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Wednesday, January 1st, 2025
7:42 am - Thoughts on education
I've been on lj over 12 years now, and I've had lots of thoughts on education [also, I was posting stuff on in longer form from 1996 - 2002; I've also written a lot at the Actuarial Outpost on this subject]

So this post is simply to amass posts as I find them, and categorize them. I am defining "education" very broadly here. I may be linking to some friends-locked posts, and will note that when I link. Some of these posts may need to be moved around for better organization.

12 Days of LearningCollapse )

My thoughts for starting schools, business related to educationCollapse )

Responses to Charles MurrayCollapse )

Gifted education/IQ stuffCollapse )

Math educationCollapse )

Online educationCollapse )

Females and math and scienceCollapse )

Actuarial educationCollapse )

UncategorizedCollapse )

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Friday, July 25th, 2014
5:18 pm - Update on the pain situation
My last real update regarding my chronic pain was about a year ago.

The pain is basically in a holding pattern.

It's not getting better; it's not getting worse.

I took today off from work because it was getting to be a bit too much. I go to a chiropractor fairly regularly, and no matter how bullshitty it is, it does give me some relief. I feel like it helps me from getting worse. I also go get a good massage about once a month, but that really only helps with my muscular issues.

I'm in a fairly bad condition. Weekends are pretty bad. I will go do short errands, like take the girls to Kumon, but by the afternoon, I'm wrecked.

This entry is not going to be as long as my last one, because it's true -- the more I type, the more I hurt. That was the issue with work this week... I was doing a lot of typing (as opposed to reading & thinking) and the typing takes a lot out of me. I've been amassing a lot of blogging stuff for STUMP, but I know typing is a bad idea.

It's pretty bad right now, so I'm just going to listen to opera and re-read some books I know very well.

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Sunday, July 13th, 2014
1:10 pm - The absurdity of enforcing statistical "equality"
I came across this WSJ article today, about the Canadian McGill University taking over a decade to close the gender gap in pay among its own workers.  It sounded reasonable, until I got to this paragraph:

Another conundrum involved a mostly female team of assistant cooks and a mostly male team of executive cooks. McGill's pay analysis called for paying the assistants more than their bosses were earning. University officials still are trying to sort the issue out with the school's unions.

Now, it is not always the case that the "boss" should always be paid more than the supposed subordinates. In many "creative" and competitive areas, people ostensibly lower down the totem pole are paid a lot more, because the top execs are more easily replaced than, say, a star center on a basketball team.

But when we're talking about a bureaucratic system that has "levels" for workers with each level being associated with a particular salary, it is difficult to argue that one should get a lower salary with a promotion in level.

This should have been an obvious absurdity, but evidently they didn't rethink their approach until the unions pointed out the stupidity.

At least they realize they can't just proclaim women working the same jobs as men get paid 20% more than the men in order to "close the gap".  That's too obviously illegal (well, I'm not sure about that. This  Canada and, more specifically, Quebec we're talking about).

But I wonder how much they've thought this through.  Because they could end up hurting the women who are in male-dominated fields and attract lots more men to what is currently female-dominated.

Let me think about the office I work in. I am the only female researcher in the group. The administrative staff is almost all female (there are a few men, though).  If there was a "rectification of salaries", the admins would be boosted and the researchers deprecated. That would piss me off.

Luckily, I do not work in a bureaucratic hell-hole. My prior company was like that... and it was run by a bunch of French and Germans. This is not a coincidence.

When I was talking with the prior chief actuary of the U.S. branch of that company, I made a comment about the insulting bonuses. He really let loose. The bureaucratic approach of the Europeans was such that competitive pay could not be offered in the U.S. for certain positions. It would not do, you see, for the chief actuary in the U.S. be paid higher than the chief actuary in France. Yes, but actuaries are paid more in the U.S. than in France.  I should have taken a clue about the high turnover in the actuarial staff in the U.S. office....which I didn't know until I got there. And then there was the fact that I was hired for a position well above my experience level, and that the person who was the first choice for the position (and who was of the right experience) passed on the position.

This is what happens when a private company pays much less than the market. They have difficulties staying staffed for particular positions. (What a lot of these sorts of companies do is get people who need visa or green card sponsorship, which makes it difficult for them to leave. But it's not impossible for them to leave, and they do eventually... just not as quickly as those who do not need such sponsorship.)

Similarly, when an employer pays well above market for particular jobs, unless they've got a good handle on the hiring process, they can end up with a lot of stinkers who are difficult to fire. Or they can get people who are skilled well beyond those particular jobs who stick around in them, because getting "promoted" is actually a step down in pay. So those companies have a difficult time getting people to accept promotions. More responsibilities for less money, or not much of a step up in money?  Ha ha. You must be joking.

Now, if this were just Canada, this would be one of those page A1 "Ha ha look at the weirdos" WSJ fluff pieces (nb: I love those fluff pieces). But look what U.S. companies have in store:

Companies who do business with the federal government—which employ some 20% of the U.S. workforce, by government estimates—will soon have to face the issue head-on. President Barack Obama signed an executive action earlier this year requiring federal contractors to report pay data by gender and race.

The proposed rules for doing so are expected to be released later this summer.

Contractors are already required to collect such pay data, but, "I couldn't tell you how many contractors actually do that," said Patricia Shiu, director of the Labor Department's Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

Serves them right for doing business with the government.

What I "love" about all these requirements for doing contract work with the federal government is that it is a huge barrier to entry, and thus smaller contractors have harder and harder time submitting and winning bids. And it also makes it less attractive for potential, competent contractors to bid on work.

cf: the Obamacare exchanges.

Cross-posted to STUMP.

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Thursday, March 20th, 2014
8:33 am - Vindication: IT'S NOT HARD
So all y'all remember my nemesis, the WSJ Numbers Guy?

Here, a quick refresher: GET A NEW SHTICK, PLEASE MAKE IT STOP, JUST STOP IT ALREADY, SOMEBODY STOP THIS GUY BEFORE HE KILLS AGAIN. You can tell I was very calm about the whole thing.

Well, he's not at the WSJ any more, but is at Nate Silver's new place. So I decided to check out if I may have unfairly maligned Mr. Bialik, and that all of the crap was due to WSJ editorial decisions. Here are his recent post titles:

A March Madness Bracket For Stat-Heads

Dayton Does Matter

Buffett’s Billion Won’t Lead to a Perfect Bracket

Another Explanation For Crimea Referendum Landslide

How Statisticians Could Help Find That Missing Plane

You Just Had Sex, So How Many Calories Did You Burn?

Wichita State’s Strength of Schedule Isn’t the Problem

Tracking Health One Step (And Clap, And Wave, And Fist Pump) at a Time

Many Signs Pointed to Crimea Independence Vote — But Polls Didn’t

Reviewing the Peer-Review Process

Okay, the headlines don't go on about how hard things are to figure out. Good, good.

Most of the stuff is fluff, but that's okay. Let's look at the serious stories, though. The one on the missing plane:

Keller said Metron isn’t involved in the Malaysia Airlines hunt. If it were, the same principles would apply: Start with all data, such as radar, visual or acoustic measurements, transmissions from the plane and so on. Then update to account for unsuccessful searches, and keep updating as new information comes in. “Bayesian search theory allows flexibility in this way and even accommodates conflicting information,” Keller said. “Nothing is discounted.”

The extra layers of complexity in the Malaysia Airlines search — the new estimates of the plane’s location, mounting evidence that a deliberate act caused the disappearance — complicate the Bayesian calculations and estimates.

Bradley Efron, a Stanford University statistician, said the complications make Bayes a bad fit for the Malaysia Airlines hunt. “Bayes’ Rule is good for refining reasonable (or at least not unreasonable) prior experience on the basis of new evidence,” Efron, who also expressed skepticism to Al Jazeera America, wrote in an email. “It is not good when new evidence changes the situation drastically.”

But Tony O’Hagan, professor emeritus of probability and statistics at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., said that’s the perfect situation for Bayesian techniques, which should make searchers most effective in adapting to changing information, so long as they properly assume from the get-go that the plane might not be in the initial search area.

There's a lot more there -- I think Bialik would have done better to split that one up into a series of multiple posts, because he covers a lot of different topics and really long articles don't make for easy reading online, even if they work better in a newspaper column.

But still, it seemed like a reasonable take.  Yes, there are difficulties, but in this case he focuses on the techniques that could be used to help, and less on the IT'S SO HAAAAAAAARD whining.

Oh, what's this? A couple posts on Crimea.  Well, that's pretty important, too.  So let's see.

First post on Crimea:

On Sunday, voters in the Crimea region of Ukraine overwhelmingly chose to secede and become a part of Russia. Crimean officials said nearly 97 percent of voters backed the move, casting ballots as the peninsula remained occupied by thousands of Russian troops.


One big advantage for pollsters: working in the country, with a per-capita GDP below Iraq’s, is cheap, costing less than one-fifth as much to add a question to a Ukrainian poll as it does for a U.S. survey with the same number of respondents, according to Steven Kull, director of “There’s a lot of worthwhile polling that could be done right now,” Kull said. “I’m tempted to jump into it.”

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and Ukraine gained independence, pollsters found a country full of people eager to tell anyone, including strangers, their opinions about their country and its governance — an ideal scenario for survey researchers.

The “attitude of the population was very, very positive,” Paniotto recalled. He had to work to build polling infrastructure and train interviewers in a country with little independent polling during the Soviet era, and with two major languages (Ukrainian and Russian). Once his staff went into the field, respondents often invited them in for tea; they had to learn how to leave politely and move on to the next home.

Okay, that's somewhat interesting. Not an angle I knew about, in terms of widespread polling in poorer places. Again, he did a super-long post.  But that really doesn't have to do much with a 97% result.

But looks like he had some followup:

I wrote earlier on Monday about the overwhelming vote by Crimeansto leave Ukraine and join Russia. The latest reputable polls in Crimea showed that just 40 percent of Crimeans wanted Ukraine to integrate with Russia, yet 97 percent of Crimeans on Sunday voted to reunite with Russia. I offered several possible explanations for the discrepancy, including the ballot question wording, the presence of thousands of Russian troops in Crimea and the possibility that some voters wanted only Crimea, and not the rest of Ukraine, to join Russia.

In the comments of my post, several readers offered an additional explanation I didn’t include: The last polls preceded the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russia government and its replacement by a government friendlier to the European Union than to the Kremlin. The Kiev International Institute of Sociology poll – which found about 40 percent of Crimeans backed unification — was conducted from Feb. 8-18. President Viktor Yanukovych, who favored closer ties with Moscow and received 78 percent of the Crimean vote in 2010, fled the country three days after the poll ended and was voted out of office by Ukraine’s parliament on Feb. 22.

I asked Volodymyr Paniotto, general director of KIIS, about this explanation. Paniotto acknowledged the possibility that Yanukovych’s ouster affected the vote, and expanded the explanation to include the Ukrainian parliament’s “foolish steps” — such ascanceling and later reinstating a law granting equal status to minority languages in Ukraine. He still thinks the context of the referendum, including the Russian troops and Russian propaganda present in Crimea, were the dominant factors in the vote.


Is there really any question why there was 97% result in one way?

(and why couldn't they get to 100%? I bet Kim Jong-Un is laughing at Putin.)

