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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 books.google.com.

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.
Tags: dickens
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