CLOTILDE DE STASIO THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON: WORD AND IMAGE IN DICKENS AND ACKROYD, J Berger

Tags: Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, chapter, London, Little Dorrit, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, Susana Onega, ACKROYD Peter, Charles Dickens, University of California Press, CAREY John, fire imagery, The Johns Hopkins Press, BERGER John, Oxford University Press, JORDAN John, The Great Fire of London, Sir Nathaniel Wraxhall, London Evelyn, De Castro, Fire of London, Gordon Riots, flames, postmodern fiction, Paul De Castro, Peter Ackroyd, main character
Content: Reprinted from Dickens: the Craft of Fiction and the Challenges of Reading by "CaRlo diCkens: a site devoted to diCkens studies in italy". Http://users.unimi.it/dickens/ CLOTILDE DE STASIO THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON: WORD AND IMAGE IN DICKENS AND ACKROYD "Seeing comes before words"1 Re-writing the classics is one of the outstanding achievements of postmodern literature. It can take the form either of a re-writing of significant works in the canon or of parody and pastiche. In both cases rewriting turns out to be a way for contemporary writers to confront tradition and at the same time to meditate on their role as authors and on the legitimacy of the text.2 Peter Ackroyd's remake of Dickens's Little Dorrit ­ The Great Fire of London (1982) ­ is a typical example of the problematic relationship between a contemporary novelist and his predecessors as well as a remarkable piece of metanarration. In an interview with Susana Onega in 1996, Ackroyd polemically denied that he had ever felt the "anxiety of influence" but he admitted that the "double process of absorption and recasting of the achievements of the preceding masters" amounted to a process of self-exploration of himself (Onega 1996: 212). Of course, he was also referring to his fictional biographies of great writers of the past, such as Chatterton and Dickens, where he really seems to identify with the author he is writing about. In actual fact, to his mind biography and fiction are "simply aspects of the same process" (213). On a less serious note Ackroyd also acknowledges a "magpie-like" quality in his writing, adding: "my interest in lifting or adopting various styles, various traces, various languages, is part of my imaginative trend" (213). It would seem worthwhile exploring Ackroyd the "magpie", in The Great Fire of London. The novel starts with an overt reference to Dickens's novel: the motto is a kind of summary of the first part of Little Dorrit ending with the protagonists' release from Marshalsea. The lead figure, moreover, is a film director who is trying to make a film from the novel. The other main character is a mentally disturbEd Young woman ­ named Audrey Skelton ­ obsessed with the idea that she is a reincarnation 1 John Berger (1972). 2 On this aspect of postmodern fiction see Margaret A.Rose (1979) and Paola Splendore (1991).
The Great Fire of London: Word and Image in Dickens and Achroyd 327 of Dickens's heroine. Ackroyd's debt to the Victorian novelist, however, is not limited to these explicit references. The writer actually adopts a similar narrative method to the one employed by Dickens.3 Each of the introductory chapters is devoted to one of the main characters and the reader is given no clue as to their relationships. As in Little Dorrit the first chapter introduces what seems the least important character in the story: Little Arthur. Yet his name, which refers to both protagonists in Dickens's novel ­ Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam ­, suggests that, far from being a minor figure, he might turn out to be a very important one in the following diegesis: he is actually the agent of an ending which both mirrors and deconstructs the ending of the first part of Dickens's novel. In spite of the desultory presentation of characters and situations, recalling Dickens's "fragmented vision"4, The Great Fire of London has a unity of its own, achieved partly through a closely-knit structure ­ all the threads of the story converge at a single point ­ and partly through a metaphorical use of setting. As in Little Dorrit, London and the prison represent something more than a mere background; they are in actual fact a symbolic halo enveloping the entire action. Another unifying device is of course the thirdperson narration, punctuated by authorial comments ­ either serious or ironic ­ , which create a dominant point of view. Ackroyd's novel is also a typical example of postmodern pastiche, in the sense of a combination of elements from one or more texts and a crossreading of separate texts. On examination there are elements in the novel that are not found in Little Dorrit and would seem to be taken from Barnaby Rudge. The most relevant is the image of London burning suggested in the title5, hinted at in two of the initial chapters, and dominant at the story's conclusion. In chapter two we see a character watching a T.V. serial about the feats of the London fire brigade (the title of the serial, very popular in the 1980s, was London's Burning) and waiting anxiously "to see if the fire could be halted before it destroyed some wharves by the river". Part of the suspense comes from the fact that he cannot "make up his mind whether they were using a set, or whether these were pictures of a real fire" (The Great Fire, 9). In the following chapter, another character switches a T.V. on and sees three fire engines "hurtling over Tower Bridge" (13). Towards the end of the novel, in chapter 27, we get the real 3 According to Susana Onega, "Structurally, the novel follows the characteristic multiplot pattern of Victorian fiction" (1998: 27). 4 See Susan Horton (1981: 8). Horton also points out the strong connection between plot and vision in Dickens's novels. For a more general exploration of the relationship between the verbal and the visual in the Victorian imagination, see Carol T.Christ and John Jordan (1995). 5 In actual fact the title may have been taken from a nonsensical sentence in Little Dorrit I, 13, as Kenneth Ireland suggests in his essay on Dickens's influence on three contemporary novelists (1992: 47).
