Sunday, 16 December 2007

The Meaning of Christian Names (1938? 1948?)


A charity shop acquisition, of course, and of course prompted by the imminent arrival of a new baby in the family. The authors, by accident or design, have monikers built wholly from Christian names ('Frederick George and Gerry Alexander') which is a nice touch; and the publication details are 'London; Universal Publications Ltd', a company presumably unrelated to this one. There's no date. Now, I would, from the look and content, have guessed late 1940s or early 1950s; but the tone of the entries perhaps indicates a pre-war provenance ('Adolf. Derives from the Teutonic, and means "a noble wolf". This, people with this name are strong and fearless'). Some highlights:
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Alice, Alicia, Alison. Derived from the Teutonic and means "noble and cheery". People so named are supposed to enjoy the gaiety of life. ['Supposed'?]
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Camille. People with this name may claim to be unselfish. [Doesn't 'may claim to be' imply '...but actually aren't'?]
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Cecilia, Cecily, Cicely. This comes from the latin caecus, which means "blind". There is no suggestion that people with this name are deprived of sight. [Ohh-K.]
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Evelyn. Some authorities claim that this is a diminutive of Eve and means "life", but it seems that it is more correct to trace the derivation to "a hazel-nut". [What?]

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And so on. Sometimes the definitions seem to betray a bias against a certain name:
Anthony, Antony and Tony are Latin names meaning "flourishing" and "praiseworthy." Such men will rise in the world and gain distinction, but they will not be very sociable.
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Douglas. A Gaelic name which means "dark grey". People so named will find that the horizon is often cloudy.
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Peter. From the Greek meaning "a stone". The suggestion is that a man with this name will be as firm as a rock. He will be somewhat lacking in feeling, however.
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Two further notes. One is that some of the entries seem, frankly, improbable:
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Algernon. This word means "possessing a moustache".
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Bartholomew.
Signifies "the son of him who made the waters to rise".
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Duncan is a Scottish word with a Saxon origin and means "a brown chief".
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Fred and Frederick.
These are Teutonic names having " a peaceful ruler" as their meaning. In this connection it is useful to recall that Frederick the Great claimed that his greatest ambition was to be a peaceful ruler. [Just as soon as he had defeated the rest of the world in violent war, he did.]
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Mary.
A Hebrew name meaning "bitter".
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William. For centuries one of our most common Christian names, was popularised by the Normans. This Teutonic name means literally "will helmet".
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You wouldn't get away with 'will helmet' in a modern-day book about children. The second, remembering that the book is called The Meaning of Christian Names, is to note how often entries simply evade the duty of definition altogether:
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Deidre. This name is a modern one, which has become very popular in recent years.

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Mavis. The meaning of this pretty [sic] is doubtful.
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Monica. The origin and meaning of this popular name is curiously unknown.
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Ivor. This name is Nordic in origin.
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So: my name? 'Adam. Also from the Hebrew. The meaning is "a man". This is clearly in allusion to the fact that the first man was named Adam.' Clearly! Alright, keep your hair on, no need to be grumpy.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Dombey and Daughter (1847)



