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

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Charles Dickens and his chronically bored intellectual adversary

Ever since the advent of Google Books some eight years ago, I’ve been proclaiming the utter obsolescence of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), given that anyone anywhere in the world can go to Google Books any time, and, using its date range function, quickly determine the earliest published usage of many words in the English language.  As I will show you, below, apparently the news about Google Books has not yet reached the OED, which is a poignant irony, suggesting that the OED has not yet gotten the proverbial memo.

Two weeks ago, I read a passing mention in a blog post asserting that the OED credits the first published usage of the noun “boredom” (but not the related adjective “bored” which came much earlier) to Charles Dickens in his novel Hard Times. Sure enough, I Googled and found that the OED Tweeted the following on 9/5/11: “The word 'boredom', in the sense of 'the state of being bored', was first used by Charles Dickens in Bleak House (1853).”

Given my skeptical attitude toward the OED, I checked Google Books on this one, and in very short order, I deduced, by my usual literary sleuthing methods, that Dickens not only was NOT the coiner of the word “boredom”, but that Dickens had actually tried, eleven “hard” times in that novel, to tell the reader—in code---who the coiner was. You see, Dickens used the word “boredom” as a parody of that earlier published author’s original usage! Read on to find out the identity of that very famous first user, who has been unjustly ignored by the OED for nearly two centuries!

To begin, although Dickens used the word “boredom” twice in Hard Times, he used the word “bored” nine times in the novel as well! And the most curious part of these eleven usages is that they are ALL used by a single character in the novel—the dandy and politician, James Harthouse. Here they all are, you will quickly get the drift of his defining character trait:

‘You must be very much BORED here?’ was the inference [Harthouse] drew from the communication.
…Now, this gentleman had a younger brother [Harthouse] of still better appearance than himself, who had tried life as a Cornet of Dragoons, and found it a BORE; and had afterwards tried it in the train of an English minister abroad, and found it a BORE; and had then strolled to Jerusalem, and got BORED there; and had then gone yachting about the world, and got BORED everywhere. 
‘I have not so much as the slightest predilection left.  I assure you I attach not the least importance to any opinions.  The result of the varieties of BOREDOM I have undergone, is a conviction (unless conviction is too industrious a word for the lazy sentiment I entertain on the subject), that any set of ideas will do just as much good as any other set, and just as much harm as any other set.  There’s an English family with a charming Italian motto.  What will be, will be.  It’s the only truth going!’
… ‘Tom is misanthropical to-day, as all BORED people are now and then,’ said Mr. Harthouse.  ‘Don’t believe him, Mrs. Bounderby.  He knows much better.  I shall disclose some of his opinions of you, privately expressed to me, unless he relents a little.’
The next morning was too bright a morning for sleep, and James Harthouse rose early, and sat in the pleasant bay window of his dressing-room, smoking the rare tobacco that had had so wholesome an influence on his young friend.  Reposing in the sunlight, with the fragrance of his eastern pipe about him, and the dreamy smoke vanishing into the air, so rich and soft with summer odours, he reckoned up his advantages as an idle winner might count his gains.  He was not at all BORED for the time, and could give his mind to it.
Mr. James Harthouse passed a whole night and a day in a state of so much hurry, that the World, with its best glass in his eye, would scarcely have recognized him during that insane interval, as the brother Jem of the honourable and jocular member.  He was positively agitated.  He several times spoke with an emphasis, similar to the vulgar manner.  He went in and went out in an unaccountable way, like a man without an object.  He rode like a highwayman.  In a word, he was so horribly BORED by existing circumstances, that he forgot to go in for BOREDOM in the manner prescribed by the authorities.
…Dear Jack,—All up at Coketown.  BORED out of the place, and going in for camels.

From the above, it is clear why Dickens caught the eye of the OED in the first place—after all, he had made James Harthouse’s boredom a leitmotif, the signature comment of this not very sympathetic character, who was described as follows by Agustin Coletes Blanco in a 1985 scholarly article that also picked up on the “boredom” drumbeat:

“Harthouse combines the ’indolence of his manner’ and his ‘accessions of BOREDOM’ with a cultivated languor and a ‘lightness and smoothness of speech’. Like Bounderby and Mrs Sparsit in their respective ways, he uses the system for his own ends -till he is adequately disposed of by Sissy. A sarcastic account of his background is displayed by the author in book II, chapter 2. He belongs to the kind of people who ‘yaw-yawned’ in their speech, ‘in imitation of fine gentlemen’. Before “'going in' for statistics”, he had tried life ‘as a Cornet of Dragoons, and found it a BORE; and had then strolled to Jerusalem, and got BORED there; and had gone yatching about the world, and got BORED everywhere’. In short, he is both the aristocratic counterpart of the Utilitarians and a social parasite. Once again, his speech will be in accord with his personality….”

But here’s the funny part---because of what I had found in Google Books when I first checked for the earliest usage of “boredom”, I already knew in my gut who the fictional James Harthouse was a parody of! You see, the novel which first used “boredom” was entitled The Young Duke, it was published in 1829 (24 years before Hard Times), and here is the relevant passage:

“The House had just broken up, and the political members had just entered, and in clusters, some standing and some yawning, some stretching their arms and some stretching their legs, presented symptoms of an escape from BOREDOM.

