From childhood, our “linguistic life has been one willingly given over to language play” (in the words of David Crystal). In fact, scientists have recently found learning new words can stimulate exactly those same pleasure circuits in our brain as sex, gambling, drugs and eating (the pleasure-associated region called the ventral striatum).
We’re leximaniacs at heart and, while the behaviour can occasionally seem dark, we can learn a thing or two by reflecting on those playful coinages that get us through “dicky” times.
Tom, Dick and Miley: in the ‘grippe’ of language play
In the past, hard times birthed playful rhymes. The 1930s Depression gave us playful reduplications based on Australian landmarks and towns – “ain’t no work in Bourke”; “everything’s wrong at Wollongong”; “things are crook at Tallarook”.
Wherever we’re facing the possibility of being “dicky” or “Tom (and) Dick” (rhyming slang for “sick”), we take comfort in language play. It’s one thing to feel “crook”, but it’s another thing again to feel as “crook as Rookwood” (a cemetery in Sydney) or to have a “wog” (synonymous with “bug”, likely from “pollywog”, and unrelated to the ethnic slur “wog”).
Remedies may be found in language’s abilities to translate sores into plasters, to paraphrase William Gouge’s 1631 sermon on the plague. New slang enables us to face our fears head-on — just as when the Parisians began calling a late-18th century influenza “la grippe” to reflect the “seizing” effect it had on people. The word was subsequently taken up in British and American English.
In these times of COVID-19, there are the usual suspects: shortenings like “sanny” (hand sanitizer) and “iso” (isolation), abbreviations like BCV (before corona virus) and WFH (working from home), also compounds “corona moaner” (the whingers) and “zoombombing” (the intrusion into a video conference).
Plenty of nouns have been “verbed” too — the toilet paper/pasta/tinned tomatoes have been “magpied”. Even rhyming slang has made a bit of a comeback with Miley Cyrus lending her name to the virus (already end-clipped to “the Miley”). Some combine more than one process — “the isodesk” (or is that “the isobar”) is where many of us are currently spending our days.
Slanguage in the coronaverse: what’s new?
What is interesting about COVID-lingo is the large number of creations that are blended expressions formed by combining two existing words. The new portmanteau then incorporates meaningful characteristics from both. Newly spawned “coronials” (corona + millennials) has the predicted baby boom in late 2020 already covered.
“Blursday” has been around since at least 2007 but originally described the day spent hung over — it’s now been pressed into service because no one knows what day of the week it is anymore. The official disease name itself, “COVID”, is somewhere between a blend and an acronym because it takes in vowels to make the abbreviation pronounceable (CO from corona, VI from virus and D from disease).
True, we’ve been doing this sort of thing for centuries — “flush” (flash + gush) dates from the 1500s. But it’s never been a terribly significant method of coinage. John Algeo’s study of neologisms over a 50-year period (1941–91) showed blends counting for only 5% of the new words. Tony Thorne’s impressive collection of over 100 COVID-related terms has around 34% blends, and the figure increases to more than 40% if we consider only slang.
Not only have blends become much more common, the nature of the mixing process has changed too. Rather than combining splinters of words, as in “coronials”, most of these corona-inspired mixes combine full words merged with parts of others. The “quarantini” keeps the word “quarantine” intact and follows it with just a hint of “martini” (and for that extra boost to the immune system you can rim the glass with vitamin C powder). Many of these have bubbled up over the past few weeks — “lexit” or “covexit” (the strategies around exiting lockdown and economic hardship), “coronacation” (working from home) and so on.
Humour: from the gallows to quarantimes
Humour emerges as a prevailing feature of these blends, even more so when the overlap is total. In “covidiot” (the one who ignores public health advice and probably hoards toilet paper), both “covid” and “idiot” remain intact. There’s been a flourishing of these types of blend — “covideo party”, “coronapocalypse”, “covidivorce” to name just a few.
Clearly, there is a fair bit of dark comedy in the jokes and memes that abound on the internet, and in many of these coinages too — compounds like “coronacoma” (for the period of shutdown, or that deliciously long quarantine sleep) and “boomer remover” (used by younger generations for the devastation of the baby boomer demographic).
