Hunted Down by Charles Dickens, 1859
The magic trick:
Writing a haunting beach scene that works both viscerally and analytically
We’ll be spending the month of May with the Brits, and we begin with a bit of minor Dickens. Of course minor Dickens is major literature, and I very much enjoyed “Hunted Down.”
The plot is pure pulp. Insurance fraud, mistaken identity, dying orphans and the lot. We should note, however, that it is brilliant in its execution even if the themes aren’t the stuff of high art. The twists and turns surprise, and the pages turn quickly.
The real beauty is the writing. Take the scene on the beach. It’s vintage Dickens. The old man leaves a track in the sand with his wheelchair everywhere he goes. You can’t escape. What an image! It’s the kind of thing you just don’t get with other authors. You just don’t. It’s so vivid. And somehow, it strikes me as so commercial. Any reader can receive and remember that image. Charles Dickens is The Beatles of literature. Broad enough for the masses, amazing enough to matter. And that’s quite a trick on Dickens’s part.
The young lady walked between us, and we walked on the cool sea sand, in the direction of Filey.
‘There have been wheels here,’ said Mr. Slinkton. ‘And now I look again, the wheels of a hand-carriage! Margaret, my love, your shadow without doubt!’
‘Miss Niner’s shadow?’ I repeated, looking down at it on the sand.
‘Not that one,’ Mr. Slinkton returned, laughing. ‘Margaret, my dear, tell Mr. Sampson.’
‘Indeed,’ said the young lady, turning to me, ‘there is nothing to tell – except that I constantly see the same invalid old gentleman at all times, wherever I go. I have mentioned it to my uncle, and he calls the gentleman my shadow.’
‘Does he live in Scarborough?’ I asked.
‘He is staying here.’
‘Do you live in Scarborough?’
‘No, I am staying here. My uncle has placed me with a family here, for my health.’
‘And your shadow?’ said I, smiling.
‘My shadow,’ she answered, smiling too, ‘is – like myself – not very robust, I fear; for I lose my shadow sometimes, as my shadow loses me at other times. We both seem liable to confinement to the house. I have not seen my shadow for days and days; but it does oddly happen, occasionally, that wherever I go, for many days together, this gentleman goes. We have come together in the most unfrequented nooks on this shore.’
‘Is this he?’ said I, pointing before us.
The wheels had swept down to the water’s edge, and described a great loop on the sand in turning. Bringing the loop back towards us, and spinning it out as it came, was a hand-carriage, drawn by a man.
‘Yes,’ said Miss Niner, ‘this really is my shadow, uncle.’
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