The Names in the Novels
One great open secret of the classic stamp which is upon these fictions lies in the author’s happy choice of unforgettable names, both for places and for characters. We learn from Forster’s ‘Life’ – what we might have divined from experience of the range and peculiarity of actual English names – that the nomenclature in Dickens, when it was not obviously coined, as in Do-the-boys Hall, was taken down from signboards, nameplates, newspaper reports, and the everyday hearing of the ear.
To Scotsmen, Welshmen, or Irishmen who have never lived away from their own country, the Dickens names often appear incredibly absurd. There are ugly names in the Celtic lands – McCulloch, MacFadyen, MacGurk, Auchinachie are not exactly verbal poems – but at least the Celtic names have a meaning: Mac is ‘the son of,’ and auch is ‘a field.’ But some English names would appear to have been affixed for their absurdity. No name is too grotesque, too jeering, to gross, or too ugly to be an actual name carried through life by some unfortunate English man or woman who must repeat it to strangers, be addressed by it in speech or writing, or hear it announced at a great public assembly. What are we to think of Hogben, Quirk, Titterington, Coffin, Bugg, Ragg, and Juggins? Passing along Chester Road, Manchester , one day with Robert Blatchford and William Palmer the artist, we sighted a brass plate bearing the legend: ‘Tipper, Contractor.’ My companions smiled when I called attention to its appropriateness; but hey had evidently seen without thinking of it before. A little later, in Stretford Road, we came upon the name ‘Godbehere’ over a Bible shop, and again it was the northern newcomer who was struck with the oddity rather than the English journalist and the English artist who passed the shop regularly.
When in Dickens’s page we light upon place names like Chinks’s Basin, Millpond Bank, and the Old Green Copper Ropewalk we may be sure that the great writer has seen these names and joyfully jotted them down for use. They were almost certainly real names. In Hull to this day there is a Bowlalley Lane and a Land of Green Ginger.
The surnames in these novels are forever identifies with typical human characteristics as adjectives and substantives. Coined names like Gradgrind and Bounderby carry their meaning in their face; but names less indicative of personal characteristics have nevertheless become generically descriptive. The groveller is Uriah Heep; the whole tribe of cracksmen are Bill Sikes; Sarah Gamp’s surname has provided a short synonym for umbrellas that have now little in common with the plethoric paraplui she carried; Chadband and Stiggins stand for the class of theologians - now mostly extinct, one would say - whose unction was in inverse ratio to their sincerity.
The names seem to go in pairs, because they are chosen upon a principle, and we link them so much with pleasure in the mere enumeration. There is Jarley and Marley, and Lillyvick and Linkinwater. There are Podsnap and Snodgrass, Peg Sliderskew and Poll Sweedlepipe. We bracket Joe Gargery who had ‘sich larks’ with Barkiss who ‘was willin.’ When we think of two hard, hemit-like old hunks we couple Scrooge who was hard bitten by habit rather than nature with the diabolical Quilp who rioted in badness. If we think of lawyers it is impossible to remember Spenlow & Jorkins without recalling Dodson & Fogg. There are names that suggest the qualities of the characters who bear them, as they were, of course, intended to do – the Brothers Cheeryble as optimists, Murdstone, the hard man whose name is suggested by grindstone; Miss Flyte, whose estate took flight in litigation; Serjeant Buzfuz who was indeed all fuss and buzz; Trotty Veck, Silas Wegg, Newman Noggs, Mark Tapley (the very name for a man from a public house) ; Mrs Pipchin (what a name!) and Mrs Gummidge , who grumbled so long and then turned out a trump. What a galaxy of memories they call up, and how they have served the world with catchwords and similes, from Wilkins Micawber’s ‘Waiting for something to turn up,’ and Captain Cuttle’s ‘When found make a note of,’ to the proverbs and metaphors of the Wellers, father and son.
To many a million the England of Charles Dickens and his people is the only England there is; and when we read that Germans in the trenches read the novels of Dickens in greater numbers than did our own Tommies, it seemed no wonder that they should have been so ready to fraternise with us at the first Christmas of the Great War, or that afterwards they should have mutinied against fighting the compatriots of an author in whose hands English humanity appears, on the whole, in such a delightful guise.
