This is a first in my “Two Quote” series, since it sets side by side not only a written quotation but a musical one.
It’s rare when music is mentioned in literature that I feel inclined to dwell much on it but when the writer is Dickens and the composer is Handel, well, naturally I took the bait. Needless to say, the comic nature of poor Bella’s father’s grimly melodious characterization of his marriage took flight. But then Dickens always did have a way of making you literally laugh through your tears, perhaps even his own as he was at the time estranged from his wife.
Our Mutual Friend was his last completed work and, as if in a farewell gesture, Dickens throws into it the unrestrained comic genius and dramatic flair of his first novel (The Pickwick Papers, 1837) which brought him the acclaim he richly deserved. In the excerpt below, the “Dead March” from Handel’s dramatic oratorio, Saul, is made to dance to the sorrowful notes of Reginald Wilfer’s portrait of married life.
Mrs. Wilfer, writes Dickens, “is a tall woman, and angular,” necessarily so according to the matrimonial law of contrasts, her husband being “cherubic.” “It is as you think, R. W.; not as I do,” comprised a part of her deceptively submissive repertoire of aphorisms with which she managed him. Only to Bella, his eldest daughter, is Reginald Wilfer able to relax his guard and venture into unfettered conversation.
from George Frideric Handel, Saul (1783) – (*A reader suggests letting the music play while reading the excerpt below for the full effect.)
from Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1864):
Your mother has, throughout life, been a companion that any man might— might look up to— and— and commit the sayings of, to memory— and— form himself upon— if he—’
‘If he liked the model?’ suggested Bella.
‘We-ell, ye-es,’ he returned, thinking about it, not quite satisfied with the phrase: ‘or perhaps I might say, if it was in him. Supposing, for instance, that a man wanted to be always marching, he would find your mother an inestimable companion. But if he had any taste for walking, or should wish at any time to break into a trot, he might sometimes find it a little difficult to keep step with your mother. Or take it this way, Bella,’ he added, after a moment’s reflection; ‘Supposing that a man had to go through life, we won’t say with a companion, but we’ll say to a tune. Very good. Supposing that the tune allotted to him was the Dead March in Saul. Well. It would be a very suitable tune for particular occasions— none better— but it would be difficult to keep time with in the ordinary run of domestic transactions. For instance, if he took his supper after a hard day, to the Dead March in Saul, his food might be likely to sit heavy on him. Or, if he was at any time inclined to relieve his mind by singing a comic song or dancing a hornpipe, and was obliged to do it to the Dead March in Saul, he might find himself put out in the execution of his lively intentions.’
(Kindle Locations 5287-5297;
Oxford Illustrated Dickens, p. 317)