O’Brien is a skilled storyteller with an empath’s ability to soothe a situation. Hunter, as most men of science in the Age of Enlightenment, has taught himself anatomy and physiology. He has an enthusiast’s interest in taking things apart to wonder at how it all works.
  • They’re both dying.

It’s the tension in their differences, though, that drives the book. O’Brien wants to earn a living and a better life away from Ireland, which has been ravished by English imperialism. He also, while recognizing the appeal of his extraordinary height, wants the same human dignity afforded to the typically-sized and typically-abled. Hunter sees a living in the death of O’Brien: he can dismantle the giant into workable pieces, and assemble it again for display and posterity.

Irish Giant O'Brien

Mantel has a bias; she’s a writer interested in challenging orthodox thinking. It’s called the Age of Enlightenment, which has a pleasant ring to it. But Mantel shows us Hunter, at a young age, pulling apart a bug just to see what will happen. The narrator tells us it wasn’t with malice — and I can’t decide if that’s better or worse. It’s ironic that, scientifically, he’s very much interested in cause and effect; however, on the human/empathic level, he shows no facility or interest at all. Emotions stand in the way of his pursuits, distractions from his goal of collecting and understanding.

Is Hunter’s pursuit of the giant, O’Brien, cruel? Is his enthusiasm for O’Brien’s body a hastening agent for O’Brien’s death? We know O’Brien, like the rest of us, will die eventually; is there any consideration, at all, as to O’Brien’s wishes once he passes? Mantel’s book examines the tension between science and morality, between curiosity and cruelty.

When O’Brien dies, he leaves behind a rich oral tradition of faerie stories and folk tales. He also leaves behind a skeleton much prized by Hunter. Hunter, on the other hand, seems little interested in passing on any sort of learning. He collects knowledge as he collects specimens, but to what point? That’s a question this rich novel invites us to consider, and answer.

We take a year’s brief respite from the 19th century to creep a little into the 20th. Here’s what the Classics in Context group at the Bethesda Library will read in 2018 (all discussions start at 7.00 p.m.):

16 January: A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

20 February: The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence

20 March: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

17 April: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

15 May: Martha Quest by Doris Lessing

19 June: Cakes & Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

17 July: A House for Mr Biswas

21 August: The Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

18 September: The Giant O’Brien by Hilary Mantel

16 October: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

20 November: Watership Down by Richard Adams

18 December: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

If you would like more information about the Classics in Context program at the Bethesda Library, or if you’d like to be added to the mailing list (mostly reminders, with an essay every now and again about a literary topic we’re covering), email Mike Bevel: mbevel@gmail.com.

There are a lot of terrible quotations out there, shared primarily on Facebook, and it bugs me.

Here’s where I’ve seen them, and then the actual source.

  1. Success is never as interesting as struggle.” — Willa Cather
  • Where did I see it?: A Riffle post on Facebook
  • Is it correct?: Mostly. Willa Cather wrote it; however, it doesn’t appear in My Antonia, which that Riffle post might suggest.
  • Source: The Song of the Lark, 1932 Edition. It’s from the preface, and that muse.jhu.edu site is the closest I can get you online.
  • Full quotation: “The chief fault of [The Song of the Lark] is that it describes a descending curve; the life of a successful artist in the full tide of achievement is not so interesting as the life of a talented young girl ‘‘fighting her way,’’ as we say. Success is never so interesting as struggle—not even to the successful, not even to the most mercenary forms of ambition.

Jan 17: The Talented Mr Ripley, Patricia Highsmith (1955)

Feb 21: The Ambassadors, Henry James (1903)

Mar 21: The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty (1972)

Apr 18: Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann (1901)

May 16: Iceland’s Bell, Halldor Laxness (1943)

Jun 20: Romola, George Eliot (1863) / Mid-Year Potluck

July 18: My Mortal Enemy, Willa Cather (1926)

Aug 15: The Grandissimes, George Washington Cable (1880)

Sep 19: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles (1969)

Oct 17: Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)

21 Nov: The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy (1886)

19 Dec: Eugenie Grandet, Honore Balzac (1833) / Year-End Potluck

Families: Monstrous and Demonstrative

We meet the third Tuesday of every month at 7.00 p.m at the Bethesda Library. To be added to the mailing list for updates and miscellany, email Mike Bevel at mbevel at gmail dot com.

