Ours was the Marsh Country
In Darkest Kent with Dickens
by Robert Mighall

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

“One need not be a chamber to be haunted, One need not be a house;

The brain has corridors surpassing Material place.”

(Emily Dickinson, “One Need Not Be a Chamber to be Haunted”)

The phrase “Dickens’s London” always strikes me as some-what meaningless. His unique ability to capture the sights, smells and voices of the capital from centre to suburb, makes all of London Dickens’s. There are parts he once made his own; but it now requires a psychogeographer to summon up his spirit from the stones of these districts. The so-called “Old Curiosity Shop” is nothing of the kind, and fools none but American tourists. The Marshelsea obliterated. Bleeding Heart Yard a bleeding disappointment, looking something like a small car park. Try to retrace Fagin’s passage through the “maze of mean and dirty streets” from his lair in Saffron Hill to his favourite boozer in Whitechapel, and reality and rival associations will intervene. The only maze you will see is the Barbican, and you would spend most of your time negotiating anonymous council estates. It gets picturesquely promising as you reach Spitalfields and Whitechapel, but this is contested territory. Ripper tours or Kray walks have subsequently marked out this manor with more insistent proprietorial claims.

I realised If I wanted to find the Dickens of my imagination I had to go down river. To the north Kent marshes, the cradle of Pip’s Great Expectations (1861), as well as of the nightmarish recollections that haunt him throughout the tale he tells.

One glance at the map told me this was a place apart. The Thames appeared to be forcing Kent and Essex asunder, like the gaping fissures made by Hollywood earthquakes. The (slowly eroding) differences between north and south of the river imagined in central London, are but nothing to those that confront you here. Basildon, Southend and Canvey Island are scary enough in their own rights. But cross the divide, and you find the Hoo Peninsula, a vast depopulated hinterland between the Thames and the Medway. Look closer and such names as Horrid Hill, Bedlams Bottom and Bishop Ooze explain this area’s suitability for staging one of the most powerfully Gothic opening scenes in English fiction. Down river is still one of the dark places of the earth. And one Dickens has made indisputably his own.

It is Christmas Eve, the traditional time for telling and setting ghost stories. A cold, frightened young boy is in a remote graveyard on the marshes, contemplating the tombs of most of his family. It is not a ghost but a convict who mate-rialises out of the marsh. Escaped from the hulks (prison ships moored in the lower reaches of the Thames), Magwich forces the terrified Pip to help him make good his escape. The next day, Pip rises early, steals some food and a file, and brings them to the convict, who is recaptured later that day. Many years later Magwich returns to reveal that it is he who has set Pip up as a gentleman, rewarding his help that misty Christmas morning. The marshes define Pip’s destiny.

These opening pages have always left a powerful impres-sion on me, largely due to the stark economy of Dickens’s extraordinarily vivid descriptions of the territory. As night draws in on the frightened boy:

“The marshes were just a long black horizontal line then …and the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad nor yet so black; and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed. On the edge of the river I could faintly make out the only two black things in the whole prospect that seemed to be standing upright; one of these was a beacon … the other, a gibbet with some chains hanging to it which had once held a pirate. The man was limping towards this latter, as if he were the pirate come to life, and come down, and going back to hook himself up again.”1

These few broad strokes of black and red give this scene a painterly quality that has etched it on to my mind’s eye. I picture a Whistler riverscape. But a Whistler of nightmare, depicting a scene from Henri Fuseli dipped in the apocalyptic colour palette of John Martin. Pip’s terrified imaginings trans-form landscape into nightmarish mindscape, ensuring that this remote, desolate hinterland has haunted me long after other descriptions from the novel have receded. Like Wuthering Heights or the Grimpen Mire of Baskerville Hound fame, Dickens’s Kent marshland occupies a conspicuous corner of my mind’s Gothic geography.

“Atmosphere” is generally a pretty meaningless term, but I think it can be used precisely, even literally, here. Pip returns to the marshes “in summer time and lovely weather” (p 127); yet it is under its original aspect that I always picture it. Pip recalls his “first most vivid and broad impressions”; that “the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard …was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip” (pp 3-4). You feel those shivers, as well as the loneliness and vulnerability of a small boy on that bleak hostile landscape. Like inci-dental music in a film, the weather underscores the key emotions of the passage. But the weather conveys meaning as well as mood, a trick Dickens used earlier in Bleak House (1854) another (literally) atmospheric opening:

“LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over … implacable November weather …

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among the green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tires of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. …Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets

…Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time – as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard unwill-ing look.

[but] never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.”2

Dickens defines our abiding image of late-Victorian London, with the elements translated into a political allegory for the muddlement of Chancery. In Great Expectations they are inter-nalised and psychologised. Pip rising early the next day to keep his appointment with Magwich, finds the marshes trans-formed by the weather:

“It was a rimy morning, and very damp … On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village – a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there – was invisible to me until I was quite close under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed con-science like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks. The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me” (pp 16-17).