Callous, heartless, yes. But humour is often used as a means of coming to terms with the less happy aspects of our existence. People use the levity as a way of disarming anxiety and discomfort by downgrading what it is they cannot cope with.
Certainly, gallows humour has always featured large in hospital slang (diagnoses like GOK “God only knows” and PFO “pissed and fell over”). For those who have to deal with dying and death every day, it is perhaps the only way to stay sane. COVID challenges us all to confront the biological limits of our own bodies – and these days humour provides the much-needed societal safety valve.
So what will come of these creations? The vast majority will fall victim to “verbicide”, as slang expressions always do.
These magazines are vital for today’s publishing industry. For many authors literary magazines provide the first opportunity for publication. For editors and arts administrators, they provide a training ground for life-long careers in Australia’s creative sector.
The past decade has seen a steady decline in arts funding going to individuals and organisations. According to Chairman of the Copyright Agency and former media executive, Kim Williams, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald:
[…] if funding for literature had been maintained as in the mid-70s, considering inflation and population growth, it should be at $12 million, at least. Today, it stands at just $5 million (compared with $4.2 million 30 years ago).
The list of defunded writing-focused organisations in the most recent multi-year funding round is stark. Those losing their multi-year status include Artlink, Eyeline, Art Monthly, the Australian Script Centre, Playwriting Australia, Sydney Writer’s Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival.
Without securing medium-term support, these organisations face an uncertain future.
In response to the 2020 funding announcement, editor of Australian Book Review, Peter Rose, stated the decision demonstrates
little understanding of [the magazine sector’s] contribution to the literary ecology, and no appreciation of the dire consequences for readers, authors, contributors and publishers.
The cultural discussions within the pages of literary journals set the agenda for the more higher-profile but slower-moving institutions such as publishers, prizes and festivals.
Literary magazines are often the first place authors are published. Against the backdrop of an industry largely staffed by white, middle-class people, small magazines are at the forefront of bringing more Australian writing to the surface from writers of colour, First Nations writers, disabled writers, trans writers and working-class writers, challenging those who hold power at the top of the sector.
Writing in 2015 about the position magazines such as Island or Overland occupy, Emmett Stinson noted these publications:
[…] are essential to contemporary literary culture: they showcase new and emerging writers; […] offer more extended literary debates and discussions than the broadsheets; comprise a venue for journalism that contains views outside of the liberal mainstream; serve as rallying points for different communities of readers and coteries of authors […]
Ben Etherington’s essay about the parallel lives and deaths of Mudrooroo and Les Murray, Cher Tan’s exposition and critique of taste production on the internet, and Blak Brow – which was written, edited, illustrated, curated and performed by First Nations creators – are among countless examples of the ways literary magazines carve out space for critique, expression, consideration and reflection.
In shifting funding away from small magazines, we lose the place for these discussions.
Not a competition
Uncertainty, instability and fragility are perhaps the defining characteristics of small magazines.
The decisions to not fund literary magazines not only have a significant impact on the individual publications, but also to Australian cultural discourse.
What gets published within the pages of these magazines can entertain us, it can inspire us to critically examine the world around us, and can help us understand culture that moves us.
Vibrant discussion about culture, society and the arts does not happen by accident. It must be carefully nurtured and requires financial support.
The Australia Council make extremely difficult decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t.
Not every organisation and publication and festival can receive funding. Those who don’t secure funding are no more or less worthy than those who do. Reduced financial support for Australia’s creative endeavours encourages artists to turn against one another in judgement of what should and should not receive funding.
Australian artists entertain us, challenge us and allow us to see things from different perspectives. Fulfilling a capitalist desire for competition, however, only distracts from the importance of Australian artists and the contribution the creative sector makes to our lives.
Correction: a reference to the Wheeler Centre has been removed as they did not apply for funding in 2020.
Every year about 150 students enrol in the introductory English literature course at the Australian National University, which I teach. The course includes works by Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf and Dickens.
I know what these books did for me as a student 20 years ago, but times have changed. I am curious to discover what reading these old books does for young people today.
Last year, 2019, saw the first cohort of students who were born in or beyond 2000 – the so-called digital generation. These students have grown up in a world where you can read a book without holding the physical object.
