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Charles Dickens and his Feud about Spontaneous Combustion

Charles Dickens made a brave literary attempt to justify the existence of spontaneous combustion in his novel “Bleak House.” True to his romantic nature, Dickens sought to glue his reading audience to the page as he wrote about the foul odor of burning flesh. Mr. Krook was the famous character in “Bleak House” whose alcoholism caused his body to disappear. Spontaneous combustion was the plausible explanation.

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In the novel, Mr. Krook’s body disintegrated into ashes. The now famous spontaneous combustion chapter was first published in 1852 as part of a series of installments. Readers were eager to believe in the author’s words and description. After all, Dickens had a reputation for writing about various types of medical diseases with precision. So, there was no reason for his Victorian readers to doubt his description of spontaneous combustion.

A Catholic priest had once transcribed the story of a countess from Italy who died as a victim of spontaneous combustion. The event supposedly took place in 1731 as a result of her decision to bathe in a mixture of alcoholic beverages. The priest’s notes declared that the woman’s empty bed led to a discovery of a headless and bodiless person with the sole exception of two visible legs. The rest of her body was a mound of ashes. Dickens believed the story because it had been penned by a priest.

However, George Lewes, the romantic partner of novelist George Eliot for many years, was not impressed. In fact, Lewes, an established critic and physiologist, knew all about anatomy. Lewes and Dickens were involved in a heated debate for nearly a year. Today, spontaneous combustion is thought of as a myth. Perhaps the idea of spontaneous combustion is a complete fabrication. Yet the words written by novelist Charles Dickens still remain strong and convincing.

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