Jan: The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

Feb: Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac

Mar: The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore

Apr: Independent People by Halldór Laxness

May: What Maise Knew by Henry James

Jun: Therese Raquin by Zola

Jul: Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Aug: The Real Charlotte by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross

Sep: Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Oct: The Fifth Queen by Ford Maddox Ford

Nov: The Golovlyov Family by Shchedrin

Dec: Man & Wife by Wilkie Collins


  1. What is the grave threat that hangs over the peace of Europe?
    1. Is there a connection between the decay of Aschenbach and the decay of Europe?
    2. Northern austerity and Southern sensuality.
  2. How important is the Byzantine detail? Doesn’t it separate us away from Christianity, in a sense?
  3. With that in mind: is the red-haired stranger The Devil? Or is he an aspect of Dionysus? (Especially the stuff about his animal-like appearance, e.g. the horns.)
  4. Or, also: could the red-haired man be both real and not real at the same time? (Is Aschenbach possibly cruising? Maybe even unwittingly? In hoping to escape from his lusts in Munich, is he instead just hurried towards his doom in Venice?)
    1. Cruising:
      1. In the late nineteenth century Munich had a reputation as one of the most sexually liberal cities in Germany.
      2. One of the last German states to re-criminalize homosexuality.
      3. King Ludwig II: One of the gayest kings to ever queen.
        1. Reigned: 10 March 1864 – 13 June 1886
        2. His younger brother (and successor) Otto: insane
        3. King Ludwig and the doctor assigned to him in captivity at Berg Castle on Lake Starnberg were both found dead in the lake in waist-high water, the doctor with unexplained injuries to the head and shoulders, the morning after the day Ludwig was deposed.
        4. Had Neuschwanstein Castle built
        5. Throughout his reign, Ludwig had a succession of close friendships with men, including his chief equerry and Master of the Horse, Richard Hornig (1843–1911), Hungarian theatre actor Josef Kainz, and courtier Alfons Weber (born c.1862). He began keeping a diary in which he recorded his private thoughts and his attempts to suppress his sexual desires and remain true to his Roman Catholic faith.
        6. Broke off an engagement thusly: “The main substance of our relationship has always been … Richard Wagner’s remarkable and deeply moving destiny.”
      4. The park Aschenbach walks through, The English Garden, has been a meeting place for homosexuals from shortly after its construction in the late 18th century to the present day.
  5. What do we make of Aschenbach’s vision of the tropical swampland? He wants to go not quite to tigers. (This becomes dense irony later because he’s walking directly into tigers in Venice: he’ll die there, and the cholera is there, which, per the book, may have been born in the tropics of India.)
    1. The connection with India: it is claimed that Dionysus created/refined the Bacchanal in India.
  6. Are the seeds of Aschenbach’s decline within him from the start: he’s the product of the union of austere Northern stock and a Bohemian mother.
  7. Why is Auschenbach an artist? (And the answer can’t be “because Thomas Mann was an artist.” Note, too, that the answer to the question, “Why was Tadzio a boy?” can’t be “Because Thomas Mann fell in love with a boy.” We’re looking for the artist’s message, not confirming his biography.)
    1. Aschenbach’s dutiful devotion to work, however, wreaks havoc on his naturally fragile health, and he is constantly battling illness. Thus, central to both his life and his writing is the notion that all great things can exist only in “defiant despite” of suffering, poverty, physical frailty, corruption, and passion. For him, art is the triumph over these torments.
  8. Is Aschenbach punished for his hubristic control over passion and the physical? Is that what makes him susceptible in such a terrible way to the pull and call of intense beauty?
    1. Or, rather: Is Mann’s argument that Aschenbach had never been a true artist until he was corrupted by immoral desire?
    2. “The fame of the artist a farce, the mass reliance on him stupidity.” (from “Working Notes for Death in Venice”)
  9. What do the men on the boat represent? (Mythological characters, in my reading: satyrs and other attendants on Dionysus.
  10. What of the old man poorly disguised as a young man?
  11. The gondolier is Charon, right? And a connection to the red-haired man with his (the gondolier’s) reddish eyebrows.
  12. Has the painted old/young man also given himself over to Dionysus? Can one give oneself to Dionysus and come out unscathed? Is the painted old man a type of Aschenbach? Or is he instead a servant of Dionysus?
  13. What about those strawberries, huh?
  14. What does it mean that Tadzio looks pale and sickly up close (in the elevator?)
  15. Why IS Tadzio a boy?
    1. “Even today, some critical guides to Death in Venice explain it principally as an allegorical study of artistic creativity and its pitfalls, or as a modern interpretation of classical myth. These interpretations can be defended, but they tended to overlook the obvious fact that Aschenbach’s predicament would never have seemed so dire or his obsession so doomed if its object had been a teenage girl instead of a boy.” – from a review by Andrew O’Hehir
  16. Why does Aschenbach seem uninterested in the fact that Tadzio is a boy? Why is there no soul-searching on his part over this homosexual attraction?
  17. Is the intellectual description of Socrates wooing Phaedrus Dionysian or Apollonian?
  18. Socrates is just creepy, right?
  19. Question of narration: is there an omniscient narrator, on whom we can rely? Or are we getting free-indirect discourse? When Aschenbach believes that Tadzio is returning his affections: is this true? Or is this simply what Aschenbach believes in order to not feel ridiculous?
    1. “(2) Tadzio’s smile is like that of Narcissus who sees his own reflection – he sees it on the face of the other / he sees this beauty in the impressions it produces. There is also coquetry and tenderness in this reciprocating smile with which Narcissus kisses the lips of his shadow.” (from “Working Notes for Death in Venice”)
  20. What role does the cholera epidemic play?
    1. Is the cholera epidemic a metaphor for the illness that is corrupting Aschenbach’s body and mind?
    2. Note too that the presence of cholera leads to a decline in morality in Venice: all sorts of terrible crimes happen in this new environment.
  21. What are we to make of the guitarist with the shock of red hair? From the lineage of the red-haired man at the opening of the novella?
  22. Does the final sickness that claims Aschenbach come from this guitarist?
  23. The pomegranate juice. Not a question, but let’s talk about its connection to spells and curses and unintended consequences.
  24. What do we make of Aschenbach’s dream? (It’s VERY Bacchanal.)
  25. Let’s talk about Aschenbach’s lust traversing from Apollonian to Dionysian.
  26. Aschenbach sure looks sharp in that RED tie, huh?
  27. What to make of the explicit connection between Aschenbach and the old/young man from the boat. Remember how the old/young man congratulated Aschenbach on his sweetheart?
  28. What does Aschenbach die of at the end of the novel: Is it cholera (unlikely). Is it a broken heart? (Maybe.) Has he been entirely consumed by Dionysus? Has he flirted with the divine foolishly and lost himself? (Probably.)
  29. Or does Aschenbach die when he sees his god, his Dionysus, the boy Tadzio, bullied and dominated by Jashu? Is there ANYTHING to the fact that there is a tension between Dionysus and Jesus (there’s a meme about all the places where there are narrative intersections between the Jesus story and the Dionysus story).
  30. Are the rotten strawberries the forbidden fruit? Are they the carrier of the cholera?
  31. Does art corrupt morality?