To help you, I added emphasis in the above -- as one of Althouse's commenters put it, this post should've stopped after the first paragraph.  Indeed, that particular commenter made the exact point I was thinking:

Numbers are supposed to help you say smart things, not cover up stupid things.

Well, you might think so, but you've obviously not been following public pension accounting.

More to the point: sometimes people try too hard to come up with a unique take on a situation, in order to get attention. If your business is attracting eyeballs, as opposed to being correct about stuff, then sure.  Posit that aliens grabbed the Malaysian flight.

However, you end up with what I call the Malcolm Gladwell effect -- you come up with engaging stories you'd like to be true and seem to be counterintuitive, but what really happened is you missed some really big obvious facts that undermine everything else you have to say.  



Sometimes it doesn't even require math.

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Friday, March 14th, 2014
6:30 pm - Followup on mediocre STEM majors
Well, sounds like I went in the wrong direction in the last post.

No, it wasn't because I quibbled with the article author's interpretation of the stats displayed, but that she misrepresented economics as a STEM major.

Because I just came across this:

Students, who hope to be science and engineering majors, get discouraged by their grades, which are significantly lower than students in other disciplines. Consequently, they flee for easier "A's". Male students are more likely to bail because of grades than would-be women STEM majors.

Well, which is it? Men reacting more strongly to low grades or women?

For all we know, in the prior post, econ was the fall-back major for the males who did poorly in calculus. Sure, they got a B in the intro econ class, but they got a C (or worse) in calculus.  Might as well do econ, it's easier than the math degree. It could be that the women with Bs in econ were planning on majoring in physics, and took the intro econ class to fulfill a social science requirement for their major.

Or maybe it's just a reflection of differences between two different institutions, such as what are seen as the desirable majors and which are the fallbacks.

And instead of telling students to nut up and accept lower grades, this particular author recommends:

It seems to me that the best way to produce more scientists and engineers might be to get the professors in those fields to lighten up on their grades. Do the students, who are brave enough to wrestle with organic chemistry and multivariable calculus, need to be crushed at exam time?

The alternative is to get the professors in departments like education and English to grade harder, but I just don't see that ever happening.

I am in agreement on that last paragraph.

This is my advice to undergrads: major in the most difficult subject you enjoy and can do well in. This may require casting about the first couple years to find what comes close to satisfying those criteria.

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Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
5:28 pm - STEM: Mediocre Chicks, Hang in There!
Oh, is that what you meant with all that MATH NEEDS CHICKS and SCIENCE NEEDS CHICKS crap?

I thought they were wanting the chicks who could do well at STEM stuff to major in it. Not keep the mediocre ones around.

My bad.

I mean, how else am I to interpret this:

A message to the nation’s women: Stop trying to be straight-A students.

No, not because you might intimidate easily emasculated future husbands. Because, by focusing so much on grades, you might be limiting your earning and learning potential.

The college majors that tend to lead to the most profitable professions are also the stingiest about awarding A’s. Science departments grade, on a four-point scale, an average of 0.4 points lower than humanities departments, according to a 2010 analysis of national grading data by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy. And two new research studies suggest that women might be abandoning these lucrative disciplines precisely because they’re terrified of getting B’s.

Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, has been examining why so few women major in her field . The majority of new college grads are female, yet women receive only 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees in economics each year.

Goldin looked at how grades awarded in an introductory economics class affected the chance that a student would ultimately major in the subject. She found that the likelihood a woman would major in economics dropped steadily as her grade fell: Women who received a B in Econ 101, for example, were about half as likely as women who received A’s to stick with the discipline. The same discouragement gradient didn’t exist for men. Of Econ 101 students, men who received A’s were about equally as likely as men who received B’s to concentrate in the dismal science.

Yes, and all those guys with the crappy grades are unlikely to be all that good in the subject.

Take a look at this graph:

This is showing the percentage of males and females who major in economics after getting the above grades in an intro econ class. They don't say what university this was at.  I don't think that much matters. They don't mention, of those going on to major in econ, whether they actually graduated with a degree.  Maybe that's not much different. I don't know.

So let's see. The women who did best are even more likely than males to stick to Econ. Not bad. And there is definitely a "taking the hint" aspect as one steps from left to right.

The men do not seem rational at all to me.

So let me get this straight: you want the half-assed females to stick around? Because I can tell you, those half-assed men tend not to get better as the years go on.  Maybe econ is different, but in math and physics, you really needed to take the hint if you didn't do very well in freshman/sophomore courses in the major. Because the junior level classes would whup your ass.  And yes, I remember some weaker students taking until that point to realize they weren't going to get past real analysis (oops, switch to math education) or classical mechanics (oh shit, I was in physics because I was booted out of engineering... where do I go now?)

And yes, getting a B is not doing very well. Due to grade inflation, a B in your major subject today indicates you are mediocre, at best.

Oh, and it's difficult to "genuinely love" a topic if you're not doing well at it.  At least beyond a hobby. I'm not all that fabulous at crochet, but I enjoy it as a hobby. If I had to do it as a career, I would be miserable, because I really am not that good.  And I am quite aware of that.  I might get better if I spent more time at it, but I would unlikely beat those who have been very good all along.

To be sure, there is a certain amount of failure built in to becoming really good in a field. However, a lot of the people who do not do very well at the particular thing will never be all that good.  Some people can keep trying at stuff, and still suck.  Having strong, early signals to try elsewhere is very helpful.  If these weed-out classes aren't providing an accurate signal as to whether one will suck, then those classes need to be improved.

It could be that the grading in the early classes aren't indicative of later performance.

But maybe these classes are not harsh enough.

Trying to shame women into not looking after their best interests, which may just be finding an area in which they can excel in a relative sense, is stupid.

And some people may find that they do well by being mediocre in a subject they like or find to be remunerative, even if they are at a lower level compared to other people in the same field. That's okay, too.

As long as they're realistic about their suckitude.

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Friday, March 7th, 2014
6:42 am - FYI: stump is live
Stu and I are blogging on our own site now:

Does not mean I won't be posting stuff here, but the stump stuff I post is more political than what I post here. And more Mozart-y.

Stu has been posting about crockpot cookery so far.

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Wednesday, February 12th, 2014
6:25 am - Twelfth Day of Dickens: Business Fraud
I was waiting for this newsletter to come out (links to a PDF). It's The Stepping Stone, a quarterly newsletter from the Management and Personal Development Section of the Society of Actuaries. For some time, I had been reviewing business books for this newsletter, until I took a swerve and decided to start pushing generic humanities and not specific business books.

My first two articles in that series were "Leadership Books: The Classics" and "Leadership Books: The Classics, Part 2", where I hold up books like Plutarch's Lives and the Iliad as profiles in leadership.

This article is on Dickens and business fraud, and I will quote myself:

If I say “Dickens,” you may think of grand social drama—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—along with some comic characters with silly names. If I say “Dickens and business,” you probably will think of Ebenezer Scrooge, the cold-hearted businessman who changes when he gets visited by four ghosts and learns the True Meaning of Christmas (thus spawning a whole genre of TV specials).

However, Dickens went beyond the psychology of a miser in portraying business and businessmen (and businesswomen, though there are fewer of those in his novels). This is hardly surprising given how much Dickens was a London boy, through and through. The business of the City of London was Business writ large, and as Dickens became a prominent man himself, and even before, when he was a parliamentary recorder, he became more familiar with the lifeblood of the city. One issue Dickens knew well was fraud of all types— while he mainly covered social frauds of various sorts, given the more rigid class-based society of Victorian England, he also covered the matter of business fraud, both large and small.

Scrooge himself was no fraud—just a man who valued the world only in pounds, shillings and pence. Dickens even wrote of beneficent businessmen other than the post-ghost Scrooge, such as the Cheeryble brothers of Nicholas Nickleby. He wrote of smaller, personal frauds, such as Uriah Heep of David Copperfield, who had been embezzling from his master. In this article, I will look at the two largest business frauds portrayed by Dickens in the novels Martin Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit, frauds that ring true with events that occurred in Victorian times … and frauds that still occur today.

That's my open, and here's my close:

How do we prevent new frauds and asset bubbles? One may take a technical approach, but at the heart is human nature—how people behave, how people have particular goals, and how some will try to get what they want fraudulently. Many of these frauds are successful due to the perpetrator’s own knowledge of human nature. It’s hilarious how often we hear “This time it’s different!”.... and it turns out people’s greed, envy, pride, and pretty much all the mortal sins, come into the mix in the same old way.

Fiction takes us away from particular concrete facts and asks us to look and think more broadly. If you want to catch the next fraud, don’t look at the particular tools necessarily, but how people and societies behave. These two novels of Dickens help give a little piece of that puzzle, and reading more broadly may provide you with more such pieces.

Go to the article for the middle bits where I explain the frauds -- I will tell you the Martin Chuzzlewit fraud is my favorite because it's a life insurance company, and the guy running the fraud is an excellent profile of a con man.

FWIW, I'm working on a more general article in praise of the humanities in general for The Stepping Stone -- I was making explicit links between leadership profiles and business fraud in my prior articles, but now I'm going to make an argument that the proper study of man is mankind (luckily, many have made that argument before, so I just need to modernize the language).

And the lovely thing about the humanities is that the older one gets (as long as there's no senility), the easier it is to get into it -- because now you understand many of the issues you didn't even see as a teen, when you were being forced to read these books.

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Sunday, February 9th, 2014
10:55 am - Happy 9th Birthday, Bon!
How the time flies.

One moment I'm swearing about France and the next:

Bon through the yearsCollapse )


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Tuesday, January 28th, 2014
6:50 am - Eleventh Day of Dickens: The Dignity of Labor
Any labor.

I have written about this before in my No Child's Ass Left Unkicked plan, so I might as well crib from myself:

One needs to appreciate the work done by others. .... There is dignity to work, and people would like to have that dignity recognized. Do not be snarky about the garbagemen or the secretaries. You should be even more deferent if these people are doing jobs for you that you don't want to do.

This puts to mind a scene from Martin Chuzzlewit, where Tom Pinch visits his sister Ruth at the home where she is governess. First, he notes the doorman (or whoever) is snarky about Ruth. Then, he notices his sister in tears, after which the mother and daughter of the house enter with complaints as to the daughter's total disrespect of Ruth. Mind you, Ruth isn't complaining about this, but the mother is. The daughter had called Ruth "a beggarly thing", and the mother thought this low behavior (which it was). Of course, during the mother's speech, her total contempt for the position of governess shines through. Oh sorry, the father is involved in this, too. The father, by the way, is New Money, being in the metal processing industry. Obviously, he has hired himself a full retinue of servants, and treats all with contempt.

Tom, after his break with his old employer Pecksniff bringing him further perspective on life, responds to this in righteous indignation. Here is what Tom has to say (as he takes his sister from the house):

‘I speak without passion, but with extreme indignation and contempt for such a course of treatment, and for all who practice it,’ said Tom. ‘Why, how can you, as an honest gentleman, profess displeasure or surprise at your daughter telling my sister she is something beggarly and humble, when you are for ever telling her the same thing yourself in fifty plain, outspeaking ways, though not in words; and when your very porter and footman make the same delicate announcement to all comers? As to your suspicion and distrust of her; even of her word; if she is not above their reach, you have no right to employ her.’

‘No right!’ cried the brass–and–copper founder.

