OUT of the pages of Pickwick step many of Dickens’s funniest eccentrics.
Characters with mannerisms and tags of speech parade through the novel, illustrating a distinctive style of characterization which is usually labelled caricature in every novel he writes later. How and why did he begin this style? Much light can be thrown upon his early narrative development by a study of Mr. Jingle, the character which has one of the most extreme of all Dickens’s uses of eccentric mannerism—a rapid-fire, staccato habit of speech. Furthermore, an unbelievable anecdote usually constitutes the subject-matter of Mr. Jingle’s remarks, as; Don Bolaro Fizzgig—Grandee—only daughter—Donna Christina—splendid creature—loved me to distraction—jealous father—high-souled creature—hand- some Englishman—Donna Christina in despair—prussic acid—stomach pump in my portmanteau—operation performed—old Bolaro in ecstasies—consent to our union—join hands and floods of tears—romantic story—very.
There were two potent early influences upon Dickens: the novels of Fielding and Smollett, and the varied influence of the stage. From both these possible sources come forerunners of Mr. Jingle’s mannerism. In one of Smollett’s less successful novels, Sir Launcelot Greaves (1762), a variety of staccato speech is a characteristic of Captain Crowe.
Probably Smollett was original in developing this manner of speaking for Captain Crowe. He was accustomed to attach peculiarities to his humorous char- acters, like Commodore Trunnion, Lieutenant Hatchway, Lieutenant Tom Bowling, and Lismahago, so that Captain Crowe’s speech is but another touch of caricature in his description of a whimsical sea-dog. Smollett pictures the Captain thus: He was an excellent seaman, brave, active, friendly in his way, and scrupulously honest; but as little acquainted with the world as a sucking child; whimsical, impatient, and so impetuous, that he could not help breaking in upon the conversation, whatever it might be, with repeated interruptions, that seemed to burst from him by involuntary impulse. When he himself attempted to speak he never finished his period; but made such a number of abrupt transitions, that his discourse seemed to be an unconnected series of unfinished sentences, the meaning of which it was not easy to decipher.
It will be noticed at once that this is not quite the manner of Mr. Jingle, whose meanings are usually clear, if not supplied with connectives. Captain Crowe’s clauses are often left unfinished, but to tell the truth, Smollett does not emphasize the peculiar manner of speech very muchafter the first chapters when he is introducing his eccentric character to the reader. He does not seem to have realized the humorous possibilities of the device except in an elementary way.
The best example of the Captain’s distinctive speech is probably the following:Laud have mercy upon us!—look ye here, brother, look ye here—mind these poor crippled joints; two fingers on the starboard, and three on the larboard hand; crooked, d’ye see, like the knees of a bilander. I’ll tell you what, brother, you seem to be a—ship deep laden—rich cargo—current setting into the bay—hard gale—lee shore—all hands in the boat—tow around the headland—self pulling for dear blood, against the whole crew—snap go the finger braces—crack went the eye-blocks. Bounce daylight—flash starlight—down I foundered, dark as hellwhiz went my cars, and my head spun like a whirligig. That don’t signify—I’m a Yorkshire boy, as the saying is—all my life at sea, brother, by reason of an old grandmother and maiden aunt, a couple of old stinking—kept me these forty years out of my grandfather’s estate. Dickens’s familiarity with Humphry Clinker, Roderick Random, and Peregrine Pickle is well known from a chapter in David Copperjield, as well as from less important references in other novels and letters.
Wheth- er he had also read Sir Launcelot Greaves has been regarded as a more or less open question, although there are enough instances of similarity in incident and situation in Dickens’s novels to make such reading most likely. If there were no other evidence in the Jingle case, it would seem perfectly logical to cite Captain Crowe as the origin of Mr. Jingle’s man- ner of speaking. But there is abundant further evidence. Holcroft, dramatist and novelist of purpose in the late eighteenth century, found comic use for a staccato device in his most famous play, The Road to Ruin, first acted at Covent Garden, February 18, 1792. One of the best reasons for the popularity of the play was the acting of the firstranking comedian Lewis in the character of Goldfinch, a former jockey who has become a man about town.
