Thursday, 12 January 2012

2012 Memento Mori

As the drip drip drip of gooey but insincere hagiography and self-congratulation bursts into the deluge of Olympic Jubilee year 2012, who will hear the whisper of the slave?

For one thing, this year is celebrated the bicentenary of Charles Dickens, a national character who is sufficiently symbolic to have been portrayed on the £10 bank note. Yet look a little more closely into the man and the symbol starts to look all too reflective of what is a truly nasty, concealed reality.

The Amazon blurb for Claire Tomalin's new biography cheerfully admits that "the brilliance concealed a divided character: a republican, he disliked America; sentimental about the family in his writings, he took up passionately with a young actress; usually generous, he cut off his impecunious children."

But those are just minor blemishes. Looming behind these infidelities and hypocrisies is a far more hideous aspect to the great Victorian era:

"Despite his vivid evocations of cruelty and harshness in Victorian London, Charles Dickens was a defender of the infamous Jamaican Governor Eyre who had violently suppressed a revolt by freed slaves in Morant Bay. In 1865 a group of farmers from Morant Bay, Jamaica rebelled against the harsh colonial conditions on the island. Governor Eyre responded with a campaign of ruthless violence that lasted 30 days. Troops killed over 400 people, including children and pregnant women, at least 600 people were flogged [often with piano wire] and over 1000 homes were burned. The event divided British politics and marked a pivotal moment in the violent racism that continued in the post-abolition period. John Stuart Mill led the Jamaica Committee that, supported by Charles Darwin among others, demanded Eyre's trial for murder. Dickens, along with Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin, supported the Eyre Defence Committee that aimed to raise £10,000 for the Governor's legal expenses. They were successful and Eyre was acquitted, because, it was said, his crime involved 'only negro blood'." National Portrait Gallery website.

These beliefs lurk under Dickens' world like Smeagol's cave. Take Mrs Jellaby, for example. You may well agree that her "telescopic philanthropy"; caring more for those far away while neglecting her own family is wrong, yet to uncover the original motivation behind Dickens' portrayal of Mrs Jellaby is deeply disturbing in that it puts a whole different perspective on it.

In his book 'How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur-Text of Racial Politics',  David M Levy investigates the British Imperial race supremacist discourse in great depth, and amongst other details, tells us that "Carlyle found some surprising allies in his attack on those who invoked brotherhood to attack slavery. These included Charles Dickens. In a chapter of Bleak House titled "Telescopic Philanthropy" Dickens ridicules a Mrs. Jellaby who neglects her family for the good of Africans in "Borrio-boola-Gha." On the cover of the serial version of Bleak House, we see Mrs. Jellaby holding two black children. And beside her is a sign reading 'Exeter Hall' ... moral centre of the British anti-slave movement ..."

Whatever celebrations may come and go, let us humbly remind ourselves that civilisations are born and grow, yet however mighty they become, and by whatever means, they gradually senesce and eventually die.

But as for authors, however noble a man John Stuart Mill may have been, yet to my mind never so engaging a creator as his adversary.

1 comment:

  1. Dickins disliked America for not giving him his royalties. But he was not a big fan of the "vulgarity", either. Oh, well. Didn't hurt his (generally unprofitable) sales of his books-there are records of sailors going out in boats to hail incoming ships from England to ask "What's happened to Little Nell?"