Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Lost Fragment of “Our Mutual Friend”

We are pleased to report that there has just now come into our possession, against a considerable advance of cash in Swiss francs (from a source which we prefer not to detail, as there may have been certain irregularities in the transaction, and authorities are such sticklers), a holograph manuscript, previously unpublished, by Mr Charles Dickens, written in a flowing hand upon foolscap, and subscribed with the signature “Boz”.  Even the most cursory graphological examination suffices to warrant the MS as genuine.

A portion of the manuscript which came into our possession, by fair means or foul

The fragment describes a conversation around an elegant dinner-table, and evidently was as yet in but an early stage of composition, for the characters have not yet been given names, but figure only as “Mr X” and “Mr Y”.  Yet the ultimate destination of the scene is quite certain, for written boldly across the top are the words “DINNER AT VENEERINGS”, thus establishing beyond a doubt that it was intended eventually to form part of that indelible episode which crowns the novel Our Mutual Friend; in which, however, the incident described in the fragment  is nowhere reflected.  Whether the author deemed the fragment unsatisfactory and thought better of including it, or whether he had simply mislaid it (or whether it had been purloined -- a distinct possibility given the venue where, over a century later, it ultimately turned up), or whether it fell victim to that financially lucrative but belletristically vexatious system of serial publication (the novel originally appeared in nineteen separate periodical installments, appearing seriatim  over the course of almost two years), the episode having been conceived of too late to take its proper place in the sequence, its turn having already passed, and not being re-inserted ex post facto at the time of bound-volume publication, the work having in the meantime already grown to unwieldy length, (not unlike this very sentence) -- we shall never know.   At all events, we now offer the piece to the discerning public, very lightly edited by our hand (the matter of one or two typos, and some words that had to be made out beneath a blot of ink).  And thus do we yet further secure the place of The World of Dr Justice (headquarters:   Geneva) at the very pinacle of curating incunabula.

For further exemplification from our growing store of Lost Fragments, click here.

~  {Dinner at the Veneerings} ~

By now the table-talk had subsided in volume  and broken up into separate conversations.  But above this now, Mr X would trouble Mr Y for the salt (who sat across from him, a short ways below it).  Mr Y suffered himself to be so troubled, passing it over without comment.  Mr X, strictly observing the courtesies, expressed his reconnaisance (1)  of Mr Y’s exertions on his behalf, in compliance with the commission issued, in the briefest possible terms -- a single monosyllable -- which yet perfectly met the case, within the limits of the regulations.    Mr Y, outdoing even Mr X in taciturnity, merely nodded.
At this point, their conversation languished for a time;  until at length, a lull in eating as well as in speaking having intervened, Mr X wondered aloud whether Mr Y was by any chance aware  of one particular fact, to wit:  that to contract a debt of honor, though it be at cards, and to make no effort to repay it, is the action of no gentleman.   (And here the word was father to the deed, for had the recipient of this intelligence been previously unacquainted therewith, it would certainly form part of his mindstock now).
Mr Y, making no response, nor evincing any evidence that he had heard the remark (a brief bout of deafness having perhaps supervened), then forked another piece of roast and chewed at it meditatively;  whether the object of his meditation were the excellences of the beef (which were considerable), or the validity or otherwise of the late assertion by Mr X, could not be ascertained from his features.  And when at length  the choice morsel had been adequately masticated, swallowed, and sent on its way for appropriate processing in the digestive tract (whose dark invisible but necessary doings have not unjustly been compared to the activities of the laboring classes), Mr Y, still making no reply, next cleared his palate with a temperate sip from some old and perfectly matched claret, the effect being evidently salutory.  Only then did he give voice to his inner sentiments, stating that he in fact was not so aware.
Something about the phrasing was troubling to Mr X, as it seemed to suggest some lack of effect from his own previous communication, which should perforce have established such awareness even had there been none such before.  Whereupon he reiterateed his original remark (with whose wording no fault could be found, to attempt to emend which would therefore have amounted to gilding the lily), only this time with a heightened distinctness of ictus, and a precision in the enunciation of the voiceless stopped consonants, such as could not have been plainer  even to a child.
Are - you - aware, sir, that-t-t --“ and so forth on to the conclusion.
Mr Y considered a bit, as though rummaging (not very industriously) through the storage bins of his memories, to ascertain whether, by chance, though originally overlooked, some such notion (met-with perhaps in the works of Horace, or the elder Cato) might not after all be lying somewhere idly about:  before finally shaking his head, for all reply.
At this point his attention seemed rather to wander; for though he served himself another generous forkful, his gaze roamed elsewhere, across the wainscoting, almost among the rafters;  and the complementary draught, this time, with which (the intrabuccal processing having concluded) he washed the gobbet down, was drawn out longer, and seemed to induce a kind of languor, verging on disinterest in his surroundings, as though his thoughts were quite elsewhere, or had even ceased entirely.
Yet then, as though his wandering intellect had once again returned to the table (much as the soul of the sleeper, at large in the night, returns to its parent body at dawn), though still not looking in the direction of Mr X, Mr Y then (speaking with unusual distinctness) wondered aloud whether that gentleman would be good enough -- would have the kindness -- would condescend to consent to repeat that remark.
This Mr X now in fact did, outdoing his previous efforts in point of both elocution and volume, so as to be of service, not only to the young, but to whoever might previously have suffered surdity through repeated exposure to cannons on the battlefield.

