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The Tower XVI Staplehurst

Roman à Clef:

Charles Dickens; Ellen Ternan;

Frances Ternan.

         In April and May of 1865, the rail line between Folkestone and Charing Cross was being repaired. On June 9th, eight men and one foreman were renewing timbers under the track on the Beult viaduct between Headcorn and Staplehurst railway stations. The River Beult is a tributary to the River Medway, on the mouth of which is situated Dickens's home Gad's Hill near Chatham. On this June day, at 3 in the afternoon, Dickens was returning on the daily boat train from the cross-channel ferry from France with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, and her mother, Frances Ternan. Having misread the timetable as to the schedule of trains that day, the foreman and his team had removed the timbers spanning the Beult viaduct. A man with a red flag was stationed 500 yards from the bridge – regulations required he be 1000 yards from the spot but he had located himself by counting telegraph poles which turned out to be unusually close together. When the driver saw the red flag, he whistled to the brake vans and reversed his engines but the locomotive and brakemen were unable to stop the train from derailing.


 Four cars made it across the 21-foot open span, while 7 cars ended up in the mostly dry Beult river bed. The first-class car Dickens and the women were aboard remained dangling, suspended from the tracks over the precipice. Nelly's mother exclaimed, “My God!” and Nelly shrieked. Dickens calmly told the women, “We can't help ourselves, but we can be quiet and composed. Pray don't cry out.” Nelly, believing they were about to die, said: “Let us join hands and die friends.” This comment rather suggests relations between these passengers may have been strained, while Dickens' initial response seems to belie his concern for being discovered with his mistress.


 As the coach remained suspended in mid-air, Dickens asked that the women stay where they were so as to maintain the weight distribution and told them, “Nothing worse can happen... Will you remain here without stirring while I get out of the window?” He then climbed out of the window of the coach - which was hanging at a steep angle - and ordered two guards who were aimlessly running up and down the line to fetch keys and open the carriage doors. Returning to the car, he helped the Ternan women out the window to safety. Finding them a discreet place to rest in the tall grass of the river bank, Dicken retrieved his flask of brandy and his top hat from the coach and attended to other victims of the crash. Dickens administered brandy to a lady lying under a tree; the next time he passed she was dead. He filled his hat with water and did what he could to aid and comfort the injured. One poor man was pinned by a carriage; there he cried out until he died, the rescuers unable to free him.


 When help finally arrived and the accident scene was being evacuated, Dickens suddenly remembered something. He made his way back into the wreck - still hanging pendant - and retrieved the latest installment of the novel he was working on at the time, Our Mutual Friend. In a postscript to that novel acknowledging the incident, Dickens wrote:


 On Friday the Ninth of June in the present year, Mr and Mrs Boffin (in their manuscript dress of receiving Mr and Mrs Lammle at breakfast) were on the South-Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage — nearly turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn — to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt... I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book: — THE END


 In the end, 10 people had died in the Staplehurst train crash and over 40 sustained injuries. Nelly was one of them – she was recuperating for months afterwards. This is when Dickens bestowed her the epithet The Patient. This jocularity, however, stood in stark contrast to Nelly's frame of mind after the accident. Fearing a scandal, Dickens had used his considerable influence to keep Nelly's name from the papers, but her patience with the secret life she was forced to live as Dickens' mistress was wearing thin. He was about to embark on his second tour of America and, fearing the negative impact of a months-long absence, he stubbornly pushed for Nelly to accompany him. As headstrong as Dickens was, however, one thing the Staplehurst accident brought home to him was he could not stage manage every aspect of his life – he could keep his head while all around him others were losing theirs, but there were things outside of his control which threatened, at any moment and in the blink of an eye, to bring his entire world crashing down around him.


 In his later years, Dickens suffered from a swelling and discomforting pain in his legs, yet he refused to allow this to prevent him from his usual brisk 10-mile walks, often through wet grass and over rugged terrain. Back home, sitting writing for hours, Mamie or Georgina would apply mustard plasters and cold compresses to his sometimes suppurating legs. This ailment, never properly diagnosed or treated, we now know was gout, and Dickens' refusal to accept or tend to it contributed to his early demise. For his part in the Staplehurst accident, Dickens did his best to hide it – and he was a past-master at hiding – but he suffered what today is called Post Traumatic Stress. He experienced anxiety and occasional panic attacks. He was for a time unable to travel by train, using the much slower old-fashioned coaches instead. In 1868 he lamented, “My escape of the great Staplehurst accident of 3 years ago, is not to be obliterated from my nervous system. To this hour I have sudden vague rushes of terror, even when riding in a Hansom Cab... My secretary and companion knows so well when one of these momentary seizures comes upon me in a Railway Carriage, that he instantly produces a dram of brandy, which rallies the blood to the heart and generally prevails.” As Dickens' intense reading tours and double life necessitated he take many train rides, his stock of brandy needed constant replenishing. On one occasion, travelling from London to Edinburgh, in an attempt to forestall his anxiety, he decided to count the number of shocks to the nervous system such a trip involved – by the end, the tally was 30, 000.


