“Keep My Memory Green”: Recycling in Dickens’ Ghost Stories

Published: 2019/12/09 Number of words: 3183

I would like to start by telling you a story.

“It was a dark and stormy night, we sat by the calcined wall. And it was said to the Tale-Teller, ‘tell us a tale’. And the tale ran thus:…

‘It was a dark and stormy night, we sat by the calcined wall. And it was said to the Tale-Teller, “tell us a tale”. And the tale ran thus:…’

This is admittedly a cop-out – in fact it is an infamous and well-known cop-out, based on the opening line of a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and rewritten countless times as a parody of the Gothic ghost story. On the other hand, this famous ghost story is interesting on account of containing neither ghost, nor story. In fact, it contains nothing but atmosphere and narrator. Nevertheless, it is clearly recognisable as a ghost story. It is this idea, that a ghost may exist as a combination of human presence and natural setting, that I wish to explore in this paper.

On July 14th, 1877, Dickens published an article entitled “Early Workers: At Sorting”. Under this somewhat uninspiring title, Dickens proceeds to describe what can only be identified as a nineteenth-century paper recycling plant, where: ‘(crumpled up, and otherwise deteriorated from prime value) bits of white paper, brown paper, blue paper, other coloured paper; bits of all these papers with the further subdivision of being soft, hard, ruled, written on; bits of that fine foreign “tissue,” that is mere phantom, yet tough enough, seemingly, to be bishop’s lawn etherealised… bits of cardboard, straw-board, grayish pulpy oatmeal-like board, and the thin woodboard that, when whole, is curved round into band boxes… tufts of wadding; clips of straw-plait; ends of window-rubbers; emptied cotton reels; lengths of tape, binding, gimp, ribbon'[1] and so forth are ‘gathered and re-gathered… used and reused'[2] by a collection of ragged but cheerful sorters. It is not often that we associate the idea of ecological sustainability with the Victorian period – and with good reason, as this era is more frequently remembered for the massive increases in consumption, carbon emissions, and urban development which marked the heyday of the industrial revolution; for its factories, railways, mines, and quaint Dickensian shops stuffed with the excesses of a global imperial economy. Nevertheless, as this little article by Dickens demonstrates, both recycling, and the accompanying awareness of ecological loss, were recognised in the Victorian era and had a part to play in the literary works produced therein.

This paper, building on the themes developed in “Early Workers: At Sorting”, will examine the idea of nature as spectral – a vanishing and fragile, but also vital and unbanishable aspect of human existence, as it appears in one of Dickens’ ghost stories: The Haunted Man. I begin by discussing the implications of Early Workers at Sorting, and the connection it establishes between the physical recycling of objects and the spiritual continuity of human memory. From there I move on to a closer reading of one of Dickens’ own ghost stories: the Haunted Man. Last of all, I return at the end of the paper to the idea of the paper ghost and the way in which literature – the ghost story – provides the perfect opportunity for the preservation of memory which Dickens seems to advocate.

What is perhaps the most important aspect of “Early Workers at Sorting” is that, as well as being concerned with the re-use and appropriation of waste materials, it is also concerned with the recycling of human experience that accompanies these materials; a process which ensures that: ‘…the word “rubbish” does not exist, since every item under hand is absolutely wanted, and since there are merchants waiting to buy up all, and to pay for all, at proper market price.'[3] It is clear that, for Dickens and for the merchants and consumers he is writing about, recycling is primarily about sound economy: if an object is reused, it does not need to be made from scratch, and if an item does not need to be made from scratch then its manufacture does not need to be paid for:

It is the science of adjustment, grown to a good height; rising far superior to that lavish waste that fancies itself so wealthy and so generous, and that is always so full of scorn for what it delights to call the meanness of taking care… this – being impossible without combination, without cheap transit and exact knowledge – is one of the results rendered possible by civilisation … since, by means of it, material is gathered and re-gathered, is used and re-used, requiring therefore much less real replenishment, and leaving no chance either for that prohibiting price that would follow upon scarcity, or for that famine otherwise inevitable.[4]

