In “The Novel of the Black Seal,” an indication that something strange is happening in Professor Gregg’s rural residence “‘in the west of England, not far from Caermaen,’” is provided by the removal of a dusty bust of the English statesman William Pitt from its customary place atop a 15-foot cupboard and its placement on the scholar’s desk. Miss Lally is puzzled by Gregg’s evasiveness about the matter. We learn eventually that Gervase Cradock, horribly transformed, moved the bust by means of a “slimy, wavering tentacle” extruding from his supine body. Gregg’s horrible surmises have been fulfilled.
Having read, sometimes reread, all of Dickens’s novels except Dombey and Son, I have been making up that deficiency just now. I’ve discovered that, before being placed on Professor Gregg’s cupboard and then moved by Gervase, the bust of Pitt was an ornament in proud, mammon-worshipping Mr. Dombey’s house. It is mentioned four times in Dickens’s novel, in Chapters 5 (twice), 8, and 51. In Chapter 8 we read that it is “about ten feet from the ground” and “near the bookcase.” In Chapter 51 it is “upon the bookcase.” This suggests that it has been moved.
I don’t suppose that Machen derived the idea specifically of a moved bust of Pitt from Dickens’s novel, but I imagine that the Pitt-bust itself was placed in Machen’s mind by one or other of his readings – I imagine there were more than one – of Dombey and Son. That Machen was a great reader of Dickens is well-known. It’s his preface that begins A Handy Dickens. Overt references to Dickens appear in other things by Machen, and perhaps further instances of (likely) unconscious allusions to Dickens will come to light.
|A Handy Dickens (1941)|