Between land and water, river and sea, the marshes are a nebu-lous space at the best of times. In mist and fog they must be a positive labyrinth of confusion. Everything is unfamiliar, back to front, disorienting. But Pip’s confusion is as much moral as navigational. Or if the latter, then it is the Road of Life on which we see him making his floundering Progress. Pip’s disorientation points to the delusory nature of the Expectations that originate in his fateful meeting on the marsh. The glittering prize of gentility and status he imagines in the great world beyond the marshes, is but an ignis fatuous, the marsh light notorious for leading people astray. This “moral meteorology” is confirmed in the closing pages of the first book, as Pip finally leaves the marshes to realise his ambi-tions. A moment recollected in anything but tranquillity by the mature Pip, and one that never fails to tug at my emo-tions:

“I whistled and made nothing of going. But the village was very peaceful and quiet, and the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great, that in a moment with a strong heave and sob I broke into tears. It was by the finger-post at the end of the village, and I laid my hand upon it, and said, ‘Good by, O my dear, dear friend!’ …

[Later] We changed [coach] again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.” (p 159).

At first the mists rise to show him the world he is leaving, glimpsed clearly now, as plain as the finger post pointing back to the village he is forsaking. It is the world beyond that is fearful, unknown and confusing, and the familiar terrain seen in all its intrinsic value. But it is the mature Pip who acknowledges this, glancing back towards the village through a mist of tearful recollection. His younger self, now some way down the road to London, imagines that the great world of opportunity is revealed to him by the now risen mists.

One raw day in January I went in the opposite direction, from the heart of that great world to see the place Dickens had painted so vividly in my imagination. I took an early train to Higham. From Victoria, the station that had been my own gateway to the Capital when I had first ventured there (like Pip, abandoning an apprenticeship) twenty years before. From Higham I walked to the church at Cooling, where you still find the distinctive lozenge shape coffins (thirteen in a row). It is a lonely and desolate place indeed. I had come in search of the atmospheric, but the weather let me down. Russia was deep-frozen in its harshest winter for decades at the time, and there was talk of this coming West. Some flurries of snow in Soho the night before suggested that the next day might deliver some truly Dickensian weather. But for once the bright clear face of heaven was an unwelcome sight to me, with not a whiff of Pip’s mist by the time I got there. It was however beastly raw, and I fancied I could smell the sea in the savage wind that whipped around the lonely graves bordering the marshes. I shivered with Pip for real this time, a solitary figure against a bleak landscape.

I spotted my first ship drifting past on the horizon and made off in that direction, following a vague path towards the Thames. Despite some industrial development, principally on the Essex side, and some gravel pits given over to bird sanctu-aries, the terrain was much as Dickens described it: a “dark flat wilderness … intersected with dykes and mounds and gates” (p 3). A relentlessly horizontal realm, with the distant chimney of the oil refinery on the far bank providing the only vertical landmark for miles, standing in for Pip’s grim gibbet. I had the marshes almost entirely to myself., seeing scarcely a soul (beyond a few furtive twitchers occasionally breaking cover) for hours. I fancied the cows to be the descendant of the “clerical” bovines that had troubled Pip’s guilty senses that misty morning; and I imaginatively amplified the occasional gun shots from hunters somewhere in the vicinity into the signal from the hulks that another prisoner was on the lose. Such thoughts beguiled me as I trudged my lonely way towards the river. And increasingly other thoughts besides.

Mostly about Pip’s expectations, and then about my own. My departure from Victoria that morning had already set me travelling into my own past. Assisted by Dickens’s novel, which manages to point a lesson without quite sermonising. It drives you into yourself, forcing you to explore your own conscience, vanities, and delusions. This landscape was not unconducive in this respect too. As ascetics from the Desert Fathers onwards have demonstrated, desolate terrain pro-motes contemplation. The fact that I had turned thirty-nine a few days before might also have played its role in the fit of philosophical self-pity that took hold of me as I reached the river, and contemplated the widening sweep of the Thames as it embraces the sea. Some lines from Keats crept into my head.

“… then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone and think, Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.” (“When I have fears that I might cease to be”)

For Great Expectations is about the pursuit of love and the pursuit of fame, and ultimately the realisation of the vanity of so many human wishes. Pip is truly an early case of what Alain De Botton has diagnosed as “status anxiety”, a consequence of the bourgeois self-building that has become almost endemic in our society, and especially in that great glittering Babylon up river. This is the lesson Pip learns on his circular journey both from and back to the marshes, and the lesson I acknowledged as I stood in Pip’s shoes, watching the ships beating ceaselessly onwards. Borne back into my past. There is nothing like a river pursuing its eternal course, solitary land-scape and fragments of prose and verse to put things in perspective. I had set out in search of the specific, the local and the topographic, and had found the universal, the per-sonal and the philosophic. Ultimately, Dickens doesn’t so much evoke a landscape as an idea, and a universal one at that.

At day end and sunset I returned to the churchyard on my way home. Still empty, but for the winds. Before graveyards became the setting for Gothic tales, they served another func-tion in literature. Like the skulls placed in still life paintings, or the skeletons brought to feasts, the contemplation of graves served as a reminder that all is vanity. This is the ulti-mate theme of Dickens’s novel. And it is perhaps signalled in its opening pages as a grown man recalls a small boy staring at the relics of humanity, before he sets out on his own path towards the grave. Or so it struck me as night fell, the mists crept in, and I turned my steps back towards London.

Notes:

  1. Charles    Dickens,    Great    Expectations    (Ed)    David    Trotter    ((1861) Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996), p 7.
  2. Charles Dickens, Bleak House (Ed) Nicola Bradbury ((1854) Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996), pp 13-14.

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