  • Conceives of Death in Venice 3 July 1911
  • “I had not planned anything less than telling the story of Goethe’s last love.”
  • In 1822 Goethe fell in love with Ulrike von Levetzow, a young girl. He proposed, but was spurned.
  • “Passion as confusion and degradation was actually the subject matter of my story. What I originally intended to tell was not homoerotic at all.” – from a letter to Carl Maria Weber, 4 July 1920
  • “As far as Death in Venice is concerned, I am hardly a competent interpreter today, I have almost forgotten the composition. But one thing I do know is that I have been misunderstood almost from the very beginning in the crudest manner. The embarrassing thing was that the ‘hieratic atmosphere’ was interpreted as a personal claim, when it was nothing more than mimicry. (Even Greek education was taken to be an end in itself, and yet it was only an aid in spiritual refuge for the person experiencing it. The character of the whole thing is more Protestant than classical.”) – from a letter to Paul Amann, 10 September 1915
  • “The traveler at the north cemetery in Munich, the gloomy ship from Pola, the old dandy, the suspicious gondolier, Tadzio and his family, the unsuccessful departure due to a mix-up with the luggage, the cholera, the honest clerk in the travel agency, the malicious itinerant singer, et cetera, et cetera – it was all there.” – from an autobiographical sketch written by Mann
  • “The personal is everything. The only true material is the personal.”
  • Sexuality “is the poison that lurks in all beauty.” – from a letter to Otto Grautoff, 1896
  • The realia of the author’s life and times frequently are textualized
  • Mann and Wladislav Moes: “He immediately had a weakness for this youth, he liked him inordinately, and he always watched him on the beach with his friends. He did not follow him through all of Venice, but the youth did fascinate him, and he thought about him often.” – from the unpublished memoirs of Mann’s wife, Katia Mann
  • “This is a book about Italy written by a German, a book about homosexual love written by a married man who fathered six children, a book about a man who debases himself and embraces his own death written by a man who lived to age 80 as the very embodiment of bourgeois literary respectability.” – from a review by Andrew O’Hehir