I decided to introduce the option of a bibliomemoir – an increasingly popular form of creative non-fiction – into their final year assignment. This would allow me to tease out the particular connections students were making between literature and their own lives.
The idea for a bibliomemoir was sparked in a workshop run by our then writer-in-residence, celebrated Australian teen novelist and author of Puberty Blues, Dr Gabrielle Carey.
Carey described bibliomemoir as a piece of writing that shows literary criticism is “best written as a personal tale of the encounter between a reader and a writer”.
Written with flair and precision the students’ bibliomemoirs revealed the formative effects of reading on their lives. Many of their insights related directly to challenges of growing up in the digital age.
They wrote about responding to distraction and cultivating compassion, connection, concentration and resilience.
Why a bibliomemoir?
A bibliomemoir might be an account of how one book or author has shaped a person’s life. Or it might be the memoir of a life structured by reading books. In Outside of a Dog, for instance, Rick Gekoski tells his life story through 25 books that have influenced him, including authors from Dr Seuss to Sigmund Freud.
Gekoski pointed out in an interview that bibliomemoir reveals the formative effects of reading. I saw immediately that I could adapt bibliomemoir to help me understand how my students saw books as shaping their lives.
So, for the final essay of the introductory English course, Carey and I designed a new essay question. It invited students to write a brief bibliomemoir based on one of the novels in the course. Like a traditional essay this would allow me to evaluate their skills of written expression, argument and technical analysis of literary language.
Unlike a traditional essay, it would allow me to see inside their individual reading experience. I would be able to understand how these books were influencing my students’ view of the world and their understanding of themselves.
Here’s what the students wrote
One student shared how reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway prompted a conversation with his flatmate about experiences of digital distraction and strategies for concentration:
Soon we came to the subject of Big Ben, which Woolf uses as a motif through the book. [My friend] said that the way Big Ben interrupted the characters’ thoughts reminded her of how a notification from your phone can interrupt your stream of thought.
I had also noticed the motif of Big Ben, however I appreciated it as an element of structure and pacing in a book that had no chapters, in fact I had sometimes structured my reading sessions around the ringing of Big Ben in the book.
Another student, reading of the mental torment experienced by the returned soldier Septimus in Mrs Dalloway, gained a new perspective on people who don’t seem to fit in. Reflecting on her initially judgemental perception of a dishevelled man boarding her bus the student asked: “was he so different from Septimus? Wise and lost?”.
She then explained she gained a new and unexpected perspective on life:
[Woolf] gave me glasses I never knew I needed – lenses smeared with multiple fingerprints that enhanced rather than hindered the view.
She concluded that
to be a reader is to suspend rigid views, to consider and honour the perspectives of the characters one meets.
A third student reflected on the challenges of reading itself, and on the rewards of persisting when structure and characterisation are unfamiliar. The student said she set out wanting to be an “inspired reader” but confessed to feeling “frustrated” by Woolf’s “merciless indifference” to her characters in Mrs Dalloway.
In noting this frustration, the student had registered the novel’s lack of clear protagonist or plotline. The novel is difficult to read because, while we do see individual characters trying to interpret their lives as coherent stories, Woolf refuses to impose an artificial grand narrative.
After sticking with it, however, the student recognised the novel’s achievement:
There lies the beauty of it: the ordinary day captured in time and words as a novel.
This student’s bibliomemoir was a story of the dividends paid by sustained concentration and a flexible mindset.
A fourth student used the bibliomemoir to analyse how Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey showed her the value of observing people closely, and has equipped her with resilience as a student facing the challenge of dyslexia:
I could not work out how to do the exact things my teachers wanted me to do. What I could do was learn to understand my teachers. By learning to watch them, like Austen watched people, and learning to understand them as people, I began to understand how to jump through their hoops.
While she couldn’t quantify the competencies reading books had given her, the student said she just knew books had formed who she was:
I cannot list the strategies that I employ when reading and writing […] I give all the credit to reading literature, to books like Northanger Abbey and writers like Jane Austen and so volunteer myself as an example of how reading literature is valuable in our era.
These examples revealed some of the many reasons new readers, even of the digital age, return to old books and old ways of reading them. The readers expressed an urgency for connection with narratives more complex than a news feed.
They recognised that truthful self-reflection can be prompted by sustained engagement with fiction. They proved that connection with others, compassion and resilience are nurtured through a deepened understanding of story in the study of literature.
