JOHN O. JORDAN DICKENS RE-VISIONED: «JACK MAGGS» AND THE ENGLISH BOOK - PDF

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REPRINTED FROM DICKENS: THE CRAFT OF FICTION AND THE CHALLENGES OF READING BY CARLO DICKENS: A SITE DEVOTED TO DICKENS STUDIES IN ITALY. JOHN O. JORDAN DICKENS RE-VISIONED:

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REPRINTED FROM DICKENS: THE CRAFT OF FICTION AND THE CHALLENGES OF READING BY CARLO DICKENS: A SITE DEVOTED TO DICKENS STUDIES IN ITALY. JOHN O. JORDAN DICKENS RE-VISIONED: «JACK MAGGS» AND THE ENGLISH BOOK I begin with two quotations. The first is from the opening paragraph of an essay by postcolonial theorist, Homi Bhabha. Bhabha writes: There is a scene in the cultural writings of English colonialism which repeats so insistently after the early Nineteenth century and, through that repetition, so triumphantly inaugurates a literature of empire that I am bound to repeat it once more. It is the scenario, played out in the wild and wordless wastes of colonial India, Africa, the Caribbean, of the sudden, fortuitous discovery of the English book. It is, like all myths of origin, memorable for its balance between epiphany and enunciation. The discovery of the book is, at once, a moment of originality and authority. It is, as well, a process of displacement that, paradoxically, makes the presence of the book wondrous to the extent to which it is repeated, translated, misread, displaced. It is with the emblem of the English book signs taken for wonders as an insignia of colonial authority and a signifier of colonial desire and discipline that I want to begin this chapter (Bhabha 1994: 102). Bhabha proceeds to give several examples illustrating the scenario of the English book. The most famous of these is the passage from Conrad s Heart of Darkness in which the narrator, Marlow, discovers an English manual of seamanship in the middle of the jungle and takes moral support from its evidence of reason and ordered civility, so different from the waking nightmare that he experiences in the African interior. My second quotation is an anecdote that, apart from its inherent value as an instance of unusual nineteenth-century reading practices, could easily be added to the list of examples that Bhabha cites in his essay. It comes from a nineteenth-century memoir written by an Englishman, James Demarr, who lived and travelled in Australia for five years from 1839 to For nearly twelve months during , Demarr worked at a remote cattle station in the outback of southeastern Australia along the Devil s River. One of the hardships he Dickens Re-Visioned: Jack Maggs and the English Book 293 records from this period is the absence of reading material. Occasionally, he reports, a several months-old newspaper would arrive at the station and be eagerly devoured, but, to his dismay, there were no books. He then goes on to explain how this situation dramatically changed for the better. But at last one of the men rode in from the head station, and, with a joyful countenance, handed to me Charles Dickens s Nicholas Nickleby, all the more welcome because I had never read it. Now we were happy; and that night I commenced reading it to my companions, who were delighted; but to shew that there was an innate good nature in these fellows, they advised that the reading should be stopped, until the men of two or three stations near us, had been invited to come and hear it read. So the next day the news of our good fortune was passed round to the stations, and the men invited to come, and readily did they respond to the invitation. The book, as a matter of course, was always read at night, and the hut was full of attentive listeners. The nights were cold and frosty, but we always had a glorious log fire, and our only light to read by, was the usual one, a piece of twisted rag stuck into a pint tin full of melted fat. It would have delighted the heart of a philanthropist to have seen how these fellows enjoyed the reading of this book. If I could have read till daylight they would not tire. To see the close attention they gave to the reading, and to hear their remarks at the finish, was interesting and amusing also. To them it was a real life history, and their sympathies were all with the honest and good characters in the story. Two of the listeners came from a station seven miles distant, but as all could not leave their stations, I agreed to read it a second time in order that those who were by necessity prevented from hearing it the first time, might experience the same enjoyment. After the reading, there was always an animated conversation on the incidents and characters, before the men would disperse to the several homes. So strong an impression did the incidents in this book make upon the minds of those who heard it read, that before I left, calves and puppies, and tame pet birds, were named after the characters in Nicholas Nickleby (Demarr 1893: ). Clearly, here is another instance of the inaugural power of the English colonial book, complete with its comic version of the naming of the animals in the