The Dickens in the attic


In November last year at a house clearance sale in Pietermaritzburg, an unnamed bargain hunter bought a small cardboard box of bric-a-brac. It was a sort of lucky dip – he paid around R500 and must have had mixed feelings as he went through his haul: an old recorder, a brass plate, a metal lobster, a small watercolour, 14 cm tall and covered in dust and mould, appearing to show a wide-eyed face beneath the murk. For me the real prize would have been the lobster.

Were its joints articulated? Did the pincers open and close? Regrettably details about the metal lobster are scanty, because everyone’s fussing about the portrait. Back home with his questionable trove, the purchaser took out the turps and rag and had a little scrub at the painting, and as he cleared the muck and grime he uncovered a young man looking out from the frame with an arresting expression. Our purchaser was about to bin the picture and presumably return to the pleasures of messing about with the lobster, but there was something in that gaze that made him curious. After pootling about with research and cross-referencing and image searches on the internet, he wrote to the Philip Mould Gallery in London and fell into conversation with Emma Rutherford, their miniatures expert.

It’s at this stage of the story that my heart starts fluttering a little, because it speaks to such a fervent and forlorn boyhood daydream: that one day while exploring the attic of my family home, I would come across something splendid and hidden, some treasure, some tale.

Oh, my dreams of attics. Attics were exotic things from storybooks, low-eaved and cowbwebby and streaked with honeyed evening light in which lazy dust motes danced, filled with unfathomable finds: a battered steamer trunk containing a ventriloquist’s dummy wearing a tiny bloodstained tuxedo; a condor’s egg; a stuffed wolf; a brass astrolabe; a pair of battered ivory dice in a worn velvet pouch; a small tortoiseshell snuffbox filled with leopards’ whiskers chopped very finely; a bundle of faded, tear-stained love letters tied with a soft leather thong and still smelling of L’Heure Bleu by Guerlain.

As I grew older I dreamt of less fanciful and more profitable discoveries: bundles of bearer bonds; overlooked wills; cash – but truthfully it was never the object itself I longed for but what it represented – secrets you can touch; tangible evidence that I came from somewhere, from people who went places and did things and had secrets and stories.

But in Durban there were no such things as attics. What we had was a weird pitch-dark crawlspace under the house, called, with that effortless imaginative flair that characterised the post-colonial Durban experience, “the under-the-house”. It was a sort of low, dusty, inverted mirror-version of the house above, presumably built for ventilation in the coastal humidity, that you could only navigate by wriggling on your belly through the dirt. The under-the-house was used for brute workaday storage – hosepipes and garden tools, not well-worn scarlet smoking jackets or topaz-handled letter-openers – and they were a good place to look if you ever wanted to encounter nests of spiders or the odd venomous snake.

I dreamed of an attic and what I had was the under-the-house, and after a while that seemed to sum life up rather nicely. There was no point in having an attic because there was nothing to put in it. I had no fascinating family history. My life was shallow and my roots were shallow and my family was dull and there was nothing interesting hidden away. That was Durban, it seemed to me: that was the provincial life built upon shallow existential soil: nothing lasts, nothing remains, anything of value moulders away in the humid air. There were no surprises here: there was nothing hidden and nothing to discover.

If you were ever a gloomy teenager given to spending too much time in a darkened bedroom listening to murky music and imagining that life is somewhere else, happening to other people, you might recognize some of these sentiments. No doubt at that very moment in a suburb of London or outer borough of New York or Rangoon some angsty teen was mooning in her bedroom wondering why she couldn’t have been born somewhere exotic like KwaZulu-Natal, some place rich in stories where everything hasn’t always already happened.

In the winter of 1843, 31-year-old Charles Dickens was writing A Christmas Carol. He had a Christmas deadline, of course, and he was struggling to get it right and fretting whether anyone would be interested in his cheesy little story of Scrooge and the ghosts. His most recent novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, had been a terrible failure and he thought that perhaps his career was over, that all his good ideas were gone and no one wanted to hear from him any more. How would he feed his family?

One day, more to escape the miseries of writing than from the desire to immortalize this moment in his life, he sat for a portrait by Margaret Gillies, a 40-year-old artist who was an ardent supporter of woman’s suffrage and specialized in painting the early feminists. It was one of her last miniatures: later she specialized in larger renderings of suffering female figures from literature, history and the Bible.

She exhibited the little Dickens at the Royal Academy of the Arts the next year, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning saw it and declared wonderingly that he had “the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes”.

Then the portrait disappeared, and in later years Margaret Gillies pined and wondered what had happened to it. There are only two other portraits of the young Dickens in existence, and one of them hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, where once I stood somberly before it, marking the resemblance of young Charles Dickens to the quirky American actress Kristen Schaal.

I read about the missing Dickens portrait when I was still a teenager in school in Durban, and I wondered what might have happened to it, and where in the world it might be now. I can’t remember what my theories were, but certainly if I were to have decided to hunt for it I would not have started in an old suburban house just up the N3 in Pietermaritzburg. There can be no wonders in a house like that, no secrets, no stories. Certainly I knew when that portrait was one day uncovered, it wouldn’t be in a tatty cardboard box alongside an old recorder and a brass plate and a metal lobster.

The Times, 21 January 2019