Tuesday, August 17, 2010

felt the earth tremble

Following on from the previous post.

Krook died of spontaneous combustion and George Henry Lewes laughed. Everything I draw on is real, Dickens insisted angrily. My facts are verifiable and true.

We may therefore conclude that none of Captain Franklin's men ate one another, in spite of the evidence given to John Rae by the Inuit, and in spite of the analysis of three scientists, who, at the end of the twentieth century, wrote a formal report detailing the marks of metal knives on the recovered bones.

The cut marks, which ranged in length from 2 to 27 mm, were easily distinguished from animal tooth marks by their sharper borders, narrower width, and wider spacing ... In contrast to cuts made by stone tools, the observed cuts, examined under a scanning electron microscope, exhibited features characteristic of cuts made by metal blades, namely straight edges


The location of the cut marks is also consistent with defleshing

This may have been true at the time the Inuit spoke to John Rae, and it may have been true at the end of the twentieth century, but it was not true when Dickens wrote his article for Household Words. These things change over time, they change in response to written opinion, and they change from one moment to the next. In Dombey and Son, one character is killed by the monstrous apparition of a train.

He heard a shout—another—saw the face change from its vindictive passion to a faint sickness and terror—felt the earth tremble—knew in a moment that the rush was come — uttered a shriek—looked round—saw the red eyes, bleared and dim, in the daylight, close upon him—was beaten down, caught up, and whirled away upon a jagged mill, that spun him round and round, and struck him limb from limb, and licked his stream of life up with its fiery heat, and cast his mutilated fragments in the air.

In Dickens, Peter Ackroyd notes that trains at that early stage of rail travel would not have been moving at more than twenty-five miles per hour, or about forty kilometres. This is the speed Australians are advised to slow down to when we drive past schools, so that children, when we hit them, will be more likely to survive, bouncing softly off our bonnets rather than flying across the road and having their heads shattered against the passing buses.

So human beings in the past were excessively fragmentable. Today they are more resilient. The speed that would not kill a child today would, in the past, have struck an adult man limb from limb. We may furthermore speculate that over time, if literature permits, human beings will become progressively less fragile, until, at some currently unforeseeable stage, they become completely impervious to harm. We will look to fiction for proof. Is not Superman both "The Man of Steel" and "The Man of Tomorrow"? Did we not conclude last week that Agnes Wickfield, a character who never ages or undergoes physical change, belongs in a science fiction novel? It does not seem unreasonable to assume that she, a woman of science-fiction imperviousness, a woman "of Tomorrow," shares the qualities of Superman. In short, Agnes comes from Krypton.

And we may pity Carker, as he gets struck limb from limb, for the answer to his problem lies only a small, small way into the future, in the very next book in fact.* Superman is more powerful than a locomotive. Agnes likewise must be more powerful than a locomotive. She could have saved Carker armed with nothing more than her own bare hands. His tragedy is that Dickens wrote her a few years too late.

*Anyone who doubts the ability of Dickens characters to travel independently outside their books should consider the case of Miss Julia Mills, who was so badly wounded by "a misplaced affection" in David Copperfield that she moved to the seaside town where Dickens took his holidays and read the entire romance section of the library.

(See the Reprinted Pieces for proof.)


  1. Oh too funny, DKS. I do like the connections you make...

  2. Good, good, good. It's doing something for me too. For the first time in my life, I like Agnes.