garden of Eden. On the basis of these two quotations and without attempting to adduce any further evidence by way of support, I wish to propose two related hypotheses that will frame the rest of my remarks. First, insofar as there is any single English writer who embodies, with respect to Australia, the cultural authority and originary enunciative power that Bhabha describes in his essay and who provokes the accompanying ambivalent colonial response that writer is Charles Dickens. Second, 294 J.O. JORDAN insofar as there is any single text that can be said to function, for Australia, in the way that the English book does in Bhabha s prototypical scenario, that text is Great Expectations. The shadow of Dickens falls heavily across Australian literary and cultural production of the past two centuries. Traces of Dickens can be found in many Australian texts, from Marcus Clark s nineteenth-century classic, His Natural Life, to such important twentieth-century novels as Christina Stead s The Man Who Loved Children. Dickens also figures as an important point of reference in contemporary Australian writing: in works like David Allen s play, Modest Expectations, Nicholas Hasluck s oblique short story, Orlick, or Carmel Bird s postmodern gothic romance (and cookbook), The Bluebird Café. The impact of Great Expectations in particular can be traced most directly in three relatively recent Australian works: Michael Noonan s 1982 sequel, Magwitch; the six-hour Australian Broadcasting Corporation television series, Great Expectations: The Untold Story (1987), directed by Tim Burstall; and Peter Carey s prize-winning novel, Jack Maggs (1998). Although the versions of Great Expectations by Noonan and Burstall are of considerable interest, in the remainder of this essay I shall focus on Jack Maggs. The most recent and probably already the best-known Australian version of Great Expectations is Peter Carey s novel, Jack Maggs, published in 1997 in Britain and Australia and in 1998 in the United States. Winner of the 1998 Commonwealth Prize for Literature, Jack Maggs is Carey s sixth novel, joining Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda on a distinguished list that has won Carey international recognition as a major voice in contemporary fiction. Born in Australia, Carey now lives and writes in New York City. A film version of Jack Maggs by the Australian director Fred Schepisi is currently in production and has been announced as forthcoming in Neither a sequel like Noonan s Magwitch nor a parallel expansion like Burstall s film, Jack Maggs is by far the most radical of the three in its reworking of Dickens s text. Its revisionary strategy is to strip away from its source every detail but one and then to focus intensely on the possibilities remaining in that single charged moment, the moment of the transported convict s return. Gone from Carey s version are almost everything that pertains to Pip: childhood, the forge, Joe and Mrs. Joe, Miss Havisham, Estella, and, above all, the privilege of narration. Instead, Carey s novel is told largely from the perspective of the convict, here rechristened Jack Maggs. Even the famous opening sequence on the marshes is all but elided. It remains only in the convict s memory, transformed into a desperate fantasy that has sustained him through the long ordeal of the penal colony and now brings him back to Dickens Re-Visioned: Jack Maggs and the English Book 295 London, at the risk of his life, to see the object of his benevolent generosity. Without relinquishing the intensity of this moment of return or the ferocious longing that motivates it, Carey turns Dickens s familiar story in several startling new directions. The Pip character, here named Henry Phipps, is not at home when his benefactor calls. Forewarned of his arrival, Phipps goes into hiding in order to avoid being exposed as the corrupt and deceitful parasite he has become while living grandly at his benefactor s expense. Frustrated in his immediate objective, Maggs falls almost by accident into employment as a footman in the adjacent household of Mr. Percy Buckle, hoping by this means to keep watch on the house next door until his darling son returns. Buckle, a retired grocer who has recently come into an inheritance that allows him to live comfortably and pursue his literary interests, is a comic figure, bullied by his servants and over-eager to seek acquaintance among the leading literary and artistic figures of the day. Like Boffin, he reads Gibbon s Decline and Fall. A self-styled Chartist in his political beliefs, he does nothing more radical than to read Hazlitt aloud in bed to his serving-maid mistress. The story takes another dramatic turn when, on the first night of his employment in Percy Buckle s service, Maggs waits upon the popularly acclaimed young novelist, Tobias Oates, whom Buckle has succeeded in claiming as a dinner guest. Oates is a version of the young Dickens, just as Phipps and Maggs are versions of Pip and Magwitch. The similarities are unmistakable, and part of Carey s metafictional game is to keep