Month 8 (December 1864): ‘Why put it so? Why adopt a circuitous form of speech?’

It’s the beginning of the Christmas season, and this month’s instalment of Our Mutual Friend opens in a suitably festive fashion with the unwrapping of a brown paper parcel and a long-anticipated family get-together. As we learnt in Month 2, all Silas Wegg wanted for Christmas was his own amputated leg, and, thanks to Mr Venus, in this month’s instalment we witness this happy reunion taking place. It’s an episode in which Dickens brilliantly sustains the linguistic awkwardness that built up around Venus and Wegg’s original discussion of this event in June: Venus’s uncertainty on how to refer to the rest of Wegg’s body (‘Sit down by the fire, and warm your — your other one’) is repeated here again in his hesitant ‘I am glad to restore it to the source from whence it — flowed’. The terms to describe the amputated part remain similarly fraught: in Month 2 it was a ‘miscellaneous one’ (in Wegg’s words) or a ‘Monstrosity’ (in Venus’s), whilst this time round our narrator plumps for ‘brown paper truncheon’. The obsession with propriety that drove Wegg to ‘collect [him]self like a genteel person’ in that earlier instalment is also evident here again, in the disagreement over how this ‘brown paper truncheon’ should have been transported: Mr Venus, much like Amazon, is ‘not above a parcel’, whilst Wegg feels a cab would have been a more appropriate transport, an idea which comically skewers Wegg’s general sense of self-importance and concern for the ‘respectability’ of his body.

It was this opening exchange that set me thinking about Dickens’s emphasis this month on the vagaries, uncertainties, and potential embarrassments of language: the instalment is replete with characters ostentatiously skirting around their true meaning, or being reproached for speaking too plainly. In the Boffin household, for example, it takes Sloppy three attempts to adequately articulate to John Rokesmith what has happened to little Johnny. Elsewhere, Mr Wilfer worries about saying the word ‘Saveloy’ in Bella’s carriage, and ‘drop[s] his voice in deference to the chariot’. He is also later shocked at Bella’s open acknowledgement of her mercenary qualities (she is, as she candidly admits, ‘always avariciously scheming’). Elsewhere, Silas Wegg’s own mercenary plot (or, in his terms, ‘friendly move’) is so obfuscated as to be framed in the manner of a quasi-seduction, in which he dwells lovingly upon the exact terminology of treasure-hunting —whether one might say ‘skimmed’, ‘scooped’, or ‘as a man – […] prodded’ —rather than openly reveal his object.

In the Wegg/Venus scene, I wonder if the euphemistic and circumlocutory nature of Wegg’s language serves to veil another potentially ‘unspeakable’ dynamic, aside from Wegg’s criminal intent. Eve Sedgwick has famously written about the novel’s preoccupation with homoerotic relationships between men, and Wegg’s protracted attempts to involve Venus in his scheme here seem similarly charged. Wegg’s gradual ‘hitch[ing]’ towards Venus; his repeated suggestion that Venus ‘mix’ his drink again (‘more’, the narrator informs us, ‘as if he were proposing that himself and Mr Venus should mix again’); his need for Venus’s ‘delicate touch’ to excavate the dust heaps; his pleasure that Pleasant Riderhood’s rejection of Venus has ‘reduced [him] to his present convenient state of mind’; and his concern for whether Venus will give a specifically ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer: all, to me, pointed towards a ‘proposal’ of a rather different kind, implied but, again, not openly articulated.

In addition to this emphasis on veiled or circuitous expression, there is also a good deal of uncertainty in this instalment about names and naming: Mrs Boffin worries that giving another child the name of John Harmon might ‘prove again unlucky’ after the demise of poor Johnny; whilst her footman displays great chagrin at being called upon to announce the name ‘Sloppy’ (‘it was forced on his reluctance by the youth in question, and […] if the youth had had the good sense and good taste to inherit some other name it would have spared the feelings of him the bearer’). There is also a sustained and comic disagreement between Bella and Lavinia Wilfer and their mother on whether it is appropriate to use the term ‘Boffins’ to describe Bella’s benefactors. The plural is rejected by Mrs Wilfer for its ‘tone of levity’, leaving Lavinia to resort to ‘Spoffins’, and then ‘Whatshisnames’. It is later suggested that it is actually the letter ‘B’ that is causing Mrs Wilfer such distress here: the narrator describes how ‘the good lady bitterly emphasized the first letter of the word Boffin, as if it represented her chief objection to the owners of that name, and as if she could have borne Doffin, Moffin, or Poffin much better’. This concern with naming reaches a kind of crisis when Mrs Wilfer is forced to summon the Boffins’ footman to escort Bella to her carriage, and plumps for the ‘ceremonial’ expression ‘the male domestic of Mrs Boffin!’ for the general behoof of her neighbours. Sadly for Mrs Wilfer, such displays of verbosity are seemingly unsustainable, and by the time Bella arrives at her father’s office, she has become, in the words of the office scout, ‘a slap-up gal in a bang-up chariot’.