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thing when Audrey ­ by now completely mad ­ burns a film set of London and the fire is soon seen spreading along the river banks. As critics have often noted,6 fire imagery runs right through Barnaby Rudge. In the chapters leading up to the climax Dickens appears to be slowly and skilfully creating the vision of a massive oncoming conflagration. In chapter 38 Hugh is asked by one of the plotters if he is "prepared for a good hot piece of work". "The hotter the better", he replies (Barnaby Rudge: 362) Formerly the same conspirator (Dennis the hangman) had declared that he was ready to "stand godfather to him, if he was to be christened in a bonfire, made of the ruins of the Bank of England."(359) In chapter 39 Hugh, now a member of the "Protestant Association", proclaims his willingness to take an active part in the brewing riots with these words: "Let him give me the word of command, and I'll fight the whole Parliament House single-handed, or set a lighted torch to the King's throne itself!" (368-369). Torches will actually be in the rioters' hands all through the disorders. When the readers get to the crucial scenes, from chapter 48 onwards, they are expecting the worst. A madman can be seen heading the insurrection ­ Lord Gordon has been described by the narrator as a madman slyly manoeuvred by a corrupt secretary. Among his followers are the most despicable or ludicrous characters ­ the very scum of society ­ bound for violence and destruction. As Butt and Tillotson noticed many years ago, "Dickens was responding not to an enlightened historical analysis, but to the average man's horror of looted chapels and distilleries, armed robberies in the streets, prisons and mansions ablaze"(1968: 82). The most vivid impression in these scenes comes from the images of the fierce unruly mob and of the raging fire with the associated ideas of Hell and the devils. To the locksmith's question "What devil is abroad?" the answer is "A flaming furious devil" (Barnaby Rudge: 471). Dickens gathered information from oral and written sources, but his representation of the events is not so "factual" as Butt and Tillotson claim in Dickens at Work. He is certainly adding a lot of red colour from his palette to his chiaroscuro picture, as Jack Lindsay argued in a well-known essay (1966: 99). The first example is the scene where the rioters burn down Mr Haredale's house. A whole chapter is devoted to a seemingly minor episode ­ perhaps a totally fictional one. The narration starts with a brief mention of darkness relieved by "the glare of the guttering candles" and after a crescendo of dramatic images ­ "a bright and vivid glare" breaking the darkness of the night (Barnaby Rudge: 503), "bright streams of sparks" rising up into the sky (504), devil-like figures carrying around "lighted torches", "flaming links", "blazing brands'(505) and setting fire to 6 I am referring in particular to John Carey (1973) and Juliet McMaster (1984).
