- Dantean Echoes in The Old Curiosity Shop
Did Dickens read Dante? He may have had, considering that Dante’s Divine Comedy had been translated into English by Henry Boyd in 1802 and by Henry Francis Cary in 1814.1 Cary’s completed version of the Divine Comedy in blank verse was brought to the attention of Coleridge, who praised it in one of his lectures at the Royal Institution, considering it a modern work. Due to this exceptional translation, he claimed, “no cultivated man had an excuse for not knowing Dante” (Kuhn 112). If Dickens did not discover Dante through Henry Boyd or Francis Cary, he might have learned of the Divine Comedy through Thomas Carlyle, who, in the series of lectures on heroes he delivered in 1840 and published in 1841 as Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, describes the Divine Comedy as “the most remarkable of all modern books,” the whole poem radiating with “infinite pity tempered by a sense of justice” (80; 84). The presence of this theme in some of Dickens’s works raises a question I would like to explore. Do we attribute its appearance, perhaps reinforced by Carlyle’s comment, to mere chance? Or might the connection between Dante and Dickens rest on firmer grounds?
The issue of a possible reading of A Christmas Carol (1843) through the Divine Comedy has been proposed by Stephen Bertman, who argues for “striking similarities in both form and content” between these seemingly disparate stories (167).2 References to Dante appear elsewhere in Dickens’s [End Page 116] fiction – Bleak House and Little Dorrit – 3 and of course in Pictures from Italy (1844). Taken cumulatively, they suggest Dickens’s familiarity with the poet, a point corroborated by the account of his visit to Florence in 1845. Describing the place where Dante is reputed to have brought his stool and sat in public, marveling at the Cathedral, under construction at the time, Dickens wrote as follows:
And here […] is ‘the Stone of DANTE,’ where (so the story runs) he was used to bring his stool, and sit in contemplation. I wonder was he ever, in his bitter exile, withheld from cursing the very stones in the streets of Florence the ungrateful, by any kind remembrance of this old musing-place, and its association with gentle thoughts of little Beatrice!(Pictures from Italy, 185; “A Rapid Diorama”)
Considering, then, this passage in which Dante is described as thinking of Beatrice in restful moments, might it be possible to look for Dantean echoes elsewhere by comparing Dante’s secret love for Beatrice with Dickens’s feelings for Mary Hogarth, his teenage sister-in-law, whose sudden death on 7 May 1837 devastated him just as Beatrice’s death had devastated Dante about 600 years before? Could the unrequited love for Beatrice and Mary, respectively, be the connection between the two writers which led to the creation of similar figures in both Dante’s poem and Dickens’s early fiction? It is known that Dickens never forgot young Mary, that he wished to be buried by her side on his own death and became angry when the place next to her in the grave was taken by her brother (Letters 2: 410). It is also argued that Mary served as an inspiration for the seventeen-year-old Rose Maylie, in Oliver Twist (1837–39) and later for Nell Trent in The Old Curiosity Shop, which began its weekly publication on 4 April 1840, shortly before Carlyle gave his third lecture, “The Hero as Poet. Dante; Shakespeare,” to the public on 12 May. Later after his journey to Italy and his visit to Florence, Dickens could have identified his grief over Mary’s death (whose spirit he apparently saw in a dream in Genoa)4 with Dante’s deep suffering for Beatrice. When [End Page 117] Dickens referred to Beatrice as “little” in the Florence passage from his travelogue, disregarding the reality of her having been a grown-up woman, could he have been thinking of Mary? And could Nell, known throughout the novel as “little Nell” or Amy Dorrit, known as “little Dorrit,” be allusions to Beatrice...