Mists of Doom

It must be more than LV years since I last read this, enough time to cloud over all but the main thread of the plot, enhanced as it has been by TV and film–which have served only to replace faces–formerly imagined–with those of some unremembered director’s choice and so left me free to read and digest more of the detail than I had understood before.

To me this opening is more like that which one would expect of a “psychological thriller.” There is a time, could be past or present, when mists are hiding the reality of what is happening underneath. The time is slowly revealed as Dickens expresses his view of the absolute monarchy in France and the deferential kingdom of Great Britain where both establishments are totally unaware that Death, in the guise of Woodman and Farmer, is slowly proceeding under a fog and change is on the way.

The opening paragraph I find refreshing. Dickens is making the point that the best and the worst, wisdom and foolishness etc. don’t depend on absolutes but are comparative and are applied to circumstances only insofar as they accepted by each individual as being so: “……in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” A caution to the reader that the following tale could be seen from two entirely different points of view. Not many authors would admit to as much.

The rest of the chapter sets out time and place(s) and is a vehicle for his lashing out at Methodists and Catholics, contrasting the Cock-lane ghost against a “..dirty procession of monks..” throwing in Joanna Southcott for good measure. The penal codes of England and France at the time are tried and found wanting.

Having vented his spleen he uses the imagery of Woodman and Farmer to provide an impending sense of Doom in which “…myriads of small creatures—the creatures of this chronicle among the rest—(are to journey) along the roads that lay before them.”

Having set the historical background the tale moves into a real mist on a miserable night on Shooters Hill. Passengers have to walk huddled together but wary of one another, distrust clings to the air  and finds expression in the description of the armoury of the coach guard. Tension rises as the coach, pulled by reluctant horses the coachman doesn’t trust (…. the horses had three times already come to a stop, besides once drawing the coach across the road, with the mutinous intent of taking it back to Blackheath.” and ”  …….as to which cattle he (the coachman) could with a clear conscience have taken his oath on the two Testaments that they were not fit for the journey.) reaches the top of the hill and the tension is broken but only for a brief period, enough to draw breath before the tension is raised higher. Out of the mist horse beats are heard. Everyone tenses again. Under threat of extinction a character emerges from the fog. He is recognised by one of the passengers which heightens the apprehension of the rest. The guard is bribed to allow Mr Lorry to read Jerry’s note (nothing like cash to grease the wheels of suspicion) and the tension is released once more.

The message “Wait at Dover for Mam’selle”–obscure in itself–provokes a mysterious reply–“Recalled to Life”– which changes the mood into one of deep brooding on its meaning. The coach rumbles on through the night and the coachman and guard debate what the reply could have meant (which is Dickens telling his reader that they have to think too.) Brooding  on the reply punctuates Jerry’s return to Tellson’s Bank via a string of ale-houses. His concern is passed on to his horse,  “…..the shadows of the night took such shapes to him as arose out of the message, and took such shapes to the mare as arose out of her private topics of uneasiness. They seemed to be numerous, for she shied at every shadow on the road.” and the journey becomes a Night-Mare?

The nightmare continues inside the coach as the night shadows descend on the passengers. Between fits of dozing and sudden wakefulness the bank passenger rifles the vaults of his mind and his bank where secrets are buried and dead accounts are shelved. The thoughts of someone long buried haunts him and he tries to remember what the intombed unfortunate might look like but he can’t and the idea appalls him. Eighteen years buried alive is all he can think of and his imagined conversations roil through his head as the wheels of the coach roll him onward toward Dover and the solution of the mystery.

As dawn breaks the mists and shadows of night are dispersed and the world becomes clear but it only increases his concern over the man who has been buried alive for eighteen years and is, like some old forgotten charter or account in his bank vault, to be taken out and revived.

I’ve never looked at it this way before and find myself amazed by the way Dickens  has projected the edge of the seat feeling Hitchcock used so effectively.

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4 thoughts on “Mists of Doom

  1. Reblogged this on Katieloubell's Blog and commented:
    I’m really glad you mentioned “Cock Lane” and Southcott. Would you mind elaborating more of your thoughts on these two aspects of the first chapter if you have time? They’re both allusions that I’m curious about. I definately see Dickens speaking about religion vs spiritualism in that paragraph, but it also leaves me wanting to get more clarification.

