A poster in one of the comment threads at Whispering Gums wrote, "Mrs Jelleby in Bleak House is supposedly based on Caroline Chisholm," and as I read that sentence it occurred to me to wonder, "What do we mean when we say that a character is based on someone?" Then I thought, "Where did my question come from?" I didn't know, but I was remembering a passage in Ackroyd's Dickens biography in which the biographer quotes a letter from Dickens to Angela Burdett-Coutts. "I dream of Mrs Chisholm and her housekeeping ... The dirty faces of her children are my constant companions." "Familiar companions too," Ackroyd adds, "since this image of them was one which fully embodied his own disgust at the way certain philanthropists attended to distant causes while ignoring those closer to home, and of course it was one which would be resuscitated in the house of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, one of a number of scenes and episodes from this period, which, blocked from access into David Copperfield [Dickens was in the middle of Copperfield], found their way into Dickens's next novel. The day after he had seen Mrs Chisholm, for example, he was sent by his brother-in-law, Henry Austin, a Report on a General Scheme for Extra-Mural Sepulture, which contained harrowing detail on the state of city graveyards."
Why did he visit Caroline Chisholm? He was moved by the misery of poor Londoners, and Chisholm had come from Australia to promote her Family Colonisation Loan Society. What was the Family Colonisation Loan Society? A body that offered financial help to needy Britons who wanted to try their luck in the southern colonies, where they would not have to struggle against the same problems of overcrowding and class stigma that faced them in London. The idea was presented to his mind; he seized on it -- inspiration! -- every needy member of the Copperfield cast moves to Australia at the end of the book and Martha Endall the prostitute is rewarded for her migration with a suitable husband and a bush pastoral. "They was married," reports Mr Peggotty, "and they live fower hundred mile away from any voices but their own and the singing birds."'*
Conclusion? If we can say that Mrs Jellyby is based on Caroline Chisholm then we can say that the end of David Copperfield is, too. By which we mean that it is and it isn't, that the inspiration of her entered the brain of Dickens and reacted to things already there, that this sprouted out in various ways, and that Mrs Jellyby was one of those ways, and that the singing birds are another. That if she is Mrs Jellyby then she is also the singing birds, and the four hundred miles, and Mr Micawber becoming a magistrate in Port Middlebay -- and that she is the words on paper representing those things, and that she is the individual letters, and that she is the ink, the components of the ink, that some instance of her has been translated into ink-molecules and ink-atoms, that she is our learning of letters and our accomplishment of reading, which allows us to make sense of these letters, which is a communal sense, because everybody agrees that an e is an e and a p is a p and never anything else, and they have done so for a while, historically (and we can keep zooming in).
In Bleak House Dickens calls Mrs Jellyby's activities "telescopic philanthropy," meaning that they concentrated on matters far away and ignored matters up close, but he did not oppose Chisholm's ideas, or Chisholm's support of them. He was their champion and devotee. When he gave them to Mrs Jellyby he made them ridiculous by transposing them to Africa. (The idea of Europeans bothering themselves with Africans is hilarious to him in The Noble Savage, and he seems to have never changed his mind.) He seats her in a nest of paper, he makes her dress gape at the back, he jams her child's head through a set of stair railings. "We hope by this time next year to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger," says Mrs Jellyby. She goes on to give encouragement to "a loquacious young man called Mr. Quale" with "a project of his for teaching the coffee colonists to teach the natives to turn piano-forte legs and establish an export trade." And it is intriguing to see Dickens mock, here, and twist, the same thing that he praises so seriously elsewhere, the work done by ambitious migrant British.