‘Distinctly not,’ Tom answered. ‘If you imagine that the payment of an annual sum of money gives it to you, you immensely exaggerate its power and value. Your money is the least part of your bargain in such a case. You may be punctual in that to half a second on the clock, and yet be Bankrupt. I have nothing more to say,’ said Tom, much flushed and flustered, now that it was over, ‘except to crave permission to stand in your garden until my sister is ready.’

This is a piece of wisdom the rich and/or intellectual would do well to remember. Just because you may make more money, just because you may pay someone else to tend to your yard or take care of your children, this does not make you the better person.

To be sure, this is not the only time Dickens displays respect and dignity for those who work, no matter how lowly the work. But this is the most explicit statement, where generally he just shows the concept through characters.

He shows both men and women, boys and girls, hard at work at all sorts of jobs. There's Jenny of Our Mutual Friend, the dolls' dressmaker, who takes her crutch as she perambulates London, taking in the fashionable sights to think about her next dollish creation. There's Lizzie from the same book, who does a variety of jobs, and when on the run and is shown charity - in the old sense of caritas - by the saintly Jew Riah, it's that he gets a factory job for her out in the country, far away from her persecutors.  Yes, there are a lot of saintly girls and women hard at work, like Little Dorrit in the novel named for her, but also hard-working men, such as Stephen Blackpool of Hard Times (and he has a very hard time of it).

But even he shows the importance of a clerkish job well done, with Tom Pinch (from above) takes on loads of work for Pecksniff, but then finds his own secret benefactor for whom he puts a library in order, carefully cataloging everything. David Copperfield becomes a hard-working parliamentary reporter then professional writer (just like Dickens... yes, we know).

Whether it's just literary work, or business work, or hard manual labor, Dickens portrays all in equal dignity and reminds all that just because one is paying the worker does not make one higher than that worker.

Note: my last day of Dickens may be some time -- I'm waiting for a specific article I wrote to be officially published, and it may not be available online until March, though I wrote it back in December.  I've got a new project that shall be appearing shortly (opera notes!) -- I will not wait til the Dickens article comes up to start that.

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Tuesday, January 21st, 2014
2:25 pm - Tenth day of Dickens: Dickens and Jews
One of Dickens' most infamous villains is Fagin from Oliver Twist, the Jew who teaches the band of pickpocketing boys and gives them shelter, all for a cut of the take.  While Fagin was based on a real criminal (who happened to be Jewish), Dickens went a little above-and-beyond by referring to the old man as "the Jew" multiple times in the novel (and not only in the mouths of other characters). It didn't help that there was undertones of pedophilia in Fagin's treatment of the children.

Dickens later became friends with a Jewish family, and it was the wife of the family, in particular, who explained to Dickens how extremely offensive Fagin's portrayal was to her specifically, and British Jews more generally. He did edit out the many uses of "the Jew" in later editions (and it's probably the later editions you read in school, so you may have thought the Jewishness of Fagin was not really overplayed.)

But Dickens tried to make amends beyond editing the offending novel, by creating another Jewish character to counteract Fagin, and specifically to relate the lecture he must have gotten from his Jewish acquaintances.

The character was Mr. Riah from Our Mutual Friend (my favorite Dickens novel), a man who falls in with a non-Jewish moneylender. Mr. Riah had some financial troubles of his own, and became indebted to Fledgeby, who is looking to marry well himself (and gets thwarted and yadda yadda yadda). Fledgeby is a stereotypical dishonest moneylender, and uses Riah as the public face of his dirty work. If there's a bill to be called in, Riah is the one who has to do it face-to-face.

Riah never lies, and always says he is acting on the orders of the principal (though never telling anybody who his principal is, which is how Fledgeby maintains his social position).

But everybody assumes Riah is lying and is acting on his own behalf.

When this lie-by-assumption costs Riah a friend, he finally breaks and determines he must get free of Fledgeby. Once he settles with Fledgeby, he finds the friend, and explains the situation to her:

The little creature folded her arms about the old man's neck with great earnestness, and kissed him. 'I humbly beg your forgiveness, godmother. I am truly sorry. I ought to have had more faith in you. But what could I suppose when you said nothing for yourself, you know? I don't mean to offer that as a justification, but what could I suppose, when you were a silent party to all he said? It did look bad; now didn't it?'
'It looked so bad, Jenny,' responded the old man, with gravity, 'that I will straightway tell you what an impression it wrought upon me. I was hateful in mine own eyes. I was hateful to myself, in being so hateful to the debtor and to you. But more than that, and worse than that, and to pass out far and broad beyond myself—I reflected that evening, sitting alone in my garden on the housetop, that I was doing dishonour to my ancient faith and race. I reflected—clearly reflected for the first time—that in bending my neck to the yoke I was willing to wear, I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people. For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, 'This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.' Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough—among what peoples are the bad not easily found?—but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say "All Jews are alike." If, doing what I was content to do here, because I was grateful for the past and have small need of money now, I had been a Christian, I could have done it, compromising no one but my individual self. But doing it as a Jew, I could not choose but compromise the Jews of all conditions and all countries. It is a little hard upon us, but it is the truth. I would that all our people remembered it! Though I have little right to say so, seeing that it came home so late to me.'
The dolls' dressmaker sat holding the old man by the hand, and looking thoughtfully in his face.
'Thus I reflected, I say, sitting that evening in my garden on the housetop. And passing the painful scene of that day in review before me many times, I always saw that the poor gentleman believed the story readily, because I was one of the Jews—that you believed the story readily, my child, because I was one of the Jews—that the story itself first came into the invention of the originator thereof, because I was one of the Jews. This was the result of my having had you three before me, face to face, and seeing the thing visibly presented as upon a theatre. Wherefore I perceived that the obligation was upon me to leave this service. But Jenny, my dear,' said Riah, breaking off, 'I promised that you should pursue your questions, and I obstruct them.'

Obviously, they are reconciled after this little speech.

However, Riah's speech is such that one gets the feeling this is what Dickens himself was told, in the offense of Fagin the Jew. Sure, Fagin was based on a real person who happened to be a Jew, but Ikey Solomon's criminality as a fence didn't have much to do with his Jewishness, and Oliver Twist overly emphasized it. As Riah said, instead of Jewish readers seeing Fagin as a bad Jew, they saw Fagin as intended as an indictment against all Jews.  Dickens did eventually see it that way and tried to make amends.

However, Riah is a bit too much for amends. Earlier in the day, Jenny happened upon a scene wherein somebody found out about the truth about Fledgeby and caned him mercilessly. She came in right after, and found Fledgeby in pain and "helped" him (I will not get into details, but that's when she also realizes the truth, about Fledgeby, at any rate. The truth about Riah had to come from him directly.) She explains it to Riah and he decides that, even after breaking off his situation with Fledgeby, he really should go help him.

'I mean, godmother,' replied Miss Wren, sitting down beside the Jew, 'that the fox has caught a famous flogging, and that if his skin and bones are not tingling, aching, and smarting at this present instant, no fox did ever tingle, ache, and smart.' Therewith Miss Jenny related what had come to pass in the Albany, omitting the few grains of pepper.

This expression of regret being but partially intelligible to Mr Riah, the old man reverted to the injuries Fledgeby had received, and hinted at the necessity of his at once going to tend that beaten cur.
'Godmother, godmother, godmother!' cried Miss Wren irritably, 'I really lose all patience with you. One would think you believed in the Good Samaritan. How can you be so inconsistent?'
'Jenny dear,' began the old man gently, 'it is the custom of our people to help—'
'Oh! Bother your people!' interposed Miss Wren, with a toss of her head. 'If your people don't know better than to go and help Little Eyes, it's a pity they ever got out of Egypt. Over and above that,' she added, 'he wouldn't take your help if you offered it. Too much ashamed. Wants to keep it close and quiet, and to keep you out of the way.'

It turns out that Jenny is correct on this score. A note arrives right after this to tell Riah to get the hell out and never see him again.

One does get a bit out of patience with these over-the-top saints. Come on, Dickens.

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Wednesday, January 8th, 2014
12:22 pm - Ninth Day of Dickens: His Fine Sense of the Grotesque

Or rather, the horror of reality.  Poe was great with the horrors of the mind, but when it came to the horrors of human nature, Dickens had him beat.

The following is from my review of Barnaby Rudge. As it's my own text, I'm not going to even blockquote it:

Let me open with a quote from the book:

"On the skull of one drunken lad -- not twenty, by his looks -- who lay upon the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot; melting his head like wax."

You think Edgar Allen Poe to be the king of horror? Meet the author who far surpasses him in making flesh creep and cringe, in this book more than most. In Barnaby Rudge, Dickens portrays the Gordon Riots, a violent anti-Catholic outburst in London in 1780, supposedly started by the opposition by Lord Gordon to some acts in Parliament which would've relieved some of the burdens of Catholic citizens: the right to directly inherit property and the right to educate their children in England. As usual, Dickens ignores the political pressures, likely brought about by the French allying themselves with the Americans in their colonial war, which would've stirred up suspicions of Anglo-Catholics being in league with the French.

In any case, I can see why this book has never matched the popularity of "A Tale of Two Cities", as there is no possibility for heroes in scenes of mob violence. Even those who refuse to cooperate with the rioters can do little more than resist. Locksmith Gabriel Varden, being forcibly brought to Newgate prison, refuses to pick the lock for the masses of rowdy men intending to free their comrades and anyone else locked inside; however, his resistance means little as the mob decides to burn down the door instead. Mr. Haredale is often defiant, but he can do little more than beat a retreat when faced by hundreds of belligerent men. None of this "'Tis a far, far better thing..." kind of statement which can be made.

Ignore the plot lines. They are cursory, even for Dickens. They are there merely to set up the characters and their own personal motivations so one can see what happens to them when all order dissolves. I could see why the English of Dickens' day may have not wanted to read this book -- it was far too scary, especially as Dickens portraying the fuel to the rioters' fire being the primal urges to destruction and looting. Though there was then (in 1841) a better policing force and better prisons, there still was the unbearable poverty and dissipation alive in London. Then, as now, there were plenty ripe to take advantage of any opportunity to set fire to the town. Think the actions in here too far-fetched for even these times? Consider the fires, destruction, and looting that start in any modern city, once rioters have been given an opening.

People are crushed underfoot, men are consumed by the very fires they had set, and decent people stand by because they are powerless in the face of the massive wave of violence. Dickens shirks not one detail. If you're thinking of a quaint Victorian period piece, for crying out loud, don't read this book! Go read Pickwick Papers or Old Curiosity Shop. However, if you enjoy this kind of disaster, by all means, read Barnaby Rudge (or might I suggest Hard Times, which has some pretty horrific deaths).


Back from the review, I want to point out that the Gordon Riots occurred while the American Revolution was going on: the act that they were rioting against was passed in 1778, the riots themselves occurred in 1780, and the Revolution didn't end until Yorktown in 1783.

France had joined on the American side in 1778 (when the Papists Act had been passed). France, obviously, was a Catholic nation. So I suppose one could see the Papists Act of 1778 might be one way to shore up British Catholic support for the crown, and keep the bits of the aristocracy that had remained Catholic from supporting the French (and Spanish, though Spain was on the wane at this point.)  Amusingly, when something similar had been passed to apply to Canada, so the French Canadian Catholics wouldn't go rogue, in 1774, the American colonists saw this as an offense.

