Friday 9 December 2011


Another thing I love about Dickens, is his profligate use of parenthetical observations: the digressions and asides that are so much a part of his conversational style.

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:

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.

But why, as Dickens asks, are door-nails deader than say a coffin-nail? Maybe, as one on-line source suggest:
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)


Suzanne said...

What a genius! I can't wait for the BBC series of programmes about Dickens!

hypsis: the hypnotic state you reach when you read Dickens

SharonM said...

It sounds like it will be a great show! Break a wand!

Arts and Crafts said...

As Cervantes... Do you think there is a time before Dickens and a time after Dickens?

Sheila said...

An excellent entertainment! Narrator and Magician complemented each other perfectly.

And, intriguingly, in the Dickens exhibition there is a book by someone who may be one of your ancestors:

SIBLY, Ebenezer.
A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences: or, the Art of foretelling future events and contingencies ... Embellished with ... copper-plates [including a portrait].
London : Printed for the Proprietor, 1790.

Brian Sibley said...

Thank you, folks, for good wishes and Sheila for the compliment! Lovely to see you both there: glad you enjoyed the evening. Anyone reading this blog – you've still time to catch this afternoon's performance! :)

Boll Weavil said...

How annoying not to get to see the performance. Hope it goes well. It sounds brilliant.
I hope you haven't chosen Dickens most uncomfortable digression to read out from CC.It follows closely on the bit you selected and begins " If we weren't convinced that Hamlet's father died before the play began ...etc and so on. That is quite a diversion from the theme and very complicated to read aloud - unlike the rest of the book !

Brian Sibley said...

Sorry you missed it, Boll, I think you would have approved. No, I didn't read the bit about Hamlet's father because Dickens had cut it from this version (the one he read in 1858) and even he knew it was too protracted and cut at least half of the digression before publication.

I put two small pieces BACK into the 1858 version: the coffin-nail paragraph and Scrooge's enquiry of the Ghost of Christmas Present about whether Tiny Tim would die – which I felt was important because, as you well know, the Spirit quotes Scrooge's words back at him (from the exchange with the Charity Collectors) and it is key point in Scrooge's reformation...

SharonM said...

I'm sure both you and David were terrific - look forward to hearing all about it.

Were the two performances well attended?

Brian Sibley said...

!50 on Friday and 170+ on Saturday. A number of old friends we haven't seen in years came to support us which was LOVELY! Audiences were hugely enthusiastic! [MR was there and was very nice about it - saying that she had had a good cry!) Wish we could do it again now! Oh, well, maybe next year!