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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.