The Surplus Population
It’s getting near Christmas. Christmas means Dickens. Doctor Who has ‘done’ Dickens twice in recent years… on both occasions, the show has travestied Dickens’ most famous Christmas story A Christmas Carol. Last year we were given that Moffat-penned obscenity that shared its title. He transmuted the tale into a gleefully cynical celebration of hubris, casual sexism, complacency and hypocrisy. But Moffat was following a trail already blazed.
Back in 2005, Mark Gatiss riffed on the same story (which is about a selfish man who is made to realise that he owes the world a debt, only to find himself transformed by that knowledge) and turned it into a parable about how helping the apparently needy is dangerous folly stemming from thoughtless guilt… because the apparently needy (even ‘foreign’ refugees, running from the devastating effects of a war they didn’t start) will probably want to swamp you and steal your world.
Once I’d realised (with help from others more immediately perceptive than myself) what ‘The Unquiet Dead’ was actually about, I became very critical of it. However… as time passes… I begin to think I’ve been overly critical of Gatiss. Perhaps even a tad unfair to him.
Don’t get me wrong, I still loathe ‘The Unquiet Dead’ (together with just about everything else Gatiss has ever done in his career, to be honest), but I think I’ve been on iffy ground when I’ve implied that his tale of gas sprites in Victorian Cardiff went against the spirit of Dickens. Yes, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ directly contradicts the stated message of A Christmas Carol, and uses Dickens to do it, but Dickens himself did that too.
In response to the eruption of revolt against Britain’s unremittingly cynical, cruel and ferocious imperial domination of India (the event that the Victorians dubbed ‘The Indian Mutiny’) Dickens collaborated with Wilkie Collins on a story called ‘The Perils of Certain English Prisoners’. It’s a classic imperialist text. It is a fictional story about pirates and treacherous natives in Belize, but the story is unavoidably about India. It makes the imperialists into the victims of the natives, as such texts always do. It belittles a character who is probably meant to refer to Lord Canning (Governor of India during the revolt) who earned himself the contemptuous nickname of ‘Clemency Canning’ for daring to suggest that some discrimination should be used in reprisals, rather than the indiscriminate and bestial torture and mass slaughter actually employed by British troops.
“I wish I were Commander in Chief in India,” Dickens told a correspondent, “I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested… [he refers to massacres committed by the rebels… in response to British massacres that predated and dwarfed them] and raze it off the face of the Earth.”
We can take into account the fact that he was responding to very one-sided media coverage and government accounts. Lord Palmerston had written a popular pamphlet in which he detailed atrocities of the rebels… needless to say he didn’t contextualise them with details of British imperial cynicism, ruthlessness, murder and torture. He didn’t, for instance, say anything about how the East India Company used torture routinely as a method of enforcing sales.
However, it shouldn’t surprise us that Dickens would side wholeheartedly with his government, Queen, empire and ‘race’. He could bring himself to pity a poor child in London, but he considered “a savage something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth”.
He evidently felt – at least rhetorically – that “the face of the Earth” would be much prettier ‘wiped’ clean of various other races.
God bless us, every one.