- Chemistry versus Biology:Dickens, Malthus, and the Familiarized Doppelgänger
A QUEER VICTORIAN FAMILY CHRISTMAS
As holly Furneaux demonstrated in her groundbreaking Queer Dickens (2010), we are not obliged to remain straightforwardly antithetical to the Victorian family. It is possible instead to secure a different perspective from which to re-envisage an institution that has hitherto been cast only in a conservative role, to showcase the plurality of unconventional familial relationships that can be found in nineteenth-century culture, despite the presence of the much-discussed but rarely manifest oppressive ideal. In taking this fresh approach, Furneaux’s work has done much to show how Charles Dickens depicted the shifting and permeable actuality of the Victorian family, emphasizing the way his narratives persistently recognize the familial status of networks of chosen relationships, based on elective affinities rather than on biology alone. Indeed, as she shows, Dickens’s novels frequently endorse the messy reality of extended families over the limited ideal of normative ones, revealing that the nuclear family unit is usually affectively insufficient, if not harmful. In so doing, Dickens encourages his readers to reconceive their idea of family. Dickens invites us, Furneaux insists, to consider families afresh, to revalue them, and to enquire of what they may consist and of whom they may include.
This article’s focus is also Dickens. It shall, however, explore a text not discussed by Furneaux, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848), the novelist’s last annual Christmas book in the series of five that began with A Christmas Carol (1843), the plot of which resembles that of the latter text in many ways. The most famous of the Christmas books does not feature greatly in Furneaux’s argument either; when we consider the familial aspects of its plot, which are only rather ambivalently “queer,” it is perhaps easy to see why. Ebenezer Scrooge is, promisingly, a bachelor, but the retrospective spectral visions he suffers lead him to regret rather than to celebrate his bachelordom, unlike Pickwick or the other happily unmarried men from Dickens’s oeuvre whom Furneaux persuasively assembles. The miser is reinserted into an extended family at the end of the novella, but it is a blood relation (Fred, his nephew) with whom he spends Christmas Day, rather than [End Page 97] with, say, the Cratchits, a counter-factual occasion that would have been a much more radical familial development. Even if the Cratchits’ prize turkey has been supplied by a benevolent bachelor adopting the role of patriarch, in A Christmas Carol, everyone eats their festive dinners with their own family (by blood or conjugal tie). Thus, a form of biological determinism might be said to have the final word.
Though it is in many ways a sibling to A Christmas Carol, The Haunted Man is much less orthodox in the way it rethinks the Victorian family, and is indeed highly susceptible to the kinds of queer familial readings Furneaux has initiated, as a brief analysis of the story can show. The Scrooge figure, Redlaw, an unmarried chemistry lecturer, suffers from a severe depression originating in a traumatic social episode from his youth, when his fiance eloped with his best friend, who was in turn betrothed to Redlaw’s sister. (This scenario suggests what we might call “quadrangular desire,” in that it includes but also goes further than René Girard’s three-way dynamic, involving in addition the complication of the implicit quasi-incestuous mimetic desire of the sister for her brother’s object of homoerotic affection [Girard 1–52]). Entering into an apparently Faustian pact with a doppelgänger phantom, who offers to relieve him permanently of the memories that persistently refresh his sorrow, Redlaw agrees to pass on to all with whom he comes into contact this supernatural power of forgetting. Immediately upon the phantom’s disappearance, Redlaw meets and feels an inexplicable and mutually undesired connection with an abandoned street child, who displays immunity to the chemist’s new “gift,” which the two of them subsequently “diffuse” around the city.
Rather than bringing peaceful oblivion to the various families Redlaw encounters, however, the power of forgetting sours the normative consanguineous and...