At this juncture the ladies, which had been  throughout these proceedings  whispering oblivious amongst themselves  at the lower end of the table, now turned to observe.

Mr Y finally swiveled his eyes towards the now quivering figure of Mr X, speculatively musing whether those remarks might have been directed towards any particular individual.
Mr X replied emphatically that they had not been so directed;  that nothing, though it be in China, could have been more distant from his thoughts;  and yet, all the while fixing his interlocutor with a stare that seemed to belie that asseveration.
Mr Y then mildly observed -- and this, he assured those present (for he now had their complete attention) without all reference to any individual  present or absent -- that any person or personage who might presume to cast any variety of implication upon any other person or personage in whatever way, for whatsoever reason it might be, (and so forth with sundry fastidious clausules which ‘twere tedious to repeat), might be invited to go boil his head. (2)
Mr X finding himself momentarily at a loss for words, Mr Y helpfully filled in the gap in the flow of conversation (for a stunned silence was now absolute) with the further precision (3):  Boil it or braise it, or grill it for all he cared;  it was all quite one to him.
Mr X, finally finding his tongue, retorted that any such hypothetical reference could be entirely ruled out, as forming no part of his intention;  while yet reciting from memory the familiar sayings (phrased in the homely way of the folk) to the effect that “He that has ears to hear, let him hearken”, and “If the shoe fits, wear it.”
Mr Y, giving as good as he got, and returning proverb for proverb (unlike that supposititious gentleman in the original remark  who had reportedly neglected his debt), that dwellers of glass houses should refrain from shying stones.
This bit of traditional wisdom seemingly failed to mollify Mr X, however, for he proceeded to remark (with the Bard, we assume, though we shall have to look the passage up when leisure permits),  that there was no good cur like a well-whipped cur, and that any gentleman who derogated from the proprieties of his station, deserved to be flayed at the cart’s tail.
Mr Y, seeming to chime with the spirit of this sentiment (at least they could agree on something), concurred, yet added a caveat, to the effect that whipping was too good for some people, and that the remedy was rather to be sought at the stakes of Smithfield.
At which observation, Mr X, slapping down his napkin and rising with an oath, reached towards the waistcoat pocket where he kept his pistol --

[And here, the fragment breaks off.]

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *


(1) reconnaissance:  Here Dickens evidently uses the word in its original French sense;  although, in light of subsequent developments, a flavoring from the later military usage  cannot be excluded.

(2) boil his head:  Connoisseurs of both authors will here instantly recognize a favorite phrase of Mr P.G. Wodehouse, so strongly influenced by Dickens in point of style.  Yet he cannot actually have read this particular passus, since, as mentioned previously, it was never published before this very day.  Consequently a direct le-style-c’est-l’homme influence of the earlier upon that later novelist, cannot in this instance  be established.
Whether the contavenient influence, of Wodehouse upon Dickens, might be surmised in this case, mediated perhaps by signal-bearing tachyons traveling backwards in time, we must leave to the physicists.

(3)  precision: Another covert Gallicism, difficult to render precisely in English, which is no doubt why Dickens here resorted to it.

