‘Bleak House, the fact that Esther gets smallpox…’: Dickens in Ducks, Newburyport

This is the paper I gave at The Impact of Dickens conference on 17 September, with many thanks to Dr Pete Orford, Dr John Drew, my fellow panelists and the attendees for a brilliant discussion of all things Dickens over the two days.

In 2019, the novel Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann was published to great critical acclaim, culminating in being shortlisted for the Booker prize, alongside such literary luminaries as Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood. Although it did not take that coveted prize, it went on to win the 2019 Goldsmiths prize, which was established in 2013 to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form. And just a few weeks ago, it won the oldest literary prize in the UK, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. Described by one of the Booker judges, Joanna McGregor, as a ‘genre-defying novel, a torrent on modern life, as well as a hymn to loss and grief’ it is without question a ‘strange and complex’ reading experience. The novel subverts the traditional narrative structure with ‘stylistic daring’ and a ‘radical literary form and voice’.[1] As Erica Wagner, one of the judges of the Goldsmith Prize stated:

            Ducks, Newburyport is that rare thing: a book which, not long after its publication, one can unhesitatingly call a masterpiece.[2]

Set in 2017, the novel is predominantly comprised almost entirely of one single sentence. That sentence is an exhausting, breathless ‘constant monologue’[3] in the narrator’s head, each of her catalogued thoughts commencing with the words ‘the fact that’. It is a not just a stream of consciousness, but a torrential river, with the reader treated to the narrator’s thoughts as though connected to her by a USB cable, with the information being dumped directly from her mind into ours. So who is our narrator? While we never learn her name, we know that she is an American middle-aged mother of four children from two marriages, her family struggling, ‘broke’ because she had cancer without having adequate health insurance. We know that she is tired, ‘at the mercy of four little American brats’.[4] We know that she is living in Ohio, a former history teacher, now trying to make a living by running a bakery from home, all the while trying, as the synopsis tells us, to ‘bridge the gaps between reality and the torrent of meaningless info’[5] that she is all the time processing as she goes about her daily life in Trump’s America.

Of her narrative style, Ellmann stated: ‘I wanted a long soft slow book that the reader can float around in for some time, to sink or swim, engulfed in one woman’s thoughts. You’re on your own with this book, no nursemaid.’[6]

Let me read you a sample:

            the fact that I don’t know if Cathy would approve of me using non-American apples, but she’s never asked, Peruvian gold mine, slave labour, medieval conditions, Dickensian, Zola, tourist destinations, Aruba, beach resorts, terrorists, terrorist destinations, the fact that Shirley MacLaine should never have taken that part in Being There…[7]

And on it goes. That one word, ‘Dickensian’, dropped in amidst a barrage of musings on slavery, terrorism and apples, leads me to the point of my paper today. I am going to discuss how the life and work of Dickens has pervaded the consciousness of modern thought and discourse to such an extent that references to Dickens’s work, Dickens adaptations, and to Dickens’s life litter the text of Ducks, Newburyport, often without any real overt recognition by the anonymous narrator that a statement or sentiment is Dickensian in origin.

Before I delve into Dickens in Ducks, I thought it was worth pointing out that Ellmann is something of a Dickens enthusiast. In 2003, long before Ducks was published, she commented that the humanity of Dickens was something that always moved her.[8] She admits to reading a lot of Dickens and Austen. But in writing the book, when choosing the literary references, she ‘had to censor some of her own preoccupations as being unsuitable for her narrator.’[9]

The book is large. It took Ellmann seven years to write it. She confessed in an interview that writing it took everything she had.[10] Here is one of my copies of Bleak House. And here is David Copperfield. This is my copy of Ducks, Newburyport. As you can see from the sheer size of it, I cannot guarantee to have picked up every Dickensian reference. However, those I have picked up on, and I don’t have the time to go into every single instance today, have particular resonance with Dickensian themes, particularly that of the sadness and enduring impact of being orphaned with the repeated references to Oliver Twist. Our narrator still struggles to process the loss of her parents, particularly her mother, as she thinks:

            the fact that Stacy says I’m like Mrs Bennet, because I always chatter when I’m nervous, the fact that I hope she’s wrong, dear me, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Esther in Bleak House, Dedlock, wedlock, Anne and Captain Wentworth, went forth, the fact that I always wanted to be an orphan, but now I am one and it’s not so great…[11]

