Research and other addictions

I love research. It’s addictive, in fact, and can threaten the actual writing of the book unless one develops a stern attitude towards the Siren call of the shelves—or, for those wired that way, of the Internet.DSC00791

In The Murder of Mary Russell, the past holds the answer to the present’s questions, which means I had all kinds of fun with the Victorian era. Corsets and top hats, water pumps and workhouses, toys and toilet facilities (And oh my dear Lord, who’d have wanted to be pregnant in 1875 London? No public toilets for miles!)

Rule, Victoriana!

(By the way, for those of you who keep track of What Laurie’s Wearing on This Year’s Tour: yes, I already have a piece of jewelry for the spring tour.)

I’ll be talking more in the spring about research, but I had to just say something about this little gift from the Inter Library Loan at UC Santa Cruz:photo 2

Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1879, An Unconventional Handbook, by Charles Dickens [Jr.] This particular volume belongs to the library at Yale, which cares enough about people like me to permit a fragile piece like this to travel across the country. It gets packaged in a little folding box with a Velcro button.photo 1

It clearly has spent some time in this protective folder, since the covers are pretty much detached and any attempt at shelving the actual volume would cause it to disintegrate completely.

(And you will notice that my images here are from a camera, since laying it flat onto a scanner would be A Mortal Sin Against the Library Gods and thus cause for instant expulsion from ILL.)

This book, which would appear to be by Charles Dickens himself, is in fact by his son, although nowhere on it does it say “Jr.”  (Sales, one imagines, would have been affected.) It’s just packed full of the most gorgeous details of life in the capital city, in alphabetical listing from A1 to Zoological Gardens, with schedules, churches, statues, maps, opening times, and an addendum giving distances between key London points.

And not just one rather racist entry on Opium Dens–Opium dens

but two:

Ratcliff Highway

…At the bottom of this slough of grimy Despond is the little breathless garret where Johnny the Chinaman swelters night and day curled up on his gruesome couch, carefully toasting in the dim flame of a smoky lamp the tiny lumps of delight which shall transport the opium-smoker for awhile into paradise. If you are only a casual visitor you will not care for much of Johnny’s company, and will speedily find your way down the filthy creaking stairs into the reeking outer air, which appears almost fresh by contrast. Then Johnny, whose head and stomach are seasoned by the unceasing opium pipes of forty years, shuts the grimy window down with a shudder as unaffected as that with which just now opened it, and toasts another little dab of the thick brown drug in readiness for the next comer. But if you visit Johnny as a customer, you pay your shilling, and curl yourself up on another grisly couch, which almost fills the remainder of the apartment. Johnny hands you an instrument like a broken-down flageolet, and the long supple brown fingers cram into its microscopic bowl the little modicum of magic, and you such hard through it at the smoky little flame, and—if your stomach be educated and strong—pass duly off into Elysium. Then, when your blissful dream is over, you go your way, a wiser if not a sadder man. Perhaps the most appropriate visit you can next pay is to the casual ward of St. George’s Workhouse, hard by…

Can one have any doubt that Mr Dickens the younger has been there?  What, though of Dr Watson? Compare this, from “The Man with the Twisted Lip”:

Ordering my cab to wait, I passed down the steps, worn hollow in the centre by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet; and by the light of a flickering oil-lamp above the door I found the latch and made my way into a long, low room, thick and heavy with the brown opium smoke, and terraced with wooden berths, like the forecastle of an emigrant ship.

Through the gloom one could dimly catch a glimpse of bodies lying in strange fantastic poses, bowed shoulders, bent knees, heads thrown back, and chins pointing upward, with here and there a dark, lack-lustre eye turned upon the newcomer. Out of the black shadows there glimmered little red circles of light, now bright, now faint, as the burning poison waxed or waned in the bowls of the metal pipes. The most lay silent, but some muttered to themselves, and others talked together in a strange, low, monotonous voice, their conversation coming in gushes, and then suddenly tailing off into silence, each mumbling out his own thoughts and paying little heed to the words of his neighbour. At the farther end was a small brazier of burning charcoal, beside which on a three-legged wooden stool there sat a tall, thin old man, with his jaw resting upon his two fists, and his elbows upon his knees, staring into the fire.

