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Thursday, 29 December 2011

180 years since Charles Dickens sneezed publicly in Cardiff - to great acclaim

More views of - or after - Cambridge Film Festival 2011
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

30 December

No, it's the 200th anniversary of birth or death*, as usual, and, since we never know which, we don't know what we are celebrating
(and, to me, it seems inapt to celebrate the years since someone's death).

That said, if claims are to be made for Dickens, let them establish something that he would have thought worthwhile. And yet, on The Verb a few weeks back, Kevin Jackson told us that Dickens had innovated with the names of his characters, and with the supposed advantage over the big Russian novel (where, of course, we are willingly familiar with the tripartite system of naming, and cannot confess not even to trying!) that one could easily keep track of someone in, say, Bleak House because of the choice of name:

Well, as much as a name that I recognize in Dostoyevsky may recur and I recognize it by its shape, so names in that Dickens novel will be more easily identifiable and probably memorable, but it is a far cry from asserting that, on that account, I know what function that person performs in the novel. No, as with the less major characters in any novel, one sometimes has to look back to see who they are, and there the Russian novel anticipates the need with a Dramatis personæ.

Memorable names (and whether they are memorable just because quirky remains a separate, and unexamined issue - who can forget Tom Jones?) in a longer work do not, I believe, necessarily guide me as to who that person is in relation to everyone else, not least when (again in Bleak House) Dickens deliberately rattles on about the presumed oil-wells of the Reverend Chadband's countenance, or the perpetual need for a cushion to be readjusted, in such a way as to sabotage the progress of his own novel and distract our concentration.

Although, in Wemmick, for example, Dickens chose a very fitting name for its bearer, it is because I see him linked to his castle that I remember him for who he is, not because of the name per se.

At any rate, in a fanciful desire to laud Dickens for this above all else, the contributor to the programme dismissed, as their
novels not containing comparably witty or descriptive names, both Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) and Henry Fielding (1707-1754). This, without giving a single example, whereas the eponymous heroes alone of the former's Ferdinand Count Fathom and Roderick Random make demands on our attention. As for Fielding, Mrs Tow-wouse in Joseph Andrews is foremost in my memory, but the novel's pages are peppered with Tom Suckbribe, Jenny Bouncer, Sir Thomas Booby, Mrs Slipslop, Peter Pounce, etc.

If Dickens excels, without the endeavours of other writers at least a century before Dickens even being considered, such as Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), but only Shakespeare (who was only credited with Aguecheek and Belch, because he allegedly took all of his names from his sources), then so be it, but why give Dickens a crown that he doesn't exclusively deserve, and which does not even typify the best things about him?

(In fact, anyone who has heard of William's contemporary Ben Jonson, or who ever took a look at The Alchemist, would find it hard to understand what the fuss about names in Dickens is...)

Since posting the above, and in looking vainly for somewhere on Radio 3's web-site to leave a comment, I've now found the following work, a slim volume published in 1917 by Elizabeth Hope Gordon:

The Naming of Characters in the Works of Charles Dickens

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