23 Mar 2007
A Visit to Mr Wemmick’s.
One of my favourite books is Charles Dickens’ **Great Expectations**. Dickens was a great social commentator, a literary scourge of the judiciary, the bankers, the evils of Victorian society, but also a great celebratory of its good side and of its good people. He was also one of the best creators of characters in the English language. I was flipping through it the other day, and came across the wonderful description of Mr Wemmick’s house. Mr Wemmick is a clerk who works for the vile Mr Jaggers, the lawyer, spending his days in a dark and dusty office in Newgate in London, and is described as having a face that looked as though it had been carved out of wood with a blunt chisel. His home life is a secret to his boss, and one day he takes Pip, our hero, back to his house for tea.
What is so wonderful about this passage is to imagine that within walking distance of central London, places like this used to exist. A riotous ramble of self built houses, vegetable gardens, ponds and livestock, what we might nowadays call ‘low impact buildings set in a permaculture/aquaculture mixed use edible landscape’, and which is now probably car parks and houses. Dickens celebrates the chaotic splendour of it with beautiful writing, and I particularly like Mr Wemmick’s statement that *`if you can suppose the little place besieged, it would hold out a devil of a time in point of provisions.’* How many people can say that nowadays, especially in London?
>Wemmick’s house was a little wooden cottage in the midst of plots of garden, and the top of it was cut out and painted like a battery mounted with guns. ‘My own doing,’ said Wemmick. `Looks pretty; don’t it?’
>I highly commended it. I think it was the smallest house I ever saw; with the queerest gothic windows (by far the greater part of them sham), and a gothic door, almost too small to get in at.
>“At the back, there’s a pig, and there are fowls and rabbits; then, I knock together my own little frame, you see, and grow cucumbers; and you’ll judge at supper what sort of a salad I can raise. So, sir,’ said Wemmick, smiling again, but seriously too, as he shook his head, `if you can suppose the little place besieged, it would hold out a devil of a time in point of provisions.’
Then, he conducted me to a bower about a dozen yards off, but which was approached by such ingenious twists of path that it took quite a long time to get at; and in this retreat our glasses were already set forth. Our punch was cooling in an ornamental lake on whose margin the bower was raised. This piece of water (with an island in the middle which might have been the salad for supper) was of a circular form, and he had constructed a fountain in it, which, when you set a little mill going and took a cork out of a pipe, played to that powerful extent that it made the back of your hand quite wet.
>”I am my own engineer, and my own carpenter, and my own plumber, and my own gardener, and my own Jack of all Trades,” said Wemmick, in acknowledging my compliments. “Well; it’s a good thing, you know. It brushes the Newgate cobwebs away…