I wonder if perhaps the interest throughout this instalment in the relationship between language, class, and ‘propriety’ is a broader concern of the novel as a whole. Critics have often commented upon the incongruity between Lizzie Hexam’s eloquence of expression and her social standing, and again in this instalment it is emphasised just how socially-inflected and etiquette-bound language and expression can be. And yet there also seems to me to be a celebration of the messy fluidity and variability of language in these scenes: in Dickens’s enjoyment of the play between ‘boney lights’ and ‘bumpey lights’ in the Venus and Wegg exchange; in Sloppy’s articulation of the doctor’s diagnosis of Johnny’s illness (‘he called it something as wos wery long for spots’); and in the image of Sloppy’s buttons ‘modestly withdr[awing] into a creasy retirement’ after he has eaten; as well as, as mentioned above, the sending-up of Mrs Wilfer’s rather pretentious concern for the sanctity of expression. Perhaps such skewering of middle-class snobberies and celebrations of difference are rather appropriate keynotes for an instalment released at this particularly Dickensian time of year. And with this in mind, it’s perhaps fitting that the instalment closes, rather heart-warmingly and festively, with the linguistically unattractive Sloppy being welcomed into the Boffin (or should that be Spoffin?) family home.

Sloppy

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Month 8 (December 1864): ‘Why put it so? Why adopt a circuitous form of speech?’

  1. Ben Winyard

    I love some of the queer potentialities you are teasing out here, Emma! Sedgwick famously focuses on some of the novel’s more violent configurations of queer touch and affect (but, no spoilers, so I won’t say any more!), but I like your shift of emphasis to ineffability and the queer moments that adhere to silence.

    Your characterisation of Silas Wegg has reminded me of Dennis the hangman in Barnaby Rudge, another shifty character who only feels comfortable inhabiting a homosocial world. Dennis, too, is surreptitiously engaged in criminal behaviour and recruits close male friends to assist, forging potent, erotic homosocial bonds in the process. Silas’s ‘proposal’ reminds me of Dennis nervously asking his comrades, ‘“You an’t in love I hope, brother? That an’t the sort of thing for us, you know. We mustn’t have no love here”’, indicating a jealous erotic bond at the heart of homosociality (BR 433, 405). And Dennis, too, has a fetishistic relationship to body parts – there are lots of references to his desire for necks and to his hands – that reminds me of Silas’s similar queer relationship to his missing leg. What, after all, could be queerer than a leg that is simultaneously dead/alive, present/absent and reviled/adored?

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  2. Pete Orford

    A very interesting post Emma ; I shall keep an eye on the language in future installments. “A slap-up girl in a bang-up chariot” is by far my favourite description of Bella. I always find it hard to determine when Dickens is laughing with or at his characters. The social pretensions many of the characters assumr at times can be charming in their awkwardness often with the underlying message that they would be better being themselves rather than assuming the manners of the class above them, which is curiously anti-progress of Dickens. I’ve been sifting through his obituaries this week (as you do in the festive period) and was struck by this comment in the Illustrated London News on 18 June 1870:
    “It must, we fear, be confessed that Dickens is not always just in his treatment of the upper classes; and that his later stories, more especially ‘Our Mutual Friend’, betray a rather bitter spirit of uncalled-for satire upon the enjoyments of wealth and the conventional distinctions of the modern world.”

    First of all – ya think?!? But how odd to see Dickens the legendary champion of the poor being reprimanded in his own time for unjust treatment of the upper classes, and uncalled-for satire. Mrs Wilfer at any rate would approve.

    Liked by 1 person

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