Dickens, John Clare and Mr Dick: The Possibilities of a Celebrated Literary 'Madman' in Dickens's Creation

By Wade, Stephen | Contemporary Review, June 2012 | Go to article overview
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Dickens, John Clare and Mr Dick: The Possibilities of a Celebrated Literary 'Madman' in Dickens's Creation


Wade, Stephen, Contemporary Review


SCHOLARSHIP has been applied with energy and profundity, for many years now, to the subject of Dickens's depiction of mental derangement; medical men (notably Russell Brain in his collection of essays, Some Reflections on Genius in 1960) have added to this considerable body of literature. A fair proportion of this study has been given to the analysis of Mr Dick in David Copperfield, and the reasons for this are not hard to find. As Stanley Tick (1) has argued, with authority and a very persuasive line of thought, Mr Dick is the embodiment of the author's constant imaginative preoccupation with the condition of mental trauma brought on by suffering in his formative years. It is appropriate to consider this in the year we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth.

The large part of the year 1824, when his father was imprisoned for debt and Charles worked in the blacking shop, is the focus for this imaginative concern; the novelist repeatedly revisiting the awful time he and the family experienced. Prof. Tick maintains that Mr Dick is an organic simile: when he sits down to try to recapture the past, he represents, says Stanley Tick, 'in part, the abstraction Charles Dickens' and that 'Neither Charles Dickens nor Mr Dick could bring himself to speak or write the truth of his past in such a way that the world would know of the sorrow and shame'. This is from the fascinating essay, 'The Memorializing of Mr Dick' which appeared in 1969. The essay is the most cogent and incisive account of what Mr Dick may very well be when understood imaginatively.

Mr Dick may be all that, Stanley Tick argues, but his origins suggest another possible source, on top of the purely autobiographical one. This concerns the choice of Charles I as the subject of Mr Dick's obsession. Originally, Dickens wanted the energising image of Mr Dick's nature to be that of 'the bull in the china shop' but his first friend and biographer, John Forster, questioned this and Dickens responded with the idea of Charles I. He wrote to Forster: 'Your suggestion is perfectly wise and sound. I have acted on it. I have ... instead of 'the bull in the china shop' delusion, given Dick the idea that, when the head of Charles I was cut off, some of the trouble was taken out of it, and put into his (Dick's)'.

As Dickens was doing this preparatory work, it was 1849--the bicentenary of the execution of Charles I. One would be right in thinking that the media at the time would be keen to mark that macabre occasion. It would seem logical that Dickens would have been reading accounts of the execution in the press. Yet, as Roland Quinault has pointed out in his study of centenary celebrations between 1784 and 1914, 'The 1849 bicentenary of the execution of Charles I prompted no cause of the man still officially described in the Anglican liturgy as "Charles the Martyr" '. A trawl of The Times Digital Archive for that year finds practically nothing on the unhappy king and his decapitation.

There was, however, something much closer to Dickens and his preoccupations than the bicentenary. At that time, he was planning the establishment of his periodical, Household Words, and he was in touch with Mary Howitt, amongst other contributors, as he appealed for contributions, and he told Mary that he wanted material on 'social evils' and on 'home affections'. It was the very time when the poet John Clare was lodged in the asylum at Northampton, and on several occasions in 1844 and later, Mary and William Howitt visited Clare there. They recalled that Clare gave a graphic account of the execution of Charles I.

Around the same time, Mary Russell Mitford had a friend who visited Clare and she wrote in her memoir, Recollections of a Literary Life (1858): 'My friend was struck with a narrative of Charles I recounted by Clare as a transaction that occurred yesterday and of which he was an eye-witness--a narrative the most graphic and minute with an accuracy as to costume and manners far exceeding what would probably have been at his command if sane.

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