I like lists as much as the next person. They’re fun to corroborate or argue with, letting our own personal prejudices run free (any list that slams Philip Roth or John Updike is a list I will probably frame and hang on a wall if I was the kind of guy who (a) framed things; (b) had a hammer ; (c) knew where the hammer was that I’m pretty sure we bought when we bought the house because I thought, “I’m probably going to be hammering all the time!”; (d) hung framed things from a hammered nail in a wall) while also providing the extra reach with which to pat our own backs.

My argument, though, is with this constant competition for the Great American Novel.

This is a terrible game to play. It feels, to me, as if the assumption is: there’s just one American story to tell and once we’ve identified it we can finally be DONE, you guys. That’s often how we treat women and minorities in the arts: once a slot is filled, whether it’s a woman-centric television show or a show with a minority family, Those With the Power in entertainment tend to not want to pursue other voices from those communities (but God forbid we don’t examine MINUTELY the inner lives of men of a certain age and the challenges they face in a world that they helped shape but boy were they not expecting to see two guys getting married! “How many shows do we have starring gruff white men in their 50s?” “We just had to fire Alec Baldwin.” “Then double the number of shows and send him a muffin basket.”). Instead, their response is, “No thanks! We’ve got [“Girls,” or “Sex in the City,” or “The Cosby Show” which, by the way, was 20+ years ago and “Scandal” is a terrific TV series with a strong black female lead but when’s the last time you saw a Cherokee family settle in to all-you-can-eat breadsticks and salad at the local Olive Garden? This has been Consciousness Raising with Mike Bevel, and I’d like to turn the floor over to some of our spoken-word poets before we break for some gluten-free vegan desserts in the Let’s Just Shoot Ourselves in the Face Hall here at the Unitarian church]!”

Where was I?

Oh, yeah: the Great American Novel. Stop looking for it. There are a great number of great American novels and the only thing they all have in common is none of them have the words “Rabbit” or “Portnoy” in the title. Another trap these lists sometimes fall into is the Overachieving Olympics, where the Great American Novel isn’t so much Great, but Hard — and I’m not being lazy and I’m not suggesting I don’t like a challenge because I sat through a performance of a capella choral arts atonal music so how dare you. But I feel like if you’re a novel that’s going to strive to be the Great American Novel, then you have to be a novel that speaks to a great portion of Americans and I’m sorry, “The Ambassadors,” by Henry James, you are too interested in yourself (which, ironically, is how most Americans navigate the world: being too interested in themselves and super-sizing things) and don’t pay back the close attention that a Great American Novel should if I even believed in the Great American Novel, which I don’t, so why are we even HAVING this conversation?

I guess the point is — and I do have one — read good novels not because they tell great American stories but because they tell great Human stories and while we all may not share a neighborhood or a cholesterol count, we share humanity; and art — specifically novels in this meandering argument and god bless you if you made it this far — is a safe place to explore what makes us human and why it matters.

Heredity, Identity, Destiny: Exploring the Human

21 Jan 2014Hedda Gabler/Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

18 Feb 2014The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

18 Mar 2014The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

15 Apr 2014Daisy Miller by Henry James

20 May 2014Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (no online version available)

17 Jun 2014The Warden by Anthony Trollope

15 Jul 2014Summer/Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

19 Aug 2014Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

16 Sep 2014A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert

21 Oct 2014The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson/”The Lifted Veil” by George Eliot

18 Nov 2014Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

16 Dec 2014Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Here are various translations of Matthew 11:12:

King James: And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.

The New International Version: From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence,[a] and violent people have been raiding it.

Douay-Rheims: And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.

FlanneryThe Douay-Rheims is the edition O’Connor owned, and it’s that translation that inspired her title. (I had hoped to find some amazing hidden meaning behind her use of Douay-Rheims. Instead, it’s probably just a case of, “That’s the Bible that was in her house at the time.” I’m like this with books in translation: I like my War & Peace translated by Constance Garnett, thankyouverymuch.)

All three translations agree on the opening. But it’s what happens to the kingdom of heaven where we see the difference: “take it by force,” “raiding it,” or “bear it away.” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the two other translations say, though: Flannery O’Connor was inspired by the Douay-Rheims translation. For her, the violent bear it away.

