Dickens à la Carte

November 2, 2020

In today's installment, Professor Ian Duncan (UC Berkeley) shares a charming passage from Bleak House in which Mr. Guppy, early in his career as an attorney's clerk, acts as a generous host. At the same time, Dickens explores theories of early evolutionist science. 



Hello, I'm Ian Duncan, and I'm speaking to you from Berkeley, California, locked down, for the foreseeable future, as I'm sure you all are. And I am very happy to be participating in the Dickens-to-Go, as part of the Dickens Project out of UC Santa Cruz. We've been asked to choose a favorite passage from Dickens, and read it to you, and comment on it.

It's a difficult, if not impossible, challenge to choose a favorite passage. I thought I would go – this is just something that particularly tickled me the last time I was teaching Bleak House, which is the novel I'm going to be a reading from; it's not one of the famous high profile, more flamboyant or much commented upon passages in the novel, but it exerts a peculiar charm; and I guess charm is one of those qualities about Dickens, that's perhaps hardest to define, to submit to analysis, but that is most peculiar to him, is most characteristic of Dickens. This is from chapter 20 in the novel, about a third of the way through, and it concerns a secondary character, the lawyer’s clerk – the attorney’s clerk – Mr. Guppy, who plays a significant role throughout the novel, who is whiling away the long vacation, over a hot and humid summer in London, where there's nothing to do. There's no business in the legal offices where he works. So, he's bored. And I'll read the opening paragraph of the chapter. Then I'm going to skip ahead a few pages to the wonderful scene of the dinner that Mr. Guppy enjoys. He treats his friends, the uncanny ­– the "fossil imp" as Dickens calls him, young Smallweed, a member of the odious clan of Smallweeds, these sinister characters who infest the center of the novel, and then the drooping, faded, depressed figure of Mr. Guppy's old friend, Jobling, who shows up, a charity case, and is treated to the lunch. The meal is one of the, I think one of the great festive seasons in Dickens; it's more understated than perhaps some of the famous scenes of banqueting or feasting that we find throughout the novels. But it has a peculiar vividness and charm and humor that I want to get at. So, I'm just going to begin by reading the opening paragraph.

The chapter is called "A New Lodger”:

The long vacation saunters on toward term-time, like an idle river very leisurely strolling down a flat country to the sea. Mr. Guppy saunters along with it congenially. He has blunted the blade of his penknife, and broken the point off, by sticking that instrument into his desk in every direction. Not that he bears the desk any ill-will, but he must do something; and it must be something of an unexciting nature, which will lay neither his physical nor his intellectual energies under too heavy contribution. He finds that nothing agrees with him so well, as to make little gyrations on one leg of his stool, and stab his desk, and gape.

A wonderful description of the exertions of boredom in confinement: something, I think, that we're all confronting and dealing with now. This reminds me of the novel that Dickens published about a dozen years earlier, The Old Curiosity Shop, and the wonderful figure of Dick Swiveller in that novel, who, like Mr. Guppy, but perhaps more reluctantly, finds himself employed as an attorney's clerk in the office of the odious Sampson brass, and becoming fascinated by the monstrous spectacle of Sampson’s sister Sally, who sits in the office with him, and Dickens gives us this sort of hilarious description of Dick Swiveller fascinated by the figure of Sally and resorting to these sort of manic rituals in order to let off the steam of this uncanny fascination. He figures with his character, and as a way of like managing his own profound boredom about where he has ended up. And I'm just going to read that passage before I move on with Bleak House

And this is from chapter 33 of The Old Curiosity Shop. We're told that Mr Swiveller can't help breaking off from the work he's supposed to be doing, copying a manuscript, a legal manuscript, and staring in fascination at the bizarre figure of Miss Brass sitting across from him in the office.

This happened so often, that Mr Swiveller by degrees began to feel strange influences creeping over him—horrible desires to annihilate this Sally Brass—mysterious promptings to knock her head-dress off and try how she looked without it. There was a very large ruler on the table; a large, black, shining ruler. Mr Swiveller took it up and began to rub his nose with it.

From rubbing his nose with the ruler, to poising it in his hand and giving it an occasional flourish after the tomahawk manner, the transition was easy and natural. In some of these flourishes it went close to Miss Sally’s head; the ragged edges of the head-dress fluttered with the wind it raised; advance it but an inch, and that great brown knot was on the ground: yet still the unconscious maiden worked away, and never raised her eyes.

Well, this was a great relief. It was a good thing to write doggedly and obstinately until he was desperate, and then snatch up the ruler and whirl it about the brown head-dress with the consciousness that he could have it off if he liked. It was a good thing to draw it back, and rub his nose very hard with it, if he thought Miss Sally was going to look up, and to recompense himself with more hardy flourishes when he found she was still absorbed. By these means Mr Swiveller calmed the agitation of his feelings, until his applications to the ruler became less fierce and frequent, and he could even write as many as half-a-dozen consecutive lines without having recourse to it—which was a great victory.

A much more agitated and violent passage than Mr Guppy's more mundane boredom, and very Dickensian, I think, in this sort of hilarious outbreak of barely repressed and sublimated violence, in this ritual that Dick Swiveller resorts to, to kind of, again, manage his boredom, and this grotesque fascination he feels for Miss Sally Brass. As if Mr Swiveller has become an avatar of the reader of Dickens, marveling at these grotesque creations in front of us.

I'm going to move on. Swiveller plays obviously a very different role in the Old Curiosity Shop, than Mr Guppy plays in Bleak House. Swiveller is one of the great, wonderful, fecund creations of the early novels of Dickens's great comic phase, and ends up playing a kind of generous, even redemptive, role in the plot of that novel: whereas Mr Guppy of course is confined to a more secondary and humble and ambiguous role in the novel.