For all that anti-Catholic jawboning, though, it's not like religion played a huge role in the Revolution... at least on the American side. But one could see where some of the British Protestants might be a bit wary of what France might be doing around these riots (there was an intimation that France itself instigated the anti-Catholic riots, so that the French could invade England itself..... hey, conspiracy theories abound in all times and places.)

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Sunday, January 5th, 2014
1:21 pm - Eighth Day of Dickens: Societal Impact of His Novels
Specifically, Nicholas Nickleby. For simplicity, I will copy my own Amazon review:

A book with great societal impact

September 2000

I don't want to say much about the quality of the novel itself. I find it the most two-dimensional of all his novels (and I've read the Old Curiousity Shop, which is full of grotesqueries!). But I do want to provide some perspective as to the background of this novel.

Before Dickens wrote this novel, some friends of his brought to his notice of horrid boarding schools in the Yorkshire area. Dickens traveled the countryside incognito, visiting the schools and some people in the area. He found that these schools were being run under the principle of being storehouses for unwanted boys. "Natural" children, inconvenient children from a first marriage, children of widowers who didn't have time to bring up their boys were shipped off to these schools, never to come home for the holidays, and under most circumstances the boy wouldn't make it to the age of 18 at which time he would be ejected from the school with no useful learning.

Part of the motivation of this novel was to bring this practice to light -- many of the people in Yorkshire did not know what was going on the schools and those who did know did not see what they could do about it.

Then Nicholas Nickleby started to be published. Like all of his novels, this book came out in 3-chapter installments. Well before the book was halfway over, people spontaneously gathered around some of these schools, ejected children and masters alike, and set the buildings to torch. By the end of publication, the infamous Yorkshire schools were totally gone.

So keep this in mind while reading this book, which seems juvenile and flat compared even his previous two novels, Oliver Twist and the Pickwick Papers. This is the only of Dickens' novels to have an immediate and profound impact in his society. When was the last time you heard of a novel creating effective activism in a community?

Now that was for a book review, and was based on my own reading and listening to Dickens enthusiasts. They may have oversold the situation. Specifically, Dickens himself was one such enthusiast. In the preface of the book, written after the serialization ended in 1839, this is what Dickens himself claims:

This story was begun, within a few months after the publication of the completed "Pickwick Papers." There were, then, a good many cheap Yorkshire schools in existence. There are very few now.

Of the monstrous neglect of education in England, and the disregard of it by the State as a means of forming good or bad citizens, and miserable or happy men, private schools long afforded a notable example. Although any man who had proved his unfitness for any other occupation in life, was free, without examination or qualification, to open a school anywhere; although preparation for the functions he undertook, was required in the surgeon who assisted to bring a boy into the world, or might one day assist, perhaps, to send him out of it; in the chemist, the attorney, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker; the whole round of crafts and trades, the schoolmaster excepted; and although schoolmasters, as a race, were the blockheads and impostors who might naturally be expected to spring from such a state of things, and to flourish in it; these Yorkshire schoolmasters were the lowest and most rotten round in the whole ladder. Traders in the avarice, indifference, or imbecility of parents, and the helplessness of children; ignorant, sordid, brutal men, to whom few considerate persons would have entrusted the board and lodging of a horse or a dog; they formed the worthy cornerstone of a structure, which, for absurdity and a magnificent high-minded LAISSEZ-ALLER neglect, has rarely been exceeded in the world.

We hear sometimes of an action for damages against the unqualified medical practitioner, who has deformed a broken limb in pretending to heal it. But, what of the hundreds of thousands of minds that have been deformed for ever by the incapable pettifoggers who have pretended to form them!

I make mention of the race, as of the Yorkshire schoolmasters, in the past tense. Though it has not yet finally disappeared, it is dwindling daily. A long day's work remains to be done about us in the way of education, Heaven knows; but great improvements and facilities towards the attainment of a good one, have been furnished, of late years.

Of course, Dickens was so popular, his books often went through multiple editions. I am not quite sure when he wrote that, other than it was after October 1839, when the novel finished being published in its monthly number

Here is a different source about what happened:

Sadly schools like Dotheboys Hall really did exist.  In early 1838 Dickens and Hablot Browne, the illustrator of Nicholas Nickleby, visited Yorkshire to get a first hand look at the situation.  It was a very short visit, just two days, but it was enough to gather all the material they needed.

During their visit they called on William Shaw, the headmaster of Bowes Academy.  In 1823 Shaw had been prosecuted for neglect after two pupils became blind because of beatings and poor nutrition.  The situation improved somewhat after the investigation.  However even after the investigation it was common for one pupil to die at Bowes Academy every year.

....not quite the obliteration of Yorkshire schooling claimed above. Here is a research paper on Dickens and Victorian education (and he had much to say in Hard Times on this subject, and a lot in pretty much all his non-historical novels, though not quite as pointed as in Hard Times.)

When Dickens turns his attention to fee-paying establishments for boys, they are treated far more seriously, and the perspective is generally that of the anguished pupil. Such is the character of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby, run by the sadistic Wackford Squeers (NN8, 9, 12, 13). The novel served as a vehicle for exposing the dreadful conditions in the Yorkshire schools -- those private venture boarding schools which catered for unwanted -- often illegitimate -- children, who were kept throughout the year at cheap rates. Dickens travelled under a pseudonym to visit these establishments with Phiz in 1838, and denounced them as examples of "the monstrous neglect of education in England"; he claimed that Squeers and his school were "faint and feeble pictures of an existing reality, purposely subdued and kept down lest they should be deemed impossible" (1839 preface to NN). In Nicholas's first sight of the "bare and dirty" classroom the hopeless situation of the boys (Squeers's "proper and natural enemies") is highlighted: "With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can foster in swollen hearts eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!" (NN 8). Pathos is elicited through the character of Smike, a "crushed boy" whose "long and very sad history" is punctuated by "stripes and blows, stripes and blows, morning, noon, and night" (NN 7, 12); his suffering and eventual death are directly attributable to Squeers's sadistic regime. This formidable -- and largely undeniable -- attack on such schools lent imaginative weight to indictments which had been circulating about such places as William Shaw's Bowes Academy at Greta Bridge, and helped to speed their demise.

A little more realistic take -- Dickens helped the destruction of the schools along, but it wasn't necessarily as quick as Dickens claims.

Still, that's quite the impact for a novel.

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Wednesday, January 1st, 2014
4:52 pm - Seventh Day of Dickens: The Character I Most Identify With
In prior posts, I concentrate a lot on villains. There's a reason for that: most of the Dickensian "heroes" (and heroines) are really, really boring.

Indeed, the title character of David Copperfield, who is the first person narrator of the novel, wonders if he's even the hero of his own story.

Spoiler: he's not.

Now, I'm not saying that David is entirely passive (though he is, at points) - he does take various actions. He is pretty active in getting certain things done. But he never does anything heroic -- he goes about his business, but the only time he really does something extreme and definitive is as a child, after his mother dies (he himself is a posthumous child). He runs away from the degraded situation he is in to his Aunt Betsey Trotwood.

Aunt Betsey is the Dickensian character I most identify with.

Mind you, I have almost nothing in common with Aunt Betsey other than being female and an English-speaker. When we first encounter Aunt Betsey in the novel, in the very first chapter, she is not as all attractive. She shows up right before David's birth, assuming that Mrs. Copperfield will be providing Aunt Betsey with a niece.

'I tell you I have a presentiment that it must be a girl,' returned Miss Betsey. 'Don't contradict. From the moment of this girl's birth, child, I intend to be her friend. I intend to be her godmother, and I beg you'll call her Betsey Trotwood Copperfield. There must be no mistakes in life with THIS Betsey Trotwood. There must be no trifling with HER affections, poor dear. She must be well brought up, and well guarded from reposing any foolish confidences where they are not deserved. I must make that MY care.'

'Well, ma'am,' resumed Mr. Chillip, as soon as he had courage, 'I am happy to congratulate you. All is now over, ma'am, and well over.'

During the five minutes or so that Mr. Chillip devoted to the delivery of this oration, my aunt eyed him narrowly.

'How is she?' said my aunt, folding her arms with her bonnet still tied on one of them.

'Well, ma'am, she will soon be quite comfortable, I hope,' returned Mr. Chillip. 'Quite as comfortable as we can expect a young mother to be, under these melancholy domestic circumstances. There cannot be any objection to your seeing her presently, ma'am. It may do her good.'

'And SHE. How is SHE?' said my aunt, sharply.

Mr. Chillip laid his head a little more on one side, and looked at my aunt like an amiable bird.

'The baby,' said my aunt. 'How is she?'

'Ma'am,' returned Mr. Chillip, 'I apprehended you had known. It's a boy.'

My aunt said never a word, but took her bonnet by the strings, in the manner of a sling, aimed a blow at Mr. Chillip's head with it, put it on bent, walked out, and never came back. She vanished like a discontented fairy; or like one of those supernatural beings, whom it was popularly supposed I was entitled to see; and never came back any more.

Yeah, she doesn't sound very promising.

I skipped over some info on Aunt Betsey earlier in the chapter: she had been married to a man who beat her (and threw her down the stairs) -- and that Aunt Betsey had independent means and paid money for her husband to get shipped to India.

When David does see Aunt Betsey again, he's definitely worse for wear.  David discovers that Aunt Betsey has a maid, Janet, and a relative, Mr. Dick, living with her. Aunt Betsey's dealing with her household is important: Janet helps Aunt Betsey in her campaign against donkeys on the hill, and Mr. Dick is a mentally impaired relative that Aunt Betsey took in as other relatives had been taking advantage of his money and not properly caring for him.

So why do I find Aunt Betsey to be the Dickensian character I see myself in the most?

Aunt Betsey knows her mind, though her reasons are not always explained. She does not want donkeys on her hill (note: she doesn't actually own the hill in question), and she makes sure those donkeys and the boys who keep taking them up the hill go away.

To this hour I don't know whether my aunt had any lawful right of way over that patch of green; but she had settled it in her own mind that she had, and it was all the same to her. The one great outrage of her life, demanding to be constantly avenged, was the passage of a donkey over that immaculate spot. In whatever occupation she was engaged, however interesting to her the conversation in which she was taking part, a donkey turned the current of her ideas in a moment, and she was upon him straight. Jugs of water, and watering-pots, were kept in secret places ready to be discharged on the offending boys; sticks were laid in ambush behind the door; sallies were made at all hours; and incessant war prevailed. Perhaps this was an agreeable excitement to the donkey-boys; or perhaps the more sagacious of the donkeys, understanding how the case stood, delighted with constitutional obstinacy in coming that way. I only know that there were three alarms before the bath was ready; and that on the occasion of the last and most desperate of all, I saw my aunt engage, single-handed, with a sandy-headed lad of fifteen, and bump his sandy head against her own gate, before he seemed to comprehend what was the matter. These interruptions were of the more ridiculous to me, because she was giving me broth out of a table-spoon at the time (having firmly persuaded herself that I was actually starving, and must receive nourishment at first in very small quantities), and, while my mouth was yet open to receive the spoon, she would put it back into the basin, cry 'Janet! Donkeys!' and go out to the assault.

If no other characteristic, the fact that she wanted the donkeys off the hill, and was vigilant on the matter, makes me see a lot of myself in that character.