After extensive digging through Victorian police archives, our Research Branch has managed to identify this London figure as the probable original of “Mr X”.

[Update 16 December 2013]  The first authoritative foreign site to acknowledge the validity and veracity of our findings, has just published a learnèd article upon the subject:
We appreciate the attention.


From the Rare Books collection of the World of Doctor Justice (headquarters:  Geneva) :

Marginal annotations by Dickens himself, simplifying the task of our handwriting experts  considerably.


[Further update]  Another long-suppressed incident in the life of Mr Charles Dickens has now been photographed, lightly fictionalized, and is available to viewing by mature audiences, here:

[Yet further updated]  The suggestion by Professor Cole, that the fragment is actually from the hand of Thackeray, we dismiss without comment.

[Update 17 December 2013]   A reminder to readers:  While everyone is welcome to comment on this post, and while we freely publish those that disagree with us, please to keep the commentary within the bounds of academic decorum.  Some of the contributions below, border on the disturbing.  We really don’t want a repetition of the sort of offensive professorial war-of-words that unfortunately blighted our public offering of St. Augustine’s now-famous “Lost Sonnet”, as evidenced here:

Dr. J.

[Update 18 décembre 2013]  It has been brought to my attention that someone purporting to be myself has been posting highly intemperate replies to our distinguished disputants.  Either someone has hacked into my account, or else a certain doppelgänger personality which does occasionally emerge during one of my fugue states, may be responsible for this mischief.  In any event, I retain no memory of having written any such things.

(Die like dogs, you whoresons !!!)


  1. Professor Ernest MalleyDecember 16, 2013 at 2:35 PM


    I very much fear you may be laboring under a misconception. The unpublished fragment you offer bears all the ear-marks of novelist Wilkie Collins in one of his lighter moods. The piece was very likely written to gently twit his friend Dickens, whose late masterpiece Our Mutual Friend went, in Collins’ opinion, too far in the direction of abstruse hints and understatement, particularly in that celebrated dinner-table scene, which from a purely scenic standpoint was unusually stiff for Dickens; and while much was moving beneath the surface in that episode, it was much too subtle for the average reader.
    Notice that the name “Boz” at the bottom of the manuscript (of which I happen to possess a pirated copy) does not prove Dickensian authorship -- rather the contrary. For Dickens himself did not use that childhood nickname in his later and more serious works. Rather, that name at the bottom of the manuscript was doubtless a reminder of Collins to himself, to mail a copy to Dickens. Whether he ever got around to doing so (before that tragic death intervened, in circumstances that have never been adequately explained) may never be known.

    Yours faithfully,

    Professor Ernest Malley
    Department of English
    U. of Bristol

    1. How much did they pay you to write that, you twit?

  2. Sir Isaac BickerstaffDecember 17, 2013 at 11:56 AM

    You are correct to assert that the passage in question is from the hand of the master; but mistaken in supposed it to be intended as fiction. The scene in fact describes -- admittedly, in quite “Veneering” terms -- an actual incident of late Victorian London, which enjoyed a certain compartmented notoriety in its time (the matter was swiftly and efficiently hushed up), and which Dickens (who had not personally been present, but was an intimate of someone who was) thus chronicled for his own personal amusement. It was never intended to be included in Our Mutual Friend, where it by no means belongs, since, despite certain superficial resemblances of setting and tone, it forms no part of that story. Nor indeed was it destined to be published in any form, inserted or free-standing, for the quite simple reason that it would have plainly been considered actionable -- libellous in the jaundiced eye of the quite stringent laws of that day, and which persist, with only somewhat diminished vigor, in the England of our own time, to an extent quite incomprehensible to first-Amendment-coddled Americans, who are at perfect liberty to pop out with anything they like, with no regard for consequences.
    The reason for the odd denomination of his principles as “Mr X” and “Mr Y”, is not, as you ridiculously suggest, that Dickens -- that ever-flowing fount of onomastic ingenuity -- somehow had found himself in this instance a\ court de mots: but simply that he did not wish to be sued (as he certainly would have been, since the twin figures in the scandal would instantly have been recognized by anyone who had attended that dinner) in the event that that damning scrap of foolscap should, by fair means or foul (you seem to be well acquainted with the latter message, sir) fall into unhallowed hands.

