Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Dickens, Thackeray, and a hanging

On the blog that she began as an accompaniment to The Magician's Book (2008), her well-regarded book on C. S. Lewis and the Narnia books, Laura Miller recently wrote about the "petrifying depiction of mob violence" and the "street lynching of a heartless aristo" in A Tale of Two Cities. After quoting Dickens's account--
Once, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him, and his head was soon upon a pike . . .
--Miller writes,
I don't know much about Dickens' background, but this has made me wonder what he'd seen before writing these passages.
Which, you'll not be surprised to learn, sent me to my bookshelves! I had a vague memory of Dickens having witnessed a hanging at Tyburn gallows (which was located where Marble Arch is today), and Peter Ackroyd's giant biography didn't disappoint, revealing that in July 1840 Dickens, essentially on a whim--"Just once, I should like to watch a scene like this, and see the end of the drama"--left a dinner with friends to attend the hanging of Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, a valet who had killed his employer by slitting his throat.

Ackroyd writes,
Dickens said later that there was "nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes. I should have deemed it impossible that I could have felt any large assemblage of my fellow creatures so odious." It is like a scene out of Dore; the mob of the poor and the outcast, the ragged clothes, the swearing and the debauchery, the loud cries, the smell, and Dickens himself looking down from the upper room at the spectacle of these, his countrymen, the surging mob living in the shadows cast by his civilisation and inseparable from them.
If Dickens was troubled by the hanging itself, however, Ackroyd doesn't note it, which surprises me given how horrible is his depiction of the hanging in A Tale of Two Cities. Still, it's not hard to believe that he had these grotesque mob scenes in mind the next January when he began writing his long-stalled Barnaby Rudge in earnest.

An odd coincidence about that hanging seems worth noting: across the crowd, Dickens spotted Thackeray, who was in attendance with the aim of writing about the hanging. Thanks to the glories of the Internet, I can share Thackeray's letter offering the piece in advance to Alexander Blackwood (who was, I believe, at the time the head ofthe Blackwoods publishing firm), which is interesting if for no other reason than the way that it lumps the hanging in with other "fun" pieces "of a spicy nature" that Thackeray might write:
I should be glad to do something of like nature if you are disposed to accept my contributions. No politics, as much fun and satire as I can muster, literary talk and criticism of a spicy nature, and general gossip. I belong to a couple of clubs in this village and can get together plenty of rambling stuff. For instance, for next month Courvoisier's hanging (I'll go on purpose), strictures on C. Phillip's speech, the London Library, Tom Carlyle, the Times and account of Willis that may be racy enough.
Despite this pitch, Blackwood's Magazine never ran the piece, but it eventually saw the light of day in Fraser's Magazine later that year. Dickens, meanwhile, wouldn't write about Courvoisier for nearly six years, finally broaching the topic in the second of the Five Letters on Social Questions he published in the Daily News, a new daily political newspaper that he briefly edited at the start of 1846.

And I think that's surely enough time spent down this particular rabbit hole for tonight, no?


  1. Anonymous5:26 AM

    More, interesting reading on this in Judith Flanders' The Invention Of Murder.

  2. Thanks for the tip. I haven't read that one, though I loved Flanders's Inside the Victorian Home and just picked up her new one, The Victorian City. I'll have to go grab the murder one, too.