I want to move ahead – we're back in Bleak House now, in chapter 20 – to the dinner to which (and we may remember that dinner corresponds with what we call "lunch" in the mid-day or early afternoon in Victorian London) Mr Guppy is treating first his friend Smallweed, and then Mr Jobling, who's fallen on hard times and hasn't eaten for a while, shows up. So, I'm just going to read another short passage.

So here's Mr Jobling:

His appetite is so vigorous that it suggests spare living for some little time back. He makes such a speedy end of his plate of veal and ham, bringing it to a close while his companions are yet midway in theirs, that Mr. Guppy proposes another. "Thank you, Guppy," says Mr. Jobling, "I really don't know but what I WILL take another."

Another being brought, he falls to with great goodwill.

Mr. Guppy takes silent notice of him at intervals until he is halfway through this second plate and stops to take an enjoying pull at his pint pot of half-and-half (also renewed) and stretches out his legs and rubs his hands. Beholding him in which glow of contentment, Mr. Guppy says, "You are a man again, Tony!"

"Well, not quite yet," says Mr. Jobling. "Say, just born."

"Will you take any other vegetables? Grass [that’s asparagus]? Peas? Summer cabbage?"

"Thank you, Guppy," says Mr. Jobling. "I really don't know but what I WILL take summer cabbage."

Order given; with the sarcastic addition (from Mr. Smallweed) of "Without slugs, Polly!" And cabbage produced.

"I am growing up, Guppy," says Mr. Jobling, plying his knife and fork with a relishing steadiness.

"Glad to hear it."

"In fact, I have just turned into my teens," says Mr. Jobling.

He says no more until he has performed his task, which he achieves as Messrs. Guppy and Smallweed finish theirs, thus getting over the ground in excellent style and beating those two gentlemen easily by a veal and ham and a cabbage.

"Now, Small," says Mr. Guppy, "what would you recommend about pastry?"

"Marrow puddings," says Mr. Smallweed instantly.

"Aye, aye!" cries Mr. Jobling with an arch look. "You're there, are you? Thank you, Mr. Guppy, I don't know but what I WILL take a marrow pudding."

Three marrow puddings being produced, Mr. Jobling adds in a pleasant humour that he is coming of age fast. To these succeed, by command of Mr. Smallweed, "three Cheshires," and to those "three small rums." This apex of the entertainment happily reached, Mr. Jobling puts up his legs on the carpeted seat (having his own side of the box to himself), leans against the wall, and says, "I am grown up now, Guppy. I have arrived at maturity."

"What do you think, now," says Mr. Guppy, "about—you don't mind Smallweed?"

"Not the least in the world. I have the pleasure of drinking his good health."

"Sir, to you!" says Mr. Smallweed.

And they drink to one another. A wonderful scene; the joke here is that Dickens is burlesquing what's called "recapitulation theory", popularized in the early 19th century life sciences. It's the doctrine that the development of a fetus, embryonic development, recapitulates the history of a species, and Bleak House is a novel that's profoundly interested in pre-Darwinian thinking about natural forms and their growth and their propensity to mutate. It's a novel full of creatures that seem to be semi-human, or partly human, or human beings speciating into new forms. It's a part of the effect of what we think of as the grotesque aesthetic of Dickens: tied, however, I think to the way that Dickens has been reading early evolutionist science, popularized by people like Robert Chambers in the 1840s.

So here, I think, as elsewhere in Bleak House, we have what we might call a kind of serious agenda or scheme or system underlying what might seem to be even the most throw-away jokes. But what's really, I think -- what really catches the reader here in this passage, is the generosity of Dickens's humor. Smallweed is elsewhere in the novel a rather contemptible figure. The Smallweeds are this sort of ghastly set of creatures that occupy the far end of the spectrum, of the limits, of what you might think of as being human among the novel's cast of characters. Jobling is this sort of pathetic loser, but a figure, I think, that Dickens is able to regard with a certain kind of fondness and solicitude, and we see his type showing up in novels throughout Dickens's career. Even Guppy here gets to be master of the feast. He gets to preside over this, this entertainment, which, humble though it is, an entertainment for the attorney’s clerk and his friends, is imbued with a kind of freshness and charm. And I think, as readers, we're invited to partake of it, without condescending to the characters. The biographical note to refer to here would be no doubt Dickens's own first experiences of employment. He was 16 years old, and he worked for a year and a half, a couple of years, as a solicitor’s clerk in London, before he then went on to his more consequential employment learning shorthand and then working as a journalist. But this is as if Dickens is able to look back to the earliest phase of his own setting-out, to be economically independent, to working, with a certain kind of fondness, even nostalgia, and is able to indulge and invite us all into the charm and humor of these moments.

So I'm going to stop there. If there's a takeaway – this is Dickens-to-Go, after all – it would be to rediscover these novels for their freshness, their charm, their humor – whatever else may be going on in them. So, I do encourage you to watch more of these videos. There are more portions of Dickens-to-Go, that we can all relish as much as Mr Jobling is relishing the lunch that's provided at Mr Guppy's expense.



mugshot.jpegIan Duncan is Florence Green Bixby Chair in English at the University of California, Berkeley.  He is the author of Human Forms: The Novel in the Age of Evolution (Princeton, 2019), Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton, 2007), and Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens (Cambridge, 1992). He has co-edited essay collections on Scottish Romantic-period writing, and edited works of fiction by Walter Scott, James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle.



Dickens-to-Go is a weekly program of short videos designed to whet the viewers' appetite for "more" of their favorite author. You can join Dickens Project faculty, friends, and students as they share a favorite passage from Dickens and say a few words about why they selected it.

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