There are a few other things, specifically how she deals with unpleasantness in her life.  At one point, it seems her money has been all wiped out, so she packs ups and trots over to London to live with David (or Trotwood, as she calls him). She's pretty resilient:

'Trot,' said my aunt at last, when she had finished her tea, and carefully smoothed down her dress, and wiped her lips—'you needn't go, Barkis!—Trot, have you got to be firm and self-reliant?'

'I hope so, aunt.'

'What do you think?' inquired Miss Betsey.

'I think so, aunt.'

'Then why, my love,' said my aunt, looking earnestly at me, 'why do you think I prefer to sit upon this property of mine tonight?'

I shook my head, unable to guess.

'Because,' said my aunt, 'it's all I have. Because I'm ruined, my dear!'

If the house, and every one of us, had tumbled out into the river together, I could hardly have received a greater shock.

'Dick knows it,' said my aunt, laying her hand calmly on my shoulder. 'I am ruined, my dear Trot! All I have in the world is in this room, except the cottage; and that I have left Janet to let. Barkis, I want to get a bed for this gentleman tonight. To save expense, perhaps you can make up something here for myself. Anything will do. It's only for tonight. We'll talk about this, more, tomorrow.'

I was roused from my amazement, and concern for her—I am sure, for her—by her falling on my neck, for a moment, and crying that she only grieved for me. In another moment she suppressed this emotion; and said with an aspect more triumphant than dejected:

'We must meet reverses boldly, and not suffer them to frighten us, my dear. We must learn to act the play out. We must live misfortune down, Trot!'

Later on, Aunt Betsey's good-for-nothing husband shows up, and she pays him off... and ends up caring for him when he dies:

'I left him,' my aunt proceeded, laying her hand as usual on the back of mine, 'generously. I may say at this distance of time, Trot, that I left him generously. He had been so cruel to me, that I might have effected a separation on easy terms for myself; but I did not. He soon made ducks and drakes of what I gave him, sank lower and lower, married another woman, I believe, became an adventurer, a gambler, and a cheat. What he is now, you see. But he was a fine-looking man when I married him,' said my aunt, with an echo of her old pride and admiration in her tone; 'and I believed him—I was a fool!—to be the soul of honour!'

She gave my hand a squeeze, and shook her head.

'He is nothing to me now, Trot—less than nothing. But, sooner than have him punished for his offences (as he would be if he prowled about in this country), I give him more money than I can afford, at intervals when he reappears, to go away. I was a fool when I married him; and I am so far an incurable fool on that subject, that, for the sake of what I once believed him to be, I wouldn't have even this shadow of my idle fancy hardly dealt with. For I was in earnest, Trot, if ever a woman was.'

My aunt dismissed the matter with a heavy sigh, and smoothed her dress.

'There, my dear!' she said. 'Now you know the beginning, middle, and end, and all about it. We won't mention the subject to one another any more; neither, of course, will you mention it to anybody else. This is my grumpy, frumpy story, and we'll keep it to ourselves, Trot!'


At nine, accordingly, we went out in a little chariot, and drove to London. We drove a long way through the streets, until we came to one of the large hospitals. Standing hard by the building was a plain hearse. The driver recognized my aunt, and, in obedience to a motion of her hand at the window, drove slowly off; we following.

'You understand it now, Trot,' said my aunt. 'He is gone!'

'Did he die in the hospital?'


She sat immovable beside me; but, again I saw the stray tears on her face.

'He was there once before,' said my aunt presently. 'He was ailing a long time—a shattered, broken man, these many years. When he knew his state in this last illness, he asked them to send for me. He was sorry then. Very sorry.'

'You went, I know, aunt.'

'I went. I was with him a good deal afterwards.'

'He died the night before we went to Canterbury?' said I. My aunt nodded. 'No one can harm him now,' she said. 'It was a vain threat.'

We drove away, out of town, to the churchyard at Hornsey. 'Better here than in the streets,' said my aunt. 'He was born here.'

We alighted; and followed the plain coffin to a corner I remember well, where the service was read consigning it to the dust.

'Six-and-thirty years ago, this day, my dear,' said my aunt, as we walked back to the chariot, 'I was married. God forgive us all!' We took our seats in silence; and so she sat beside me for a long time, holding my hand. At length she suddenly burst into tears, and said:

'He was a fine-looking man when I married him, Trot—and he was sadly changed!'

It did not last long. After the relief of tears, she soon became composed, and even cheerful. Her nerves were a little shaken, she said, or she would not have given way to it. God forgive us all!

In surface elements, I don't have much in common with Aunt Betsey -- I don't have a criminal husband, I haven't lost all of my money due to malfeasance of a financial advisor (yet), I don't have a ragamuffin nephew showing up on my doorstep.....

...but I most definitely don't have any donkeys on my hill. And I intend to keep it that way. 

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Monday, December 30th, 2013
11:19 am - Sixth Day of Dickens: Most Terrifying Villain - a Respectable Headmaster
While Dickensian villains come in extreme versions, I find the "decent" headmaster Bradley Headstone of Our Mutual Friend to be the most terrifying of all of his villains.

Let's see how he is described initially:

Bradley Headstone, in his decent black coat and waistcoat, and decent white shirt, and decent formal black tie, and decent pantaloons of pepper and salt, with his decent silver watch in his pocket and its decent hair-guard round his neck, looked a thoroughly decent young man of six-and-twenty. He was never seen in any other dress, and yet there was a certain stiffness in his manner of wearing this, as if there were a want of adaptation between him and it, recalling some mechanics in their holiday clothes. He had acquired mechanically a great store of teacher's knowledge. He could do mental arithmetic mechanically, sing at sight mechanically, blow various wind instruments mechanically, even play the great church organ mechanically. From his early childhood up, his mind had been a place of mechanical stowage. The arrangement of his wholesale warehouse, so that it might be always ready to meet the demands of retail dealers history here, geography there, astronomy to the right, political economy to the left—natural history, the physical sciences, figures, music, the lower mathematics, and what not, all in their several places—this care had imparted to his countenance a look of care; while the habit of questioning and being questioned had given him a suspicious manner, or a manner that would be better described as one of lying in wait. There was a kind of settled trouble in the face. It was the face belonging to a naturally slow or inattentive intellect that had toiled hard to get what it had won, and that had to hold it now that it was gotten. He always seemed to be uneasy lest anything should be missing from his mental warehouse, and taking stock to assure himself.

Suppression of so much to make room for so much, had given him a constrained manner, over and above. Yet there was enough of what was animal, and of what was fiery (though smouldering), still visible in him, to suggest that if young Bradley Headstone, when a pauper lad, had chanced to be told off for the sea, he would not have been the last man in a ship's crew. Regarding that origin of his, he was proud, moody, and sullen, desiring it to be forgotten. And few people knew of it.

He is perfectly proper and polite. But he makes the mistake of accompanying his star pupil, Charley Hexam, on a trip to Hexam's sister, Lizzie. And thus begins his obsession. A triangle of sorts arises, in which Headstone sees himself in contention with another obsessed with Lizzie: a "gentleman" named Eugene Wrayburn.

Wrayburn, unlike Headstone, was brought up in wealth. Wrayburn is totally useless, with a useless education and useless professional designation, a barrister with no business.  Wrayburn takes it all very lightly. Lizzie finds herself fascinated with Wrayburn, but realizes it would not end well -- she's very low-class, and at best Wrayburn would use her for his own amusement before discarding her. She refuses Headstone outright, but she would never have accepted him even if Wrayburn had not been in the case. Headstone is terrifying:

'You know what I am going to say. I love you. What other men may mean when they use that expression, I cannot tell; what I mean is, that I am under the influence of some tremendous attraction which I have resisted in vain, and which overmasters me. You could draw me to fire, you could draw me to water, you could draw me to the gallows, you could draw me to any death, you could draw me to anything I have most avoided, you could draw me to any exposure and disgrace. This and the confusion of my thoughts, so that I am fit for nothing, is what I mean by your being the ruin of me. But if you would return a favourable answer to my offer of myself in marriage, you could draw me to any good—every good—with equal force. My circumstances are quite easy, and you would want for nothing. My reputation stands quite high, and would be a shield for yours. If you saw me at my work, able to do it well and respected in it, you might even come to take a sort of pride in me;—I would try hard that you should. Whatever considerations I may have thought of against this offer, I have conquered, and I make it with all my heart. Your brother favours me to the utmost, and it is likely that we might live and work together; anyhow, it is certain that he would have my best influence and support. I don't know what I could say more if I tried. I might only weaken what is ill enough said as it is. I only add that if it is any claim on you to be in earnest, I am in thorough earnest, dreadful earnest.'

The powdered mortar from under the stone at which he wrenched, rattled on the pavement to confirm his words.

'Mr Headstone—'

'Stop! I implore you, before you answer me, to walk round this place once more. It will give you a minute's time to think, and me a minute's time to get some fortitude together.'

Again she yielded to the entreaty, and again they came back to the same place, and again he worked at the stone.

'Is it,' he said, with his attention apparently engrossed by it, 'yes, or no?'

'Mr Headstone, I thank you sincerely, I thank you gratefully, and hope you may find a worthy wife before long and be very happy. But it is no.'

'Is no short time necessary for reflection; no weeks or days?' he asked, in the same half-suffocated way.

'None whatever.'

'Are you quite decided, and is there no chance of any change in my favour?'

'I am quite decided, Mr Headstone, and I am bound to answer I am certain there is none.'

'Then,' said he, suddenly changing his tone and turning to her, and bringing his clenched hand down upon the stone with a force that laid the knuckles raw and bleeding; 'then I hope that I may never kill him!'

The dark look of hatred and revenge with which the words broke from his livid lips, and with which he stood holding out his smeared hand as if it held some weapon and had just struck a mortal blow, made her so afraid of him that she turned to run away. But he caught her by the arm.

'Mr Headstone, let me go. Mr Headstone, I must call for help!'

'It is I who should call for help,' he said; 'you don't know yet how much I need it.'

Lizzie flees London soon after, going into hiding with the help of the angelic Mr. Riah. That thread of the plot devolves into Wrayburn attempting to locate Lizzie. During this period, Headstone stalks Wrayburn, following him when possible. Wrayburn sees this and deliberately baits Headstone by doubling back on his path so that they cross, all the while Wrayburn is commenting on the mental agony the headmaster is undergoing. Wrayburn does eventually find Lizzie's location and tracks her down to a small factory town near a river.

Needless to say, Headstone follows, tries to kill Wrayburn by beating him near to death, and throws him into the river.

Luckily for Wrayburn and Lizzie, she happens to be in the vicinity and has had quite the experience in dragging bodies from the river (which is how the novel starts).  She rescues Eugene, and they get married while he is on his deathbed (or so he thinks).

Headstone has literal fits of rage through the book, with two notable situations -- first, at a railroad station, when he hears Lizzie and Wrayburn are married, and second when Charley Hexam realizes that he's implicated in the headmaster's actions and throws off all association with his former mentor.