The Great Fire of London: Word and Image in Dickens and Achroyd 329 everything they encountered ­ ends up with the full-scale picture of the house on fire ­ a "burning gulf swallowing both things and human beings (507) ­ and the final flash of a "smouldering heap of dust and ashes"(509). The second example is the famous storming of Newgate. Once again the focus is on the gigantic fire lit by the rioters in order to destroy the gate leading into the prison: The flames roared high and fiercely, blackening the prison wall, and twining up its lofty front like burning serpents. At first they crowded round the blaze, and vented their exultation only in their looks: but when it grew hotter and fiercer ­ when it crackled, leaped, and roared, like a great furnace ­ when it shone upon the opposite houses, and lighted up not only the pale and wondering faces at the windows, but the inmost corners of each habitation ­ when through the deep red heat and glow, the fire was seen sporting and toying with the door, now clinging to its obdurate surface, now gliding off with fierce inconstancy and soaring high into the sky, anon returning to fold it in its burning grasp and lure it to its ruin ­ when it shone and gleamed so brightly that the church clock of St Sepulchre's so often pointing to the hour of death, was legible as in broad day, and the vane upon its steeple-top glittered in the unwonted light like something richly jewelled ­ when blackened stone and sombre brick grew ruddy in the deep reflection, and windows shone like burnished gold, dotting the longest distance in the fiery vista with their specks of brightness ­ when wall and tower, and roof and chimney stack, seemed drunk, and in the flickering glare appeared to reel and stagger ­ when scores of objects, never seen before, burst out upon the view, and things the most familiar put on some new aspect ­ then the mob began to join the whirl, and with loud yells, and shouts, and clamour... bestirred themselves to feed the fire, and keep it at its height (581). In the whole description Dickens is using a highly metaphorical language to impress the reader: the sprinkling of turpentine is compared to an "infernal christening"; the houses around the prison are said to be losing their paint "as it were from an excess of torture" and the animated flames roar "high and fiercely"(581). We are also given two views of the burning prison: one from the outside (chapter 54) ­ as seen by the astonished spectators ­, the other from the inside (chapter 55) ­ as seen by a prisoner terrified at the thought of burning alive in his cell: he saw, as he looked from his grated window, a strange glimmering on the stone walls and pavement of the yard. It was feeble, at first, and came and went... Soon it reddened, and lighted brands came whirling down, spattering the ground with fire, and burning sullenly in corners. One rolled beneath a wooden bench, and set it in a blaze; another caught a water-spout, and so went climbing up the wall, leaving a long track of fire behind it. After a time, a slow thick shower of burning
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fragments, from some upper portion of the prison which was blazing nigh, began to fall before his door (585). The last example is the burning of the Distillery, one of the most terrible scenes in Dickens's fiction: the reserve of spirits act as fuel and the rioters are seen burning and drowning in a flaming flood of wine. The whole picture has an apocalyptic tinge: the reflections in every quarter of the sky, of deep, red, soaring flames, as though the last day had come and the whole universe were burning; the dust, and smoke, and drift of fiery particles, scorching and kindling all it fell upon; the hot unwholesome vapour, the blight on everything; the stars and moon, and very sky obliterated; made up such a sum of dreariness and ruin, that it seemed as if the face of heaven were blotted out, and night, in its rest and quiet, and softened light, never could look upon the earth again (618). Dickens could hardly have found enough material for this detailed and phantasmagoric picture of London burning in oral sources. By the narrator's admission, people who witnessed the events only retained the memory of "being in a great glare of light"(Barnaby Rudge: 594) and could not remember anything else. As for the written sources7, none of the descriptions in them have the vividness of Dickens's descriptions. He could of course find in them a lot of useful, and sometimes dramatic evidence. There was, for instance, Sir Nathaniel Wraxhall's report of the event ­ his Historical Memoirs are an acknowledged source for Barnaby Rudge (De Castro 1926: 28). Wraxhall mentions "the Fire of London under Charles the Second" in connection with the Gordon Riots and gives the reader a few vivid pictures of the scenes he had witnessed, above all of the attack on the Holborn Distilleries. Smoke and flames dominate the scene and the mad rioters are compared to Milton's infernals; "wrapt in flames", "conflagration" are the recurring words. Dickens, however, could hardly find inspiration in Wraxall's report for his highly rhetorical and imaginative picture. Even contemporary illustrations do not look so impressive.8 Critics usually mention the storming of the Talbot in The Heart of Midlothian as a literary model, but Scott's account of this episode in the Porteous Riots lacks colour and drama. Another acknowledged literary source is Carlyle's French Revolution with its vivid rendering of the
7 For excerpts from and summaries of the sources see Thomas Rice (1987) and Paul De Castro (1926). 8 In the plates included in De Castro's volume the focus is rather on the maddened crowd than on the fire.