In addition to demonstrating an awareness of the potential for non-sustainability in the (then) newly burgeoning consumerist culture which has become such a cliché of the Victorian era, this passage raises a number of interesting points. In the first place, the reuse of cast-off materials has a clear moral purpose here, which is at odds with consumerist ideals of consumption; that the ‘wealthy and generous’ are in fact guilty of ‘lavish waste’, of which the inevitable result will be scarcity and famine. The focus of the article on the ‘little girl[s] of twelve or thirteen years of age’, ‘stained and ragged and utterly unpolished and raw'[5] who are the ‘Early Workers’ of the title, links this piece to the numerous other writings, such as those found in Sketches by Boz, which question the exploitation and miserable living conditions of the poor who occupy the lowest tiers of the consumerist society. Recycling, then, offers support and sustenance to the poor, as well as a chance to sample the pickings of what they could otherwise never afford; materials filter down through the social system and have their particular value for all ranks of society. However, this chance to recycle is also a result of, as well as a benefit to, human civilisation, and one which ‘renders rich reward’ to those who practice it. As the rest of the article makes clear, this reward is bound up with memory, and with the train of associations which each object carries with it, building up a repository of experiences with each new appropriation which binds the object firmly into human tradition. That is to say, each object carries with it a ghost, or a number of ghosts; the spectral remnants of the humans who have purchased or created, used, reused, and then passed on, these objects. Scraps of wood, for example, are not just scraps of wood, but rather: ‘smashed wooden boxes that have contained toys, scent, chignons, Paris bonnets, and the like; cotton-reels; useless part of broken wooden toys’, all of which bring echoes with them of their previous human owners. These ghosts are indeed a burden to the poor sweepers, who have scarcely the will to resist their cries, ‘because there was so much novelty to them in the scraps and shreds they pulled out of the gunny-bags, they could only hold them in their hands, enquiringly and amazed.’[6] It is in this idea of the ghost as a product of human memory that Dickens’ concern with the relationship of human civilisation to nature can begin to be seen: the ghost is itself, in a sense, a recycled memory, and the ghost story likewise.

“Keep my memory green” is the plea which echoes throughout The Haunted Man, and this idea, which recurs again and again throughout Dickens’ ghost stories, is at the heart of the connection between the ghost and nature in these tales. The story is a Faustian in scope; Redlaw, a scholar who has been disappointed in love and in life, is haunted by a doppelganger of himself. The apparition offers him the gift of forgetfulness, but at the price that he will spread loss of memory to others wherever he goes. Eager to escape from his pain, Redlaw accepts the offer, only to find that the forgetfulness he imposes on others causes bitterness, anger, and loss of humanity. Pain, he discovers, is a necessary ingredient of humanity. The quotation “Keep my memory green” adorns a portrait of one of the past benefactors of his college, who left money to his successors on the proviso that each year at Christmas they hang boughs of holly as a Christmas decoration around the college, in remembrance of him. This can be read as a benign disposal of personal wealth, a sustainable and – literally as well as figuratively – green investment, as the money will not simply be spent but will be recycled again and again each year and, as it is used to bring pleasure to others, will briefly reawaken the memory and ghost of its supplier. As the story makes clear, then, ghosts are intimately linked to human memory; they function as a repository of both the good and bad experiences of a lifetime, and as a trigger to the remembrances of the living. We are first given an idea of the connection between the ghost and nature, in Dickens’ opening to the story, which it is worth quoting at length here:

Who might not, by a very easy flight of fancy, have believed that everything about him took this haunted tone, and that he lived on haunted ground?

You should have seen him in his dwelling about twilight, in the dead wintertime.

When the wind was blowing shrill and shrewd, with the going down of the blurred sun. When it was just so dark, as that the forms of things were indistinct and big – but not wholly lost. When sitters by the fire began to see wild faces and figures, mountains and abysses, ambuscades and armies in the coals. When people in the street bent their heads and ran before the weather… stung by wandering snowflakes…

… You should have seen him then.[7]

Much material has been omitted from this passage, which in the original is nearly three times as long, and there is much that could be said about its detail which there is not time to go into here – such as the sea-birds, reminiscent of Coleridge’s albatross, killed by the delusion of man’s mastery over the sea in the form of a lighthouse; or of the land which seems to brood in the death and decay of itself, but which also clearly gives shape and sustenance to the memory of ‘older people’. What is clear from the passage is that Dickens is establishing, at the very beginning of this story, a clear connection between haunting and nature, and nature and memory. The passage situates man as a part of his natural surroundings, linked by his spirit to his memory, and by his memory to nature. Mr. William’s father explains to Redlaw how the scholar whose portrait is adorned with the injunction ‘Lord! Keep my memory green!’ has brought the blessing of memory to the inhabitants of the college each Christmastime by means of bringing a little bit of nature inside. The old man is cheerfully grateful, explaining that ‘going round the building every year, as I’m a doing now, and freshening up the bare rooms with these branches and berries, freshens up my bare old brain. One year brings back another, and that year another, and those other numbers!’[8] Again, a clear link has been made between nature and memory, which is echoed in the sorts of things he remembers:

[M]y mother as sure as you stand there … told me they were food for birds. The pretty little fellow thought – that’s me you understand – that birds’ eyes were so bright, perhaps, because the berries that they lived on in the winter were so bright. I recollect that. And I’m eighty-seven![9]