the resemblances constantly before us while at the same time introducing discrepancies, beginning with their names, that force us to recognize that these are not Pip, Magwitch, or Dickens. What might at first appear to be factual errors if we took Oates literally as Dickens (for example, the misdating of portraits by Laurence and Maclise) thus function as snares for the unwary reader too quick to accept the text s powerful illusion of historical realism. In the course of the evening, Maggs and Oates each discover that the other has something he powerfully desires. Maggs overhears Oates mention a thiefcatcher named Partridge who can supposedly find any man in England. Maggs of course wants Oates to put him in contact with this man in order to locate the missing Phipps. While waiting on table, Maggs falls victim to a fit of tic douloureux, from which Oates helps him to find relief by employing the new science of mesmerism, which Dickens is also known to have practiced. If Maggs wants help in finding his lost son, what Oates wants is material he can use for his novels. His ambition is to become a cartographer of the criminal mind (85), and he sees in Maggs and mesmerism a way to achieve this goal. 296 J.O. JORDAN The two strike a desperate bargain. Maggs agrees to sit for two weeks of mesmeric sessions in exchange for an agreement to provide him with access to the thieftaker. Maggs has no idea that the young novelist is plundering his closely guarded secrets; indeed, the last thing he wants is for his criminal past to become a public spectacle. Oates concocts an elaborate cover story about what transpires during the mesmeric sittings and even goes so far as to keep a set of false notebooks for the convict s benefit, crammed with conventional gothic nightmares. As the sessions proceed, Oates begins to draft scenes for a new novel to be called The Death of Maggs, sections of which appear in the text. In his anguished longing to connect with Phipps, Maggs begins to keep a sort of private diary in which he records memories of his life as a young housebreaker in London. Carey is fascinated by the exchange of roles that starts to take place: the writer who becomes a thief and the thief who becomes a writer (Koval 1997: 671). A protracted struggle of wills ensues between the two men. The issue of who will control the story of Jack Maggs turns literally into a question of life and death. As Maggs begins to realize what the writer has stolen from him, he becomes uncooperative and violent. Pressured by mounting financial and domestic problems of his own, Oates is forced to take increasingly drastic measures to restrain his informant and keep their agreement intact. Finally, as the action reaches its feverish climax, it is Maggs who triumphs over the young novelist, forcing him to throw away his manuscript and burn all the notes he has taken. Maggs s victory occurs in two separate scenes, both quite brief. In the first, Maggs and Oates are alone in a boat on the River Severn, a scene that distantly recalls the Magwitch escape sequence from Great Expectations. After reading what Oates has written about him, Maggs then hurled the book high out above the Severn. As it flew up into the mist, its pages opened like a pair of wings (263). In the second scene, one that recalls Dickens s account of burning his letters in September 1860 as well as many fire-gazing moments in Our Mutual Friend and other novels, Maggs forces the novelist to burn his notebooks. The passage is told from the perspective of Oates s young sister-in-law, Lizzie. A threat was made, a last match lit. She watched the final sheaf of papers flare, and saw the shrouds of blue and yellow as Toby stirred them with the poker. In the flames she saw ghostly figures, fictions rising amidst the skirts of flame (286). My purpose in drawing attention to these two moments in the text is to indicate the extent to which Carey s novel focuses on and at the Dickens Re-Visioned: Jack Maggs and the English Book 297 same time revises what I have been calling, after Bhabha, the scenario of the English book. More so than either Noonan s or Burstall s versions of Great Expectations, Jack Maggs is centrally concerned to dramatize the struggle for cultural authority and enunciative power that Bhabha links to this generative scene. Rather than locate the English book in a colonial context, however, Carey brilliantly shifts the site of cultural struggle from the colonies to the metropole and from the book as completed artifact to the process of its construction. The book in question is The Death of Maggs, which Oates eventually will complete and publish, but which he is at least temporarily compelled to abandon. Maggs s act of resistance signifies a refusal by the colonial revenant to have his story sensationalized and distorted by the metropolitan journalist. At the same time, Maggs is also an Englishman, and his resistance can be understood as the refusal of a British underclass subject to permit the appropriation of his life for fictional purposes, after the manner of Defoe, Fielding, Dickens, and