I can only conclude that for this group of readers, taking a book into their hands is a very deliberate act of identification with the bigger, shared story of reading.
When Charles Dickens died, he had spectacular fame, great wealth and an adoring public. But his personal life was complicated. Separated from his wife and living in a huge country mansion in Kent, the novelist was in the thrall of his young mistress, Ellen Ternan. This is the untold story of Charles Dickens’s final hours and the furore that followed, as the great writer’s family and friends fought over his final wishes.
My new research has uncovered the never-before-explored areas of the great author’s sudden death, and his subsequent burial. While details such as the presence of Ternan at the author’s funeral have already been discovered by Dickensian sleuths, what is new and fresh here is the degree of manoeuvring and negotiations involved in establishing Dickens’s ultimate resting place.
Dickens’s death created an early predicament for his family. Where was he to be buried? Near his home (as he would have wished) or in that great public pantheon, Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey (which was clearly against his wishes)?
“The Inimitable” (as he sometimes referred to himself) was one of the most famous celebrities of his time. No other writer is as closely associated with the Victorian period. As the author of such immortal classics as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol, he was constantly in the public eye. Because of the vivid stories he told, and the causes he championed (including poverty, education, workers’ rights, and the plight of prostitutes), there was great demand for him to represent charities, and appear at public events and visit institutions up and down the country (as well as abroad – particularly in the United States). He moved in the best circles and counted among his friends the top writers, actors, artists and politicians of his day.
Dickens was proud of what he achieved as an author and valued his close association with his public. In 1858 he embarked on a career as a professional reader of his own work and thrilled audiences of thousands with his animated performances. This boost to his career occurred at a time when his marital problems came to a head: he fell in love with Ternan, an 18-year-old actress, and separated from his wife Catherine, with whom he had ten children.
Dickens was careful to keep his love affair private. Documentary evidence of his relationship with Ternan is very scarce indeed. He had wanted to take her with him on a reading tour to America in 1868, and even developed a telegraphic code to communicate to her whether or not she should come. She didn’t, because Dickens felt that he could not protect their privacy.
On Wednesday June 8 1870, the author was working on his novel Edwin Drood in the garden of his country home, Gad’s Hill Place, near Rochester, in Kent. He came inside to have dinner with his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, and suffered a stroke. The local doctor was summoned and remedies were applied without effect. A telegram was sent to London, to summon John Russell Reynolds, one of the top neurologists in the land. By the following day the author’s condition hadn’t changed and he died at 6.10pm, on June 9.
Accepted wisdom concerning Dickens’s death and burial is drawn from an authorised biography published by John Forster: The Life of Charles Dickens. Forster was the author’s closest friend and confidant. He was privy to the most intimate areas of his life, including the time he spent in a blacking (boot polish) warehouse as a young boy (which was a secret, until disclosed by Forster in his book), as well as details of his relationship with Ternan (which were not revealed by Forster, and which remained largely hidden well into the 20th century). Forster sought to protect Dickens’s reputation with the public at all costs.
Last Will and Testament
In his will (reproduced in Forster’s biography), Dickens had left instructions that he should be:
Buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner; that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial; that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed; and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity.
Forster added that Dickens’s preferred place of burial – his Plan A – was “in the small graveyard under Rochester Castle wall, or in the little churches of Cobham or Shorne”, which were all near his country home. However, Forster added: “All these were found to be closed”, by which he meant unavailable.
Plan B was then put into action. Dickens was set to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, at the direction of the Dean and Chapter (the ecclesiastical governing body). They had even dug a grave for the great man. But this plan too was scuppered, in favour of interment in Poets’ Corner, in Westminster Abbey – the resting place of Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, and other literary greats.
Forster claims in the biography that the media led the way in agitating for burial in the abbey. He singles out The Times, which, in an article of January 13 1870, “took the lead in suggesting that the only fit resting place for the remains of a man so dear to England was the abbey in which the most illustrious Englishmen are laid”. He added that when the Dean of Westminster, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, asked Forster and members of the Dickens family to initiate what was now Plan C, and bury him in the abbey, it became their “grateful duty to accept that offer”.
