David Barry, Mr. Micawber Down Under. London: Robert Hale, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7090-9312-1

Imke Thormählen, The Ladislaw Case. Trans. Marianne Thormählen. Flyinge, Sweden: Holmby Press, 2011. ISBN 978-91-976943-0-8

“Micawber never did succeed, never ought to succeed; his kingdom is not of this world. ”

Thackeray's decorated initial T

hree epigraphs precede the opening of Barry's narration of Micawber's career in Melbourne, Australia — his career, that is, after Dickens's character has left the world of David Copperfield. The first epigraph quotes Micawber's version of “neither a borrower or lender be,” and the second quotes Mrs Micawber's wish that her husband “may be fully understood and appreciated for the first time.“ Australia, she assures us, “is the legitimate sphere of action for Mr Micawber!'” And Dickens does tell that Micawber ends up a respectable, financially solvent mayor of an Australian city, an assertion that horrified G. K. Chesterton whose objection provides Barry's third epigraph: “How did it happen, how could it happen, that the man who created Micawber could pension him off at the end of the story and make him a successful colonial mayor? Micawber never did succeed, never ought to succeed; his kingdom is not of this world.” One way to see this sequel to David Copperfield, therefore, is as a Chestertonian correction of Dickens's ending, one that is truer to the character we see throughout Copperield than the one briefly encountered in his pensioning off.

The novel begins, in true Dickensian manner, with a description of an all pervasive phenomenon, in this case not the fog of Bleak House or prison of Little Dorrit but Melbourne's “unrelenting, clammy” mud:

Following heavy autumn rains, the streets of Melbourne became more appropriately known as 'the swamps' by some of the long-suffering residents. Mud was everywhere. Deep holes of it pitted the main streets like moon craters; traffic became bogged down by it as wheels failed to turn and hoofs stick fast; and pedestrians sank knee deep in its unrelenting, clammy tenacity and floundered helplessly, wading as if through treacle. Mud! Meandering aimlessly through the wide thoroughfares like a big brown river in full flood. Ubiquitous mud! It sucked and oozed and squelched and splashed, and left its dirty imprint everywhere, ft showed no respect for the genteel and somehow managed to find its way into the most sterile, hygienic and God-fearing homes. Housemaids cursed the extra work it brought. Children were yelled at for forgetting to wipe their feet. Clothing became permanently encrusted with thick layers of it and the most dlelicate hands became coarse amd rough. Immigrants, after stoically suffering and surviving the perils of the high seas, stepped ashore at Port Phillip and wept to see how quickly this unwelcome morass befouled their precious belongings. Grog-shop floors (never clean at the best of times) swam in an unholy stench of mud, dung and liquor. Nowhere was sacred. Muddy footprints everywhere - from the inner sanctum of Melbourne's finest private club to places of worship. Without exception, everyone hated with a vengeance the vile omnipresence of the brown slime and invented the most obscene euphemisms to describe it. There was not a single being of the entire population of the city of Melbourne in . . . 1855 whose life remained unaffected by mud. [11-12]

Barry continues in this way, emphasizing mud through the first chapter during the course of which the same old Micawber we know from Copperfield sells a family heirloom in a pawn shop. In Dickens these image-ladden descriptions serve as metaphors for the entire world of the novel, the fogs well conveying the old system of chancery lawsuits and the prison in Little Dorrit the way many of us, like Mrs Clenham, exist imprisoned within our own egotism and our constraining systems of belief — in Little Dorrit Mrs. Clenham's dour Evangelical Christianity. It is indicative of the degree to which Barry does and does not achieve a true Dickensian world that after its initial bravura display, mud vanishes from the novel, which nonetheless makes for a fairly good read.

Again unlike David Copperfield and Dickens's other major novels, Barry's has a single plot line, through which appears a Micawber truer to Dickens's central conception of this character than one who appears in the final lines of David Copperfield. Unlike Dickens, Barry has no need to have the spendthrift character reform and become a solid citizen. Instead, in this version of the Dickensian world, the hapless, self-decieved spendthrift emigrates from Australia to New Zealand as he had emigrated from England to Australia. Of course, the novel does have several Dickensian elements, of which the basic characterization and reliance upon coincidence are the most essential. And as in the original novel, Micawber turns out to be part irresponsible child and part con man, and his loyal wife abets both parts, on cue pretending to be severely ill or dying when doing so will defend them against creditors. Barry adds a moral element to Micawber that I don't see in Dickens: he feels great guilt for selling a broken clock to a pawnbroker who thought it a fully functioning one. Acting upon this guilt (the cause he believes of his bad luck), he retrieves the clock and returns the pawnbroker's money to that fellow's great astonishment. In this way Barry redeems Micawber in our eyes, restoring him to a kind of quasi-Dickensian innocence.

