“To Look After a Day that is Gone”: Initial Reflections on Memory in Dickens’ Early Novels

by Rach

“To remember happiness which cannot be restored, is pain, but of a softened kind…and memory, however sad, is the best and purest link between this world and a better.”

~Nicholas Nickleby

Memory, remembrance, recollection, recall. How often have we read these words during our journey so far? They will keep coming around again, like a haunting refrain. (“Recall it.” “Recalled to life.”) Memory is such a charged and poignant theme in Dickens—memory of the past for good or ill, memory of the living and the dead. Memory connects us, Dickens seems to suggest, not only to the present and the future, but even to a future beyond the grave.

Though I’ll have a more complete essay on this theme for a particular novel next year, I wanted to start the conversation now, as this theme will appear again and again in different forms from Nicholas Nickleby to The Old Curiosity Shop (especially in Little Nell’s regret at the unvisited graves), to David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and A Tale of Two Cities. In A Christmas Carol, memory is used by the Ghost of Christmas Past to evoke the tenderness and poignancy which, through recollections both joyful and sorrowful, the soil is tilled in Scrooge’s hardened and dry old heart to find new life and growth. Peter Ackroyd draws our attention to this theme as “the religious significance” of memory. I might almost say that these are simply initial reflections on Ackroyd’s stunning interpretation of this theme in Dickens, with the assistance of the essay by Kerry McSweeney, quoted below.

In beginning the conversation based on what we’ve read so far, I have been reflecting on these ideas, based on Ackroyd’s perspective:

  1. Memory is revelatory. E.g. of plot, and of character identity. Identity in the sense of family history, name, etc; also, identity in revealing one’s interiority and mystery—one’s character/personhood.
  2. Memory is inextricably linked to the imagination. (See Ackroyd and McSweeney, as quoted below.)
  3. Memory links not only our past to our present and future, but earth to heaven. Memory as almost our ability to overcome the tragedy of death. Dickens seems to use his creativity to process his grief and his early memories. (Note: Dickens doesn’t tend to romanticize the historic past; but rather, he points to the significance of such things as memory of childhood, of innocence and love and those who have gone before us. Memory of those things within us that have been perhaps long buried by the harshness of the world.)
  4. Memory is faithful. Though we don’t always recall things with factual/precise accuracy, we see again and again in Dickens that the act of conscious and willing remembrance suggests fidelity on the part of the person who engages in it. Dickens seems to hold it up as an ideal.

Memory is Revelatory

The significance of memory is not as marked in the Sketches and Pickwick as with Oliver Twist, though in the way strange coincidences and convergences happen—things coming around again in a pointedly providential way from the past—we might be able to make some connections. Daniel has an essay planned on “Providence” in Dickens, and I think the two themes are not disconnected; however, I’ll save that discussion for his essay.

The significance of memory, however, reaches a new level—so new as to be almost a beginning—in Oliver Twist. Undoubtedly this is due to the concurrent death of Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, the grief of which brought Pickwick and Oliver to a halt in early 1837. More on this below.

Memory, of course, also plays a role in the very construction of many of Dickens’ novels which deal with identity and relationship puzzles, and even social satire and criticism. He draws on his own memories for the latter with Oliver Twist—as he will do with David Copperfield and Little Dorrit. In Oliver, as Peter Ackroyd observed, “everything was close to him again”: “Together with the new dietary provisions [set forth in the New Poor Law], which were satirized by Dickens precisely in Oliver’s asking for ‘…some more’, it is possible to see why the New Poor Law provoked in Dickens angry memories of his own deprivation, of his own separation from his family, and his own obsessive comparison of the need for food with the need for love. So when he began work upon the novel his own childhood experiences merged ineluctably with the national experience; Dickens was detailing the miseries of the poor and of those being crushed by ‘the system’, as the new workhouse regulations were already being called, even as he recalled the phantoms of his own childhood” (Ackroyd 219).

Memory is revelatory, even to the very plot in Oliver Twist. As Chris has said in her recent post, it is at least in part the memory of Mr. Brownlow’s friend, Mr. Leeford, that prompts Brownlow to solve the question of Oliver’s identity. And it is an almost pre-conscious sort of memory—a supernatural or preternatural memory, if you will—of Oliver’s mother, Agnes (whom he couldn’t have “remembered” in any normal way), which causes Oliver’s unaccountably strong reaction to the portrait in Mr. Brownlow’s room. Memory is identity.

In Nicholas Nickeby, the revelation of one of our key plot points is assisted by Smike’s nearly-repressed memories of his early childhood. (But more on this later.) Too, the memory of Nicholas and Kate’s childhood days is one that makes Nicholas’ parting for Yorkshire, and later for his second departure from London, all the more poignant.