    I am, sir, your very true servant,

    Isaac Bickerstaff, D.Litt.
    St. Olav’s College

  3. Sir:

    Professor Bickerstaff’s analysis of the disputed fragment -- or rather, free-standing conte à clef, since, as demonstrated, it was never intended to figure in any larger work, nor indeed to figure in public print at all (and intent which, in proceeding blindly to publication, you violated, sir) -- his assessment that the piece is not fiction, but sober fact, is undoubtedly correct -- as far as it goes. But as he does not possess the original manuscript, his assessment falls short of definitive, and shall be unable to quarry any monograph out of the matter: that honor falls to me.
    For as it happens, I do possess the manuscript, in what I believe to be the original version (how it came to be in my possession, I prefer not to divulge, until safely beyond the reach of niggling jurisdictions) which differs in no important respect from the one ignorantly and sedulously reproduced by Doctor Justice: save only one: to wit: that on the verso of the final folio page, there appears what, to the undiscerning eye, might appear a pair of enigmatic algebraic equations: the first being, “X = […]”; the second, likewise in “Y”.
    To find out what those values are, consult my forthcoming monograph (“A Scandal in Bohemia”, to appear). The solution is of no intrinsic literary interest (indeed, from a strictly literary standpoint, that sketch is among the least of Dickens’ tossed-off improvisations), but the identity of the principles will set the record of late-19th-century British politics on its ear, and establish my own reputation forever, to the confusion of my enemies.
    The copy in the possession of “Doctor” Justice (one suspects a degree bestowed over the Internet, but let that pass) is evidently lacking in these crucial equations (unless he was simply too thick-witted to turn over the last page and inspect the back, a possibility than can by no means be ruled out). In which case hehas purchased, at what one gathers was a pretty stiff price, a defective or expurgated copy; the seller (a soundrel of the first water, but with whom one partly sympathizes) is probably snickering into his sleeve at having put one over on the dimwit doctor. Hope you didn’t have to pawn your typewriter to buy it, Doc; you’re out of luck.

    Joseph Crabtree, Ll.D.
    Professor of European History
    University of Cambridge

  4. To the literary public:

    We commend the Doctor who, in his workmanlike way, has accomplished the essentially scribal task of reproducing a pre-existing text; but when he strays from this subaltern duty into the field of interpretation, he wades into waters too deep for his boots, quite missing the deeper meaning. A gentle word of advice: Let him stick to his practical last of mathematics, or whatever it is that he does, and leave literary matters to those who are best qualified, and which must lie forever beyond his ken.
    More surprisingly, even such well-known scholars as Bickerstaff and Crabtree have missed the essential point. For, the key to the whole piece lies in that central contention, which we here reproduce for those whose powers of memory are short-winded:

    "...that to contract a debt of honor, though it be at cards, and to make no effort to repay it, is the action of no gentleman."

    Now, this has the form of some piece of eighteenths-century etiquette, and at that the undiscerning will be satisfied; but the true content is quite otherwise, and derives directly from no less a source than the Book of Revelation. What, you must ask yourself, is really meant by the metaphor of “cards”; and of what nature exactly are these “debts” (debita nostra)?
    Since the answer to these questions requires a level of theological sophistication quite absent from the author or readers of this blog, I shall not here anticipate; for this, you must await my forthcoming monograph, which even now lies readying at the printers.
    (Crabtree -- Read it and weep.)

    J. Seumas MacPherson, D.Div.
    Emiratus Professor
    St. Andrews College

    1. @MacPherson
      Oh really? You know more than the rest of us, do you? Then how come no-one has ever heard of you? Even your name sounds fake. “Seumas” indeed!
      -- Crabtree.

  5. Herr Gerechtigkeit, or Gospodin Tychonoff, whatever your true name might be:
    Those bonds denominated in Swiss francs, which you pawned off on me as the price of the manuscript, turn out to be *forgeries*! You dog, did you really think that you could bamboozle me so easily? Look for a visit from me sometime when you least expect it. I shall come armed.
    -- Anton.