so many other middle-class novelists. In this sense, Jack Maggs intervenes critically in the history of the novel not just from the outside, as a postcolonial text, but from within the English tradition itself. The struggle for enunciatory power in Jack Maggs operates simultaneously on two distinct levels. At the level of content, it is thematized in the conflict between Oates and Maggs over the control of Jack s story. At the level of form, it emerges in the language of Carey s fiction, in his efforts to imitate the look and feel of a Victorian novel and of a Dickens novel in particular as well as in the lengthy passages of intradiegetic narration from Maggs s diary and Oates s notebooks. In his effort to recreate the atmosphere of a Dickens novel, Carey is remarkably successful. The novel is thick with vivid detail, pungent description of persons and places, and a wealth of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century criminal slang, derived, according to Carey, from his study of various dictionaries and compilations of thieves cant (Koval 1997: 670). Of course, the novel is also full of language and event that could never appear in any nineteenth-century text. Ever the postmodernist in his playful awareness of form, Carey is less interested in the faithful reproduction of some period piece than in the fictional techniques by which such illusions can be created and sustained. Consider, for example, Carey s representation of the London of Here he challenges Dickens on his own ground, so to speak, and does so to powerful effect. Not only does Carey display extraordinary virtuosity in representing the sights, sounds, and smells of the metropolis, but he demonstrates an intimate knowledge of London topography as well as of the costume and domestic duties of nineteenth-century footmen. Carey rivals Dickens in his use of street 298 J.O. JORDAN names to track the course of his characters through the city. Lamb s Conduit Street and Great Queen Street, two major locations in the novel, are both real London addresses. When we come across mention of coal-dark Carey Street (38), we wonder if this is not a sly metafictional wink at the reader (which of course it is), but reference to an 1839 map of London indicates that this too, like all the street names in the book, is a real place, located just where Carey says it should be. No matter how vivid the novel s formal realism, we never lose sight of the fact that Carey s London is a twentieth-century simulacrum, a virtual city rather than a local journalist s beat. The success of Carey s intradiegetic narratives is more difficult to gauge. Although gripping in its own terms, Maggs s diary never achieves the condensed colloquial power of Magwitch s brief autobiographical statements in Great Expectations. Likewise, the excerpts from Oates s notebook are spiritedly reminiscent of Dickens s early journalism, yet they are definitely not Dickens. But again, this is precisely the point. Carey is not trying to reproduce some lost original, but giving us pastiche twentieth-century versions that remind us of Dickens, but at the same time insist on their difference. The conclusion to Jack Maggs combines high melodrama with a touch of sweet romantic comedy. For purposes of comparison with the other texts I have considered, the most interesting feature of Carey s novel is the resolution it gives to the convict s story. A central component of Maggs s character throughout most of the book is his fierce, misguided devotion to the fantasy of an English son. Rejected by England, he compensates by creating an English gentleman whose love and gratitude he hopes will heal that earlier wound. At the core of this fantasy is Maggs s belief that he remains essentially an Englishman. Sir, I ll tell you the truth, he confides to Oates. I d rather be a bad smell here than a frigging rose in New South Wales (215). Or again, insistently: I am not of that race [ ] [t]he Australian race, [ ], [t]he race of Australians (292). In order to escape from the prison of his illusions, a prison more damaging in its way than the penal colony he managed to survive, Maggs must undergo a dramatic disillusionment with Henry Phipps. Only then can he give up his misguided quest and undertake to start a life of his own. The disillusionment does occur, and with it Maggs is granted a merciful release. Mercy comes to him literally in the person of Mercy Larkin, Percy Buckle s housemaid, who realizes at last that she loves the convict, not her nouveau riche master, and is loved by him in turn. Together, they escape to Australia, where they found a large dynastic family and settle into a prosperous, middle-class existence. As in Great Expectations: The Untold Story, an underlying narrative of nationhood Dickens Re-Visioned: Jack Maggs and the English Book 299 emerges, with the transported convict, now reconciled to his Australian identity, as its foundational figure. Unlike Burstall s film, however, Carey s novel does not require either a reconciliation w
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