Then Headstone finds out the man he tried to implicate in the attack, a lock-keeper named Roger Riderhood, has tracked him down and has proof that he, Headstone, perpetrated the attack. Riderhood makes the mistake of trying to blackmail a man with a murderer's heart:

'O! I'm a going on. Don't you fear but I'll go on full-fast enough for you, and fur enough for you, without your telling. Look here, Bradley Headstone, Master. You might have split the T'other governor to chips and wedges, without my caring, except that I might have come upon you for a glass or so now and then. Else why have to do with you at all? But when you copied my clothes, and when you copied my neckhankercher, and when you shook blood upon me after you had done the trick, you did wot I'll be paid for and paid heavy for. If it come to be throw'd upon you, you was to be ready to throw it upon me, was you? Where else but in Plashwater Weir Mill Lock was there a man dressed according as described? Where else but in Plashwater Weir Mill Lock was there a man as had had words with him coming through in his boat? Look at the Lock-keeper in Plashwater Weir Mill Lock, in them same answering clothes and with that same answering red neckhankercher, and see whether his clothes happens to be bloody or not. Yes, they do happen to be bloody. Ah, you sly devil!'

Bradley, very white, sat looking at him in silence.

'But two could play at your game,' said Riderhood, snapping his fingers at him half a dozen times, 'and I played it long ago; long afore you tried your clumsy hand at it; in days when you hadn't begun croaking your lecters or what not in your school. I know to a figure how you done it. Where you stole away, I could steal away arter you, and do it knowinger than you. I know how you come away from London in your own clothes, and where you changed your clothes, and hid your clothes. I see you with my own eyes take your own clothes from their hiding-place among them felled trees, and take a dip in the river to account for your dressing yourself, to any one as might come by. I see you rise up Bradley Headstone, Master, where you sat down Bargeman. I see you pitch your Bargeman's bundle into the river. I hooked your Bargeman's bundle out of the river. I've got your Bargeman's clothes, tore this way and that way with the scuffle, stained green with the grass, and spattered all over with what bust from the blows. I've got them, and I've got you. I don't care a curse for the T'other governor, alive or dead, but I care a many curses for my own self. And as you laid your plots agin me and was a sly devil agin me, I'll be paid for it—I'll be paid for it—I'll be paid for it—till I've drained you dry!'

I believe Riderhood thinks himself safe, because he also is a murderer at heart (this is a key to the "central" plot of the novel... but the Lizzie/Headstone/Wrayburn triangle is far more interesting than the supposed central story.) Did I say at heart? Riderhood actually murdered at least one person mentioned in the novel, and it's pretty clear that he has been a serial murderer of sailors.

What then occurs is one of the more satisfying end for a pair of villains - both from poor backgrounds, both murderers, but one taking the "respectable" path and the other always being the lowest among the low:

Without taking the least notice, Bradley leaned his body against a post, in a resting attitude, and there rested with his eyes cast down. 'Being brought here,' said Riderhood, gruffly, 'I'll turn it to some use by changing my gates.' With a rattle and a rush of water, he then swung-to the lock gates that were standing open, before opening the others. So, both sets of gates were, for the moment, closed.

'You'd better by far be reasonable, Bradley Headstone, Master,' said Riderhood, passing him, 'or I'll drain you all the dryer for it, when we do settle.—Ah! Would you!'

Bradley had caught him round the body. He seemed to be girdled with an iron ring. They were on the brink of the Lock, about midway between the two sets of gates.

'Let go!' said Riderhood, 'or I'll get my knife out and slash you wherever I can cut you. Let go!'

Bradley was drawing to the Lock-edge. Riderhood was drawing away from it. It was a strong grapple, and a fierce struggle, arm and leg. Bradley got him round, with his back to the Lock, and still worked him backward.

'Let go!' said Riderhood. 'Stop! What are you trying at? You can't drown Me. Ain't I told you that the man as has come through drowning can never be drowned? I can't be drowned.'

'I can be!' returned Bradley, in a desperate, clenched voice. 'I am resolved to be. I'll hold you living, and I'll hold you dead. Come down!'

Riderhood went over into the smooth pit, backward, and Bradley Headstone upon him. When the two were found, lying under the ooze and scum behind one of the rotting gates, Riderhood's hold had relaxed, probably in falling, and his eyes were staring upward. But, he was girdled still with Bradley's iron ring, and the rivets of the iron ring held tight.

What makes Headstone so terrifying, compared to out-and-out criminals like Riderhood, is his veneer of respectability. Miss Peecher, the headmistress of the sister school to Headstone's respectable school for boys, thinks Headstone to be of perfect character, as Headstone has all the outward trappings of respectability: proper manners, proper education, proper dress. It would be so suitable for headmaster and headmistress to marry. She has no idea as to the psychotic rage within.

Riderhood's villainy, though, for all his ingratiating manner, is all on the surface. He's an outcast even in the fairly low society that Lizzie finds herself in -- nobody trusts Riderhood as he has proven so many times that he's untrustworthy. He's even been in jail for stealing from a sailor (and, as noted, there is an intimation that Riderhood has killed many men in trying to steal their possessions -- and an outright accusation of a specific man being murdered by Riderhood.) One expects violence from Riderhood, but there actually is very little. Riderhood doesn't attack Wrayburn, though he has a reason to hate Eugene. Riderhood is under control of himself - he kills only for material gain. People understand that, and don't find that concept all that scary -- especially since Riderhood very rationally targets men who people will not miss (sailors on shore leave).

Headstone, on the other hand, has been trying to keep his passions leashed, and when he unravels he unravels spectacularly.  His violence is uncontrolled and frightening. As a portrait of a man whose emotional control loses a grip on his attempt at respectability in the face of sexual obsession, Headstone is engrossing and one of the best villainous characterizations in Dickens.

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Saturday, December 28th, 2013
11:09 am - Fifth Day of Dickens: His First Christmas Carol

It was in the Christmas chapter of Pickwick Papers, Dickens' first novel:

'This,' said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, 'this is, indeed, comfort.' 'Our invariable custom,' replied Mr. Wardle. 'Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.'

Up flew the bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent forth a rich glow, that penetrated into the farthest corner of the room, and cast its cheerful tint on every face.

'Come,' said Wardle, 'a song—a Christmas song! I'll give you one, in default of a better.'

'Bravo!' said Mr. Pickwick.

'Fill up,' cried Wardle. 'It will be two hours, good, before you see the bottom of the bowl through the deep rich colour of the wassail; fill up all round, and now for the song.'

Thus saying, the merry old gentleman, in a good, round, sturdy voice, commenced without more ado—


     'I care not for Spring; on his fickle wing
     Let the blossoms and buds be borne;
     He woos them amain with his treacherous rain,
     And he scatters them ere the morn.
     An inconstant elf, he knows not himself,
     Nor his own changing mind an hour,
     He'll smile in your face, and, with wry grimace,
     He'll wither your youngest flower.

     'Let the Summer sun to his bright home run,
     He shall never be sought by me;
     When he's dimmed by a cloud I can laugh aloud
     And care not how sulky he be!
     For his darling child is the madness wild
     That sports in fierce fever's train;
     And when love is too strong, it don't last long,
     As many have found to their pain.

     'A mild harvest night, by the tranquil light
     Of the modest and gentle moon,
     Has a far sweeter sheen for me, I ween,
     Than the broad and unblushing noon.
     But every leaf awakens my grief,
     As it lieth beneath the tree;
     So let Autumn air be never so fair,
     It by no means agrees with me.

     'But my song I troll out, for CHRISTMAS Stout,
     The hearty, the true, and the bold;
     A bumper I drain, and with might and main
     Give three cheers for this Christmas old!
     We'll usher him in with a merry din
     That shall gladden his joyous heart,
     And we'll keep him up, while there's bite or sup,
     And in fellowship good, we'll part.
     'In his fine honest pride, he scorns to hide
     One jot of his hard-weather scars;
     They're no disgrace, for there's much the same trace
     On the cheeks of our bravest tars.
     Then again I sing till the roof doth ring
     And it echoes from wall to wall—
     To the stout old wight, fair welcome to-night,
     As the King of the Seasons all!'

This song was tumultuously applauded—for friends and dependents make a capital audience—and the poor relations, especially, were in perfect ecstasies of rapture. Again was the fire replenished, and again went the wassail round.

Merry (Fourth Day of) Christmas!

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Tuesday, December 24th, 2013
8:45 am - Fourth Day of Dickens: GK Chesterton on Dickens A Christmas Carol

I am a fan of G.K. Chesterton as well as Dickens (though I'm more into GKC's nonfiction than his fiction), and the way I came to GKC was through Dickens.

You see, GKC was a big Dickens fan, too, and wrote on all of Dickens' novels as well as other works.

So let's see what GKC wrote in an intro to A Christmas Carol (just an excerpt):

THE POPULAR paradox of "A Christmas Carol" is very well symbolised in its title. Everybody has heard Christmas carols; and certainly everybody has heard of Christmas. Yet these things are only popular because they are traditional; and the tradition has often been in need of defence, as Dickens here defended it.


He saved Christmas not because it was historic, but because it was human; but his own adventure serves to show how many things equally human had been suffered to become merely historic. Dickens struck in time; and saved a popular institution while it was still popular. A hundred aesthetes are always ready to revive it as soon as it has become unpopular. The modern intellectuals show great eagerness in reviving an old custom when once it is destroyed. They show particular eagerness in reviving it when they have themselves destroyed it. The educated classes are everlastingly sweeping things away as vulgar errors, and then trying to recall them as cultured eccentricities. The intellectuals of the twentieth century are now crying out for the folk-songs and morrice dances which the intellectuals of the nineteenth century condemned as superstition, and the intellectuals of the seventeenth century as sin. It would be an exaggeration perhaps to say that the advanced intelligence is always wrong. But it would be safe to say at least that it is always too late.

But Dickens was not too late. It was precisely because he was a man of the people that he was able to perpetuate the popular hold upon one of the customs that had only begun to slip from the popular grasp.

Then GKC goes on to blast eugenics (yes, really -- he, like the Catholic Church, was adamantly against eugenics when it was the preeminent progressive project).

What I find in common between GKC and Dickens is their focus on humanity. People may think this odd, given the grotesqueries of Dickensian characters, but as GKC notes in his book on Dickens:

It is exactly in these absurd characters, then, that we can find a mass of psychological and ethical suggestion. This cannot be found in the serious characters except indeed in some of the later experiments: there is a little of such psychological and ethical suggestion in figures like Gridley, like Jasper, like Bradley Headstone. But in these earlier books at least, such as The Old Curiosity Shop, the grave or moral figures throw no light upon morals. I should maintain this generalisation even in the presence of that apparent exception The Christmas Carol with its trio of didactic ghosts. Charity is certainly splendid, at once a luxury and a necessity; but Dickens is not most effective when he is preaching charity seriously; he is most effective when he is preaching it uproariously; when he is preaching it by means of massive personalities and vivid scenes. One might say that he is best not when he is preaching his human love, but when he is practising it. In his grave pages he tells us to love men; but in his wild pages he creates men whom we can love. By his solemnity he commands us to love our neighbours. By his caricature he makes us love them.

I happen to agree with GKC on this score -- Dickens' most effective characters and scenes tend to be the outrageously extreme ones. More on this in a later post, when I talk about the character I most identify with.

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Sunday, December 22nd, 2013
8:15 pm - Third Day of Dickens -- My Favorite Novel: Our Mutual Friend
My brain is plum wore out right now, so I'm going to crib from myself 13 years ago:

Shadowy mystery and a tale of greed

September 2000

When I first tried to read Dickens, in the form of Great Expectations, I was disgusted by plot and character, and even skipped 100 pages somewhere in the middle, not missing one single plot twist. You see, I had been brought up on soap operas - I knew the common, unbelievable developments in such a plot.

