Month 5 (September 1864): Talking in Capital Letters

This guest post was contributed by Gavin Edwards, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of South Wales and author of the forthcoming Charles Dickens and the Case of the Initial Letter.

Stephen Fry’s Radio 4 programme on language, Fry’s English Delight – particularly the two most recent ones, on capital letters and on reading aloud – have made a nice accompaniment to reading the early instalments of Our Mutual Friend. Dickens has repeatedly been using the initial capital as a precision instrument: think of ‘Shares’, or of Mr Podsnap explaining to the foreign gentleman that the British Constitution was ‘Bestowed Upon Us By Providence’. As for reading aloud, Silas Wegg is now completing his negotiations with Mr Boffin, and Mrs Boffin is meeting young Sloppy who, according to Betty Higdon, ‘is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices’, which is evidently more than Wegg does for the Romans.

Doing different voices was, by all accounts, one of the things that had made Dickens himself, by 1864, almost as famous for his readings as for his writings. Stephen Fry has argued that reading aloud can bring a text to life and that Dickens’s writing in particular lends itself to being read aloud because it is often already oratorical. However, one of the intriguing things about Dickens’s concurrent careers as writer and public reader was their divergence: he never did a reading from any novel later than David Copperfield (1849-50). So far as we know, he never read aloud from Our Mutual Friend, in which reading aloud seems to be playing such an important role. Indeed, this is a novel in which Dickens seems to be drawing our attention to divergences between the different material forms that language can take, including the difference between writing and speech.

Mr Boffin has hired Wegg to read to him because, as he explained, ‘all print is closed to me’. But he does seem to be able to read handwriting, even though he can’t read his own and even though he makes such an inky mess of his paperwork that he decides to hire a Secretary. Betty Higdon has the opposite problem. She gets Sloppy to read Misses Milvey’s letter aloud to her because, as she explains, ‘I ain’t […] much of a hand at reading writing-hand, though I can read my Bible and most print.’

Dickens is exploring various kinds and degrees of literacy and the relationships into which people are drawn by virtue of these differences. Sometimes it is the difference between writing and print which interests him, sometimes the difference between both of these forms of visible language and speech. Sometimes the differences are stark, as when Charlie Hexham, waiting in the Veneering’s library, ‘glanced at the back of the books, with an awakened curiosity that went below the binding. No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot’. That distinction is at the heart of the separation between him and his father, with Lizzie caught in the middle. Yet Dickens is also interested in the way Gaffer tries to compensate for his inability to read, learning another means of identifying the printed police notices that paper the wall of his house: ‘I can’t read, nor I don’t want to, for I know ‘em by their places on the wall’.

Dickens’s preoccupation with the differences between writing, print and speech, between language seen and language heard, bears directly on his own creative practice, especially on his own use of capital letters. This is made briefly explicit in the present installment when Silas Wegg assures Mr Boffin that his ‘”collection of ballads will in future be reserved for private study, with the object of making poetry tributary” – Wegg was so proud of having found this word, that he said it again, with a capital letter – “Tributary to friendship”’.

Dickens told G. H. Lewes that ‘every word said by his characters was distinctly heard by him’, but in Our Mutual Friend he sometimes draws our attention to moments when a perfect translation between written and spoken language may not be possible. It could be true that Wegg says ‘Tributary’ with a capital T, but it could not be literally true. Nevertheless, if we look back to the reproduction of Wegg’s notice board in the second instalment we can see that he exhibits there the sort of self-consciousness about capital letters that a learner might well feel. Every line of his message begins with a capital, even where a word is divided between two lines (‘Errands gone/On with fi-/Delity’). He has grasped that capitals are used to begin things but is shaky in the application of the rule. So he just might have thought he was saying ‘Tributary’ with a capital T even if no listener could hear it.

The elevation of ‘tributary’ to ‘Tributary’ reminds us that the capital letter, like the apostrophe, is a feature of written and printed, rather than spoken, language (a fact which Stephen Fry neatly exploited as he talked about capitals on the radio). However, it should also remind us that, unlike the apostrophe, capital letters work metaphorically, on the basis of their size. Elevated letters are for elevated things.

None of this means that Our Mutual Friend cannot be read aloud, as David Timpson’s vivid and careful Naxos audiotape version demonstrates. When Timpson reads this instalment of the novel he gives Betty Higdon’s reference to ‘the Police’ a hushed emphasis, as if Sloppy mimicking the Police is a little shocking to her and the Police are very much an institution, rather than a collection of individual policemen. The capital P turns the word into a name. Timpson does indeed frequently bring the text to life, helping us to hear things we might not have registered reading silently to ourselves. But there are other moments when the printed text has a quite distinct power which speech cannot reproduce. Timpson catches the eccentric line-divisions of Wegg’s notice nicely, but he makes no attempt at the eccentric capital letters, and it is hard to see how he could. Similarly, it is quite possible to imagine Mr Boffin talking about ‘Fashion’; but when the Boffins are described as a ‘deeply Unfashionable pair’, the unconventional typography cannot be guessed at from any possible spoken translation of it. This is an effect reserved for readers and closed to people – like the Boffins themselves – to whom print is closed.

Dickens had always used expressive capitals at certain moments of high sentiment, especially when Death strikes and brings Heaven, Immortality and other Eternal Principles along with it. Capitals of this sort could have a reifying or personifying or deifying tendency according to the context; they are the typographic equivalent of Agnes Wickfield’s finger, ‘pointing upward’. In Dickens’s later fiction the initial capital becomes a far more subtle instrument: think of the infant Paul Dombey as the ‘Son’ in Dombey and Son, or of Mr Turveydrop’s ‘Deportment’ in Bleak House. In Our Mutual Friend, the capital S of ‘Shares’ is particularly striking because of the way its meaning changes as the word is repeated. At first the capital simply indicates the importance and public status of shares as a form of property. Then, by virtue of the way Shares are talked about and talked to (‘Oh Shares!’), the capital morphs into the kind that indicates the proper name of a person, or perhaps a god.

In Dickens’s handwriting it is sometimes impossible to tell whether a letter is a capital or not, whereas in print the decision between upper- and lower-case is unavoidable. In his previous novels, Dickens had sometimes made decisions about capital letters as he wrote, but sometimes at the proof stage when he first saw his text in print as his readers would see it. With Our Mutual Friend, the expressive capitals are almost always there in the manuscript. It seems as if in this respect, more than ever before, he is thinking of his text from the start as it will be seen by his readers. This intensifies our separation from Gaffer Hexham whose isolation, we now know, has proved fatal.

This blog post draws on two of my published essays: ‘Capital Letters’, Textual Practice, 24:3 (2010), 435-52; and ‘Dickens, Illiteracy, and “Writin’ Large”‘, English, 61:232 (2012), 27-49.



Filed under Books, Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

2 responses to “Month 5 (September 1864): Talking in Capital Letters

  1. Really enjoyed this and very much looking forward to the book!

    I’ve been working on Dickens’s speeches and this crops up even there – something he said at a dinner was misunderstood, and to make it clearer he corrected the capitalisation in the newspaper reports. So perhaps even when making a speech himself he had a sense of what should be capitalised.


  2. Gavin

    Thanks Emily! Is it his 1869 speech to the Birmingham and Midland Institute you have in mind, when he said (or tried to say) that he supported ‘The People’ against ‘the people who govern’? If so, I agree with you, that’s a really illuminating episode.


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