 A year after Staplehurst, Dickens wrote the horror story The Signal-Man, about a railway worker haunted by an apparition who foretells tragic railway events. In the end, the spectre reveals to the signal-man his own death. In Dombey & Son, Dickens had given his readers a clear account of the upheaval the railway was then causing to London. Trains are seen as monsters, bringers of death. The crooked Carker is fascinated by trains, watches them obsessively, and finally falls to his death before one. The author gives us this view of the shrieking locomotive hurtling through the countryside:


 Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum, flashing out into the meadows for a moment, mining in through the damp earth, booming on in darkness and heavy air, bursting out again into the sunny day so bright and wide; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!


 This, of course, was the nostalgic, reactionary Dickens, playing a part before his public. In truth, he adored the railway, how it united the nation, and the speed with which he could criss-cross the country. From his home at Gad's Hill, he could get to London inside an hour; from there he could visit Nelly in Peckham and still be home in Kent by evening – Dickens' very way of life, both his ostensible life and his hidden one, depended implicitly on the trains.


 By odd coincidence, Charles Dickens died 5 years to the day of the Staplehurst disaster - June 9th, 1870.



Notes for General Circulation : 


  • Traditional interpretations of the 16th card of the Major Arcanum sees it signifying catastrophe and physical or mental illness. The card's traditional name, The House of God, was a colloquial name for a hospital in the Middle Ages. 

  • Trains represent a series of events, the unstoppable progress of modernity. The gap in the bridge of the Staplehurst Disaster suggests a hole in Charles Dickens' life he was unable to span. Regardless of the regulations in place and the careful administration of precautions, accidents and the unforeseen will occur, no matter how thorough and well thought out man's protocols. 

  • The carriages of a train, although linked together, can also be regarded for all intents and purposes as separate. The engine, the brake van, the 1st and 2nd class coaches and travellers, all imply the discreet compartmentalization and packaging the human mind devises to quantify, divide, and evaluate the stream of Time. 

  • Often likened to the Tower of Babel, the horizontal aspect of The Tower XVI Staplehurst card represents the lapidary horizontal procession of words, as across the pages of a book, from the mind of an author writing - or rewriting - his life story.

  • The Tower may indicate a sexual tension or impasse which has reached a climax; trains are commonly used as symbols for sex. In dream analysis, trains are said to symbolize fear in male dreamers and the phallus in female dreamers. Travelling by train indicates the dreamer is advancing too quickly through life; a gap in the rails suggests the dreamer's life has gone off track. 

  • Dickens' level-headed reaction to the Staplehurst Disaster and his subsequent PTSD indicate that no matter how heroic one's response to catastrophe may be, the circle cannot be squared, nor vice-versa. A man is made up of mind and body, head and heart, self and other - the two both live their own lives and are inseparable. When one grows to control and dominate the other, a hole forms in the bridge between them, to redress through rupture this corruption of the whole.  

  • Esoteric teaching, as seen on religious facades such as Reims Cathedral, holds that when the Holy Family fled from Herod and entered a pagan town, the unholy temples fell to the ground. Presumably, the spiritual power of the Holy Family was too great for the genius loci to withstand. In a formal reading, this interpretation implies the reader has been unable to respond to life with sufficient understanding, humanity, or spiritual "being". The fabric of the veil has been rent. The lacuna can only be filled by the stone the masons threw away.

  • Verticality indicates spiritual ascendance; the horizontal plane indicates the crisscrossing mundane worlds of intellect and emotion. The Tower card, then, with its lack or very limited vertical structure, indicates a crisis brought about by the paucity of spiritual advancement. More, the hegemony of the intellect, seen in the rapidly expanding railway system, gives way under its own weight and imperfection to the underlying realm of emotions, represented by the Water element of the River Beult.

  • In short, The Tower represents a turning point in Dickens' control over his own narrative, a tearing asunder of his ability to marshal the demands of his head and his heart, his public and private lives. This is a personal, spiritual dilemma - not as the Staplehurst Disaster might imply simply an earthly one. As such, The Tower indicates a personal apogee or crunch for the reader.


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