The private funeral occurred early in the morning of Tuesday June 14 1870, and was attended by 14 mourners. The grave was then left open for three days so that the public could pay their respects to one of the most famous figures of the age. Details of the authorised version of Dickens’s death and burial were carried by all the major and minor newspapers in the English-speaking world and beyond. Dickens’s estranged wife Catherine received a message of condolence from Queen Victoria, expressing “her deepest regret at the sad news of Charles Dickens’s death”.
This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.
The effect that Dickens’s death had on ordinary people may be appreciated from the reaction of a barrow girl who sold fruits and vegetables in Covent Garden Market. When she heard the news, she is reported to have said: “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”
The funeral directors
My investigation has revealed, however, how Dickens’s burial in Poets’ Corner was engineered by Forster and Stanley to satisfy their personal aims, rather than the author’s own. While the official story was that it was the “will of the people” to have Dickens buried in the Abbey (and there were articles in The Times to this effect), the reality was that this alteration suited both the biographer and the churchman.
Forster could conclude the volume he was contemplating in a fitting manner, by having Dickens interred in the national pantheon where so many famous literary figures were buried. He thus ensured that a stream of visitors would make a pilgrimage to Dickens’s grave and spread his reputation far and wide, for posterity.
Stanley could add Dickens to his roll of famous people whose burials he conducted. They included Lord Palmerston, the former UK prime minister, mathematician and astronomer Sir John Herschel, missionary and explorer David Livingstone, and Sir Rowland Hill, the postal reformer and originator of the penny post.
The efforts of Forster and Stanley to get Dickens buried exactly where they wanted enhanced the reputations of both men. For each of them, the interment of Dickens in the abbey might be considered the highlight of their careers.
‘Mr Dickens very ill, most urgent’
The new evidence I have found was gathered from libraries, archives and cathedral vaults and prove beyond a doubt that any claims about the Westminster burial being the will of the people are false.
What emerges is an atmosphere of urgency in the Dickens household after the author collapsed. Dickens’s son Charley sent the telegram to the author’s staff in London, requesting urgent medical assistance from the eminent neurologist, John Russell Reynolds:
Go without losing a moment to Russell Reynolds thirty eight Grosvenor St Grosvenor Sqr tell him to come by next train to Higham or Rochester to meet… Beard (Dickens’s physician), at Gadshill … Mr Dickens very ill most urgent.
Dickens’s sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, who ran his household and cared for his children after the separation from Catherine, was clearly disappointed that the specialist could do nothing for her much-adored brother-in-law. She sent a note to her solicitor with the doctor’s fee: “I enclose Dr Reynolds’ demand (of £20) for his fruitless visit.”
Dean Stanley had met Dickens in 1870, after being introduced by the churchman’s brother-in-law, Frederick Locker, who was a friend of the novelist. Stanley confided to his private journal (now housed in the archives of Westminster Abbey) that he was “much struck” by his conversation with Dickens and appreciated the few opportunities he had to meet the author before he died.
Locker’s memoir also records an interesting conversation he had with Stanley before this 1870 meeting, which sheds light on the Dean’s attitude towards the novelist, his death and funeral. Locker writes about talking to Stanley “of the burials in the abbey” and they discussed the names of some “distinguished people”. Stanley told him there were “certain people” he would be “obliged to refuse” burial, on account of personal antipathies. But his attitude changed when the name of the author “came up” and he said he “should like to meet Dickens”. Then, to “gratify” Stanley’s “pious wish”, Locker asked Dickens and his daughter to dine. Thus even while Dickens was still alive, Stanley privately expressed a desire to bury him.
When the end came, Locker conveyed the news to his brother-in-law on that very day – June 9. The Dean wrote to Locker to say:
Alas! – how soon we have been overtaken by the event which we were anticipating as so distant. I cannot amply thank you for having given me the opportunity of having met Charles Dickens while there was yet time. You will gather from what I have already said that I am quite prepared to raise any proposals about the burial that may be made to me.
The letter is fascinating. On the very day of the famous author’s death, the Dean was already thinking about burial in the Abbey. But there was a catch: Stanley could only entertain such a proposal if it came from the family and executors. He could not act unilaterally.
