A LETTER TO CHARLES DICKENS
Extract from The Bluebird Café
(Letter written in the 1950s by Virginia O’Day, who is seventeen, an aspiring novelist, as she sits in the nineteenth century library at The Palace Hotel in the remote town of Copperfield, Tasmania. Virginia is suffering from anorexia. She survives.)
I have recently come to stay with relatives in the town of Copperfield, which is on the far north-west coast of the island of Tasmania. I will be spending much of my time in the library of a friend, Mr Philosopher Mean. It is called The Charles Dickens Library. In this library are all your books bound in leather, and there is also a lovely painting of you sitting in your chair, with many of your characters floating in the air around you. I have been reading ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, and I must tell you that the sound of the name ‘Drood’ echoes my feelings because I am moody and drooping and brooding.
I should explain to you that I am not simply a reader and a student of writing, but an aspiring novelist.
As I read ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ my mind kept returning to thoughts of you, the creator of the novel. I somehow summoned the courage to write to you in this way, and I hope I am not being troublesome. I tried to imagine how the writing of the novel might have fitted into your life. And then I imagined how my unwritten books will fit into my life.
When I wrote the words ‘my life’ I saw at once that I should try to describe to you my life, which is, I must warn you, practically non-existent. I am seventeen years old. This island where I live used to be called Van Diemen’s Land. The old name will certainly mean something to you because of your interest in the lives and fates of prisoners. It was first populated by white people who were looking for a safe place to put their convicted criminals as far away from England as possible. Because of this, the island was for a long time a Very Very sad place. I have always been struck by the name ‘Diemen’ which is close to the word ‘demon’, and by the presence in the subsequent name ‘Tasmania’ of the word ‘mania’. The names evoke a demon madness that I am inclined to think is present here.
One of my ancestors and four of his brothers were sent here from Cork for setting fire to a house and several barns. This part of the history of my family is never mentioned and is a complete secret, a source of dreadful shame. If my father knew I was revealing this to you he would probably kill me. You may wonder how he could do this, and you may consider that I am being fanciful when I say that he would probably wall me up in the cellar of our house. The ancestor of whom I write was Martin O’Day who was a well-behaved prisoner, and he was pardoned and given a grant of land on which he eventually built a lovely house called Goodwood, and where he raised sheep. Although my family are ashamed of him, I personally wish he had been a more colourful convict. I wish he had been one of the ones who escaped and became a ‘bushranger’. They were more romantic than the ones who behaved themselves and became respectable. What do you think?
I may say I have never revealed this to anybody before. It occurs to me that it is even possible my father and other members of the family don’t even know about it. There is nobody who shows the same interest in the details of the past as I do. You will wonder how I know the secret myself. Well when I was twelve I went to Hobart for a holiday. While I was there I spent a lot of time at the museum, and in some old faded documents that nobody ever looked at I read the names of a group of prisoners who arrived here from Cork in 1820. Among them were Martin, Matthew, Thomas, Joseph and James O’Day. My ancestor and his brothers. Their crime was also listed. I was shocked but excited and secretly pleased. Our stuffy respectable present is terribly dull, and I was thrilled to learn of some action and daring in out past. I should explain that my father is a surgeon and my uncle with whom I am staying in Copperfield is the manager of the copper mine. I have other uncles who are lawyers and town councilors. One uncle I have never met, and who is never discussed, is a hermit and probably an alcoholic who lives in a hut at a disused tin mine. I believe he used to share the hut with a Chinese woman, but she died.
My grandfather once told me that Martin was given the land at Westbury where he built Goodwood in 1825. Then I read in a book at the library that two ex-prisoners were granted land in the Westbury district in that year. So it all fits. There is a nice thing I know about Goodwood: they used to keep peacocks there as watchdogs, and the call of the peacocks was very effective when bushrangers or blacks tried to raid the farm. So that was a rather romantic detail from my family’s past. However the present is truly dull and stifling. My father wants me to become a schoolteacher, but I would rather die. I want to write novels, and by great good luck I have the chance to spend my days in this library where I can read and write. I have decided to make a study of your work – not only because I admire and enjoy it very much, but because I hope my reading will instruct me and inspire me in my own work.
I loved the first paragraph of ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ where the ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Not to mention the white elephants caparisoned in gorgeous colours. I loved it so much I copied it into my commonplace book. Also the second paragraph of Chapter Three where you mention the children who grow small salad in the dust of dead abbots and abbesses. You have observed so much, and you have such an exciting way of describing what you have observed. You have invented so many ways of doing things in your novels, and I know that I will also have to invent new ways. Many of your characters have become household words, so that ‘Scrooge’ for instance is a synonym for ‘miser’.
I have so much to read and so much to reflect on, and so much to write. I am longing for the day when I can hold my own book in my hand. When that day comes I will most certainly send a copy to you.
I am your sincerely, Virginia O’Day
(‘The Bluebird Café’ is published by New Directions, New York)