Oliver, here mixed with other Dickensian characters, pops up numerous times in different ways. Sometimes, it is a literary reference. Sometimes, it is a reference to that well-known musical based on Dickens’s work as our narrator flashes back to taking part in the play:

            the fact that Bella or Wella or whatever she was called made me be an urchin in Scrooge’s gang, sea urchins, I mean Fagin’s gang 🎵Whe-e-e-e-ere is love?🎵and I had to sit on the grass playing solitaire…[12]

Her mind moves from Oliver to playing solitaire, a game that she associates with her mother,[13] a mother she years for throughout the narrative. The references to Oliver always seem tied to a romanticism with the idea of orphanhood, ‘the fact that people care about Oliver Twist because he’s an orphan’[14] yet the reality of being orphaned, of being motherless, has left our narrator, in her own words, broken. And as she sees her own daughter Stacy wish for ‘the good luck of a nice peaceful orphanhood’,[15] her thoughts in relation to Oliver become more tied to the concept of motherhood. Ellmann rages against the devaluation of the maternal role through a narrator that vacillates between acceptance and despair at her own diminishment because she is a mother, how being a mother becomes the ‘whole purpose of her being’.[16] Much like a ‘rumpled’ Mr Pocket in Great Expectations who couldn’t make out how he had come to have so many children,[17] our narrator, with searing honesty wonders why she ‘had all these kids… the fact that once kids are born you just cope with it somehow, barely noticing how your life has disappeared and how you’re now totally consumed with their lives…’

Motherhood is a central theme in the novel, reflected in the title of the novel with our narrator’s mother having grown up in Newburyport, a fact she mentions several times. The narrator reflects on what it is to be a mother, ‘the fact that nobody really wants to see you if you’ve got kids…,’[18] with mothering tearing away at her own identity:

            The fact that kids keep reducing your life down to the basics, to popsicles, the fact that nobody ever tells people that, like when they’re deciding whether to have kids or not, the fact that nobody tells you how endless and boring and silly it is, and, the fact that just getting a kid out the front door every morning is a major achievement, and quite an ordeal, a traumatic event, not on the scale of Cathy’s, but still, the fact that they always want extras too, extra favors, “Please sir I want some more”, and if they don’t get what they want they go ballistic…[19]

Another reference to Oliver, and there are many more: Oliver dropped in as she thinks about ‘the four billion school plays’ she has attended,[20] Oliver amidst a recollection of buying a toy train for her son,[21] Oliver when she thinks about old clothes being handed down to younger siblings[22] or when she recollects the death of Pierre the dog.[23] Oliver appears in a list of musicals, even though our narrator doesn’t even like musicals, lists being a constant for her, and as she reels off yet another list, this one a list of certainties that she can cling to, amidst both the terrifying and the mundane, such as men will kill their exes, popsicles will melt, bird flu and swine flu will terrify everybody, some women will get raped and murdered even if they try to protect themselves, one of her listed certainties is that Oliver will always be a little orphan boy.[24] Finally, at the moment when she and her children are the most threatened and the most fearful, when her home is violated, and a man brings a gun into her home, Oliver once more drifts into her head.[25] As does Esther:

            the fact that I can’t believe I let that guy in our house, not the window guy, Ronny, though I didn’t actually let him in, or not consciously anyway, “We don’t deal with the unconscious,” house of horrors, Bleak House, the fact that Esther gets smallpox…[26]

I spent some time trying to give meaning to Esther’s appearance at this critical moment of the novel, particularly as to why the fact of her getting smallpox pops into the narrator’s mind at this point. Was it because Esther can be viewed as a character that is damaged, whose existence is one of being subject to the choices, or manipulation of the men in her life? After all, our narrator confesses that she too is damaged, broken, lost in relentless domesticity, invisible, all the while silently raging that mothers are never talked about. Esther’s mother was invisible to her. Or does Esther appear here because she was denied the freedom to choose? Or is it because Esther is presented as the ideal of feminine beauty but then has that beauty marred? Or for some other reason that Esther springs to the narrator’s mind at this point?