Memory, Rest, and Imagination

Memory is connected to the imaginative faculty; we recall past events—how much more so when we have something assisting our senses such as a particular smell or sound—in such a way as to bring them to the present, almost in a new form. A story, or a dream.

Connected with this, it would be interesting to look at memory as connected to the dream-world: Dickens’ own obsessive and haunting dreams of Mary Hogarth; the dreams of his characters. In Little Dorrit, we’ll see how Affery’s memories of some incriminating conversations will be gaslit by her malicious husband, Flintwinch, who calls them her “dreams” and constantly threatens her with beatings. Later still, in A Tale of Two Cities, the restored/recalled Dr. Manette’s memories of his imprisonment will have a dream-like quality, as had been his memories of his normal life before that time.

“Nicholas slept well till six next morning; dreamed of home, or of what was home once—no matter which, for things that are changed or gone will come back as they used to be, thank God! in sleep…”

~Nicholas Nickleby

Just as we need rest and sleep in order to dream, so too do we need to have a little space, a little authentic leisure, a little rest in order for the imagination to work. Rest in order to reflect and recollect. Such a space as the Devonshire home of the Nicklebys, or that of the countryside in Oliver Twist, as contrasted with the incessant rush of the city:

“The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor its thoughts and hopes. Their gentle influence may teach us how to weave fresh garlands for the graves of those we loved: may purify our thoughts, and bear down before it old enmity and hatred; but beneath all this, there lingers, in the least reflective mind, a vague and half-formed consciousness of having held such feelings long before, in some remote and distant time; which calls up solemn thoughts of distant times to come, and bends down pride and worldliness beneath it.”

~Oliver Twist

Look at how this kind of rest contrasts with Oliver’s previous life of toil, drudgery, ceaseless movement; being handed off again and again. Such rest contrasts with Ralph Nickleby’s hurried, almost frenetic-paced London walk with Kate when he accompanies—almost shoves her—to meet the Mantalinis. The rush suggests an unwillingness to reflect, a rejection of sentiment, reflection, and memory.

Could this be connected to the Wordsworthian “Romanticism” that we’ve begun to discuss?

In the essay “David Copperfield and the Music of Memory”—the allusion of “the music of memory” referring to a Graham Greene quote about Dickens—Kerry McSweeney alludes to St. Augustine’s concept of memory as “the great force of life in living man” (McSweeney 93).

McSweeney opens with this passage, which is worth quoting in full:

“Human memory is described by the philosopher Mary Warnock as essentially a continuum. At one end is learning memory or habit memory. This mode, common to both men and horses, is ‘that by the possession of which an animal learns from experience’ (6). At the other end is event memory or conscious memory—memory in its reflective or recollective aspect—which is an essential part of ‘the mysterious phenomenon of consciousness’ (14). This mode is essential to the concept of personal identity, which is ‘meaningless to common sense unless it means identity…over a period of time.’ In fact, ‘memory and personal identity are inextricably linked’ (54). So are memory and imagination: ‘We could say that, in recalling something, we are employing imagination; and that in imagining something, exploring it imaginatively, we use memory. There can be no sharp distinction’ (75-76). Memory and imagination collaborate to produce a narrative reconstruction of a life, in which individual episodes are seen to be parts of a continuum and the subject’s continuity in time is shown. For a person to ‘understand this continuity, to grasp his own duration is to defeat time.’ Memory saves a person ‘from the otherwise inevitable destruction brought by death and time’ (145, 141).”

~Kerry McSweeney, “David Copperfield and the Music of Memory,” pg. 93, with quotations from Mary Warnock’s Memory (London: Faber, 1987)

Memory as a Link Between Life and Death, Heaven and Earth

If a character in Dickens preserves the memory of the past, and honors the dead, we can be nearly certain that this character is one we can put our trust in. There is an inherent fidelity suggested by it. For Dickens, the past is always present, and we can be fairly sure that any characters who sneer at memory or grief are not likely to be those we are going to root for.

Mary’s death, according to Ackroyd, “represented the most powerful sense of loss and pain [Dickens] was ever to experience,” and in Dickens’ grief, “amounting almost to hysteria, one senses the essential strangeness of the man. He cut off a lock of Mary Hogarth’s hair and kept it in a special case; he took a ring off her finger, and put it on his own” (Ackroyd 225). This “essential strangeness,” which is key of Ackroyd’s understanding of Dickens, and which he grapples with in a way I haven’t encountered in other biographies, is echoed in Dickens’ words shortly after her death: “Thank God she died in my arms, and the very last words she whispered were of me.” Dickens then had dreams of Mary nightly for the following nine months; something amounting almost to ghostly visitations.