His mother is a memory, and his recollection of her close to being ghostly, occurring as it does at the significant moment of Christmastime; here the birds and the berries bring together the natural aspects of holly and its usage in Christian cultural traditions. It is only when, due to his proximity to the cursed Redlaw, he has lost his memory, that he sees the berries not in their beauty as a part of nature, but only for what profit or service they might be: ‘Berries, eh? …Ah! It’s a pity they’re not good to eat… I recollect, when I was a little chap about as high as that, and out a-walking with – let me see – who was I out a-walking with? – no, I don’t remember how that was.’[10] Along with his memory has been banished his appreciation of the berries, and the ghost of his dead Mother. Redlaw’s loss of memory works in the same way. When making his bargain with the ghost, Redlaw asks cautiously: ‘What shall I lose, if I assent to this? What else will pass from my remembrance?’[11] The Phantom’s reply again marks memory as something organic, and intricately a part of nature: ‘No knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependant on, and nourished by, the banished recollections. Those will go.’[12] Unlike knowledge and study, products of man’s dominance over and quest to subdue nature (particularly in the case of a Chemist), memory is ‘intertwisted’ like vines or the roots of a plant, and can be ‘nourished’ or starved. When the Chemist asks: ‘Are there so many?’[13], the Phantom’s reply is scornful: ‘They have been wont to show themselves in the fire, in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night, in the revolving years’[14]. The transition from the human cosiness of the fire (presumably the tamed fire of a drawing room fireplace, and not a wild forest blaze) to music, which can be both natural (bird song) and artificial (such as the playing of a violin), and finally to ‘the wind’ and ‘the dead stillness of the night’ mark memory, like the ghost, as occupying an intermediary position between nature and humanity. It is the ghost who brings or banishes memory because the ghost is memory and the memory is a ghost: both are an organic and natural formation which are necessary for the humanity of humans. We see what will become of those who forsake this connection with nature in the descriptions of the ragged child befriended by Mrs. Williams: ‘A baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who within would live and perish a mere beast.’[15] Dickens likewise describes how he is ‘used, already, to be worried and hunted like a beast’[16]. This may at first seem an unsympathetic view of nature, associating all that is worst in mankind with what is wild, untamed, and animal. It is worth remembering, however, the pity Dickens’ felt for hunted animals, and the sympathy he had for the anti-hunting and anti-vivisectionist causes. This boy is not repulsive, as Redlaw first sees him; rather he is a victim, a creature to be pitied for having lost both his humanity and his connection to all but the worst in nature, as the ghost explains: ‘All within this creature is a barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned is the same barren wilderness.’[17] There is a danger, then, that man in this state transforms not only himself for the worse, but also the world in which he lives, destroying not only his appreciation of nature, but also the bounty of nature itself. As the story makes clear, memory, like the humans it relates to, like the natural world in which they live, and like the ghosts they conjure up, can become stunted or twisted: in The Haunted Man, Dickens seems to be suggesting that it is when human society becomes cut off from nature that memory becomes damaged, and people become cold and destructive.

Julian Wolfreys, in his book Victorian Hauntings, describes how any narrative at all can be considered a ghost story, as it is, in effect, the voice of an absent or dead author ‘speaking’ its story, the presence and non-presence of a human spirit communicating with the living and present audience. In this sense, every ghost story is itself a haunting of a haunting – a spiritual communication which gives life, briefly, to the spirit it communicates. The story is a memory recorded upon a physical page; without the ghost story there can be no ghost. The majority of Dickens’ ghost stories, including the ones listed here, all first appeared in serial magazines such as All The Year Round and Household Words, each of which were noted for their special Christmas editions of Ghost stories. No doubt, the conscientious reader of Dickens’ periodicals would on occasion be moved to the thrift and economy Dickens advocates so warmly: how many of these magazines found their way into the sorting houses and scrap bins? If we think back to all of those ‘bits of white paper, brown paper, blue paper, other coloured paper’, we are left with the interesting question: if these written narratives give life to the ghosts they are haunted by, what happens when you recycle them?

Works Cited:

Crowe, Catherine. Night Side of Nature; or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers. New York: Redfield, 1858. Accessed online 13/02/08: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=r0wgCA5YzFMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Night+Side+of+Nature.

Dickens, Charles. Best Ghost Stories. Ware: Wordsworth Classics, 1997.

Dickens, Charles. “Early Workers: At Sorting”. All the Year Round, July 14th, 1877.

Wolfreys, Julian. Victorian Hauntings: Spectrality, Gothic, the Uncanny and Literature. London: Palgrave, 2002.

[1] Dickens, Charles. “Early Workers: At Sorting”. All the Year Round, July 14th, 1877. pp. 463-64.

[2] Ibid. p. 464.

[3] Ibid. p. 464.

[4] Ibid. p. 464.

[5] Ibid. p. 462.

[6] Ibid. p. 465.

[7] Dickens, Charles. Best Ghost Stories. (Ware, 1997). pp. 125-127.

[8] Ibid. p. 133.

[9] Ibid. p. 132

[10] Ibid. p. 176.

[11] Ibid. p. 141

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. p. 143

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. p. 181.

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