I did not understand the point of a Dickens novel at the tender, unexperienced age of 13.

Many people nowadays may be daunted by the size of such a novel (the Dickens novels taught at schools - A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations - are of his =shortest= novels), but a reader will be well-rewarded for embarking on this one. It opens with a father and daughter in a rowboat, dragging back a body found in the river. The murdered man was heir to a fortune made through London's garbage, and Bella, a woman in town of modest means was to have been his wife by the will of the murdered man's father. Instead, the fortune of the ash heaps go to the Boffins, who had been employees of the old man. Shall they be spoiled by the instant wealth? Is there another will to be found among the ash heaps? Who is the mysterious, backgroundless man who becomes Mr. Boffin's secretary and watches over Bella? What of the daughter of the riverman, who is pursued by an idle lawyer and her brother's brooding schoolmaster?

Dickens was at the top of his craft in weaving plots and characters together in this novel. He throws some bones to readers every so often, answering some mysteries while opening some others. The recent production on Masterpiece Theater follows the story well, but, as is usual, many of the side characters have been dropped, and the development of some of the characters is rather sketchy. Don't stand for diluted Dickens! The man was master of the novel, and this should be one of the first of his to read.

I have more to write about Our Mutual Friend later -- about stuff I didn't explicitly mention above. But as a teaser - it's the more disturbing villain in all of Dickens, far more scary than the villainous caricatures from earlier on in his career.

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Tuesday, December 17th, 2013
3:21 pm - Second Day of Dickens: the most entertaining villain -- Quilp

Dickens has all sorts of villains in his books, from some merely bad influences like Mr. Vholes from Bleak House, to dishonest clerks/employees like Uriah Heep of David Copperfield and John Carker of Dombey and Son, to criminals like Bill Sikes of Oliver Twist.  Sometimes Dickens tries too hard, as with Blandois of Little Dorritt.  Usually, he gives his villains very poetic ends, usually death by various means.

Today I'm going to write about what I consider Dickens' most entertaining villain, both in life and death: Mr. Quilp of The Old Curiosity Shop.

All that most people remember about TOCS today is the death of Little Nell, and specifically Oscar Wilde's remark about it: "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter." She dies "offstage", actually, but that's true of many Dickensian deaths.

Mr. Quilp is, essentially, an evil dwarf with a gusto for being an evil dwarf. He's not unlike Shakespeare's Richard III in many ways. I've not actually seen any movies or plays of this novel, but I came across this:

It looks like Anthony Newley played Quilp as a Richard III-like hunchback. Looking at the IMDB page, the shortest man to play Quilp in a movie thus far was 5'5" (my own height...I am not a dwarf.) Not only are most of the actors not short enough, they're generally not ugly enough.  This guy comes close, though:

Peter Dinklage would make an awesome Quilp. He's too good-looking, but makeup can work wonders.

But back to the novelistic Quilp. Let's look at a description:

"I'm a little hunchy villain and a monster," says Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. He's dirty, stubble-chinned, mis-shapen, grinning, cruel, full of energy and lust. He is habitually referred to by Dickens as "the dwarf" as though he were of a different species from men.

Quilp's favourite term for those he speaks to is "dog" and his favourite object of cruelty is his wife.

More than Bill Sikes he embodies violence: "I'll beat you with an iron rod, I'll scratch you with a rusty nail, I'll pinch your eyes, if you talk to me – I will." There's no livelier character in the whole of Dickens than Quilp.

I have Dickens characters I enjoy more than Quilp, but as villains go, he's the most enjoyable.

Yes, he is violent, but it's hard to take violence from him seriously -- he's so small and isn't really all that strong (a point on which later). But he is extremely intimidating to those around him. His cruelty is more of the psychological sort.

Early on in the novel, Quilp catches his wife having a hen party (orchestrated by his mother-in-law) to bitch about Quilp himself. Mrs. Quilp is not joining in on the criticism, though. She does, for some reason, actually love Quilp. Just the normal perversity of human nature, I guess. Quilp comes in unexpectedly and is found to have overheard the bitch session:

Now, the ladies being together under these circumstances, it was extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of mankind to tyrannize over the weaker sex, and the duty that developed upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and dignity. It was natural for four reasons: firstly, because Mrs Quilp being a young woman and notoriously under the dominion of her husband ought to be excited to rebel; secondly, because Mrs Quilp's parent was known to be laudably shrewish in her disposition and inclined to resist male authority; thirdly, because each visitor wished to show for herself how superior she was in this respect to the generality of her sex; and fourthly, because the company being accustomed to scandalise each other in pairs, were deprived of their usual subject of conversation now that they were all assembled in close friendship, and had consequently no better employment than to attack the common enemy.

Moved by these considerations, a stout lady opened the proceedings by inquiring, with an air of great concern and sympathy, how Mr Quilp was; whereunto Mr Quilp's wife's mother replied sharply, 'Oh! He was well enough—nothing much was every the matter with him—and ill weeds were sure to thrive.' All the ladies then sighed in concert, shook their heads gravely, and looked at Mrs Quilp as a martyr.

'Ah!' said the spokeswoman, 'I wish you'd give her a little of your advice, Mrs Jiniwin'—Mrs Quilp had been a Miss Jiniwin it should be observed—'nobody knows better than you, ma'am, what us women owe to ourselves.'

'Owe indeed, ma'am!' replied Mrs Jiniwin. 'When my poor husband, her dear father, was alive, if he had ever ventured a cross word to me, I'd have—' The good old lady did not finish the sentence, but she twisted off the head of a shrimp with a vindictiveness which seemed to imply that the action was in some degree a substitute for words. In this light it was clearly understood by the other party, who immediately replied with great approbation, 'You quite enter into my feelings, ma'am, and it's jist what I'd do myself.'

'But you have no call to do it,' said Mrs Jiniwin. 'Luckily for you, you have no more occasion to do it than I had.'

'No woman need have, if she was true to herself,' rejoined the stout lady.

'Do you hear that, Betsy?' said Mrs Jiniwin, in a warning voice. 'How often have I said the same words to you, and almost gone down my knees when I spoke 'em!'

Poor Mrs Quilp, who had looked in a state of helplessness from one face of condolence to another, coloured, smiled, and shook her head doubtfully. This was the signal for a general clamour, which beginning in a low murmur gradually swelled into a great noise in which everybody spoke at once, and all said that she being a young woman had no right to set up her opinions against the experiences of those who knew so much better; that it was very wrong of her not to take the advice of people who had nothing at heart but her good; that it was next door to being downright ungrateful to conduct herself in that manner; that if she had no respect for herself she ought to have some for other women, all of whom she compromised by her meekness; and that if she had no respect for other women, the time would come when other women would have no respect for her; and she would be very sorry for that, they could tell her. Having dealt out these admonitions, the ladies fell to a more powerful assault than they had yet made upon the mixed tea, new bread, fresh butter, shrimps, and watercresses, and said that their vexation was so great to see her going on like that, that they could hardly bring themselves to eat a single morsel.

It's all very fine to talk,' said Mrs Quilp with much simplicity, 'but I know that if I was to die to-morrow, Quilp could marry anybody he pleased—now that he could, I know!'

.....[bitchery ensues]....

The noise was at its height, and half the company had elevated their voices into a perfect shriek in order to drown the voices of the other half, when Mrs Jiniwin was seen to change colour and shake her forefinger stealthily, as if exhorting them to silence. Then, and not until then, Daniel Quilp himself, the cause and occasion of all this clamour, was observed to be in the room, looking on and listening with profound attention.

'Go on, ladies, go on,' said Daniel. 'Mrs Quilp, pray ask the ladies to stop to supper, and have a couple of lobsters and something light and palatable.'

'I—I—didn't ask them to tea, Quilp,' stammered his wife. It's quite an accident.'

'So much the better, Mrs Quilp; these accidental parties are always the pleasantest,' said the dwarf, rubbing his hands so hard that he seemed to be engaged in manufacturing, of the dirt with which they were encrusted, little charges for popguns. 'What! Not going, ladies, you are not going, surely!'


'Why an't you of your mother's way of thinking, my dear?' said the dwarf, turing round and addressing his wife, 'why don't you always imitate your mother, my dear? She's the ornament of her sex—your father said so every day of his life. I am sure he did.'

'Her father was a blessed creetur, Quilp, and worthy twenty thousand of some people,' said Mrs Jiniwin; 'twenty hundred million thousand.'

'I should like to have known him,' remarked the dwarf. 'I dare say he was a blessed creature then; but I'm sure he is now. It was a happy release. I believe he had suffered a long time?'

The old lady gave a gasp, but nothing came of it; Quilp resumed, with the same malice in his eye and the same sarcastic politeness on his tongue.

'You look ill, Mrs Jiniwin; I know you have been exciting yourself too much—talking perhaps, for it is your weakness. Go to bed. Do go to bed.'

'I shall go when I please, Quilp, and not before.'

'But please to do now. Do please to go now,' said the dwarf.

The old woman looked angrily at him, but retreated as he advanced, and falling back before him, suffered him to shut the door upon her and bolt her out among the guests, who were by this time crowding downstairs. Being left along with his wife, who sat trembling in a corner with her eyes fixed upon the ground, the little man planted himself before her, and folding his arms looked steadily at her for a long time without speaking.

'Mrs Quilp,' he said at last.

'Yes, Quilp,' she replied meekly.

Instead of pursing the theme he had in his mind, Quilp folded his arms again, and looked at her more sternly than before, while she averted her eyes and kept them on the ground.

'Mrs Quilp.'

'Yes, Quilp.'

'If ever you listen to these beldames again, I'll bite you.'

The chapter ends with Quilp punishing Mrs. Quilp by making her sit up with him all night in the room. She dare not fall asleep.  Quilp has complete control over her.

For his own reasons, it's not important to go into them for now, at the end of the novel Quilp abandons his wife to live at his warehouse down by the wharf. Mrs. Quilp is agitated by this abandonment and tries to convince him to stay, but nothing doing. She also delivers a letter to him.

'I have brought a letter,' cried the meek little woman.

'Toss it in at the window here, and go your ways,' said Quilp, interrupting her, 'or I'll come out and scratch you.'

'No, but please, Quilp—do hear me speak,' urged his submissive wife, in tears. 'Please do!'

'Speak then,' growled the dwarf with a malicious grin. 'Be quick and short about it. Speak, will you?'

'It was left at our house this afternoon,' said Mrs Quilp, trembling, 'by a boy who said he didn't know from whom it came, but that it was given to him to leave, and that he was told to say it must be brought on to you directly, for it was of the very greatest consequence.—But please,' she added, as her husband stretched out his hand for it, 'please let me in. You don't know how wet and cold I am, or how many times I have lost my way in coming here through this thick fog. Let me dry myself at the fire for five minutes. I'll go away directly you tell me to, Quilp. Upon my word I will.'

Her amiable husband hesitated for a few moments; but, bethinking himself that the letter might require some answer, of which she could be the bearer, closed the window, opened the door, and bade her enter. Mrs Quilp obeyed right willingly, and, kneeling down before the fire to warm her hands, delivered into his a little packet.

'I'm glad you're wet,' said Quilp, snatching it, and squinting at her. 'I'm glad you're cold. I'm glad you lost your way. I'm glad your eyes are red with crying. It does my heart good to see your little nose so pinched and frosty.'