Goldfinch talks naturally part of the time (if one is to judge from the way his speeches are printed), but he uses the characteristic staccato manner whenever horses enter his conversation. It is entirely likely that the humor of these passages inspired Lewis to make his general conception of Goldfinch’s speech more or less jerky and abrupt. This eccentric fop loved to tell of driving horses, and Holcroft, who had been apprenticed as a jockey in his own youth, apparently used this manner of speech to imitate the galloping rhythm of horses going at full speed, urged on by the driver or rider. For example, Goldfinch says:To be sure! know the odds—hold four in hand—turn a corner in style—reins in form—elbows square—wrist pliant—hayait!—drive the Coventry stage twice a week all summer—pay for an inside place—mount the box—tip the coachy a crown—beat the mail—come in full spee —rattle down the gateway—take care of your heads! never killed but one woman and a child all my life—that’s your sort!Goldfinch is in the humours tradition, and his habit of interpolating the phrase, “That’s your sort!” in all his speeches is a noticeable one. He tells a story somewhat in the manner of Mr.
Jingle, but his repertory is a limited one. The best of his collection is the following:Bye-road—back of Islington—had them tight in hand, too—came to short turn and a narrow’ lane—up flew a damned dancing master’s umbrella—bounce —off they went—road repairing—wheelbarrow in the way—crash—out flew I— whiz—fire flashed—lay stunned—got up—looked foolish—shafts broke—Snarler and Blackguard both down—Black-and-all-black paying awray—pannels smashed—traces cut—Snarler lamed!Goldfinch, as interpreted by Lewis, was a popular stage figure, and the success of the play kept this character in the stock repertory of English comedians for many years, well into the nineteenth century. Dickens ad- mired Holcroft; he knew at least the Autobiography and The Road to Ruin The play certainly is the main source for the staccato manner of speech in the literature of the next fifty years, and there are many imitations before the time of Mr. Jingle. In the very next year, Frederic Reynolds, a competent dramatist of the day, produced How to Grow Rich.
In this comedy, an unscrupulous lawyer, Latitat, drives a phaeton and like Goldfinch pretends to be a man of fashion. Latitat is more versatile in his stories than Goldfinch, and he describes a cricket match which has some resemblance to one of the stories recounted by Jingle. Latitat’s version is as follows:Then at cricket—last grand match—got sixty notches—the Peer run out—the Baron stumpt—and the General knock’d down his own wicket—I was long-stop —famous as long-stop, Ma’am—cricket or law—ball or debtor—let neither slip through my fingers. Mr. Jingle’s story of his own prowess as a batsman comes as a sequel to the match played by All-Muggleton against Dingley Dell, which is witnessed by the Pickwickians while they are Mr.
Wardle’s guests. Played a match once—single wicket—friend the Colonel—Sir Thomas Blazo— who should get the greatest number of runs—. Won the toss—first innings- seven o’clock a. m. —six natives to look out—went in; kept in—heat intense —natives all fainted—taken away—fresh half-dozen ordered—fainted also— Blazo bowling—supported by two natives—couldn’t bowl me out—fainted too—cleared away the Colonel—wouldn’t give in—faithful attendant—Quanko Samba—last man left—sun so hot, bat in blisters, ball scorched brown—five hundred and seventy runs—rather exhausted—Quanko mustered up remaining strength—bowled me out—had a bath, and went out to dinner. The resemblance is certainly superficial, and I am of the opinion that Mr.
Jingle’s story, like his others, grew out of Dickens’s imagination and the situation which is part of the adventures of the Pickwickians, rather than that he did any conscious or unconscious imitating of Lati-tat’s inferior examples of humorous speech. It becomes more and more apparent, as one goes into the matter, that Dickens’s handling of the staccato device is consistently original in the matter which is used. That Mr. Jingle’s cricket story is vastly superior to Latitat’s is obvious. “One of Dickens’s favorite comedies was Thomas Morton’s A Cure for the Heartache, first presented in 1797, a play which contains a character called Rapid. This creation was undoubtedly suggested by the success of Goldfinch and Latitat, but the conception of Rapid’s entire personal-ity fits his name; he does everything in a rapid-fire manner.
He is more farcical than Goldfinch, but in his way is as successful a creation. He is the son of a tailor who has made money, and when he discovers his fa- ther’s wealth, he sets out to be a fashionable spendthrift, forgetting his former sweetheart. His impetuosity does not permit him to make very many long speeches, but on one occasion he objects to a suggestion that he enter parliament in this way:I was once in the gallery —crammed in—no moving–expected to hear the great guns—got up a little fellow nobody knew—who gave us a three hours’ speech—I got dev’lish fidgetty—the house called for the question, I joined the cry—‘the question, the question,’ says I. A member spied me; cleared the gallery; got hustled by my brother spectators—obliged to scud. Oh, it would never do forme. It is to be noted that Rapid is not a Munchausen, nor does he have any personal qualities particularly comparable to those of Mr.