Locker quickly seized the opportunity hinted at in Stanley’s letter and sent a copy of it to Charley Dickens (the author’s son) on June 10. He wrote in his covering note: “I wish to send you a copy of a letter that I have just received from Dean Stanley and I think it will explain itself. If I can be of any use pray tell me.”
False claims and ambition
Meanwhile, the idea of getting Dickens to Poets’ Corner was growing in Stanley’s imagination. He wrote to his cousin Louisa on Saturday June 11 to say “I never met (Dickens) till this year… And now he is gone … and it is not improbable that I may bury him”. It’s interesting how quickly the plan crystallised in the Dean’s mind. Within the space of 48 hours, he went from hypothetical proposals from the family for burial, to foreseeing a key role for himself in the proceedings.
However, an answer from Charley Dickens wasn’t forthcoming. Stanley waited until the morning of Monday June 13, before seeking another way of making his wishes known to the family. He got in touch with his friend Lord Houghton (formerly Rickard Monckton Milnes – a poet, politician and friend of Dickens), reiterating his preparedness “to receive any proposal for (Dickens’s) burial in the Abbey” and asking Houghton to “act as you think best”.
It was at this point in the proceedings that Forster took charge of the planning. He had been away in Cornwall when Dickens died and it took him two days to reach Gad’s Hill. When he reached Dickens’s country home on Saturday June 11 he was overcome with grief at the death of his friend and clearly unprepared for the suddenness with which the blow was struck. His first thoughts, and those of the immediate family, were to accede to Dickens’s wishes and have him buried close to home. While the official account, in his Life of Dickens, claims that the graveyards in the vicinity of his home were “closed”, an examination of the records of the churches in Cobham and Shorne demonstrate this to be false.
The proposed burial in Rochester Cathedral was not only advanced, but in fact finalised, costed, and invoiced. The Chapter archives demonstrate that a grave was in fact dug in St Mary’s Chapel by the building firm Foord & Sons. The records also show that the Cathedral authorities “believed, as they still believe (after Dickens was buried in the Abbey), that no more fitting or honourable spot for his sepulture could be found than amidst scenes to which he was fondly attached, and amongst those by whom he was personally known as a neighbour and held in such honour”.
These views are reinforced by the claims of Hogarth, Dickens’s sister-in-law, in a letter to a friend:
We should have preferred Rochester Cathedral, and it was a great disappointment to the people there that we had to give way to the larger demand.
Let (Dickens) lie in the Abbey. Where Englishmen gather to review the memorials of the great masters and teachers of their nation, the ashes and the name of the greatest instructor of the nineteenth century should not be absent.
Despite this appeal appearing in the press, Stanley’s private journal records that he still “had received no application from any person in authority”, and so “took no steps” to advance his burial plan.
Stanley’s prayers must have seemed answered, then, when Forster and Charley Dickens appeared at the door of the Deanery on that same day. According to the Dean, after they sat down, Forster said to Stanley: “I imagine the article in the ‘Times’ must have been written with your concurrence?” Stanley replied: “No, I had no concern with it, but at the same time I had given it privately to be understood that I would consent to the interment if it was demanded.” By this Stanley meant the letter he had sent to Locker, which the latter had forwarded to Charley. Stanley of course agreed to the request from Dickens’s representatives for burial in Poets’ Corner. What he refrains from saying is how much he personally was looking forward to officiating at an event of such national significance.
While it’s clear, from the private correspondence I have examined, that Stanley agitated for Dickens’s burial in the abbey, the actions of Forster are harder to trace. He left fewer clues about his intentions and he destroyed all of his working notes for his monumental three volume biography of Dickens. These documents included many letters from the author. Forster used Dickens’s correspondence liberally in his account. In fact, the only source we have for most of the letters from Dickens to Forster are the passages that appear in the biography.
But as well as showing how Forster falsely claimed in his biography that the graveyards near his home were “closed”, my research also reveals how he altered the words of Stanley’s (published) funeral sermon to suit his own version of events. Forster quoted Stanley as saying that Dickens’s grave “would thenceforward be a sacred one with both the New World and the Old, as that of the representative of the literature, not of this island only, but of all who speak our English tongue”. This, however, is a mis-quotation of the sermon, in which Stanley actually said:
Many, many are the feet which have trodden and will tread the consecrated ground around that narrow grave; many, many are the hearts which both in the Old and in the New World are drawn towards it, as towards the resting-place of a dear personal friend; many are the flowers that have been strewed, many the tears shed, by the grateful affection of ‘the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and those that had none to help them’.
