What the Dickens!

Engraving of snail by Orlando Jewitt

George Braintree:
Poverty and Oysters; how words inspired Charles Dickens
Gotham Press 1970

“It’s a wery remarkable circumstance, Sir,’ said Sam, ‘that poverty and oysters always seem to go together.”
— Sam Weller to Mr Pickwick

One of the most striking things about Dickens’ writings is the range of curious names his characters, places and book titles sport — Micawber, Chuzzlewit, Mudfog, Uriah Heap, and so on.

Georgian literature was replete with artful names, of course, usually suited to the nature of the person so called: Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s play The Rivals, for example, is from the French mal à propos (meaning ‘inappropriate’), and religious allegories like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress were chock-full of them.

But the names Dickens invents are altogether more playful and seemingly pointless except for their memorability. Where did he get his inspiration for them? George Braintree thinks he knows.

A for Anchor appears in Braintree’s vintage book

He relates how he acquired an old picture book many years ago from an antiquarian bookseller. It was decidedly tatty, the binding almost separating from the leaves. A Child’s Alphabet Treasury had no author and no date but Braintree guessed it had been produced up to a decade either side of 1840.

But it was the illustrations that had attracted him. He recognised engravings from famous artists such as the brothers Thomas and John Bewick, but also Robert Branston, William Harvey, Orlando Jewitt and Thomas Wright, plus a host of anonymous engravers. Images were grouped together under each letter of the alphabet over a double foolscap page though none were actually labelled, presumably as part of the reader’s task to interpret them.

Braintree’s book includes facsimiles of all the pages so we can understand his arguments about Dickens’ procedures. They’re an odd collection of images, relying on what was available to snaffle from the corpus produced by the identified artists and their colleagues, all born in the 18th century. The subjects include cuts of popular saints and biblical figures, natural features and animals, chess pieces and court cards, figures from nursery rhymes such as ‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor’ and varied occupations from milkmaids to parsons.

Some pictures occur more than once, for example the Devil reappears as Old Nick under the N words, and St Paul’s Cathedral (which appears with cap, captain, laundry copper, church and cockerel, among others) is also found under D for dome. R includes rye, a rose, a river or rill, a robber, and a rich man; and, following Sam Weller’s observation about poverty and oysters going together, a picture of an oyster is indeed followed by a poor man on the next double page.

In his perusal of his new (but, I should add, unprovenanced) acquisition Braintree noticed two faint pencilled letters on the fly leaf, which he interpreted as C and D. His mind leapt immediately to two giant literary figures: Charles Dodgson, best known under his pen name Lewis Carroll, and Charles Dickens. Could he pin down a link between one or the other and the book, especially as both authors loved whimsical names?

I won’t go into lengthy reasons why he ruled out the author of the Alice books, but he did plump strongly for Dickens on account of the titles and the personages in the novels. Let me give some examples of his arguments, which he formulated after noting that some images were covered in pin pricks.

Bewick engraving of an Ape

Take Nicholas Nickleby, for instance. Braintree thinks Dickens used a form of bibliomancy, literally pinpointing the different syllables from the images: Nicholas from St Nicholas (under the guise of Father Christmas) plus Nick from devilish Old Nick and -by from Bee. Another name is David Copperfield, which he thinks comes from David slaying Goliath, an old-fashioned washing copper, and a field being ploughed. Dombey and Sons he derives from the dome of St Paul’s, the Bee (again) and the homophone Sun; Uriah Heap is made up of a yew branch, a stalk of rye grass and a heap of coal (which reappears under H as well as C).

Bewick engraving of a rill or river

And so it goes on: you can guess how Braintree accounts for The Mudfog Papers and, with images of a rock and a clock, Hard Times. A few like these last two are distinctly less convincing; the author even shows how he could derive his own name from St George defeating the dragon, a phrenology head and, of course, an oak tree, which somehow lessens his argument.

Bewick engraving for Fuel

Braintree seems to have convinced himself that Dickens owned this unique alphabet book, though I’m yet to be won over. A lot hinges on the pin holes that the author claims are there but for which he produces no photographic evidence; however he does include a close-up of the C and the D which I have to admit are very similar to, but less flashy, than the initial letters of some of the autographs — though these do evolve over Dickens’ lifetime.

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In the meantime I tried my hand at creating my own Dickensian title. Here’s what I came up with on my first go, randomly flipping between A, R and F: Ape — Rill — Fuel.

26 thoughts on “What the Dickens!

  1. You nearly had me scoffing at the author’s argument, Chris, especially given so many Dickensian names that match the owners’ occupations. E.g., Mr Tite Barnacle, a bureaucrat in Little Dorrit. Well done!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Alyson Woodhouse

    This is fascinating, I’ve always loved Dickens’s somewhat ridiculous names for people and places. Although not wholely convincing, there could be something in a few of the examples you have listed here, certainly in the Dombey and Son one. The Christian name of both father and son was Paul as it happened, and the journey of Dombey the elder could be seen at a stretch as loosely inspired by the dramatic conversion of the biblical saint.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wish it were true, Alyson, but I’m afraid it isn’t! I tried to drop clues with the name of the publisher (viz The Wise Men of Gotham) and the final punning jest, but it’s perhaps my fault for making it just a bit too convincing!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course, Dale! I debated throwing in one or two more but I really enjoyed concocting this farrago of a piece, especially with researching the pictures. The Opies’ Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes was a useful reference, and how could one resist the opportunity of including some Thomas Bewick prints? Fans of his engravings included the Brontës and Charles Kingsley.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Sadly Braintree has had too short an existence for you to give him a piece of your mind, Sandra, but I might just see if I can locate any other theses of his for future dissection and delection!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m a day late to this Chris but enjoyed it just as much as if I’d read it on time. Halfway through I was thinking this sounds incredibly far fetched but your posts are always so knowledgeable I was putting scepticism aside for a little while at least! Thank you for making me chuckle.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Very good – I enjoyed that and “lolled” at the end 🙂 I thought, as I read it, this is all bit far fetched – but it is now 6th April and the fool’s day had gone from my thoughts. Very enjoyable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers, Alastair. 🙂 It’s tricky keeping on that knife edge between just feasible and rather unlikely so I suppose that if it kept you reading till the end that’s some kind of achievement! I shall have to be more subtle in future, mayhap… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

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