Dickens’ transcendent creativity recalls Mary to life through the written word. We’re only at the beginning of Dickens’ third novel, and haven’t we seen Mary Hogarth three times already? In Rose Maylie, in Kate Nickleby (who, like Rose, is about seventeen when she arrives in London at the opening of the story), and even in Alice, the youngest of the “Five Sisters of York” in the interpolated tale.

In trying to grapple with Mary’s significance to Dickens, Ackroyd argues that, among other things, Dickens’ wife Catherine now represented to Dickens “the adult world of responsibility and work,” while “Mary for him was still a child” with whom his own childhood could be recalled; she became another sister for him; and “after Mary Hogarth’s death there came once more that emptiness, that ache, that yearning perpetually renewed, always fresh and yet always the same, which by his own account became one of the guiding aspects of his life” (Acrkoyd 226-227).

Ackroyd goes so far as to say that “Dickens’s own religious sensibility began to develop as a result of Mary’s death. It is known that he started regularly to attend the chapel of the Foundling Hospital in Great Coram Street nearby” and “he was consoled ‘above all’ by ‘the thought of one day joining her again where sorrow and separation are unknown’” (Ackroyd 228).

“And hence, too, the religious significance which [Dickens] attached to the concept of memory; as soon as [Mary] was dead he was reminiscing about their lives together. ‘I can recall everything we said and did in those happy days,’ he said, and for him the memory became a blessed faculty aligned with fancy and the imagination, linking the living with the dead and thus earth with heaven; it became a way of infusing reality with spiritual grace…”

~Ackroyd, Dickens, pg. 228

Memory and Fidelity

This is something that Ralph Nickleby cannot understand. Ralph’s concept of memory and grief, quoted in the title of this essay, is the antithesis of all that Dickens believes and holds dear, when Ralph chides Mrs. Nickleby for the mourning recollections of her dead husband: “Repining is of no use, ma’am…Of all fruitless errands, sending a tear to look after a day that is gone, is the most fruitless.” It is almost as though, by making a villain like Ralph Nickleby sneer at grief, Dickens is rebuffing any who might have chided him, too, over pining too long over the death of Mary.

So too does the stern monk represent the antithesis of Dickens’ concept of memory in Nickleby’s interpolated tale, “The Five Sisters of York.” The sisters engage in their embroidery work in memory of their mother, who had said that “a glance at the old work of our common girlhood would awaken good thoughts of bygone days, and soften our hearts to affection and love.” In encouraging the orphaned young women to take the veil and reject the world and such sentimentality and romantic tendencies, the monk asks them “to shun all such thoughts and chances…Infancy, childhood, the prime of life, and old age, wither as rapidly as they crowd upon each other.” In other words, a “fruitless” errand.

From Memory, to Reflecting on Memory: Oliver to Nicholas

Though I have tried to organize these thoughts a little, they are all really just starting points for discussion. What I find interesting in restarting Nicholas Nickleby during our read, is that, while so many of Dickens’ own childhood memories play into the construction of Oliver Twist, Dickens seems to toy around with how to think about memory itself as he begins Nicholas Nickleby. I am curious to see whether this kind of processing continues.

As an illustration, in looking again at the interpolated tale of “The Five Sisters of York,” I want to focus for a moment on the two storytellers themselves–and here again, memory is connected to the imagination…and becomes story. Almost we might say that in framing our memories, our stories, we are revealing our own personhood, our identity, our way of viewing the world.

The first storyteller is melancholy and prematurely grey; the second is “merry-faced.” In the dialogue between their two tales the storytellers grapple not only with whether memory is worth holding up as something to foster within ourselves—whether it is significant, perhaps—but also two ways to look at memory, as at life itself: as a series of sad events, or seeing the light amid the shadows.

I don’t detect in the contrast between the two storytellers any judgement about the melancholy man, whose vision is more accustomed to the shadows. I sense only sympathy. At least this man feels–a significant thing for Dickens. In these two voices, might Dickens be processing the two inclinations warring within himself, about his grief over Mary, his grief over a lost childhood?

Whether for the benefit of the grey-haired gentleman alone, or for Dickens–the consummate “storyteller” himself–or for his audience, the merry-faced gentleman gives us another perspective: “There are shades in all good pictures, but there are lights, too, if we choose to contemplate them.” He synthesizes the sorrow and joy in a note of hope: “To remember happiness which cannot be restored, is pain, but of a softened kind. Our recollections are unfortunately mingled with much that we deplore, and with many actions which we bitterly repent; still in the most chequered life I firmly think that there are so many little rays of sunshine to look back upon” and that “the good in this state of existence preponderates over the bad, let miscalled philosophers tell us what they will. If our affections be tried, our affections are our consolation and comfort; and memory, however sad, is the best and purest link between this world and a better.”