As I entered, a sallow Malay attendant had hurried up with a pipe for me and a supply of the drug, beckoning me to an empty berth.

Once his friend has been dispatched home, Watson then has another encounter:

I walked down the narrow passage between the double row of sleepers, holding my breath to keep out the vile, stupefying fumes of the drug, and looking about for the manager. As I passed the tall man who sat by the brazier I felt a sudden pluck at my skirt, and a low voice whispered, “Walk past me, and then look back at me.” The words fell quite distinctly upon my ear. I glanced down. They could only have come from the old man at my side, and yet he sat now as absorbed as ever, very thin, very wrinkled, bent with age, an opium pipe dangling down from between his knees, as though it had dropped in sheer lassitude from his fingers. I took two steps forward and looked back. It took all my self-control to prevent me from breaking out into a cry of astonishment. He had turned his back so that none could see him but I. His form had filled out, his wrinkles were gone, the dull eyes had regained their fire, and there, sitting by the fire and grinning at my surprise, was none other than Sherlock Holmes. He made a slight motion to me to approach him, and instantly, as he turned his face half round to the company once more, subsided into a doddering, loose-lipped senility.

“Holmes!” I whispered, “what on earth are you doing in this den?”

Scan 153110029-1

 

Comments

  1. Merrily Taylor says:

    Now we know that Laurie Really Rates (not that I am surprised) because back in the day, an item like that would never gone out on ILL! Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t on the list to be digitized at some point, if that hasn’t happened already – but how special to hold and read the real thing!
    Loved the counterposed descriptions of the opium dens (and just cannot WAIT for this book!)

  2. Oh gosh. That dictionary… I wonder if Yale would loan it to a poet who pretended to need it for a poem set in Victorian times. 😉

  3. Lenore Garon says:

    Slightly off-topic here, but relevant:: My understanding is that opium use was not widespread in China until the British East India Company began importing it into China, against the will of the emperor, who was attempting to ban it. (See, e.g., the Wikipedia article.) So blaming the Chinese for the British “opium dens” was not only racist, but downright wrong.

    And I can’t wait for the new book, either!

  4. Judy Ahronheim says:

    I know it’s not quite the same as the real thing, but if you are in the US, there are digital scans of the Dictionary here:
    http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Search/Home?lookfor=%20Dictionary%20of%20London%201879&searchtype=all&ft=&setft=false

  5. This is marvelous, Laurie. Thank you for sharing! I used to live about 15 minutes from Yale. I’m sad to say I didn’t take advantage of the library treasures.

  6. The 1879 and 1885 editions, at least, have been digitised and are available for download on Google Books. There goes my afternoon.

  7. I had to drive from the west coast to the east coast to see a document at the Beincke Library (Yale). I think I asked about ILL but that’s been about 4 or 5 years ago and I’ve forgotten. I too love the research and unlike you am not so disciplined about setting limits on it. But then there is a paycheck waiting for you when you finish and not for me, so what does it matter if I play in the fields of knowledge a while longer…

  8. I was just looking at another description of a London opium den, in Dr. Fu Manchu. The opium den offers a counterpoint to civilized London (are they always upstairs or downstairs, never at street level? always geometrically eccentric, so to speak?), but I wonder if it’s more than that. It’s interesting that Dickens’ “real” tourist guide opium pipe seems to be a more or less solitary pleasure, while the dens in Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer are full of writhing bodies. I’m sure someone has done a dissertation on it at some point.

Trackbacks

  1. […] where Charles Dickens (Jr—not riding on his father’s coat-tails or anything) writes about the city, particularly the Ratcliffe Hwy and opium dens. (The post is here.) […]

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