Whether you agree with Flannery O’Connor’s worldview or not: in the universe of The Violent Bear it Away, Bishop gets a happy ending. He’s baptized. I love every one one of you who bristles and recoils and wants to run from a philosophy that treats drowning as a sacred right. Flannery O’Connor is not the writer for you.

In the world of the novel, Rayber represents Evil. He’s not the rapist; he’s not the voice of the Devil. But he’s Evil because he wants to interfere with the divine work of the prophet. (And in the world of the novel, the Tarwaters are prophets.) Secular humanism that seeks to replace God’s hands with… well, whatever is in Rayber’s hands: that’s not going to work. That Bishop has Down’s syndrome is a blessing in the world of this book because he can’t be corrupted by the teacher. He’s a perfect vessel for baptising.

It’s easy to mistake O’Connor as simply a Southern Gothic writer, with her cast of grotesques. And I think that might be how she was able to hobnob with so many intellectuals. As the Marquise de Merteuil says (paraphrased) in Les Liaisons dangereuses: Most intellectuals are intensely stupid. They missed O’Connor’s message: that the works of God are mysterious and violent and even if it costs your life, it’s the absolute smallest price one can pay for redemption and salvation and revelation. It’s rare to reach the end of any piece by O’Connor and not have the main character dead, murdered, maimed, or utterly transformed in the most painful of ways. Faith for O’Connor is an absolute, totalizing force. One has it or one doesn’t, and the transition from one state of belief to another often comes as a violent shock to the person experiencing it.

The point was made in the discussion that Flannery O’Connor was a terrific writer, but a poor communicator. I’ve given that a lot of thought in the days that have gone by and I’m not sure I entirely agree. A mistake we might make in reading is assuming that this must all be metaphor; but there’s little metaphoric about the novel: The Tarwaters are prophets. God exists and is a violent force to be reckoned with. She communicates that all the way through. She wants us to know that the Tarwaters are connected to God. But, if you are repulsed by the novel, it’s more than likely because you can’t identify with a world in which prophets exist. (This is not a bad thing or a good thing; it’s just a Thing.)

Knowing what O’Connor is saying isn’t the same as approving. And you can get to the end of the novel, and you can think all of your thoughts and come to a discussion and think some new thoughts and still fight with the book afterwards. She’s saying uncomfortable, noxious things for a lot of readers. But O’Connor’s method of salvation isn’t love in the way we think of it — images of Jesus hugging children and hymns about caring — it’s an older, darker kind of love. It’s the kind of love God demanded from Abraham when he told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

If you can bear to read through the novel again — and many of you probably can’t — read it as if every thing is true and has happened. That’s not going to make the novel easier to read. It’s going to make it harder to handle. But you’ll be reading the novel the way O’Connor intended. She is not interested in ambiguity. She’s not playing a game with the reader where it might be this or it might be that. She rarely hides behind metaphor. We bring that ourselves, I think.

And, for something COMPLETELY different, I’ll end with this poem by A.A. Milne:

Elizabeth Ann
Said to her Nan:
“Please will you tell me how God began?
Somebody must have made Him. So
Who could it be, ‘cos I want to know?”
And Nurse said, “Well!”
And Ann said, “Well?
I know you know, and I wish you’d tell.”
And Nurse took pins from her mouth, and said,
“Now then, darling, it’s time for bed.”

Elizabeth Ann
Had a wonderful plan:
She would run round the world till she found a man
Who knew exactly how God began.

She got up early, she dressed, and ran
Trying to find an Important Man.
She ran to London and knocked at the door
Of the Lord High Doodleum’s coach-and-four.
“Please, sir (if there’s anyone in),
However-and-ever did God begin?”

But out of the window, large and red,
Came the Lord High Coachman’s face instead.
And the Lord High Coachman laughed and said:
“Well, what put that in your quaint little head?”

Elizabeth Ann went home again
And took from the ottoman Jennifer Jane.
“Jenniferjane,” said Elizabeth Ann,
“Tell me at once how God began.”
And Jane, who didn’t much care for speaking,
Replied in her usual way by squeaking.

What did it mean? Well, to be quite candid,
I don’t know, but Elizabeth Ann did.
Elizabeth Ann said softly, “Oh!
Thank you Jennifer. Now I know.”

Oh my god, you guys, this book.

The Charles Dickens in Love bio is 390 pages, not counting end notes and index. It could EASILY have been a longish New Yorker article. Peter Ackroyd’s bio is at least a gabillion pages long, but I didn’t feel it.

