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Fantasia

Jack Maggs

by Peter Carey
Knopf, 306 pp., $24.00

Oscar and Lucinda

a film directed by Gillian Armstrong

It is six PM on an April night in 1837 when the Dover coach pulls in at the Golden Ox in London. Gas-lit streets, cobblestones, gin palaces, child beggars: a Dickensian scene. And Dickens himself is about to appear under the name of Tobias Oates. Toby is still in his middle twenties, but already famous as a writer and journalist. He is fascinated by low life, by “Characters”; and “the death of children had always had a profound effect on him,” especially if they were poor children, as he himself had been.

Carey’s insight into the Dickens/ Oates character is subtle enough to be simultaneously sympathetic and cruel:

No one who knew Tobias…had any understanding of his unholy thirst for love. He had not known it himself. He did not know the curse or gift his ma and pa had given him: he would not be loved enough, not ever.

He never really knew this truth about himself, not even when the fame he craved was finally, briefly, granted him and he traveled from city to city like a one-man carnival act, feeding off the pleasure of his readers.

On the other hand, “he was sharp, like a jockey. He wore a waistcoat like a common busker, or a book-maker, bright green and shot through with lines of blue and yellow. He was edgy, almost pugnacious, with eyes and hands everywhere about him as if he were constantly confirming his position in the world, a navigator measuring his distance from the chair, the wall, the table.” This portrait of Dickens—except for the waistcoat—looks teasingly like Carey’s photo on the book jacket, both in pose and in expression. But that is probably just an illusion brought on by the quirkiness and trickiness of a novel which never lets the reader feel he has his feet on solid ground.

One strand running through it is a continuous psychological assessment of the Dickens character, with telling, original, and concise observations, like he “had a tendency to exaggerate the goodness of people he did not know,” casually dropped into the eventful narrative. Still, the book is certainly not a biography—not even a fictionalized one—but a fantasia about Dickens and his Gothick creature Magwich (alias Jack Maggs) from Great Expectations. In Carey’s novel, Dickens/ Oates and Magwich/Maggs, the historical and the fictional, are equally real and equally important to the plot—a very old postmodern conceit that goes back at least as far as the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Carey has used the same conceit before: his best-known novel, Oscar and Lucinda (also set in the mid-nineteenth century), starts off with two real-life characters: the teen-age Oscar is Edmund Gosse as he appears in his own autobiographical memoir Father and Son, while Oscar’s father, Theophilus, is Edmund’s father, Philip Gosse, a strict Plymouth Brother who combined zoology with preaching. Lucinda also has a link with history: on a trip to England, she calls on her mother’s friend Marian Evans—George Eliot’s name before she adopted her masculine nom de plume. Getting Carey’s hidden references is fun and ego-boosting—like finding the coin in the Christmas pudding. (And the pudding is still delectable even if you miss out on the coin.)

So Lucinda’s proto-feminism descends from George Eliot, and surfaces in the shape of bloomers, which she likes to wear instead of the comme il faut bustle. I had always imagined bloomers to be baggy unbecoming affairs, but the ones Cate Blanchett wears in Gillian Armstrong’s film are narrow and attractive. Oscar too is much more attractive than his weedy prototype in the novel, and instead of having tight carroty curls, he has thick, straight, dark auburn hair. Still, Ralph Fiennes works hard at making him goofy and succeeds, while Blanchett is not too pretty at all, but very fetching. The film is seriously beautiful, but too conscientiously drawn out. With such a complicated story, the scriptwriter (Laura Jones) has occasionally resorted to a narrator’s voice-over to explain not only what’s happening, but also what people are thinking. She does it so rarely that one feels it must be a last resort. But at least the backgrounds and genre scenes tell you things and have points to make about nineteenth-century Australia, unlike the riot of costume kitsch in Ian Softley’s The Wings of the Dove, which only tells you what you expect a film to tell you about London and Venice ninety years ago.

By the time Oscar and Lucinda meet, they have become purely fictional characters living fictional lives in Australia—at least I think so: I may have missed a clue from Australian history. In Jack Maggs, fact and fiction remain intertwined the whole way through, weaving such a tangled web that one wouldn’t even think of trying to summarize the story. This really is a Christmas pudding (the most Dickensian dish in the world), stuffed not with nuts and raisins and candied peel and gobbets of suet and other mysterious substances, but with dark, succulent, dense, pungent, knobbly, inscrutable characters, every one of whom might come from the cast of a Dickens novel.