[Click on those images for a closer look.]
This Dombey and Son rip-off is only one of many attempts to exploit the success of Dickens’s novels. AntiQbook wrongly describe it as a parody (actually it’s not) and have a copy on sale for $950; Tavistock Books have one at, good grief, $1250: which, since I picked up my copy for £20—admittedly some years ago—rather startles me. There’s no date on the title page; The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens dates it to 1847; the DNB to 1858, which seems rather late to attempt to ride the coattails of Dickens’s original success. [Click on the images here for a better view]
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It is, as you might guess, rubbish. More to the point, it has almost nothing to do with Dombey and Son. Old Mr Dombey makes a couple of cameo appearances; charitably gifting money to secure the future of a poor orphaned girl called Clara. But otherwise Nicholson elected not to recycle Dickens’s characters, instead giving centre-stage to his own watery creations, amongst them the comical landlady Mrs Fribble, the poetical young Mr Shadow, the virtuous old quack-doctor Peter the Herbalist, the sparky maidservant Cleopatra (so named because ‘she was everything the sultry queen of Egypt was not; she was the contrast, the antagonist proposition’) and too many others. Presumably this was an unrelated short novel in Nicholson’s top-drawer, a project he managed to publish by substituting the name Dombey for whatever name he’d originally given his ‘Benign Old Rich Man’ character. The fit is not exact. Nicholson’s Dombey, for instance, has a brother (a Colonel called Daniel), which Dickens's original never did. None of Dickens's other characters appear: no Florence, for instance, despite the book’s title; no Walter Gay, Old Sol, no Toots. Dickens fans buying a copy in the 1840s would have been within their rights to feel cheated.
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The plot is desultory: some generic rascality from the nasty Captain Blather, the rather stupid barber Goliah Whiffen and some others; and a couple of underworked lovestories. There's also an immense amount of padding in a very sub-sub-Dickensian manner. From the first chapter:
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Descend with me, oh! fair and gentle reader, descend with me to the level of the Thames. I am no Quixote, but the wonders of the fabled cave of Montesinos shall not fall short of the marvels of our expedition. Down, down, down, with gentle, not with hasty, tread, that flight of stones stairs, close to the Feather Tavern, on the Surrey side of Waterloo-bridge. Down, down, I say, with step cautious and soft, and we will penetrate the black labyrinths of sloth, of crime, of idleness, of poverty below.
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These warrens for the burrowing and multiplying of the wretched and depraved materialism are called back-streets, and the back streets of the Waterloo-road are perhaps farther back in the world of morals and the Bill of Health, than any other back streets in the suburbs of the metropolis.
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Dirty and slipshod, improvident wives of improvident mechanics loiter and gossip in gin-shop doorways, with females in figured finery whose nameless occupation is betokened by the unmistakeable evidences of stale carmine and a shameless arrangement of dress, antagonistic to decorum, and in defiance of every known order in the architecture of feminine costume. Children—squalid, in-kneed, bandy, and bow-legged—fester in the fetid air of leprous exhalation, crying whoop at nightfall from hollow jaws and morbid lungs; and by day, wayward, wanton, and neglected, playing pitch-and-toss together in nooks, corners, and bye-places, away from the scrutiny of passer and police. [2]
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We get the picture, I think. There's worse to come, stylistically at any rate--the authentic Nicholson tang:
It was a dark winter’s night, dark as the sable gloom of unblessed eternity, dark as the raven’s wing, sombre as the burial sigh, and still as the bend of funeral feathers. Oh! how dark it was. [2]
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And the prize for the worst prose-stylist of the nineteenth-century goes to … [scrabbles open the golden envelope] Renton Nicholson! [the audience bursts into spontaneous applause, the speaker raising his voice to be heard above the excited clamour] for the spectacularly bad writing of 1847’s Dombey and Daughter! Well done Renton! Come on up here!
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Nicholson is certainly fond of the ejaculatory oh!: ‘A child, a beauteous child, between seven and eight years old, was on her knees, praying by the death bed of her dying mother … Oh! fervently she prayed. … Oh! fair and sympathising reader … Oh! the throbbing pulses of that pure, devoted heart were worth miracles’ [3] He also evidently believed the only thing needful to replicate the effective Dickensy tone is repetition. Thus his description when old Peter the herbalist alights from ‘the Twickenham coach’: ‘Twickenham is still Twickenham; even in these days of change, Twickenham is unaltered. Oh! Twickenham town is a sacred old place’ [6]; or his account of Mrs Fribble, where we can almost see Nicholson chivvying his writing self along as we read: ‘Mrs. Fribble was a sagacious woman; yes, sagacious—that is the identical word—sagacious. Wild beasts had sagacity—so had Mrs Fribble’ [11]. And what of Bow-street?
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Bow-street is a curious locality. There is food for the philosopher in Bow-street. Bow-street is an enquiring place … Oh! Bow-street is a rare and interesting section of the metropolis. To see Bow-street in perfection one must pass days and nights in its precincts. Those who sleep in Bow-street, or try to, have due notice of the approach of traffic… in every part of England except Bow-street—always excepting Bow-street … Stranger, that remorseless donkey comes three times a week to Bow-street … Bow-street station-house produces more examples of folly than any other in London … [47]
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And so on. From time to time he’ll rise, as it were, in the general direction of comic prose, although he falls away again soon enough.
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Miss Witherly took [his card] and read: “CAPTAIN MAGNUS BLATHER"
“He’s in the army, I suppose,” said Julia.
“Oh yes,” returned the landlady; “he has been wounded all over, and he says he’s got a grape in his right ham. I don’t know whether he’s marked with fruit, or what he means.” [32]
But towards the end the sense of padding becomes uncomfortably evident.
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CHAPTER XLVII
MR. WHIFFEN THINKS TO HIMSELF THAT HE’LL GO AND SEE HOW THE GALS ARE, AFTER THE EMETICS, BEFORE HE GIVES ONE TO MRS. W.