Did you also notice that this usage occurred in a passage about politicians? And isn’t Dickens’s James Harthouse also a politician in the House of Commons? Hmm….

And now I will put you out of your misery, and finally reveal to you the name of the author of The Young Duke—it was a young politician who dabbled all his life in writing fiction as well as making a rather greater name for himself as a politician, achieving the pinnacle in 1868 (two years before Dickens died) of the Prime Ministership---Benjamin D’Israeli!!!!

And so I was not in the slightest surprised this evening when a quick further Google Books search revealed the following scholarly observation, which, as far as I can tell, was not based on the keyword “boredom”, but on character-driven analysis:

The Alien in their Midst: images of Jews in English literature by Esther L. Panitz, 1981
P. 112: “James Harthouse of Hard Times was a caricature of that dandy who helped shape England's destiny, Benjamin Disraeli….”

So, why would Dickens parody D’Israeli? That’s a topic for a full article in itself, but to give you a taste of an answer, read the following 2012 blog post by Peter G. Hilston, who definitely had no idea about the “boredom” connection:

“Dickens and Disraeli on discontent”

For those who don’t want to read his whole post, here are the relevant highlights:

“I recently read “Hard Times” (1854), Charles Dickens’s only attempt at a novel about the industrial north of England, set in a cotton-manufacturing city he calls “Coketown”. Opinions of the novel have differed widely: in George Orwell’s long essay on Dickens we are told that the great Victorian historian Lord Macaulay refused to review the book because of what he saw as its “sullen socialism”, whereas Lenin was revolted by Dickens’s “bourgeois sentimentality”. In my opinion, Lenin was much closer to the mark than Macaulay. I found it a deeply irritating book, with a ramshackle plot, ridiculous characters, and a complete absence of any ideas for remedying the faults and abuses Dickens portrayed. As a corrective I reread a contemporary novel covering similar ground: “Sybil” (1845) by Benjamin Disraeli. I would like here to compare and contrast the two books.
...Let us turn to Benjamin Disraeli: the only British Prime Minister to have been also the author of several novels. In the 1840s, when he was already a Tory Member of Parliament (at this point representing Shrewsbury, in Shropshire) he produced a trilogy: “Coningsby”, “Sybil” and “Tancred”; the third being the least satisfactory. His motives for writing were mixed. In the first place, he needed the money: for most of his career he was plagued by debts, which at this time amounted to about £20,000 - at least half a million in today’s terms. Secondly, there were political ideas he wished to put forward, and which he does at length in the trilogy. He was associated with a group of youthful aristocrats known as “Young England”. Their theories sound very silly nowadays, but at the time they were considered important enough for Karl Marx to jeer at them in the “Communist Manifesto”. Particularly they were hostile to their Conservative party leader, Sir Robert Peel (Prime Minister 1841-46), whom they accused of betraying old Tory principles. Disraeli, who was neither an aristocrat nor young (he was born in 1804, eight years before Dickens) produced such ringing phrases as “A Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy”, and, in “Coningsby”, “A sound Conservative government - Tory men and Whig measures”. In 1846 Disraeli was to play a leading role in splitting the party and bringing down Peel’s government: an action which left the Conservatives without a Parliamentary majority for the next thirty years.
Most of Disraeli’s novels centre upon an upper-class young man making his way in politics and high society; “Sybil” being the only one where he ventured to set scenes in the industrial north.
…Disraeli’s characters, though not as memorably depicted as Dickens’s, are much more believable as people…Rather surprisingly, there is more overt Christianity in Disraeli’s novel than in Dickens’s: Disraeli portrays Walter Gerard and his daughter as dedicated Catholics, and among his minor characters there is a strong-minded vicar who is prepared to stand up to the upper-class bullies.
As an experienced politician, Disraeli knew how things actually worked, whereas Dickens never bothered to find out, but simply took refuge in satire. Dickens is contemptuous of Parliament and dismisses M.P.s as “national dustmen”; though many today would see the time as a golden age of political giants: Palmerston and the young Gladstone, as well as Peel and Disraeli himself. Dickens is thus incapable of matching the lethal scene where Disraeli portrays Peel (called simply “the gentleman in Downing Street”) instructing his factotum, who is given the thoroughly Dickensian name of Hoaxem, to give two completely contradictory messages to two different visiting delegations, and particularly to be “ “Frank and explicit”: that is the right line to take when you wish to conceal your own mind and to confuse the minds of others.” This is far more damaging than Dickens’s crude abuse!” END QUOTE FROM HILSTON BLOG POST

In conclusion, it is a final irony of the above that Dickens and Disraeli, by virtue of an irony of surname spelling, have entries one after the other in The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens.
If you read Disraeli’s entry on p.181 thereof, you will learn that Disraeli, when asked in 1857 whether he had ever read anything by Dickens, replied in the negative, “except extracts in the newspaper.”

I am not sure I believe D’Israeli on that one, but if it’s true, then that’s a good thing, I suppose, because I don’t think “boredom” would have described his response had he seen himself in the character of the “bored” James Harthouse in Hard Times!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I am Tweeting the link for this post to the OED, let’s see if they change their entry and acknowledge me for pointing out their error.

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