Stanley worked with Forster to achieve their common aim. In 1872, when Forster sent Stanley a copy of the first volume of his Life of Dickens, the Dean wrote:
You are very good to speak so warmly of any assistance I may have rendered in carrying out your wishes and the desire of the country on the occasion of the funeral. The recollection of it will always be treasured amongst the most interesting of the various experiences which I have traversed in my official life.
For the ages
My research demonstrates that the official, authorised accounts of the lives and deaths of the rich and famous are open to question and forensic investigation – even long after their histories have been written and accepted as canonical. Celebrity is a manufactured commodity, that depends for its effect on the degree to which the fan (which comes from the word “fanatic”) can be manipulated into believing a particular story about the person whom he or she adores.
In the case of Dickens, two people who had intimate involvement in preserving his reputation for posterity were not doing so for altruistic reasons: there was something in it for each of them. Stanley interred the mortal remains of Dickens in the principal shrine of British artistic greatness. This ensured that his tomb became a site of pilgrimage, where the great and the good would come to pay their respects – including the Prince of Wales, who laid a wreath on Dickens’s grave in 2012, to mark the bicentenary of his birth.
Such public commemorations of this Victorian superstar carry special meaning and mystique for his many fans. This year, on February 7 (the anniversary of his birth), Armando Iannucci (director of the new film adaptation The Personal History of David Copperfield) is scheduled give the toast to “the immortal memory” at a special dinner hosted by the Dickens Fellowship – a worldwide association of admirers. The 150th anniversary of his death will be observed at Westminster Abbey on June 8 2020.
Whether it’s the remembrance of the author’s death or his birth, these public acts symbolise how essential Dickens is to Britain’s national culture. None of this would have been possible, however, had it not been for the involvement of Dickens’s best friend and executor, John Forster. Forster organised the private funeral in Westminster Abbey in accordance with Dickens’s wishes, and ensured that his lover Ellen Ternan could discreetly attend, and that his estranged wife would not. But he is also the man who overruled the expectations of the author for a local burial. Instead, through an act of institutionally sanctioned bodysnatching, the grave in Poets’ Corner bound Dickens forever in the public mind with the ideals of national life and art and provided a fitting conclusion to Forster’s carefully considered, strategically constructed biography. It ends with these words:
Facing the grave, and on its left and right, are the monuments of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dryden, the three immortals who did most to create and settle the language to which Charles Dickens has given another undying name.
Norman Lindsay’s novel for children, The Magic Pudding, turned 100 last year and was widely celebrated. But the Lindsay family’s auction of three previously unseen manuscripts could help us gain a greater understanding of his novels for adults.
The manuscripts were held by Lindsay’s family since his death in 1969, and they have never been seen, aside from a few close friends and members of Lindsay’s family who were trusted readers.
They were auctioned by Sydney Rare Books in June, and all three were purchased by the State Library of New South Wales for the Mitchell Library Rare Manuscripts Collection, which has significant Lindsay holdings.
Turning brittle pages
Lindsay published eleven works of fiction from 1913 to 1968, including Redheap, the first novel by an Australian-born writer to be banned for import into Australia in 1930 from English publisher Faber and Faber after it was declared obscene by authorities.
His writing generally focused on small groups of friends, schoolmates or families and their complex relationships. The struggle for independence from the dominating and restrictive family is a constant theme in his work. These threads also tie the newly emerged manuscripts together.
To a literary archival researcher, these manuscripts are golden and shining and magnificent. To the average reader, though, they are a bit on the scrappy side.
Lindsay sewed his manuscripts together with thread, and then bound the spine in leftover canvas scraps he had lying around his studio. These bindings still hold, but not securely.
As the pages turn, the age of the manuscripts can be felt in the brittle fold – rather than bend, of the paper. There are brown cigarette burns on some of the pages, notes and even the sketch of a female face on others.