Garnett leaves no point un-repeated — sometimes within the same paragraph. Again and again he’ll remind us that Maria Beadness was the first, fiery, sexual love, and that Mary Hogarth was the chaste, virginal, lasting love. He then does this very curious thing: he begins by saying, “We don’t know if Charles and Ellen had a child together.” But then, to make the rest of his belaborings not seem wasted, he just decides that yes, of course, they did have a baby. (This is all based on “reading between the lines” of Dickens’s journals and letters. I’m not saying that it’s entirely unlikely; maybe I’m just cranky with this guy for later stuff, so I’m busting his chops about this particular point. What makes me allow some doubt about a baby is this: Dickens was TERRIBLE at keeping this affair a secret, pretty much EVERYONE knew about it, and I can’t see him keeping the birth of a son close to the chest at all.)

Garnett is also incredibly unkind about Catherine. Look, okay, sure: Catherine Dickens put on some weight because she’s a human being Going Through Some Things and WE GET IT. She had 10 kids and at least two miscarriages. She was saddled with Charles Dickens as a husband — a husband who, by the way and p.s.: only married her because Maria Beadnell broke his heart and her younger sister Mary was too young. I mean, couldn’t it be possible that Catherine was just PROFOUNDLY depressed? So why you gotta be a dick, Robert Garnett, with your “Catherine’s reckless fecundity” this, and your “overly prolific wife” that, and going on about her stoutness and unattractiveness (even quoting someone ELSE: “Repeated pregnancies were exhausting Catherine’s sexual role, and lacking the personality to keep her in favour with Dickens, she had no other.”) and for FUCK’S SAKE, where is CHUCK in all of this? It’s like we’re all just supposed to conveniently forget that women had about thismuch reproductive agency in the nineteenth century and just blame poor Catherine for having a uterus.


Anyway. He also keeps talking about Wilkie Collins’s “mistress” — a term I have specific rules about and for it to work, at least one of the two individuals involved need to be married and neither Wilkie Collins nor either of his two lady-friends were ever married. (Well, Caroline did leave him for a brief period and got married, but then she divorced that guy and came back and that’s a weird episode in Collins’s life because it’s likely that Caroline was playing a game of emotional chicken with Collins, only she lost, because dude did not want to be married.)

I liberally skipped a significant chunk of the last 100 pages of Charles Dickens in Love because OH MY GOD I CAN’T CARE ABOUT HOW MANY TRAINS HE TOOK.”

Oh! Oh! Oh! AND: later in the bio– WAIT. Before I get to that, let’s go back to the pregnancy thing for a moment because here’s where all those fucking TRAINS make an appearance. This guy has very carefully looked at old train schedules and tracked them with Dickens’s post-marks and references in his letters and this is the kind of shit that happened in that movie about the Torah guys: I DON’T NEED TO SEE THE WORK. Just, you know, give me the conclusions. And I suppose that there are some people out there who are just fascinated by that kind of minutia — the kind of people who thought Driving Miss Daisy was an action-filled adventure picture, no doubt. Those people are none of my business.

So, later in the bio– Sorry. I have another quick point about Ellen Ternan. She’s a cipher. We don’t have any of her letters or her diaries or anything. She shows up in Dickens’s letters, and other people write about her, so she’s more of a character than an actual person. Maybe there’s nothing to be done about that. But she just felt so lifeless and inert in this bio; she felt like a movable object, a chess piece, not a human being. And interestingly, Garnett never mentions that Ternan is alleged to have said, about her time with Dickens, “I so loathed the old man’s touch.” (Because it would interfere with his thesis, maybe? About how important this love was to Dickens? And maybe he feels like it would be too heartbreaking to discover that the love of his life loathed him?)

NOW, the other thing: Later in the bio, Garnett brings up this FASCINATING lady named Frances Dickinson. He says that during one of her divorce proceedings (she had a slew of divorces), the judge stopped the proceedings because he felt that the whole thing was too disgusting to talk about in court. (She also talked often of her love of wigs and I know that this may not be the thing that makes you sit up and take notice but I’m a homosexual and a crazy divorcee talking about wigs? HEAVEN.) Anyway, Garnett decides that’s all we need to know about her and doesn’t even give us a HINT about the disgusting divorce proceedings and I just think he could THROW ME A BONE HERE, Garnett.

Anyway. Ugh. I’m glad I got that off my chest.

June 2022