Well, we may say that the foundation of Dickens’s style was the close attention with which he observed, the intense feeling with which he wrote, and the happy patience with which he unfolded the humours of character in humble individuals with whom both the queerest freakishnesses and the greatest tenderness are oftenest to be found. One thinks of all the art expended on the Aged Parent, deaf and past work, yet affectionately cherished and humoured by his son, who in the city was the hardest of legal nuts. But the secret of Dickens’s humour and wit and kindness is beyond us. The combination has a moral as well as an intellectual basis. Like Shakespeare, Dickens must have been a great lover of his fellow men.
It is often argued that Dickens was greatly given to exaggeration. For anyone who read the daily marvels of the press and keeps an open eye for the marvels of ordinary life it would be hard to say that the greatest wonders of the mere novelist can be exaggerated. One has met queerer people in life than any novelist dared to put in his books. There are many things that are impossible, but hardly any that are improbable.
All fictitious presentation of character has by its concentration necessarily the effect of exaggeration. To set down actual occurrences and speeches in the order of their occurrence, with all the inconsequent, insignificant things said and done in between the events and conversations that are of moment, would not be worth while. The artist must exclude the unessential in word and act. We all have friends and acquaintances who do and say, at intervals, things which we call characteristic. But during most of the time their words and acts are quite ordinary, and of no literary significance. In plays or novels, however, characters must always speak in character, and acts must have dramatic significance. This means that the ordinary must be excluded, and thus exaggeration becomes inevitable. A play or novel, thus, cannot be natural. They can only approximate to nature. It is enough that Dickens in his exaggeration can always carry us along with him. The story marches as a story, and the oddity of the characters, their odd names, their odd surroundings, their unusual experiences, and the didactic (teaching) significance of the whole tale, give it its value, in Dickens’s case a supreme value.
The Open-Eyed Sociologist.
The sociologist in Dickens never sleeps. He cannot take Pip to Mr Pumblechook’s shop without giving a picture of the whole High Street which is of vast economic significance:
Mr Pumblechook appeared to conduct his business by looking across the street at the saddler, who appeared to transact his business by keeping his eye on the coachmaker, who appeared to get on in life by putting his hands in his pockets and contemplating the baker, who in his turn folded his arms and stared at the grocer, who stood at his door and yawned at the chemist. The watchmaker, always peering over a little desk with a magnifying glass at his eye, and always inspected by a group in smock-frocks poring over him through the glass of his shop-window, seemed to be about the only person in the High Street whose trade engaged his attention.
That is competitive commerce – the small market town of wasteful hops and idle shopmen, with only one busy craftsman in the street.
As to sentiment, Dickens was one of the earliest of early Victorians; and while his fund is as fresh as ever, the pathos, say, of Little Nell and the old man is tiring. But with all his sentiment, he was ahead of his age, even ahead of the present age, in his socioeconomic shrewdness. It is still the fashion to sympathise with the money-lender’s victims, and judges gain cheap popularity by denouncing the money-lender. The dishonesty of borrowers who do not mean to pay, and of idle extravagant people who live well upon credit, taking goods they have no intention of paying – of this we hear only as a joke, though it is no joke to billed tradesmen and to the honest folk who are charged to make good the losses incurred with the bilkers. On this Dickens eighty years ago was more sound than all the judges who give all their sympathy to the plunging borrower and their scorn to the men who risk their money in the most desperate of all ventures, spending their lives in coping with conscienceless impecuniosity. He makes Arthur Gride in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’) soliloquise:
Ten thousand pounds! How many proud printed dames would have fawned and smiled, and how many spendthrift blockheads done me lip-service to my face and cursed me in their hearts, while I turned that ten thousand pounds into twenty! While I ground and pinched and used these needy borrowers for my pleasure and profit, what smooth-tongued speeches and courteous looks and civil letters would have given me! The cant of the lying world is, that men like me compass our riches by dissimulation and treachery; by fawning, cringing and stooping. Why, how many lies, what mean evasions, what humbled behaviour from upstarts who, but for my money, would spurn me aside as they do their betters every day, would that ten thousand pounds have brought me in! Grant that I had doubled it – made cent. per cent. – for every sovereign told another – there would not be one piece in all the heap which wouldn’t represent ten thousand man and paltry lies, told, not by the money-lender, oh, no, but by the money- borrowers, your liberal, thoughtless, generous, dashing folks, who wouldn’t be so mean as to save a sixpence for the world.
That is not only good sense, but good drama. The money-lender is made to speak just as a money-lender would speak. It is the essence of drama to be able to put yourself in the place even of characters with whose sorry trade (as in this case) you have no sympathy.