The three novels, Bungen Beach, Landfalls and Uncle Ben, were written between 1940 and Lindsay’s death in 1969. Bungen Beach, was refused for publication by Angus and Robertson. They took another of his novels, Dust or Polish? instead, and released it in 1950.
The novels are a thematic continuation of the issues Lindsay addressed in his earlier, published, works; the restrictions of domesticity on the intellectual and sexual development of adolescents, the importance of homosocial relationships, artistic freedom and the social restrictions of small-town life.
The bigger story these manuscripts tell is one of a writer, an artist, who couldn’t let his mind or hands rest, who needed to be creating constantly. He had themes of creative and intellectual, as well as sexual and social, freedom on his mind. From Landfalls:
‘Hanged if I believe that only getting food out of it, and making a joke of it, solves the problem of life,’ he said.
‘And what is the problem of life?’ asked Cardigan blandly.
‘Well, hang it, developing – expressing yourself somehow. I mean, if you have something to say – if you want to write, for instance. Hang it, even developing a faculty – medicine, for instance…’
This drive led him to write novels when the dusk fell and the light on his hilltop studio at Springwood was no longer conducive to painting.
Even though the narratives in two of these novels repeated many of the themes, and sometimes even the scenes, of novels he had written before, he was compelled to write them, to see if he could find a more effective form for his stories.
Bungen Beach follows two families living in a small community on the New South Wales coast, and the gradual sexual awakening of two women in those families, Vera and Norina.
This theme is one found in other Lindsay works, including Redheap, Pan in the Parlour, The Cousin from Fiji, and Miracles by Arrangement. Bungen Beach begins with two male escapees from the city, Archer and Pilbury, who add tension and humour to the narrative.
Landfalls, the novel dedicated to Lindsay’s biographer John Hetherington, returns to the town of Redheap to explore similar themes of sexual awakening, the ignominy of social and class restrictions, and the necessary escape from the home:
‘Well, they’re that high,’ said Elfie, which rewarded Ronald’s diplomacy with a smooth section of her midriff for investigation.
Instantly Mucker said ‘Let’s have a feel of high stomach’s on you, Trix,’ which abated Trixy’s primness to a squeal of ‘Ouch – that’s my real stomach.’
Fido passionately desired to approve himself an easy fellow on those terms, but his speechless adoration of Queenie could not bear to take liberties with her anatomy…
This novel is less cohesive than Bungen Beach or Uncle Ben, and the cast of characters sometimes feel outside the author’s control.
Scene of the crime
The return to Redheap as a setting is significant as it is the first time Lindsay returned to the fictional town after the novel of the same name was censored. Two of his other novels, Saturdee and Halfway to Anywhere, follow the same themes as Redheap and can be considered with it as a Bildungsroman trilogy – a literary coming-of-age genre – but their fictional township remains unnamed.
Lindsay felt the impact of the censorship keenly; he was worried he would be arrested and decided to leave the country, sending a telegram to The Daily Telegraph as his ship sailed:
Goodbye to the best country in the world, if it was not for the Wowsers.
The decision to revisit the fictionalised space that caused so much trauma would have been loaded with both emotion and rejuvenation.
Of the three novels, however, it is Uncle Ben that is the most polished and well-executed. It brings in new characters and themes as well as drawing on Lindsay’s expertise in ships (he made models of them) and mining (his hometown of Creswick was a gold-mining town).
Seated on the slips of the boat shed, he and Ben smoked their dark plug tobacco while they recalled remembered ship’s runs, of which old sailors have the phenominal [sic] memory that a cruder faculty in the world of sport transfers to the pedigrees and performances of racehorses. But the record of a ship’s run is not merely a dry entry in her log, but a testimony to her lines, her masting and sailing plan, and the skill of those who handled her, vindicating a tradition in sea craft from Odysseus to Captain Walgett of the Cutty Sark.
The character of Uncle Ben, a wanderer and adventurer who returns to his family home following a mining accident, is richly drawn and complex, as well as having Lindsay’s signature humour and cheek. In one scene, Uncle Ben collects all the leftover food on the dining room table onto his plate, covers it in tomato sauce, and eats it noisily and joyously, to the discomfort of his snobbish nephews and nieces.
These new novels, each bringing their own clues from Lindsay’s rich imagination and unique perspective, add depth and understanding to research and study of Lindsay’s creative output.