by Audrey Thomas
Published by Goose Lane Editions
203 pages, 2005
Roll Over Charles Dickens
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
Audrey Thomas' well deserved loyal following will be delighted that she has just penned another winner.
Harriet Coram, mockingly called Tattycoram by one of the family members of the Dickens household, has a checkered history. She was abandoned by her mother at birth, sent to a wet nurse for the first five years of her life, then raised and trained at the London Foundling Hospital. Eventually she is taken into service by none other than the famous British novelist, Charles Dickens, and spends many satisfactory years as house and nursemaid to his increasing number of children.
She gets to live twice.
In an additional layer to this fiction, Tattycoram becomes the bad tempered maid of Mr. and Mrs. Meagles in Dickens' own novel, Little Dorrit, written many years after Coram had left his service. She is hurt beyond measure that he would caricature her in this way, even using the nickname of Tattycoram, which he knew she hated. It's Elizabeth Avis, one of the women at the home for wayward women that Dickens had set up in London, who comes storming into Harriet's contented family life at the end and douses her spirits with news of the book and of both of their maligned appearances in it.
Avis has come to ask Harriet to join her in her legal suit against the famous author. All set to sue, the incensed and bitterly unhappy woman commits suicide when her grievance never makes it to court due to Dickens himself dying of apoplexy.
His death has come soon after Harriet herself has traveled to London to see her previous employer on a search to discover why he would have treated her so badly. It perplexes her because she had such a long and mutually satisfactory employment in his household. Then later, in his home for wayward women, she served as a teacher. She is unable to get any answers or reconciliation from Dickens, however, who appears almost deranged and is possibly in the first stages of his fatal affliction.
Metafiction is not that new a fiction style but Thomas has added some touches of her own to give it a new spin. Loosely defined as a self conscious style of writing that always reminds the reader he/she is reading fiction, metafiction continually draws attention to itself through devices like appearances of the author, a conflict between the writer and the reader, or characters suddenly veering out of the author's control.
In Tattycoram, which is an interesting variation on a story within a story, many questions are posed and will continue to intrigue the reader long after the fiction is finished.
Does an author have the right to represent real people dishonestly or callously if they may be recognized, even if the names are altered in the fiction?
Did the characters appear, as Dickens claimed? "I conjure 'em up in my writing and then they appear in the flesh". Or was the reverse true?
Was Dickens too hard on his characters?
In an unusual twist now, Thomas is holding him accountable for his actions. He must dance to the tune he selected. What's good for the characters should be good for the author. Or not?
While using characters from famous works is not unusual in literature. (Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Mary Anne MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona and even Pirandello's six characters in search of an author, for example), what is unusual is then introducing the author of the original work himself and having him interact with the very characters he brought to life. There is a sense of moral right, an accounting, that I found very satisfying.
Audrey Thomas, who has been called one of the country's best writers by none else than Margaret Atwood, continues to challenge as well as to entertain. She has won the coveted Ethel Wilson Award three times already. Will the publication of Tattycoram lead to the fourth? | June 2005
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.