Friday, January 10, 2014

We already knew Dickens was good at naming

While I've got Dickens on the brain, here's a very quick post drawing on Robert Gottlieb's Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens. Gottlieb's book is brief and synthetic rather than groundbreaking, but for Dickens fans it does perform a service: while much research has been done, and many books and articles written, about the lives of Dickens's sons, relatively little of it makes its way into Dickens biographies, which tend, reasonably, to end with Dickens's own death. So our portrait of his children is incomplete, and, Gottlieb argues convincingly, somewhat unfair: even if we know better, we tend to take Dickens's own disappointment in them as a reflection of reality, whereas their lives and fates were much more mixed, and some could certainly be called happy and successful.

For today's post, however, it's all about the nicknames. All of Dickens's children had them, some more than one, and they're fun. Herewith, in birth order:
Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, 1837–1896

Flaster Floby (a corruption of Master Toby)

Mary Angela Dickens, 1838–1896

Mild Glo'ster

Catherine Macready Dickens, 1839–1929

Lucifer Box (which Gottlieb glosses: "A 'lucifer' was a safety match, and from her earliest years Katey's temper would flare up the way matches flared up--and the way her father's did as well.")

Walter Savage Landor Dickens, 1841–1863

Young Skull ("for his high cheekbones")

Frank Jeffrey Dickens, 1844–1886

Chickenstalker (Origin obscure: "One source claims it's descriptive of 'his make-believe hunting adventures around the home place.' More generally, it's ascribed to a character in 'The Chimes.' . . . But why would you name a baby boy after a jolly, fat old lady? Was baby Frank conspicuously jolly and fat? If so, we have no record of it.")

Alfred d'Orsay Tennyson DIckens, 1845–1912

Skittles (origin obscure)

Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens, 1847–1872

The Ocean Spectre ("because of what Georgina [Hogarth, Dickens's sister-in-law, who more or less raised the children after Dickens repudiated their mother] called his curious habit of pausing in his play, cupping his tiny hands under his chin, and casting a faraway look over the ocean.")

Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, 1849–1933

The Jolly Postboy

The Comic Countryman

Mr. H, or just H

Dora Annie Dickens, 1850–1851

Dora, always frail, died after a mere six months of life and was never nicknamed.

Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, 1852–1902

Plorn (Plorn was the only Dickens child to actually use his nickname out in the world; it essentially became his name.)
Two immediate thoughts come to mind on seeing this list assembled:

1. The Dickens nicknames give the Mitford girls' nicknames a run for the money.

2. That's a whole lot of children in a short time span, even for the Victorian era. The failure of the Dickens marriage, like the failure of almost any marriage, surely had multiple causes--not least of which, by any means, was Dickens himself--but it's hard not to attribute a substantial part of Catherine Dickens's decline in health, emotional strength, and general appetite for life (which drove Dickens to distraction, scorn, and eventually cruelty) to the wear and danger of that constant cycle of pregnancy and birth.

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