I have quoted extensively from ‘Great Expectations,’ not only because of its ‘artistic’ merits as a tale, but because it seems to embody its author’s latest, wisest attitude to life. In its conclusion, Pip, who has lived upon the ex-convict’s bounty without knowing the source of his unearned income, from the moment the coarse but affectionate man turns up, revolts against accepting another penny of his money.
The money has been lawfully earned abroad: it is the human channel through which it comes that Pip cannot abide.
How many men and women of today would jib at the fortune that came through such hands? It is such men as Magwitch, coarse in speech, in feature, hands, and habit, who make most of the world’s wealth. Are we to believe that because the rents and dividends of the idle well-to-do come through the hands of lawyer or stockbroker the dependence of the well-groomed, well-schooled, travelled, expensively-turned-out people is any less dishonourable?
If the upshot of Dickens’s tale counts for anything it is that every man and woman who does not work for a living is in precisely the same degrading position which Pip found so dishonourable when his patron turned up in person. Pip would not have the course Colonial’s money. He and his friend Herbert Pocket alike declared the idea intolerable. Is it tolerable for the well-to-do generally to live upon the labour and earnings of just such men, multiplied manifold, but keeping themselves mostly out of sight?
The miner, the navvy, the slaves of the stokehold, the bloated men of the brewery, the anaemic factory hands, the wretched beings from soapworks and chemical works, one of whom declared to an R.A.M.C friend that the life in the trenches was a holiday by comparison with his ordinary occupation in civil life – these are, mutatits mutandis , men very like Abel Magwitch, gnarled hands, bristling hair, sidelong doglike chewing, rude speech and all. But it is from these conscripts of toil that the idle shareholder draws his (or her) dividends. The shareholder cannot help it, it may be said. But he could help to change entirely the system of production and of life. As it is he votes and subscribes to prevent the system being altered.
Dickens does not thus drive home the general social significance of his story; but he must not only have known that it had no other significance, but intended it to carry that significance. Morally the whole story points to that.
Nay, it must be because his well-to-do readers have seen such teaching running through a great part of his work that they discover he was ‘not a gentleman.’
If to be a ‘nice’ man, falling in with the tastes and outlook of the masters rather than the serfs, be the test, then Dickens certainly was not a gentleman. The point need not be laboured. To many of us it will be in such ways, for such teaching, that the real noblesse oblige of Charles Dickens – himself a hard worker all his life – most truly emerges.
Thus we come back to the point from which we set out – the social purpose of these tales.
The large industrious class of pointless writers of fiction are annoyed that we should look for any such. ‘The business of the novelist’ says one of them, is to tell a plain tale in which his characters should be left to express themselves in action.’ So that the tale is to be plain as well as meaningless.
Why a plain tale? We used to say ‘a penny plain, tuppence coloured,’ the colours evidently doubling the value. We can get plain tales from the newspapers; but the significance of them is not shown, and the simple reader often finds them meaningless on the ‘plain’ presented elements. The Singh-Robinson case, or any cause celébre of the hour, is much more novel than any novel; but who shall say that the full significance of these plain tales is realised? For the rest, it is desirable that the characters who ‘express themselves in [recorded] action’ should be worth expressing. So many characters are not.
Yet another best-seller says: ‘The novelist should before everything else be an entertainer, a teller of tales.’ The implication of this is that worth-while characters, great events, and spirited narrative are not entertaining. This is not only hard on the historian and the biographer, but it is hard on the novelists who have had a purpose to serve as well as an entertaining story to tell – Dickens, for one, among many.
The author of a particularly sordid story of the East End of London says: ‘All this high falutin’ chatter about ideals! A playwrights’s and a missionary’s calling appear to me to be two distinct and separate callings which should not be permitted to overlat. The one aim of a novelist or dramatist is to amuse.’ Poor Shakespeare, the moralist and poet! Poor Shaw, the missionary! Poor Dickens, poor George Eliot, poor Charles Reade, poor Victor Hugo, poor Bellamy, poor Wells, hopeless hight falutin’ chattering idealists all, but also, somehow, great entertainers. Why did you not confine your attention to ladies of the type of ‘Liza of Lambeth,’ instead of introducing us to Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Imogen, Constance, Catherine Eliassoen and Joan of Arc?
A lady novelist, whose interest lies in making out that Shakespeare and Dickens are back numbers, in reviewing the book of a brother-in-trade, says;
The philosophy of any novel is negligible; what matters in it is style, atmosphere, imagination, the drama of events or of emotion, and character presentment. ‘These Barren Leaves’ is restful, refreshing, and entertaining. You feel at the end of it that you have been paying a leisurely visit to a gossiping and amusing house party, no more unintelligent or tiresome, though a good deal more affectionate, than the average set of people in real life.