I was able to put this very question to Ellmann. She commented:

            It’s up to the reader to decipher the significance of such things – there are no right or wrong answers. Though I would say Esther getting smallpox is an enduring sadness for the narrator. (For us all!) One of the narrator’s many sadnesses.[27]

Some of these sadnesses that Ellmann speaks of are steeped in Dickensian language and experience. She recalls her childhood participation in the play of Oliver, but only able to remember one song – where Oliver sings ‘all alone in the orphanage or the bottle factory or wherever he is’,[28] as her mind blends Dickens’s own childhood misery with that of Oliver. And Dickens again as she reflects on what it is to be a middle-aged woman in a world that seems only to value women in their youth:

            the fact that Dickens never got over meeting his old flame again years later and seeing how she’d aged, the fact that that story sort of puts a chill into any aging woman, a chill, the fact that I’m chilly enough without that, hot bath, Frederick, summertime in Evanston, Dora, David Copperfield, Miss Havisham, Haversham, Twist[29]

It is interesting how Miss Havisham makes an appearance here: the decrepit, decaying, faded Miss Havisham, yet a woman who at the start of Great Expectations was barely forty years old. Our narrator refers to her later in the novel, as she frets over her innate shyness, worrying that she will become like Miss Havisham if she is not careful.[30] In Ducks, the erasure of the middle-aged woman is a profound inescapable injustice as the thoughts of our outraged narrator are layered through the narrative. This narrative builds to become a silent scream against the patriarchy, what it does to older women, mothers, who are not seen and not heard. Women over forty are still women,[31] she reflects:

the fact that men age too, it’s not just us, but they don’t seem to think about that, I don’t know but they know, oh dear, the fact that I really shouldn’t generalize, the fact that its unkind, but if only men knew how hurtful it is…[32]

No wonder our narrator is broken. Yet she is also strong. She bakes cinnamon rolls, washes clothes, loses herself in the minutiae of her children’s needs, all the while her thoughts relentless, never slowing down as she frets over climate change, school shootings, violence against women, Trump, guns, and failing health care. Dr Benjamin Bateman, when discussing the shortlist for the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, said:

            What is so remarkable about this formally experimental novel is that while all that damage and worry can sometimes give the impression of a diminished woman—a woman others may not even see behind her tarts and pies—the kaleidoscopic nature of her thoughts, to which we as readers are given exclusive access, has the precise opposite effect; it expands her, sprawls her across the page, and makes her personal preoccupations seem larger than life.[33]

And such is the impact of Dickens on that life that her mind turns over Dickensian references again and again, sometimes with nostalgia, sometimes without thinking, sometimes just because they fall into her mind. From her childhood guineapig, who was called Tiny Tim, to her doctor who is called Dr Oliver, these associations trigger Dickensian references in her thoughts. They are all there as part of the familiar fabric of her everyday life. David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Esther Summerson are the characters that she is drawn to, all of whom are parentless, adrift, struggling to make their way in the world, to make a proper family life that has been denied them in their youth, just like our narrator struggles to fill the void left with the death of her parents.

One of the reasons why Ducks has such a profound resonance with the reader is that we recognise her struggle. It is the struggle of all of us: ‘the fact that nobody wants to sink into a Slough ever, especially a Slough of Despond’[34] she says, with yet another Dickensian undertone. While the phrase Slough of Despond appears in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, it was one also used frequently by Dickens, with it appearing both in Little Dorrit[35] and in Hard Times where it is the unfortunate middle-aged woman, Mrs Sparsit, who sinks into the Slough of Despond.[36]

One question that Ellmann was asked in an interview was which past British or Irish novel deserved a Goldsmiths Prize. She chose Our Mutual Friend, commenting that ‘it’s a most unusual book, full of Dickensian surrealism but this time he’s really off the leash, running wild. It’s stratospherically subversive.’[37] Despite Ellmann’s admiration for Our Mutual Friend, I was able to find no references to it in Ducks. When I mentioned this, Ellmann responded that she ‘didn’t want to tangle with Our Mutual Friend in Ducks, it is too good – and weird – to be walked all over.’ She added that she considered the other Dickens novels mentioned by the narrator ‘a lot more straightforward, and maybe more familiar.’

Initially I accepted this. But then, as I thought about it, and I went back to Our Mutual Friend, this paragraph from Chapter 7 was striking:

You’re casting your eye round the shop, Mr Wegg. Let me show you a light. My working bench. My young man’s bench. A Wice. Tools. Bones, warious. Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. Everything within reach of your hand, in good preservation. The mouldy ones a-top. What’s in those hampers over them again, I don’t quite remember. Say, human warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle, warious. Oh, dear me! That’s the general panoramic view.’[38]

Now this is not a monologue, it is part of a dialogue between Mr Venus and Mr Wegg. Yet I was struck by the stylistic symmetry with the listing of the miscellany, the random detritus of the shop, almost in the same manner as we are privy to the random miscellany of the narrator’s mind in Ducks. It is just that in Ducks it is done on a far more ambitious scale, with far greater intimacy.

