Sunday, 16 November 2008

What the Dickens?

Miss Dorrit and Little Dorrit - Illustration by Phiz, 1855

What the Dickens, indeed. But what does this expression have to do with Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812 - 1870)? As it turns out, absolutely nothing. Its first appearance (or so I am led to believe) is in William Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III Scene II, where Mistress Page is moved to say:

I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of.

And that was around 1597. 'Dickens' (variously Dickin or Dickon) is thought to be a diminutive of the forename Dick, and was generally used as a euphemism for the Devil, as was the word 'deuce'. Back then people felt very uncomfortable uttering the D-word itself, and so came up with a long list of synonyms; Old Harry, Old Scratch, Horny, Rodger, Clootie, Black Donald, and, of course, Old Nick. What seems curious to me is that some of the names are almost affectionate.

But enough of this talk of the Devil. It is Mr. Charles Dickens I wish to discuss today (Albeit there is a link - Ebenezer Scrooge is referred to as 'Old Scratch' and Fagin as 'The merry old gentleman', both of which are also names for the Devil). No doubt you will have seen Andrew Davies' latest offering, Little Dorrit, on the BBC. I believe that the Beeb is at its best when it comes to drama, factual programming and natural history, and Dorrit doesn't disappoint. What may irritate some viewers is Davies' decision to slice the novel up into half-hour chunks when we are used to such offerings occupying a one hour slot. In a sense, however, Davies is mimicking Dickens himself, many of whose novels were not published as a single volume, but rather in monthly parts. The Pickwick Papers was so published, and circulation increased dramatically after he had introduced Mr. Pickwick's cheeky cockney manservant, Sam Weller. The plots were followed, and the next instalments as eagerly awaited, as are the latest episodes of Coronation Street or Eastenders by our contemporaries.

In common with some of our serial dramas (and here I'm thinking of Spooks, currently running on the BBC), Dickens was not afraid to kill off some of his more important chacters; Paul Dombey (Dombey and Son); Dora (David Copperfield); and Little Nell (The Old Curiosity Shop). [About the last, Oscar Wilde is believed to have said, 'One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.'] In so doing, Dickens was, of course, reflecting the high mortality rate of the time, particularly amongst the young. The average age of mortality, mid-century, was 22 years for the working classes, and around half of all funerals were of children under the age of ten.

Many of Dickens' characters are drawn from life. It is fairly well known that Mr. Micawber was based upon the author's own father (who, like Little Dorrit's father, was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt in 1824), and David Copperfield upon himself. However, what is less well known is that the author spent many hours wandering around the less savoury and downright dangerous parts of London, observing at first hand the drunkenness, violence, poverty and squalor that existed there, and which inevitably found its way into his novels. Of Seven Dials, an area close to the now fashionable Covent Garden, he said, 'What wild visions of prodigies of wickedness, want, and beggary, arose in my mind out of that place.' He once told a journalist, 'The amount of crime, starvation and nakedness and misery of every sort in the metropolis surpasses all understanding.' It was from these forays that he was able to create such an accurate picture of the London of King William the fourth and the young Queen Victoria.

Not only did Dickens provide us with a sense of place, but was able to people his novels with accurate portrayals of the city's inhabitants; old clothes sellers, cabmen, actors, boatmen, the military and the criminal classes. He had encountered all such people in his wanderings. And, as an excellent mimic, he was able to bring the language of the streets, alleyways and public houses to his public readings, given later in life.

One of Dickens' early jobs was as a court reporter. Perhaps it was in the Police Courts, where he saw savage sentences meted out to those who stole out of poverty or want, that the author acquired his distaste for the law in all its forms; the interminable Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit in Bleak House that destroys all whom it touches; the puffed-up 'jobsworth' parish beadle Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist; and the terminally obstructive attitude of the staff in the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit. Heaven alone knows what he would have thought of our twenty first century police, tied up in knots by government targets and unable even to tackle violence head on without conducting a 'risk assessment'.

Anyway, if you haven't seen Little Dorrit yet, do try and catch up with it somehow. And, as Christmas seems to be perpetually associated with the author, I can thoroughly recommend that there is no better time for you settle down with a glass of Genuine Stunning Ale, put another coal upon the fire, and immerse yourself in one of Mr. Dickens' novels. Go on, I dare you!


Diane said...

I may take you up on your dare. Though I love Dickens' work on the screen, I admit to struggling through it in its written form. I used to think it was because I simply wasn't smart enough... or my attention span wasn't long enough (I find myself wandering outside the books and re-reading paragraphs over and over). Now I'm not sure what the problem is (I don't like to think of myself as stupid or having ADD... so I won't ;). But I'm compiling a list of classics to plow through next year... maybe I'll include your Mr. Dickens in the pile.

And you're right... that meme was nearly impossible. As soon as I posted, I thought, "Wait a minute... I should have included..." Ugh.

chris hale said...

Hi Diane, thanks for dropping by.

Screen versions of Dickens really don't do him justice. The plots of some of his novels are incredibly complex, with lots of sub-plots and coincidences that most TV and movie versions leave out altogether because of time constraints. And it's nothing to do with not being smart; Dickens can be very heavy going as we're not used to the flowery and convoluted dialogue these days! I really struggled with Hard Times when it came up as a set book on my Open University course.

I'd recommend you start with something seasonal - A Christmas Carol - and then maybe his first proper novel - The Pickwick Papers. This latter is quite a gentle and jolly piece, and you can dip in and out as you desire. You might even want to read my own version of part of this novel. It's at:

Happy reading, and do let me know how you get on.