Rereading the second monthly part this afternoon, I was immediately struck (pardon the pun) by the opening scene of the Reverend Septimus Crisparkle ‘assisting his circulation by boxing at a looking-glass with great science and prowess’. The first time I read the novel, many moons ago, I can be forgiven for not catching this reference as I hadn’t at that point known that there had ever been such a thing as Muscular Christianity – I’m not sure why it didn’t hit me (again with the pun) at the beginning of the month when I read it again, perhaps because I was too distracted by Mr Grewgious’s hair. But in this opening scene, Septimus Crisparkle is clearly being portrayed as the embodiment of the muscular Christian hero, a prime specimen of healthy English manliness:
“The Reverend Septimus Crisparkle (Septimus, because six little brother Crisparkles before him went out, one by one, as they were born, like six weak little rushlights, as they were lighted), having broken the thin morning ice near Cloisterham Weir with his amiable head, much to the invigoration of his frame, was now assisting his circulation by boxing at a looking-glass with great science and prowess. A fresh and healthy portrait the looking-glass presented of the Reverend Septimus, feinting and dodging with the utmost artfulness, and hitting out from the shoulder with the utmost straightness, while his radiant features teemed with innocence, and soft-hearted benevolence beamed from his boxing-gloves”.
A quick google search tells me that I am not the only one to spot this and that David Faulkner has written an excellent piece on manliness, imperialism and muscular Christianity in Drood with a focus on Crisparkle. Fitting in with Pete’s discussion of race in the novel a couple of weeks ago, Faulker compares and contrasts the different models of manliness portrayed in the novel, and the manner in which Crisparkle’s ‘Anglo-Saxon vigour and virtue’ are set against, for example, the ‘Oriental’ taint of Jasper, or even in the ambiguous racial heritage of Neville Landless with this ‘tigerish blood’.
What Faulker doesn’t really discuss, however, is that this same exemplar of Christian manhood is at the same time a dedicated mummy’s boy:
“It was scarcely breakfast-time yet, for Mrs. Crisparkle—mother, not wife of the Reverend Septimus—was only just down, and waiting for the urn. Indeed, the Reverend Septimus left off at this very moment to take the pretty old lady’s entering face between his boxing-gloves and kiss it. Having done so with tenderness, the Reverend Septimus turned to again, countering with his left, and putting in his right, in a tremendous manner”.
These two traits seem to sit together rather incongruously and yet as we see here are very much united in Dickens’s vision. Can we class the Reverend Septimus therefore with Joe Gargery in Great Expectations as the model of the muscular yet gentle Christian man, in which Dickens is not simply incorporating but rewriting this popular ideal of manliness to include a heavy emphasis on tenderness? Or are we meant to laugh at the muscular man kissing his mother (not his wife) between his boxing gloves? How exactly are we meant to feel about this muscular mummy’s boy, and does this feed into the question of race and empire? As Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick points out manliness and the line between acceptable male love and excessive love is a contentious one in the novel, and this is as much the case with the benevolent Crisparkle as it is with the slightly more sinister Jasper.