With that thought, let me close by saying there is no doubt more to be found in Ducks, particularly in relation to the impact that Dickens has had both on our narrator, and indeed, on Ellmann herself. One reading is not enough. I don’t think two is enough either. The only thing I know for certain, is that on reading Ducks, you will find something, as in the old curiosity shop, which is ‘familiar and beloved’.[39] You will find Dickens.

[1] ‘The 2019 Booker shortlist announced’, 3 September 2019, https://thebookerprizes.com/resources/media/pressreleases/2019-booker-prize-shortlist-announced [accessed 12 September 2020].

[2] ‘2019 Winner: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann’, https://www.gold.ac.uk/goldsmiths-prize/archive/prize2019/ [accessed 12 Septmber 2020].

[3] Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport, (Norwich, Galley Beggar, 2019), p. 135.

[4] Lucy Ellmann, p. 24.

[5] Synopsis, Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, Galley Beggar Press, https://www.galleybeggar.co.uk/paperback-shop/ritegxpqvavi286gp91sd0he23hzx4, [accessed 12 September 2020].

[6] Anna Leszkiewicz, New Statesman, ‘Lucy Ellmann: “You’re on your own with this book, no nursemaid”’. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2019/11/lucy-ellmann-you-re-your-own-book-no-nursemaid [accessed 15 August 2020]

[7] Lucy Ellmann, p. 183.

[8] Robert Hanks, ‘Lucy Ellmann: let them eat cake’, Independent, 25 January 2003, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/lucy-ellmann-let-them-eat-cake-125792.html, [accessed 12 September 2020].

[9] Anna Leszkiewicz, New Statesman, ‘Lucy Ellmann: “You’re on your own with this book, no nursemaid”’.

[10] Amy Reardon, ‘A Blissful New World: A Conversation with Lucy Ellmann’ 4 December 2019 https://theadroitjournal.org/2019/12/04/a-blissful-new-world-a-conversation-with-lucy-ellmann/ [accessed 15 August 2020].

[11] Lucy Ellmann, p. 541.

[12] Lucy Ellmann, p. 281.

[13] Lucy Ellmann, p. 41.

[14] Lucy Ellmann, p. 541.

[15] Lucy Ellmann, p. 993.

[16] Lucy Ellmann, p. 11.

[17] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, ed. by Angus Calder, (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p 218.

[18] Lucy Ellmann, p.16.

[19] Lucy Ellmann, pp 759,60.

[20] Lucy Ellmann, p. 352.

[21] Lucy Ellmann, p. 256.

[22] Lucy Ellmann, p.279.

[23] Lucy Ellmann, p. 287.

[24] Lucy Ellmann, p. 661.

[25] Lucy Ellmann, p. 963.

[26] Lucy Ellmann, p. 990.

[27] I am grateful to the publisher Galley Beggar Press for forwarding both my questions to Ellmann and her response via email.

[28] Lucy Ellmann, p. 283.

[29] Lucy Ellmann, p. 223.

[30] Lucy Ellmann, p. 274.

[31] Lucy Ellmann, p. 225.

[32] Lucy Ellmann, p. 226.

[33] Fiction Shortlist, James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, https://www.ed.ac.uk/events/james-tait-black/about/book/fiction-shortlist, [accessed 12 September 2020].

[34] Lucy Ellmann, p. 290.

[35] Dickens, Charles, Little Dorrit, ed. by Stephen Wall and Helen Small, (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 637.

[36] Dickens, Charles, Hard Times: A Norton Critical Edition, fourth edition, ed. by Fred Kaplan, (New York: W.W Norton, 2017), p. 209.

[37] Anna Leszkiewicz, New Statesman, ‘Lucy Ellmann: “You’re on your own with this book, no nursemaid”’.

[38] Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, ed. by Michael Cotsell, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 81.

[39] Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, (London: Wordsworth, 2001), p. 534.

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

One thought on “‘Bleak House, the fact that Esther gets smallpox…’: Dickens in Ducks, Newburyport

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