The Great Fire of London: Word and Image in Dickens and Achroyd 331 episode of the storming of the Bastille, but there is very little actual fire in Carlyle's picture of the event. According to Horton, it was always an image which helped Dickens to move forward in the creative process (1981: 29). "I have just burnt into Newgate" ­ he announced his friends in an often quoted letter of September 1841. A week later he wrote: "I have let all the prisoners out, burnt down Lord Mansfield's, and played the very devil. Another number will finish the fires, and help us on towards the end. I feel quite smoky when I am at work" (Forster 1928: 169). What was in his mind at the time may in fact have been the image, deeply rooted in the collective unconscious, of the Great Fire of London in 1666, recently revived by the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834. There are two popular paintings representing the Seventeenth-century event: both are night scenes and rely on the contrasting effect of red and black tints. One is actually dominated by "a great glare of light" and in the other the gateway on the left probably belongs to Newgate: "This stands out as a dramatic silhouette against the flames and, with its teeth-like portcullis, suggests the gaping mouth of hell"9. In another analogous painting, now, exhibited at the Museum of London, the painter is trying to give a view of the fire from the inside, as Dickens does in the episode of the burning of Newgate. In addition, there are the famous written reports in Pepys' and Evelyn's journals, which had incidentally been published for the first time in the 1820s. Both writers report widely on the disastrous event: Pepys tried, as many people did, to get as near as possible to the fire and from a little alehouse on the Bankside, he saw "the fire grow... a most horrid malicious bloody flame" (Latham 1987: 158) and wept at the sight of "one entire arch of fire... of above a mile long. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once" (159). On leaving London Evelyn saw in the burning town "a resemblance of Sodom, or the last day", and in the ruins "the picture of Troy" (1985: 211). The vision of a burning London, filtered through biblical and classical sources, acquired for Evelyn and for many people at the time an emblematic quality. The Great Fire became a symbol both of punishment for sins and catharsis (the fire helped to clear out the last traces of the plague), of destruction as well as regeneration (after the fire London was rebuilt and expanded). During the Great Fire prisoners in the Fleet had to be released, and this can be seen as a further connection between the 9 From the caption in the Catalogue of the Exhibition The Image of London (Warner 1987: 115). The numerous pictures collected by the curators of the Exhibition are mostly by Dutch painters who either watched the event or took inspiration from previous paintings. Though fairly accurate the pictures were never painted from life. One of the latest paintings was commissioned by the entrepreneur Robert Boyer to be exhibited and then engraved in his luxury edition of David Hume's History of England published in 1806 (Warner 1987: 116). See plates 7 and 8.
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two great crises in the history of London; the other connection being the total inability of civil authorities to cope with the crisis.10 Peter Ackroyd, who, like Dickens, can be considered a city novelist, must have easily grasped the emblematic connection between the two great London crises, and has also captured two more interesting elements in Dickens's representation of the Gordon Riots: the centrality of madness and prison and the gap between the grand image of the insurrection and the meanness of the characters involved. Many parodic effects in the last chapters of Ackroyd's novel derive from his carrying to the extreme Dickens's humorous or satiric intention. In the episode of the burning of the film set a diminutive version of London is burnt down and the people involved are a crazy girl, a gay academic and an idealistic filmmaker, the last of whom actually dies in the fire: here we have a total debunking of both myth and history. In the following and final scene (chapter 28) Little Arthur tampers with the prison's Electrical equipment, causing an explosion which allows the prisoners to escape. Of course this last episode could be a reference to the collapse of the Clennams' house announced by "a sudden noise like thunder"(Little Dorrit: 862): as we know, the house is throughout compared to a prison. It is easy, however, to find also a connection with the climax in Barnaby Rudge when the London mob, after committing arson all over the City, set fire to Newgate and release the prisoners. Both in Dickens's and Ackroyd's fictions the hero is a madman, but Little Arthur is also a typical Dickensian freak, a dwarf in love with a little girl. He actually resembles Quilp rather than Barnaby, and this adds a further intriguing touch to the pastiche. It may seem an irreverent gesture from a writer who apparently loves Dickens, as his biography of the Victorian novelist undoubtedly shows. In the biography for instance we find an enthusiastic assessment of the Gordon-Riots episode in Barnaby Rudge: "the scenes of burning London in the novel are some of the most extraordinary in all of his fiction"(1998: 352). What Ackroyd is probably focusing on is Dickens's double attitude to history: on the one side he shared with his contemporaries the humanist idea of history as "magistra vitae": the example of the Gordon Riots might be interpreted as a warning to people and the authorities about the risk of anarchy. On the other, he was deeply interested in the narrative potential of historical facts, in history as mythos, according to the Aristotelian conception. This is also the main discourse in Ackroyd's Dickensian remake: it is not by chance that the novel is about cinema, a medium relying heavily on images and fiction. 10 Roy Porter establishes this connection between the Great Fire and the Gordon Riots(1994: 389). In A Child's History of England Dickens mentions the rumour according to which Catholics had "wilfully set London in flames"(367) and dismisses it as "a malicious and stupid untruth."(368) Anti-Catholic feelings can be considered as a further element of similarity between the two episodes.