Jingle. The sentimental comedies of Colman the younger retained their popu- larity remarkably in the early nineteenth century. One of the best of these dramas is The Poor Gentleman, produced at Covent Garden in 1801. It has all the typical sentimental comedy features of virtue in distress, the villain bent on seduction, honest tears, etc. But several amus- ing characters in the humours tradition help to save the piece. Amongthem is the apothecary, Ollapod, who not only talks in the staccato manner, but has a tag of speech.
He is continually saying, “Do you take, good sir? Do you take?” and “I owe you one. ”Thus he says: Yes; I’m an apothecary. Take care how you meddle with a man of my repute!Served my time, seven years, under old Cataplasm, of Canterbury; took out my freedom in that ancient city; thumped the mortar six months at Maidstone; now on my own bottom, in trade, at Tunbridge. Cornet Ollapod, at the gilt Galen’s Head; known to all the nobility around; short shot in a copse; deep dab at the broad-sword exercise; charge a furze-bush, wing a woodcock, or blister a lord, with any chap in the country. Insult me as an officer, and I’ll prosecute you.
Touch my ears, you touch my honour; and d—n me, I’ll clap you in the county jail for assaulting a freeman!After this play, the popularity of the staccato device struck a lull, but the comedies which contained it continued in the stock repertory. Charles Mathews the elder found one of his most successful rôles in Goldfinch, which he continued to act from year to year. In 1819 he began his one-man performances which, like Foote, he styled At Homes. Naturally, in searching for different devices of comic acting which could diversify an entire evening’s performance, he used many of the manner- isms belonging to parts he had acted during his many years on the stage. He was an extraordinary mimic, a ventriloquist, a quick-change artist, and he had a talent for taking off eccentricities.
His At Homes were composed of stories in character, conversations, songs with patter choruses and interpolated additions, and a Monopolylogue. This last was a short one-act play in which Mathews took all the parts, a feat which was managed by ingenious artifice in the writing, so that no more than on character had to appear on the stage at a time. His ability at quick changes of costume and his ventriloquism helped over the awkward places. In all of his later performances, Mathews more or less departed from traditional types of comic acting and depended upon what we now designate as “character acting.
”Mathews collaborated with James Smith, Poole, Peake, and Moncrieff in the writing of his performances,17 which varied from night to night in some degree, and which were replaced by an entirely new bill every season. He used various comic rhetorical effects, vocal artifices, and changes of costume, to differentiate the characters he personated. One of his most successful devices was the manner of speaking which he had used in acting Goldfinch, and he attached the staccato manner to various characters of his creation, manufacturing a new one almost yearly. The first and most famous of these was one whom he called Ma- jor Longbow, a real Munchausen. Despite the fact that our only records of the At Homes are from pirated printings, taken down from actual per- formances by stenographers, the character of Major Longbow’s stories can be discerned from the fairly accurate publication of Hodgson and Company, London, which printed Mathew’s Theatrical Budget; or the Actor’s Multum in Parvo.
Major Longbow is part of an At Home program for 1821, Travels in Air on Earth and on Water. The Major talks of ballooning, the main subject of this performance, thus: Know all about it, to be sure I do—went up myself with Rosiere and Romaine from Boulogne, forty years ago—Montgolfier balloon—fire as large as the kitchen fire at the Thatched House tavern—three miles high took fire—there was a blaze—all Paris saw us—down we came slap-bang—like a cannon-ball, 2840 yards high, French measure—down we came like a thunderbolt—Rosiere and Romaine, they both killed on the spot, I not hurt a bit—forty years ago—not a bit older now—Pon my life it’s true—what will you lay it’s a lie?Major Longbow has none of the qualities attached to Mr. Jingle’s person; he is not a strolling player or an adventurer; but he tells the same sort of stories. “Pon my life it’s true—what will you lay it’s a lie?” is his tag. In practically every case, his stories might be transferred toMr. Jingle, and providing only that they were properly introduced, no one would notice that they were foreign to Dickens’s style.