Thus today's post, which comes out of Alathea Hayter's A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (1965). The book is exactly what the title promises: a day-by-day account, built from diaries and memoirs and letters and such, of what the lights of literary London were doing over the course of one month in the summer of 1846. It's full of names you know--the Carlyles, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett (not yet) Browning, Wordsworth, Dickens--and the pleasures of dailiness, of discovering just how much a dedicated researcher can piece together about the occurrences, most of no consequence, of a few relatively ordinary days in the distant past.
I suspect this is a book about which there will be little waffling: either you find the above description enticing, and you have already gone to the Book Depository to order your copy, or you can't believe anyone would waste their time with such banality when there are good novels still unread. Longtime readers won't be surprised to learn that I'm in the former camp; this is one of those wonderfully rare books that feels like it was written just for me. I'm mere pages into it thus far, but Hayter has already charmed me utterly by the details she picks out of her detective work.
What I'll share today is a silly, funny bit about the prevalence of nicknames in the literary set in this time. Nicknames seem always to have been more prevalent in England than in the States, and Hayter explains that the 1840s were a high point:
The use of abbreviations for Christian names was common at all levels, up to the highest; the Empress Frederick's letters are sprinkled with the ludicrously familiar nicknames--Mossy and Fishy, Missy and Tutsiman--of her royal relations all over Europe. Everybody had nicknames. Forster was "Fuz" or "The Hippopotamus" or "The Beadle of the Universe"; Cruikshank was "Genial George"; Dickens was "The Inimitable" and his children had innumerable and ever-changing nicknames such as "Chickenstalker" or "Plornishmaroontigonter"; Mrs Procter was "Our Lady of Bitterness"; Macready was "Mac" or "The Eminent Tragedian" to his friends, "Sergeant Macready" or "The Bashaw" to his enemies. The use of nicknames for a socially successful figure like Richard Monckton Milnes was almost a status symbol; you might give yourself away by not recognizing him under references to "The Cool of the Evening" or "London Assurance" or "The Bird of Paradox"--or equally by continuing to use those particular nicknames when they had got too widespread and had begun to bore their originators."Our Lady of Bitterness" trips quite nicely off the tongue, but I think my favorite on that list has to be "The Cool of the Evening"--oh, the changes I would have to make to my public personality in order to be able to pull that one off!
I don't encounter a lot of nicknames in my daily life, but when I was working in bookstores, we had nicknames for many customers, my favorite being "Darkness at Noon," assigned to a particularly stormy-faced regular. And an old friend has a wonderful family history of nicknames: his mother and her siblings all have nicknames--only, while everyone knows everyone else's nickname, no one knows his or her own nickname, which seems like quite a feat.
All of which brings to mind the family that might be the world's champion nicknamers, the Mitfords. In addition to having a shared family language, the six Mitford sisters positively overflowed with nicknames: Deborah was "Debo," Diana was "Honks" or "Honkers," Jessica was "Decca," and on and on. And ending this post with the sisters seems appropriate, as Mitford fans have plenty to celebrate this fall: in addition to the new editions of Nancy's novels that Vintage has recently published, Deborah Mitford is about to publish a memoir and, even more exciting, has just released a volume of her letters with travel writer and raconteur Patrick Leigh Fermor. As Nancy would say, it's positively blissipots.