Wednesday, 13 June 2012

On language in Dickens 3: names

The third theme in my talk on Dickens at the Hay Festival was the way he uses puns and sound symbolism in naming characters. It’s a familiar point, immediately recognized in Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby; the schoolteacher McChoakumchild in Hard Times; the ‘very fervid, impassioned speaker' in Bleak House, Mr Gusher; the journalist Mr Slurk in Pickwick Papers; and in Our Mutual Friend, the ‘innocent piece of dinner-furniture’ and ‘feeble soul’ Twemlow – the most famous use of ‘tw’ beginning a proper name before Twitter.

Dickens worked at his names: he tried out Martin Sweezleden, Sweezleback, Sweezlewag, Chuzzletoe, Chuzzleboy, Chubblewig, and Chuzzlewig, before ending up with Martin Chuzzlewit.

His distinctive names often occur in clusters: in Sketches of Young Couples, we are asked:

if we happened to be acquainted 
with the Dowager Lady Snorflerer. On our replying in the negative,
 he presumed we had often met Lord Slang, or beyond all doubt, that
 we were on intimate terms with Sir Chipkins Glogwog.

He often comments on his names. In David Copperfield, David appoints a housekeeper:

Her name was Paragon. Her nature was represented to us, when we engaged her, as being feebly expressed in her name.

In Bleak House, Caddy remarks:

Young Mr Turveydrop’s name is Prince. I wish it wasn’t, because it sounds like a dog.

In Our Mutual Friend:

a youth waited in the hall who gave
 the name of Sloppy. The footman who communicated this 
intelligence made a decent pause before uttering the name, to 
express that it was forced on his reluctance by the youth in 
question, and that if the youth had had the good sense and good 
taste to inherit some other name it would have spared the feelings
of him the bearer.

In Dombey and Son, Mr Dombey can't imagine a wet-nurse with a name like Toodle and insists on calling her Richards:

an ordinary name and convenient.

Dickens loved names ending in ‘-oodle’. In Bleak House, Lord Boodle reflects on the possibility that the government should be overthrown:

the limited choice of the Crown, in the formation of a new Ministry, would lie between Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle — supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle. Then, giving the Home Department and the Leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle? You can’t offer him the Presidency of the Council; that is reserved for Poodle. You can’t put him in the Woods and Forests; that is hardly good enough for Quoodle. What follows? That the country is shipwrecked, lost, and gone to pieces … because you can’t provide for Noodle!

Dickens not only finds politicians to be figures of fun, but also – judging by their names - professors. This is evident in Mudfog and Other Sketches from the names of those who attended the first meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything:

Professors Snore, Doze, Wheezy, Nogo, Muff and Queerspeck.

Lawyers too. In Our Mutual Friend, Mortimer Lightwood's clerk

was apt to consider it personally disgraceful to
 himself that his master had no clients.

Mr Boffin arrives at Lighttwood’s office:

Narrator: the office door was opened by the dismal boy, whose 
appropriate name was Blight. Young Blight made a great show of fetching 
from his desk a long thin manuscript volume with a brown paper 
cover, and running his finger down the day's appointments,
Blight: Mr Aggs, Mr Baggs, Mr Caggs, Mr Daggs, Mr
 Faggs, Mr Gaggs, Mr Boffin. Yes, sir; quite right. You are a little
 before your time, sir. Mr Lightwood will be in directly. … I'll take the opportunity, if you please, of entering
 your name in our Callers' Book for the day.
Narrator: Young Blight made
 another great show of changing the volume, taking up a pen,
 sucking it, dipping it, and running over previous entries before he 
Blight: Mr Alley, Mr Balley, Mr Calley, Mr Dalley, Mr
 Falley, Mr Galley, Mr Halley, Mr Lalley, Mr Malley. And Mr

Those alphabetical sequences turn up in other places too. In Oliver Twist, the beadle Mr Bumble talks to Mrs Mann:

Bumble: The child that was half-baptized, Oliver Twist, is nine year old to-day.
Mrs Mann: Bless him!
Bumble: And notwithstanding a offered reward of ten pound, which was afterwards increased to twenty pound. Notwithstanding the most superlative, and, I may say, supernat'ral exertions on the part of this parish, we have never been able to discover who is his father, or what was his mother's settlement, name, or con-dition.
Mrs Mann: How comes he to have any name at all, then?
Bumble: I inwented it.
Mrs Mann: You, Mr. Bumble!
Bumble: I, Mrs. Mann. We name our fondlings in alphabetical order. The last was a S,- Swubble, I named him. This was a T,- Twist, I named him. The next one as comes will be Unwin, and the next Vilkins. I have got names ready made to the end of the alphabet, and all the way through it again, when we come to Z.
Mrs Mann: Why, you're quite a literary character, sir!

I give the last word to Nicholas in Nicholas Nickleby, describing Squeers, but note the generalization. ‘He is an odd-looking man… so was Doctor Johnson; all these bookworms are.’ He’s talking about me – and [to the Hay audience, but doubtless also many readers of this blog] you.


Barrie England said...

If anything, the names Trollope gives to some of his characters are even more apt, if perhaps a little less subtle. We have the lawyers Slow and Bideawhile, the medical men Dr Rerechild and Dr Fillgrave, the social climber Mr Lookaloft, the politician The Duke of Omniun (a.k.a. Plantagenet Palliser), Farmer Greenacre, the bishop’s wife Mrs Proudie, the productive parson Mr Quiverful and Major Fiasco.

John Cowan said...

The Duke of Omnium's ancestral pile is called Castle Gatherum.