Jeff Rackham, The Rag & Bone Shop (Zoland Books, 2001)

I don't know what first prompted me to pull The Rag & Bone Shop off the shelf at Borders. Whatever it was, I remember noting the blurry, sepia-toned 19th century street scene on the dust jacket, then reading the thumbnail sketch on the flyleaf. I put it back that time and a few more times before I finally gave in and bought a copy. Then it sat on the shelf next to my computer with the other works of fiction in my priority queue for a few months. That should tell you something about the significance and utility of my priority queue!!

I read a LOT of fiction written in the 19th century. In fact, I read The Rag & Bone Shop between Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop. The Rag & Bone Shop is contemporary fiction written about the 19th century. To make it even more intriguing, it is a somewhat fictionalized rendering of a little-known aspect of Mr. Dickens's life, narrated in the voices of three other historical characters who knew him from very different perspectives. Although the novel gives no clear sense of the passage of time, the story takes place over a thirteen-year period, beginning in approximately 1857 (the year Dickens met Ellen Ternan) and ending with his death in 1870.

Dickens' longtime friend and occasional collaborator Wilkie Collins was a mystery writer who apparently dabbled in opiates and engaged in deviant sexual practices. In this book, his principal role is to find Charles a mistress. At this point in his life, Charles is a middle-aged, famous, wealthy man. He is married, with several children and a meticulously cultivated reputation of moral uprightness. Collins is convinced that Charles is fundamentally unhappy in his marriage and suffers from extreme sexual frustration. In the book's opening chapter, Collins fails in his scheme to get Charles into bed with two Parisian coquettes. (Of course, he doesn't let the evening go to waste, but beds them himself!) As he reappears in subsequent chapters, Collins's behavior becomes increasingly bizarre. His scheme for deflecting public attention from a potential scandal involving Charles and Ellen is one of the most grotesque I've ever encountered. In fact, his final chapter is one I would have gladly skipped if I had known what I would find in it. The phrase "Gothic horror" doesn't even do it justice!

When she initially appears as narrator of the second chapter of The Rag & Bone Shop, Ellen Ternan is in her late adolescence, an actress in a family of itinerant actresses. With her mother and two older sisters, Ellen is hired to appear in a touring theatrical production written, directed and bankrolled by Mr. Dickens. He finds her slim girlish figure and blonde curls attractive and begins to court her in a very reserved manner. Long before he becomes intimate with her, he has provided considerable financial support to her and her family — and created a very unpleasant stir in his own home. Ellen is more a pathetic than a tragic figure in this tale. She lives in Mr. Dickens' shadow, yielding to his needs and tastes, accommodating his sensibilities. When he decides at the last minute that she should not accompany him on his American book tour, she travels to Italy to visit family. There she engages in one act of rebellion that costs her a great deal. Even though Dickens dies in her presence, members of his family take charge of his final arrangements, leaving her so far out in the cold that she travels to the wrong town for his funeral.

Georgina Hogarth, the final narrator, is Mrs. Dickens' unmarried sister. As a resident of the Dickens household, she witnesses the aforementioned unpleasant stir, which is precipitated by the delivery to Mrs. Dickens of a silver bracelet intended for Ellen Ternan. When Mrs. Dickens moves out of the family home, Georgina stays behind to take care of Charles and the children. Over the subsequent years, she becomes convinced that she is Charles's true wife, even refusing an offer of marriage from one of his friends. She interprets Charles's affair with Ellen as a ruse to keep the public from realizing the truth about his relationship with her. Her only expressions of envy toward Ellen concern the amount of money Charles spends on her houses, clothing and jewelry.

I had to read a Dickens novel after this, just to get another set of impressions. Other than A Christmas Carol, I hadn't actually read any Dickens since high school. I picked up a copy of The Old Curiosity Shop, which Dickens wrote in the early 1840s, when Ellen Ternan (and his own daughter Katie) were still babies. A typical Victorian novel, it took me about four times as long to read as The Rag & Bone Shop. It was sentimental and saccharine, with a chaste and saintly heroine whose travails end with her equally chaste and saintly death. No wonder Dickens was so concerned about his public image!!

Shortly after I picked up my hardcover copy of The Rag & Bone Shop, it disappeared from the shelves at Borders, to be replaced with a paperback from a different publisher (Penguin USA). The cover art on the new edition shows a woman facing a mirror. She is nude from the lower torso up. We can see the top of her breasts in the mirror and the top of her derriere above the white fabric draping her lower body. She is both sensual and demure, in the way that one would expect the mistress of Charles Dickens to be. But, alas, this woman is plump and dark-haired, not slim and blonde like Ellen Ternan.

According to the biosketch on the back flyleaf of the hardcover edition, Jeff Rackham is an English Professor at a state university in North Carolina. Although he has written short fiction, the obligatory scholarly articles, and an English composition textbook, The Rag & Bone Shop was his first novel. I think it would be as difficult for a university professor to write a novel as it would be for one of our favorite fiction writers (say, Charles de Lint or Neil Gaiman) to teach an introductory-level college course in English composition.

The book's title is a quote from a poem by William Butler Yeats, referring to the heart as a foul rag & bone shop. I suppose that offers a warning about the kind of love story this turns out to be: one that leaves a very odd and not entirely pleasant sensation in the back of the throat.

[Donna Bird]