IT WAS a sad and desperate fire. Large baskets of letters had been carried out of the house to the field at the back, and were now being destroyed.
Twenty years of correspondence were consumed in this bonfire, including letters from Carlyle, Tennyson, Thackeray, and George Eliot. Those who carried the baskets tried to persuade Charles Dickens to withhold some letters from destruction. He would have none of it. The past was to be removed, or rewritten. Dickens would not look again at the path that had brought him to this point. He would go forward — not back.
Such action was in keeping with Dickens’s personality, but there were personal circumstances that gave rise to this particular effacement of all that had been. His old house had been sold, his favourite daughter had moved out of the family home, his brother was dead, he was separated from his wife, and his mother was dying. Amid such loss, one can sense the inner panic. He would burn the past, and never look back. Instead, he would start a new novel and call it Great Expectations.
There are echoes here of David Cameron’s current realignment of the Conservative Party. In a bid to be electable once again, he, too, has carried basketfuls of policy down the garden, and burned them in a fire of impatient modernisation.
In his opposition to grammar schools, his well-publicised bike rides to work, his openness to taxation, his hugging of hoodies, and his visit to Rwanda, his message is simple: as far as Conservatives are concerned, the past does not exist. That was then — this is now.
Unfortunately for him, many of his party are still quite fond of “then”, not sure about the shape of now, and are increasingly willing to speak out. If only one member of the family wants to burn the past, it can create a schism. And schisms are unelectable.
I have witnessed the power of fire. The leaving behind of things disfigured or defunct in our lives can be a necessary step, and savage flame is a fine symbol of such inner purging. In the long term, however, everything we disown in the fire will need one day to be owned again by ourselves, as we allow the darkness and the light of our past to be the seedbed of the future. Organic development is the deeper truth; blazing escape is the shallower.
Apparently, when Dickens had piled the letters high, all ready for burning, it began to rain at Gad’s Hill. “I suspect my correspondence of having overcast the face of the Heavens,” he said. In a negative state, we believe almost anything, including our effect on the weather.
So we light the fire, and watch our past burn brightly — until, perhaps, one day, our past burns brightly again.