Do you want to read about ‘an average set of people in real life?’ Why should you? Is it not better to keep the very best company that you can? Average talk is neither wise nor interesting. Average people are very much opposed to learning anything, and mostly they are appallingly ignorant, even of the business out of which they make a living. This ‘average set of people,’ are the company at a country house. One has sat hour after hour in the smokeroom of a country house in the company of politicians, proconsuls, physicians, authors and divines, and their conversation ranged over topics the bare mention of which would raise a smile form ‘an average set of people.’ But their conversation was intensely absorbing, informative, and so stimulating that it impressed one afresh with a sense of one’s own limitations, and raised still higher the studious ambition. In addition to that, it was witty and entertaining as the talk of average people never is. Greville of the ‘Memoirs’ was a horsey man, keeping the company, often, of jockeys and stableboys. But he was, by virtue of his birth and family influence, Clerk to the Privy Council. He often met in company Macaulay, Sydney Smith, Lord Holland, Lord Melbourne, and the Duke of Wellington. After such a meeting he would enter in his journal remorseful lamentations over time mis-spent with average people, and make good resolutions for the future; and he was on the less wise because these resolutions were not kept.
The best company should be good enough for anyone. If we cannot keep it in person we can do so in literature – the best man in a thousand years are better in their books than ever they were in personal contact. It is not arrogance or superior personism to want to associate with grown-up people. The average person has not quite grown up. The C3 people wallowing in gossip about the football or the billiards which they do play, and the sporting chances of politicians in whose politics they take no interest, are spectators at a show of whose antecedents, meaning, and possible course they have no idea. Why make books about the Grey Mass when there are outstanding people, events and things to write up?
If we wish occasionally to read novels as a dissipated alternative and alternative to books about real people who matter, important events that did happen or are happening now, or the science and the story of the world and the universe in which we live, the masters of fiction are good enough; and the test of their quality is the extent to which they have used their tales, not merely for amusement, but in order to shed real light on the life of man the struggler, still so imperfectly known to us. Regarded as entertainers, it is not to the journeymen of the craft that these masters of craft will take a back seat.
Addendum to the Second Edition.
As criticism of the foregoing, it is said that the crusades of the didactic writers will destroy the value of their fictions when the propaganda has done its turn and the evils are exposed no more. But ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ is still a great seller because it is the most graphic exposure of the many evils of chattel slavery. ‘Don Quixote’ is not out of date because it satirises the absurdities of medieval chivalry. The grosser evils of the factory system have been removed, but ‘Mary Barton’ is still a classic because it illustrates them in detail; it has had a lease of life not extended to Mrs Gaskell’s less didactic novels, beating even the exquisite semi-autobiographical ‘Cranford’ which is the Cheshire home of her youth, Knutsford. The Bronte stories have always a serious background, probably all unnoted by the careless reader – the Napoleonic wars, high prices, and the Luddite firing of factories and smashing of machinery. Sir Walter Scott is not a back number because his tales have usually a purposeful historic setting: it is the non-historic ones such as ‘St Ronan’s Well,’ that are less successful. Thackeray’s ‘Esmond,’ and ‘The Virginians’ are among his more enduring writings because they revive the atmosphere of an age that is ‘dead’ only to those whose lack of imagination leaves them uninterested in history , which with Mr Henry Ford, they probably find to be ‘all bunk.’
To the thoughtless, ‘didactic’ means ‘of the nature of copybook maxims.’ Be it said in passing , the crystallised wisdom of the copybook maxim is better gear than ‘the clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate,’ and much better than the full, true, and particular account of the dawn of Lady Ermytrude’s passion for the chauffeur. Didactic means teaching, and now that fiction has become the only reading of the largest class of those who look at a book at all, it is more than ever necessary that it should be informed with purposes. ‘The Jungle,’ ‘King Coal,’ ‘The Brass Cheek,’ ‘Looking Backwards,’ ‘Elmer Gantry,’ among the more modern American novels with a purpose –aren’t they all good enough tales as such? Of didactic the greatest entertainer of the time has written in the preface to ‘Man and Superman’: ‘When he declares that art should not be didactic, all the people who have nothing to teach and all the people who do not want to learn agree with him emphatically.’
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