The Death of an Author: Pratchett and Dickens

Pratchett deathdickensdeath It was with great sadness I learned of the death of Terry Pratchett yesterday. In the interest of objectivity, let me make it clear that I am very much a fan of his work, and very much in sympathy with the millions of other fans out there who are now feeling the loss of a friend. His characters, to my mind, are as vivid as those of Dickens, and I know of many friends and colleagues, both in and out of the academic community, who share my enthusiasm for Pratchett as much as they do for the inimitable. In this regard the publication of Pratchett’s Dodger in 2012 was a happy culmination of the two, in which Pratchett’s eponymous hero life in the dingy streets of Victorian London was peppered with meetings with the terrifyingly perceptive Dickens, ‘a dangerous cove, a gentleman who knew the ins and outs of the world and could see through flannel and soft words to what you were thinking, which was dangerous indeed.’ But I’m not looking to talk about Pratchett and Dickens’s words today, but rather the words of those describing these authors, because looking through the obituaries for Pratchett this morning I became acutely aware of a sense of déjà vu that took me back to a morning last December working through the archives of the Charles Dickens Museum: it seems the press in June 1870 had much the same reaction as their successors in March 2015, mourning ‘the prince and the great man’ (Period, 25 June 1870) just as much as the ‘literary wizard’ (Independent, 13 March 2015). Some of that sorrow took the form of nostalgia over favourite characters now lost; for Dickens the most noted figure was Pickwick, ‘his masterpiece’ (Times, 10 June 1870), whereas for Pratchett the most cited character has been, inevitably, Death, with the poignant final tweets from Pratchett’s own account, sent by his daughter Rhianna, suggesting ‘Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night’ (@terryand rob, 12 March 2015). In both their obituaries the sorrow extended as much to fiction as it did to fact, with the loss felt for the characters as much as the creator. Yet both authors are characterised specifically by their popularity: Dickens was ‘without any exception or any chance of approach the most popular author of the time’ (Daily News, 10 June 1870) just as Pratchett’s popularity ‘knew no bounds…

He was knighted for services to literature in 2009. His books have so far sold 85 million copies worldwide. In April 2009, two roads in a Somerset town took names from his Discworld series. He was so popular that he was reputed to be the author that British shoplifters most liked to pilfer from bookshops – a fact he shared with me with a hoot of laughter. (Arifa Akbar, Independent, 13 March 2015)

The knighthood awarded to Pratchett, and used above as a benchmark for popularity, was of course also offered to Dickens and likewise cited in his obituaries as a testament to his achievement: ‘it may now be stated that the Queen was ready to confer any distinction which Mr Dickens’s known views and tastes would permit him to accept’ (Daily News, 17 June 1870). In both cases sales figures alone, and the love of the public, were not enough to evidence the authors’ popularity without a nod to recognition from the throne. Yet equally, such was their popularity and the level of affection for their characters that it was necessary for journalists to remind authors of the satire each author was capable of. Val McDermid notes how Pratchet’s novels ‘satirise our world and its institutions with an unsparing savagery’ (Guardian 13 March 2015), while Dickens was criticised in one instance for not being ‘just in his treatment of the upper classes; and that his later stories, more especially Our Mutual Friend, betray a rather bitter spirit of uncalled-for satire upon the enjoyments of wealth and the conventional distinctions of the modern world’ (Illustrated London News, 18 June 1870). The tension in both is that sense of popularity potentially being acceptable to the point of bland; that it is the unpopular, savage treatment that reveals the edge to these authors. In 1870 it was preferable to avoid such savagery whereas today that same savagery, applauded retrospectively in Dickens, is called upon to justify Pratchett’s credibility as an author. Yet behind the affectionate tributes, in each case the passing of a popular author was followed hard upon by a materialised form of remembrance. In Dickens’s case this was marked by an auction of his property in July 1870 at Christies, where his friends and family had to compete with eager members of the public to acquire items and paintings from his home. Unfortunately with Pratchett this eagerness extended even further to a despicable case, brought to public attention by his daughter, of a signed copy of a first edition being offered on Ebay at a highly enlarged price before his death, justified by the seller’s callous remark that ‘When he stops writing and ends his life this book will easily sell for twice what I am asking’. But even aside from the material, there is in both cases a sense of cherishing every last word; whether it be the final tweets from Pratchett’s account, or the final letters written by Dickens; one recipient of such a letter, J M M, immediately sent a copy of it to the Daily News with a lengthy preface foregrounding his own, barely tangible, connection to Dickens and practically purrs in his own self-importance: ‘I cannot but be glad to have in my possession Charles Dickens’s last words – and such words – and to be able to lay them before his thousands of admiring and mourning friends’ (17 June 1870). And then what next? After the author dies, what becomes of his works? Aside from the scramble over last words, and capitalising upon signed editions, there is also the case of any more to follow. For Dickens this of course meant Drood: ‘the public, after the first shock which the tidings of his death will bring, may be pardoned a hope that posterity will not lose the whole of this work, but that the author had made such advances in it as to afford some indication of its close’ (Telegraph 10 June 1870). The furore around Drood is really not so unique after all; already speculation has begun over an unpublished Pratchett book:

He said – tantalisingly – that he had an unfinished memoir – half-written then because he kept getting distracted by his fictive universes. He subsequently published A Slip of the Keyboard,a book of collected non-fiction, though I half suspect this may not be the memoir he was referring to. I will not be the only one who waits on tenterhooks to see if further work will be published posthumously (Arifa Akbar, Independent, 13 March 2015).

Tenterhooks. It’s a fine line between enthusiasm for an author and a ghoulish demand for more words beyond the grave. Finally, both Pratchett and Dickens leave behind a successor; it has been announced that Terry intended for his daughter Rhianna to continue the Discworld series, just as Charles Dickens Jnr assumed the reins of All The Year Round. In all this discussion we can see the way in which the public and press respond to the loss of an author and with it the end of a series; the mourning of characters as much as people; the outpouring of affection for a person never met yet an intrinsic part of our daily lives; and the desperate hope that somehow the death of the author might not mean the end of the books.

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About Pete Orford

I'm an English lecturer at the University of Buckingham, with a research background in both Dickens and Shakespeare; I am also a father of three, with a research background in dinosaurs and moshi monsters. I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com).
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