Take the beginning of The Chimes. Five words in on his opening sentence, Dickens sets off on a sixty-three word long parenthesis as can be seen in this colour-coded extract:
There are not many people – and as it is desirable that a story-teller and a story-reader should establish a mutual understanding as soon as possible, I beg it to be noticed that I confine this observation neither to young people nor to little people, but extend it to all conditions of people: little and big, young and old: yet growing up, or already growing down again – there are not, I say, many people who would care to sleep in a church.
Similarly, on the opening page of A Christmas Carol:
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.Incidentally, Dickens was correct in identifying the phrase 'as dead as a door-nail' as being one of great antiquity. One of several earliest uses of the expression (and the only one of a known date) is in William Langland's The Vision of Piers Plowman, written inn 1362: "Fey withouten fait is febelore þen nouȝt, And ded as a dore-nayl."
Shakespeare puts the phrase in Jack Cade's mouth in his 1592 play, King Henry VI, Part 2:
But why, as Dickens asks, are door-nails deader than say a coffin-nail? Maybe, as one on-line source suggest:Brave thee! ay, by the best blood that ever was
broached, and beard thee too. Look on me well: I
have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and
thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead
as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.
Door-nails are the large-headed studs that were used in earlier times for strength and more recently as decoration. The practice was to hammer the nail through and then bend over the protruding end to secure it. This process, similar to riveting, was called clenching. This may be the source of the 'deadness', as such a nail would be unusable afterwards.Anyway, if you want to find out just how dead Marley was – and what happened as a result – there are still tickets available (heaven only knows why!) for A Christmas Carol and the Conjuror, a seasonal entertainment by David Weeks and myself that combines Dickens' 1858 Public Reading version of the saga of Ebenezer Scrooge with amazing magical interludes. The event is being held at the British Library Conference Centre, tonight at 6:30 and tomorrow, Saturday, at 2:30.
Our event was inspired by the British Library's new exhibition, A Hankering After Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural.
The exhibition which is on display in the British Library's Folio Society Gallery until 4 March, 2012 as part of the Dickens bicentennial celebrations, explores the many ways in which Dickens used supernatural phenomena in his works, while placing them in the context of scientific, technological and philosophical debates of his time.
Dickens’ interest in the macabre was apparent from an early age. As an adult he was caught up in ‘mesmeric mania’ that swept Britain and developed an interest in the ‘power of the human mind’. He believed that all supernatural manifestations must have rational explanations, but his investigations into animal magnetism and psychology showed him that science could be as chilling as any ghost story. As a result he became wonderfully adept at suspending readers between psychological and supernatural explanations in his fiction.
Which brings us back to the dead Mr Marley...
Images: 'The Spirits of the Bells' by Daniel Maclise from The Chimes (1844); 'Dickens' Dream' by Robert William Buss; and the appearance of Marley's ghost in Scrooge's knocker in A Christmas Carol as seen by Arthur Rackham (1915)