'Oh Quilp!' sobbed his wife. 'How cruel it is of you!'

'Did she think I was dead?' said Quilp, wrinkling his face into a most extraordinary series of grimaces. 'Did she think she was going to have all the money, and to marry somebody she liked? Ha ha ha! Did she?'

Heh heh heh. Oh, Mr. Quilp, never change.

And he never does.

Because he doesn't have long to live after reading the letter, telling him of the legal danger he's in. He must get away before he is found and imprisoned.

Well, it's an exceedingly foggy day and somebody is banging on his gate. Obviously, Quilp will not let them in. He makes preparations while muttering threats against those who betrayed his nefarious plans. He makes to leave in the dark of night....but this is a dangerous thing, as well he should know. His wharf is set up specifically to thwart intruders.

It also leads to his death. (Note how his lack of strength plays into his death)

At that moment the knocking ceased. It was about eight o'clock; but the dead of the darkest night would have been as noon-day in comparison with the thick cloud which then rested upon the earth, and shrouded everything from view. He darted forward for a few paces, as if into the mouth of some dim, yawning cavern; then, thinking he had gone wrong, changed the direction of his steps; then stood still, not knowing where to turn.

'If they would knock again,' said Quilp, trying to peer into the gloom by which he was surrounded, 'the sound might guide me! Come! Batter the gate once more!'

He stood listening intently, but the noise was not renewed. Nothing was to be heard in that deserted place, but, at intervals, the distant barkings of dogs. The sound was far away—now in one quarter, now answered in another—nor was it any guide, for it often came from shipboard, as he knew.

'If I could find a wall or fence,' said the dwarf, stretching out his arms, and walking slowly on, 'I should know which way to turn. A good, black, devil's night this, to have my dear friend here! If I had but that wish, it might, for anything I cared, never be day again.'

As the word passed his lips, he staggered and fell—and next moment was fighting with the cold dark water!

For all its bubbling up and rushing in his ears, he could hear the knocking at the gate again—could hear a shout that followed it—could recognise the voice. For all his struggling and plashing, he could understand that they had lost their way, and had wandered back to the point from which they started; that they were all but looking on, while he was drowned; that they were close at hand, but could not make an effort to save him; that he himself had shut and barred them out. He answered the shout—with a yell, which seemed to make the hundred fires that danced before his eyes tremble and flicker, as if a gust of wind had stirred them. It was of no avail. The strong tide filled his throat, and bore him on, upon its rapid current.

Another mortal struggle, and he was up again, beating the water with his hands, and looking out, with wild and glaring eyes that showed him some black object he was drifting close upon. The hull of a ship! He could touch its smooth and slippery surface with his hand. One loud cry, now—but the resistless water bore him down before he could give it utterance, and, driving him under it, carried away a corpse.

It toyed and sported with its ghastly freight, now bruising it against the slimy piles, now hiding it in mud or long rank grass, now dragging it heavily over rough stones and gravel, now feigning to yield it to its own element, and in the same action luring it away, until, tired of the ugly plaything, it flung it on a swamp—a dismal place where pirates had swung in chains through many a wintry night—and left it there to bleach.

And there it lay alone. The sky was red with flame, and the water that bore it there had been tinged with the sullen light as it flowed along. The place the deserted carcass had left so recently, a living man, was now a blazing ruin. There was something of the glare upon its face. The hair, stirred by the damp breeze, played in a kind of mockery of death—such a mockery as the dead man himself would have delighted in when alive—about its head, and its dress fluttered idly in the night wind.

That is just so awesome.

Better than Anna Karenina being run over by a train. Better than Kate Chopin's tiresome protagonist (who is so tiresome I won't even look up her name) walking into the sea. Better even than Madame Lafarge being killed by Miss Pross (which was definitely a kickass moment for Pross, but still a bit of a mess).

The man is killed by his own security measures.


I love it.

Little Nell is not to the taste of modern audiences - as per Wilde's comment, the maudlin sentimentality around that specific character was old to many within living memory of Dickens himself - but the death of Quilp is satisfying for all time.

I don't find Little Nell's death all that laughable (though when she naps at her third graveyard one does yell OH COME ON DIE ALREADY), but I do let out a pleased snort at the well-deserved death of Quilp.

It's nice to see justice rendered, even if only poetically.

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Sunday, December 15th, 2013
10:16 am - First Day of Dickens: Death of the Rag and Bottle Man
Last Christmas season, I did Twelve Days of Learning. This year, I've decided to do Twelve Days of Dickens (not necessarily consecutive, so I'm starting early).

I'm opening with the death of Krook. Among Dickensian deaths, I would say Krook's demise is the most notable for its method (though there are lots of other interesting deaths out there as well... I'll get to those another day).

Krook is a character in Bleak House, a rag and bottle man who happens to be illiterate (not that unusual among Dickensian characters of a particular class). He had a tenant who died of privation of a sort, and after the man died, Krook grabbed the letters in the man's room, key to the novel's core mystery (it's not much of a mystery, by they way, nor is it meant to be.  The suspense comes more from how other people figure the mystery out, than the readers not knowing the solution. Dickens is rarely about that sort of surprise - which is why I don't mind "spoiling" all the novels in these posts. Even if you know the "surprise" (btw, Magwich is Pip's benefactor), the book is worth reading.)

Two other characters who are trying to tease apart the mystery, Mr. Guppy and Mr. Jobling (under the assumed name Weevle) have an appointment with Krook to see a crucial piece of paper at midnight. Guppy shows up at ten o'clock at Jobling's place, and they chat a bit while waiting for the appointment.

And there's an increasing atmosphere of nastiness.

Let's see how the environment is remarked upon:

“Very true, sir. Don’t you observe,” says Mr Snagsby, pausing to sniff and taste the air a little; “don’t you observe, Mr Weevle, that you’ re — not to put too fine a point upon it — that you’re rather greasy here, sir?”

“Why, I have noticed myself that there is a queer kind of flavour in the place to-night,” Mr Weevle rejoins. “I suppose it’s chops at the Sol’s Arms.”

“Chops, do you think? Oh! — Chops, eh?” Mr Snagsby sniffs and tastes again. “Well, sir, I suppose it is. But I should say their cook at the Sol wanted a little looking after. She has been burning ’em, sir! And I don’t think;” Mr Snagsby sniffs and tastes again, and then spits and wipes his mouth; “I don’t think — not to put too fine a point upon it — that they were quite fresh, when they were shown the gridiron.”

“That’s very likely. It’s a tainting sort of weather.”

“It is a tainting sort of weather,” says Mr Snagsby; “and I find it sinking to the spirits.”

“By George! I find it gives me the horrors,” returns Mr Weevle.


“That’s it!” says Tony. “Nothing has been the matter. But, here have I been stewing and fuming in this jolly old crib, till I have had the horrors falling on me as thick as hail. There’s a blessed-looking candle!” says Tony, pointing to the heavily-burning taper on his table with a great cabbage head and a long winding-sheet.

“That’s easily improved,” Mr Guppy observes, as he takes the snuffers in hand.

“Is it?” returns his friend. “Not so easily as you think. It has been smouldering like that, ever since it was lighted.”


Mr Guppy has been biting his thumb-nail during this dialogue, generally changing the thumb when he has changed the crossed leg. As he is going to do so again, he happens to look at his coat-sleeve. It takes his attention. He stares at it, aghast.

“Why, Tony, what on earth is going on in this house to-night? Is there a chimney on fire?”

“Chimney on fire!”

“Ah!” returns Mr Guppy. “See how the soot’s falling. See here, on my arm! See again, on the table here! Confound the stuff, it won’t blow off — smears, like black fat!”


“Fah! Here’s more of this hateful soot hanging about,” says he. “Let us open the window a bit, and get a mouthful of air. It’s too close.”


Mr Guppy sitting on the window-sill, nodding his head and balancing all these possibilities in his mind, continues thoughtfully to tap it, and clasp it, and measure it with his hand, until he hastily draws his hand away.

“What, in the Devil’s name,” he says, “is this! Look at my fingers!”

A thick, yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight, and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil, with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.

“What have you been doing here? What have you been pouring out of window?”

“I pouring out of window! Nothing, I swear! Never, since I have been here!” cries the lodger.

And yet look here — and look here! When he brings the candle, here, from the corner of the window-sill, it slowly drips and creeps away down the bricks; here, lies in a little thick nauseous pool.

“This is a horrible house,” says Mr Guppy, shutting down the window. “Give me some water, or I shall cut my hand off."

Ew. Nasty.

Oh, did I mention those greasy flakes were bits of Krook himself? No?

It's got to be the most famous literary spontaneous combustion, human or otherwise.

Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is — is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? O Horror, he IS here! and this, from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him.

Help, help, help! come into this house for Heaven’s sake!
Plenty will come in, but none can help. The Lord Chancellor of that Court, true to his title in his last act, has died the death of all Lord Chancellors in all Courts, and of all authorities in all places under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done. Call the death by any name Your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally — inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only — Spontaneous Combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.

At the time of publication, there was a bit of a pushback on this particular death. Dickens has a panoply of gruesome deaths that are quite believable (the guy having molten lead pouring over his head in Barnaby Rudge... and then there are some rather nasty ones in A Tale of Two Cities), and it wasn't the nastiness that people objected to. They just thought it too fantastic for a "realistic" novel.

So in a later edition, Dickens wrote a preface with the following:

There is only one other point on which I offer a word of remark. The possibility of what is called spontaneous combustion has been denied since the death of Mr. Krook; and my good friend Mr. Lewes (quite mistaken, as he soon found, in supposing the thing to have been abandoned by all authorities) published some ingenious letters to me at the time when that event was chronicled, arguing that spontaneous combustion could not possibly be. I have no need to observe that I do not wilfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject. There are about thirty cases on record, of which the most famous, that of the Countess Cornelia de Baudi Cesenate, was minutely investigated and described by Giuseppe Bianchini, a prebendary of Verona, otherwise distinguished in letters, who published an account of it at Verona in 1731, which he afterwards republished at Rome. The appearances, beyond all rational doubt, observed in that case are the appearances observed in Mr. Krook’s case. The next most famous instance happened at Rheims six years earlier, and the historian in that case is Le Cat, one of the most renowned surgeons produced by France. The subject was a woman, whose husband was ignorantly convicted of having murdered her; but on solemn appeal to a higher court, he was acquitted because it was shown upon the evidence that she had died the death of which this name of spontaneous combustion is given. I do not think it necessary to add to these notable facts, and that general reference to the authorities which will be found at page 30, vol. ii.,1 the recorded opinions and experiences of distinguished medical professors, French, English, and Scotch, in more modern days, contenting myself with observing that I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable spontaneous combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received.

1 Another case, very clearly described by a dentist, occurred at the town of Columbus, in the United States of America, quite recently. The subject was a German who kept a liquor-shop and was an inveterate drunkard.

Note that Dickens uses similar features of Krook as many of the other supposed SHC victims had: elderly, in ill-health, drunk (I don't remember him being fat, though), and sitting near a fire.  I can't find the original works Dickens is referencing there. Perhaps someone who is better at searching

In any case, Krook had had the letters in his cap. Think they got burned?

(Those letters did. But others, in the possession of somebody else, did not.)

Anyway, as the fat boy said in Pickwick, Dickens wants to make your flesh creep. And when he feels like doing that, he is very good indeed at it.

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