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

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Austenian Wordplay Alchemy of Dickens’s Brooks of Sheffield Motif in David Copperfield

 At the end of my previous post about Charles Dickens’s “Brooks of Sheffield” name-substitution motif in David Copperfield, which I presented as an illustration of the kind of coded conversation with which Jane Austen’s novels all teem….

….I wrote as follows:

“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. “ ENQ QUOTE

Among the comments I received in response thereto was the following very interesting one from Anielka Briggs in Austen-L, which I reproduce in relevant almost-full:

“…no-one seems to have written the answer to the joke anywhere on the Internet.  To “brook” or to endure is only HALF the joke and like Austen you have to suffuse yourself in the text and the spirit to really "get it".  You might also have to be English to get it.  “Name of Somewhere in England” is what was stamped or transferred onto table-ware. Industrial Victorian Sheffield was particularly well-known for small silver and steel items, cutlery and flasks and JUG lids.  Dickens gives us a first hint when David asks his mother “if she was at all acquainted with Mr. Brooks of Sheffield, but she answered No, only she supposed he must be a manufacturer in the KNIFE AND FORK way”. Any “Name of Sheffield” ought to be a steel or silver manufacturer.
You also have to know the English saying “Little pitchers/JUGs have big ears” (do you have this saying in the US) which means that a small JUG has a comparatively large handle with which to hold and fill it and it is a metaphor for small children overhearing adult conversation and a coded warning that parents use in England to tell one another not to divulge confidential information as they suspect a child is listening closely. Quinon and Murdstone use an allusion to an imagined JUG manufacturer from Davy’s home town to say “a little JUG from Sheffield has big ears”
Finally the joke is revealed later in the book by the author who juxtapositions Mrs. Copperfield’s “KNIFE AND FORK” suggestion (which one would have expected of a Sheffield steel manufacturer) with the answer to the joke (that Davy was being called a little JUG with big ears)
“I took back Captain Hopkins's KNIFE AND FORK early in the afternoon, and went home to comfort Mrs. Micawber with an account of my visit. She fainted when she saw me return, and made a LITTLE JUG of egg-hot” (a brandy-based alcoholic drink with egg and sugar)…This inspired Murdstone (or rather the clever author Dickens) to call David a “little JUG with big ears” and to use the contents of a little JUG to get him drunk and confused, hence the toast they propose is “'Confusion to Brooks of Sheffield!” – that the CONTENTS of the LITTLE JUG were causing CONFUSION to the LITTLE JUG with BIG EARS, Davy or “Brooks” of Sheffield.” END QUOTE

As a great example of how the Internet can facilitate discoveries that were not possible in the past, within a couple of days, my initial post written in the U.S. led to Anielka’s post written in Oz, which in turn led me, back in the U.S.A., to realize something still more extraordinary.

I believe that I’ve gotten much closer still to the solution of the mystery that Dickens created when he concocted this strange little motif of multifaceted punning word/name play, involving the name “Brooks of Sheffield”, the phrase “knife and fork” (which, as Anielka implied, appears an astonishing different thirteen times scattered throughout the entire novel!), and, for good measure, even had a second usage of the word “jug” near “knife and fork”. Why would Dickens go to such trouble, if this was meaningless?  

What I realized while reading Anielka’s post about Sheffield manufactured goods is summarized here:

“Sheffield silver plate came into being in 1742 when a silversmith found that clean, smooth, blocks of copper and silver would bond when he pressed them together. He sandwiched copper between two silver slabs -- then ran them through rollers, over and over. The result was silver outside a strong copper core.
In 1762, 24-year-old Matthew Boulton set up a factory in Birmingham, England. He began making silver-plated objects with the Sheffield process. Boulton became the first really large producer of Sheffield plate. And, when silversmiths raised legal objections to stamping hallmarks on the stuff, Boulton led a movement to require separate standards for Sheffield silver.
But Sheffield plate couldn't last. In 1800, a chemist found that an electric current would transfer silver to metal in a bath. By 1840, electroplating had been patented, and it could be used it to lay down any desired thickness of silver. It took none of the craftsmanship needed in the Sheffield process.
After that, Sheffield plate became a collectors' cult item in the late 19th century. Forgers would try to make electroplated copper ware look like Sheffield silver. Experts would try to tell the difference. They couldn't always do so.
The Sheffield copper/silver sandwich had edges that had to be hidden, usually with strips of soldered decoration. The imitators used decoration to hide copper that wasn't really exposed. Sheffield also had a slightly different hue. Still, after 1850, all new silverware was either solid or electroplated.”

And I also found this added tidbit on Wikipedia:

“The material was accidentally invented 1743. While trying to repair the handle of a customer's decorative knife, [Boulsover] heated it too much and the silver started to melt. t. When he examined the damaged handle, he noticed that the silver and copper had fused together very strongly. Experiments showed that the two metals behaved as one when he tried to reshape them, even though he could clearly see two different layers.”

And by now I hope someone reading along, with a sensitivity to puns, has realized the biggest joke of all, hidden in plain sight literally at the top of every other page throughout the entire novel?

Of course I mean that the joke about David hidden in this “Brooks of Sheffield” word matrix is that even though David appears to be “Copper”(field), he is actually a combination of “Copper” and “Silver”!   Sheffield Silver/Copperfield.

If you don’t think this is a giant clue as to the mysteries in David Copperfield swirling around the murky circumstances of his birth, and the way he is referred to by a half dozen different names during the course of the novel, then….I suggest to you that you are in confusion about Dickens’s sly intent, which is nothing less than, I speculate, a full-fledged shadow story, the details of which are not debriefed overtly at the end of the novel, but must be sleuthed out, painstakingly, as I have sleuthed out what I call the shadow stories of Jane Austen’s novels.

And I believe that Dickens was well aware of Jane Austen’s penchant for birth mysteries in the shadow stories of her novels as well!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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