  6. Allcon:

    What Dr Justice might have been thinking when he innocently foisted this stunt upon an unsuspecting public, it is beyond my strength to conjecture. Its shabby status as a literary hoax, is no innocent whimsy, but is likely to sap the public faith in such controversial but genuine discoveries as that of the “Lost Sonnet of St Augustine” (of which I possess a copy in the original Latin) -- which Justice has the impudence to pretend to have discovered himself, thus anticipating, and partly stealing the thunder from, my own variorum scholarly edition of the same, with complete biographical background and bibliographic apparatus, which remains yet in preparation. I suspect, indeed, that Justice does not possess the original Latin manuscript, one of only three in existence, and illuminated in the same monastery, but merely translated the thing, into indifferent English pentameters, from some bastard French or Italian intermediate. At least, that is not the way we would have Englished it; for which see the upcoming edition aforenamed.
    But he is not alone in his cluelessness; the respected professors who sent in their analyses will, when they hear what I am about to reveal, bitterly regret having signed their real names to their letters, and wish that they had employed some nom de plume or pseudonym, as is increasingly the practiced in the debased culture of the Internet.
    For the fact is, that passage is not by “Dickens” at all -- Gawd help us -- nor from any other pen of the Victorian era, nor is it exactly “unpublished” (we look forward to seeing, in what terms the Doctor will shamefacedly rescind that doomed claim): for the fact of the matter is, the thing first appeared in The New Yorker, in an issue for April of 1928, as a pastiche bylined by James Thurber.

    Ha. Ha.

    Await your reply,

    Herschel McLandress
    Man-of-Letters at Large

    1. @McLandress
      Contrary to your supposition, I am perfectly familiar with that New Yorker trifle, but deemed it not worth mentioning; for by “previously unpublished”, I meant, unpublished as such, under its true colors, and properly appreciated in light of Dickens’ oeuvre as a whole. Thurber, you recall, was a humorist by trade, and was simply having his bit of fun, passing off that Victorian classic as a work of his own. The only question a literary historian should be asking himself is: How the devil did that ink-stained four-eyes ever get his mitts on that manuscript?! Anton assured me that what he sold me was the sole surviving copy! He and I are going to have to have a little talk…

  7. Cher collègue:
    Je ne nie pas que ce conte drolatique puisse bien être (textuellement) de la main de M. Dickens, tel que vous l’avez offert au grand public et dans cette expression précise. Je n’en sais rien, l’historiographie de la littérature anglaise n’est pas dans mes rayons. Mais en tant qu’adepte des écrits de Marcel Proust, je ne peux que remarquer une frappante coïncidence en ce qui concerne, non pas le libellé -- car ce récit plutôt fruste n’est guère dans le sens du style somptueux de notre plus grand romancier -- mais bien dans le contenu, d’un certain passage, point » non publié« comme vous le prétendez, mais bien faisant partie intégrale du plus grand roman de notre ère, le bien-connu A la recherche du temps perdu (Paris, 1913 ff.). Bien que moins connu que certains autres morceaux de cette plume, car ne figurant que vers la fin de ce roman-fleuve, si riche mais un tant soit peut long (long, soit -- mais sans longueurs !), cela en fait bien pourtant partie, comme n’importe quel lecteur peut aisément vérifier pour soi-même en consultant le texte. Je crains beaucoup que M. Dickens ne se soit permis un petit plagiat -- et c’est bien peut-être là la suffisante raison pour laquelle ce lamentable pastiche n’a jamais été publié du vivant de son auteur (ou plutôt fauteur) : non pas par lui, Dickens, mais bien par Proust!

    Veuillez agréer, cher monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments les plus distingués,

    M. le conte Émile de Mouette
    Docteur ès sciences littéroïdes

    1. What -- You think I speak French? Parlay voo Americain? Speak like a white man, dammit!

    2. Ach, was ist den das für ein gottverdammtes Wienerschnitzel, du Schuft ! Das hat weder Dickens noch schon Proust mal geschrieben, sondern doch Goethe, wie jeder Gebildete weiß!
      -- Ludwig, Freiherr von Münchhausen

  8. George SaintsburyMay 5, 2014 at 5:09 PM

    The whole Veneering society, barring a few of the ‘inimitable’ touches, is preposterous, disagreeable, and dull.

    1. You, sir, are a fool: a fraud, and a fool.
      I piss on your grave.