The Great Fire of London: Word and Image in Dickens and Achroyd 333 And Ackroyd's re-interpretation can surely help us to understand a novel like Barnaby Rudge which cannot be explained satisfactorily by referring to Lukбcs's well-known disparaging judgement ­ "The historical basis [...] is much more of a background than in A Tale of Two Cities" (1976: 292) ­ or to Fleishman's over-enthusiastic re-valuation (he finds in Dickens's novel the same "pathos of historical change" as in Walter Scott's novels and the same "mixture of antiquarianism and progressivism" (1971: 109-110). Ackroyd is probably suggesting that Dickens's powerful imagery and mythmaking can no longer apply to contemporary British History and fiction. His London, for instance, has very little in common with the papier-mвchй city of Ackroyd's times ­ the London of Mrs Thatcher, we might say, which was itself a parody of the capital of the British Empire. As for the narrative technique, Dickens could still rely on the evocative power of words, he was not faced with the challenge and threat of media like cinema, television, and advertising. At the same time the post-modern writer seems to register the failure of such visual media to express the intensity and scope of Dickens's vision. Rowan, who is writing the filmscript is dissatisfied with his effort "to capture the spirit of Dickens" and Spencer, the director, while trying to reassure him ­ "The pictures will tell the real story" ­, has a sudden revelation of the inadequacy of these pictures: "He looked at the set which he had created, half-real, halfartificial, its dark paint looming above him, and he felt a sudden disgust for it. A contempt for its hollowness and smallness"(The Great Fire: 159). The death of the filmmaker on the burning film set can be seen as emblematic of this failure and the chapter's conclusion might be considered an attempt to re-affirm the evocative power of words: "The city's skyline was hidden by smoke, and the surrounding neighbourhood was fully ablaze. A strong wind was blowing, pushing the flames forward. They burnt for a day and a night [...]. Eventually, legends were to grow around it. It was popularly believed to have been a visitation, a prophecy of yet more terrible things to come" (165). Works Cited DICKENS Charles, A Child's History of England, London, Dent, 1907. DICKENS Charles, Barnaby Rudge, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1986.
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DICKENS Charles, Little Dorrit, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1966. ACKROYD Peter, The Great Fire of London, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1993. ACKROYD Peter, Dickens, London, Minerva, 1990. BERGER John, Ways of Seeing, BBC and Penguin Books, 1972 BUTT John & TILLOTSON Kathleen, Dickens at Work, London, Methuen, 1968. CAREY John, The Violent Effigy, London, Faber & Faber, 1973. CHRIST Carol, JORDAN John (eds.), Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995. DE CASTRO Paul, The Gordon Riots, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1926. EVELYN John, The Diary. Select. and J. Bowle (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985. FLEISHMAN Avrom, The English Historical Novel, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971. FORSTER John, The Life of Charles Dickens, J.W.T. Ley (ed.), London, Cecil Palmer, 1928. HORTON Susan, The Reader in the Dickens World, London, Macmillan, 1981. IRELAND Kenneth, "Carry on Dickens! Dickens in the 1980s: Peter Ackroyd, Graham Swift, Salman Rushdie", Studies in English literature, 69, 1 (1992): 45-61. LATHAM Robert and LINNET (eds.), A Pepys Anthology, London, Unwin Hyman, 1987. LINDSAY Jack, `Barnaby Rudge'. Dickens and the twentieth century, J. Gross and G. Pearson (eds.), London, Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1966. 91-106. LUKACS Gyцrgy, The Historical Novel, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1976. McMASTER Juliet, `"Better to be Silly": From Vision to Reality in Barnaby Rudge', DSA, 13 (1984): 1-17. ONEGA Susana, "Interview with Peter Ackroyd", Twentieth Century Literature (Summer 1996): 208-220. ONEGA Susana, Peter Ackroyd, Plymouth, Northcote House, 1998. PORTER Roy, London. A Social History, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1994. RICE Thomas J., Barnaby Rudge. An Annotated Bibliography, New York, Garland Publishing, 1987. ROSE Margaret A., Parody/Metafiction, London, Croom Helm, 1979. SPLENDORE Paola, Il ritorno del narratore, Parma, Pratiche Editrice, 1991. WARNER Malcolm (ed.), The Image of London. Views by Travellers and Emigrйs, London, 1987.

J Berger

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