  2. Glad you liked it. There is much more to say about the first three chapters I’d run out of space if I tried to cover it all.
    Cock Lane was a scam to extort cash from a moneylender (William Kent) in 1762.
    Kent who lived in Norfolk was married to Elizabeth Lynes who died died in childbirth and he took up with her sister Fanny. Under Canon law they couldn’t marry and moved from Norfolk to London. Getting a house was a bit of a problem but the parish Clerk, Richard Parsons, rented him a place in Cock Lane and borrowed money from him but didn’t pay up. Soon after Kent sued him hauntings began, raps on doors and walls. Kent moved out but the rapping continued.
    From there it is a long story which I can’t fully remember but it became a cause celebre and eventually was proved to be a scam to accuse Kent of murdering his first wife and get Parsons out of hock. A commission was set up including Samuel Johnson and the Lord Mayor of London in its ranks. Parsons and his daughter were tried and convicted at the Guildhall. I’m sure you will find more details elsewhere.
    Dickens didn’t like spiritualisn, There are quite a few articles about it in Household Words. Both Methodists and Anglicans were concened with spirits as part of their faith though Anglians were the more hard headed. Methodists however were concerned with ghostly spirits (John Wesley believed in ghosts from an early age) and I think Dickens regarded them as being Gullible and foolish, which might go some way to explaining why Wilkie Collins’ article was placed immediately after Two Cities. They were involved with the Cock Lane ghost and the seances held in Kent’s old bedroom.
    Joanna Southcott was a farmers daughter who took to religion and prophesy in the late eighteenth century. She made quite a killing financially by growing a following, granting status of ‘Elect’ to those who gave her a Guinea. She believed she would be a second Mary and give birth to a child (not losing her virginity) who would rid the world of evil. She committed writings and prophesies to a bound box and made it known that salvation wouldn’t come until the 26 Anglican bishops opened the box. None of them did until the 1920’s when a suffragan found the box contained rags and shreds of paper.
    Her story still goes on. After the last war the Panacaea Society declared they had the real box and demanded 26 bishops should open it. I can still rember their adverts in the papers of the 1950’s and as far as I know they still exist.
    Dickens often refers to the Cock Lane ghost as metafor for gullibilty, but I’m not sure that he didn’t have a yearning for the supernatural. Try reading ‘A Child’s Dream of a Star’ by Dickens in Householld Words Vol I No. 2. 06-06-1850. Think of what he was doing at the time and what was close to his mind. Your view would be appreciated.
    Hope this was helpful.

  3. Firstly, I am struck by the sincerity of “A Child’s Dream of a Star.” It is quite a beautiful short story, and I am particularly taken by the simple beauty of it and the Romanticism that comes into play between the children and their relationship to the star. I’m surprised I’ve never encountered it before today. I agree with your statement that Dickens might have had a secret yearning for the supernatural. I have always thought so, although I know that he discredited it publicly, and who would blame him? Upon reading about the fads of séances and prophesies then, as well as the rapidity with which some of the less educated public ate them up, I can see why someone in the public eye would want to distance themselves from that. As far as the story goes, I suppose there’s no way to know for sure if Dickens wrote it immediately prior to the publication of that Volume of Household Words, or if it had been around earlier than that, but I definitely see allusions to his sister, Fanny. This sister-wife relationship he fantasized he had is something that (pardon the use) haunted his writings, at least in my readings. It also brought to mind the way in which David loses his mother in “David Copperfield.” That extremely griping scene where he is being taken away from his mother’s home and looks back to see her standing in the road, holding her baby in her arms for him to see. It’s quite haunting. It’s interesting that the boy in “A Child’s Dream…” loses his “maiden daughter,” as Dickens himself lost a daughter, although I know not until 1851, after this Volume was published. It’s kind of an interesting premonition on his part, or at least a spiritualist would say so. Lastly, my thoughts go to his being almost finished with “David Copperfield” at the publication of that Volume, and the sense that he had of being turned inside out while writing. It must have felt cathartic to finish something so deep and heartfelt…I can only imagine. But the end of “A Child’s Dream…” is very much in the same vein of feeling, in that he (Dickens/the boy) is finally free of the novel and life, respectively (again interesting that they’re all female members of the boy’s family that are taken to the star in the afterlife.) I could write more, but I worry that there’s a limit to how many characters one can type in a comment.

    I supposed I could have “wiki-ed” the Cock Lane and Southcott stories, but I would much prefer to hear these interesting historical side-points from someone who would genuinely be familiar with them. Thanks for expounding! I knew that the “rappings” that Dickens wrote of having to do with Cock Lane houses alluded to the supernatural fads of the time, but I wasn’t sure how they directly related. It does all kind of point to interesting juxtapositions in these opening chapters, as you said.

  4. Happy to have put you on to something new, I wasn’t hinting at ‘wiki’ though having looked at it since it has refreshed my memory about a few things.
    Having read the Star story you have a similar impression about it as I have. Dickens lost a brother and sister in their infancy. did he and they look out at the stars and the memory come back to him whilst writing Copperfield and plotting the death of Dora. Was he struck by the idea that the good die young or was he just afraid of death itself. Most of his work centres on death in one way or the other. Miss Havisham was dead to the world and recalled herself to life through Estelle. OliverTtwist not only rcalled himself physically to life but had his whole history recalled after shaking off the ignorance of the past, as was Smike, recalled to life in Nickolby. The same theme abounds in Dickens’ work.
    Was he so active, almost Manic, in his own life because he was plagued by the fear of the living death of the workhouse and understood what it was to be recalled to life/?
    Lots of questions. How many answers? As you say there is a limit to what one can say in a comment.

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