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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dickens’s Brooks of Sheffield & Jane Austen’s Coded Conversations

Did Dickens learn a trick or  two as a fiction writer, by studying Jane Austen’s novels?  I’ve gathered a variety of evidence that tells me he did, for all that his writing  style seems so very different from JA’s. I firmly believe he was an apt  pupil of JA in certain key respects.

The other day, I presented a few Dickens passages flagged by me and by Diane Reynolds, which, with their  dashes and sentence fragments, appeared similar to several of Miss Bates’s  speeches, and also to the famous strawberry dashes passage, all from Emma.

Today, I will bring forward one other strand of resonant textual evidence for Dickens’as a secret Janeite, which I think is more probative and interesting.

There are three  passages in David Copperfield which all refer to the name “Brooks of Sheffield”, which I first noticed  about 5 years ago. Dickens clearly wished to highlight those passages, by placing them in prominent locations----at the beginning of the novel, then about 1/6 of the way through, and finally a third time at the very end of the novel.

First, I will quote those three passages, and interpret them. Then I will explain how I see them as evidence that Dickens wished to acknowledge, albeit in code, that he had learned from Jane Austen about  writing what I call a “coded conversation”.

Chapter 2, David Copperfield:

““And who’s this shaver?’ said one of the gentlemen, taking hold of me.
‘That’s Davy,” returned Mr. Murdstone.
“Davy who?” said the gentleman. “Jones?”
“Copperfield,” said Mr. Murdstone.
“What! Bewitching Mrs. Copperfield’s incumbrance?” cried the gentleman.
“The pretty little widow?”
Quinion,” said Mr. Murdstone, “take care, if you please. Somebody’s sharp.”
'Who is?' asked the gentleman, laughing. I looked up, quickly; being curious to know.
'Only Brooks of Sheffield,' said Mr. Murdstone.
I was quite relieved to find that it was only Brooks of Sheffield; for, at first, I really thought it was I.
There seemed to be something very comical in the reputation of Mr. Brooks of Sheffield, for both the gentlemen laughed heartily when he was mentioned, and Mr. Murdstone was a good deal amused also. After some laughing, the gentleman whom he had called Quinion, said:
'And what is the opinion of Brooks of Sheffield, in reference to the projected business?'
'Why, I don't know that Brooks understands much about it at present,' replied Mr. Murdstone; 'but he is not generally favourable, I believe.'
There was more laughter at this, and Mr. Quinion said he would ring the bell for some sherry in which to drink to Brooks. This he did; and when the wine came, he made me have a little, with a biscuit, and, before I drank it, stand up and say, 'Confusion to Brooks of Sheffield!' The toast was received with great applause, and such hearty laughter that it made me laugh too; at which they laughed the more. In short, we quite enjoyed ourselves.” END QUOTE

Do you realize who “Brooks of Sheffield” is?  I didn’t on first reading, but then as I quickly reread, it was clear to me. And I suspect that most close readers of the above passage, who pause and reread, also realize that even though the young David is taken in and believes that Murdstone, Quinion, et al are talking about a third person, they are actually talking about him in code, having an unsavory, crude, mean spirited laugh at his innocent expense.

Dickens seemed to be concerned that some of his readers might not crack this little code, and therefore he returned to it in Chapter 10 in a more explicit way:

“I now approach a period of my life, which I can never lose the remembrance of, while I remember anything; and the recollection of which has often, without my invocation, come before me like a ghost, and haunted happier times.
I had been out, one day, loitering somewhere, in the listless meditative manner that my way of life engendered, when, turning the corner of a lane near our house, I came upon Mr. Murdstone, walking with a gentleman. I was confused, and was going by them, when the gentleman cried-- "What? Brooks?"
"No, sir, David Copperfield," I said.
"Don't tell me. You are Brooks," said the gentleman. "You are Brooks of Sheffield. That's your name."
At these words, I observed the gentleman more attentively. His laugh coming to my remembrance too, I knew him to be Mr. Quinion, whom I had gone over to Lowestoft with Mr. Murdstone to see, before--it is no matter--I need not recall when.
"And how do you get on, and where are you being educated, Brooks?" said Mr. Quinion.
He had put his hand upon my shoulder, and turned me about, to walk with them........
"I supposed you are a pretty sharp fellow still? Eh, Brooks?"
"Ay! He is sharp enough, " said Mr. Murdstone impatiently. "You had better let him go. He will not thank you for troubling him."   END QUOTE

Chapter 10  was close enough to Chapter 2 that a reader would remember the earlier conversation, even if David  did not.