It's worth noticing that he never has his migrants educate "the natives" of Australia. I don't think he mentions the indigenous Australians at all. Even The Noble Savage never mentions them, although it mentions the natives of Africa and North America. The key quality of Martha's bush idyll is the distance it puts between her and any human voice besides her own and that of her husband. This bushland is uninhabited. The needy were being posted off to purest terra nullius, which was not a country at all, but an imaginary area conjured up by a law, in other words, a fantasy.**
For the creation of Mrs Jellyby and her household Dickens only needed to take a tiny part of Chisholm, an impression. And I was thinking about all of this in the light of my notion of Dickens as a deep-sea fish, or large object, extruding things that look like characters, and "agitating" them, as E.M. Forster says, in the way that a deep-sea fish jiggles its tempting light. I was in the shower thinking about this when the word interface came into my head. "Ah," I thought. "That was what the dirty faces of the Chisholm children became." They were an interface through which he could translate the ideas inside him into a sign-language that could be understood by the outside world. "Part of him has taken on this shape, which is not the shape of Caroline Chisholm, but wears her face like a mask. Somewhere Mrs Jellyby splits open, as the false human beings in horror movies split open, and the alien inside reveals itself through the split, a creature connected to the mother ship, which is Charles Dickens, sitting at his desk (dead), somewhere this hive-mind, extending one part of itself into Mrs Jellyby, as if she is a finger puppet."
Interface, that's what her household was, handed to Dickens gratis (by this supreme migration agent, who, in this one instance, was migrated into, by a writer who took her for terra nullius as well, and went there to make a habitation) and one part of Dickens' brilliance is this alertness to interfaces, this seeing of them everywhere, perceiving everything that might give him an opportunity to extrude his own personality, even those pictures of battle scenes at sea that I've referred to before,*** which do not have the character of actual prints but the personality of Charles Dickens.
She was a flesh version of the mechanical device that allows a person with a disability to pick up a spoon, or travel down the street -- to act upon the outside world, and make the world take notice in some way (the spoon lifts, the air parts) -- and these fleshy devices are not given to us with a clear purpose (as a wheelchair is) but must be constantly detected and identified for what they are, and tried and rejected. And so a writer is a person who identifies one kind of disability (the gap between the human interior and the outer world) and searches for ways to overcome it, or bridge it, or struggles to find a way through, knowing (because they are very wise) that it is not possible and that their struggles are in vain, like most things. And now I'm looking for some way to describe this writer as a cyborg, without metal parts, but with alien technology introduced to the basic system to achieve a specific effect. The alien technology in this case being another person.
* She is possibly living in the kind of environment that Henry Lawson describes here:
Bush all around – bush with no horizon, for the country is flat. No ranges in the distance. The bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple-trees. No undergrowth. Nothing to relieve the eye save the darker green of a few she-oaks which are sighing above the narrow, almost waterless creek. Nineteen miles to the nearest sign of civilisation – a shanty on the main road.
All days are much the same for her; but on Sunday afternoon she dresses herself, tidies the children, smartens up baby, and goes for a lonely walk along the bush-track, pushing an old perambulator in front of her. She does this every Sunday. She takes as much care to make herself and the children look smart as she would if she were going to do the block in the city. There is nothing to see, however, and not a soul to meet. You might walk for twenty miles along this track without being able to fix a point in your mind, unless you are a bushman. This is because of the everlasting, maddening sameness of the stunted trees – that monotony which makes a man long to break away and travel as far as trains can go, and sail as far as ship can sail – and farther.
Henry Lawson: The Drover's Wife
** Tolkein liked fantasy countries to be governed by believable and solid lifelike laws, so it is reasonable to assume that Terra Nullius, rooted in law, was a country in the epic high fantasy mode and that the migrants (some of them prostitutes from Urania Cottage, the refuge co-founded by Dickens in partnership with Burdett-Coutts) were performing the same voyage taken by Frodo at the end of The Return of the King, but in reverse.
The walls were ornamented with three or four old coloured prints in black frames, each print representing a naval engagement, with a couple of men-of-war banging away at each other most vigorously, while another vessel or two were blowing up in the distance, and the foreground presented a miscellaneous collection of broken masts and blue legs sticking up out of the water.
Sketches by Boz