Britain is celebrating the great writer's bicentenary, but where in the Dickens are the Irish?
CULTURE SHOCK:DANIEL O’CONNELL allegedly threw his copy of The Old Curiosity Shopout of a train window in a fit of rage at the death of Little Nell. Oscar Wilde famously remarked that anyone who could read the same episode without laughing must have a heart of stone. Flann O’Brien, in At Swim-Two-Birds, calls one of his characters Orlick, a name that could only have come from Dickens (in fact from Great Expectations) – a reminder that the book is, among many other things, a satire on the compendious Dickensian novel.
Amidst the orgy of Dickensiana in England to mark the great man’s bicentenary, it is worth noting a certain strain in the Irish love of Dickens.
Dickens visited Ireland three times, was friendly with the Irish lawyer Percy Fitzgerald and painter Daniel Maclise and was keenly aware of Irish political developments, from Daniel O’Connell to the Fenians. (He worried that his Irish reading tour in 1867 would be disrupted by political turmoil.) He knew his Dion Boucicault plays and made various attempts at imitating an Irish accent in his letters, reporting, for example, on a fan who accosted him in Dublin to thank him “not ounly for the light you’ve been to me this night, but for the light you’ve been in mee house sir (and God love your face!) this many a year!” But the really striking thing about Ireland in Dickens is its absence.
The biggest Irish presence in Dickens is undoubtedly the poems and songs of Thomas Moore, which he knew and loved. Donal O’Sullivan has traced more than 30 allusions to Moore’s work in Dickens’s novels and sketches. Yet this allusiveness is deceptive. Moore is stitched in to Dickens, not because he was Irish, but because he was so utterly interwoven with Victorian popular culture. The most remarkable thing about Dickens’s relationship to Ireland is how little he has to say about the Irish.
It is striking that Dickens notices the Irish in America much more than those in England. His American Notessketches two Irish labourers and asks, sympathetically, “who else would dig, and delve, and drudge, and do domestic work, and make canals and roads” – a question that he might equally have asked of England.
He famously visits the Irish-dominated Five Points slum in New York and notes, with some disturbance, the intermixing of Irish and African Americans in its shebeens and dancehalls.
Yet where, in Dickens, is the most cataclysmic event in the United Kingdom of his day, the Great Famine? Insofar as he alludes at all to the appalling condition of Ireland, Dickens’s views are shaped by a strong anti-Catholicism and by the conventional view that adherence to the wrong religion is the cause of what he called in his magazine Household Words, the “lamentable spectacle of disease, dirt, rags, superstition and degradation”.
And where are the Irish immigrants who made up at least one in 20 of the London population in the 1850s? Dickens encounters them in a report of a nocturnal visit to St Giles with the detective Charles Frederick Field, shamelessly invading their slum quarters and dismissing them as “like maggots in a cheese”. On a visit to Newgate prison, recounted in Sketches by Boz, he notes, interestingly, that most of the prisoners are uneasy at being gawped at, except for “Some old Irish women, both in this and other wards, to whom the thing was no novelty” and who “appeared perfectly indifferent to our presence”. These women, who are beyond caring even about the indignity of being scrutinised by the writer, seem entirely beyond Dickens’s overflowing sympathy for all humanity.
At best, the Irish in London flit darkly about the edges of Dickens’s consciousness. In Bleak House, Harold Skimpole’s servant is a nameless “Irishwoman” who is accorded no personal characteristics whatsoever. In the Saffron Hill through which Oliver Twist follows the Artful Dodger, “The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place were the public houses, and in them, the lowest orders of Irish (who are generally the lowest orders of anything) . . .” Likewise, Boz, in his sketch on gin shops, spies a “knot of Irish labourers at the lower end of the place” who end up, of course, fighting.
These creatures are barely human, a fact that would be unremarkable in 19th century writing about the lower orders were it not for Dickens’s prodigious talent for vibrantly humanising even those who appear for an instant on the edge of his peripheral vision. The nearest Dickens, the great vivifier, comes to seeing an Irish immigrant as a person is a rather lame sketch in one of the Bozpieces, The Boarding House, of Frederick O’Bleary, “an Irishman, recently imported”. O’Bleary “was in a perfectly wild state” and “like all Irishmen, when they first came to England, he felt convinced that his intrinsic merits must procure him a high destiny”.
That lazy “like all Irishmen” is telling: for Dickens, the Irish remain a collective type. Boz, indeed, later resorts to referring to him merely as “the Hibernian”.
One might even go so far as to argue that Dickens actually turns naturally Irish characters into something else, as if he cannot deal with their Irishness. In this category, we could include Dickens’s most memorable ethnic character, Fagin, in Oliver Twist. John Sutherland notes that Dickens “called his wicked Jew by an Irish name, because – for reasons that only a psychoanalyst could fathom – he associated the merry old gentleman with a young gent, Bob Fagin, one of his workmates in the blacking factory.” (Highly unusually, Dickens makes a point of mentioning Bob as the source of the name in a preface: he was obviously on his mind.) And perhaps we should also include Merdle in Little Dorrit. Dickens in his preface, hints that Merdle “originated . . . in the times of a certain Irish bank”. He is almost certainly based on the Irish banker Richard Sadlier, who as Sutherland usefully notes, “rose to fame, power, and high political office on the immense bubble of speculative wealth created by his fraudulent banking activities”. It might not be too late for a contemporary Irish Dickens to give us a proper Irish Merdle. Models, after all, would not be lacking.