And it does seem like David did absorb the joke, because we read the following many years later, as the novel draws to a close:

Ch. 64:
“The cheeks and arms of Peggotty, so hard and red in my childish days, when I wondered why the birds didn't peck her in preference to apples, are shrivelled now; and her eyes, that used to darken their whole neighbourhood in her face, are fainter (though they glitter still); but her rough forefinger, which I once associated with a pocket nutmeg-grater, is just the same, and when I see my least child catching at it as it totters from my aunt to her, I think of our little parlour at home, when I could scarcely walk. My aunt's old disappointment is set right, now. She is godmother to a real living Betsey Trotwood; and Dora (the next in order) says she spoils her.
There is something bulky in Peggotty's pocket. It is nothing smaller than the Crocodile Book, which is in rather a dilapidated condition by this time, with divers of the leaves torn and stitched across, but which Peggotty exhibits to the children as a precious relic. I find it very curious to see my own infant face, looking up at me from the Crocodile stories; and to be reminded by it of my old acquaintance Brooks of Sheffield.”   END QUOTE

Now what has this all to do with Jane Austen?

I have previously blogged about certain particularly noteworthy examples of where Jane Austen portrayed scenes in which two or more characters are speaking to each other in a code involving a name substitution---just like  “Brooks of Sheffield” as code for “David Copperfield”---a code which is not understood by another character---who is invariably one of Jane Austen’s heroines!

I have identified many dozens of such passages scattered throughout all of JA’s novels, but my personal favorite remains the one in Persuasion in which Wentworth, Louisa and Admiral Croft  discuss Frederick’s exploits with the “dear old Asp”, which is code for some very unsavory, crude, sexual innuendo  about Anne  Elliot herself!:

And that brings us straight back to Dickens’s “Brooks  of Sheffield”, because both it and JA’s “dear old Asp” are both in the same niche among coded conversations, where (i) the character not in on the code is the novel’s hero(ine), and (ii) he or she is also the butt of crude ridicule in that coded conversation!

Now, it is of course possible that Dickens came up with this same specific technique/motif entirely on his own, or that he learned it from some earlier writer other than Jane Austen.

However,  I am highly confident that Dickens did understand that JA did this sort of  thing all over the place in her novels, and this was his salute to  her mastery in that regard.

What  I would like to ask all the Dickensians  reading this post, is the following question—can you think of any other passages in Dickens’s oeuvre, in which he, either explicitly as with”Brooks of Sheffield”, or implicitly (the way JA did  it), portrayed other coded  conversations?

My bet would be that he did, and the place I’d guess he ‘d have been most likely to do it, would have been in David  Copperfield itself! 

Why? Because that would also be an Austenian touch.  JA, in Emma, gave us an overt “Gotcha!” with the revelation of Jane &  Frank’s  engagement, but also gave us a hidden “Gotcha!”with the shadow story of Emma , in which, as I have claimed since early 2005, Jane Fairfax came  to Highbury not because she was secretly engaged to Frank, but because she was secretly pregnant!

So, if JA did that, perhaps Dickens gave his readers the overt  coded motif with “Brooks of Sheffield” in David  Copperfield, in part as a giant hint  to the reader to search for other coded  conversations in that same novel, where Dickens did this implicitly.

It is well known that Dickens, like JA, loved puzzles, riddles, and the like. This would be  in exactly that same vein.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on  Twitter


Anonymous said...

Arnie, this is an interesting continuation of our earlier conversation on Dicken's and Emma. Dicken's may have been more of an Austenite than we know, but I see the Brooks passages in Dickens that you cite as instances of Dicken's--or the narrator--taking the reading into his confidence, into the "know", against a young boy--and it's poignant, sharp, sad--but Austen tricking the unsuspecting reader.

Anonymous said...

I meant taking the reader, not reading, into his confidence and Dickens, not Dicken's!

Arnie Perlstein said...

By his having included an overt example of a coded conversation, I suspect Dickens of thereby hinting at having hidden OTHER covert coded conversations in David Copperfield.