Christmas edition: Geologizing with Dickens, part II.

dickens_by_watkins_1858

Charles Dickens at his desk, by George Herbert Watkins (National Portrait Gallery. From Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Dickens (1812- 1870) revitalized the traditions of Christmas, and to Victorian England, Dickens was Christmas. He had only 31, when began to write A Christmas Carol. The novella tells the story of  Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter old man who finds salvation through the visits of the three Ghosts of Christmas (Ghost of Christmas Past, Ghost of Christmas Present, and Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come). But Dickens also contributed to the popularity of geology in the nineteenth century. Among his friends were Richard Owen and Sir Roderick Murchison. For Dickens, the ideal science is Geology. In his review of Hunt’s Poetry of Science, he wrote: “Science has gone down into the mines and coal-pits, and before the safety-lamp the Gnomes and Genii of those dark regions have disappeared … Sirens, mermaids, shining cities glittering at the bottom of quiet seas and in deep lakes, exist no longer; but in their place, Science, their destroyer, shows us whole coasts of coral reef constructed by the labours of minute creatures; points to our own chalk cliffs and limestone rocks as made of the dust of myriads of generations of infinitesimal beings that have passed away; reduces the very element of water into its constituent airs, and re-creates it at her pleasure…” (London Examiner, 1848).

In 1846, Dickens visited Naples and climbed the Mount Vesuvius. He described that experience in Pictures from Italy. He wrote: “Stand at the bottom of the great market-place of Pompeii, and look up the silent streets, through the ruined temples of Jupiter and Isis, over the broken houses with their inmost sanctuaries open to the day, away to Mount Vesuvius, bright and snowy in the peaceful distance; and lose all count of time, and heed of other things, in the strange and melancholy sensation of seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer making this quiet picture in the sun.”

An eruption of Vesuvius circa 1845. Credit: Enrico La Pira.

An eruption of Vesuvius circa 1845. Credit: Enrico La Pira.

Mount Vesuvius is a stratovolcano, consisting of an external truncated cone, the extinct Mt. Somma,  a smaller cone represented by Vesuvius. For this reason, the volcano is also called Somma-Vesuvio. It was formed by the collision of two tectonic plates, the African and the Eurasian. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD released deadly cloud of ash and molten rocks, and lasted eight days, burying and destroying the cities of Pompeya, Herculaneum and Stabiae. Vesuvius has the world’s oldest volcano observatory, established in 1845, and Dickens’s own magazine Household Words, frequently ran travel pieces describing the ascent and descent of Vesuvius, alongside trips to Pompei.

The same year, Dickens began to to write Dombey and Son, using his experiences in Italy to describe a violent eruption: “Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way, and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood”. 

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins unveiled the first ever sculptures of Iguanodons.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins unveiled the first ever sculptures of Iguanodons.

It was an exciting time full of discoveries and the concept of an ancient Earth became part of the public understanding. The study of the Earth was central to the economic and cultural life of the Victorian Society and Literature influenced the pervasiveness of geological thinking. So when the Crystal Palace was reconstructed at Sydenham in 1854, Dickens and his Household Words were very enthusiastic. Megalosaurus became so popular that is mentioned in his novel Bleak House. In this novel the dinosaurs uncovered by the railway in Dombey and Son move centre stage: “Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”  

In Bleak House and Dombey and Son, Dickens encourage reader to perceive the scene of the city as a geological fragment of a much broader spatial and temporal vision. In his last novel Our Mutual Friend (1864–65), Mr Venus, the taxidermist was slightly based on Richard Owen. By the time when Dickens wrote this novel, Owen was the curator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Our Mutual Friend, also exhibits  traces of the work of Lyell, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and Darwin.

References:

A. BUCKLAND, ‘“The Poetry of Science”: Charles Dickens, Geology and Visual and Material Culture in Victorian London’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 35 (2007), 679–94 (p. 680).

A. BUCKLAND. Novel Science: Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology. Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 400 pp. 9 plts. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-226-07968-4

Advertisements

One thought on “Christmas edition: Geologizing with Dickens, part II.

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 03, Vol. #19 | Whewell's Ghost

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s