Jack Maggs is a pastiche, a jeu d’esprit: clever, amusing, absorbing, often a cliffhanger, occasionally a tear-jerker. But there is only one character to touch the heart. She is a bold streetwise young girl called Mercy Larkin, who comes from the slums, has a heart of gold, and works as a maid in the household of the nouveau-riche ex-fishmonger Percy Buckle—a very Dickensian caricature of a social climber. Buckle hires Maggs as his second footman, and Maggs waits on Tobias Oates when the up-and-coming young writer is invited to dinner as a social trophy.

Maggs, like Magwich, is a convict escaped from Australia, a somber, violent, threatening fellow with a knife in his boot and a heart, not exactly of gold, but with some big nuggets in it. The word “magsman” occurs once or twice; it means a street swindler or confidence man. Mag is also the first syllable in the word magnetic; and magnetism—or Mesmerism—has an important part in the novel. That is the kind of novel it is: full of word games and teasing subtexts. In 1837, magnetism was the rage. Toby burns to have a go at it, and he lures Maggs into letting him perform a “Mesmeric exhibition” on him. He throws him into a hypnotic trance during which he persuades him to take off his shirt. The terrible weals on his back reveal his convict past. Scars like that can only be the result of penitentiary flogging.

Maggs, like Magwich, has a mission to find a boy—now a young man—who did him a good turn years ago, before he was deported. While doing time in Australia, he had the child educated as a gentleman at his own expense, but in secret. Henry Phipps is not a bit like Pip in Great Expectations, though. He grows up into a coarse, brutal young blood. Mercy Larkin has met him, and she persuades Maggs to give up the quest for him and to marry her instead. She is already sleeping with him, so she knows what she is in for. He has left two motherless little boys behind in Australia and they are beginning to display criminal tendencies. They need looking after (“It was no easy role”). Maggs takes her advice, and fathers five more children on her to boot. All seven turn out well and the whole family prospers and lives happily ever after. This unaccountable bout of optimism about human possibility is very suitably Dickensian.

Toby, on the other hand, has been having an affair with his sister-in-law Lizzie, as Dickens did with his wife’s sister, Georgina Hogarth. But whereas Georgina stayed in Dickens’s life as a housekeeper, Lizzie eliminates herself by accidentally taking a double dose of abortion medicine to get rid of Toby’s baby (or babe, as it and every other baby in the novel is irritatingly called). Carey does not make much of Lizzie; but that may be deliberate, because Dickens was notoriously unsuccessful with tragic ingénues. After her death, Toby and his wife hide the evidence of the abortion by burning Lizzie’s bloodstained bedclothes. Toby sees ghosts writhing in the flames: Lizzie’s, the dead baby’s, and also Jack Maggs burning to death. It was Maggs who led him to the abortionist who sold him the fatal pills. So “in his grief Tobias began to heap up all his blame upon him. It was now…in the darkest night of his life, that Jack Maggs began to take the form the world would later know. This Jack Maggs was, of course, a fiction”; and also, it seems, a neat Freudian catharsis for Toby.

The first chapters of this fiction “did not appear until 1860, that is, three years after the real Jack Maggs had died.” His widow, Mercy, collected “seven copies of the last edition, and each of these is now (together with Jack Maggs’s letters to Henry Phipps) in the collection of the Mitchell Library in Sydney.” Toby’s slimy dedication to his patron Percy Buckle—in whose house he first observed the pseudo-footman Maggs—has been excised from each of the seven copies.

You couldn’t ask for a more post-modern ending, or one more piquant, artful, perfectly engineered, and satisfying in its bizarre way. Jack Maggs is wonderfully acute in its analysis of Dickens, and wildly entertaining at the same time. Among the most enjoyable bits are Carey’s sorties into Dickens-speak, like the undertaker “whose turned-down mouth expressed his habitual disapproval of the living.” Dickens’s idiosyncratic drollery can’t be easy to imitate. Carey can do it but doesn’t overdo it. He leaves one marveling at the sheer energy he has put into what is ultimately a spoof.

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