“That regrettable incident in Middlemarch”

Thackeray's decorated initial i

mke Thormählen takes a different approach to channeling Dickens in The Ladislaw Case as she moves detective Bucket from Bleak House to the world of George Eliot's Middlemarch, where he has the task of discovering who murderered Will Ladislaw's loathsome, blackmailing political opponent, Francis Courdroy. The novel takes the form of reports to the detective from Ladislaw, Dr. Tertius Lydgate, and Lady Chettam (Dorothea's married sister). Each tells what they remember of the evening that Courdroy died of arsenic poisoning. Ladislaw, then Sir Henry Walford and his wife Ellen (who turns out to be the daughter of Middlemarch's Bulstrode), and finally Rosamond Lydgate become suspects.

Thormählen has written what is essentially a old-fashioned epistolary novel, and in fact three of the 33 chapters that make up this 400-page novel are explicitly described in chapter titles as letters. The principal effect of thus telling the story in the form of letters appears in Thormählen's abandoning Eliot's characteristic omnisicent narrator, who provides both the moral and ideological center of her novels as well as a character of importance equal to the others. The Eliot narrator takes the form of a wisdom speaker whose general remarks on human behaviour continually generate the narrator's (and author's) Aristotelean ethos or credibility. In some not particularly successful novels (like Felix Holt Radical) the narrative voice becomes the most important and most attractive part of the book.

This interesting, ambitious detective novel, which is generically outside Eliot's Middlemarch, also takes place geographically distant from her Middlemarch, since its events unfold in London. Although The Ladislaw case doesn't have much of the feel of Eliot's novel, Thormählen writes very well, moves the plot along, and keeps the tension at just the right pitch throughout. She does a particularly good job extrapolating Eliot's characters, convincingly making Ladislaw much less attractive than he is in Eliot's novel and revealing the implications of Rosamond's chilling egotism. Perhaps wisely, Thormählen keeps Dorothea Brooke Causabon Ladislaw pretty much offstage. She never writes a memorandum, though as the suspect's wife she well might have done so, and she remains a kind of barely believable Perfect Woman — which may well be the author's view of Eliot's protagonist. What is perhaps most brilliant about The Ladislaw Case appears appears in the author's convincing answer to the question, “Why would anyone have amassed all these letters and personal reminiscences?” The usual answer, of course, is simply, “This is a convention. This is the way I decided to tell the story.” Thormählen has a better answer: because Bucket knows that Rosamond Lydgate committed the murder but does not have enough evidence to convict her, he tells her husband, “I believe it to be necessary that the real resolution of the Courduroy murder is safely stored somewhere. You never know what the future may bring . . . . And we have some sort of guarantee that the killer doesn't commit more crimes” (399).

Both these neovictorian works remain remarkably free of anachronisms, though Barry does tell us that "Mr Micawber spent a few moments deliberating on the intricacies and timing of the Olympian sprint that was needed to avoid being trampled on by a boisterous horse" (12). His novel is set well before the modern revival of the Olympic games, and the ancient Greek ones wouldn't have the currency to make this a likely allusion. Thormählen has Bucket remark to Ladislaw that “there were enough people around who could be expected to give you a hard time” (361; my emphasis), and she has Ladislaw remark that “Lydgate looked at me as though I were one of the most repellent bacteria he'd had to face during the execution of his professional duties” (93), at a time almost certainly before Pasteur had advanced his germ theory of disease and well before a layman would cite it. Perhaps more serious an anachronism, Thormählen has Bucket interview one of the women in her bedroom, an action quite improper for this time and class (355). Nonetheless, despite a few glitches here and there, Thormählen, like Barry, has created an entertaining re-vision of a major Victorian novel, and, like Barry's, hers successfully extrapolates elements in earlier works that both illuminate and criticize them.

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Last modified 16 March 2013