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

McSweeney, Kerry. “‘David Copperfield’ and the Music of Memory.” Dickens Studies Annual, vol. 23, 1994, pp. 93–119. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44371860. Accessed 29 May 2022.

9 Comments

  1. Interesting argument re: the two storytellers near the beginning of Nicholas Nickleby. I got the impression that we were supposed to agree with the second storyteller since his story comes last and the first one ends up conceding his argument. But it’s true that Storyteller No. 1 doesn’t come across as unlikeable and neither of the stories are badly written. In fact, they both kind of have the same message that life is full of hardship but that doesn’t mean you should give up on the good parts. They just convey that message in very different ways. And both styles would be employed by Dickens throughout Nicholas Nickleby and his other books.

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  2. Rach, such a rich and enriching essay on memory and its role in Dickens and in life.

    Thank you for tackling this inherently somwhat elusive, but crucial topic.

    Just three thoughts that emerge for me.

    1. Ackroyd’s insight about the “religious signficance” of memory: Memories, of course, are a kind of double-edged sword. They can be shackles; they can also be deep connections to our lives and to our ancestors.

    As shackles, memories that weigh us down can harm our health and overall well-being. They need purging–in the Roman Catholic Christian tradition through sacramental confession/penance.

    As ties that bind, memories join us to our ancestors and to the best of our culture, traditions, and practices. I am thinking of Dr. Maya Angelou’s practice of inviting all of her ancestors, of blessed memory, to be present to her and to accompany her in her writing and speeches.

    2. Over-rumination or savoring: In contemporary psychology, there is a well-established link between over-rumination and clinical depression. Conversely, there is a correlation between “savoring” pleasant experiences–intentioonally revisiting and reliving them in memory and imagination–and human flourishing.

    3. The best memories rise: A dear friend has observed that eulogies reflect on the best of the deceased person’s life and contribution. These better recollections seem to be more fully defining of the person’s life.

    We are learning more about how memories of early trauma lodge in the body, and require therapeutic intervention to address and heal.

    Memories are such a powerful reality, for all of the reasons you note–including revelation/identity, connection to others and to the past and future, and faithfulness to the memory of those we love.

    Thanks again for bringing this truly essential aspect of Dickens’ life, personality, and writing into the light for further exploration and understanding.

    I will henceforth be more aware of memory and its cohering force as I read “Nickleby.”

    Daniel

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    1. Great thoughts! Thanks so much for sharing…and I was particularly struck by the “over-rumination” versus “savoring”: I think we’ll see both these tendencies at work in Dickens’ characters–including those who are depressive and “stuck” and with whom we sympathize but want to see them get past it! The healing & forgiveness that is needed is often profound. Definitely another aspect of the shadows vs light that we’ve been discussing so far.

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    2. The ‘over-rumination” versus “savoring” aspect is so interesting in terms of Dickens’s biography, too. He definitely struggled with this and I think, as Daniel informs us, it led to what I see as Dickens’s clinical depression in terms of his marriage and at the end of his life. It seems to me that there were many things he just could not let go of, that he dwelt on – obsessed on – too much. The double-edged sword of this struggle was that while it was great for literature it was bad for Dickens.

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  3. I agree, I think, though we sympathize with the melancholy man, we are supposed to agree with the merrier gentleman, as the melancholy man too seems to acquire a new perspective from him 🙂

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  4. Thanks, Rach, for outlining this for us. Going forward it will be such a useful tool in exploring how Dickens’s novels revolve around memory or are resolved by memory – in Nickleby, Dombey & Son, David Copperfield and Little Dorrit’s “Do not forget”.

    For Dickens, memory both haunts and comforts; damns and saves. The key is to use memory wisely, appropriately – to learn from it, to glean from it that which is helpful – Experience is the best teacher – but to NOT forget because forgetting begets unfeeling, callousness which, as Rach points out, is so contrary to Dickens’s mode of operation.

    This is another instance of Dickens working out, through his novels, his own perceptions, beliefs, strategies for dealing with some large but ethereal, elusive, and ever-present “thing”.

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  5. Greetings, Inimitables!

    Chris, I love this poignant observation: “The double-edged sword of this struggle was that while it was great for literature it was bad for Dickens.”

    Amen. Dickens’ various “hauntings” gave rise to some of the most marvelous characters and plots.

    Here is an intriguing reflection by Carl Jung; I think it could be ascribed to Dickens.

    “In the end, the only events of my life worth telling are those when the imperishable world erupted into this transitory one All other memories of travels, people and my surroundings have paled beside these interior happenings But my encounters with the ‘other’ reality, my bouts with the unconscious, are indelibly engraved on my memory. In that realm there has always been wealth in abundance, and everything else has lost importance by comparison.”

    Blessings, All!

    Daniel

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