“I’ll just see,” said Whiffen, to himself, “how them ’metics operates upon the gals at the mansion; and if they don’t hurt ‘em much, Mrs W. shall have one the next time I go to London, bless her heart!"
Chapter 50 is mostly given over to a lengthy interpolated tale that has nothing to do with the main story. The ending happens with startling abruptness; a two-paragraph chapter 55 jolts the characters unexpectedly to Cremorne Gardens, for no very apparent reason; and the final chapter (the 56th), back home again, suddenly ties up the loose ends, marrying Shadow to Cleopatra, Mr Fink to Miss Witherly and disposing of the baddies. Presumably his publisher, finding continuing serialisation unprofitable, had put a stop to the operation. There follows a rather peculiar closing address from the author:
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FAREWELL kind and benignant Reader … I have endeavoured to amuse and instruct you. … I think I may, without arrogance, predict that these pages will be read with pleasure by those whose tastes are not vitiated, and who prefer a simple story, representing scenes of real life, to the monstrous productions of a feverish imagination, which of late have been received with unmerited though almost universal applause. RENTON NICHOLSON.
Presumably a dig at Dickens himself; a strange touch in a book seeking to exploit Dickens’s fame.
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Nicholson (1809–1861) is described by the DNB as an ‘impresario’; he certainly seems to have lived a colourful life:
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He started in business as a jeweller at 99 Quadrant, Regent Street, but on 1 Dec. 1831 he became insolvent, and paid the first of many visits to the King's Bench and Whitecross Street prisons. On one occasion, after being released from the latter prison, he was in so destitute a condition that for several nights he slept on the doorstep of the Bishop of London's house in St. James's Square. He afterwards picked up a living by frequenting gambling-rooms or billiard-rooms, and in the summer months went speeling, i.e., playing roulette in a tent on racecourses. He afterwards kept a cigar shop, and subsequently became a wine merchant. Finally, a printer named Joseph Last of Edward Street, Hampstead Road, employed him to edit ‘The Town,’ a weekly paper, the first number of which appeared on Saturday, 3 June 1837. It was a society journal, dealing with flash life. The last issue, numbered 156, appeared on Saturday, 23 May 1840. In the meantime, in conjunction with Last and Charles Pitcher, a sporting character, he had started ‘The Crown,’ a weekly paper supporting the beer-sellers, which came to an untimely end with No. 42, 14 April 1839. In partnership with Thomas Bartlett Simpson, in 1841 he opened the Garrick's Head and Town Hotel, 27 Bow Street, Covent Garden, and in a large room in this house, on Monday, 8 March 1841, established the well-known Judge and Jury Society, where he himself soon presided, under the title of ‘The Lord Chief Baron.’ Members of both houses of parliament, statesmen, poets, actors, and others visited the Garrick's Head, and it was not an uncommon occurrence to see the jury composed of peers and members of the lower house. The trials were humorous, and gave occasion for much real eloquence, brilliant repartee, fluent satire, and not unfrequently for indecent witticism. Nicholson's position as a mock judge was one of the sternest realities of eccentric history. Attorneys when suing him addressed him as ‘my lord.’ Sheriffs' officers, when executing a writ, apologised for the disagreeable duty they were ompelled to perform ‘on the court.’ On 31 July and 1 and 2 Aug. 1843 he gave a three days' fĂȘte at Cremorne Gardens.
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Aha! So that's why he whisks all the characters off to Cremorne gardens in chapter 55 ...
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PS: The Latin motto on the novel's title page up there is "solo nobilitas virtus", which is presumably there to indicate that 'virtue is the only nobility'. Except that the Latin is actually: "sola nobilitas virtus" (Juvenal, it's quoted from). Shoddy ... really shoddy.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Hamlet, Revenge! (1937)


Mysterylist summarises this, the second Inspector Appleby yarn [I add some extra exegesis in square brackets]:

Excellent murder story, of the Lord Chancellor no less, set in a huge Blenheim-Palace-like country house [Scamnum Court] during a grand [amateur] production of Hamlet in the great hall. [Lord Auldern, the Lord Chancellor, is playing Polonius; he is shot dead Act III scene 4, just as he is speaking the lines 'help, help, ho!' as per Shakespeare's playtext. Since he is carrying a vital secret diplomatic document about his person, there's a deal of Establishment anxiety about spies, assassination and so on. John Appleby comes down from London to solve the crime]. Giles Gott [Oxford Don, crime writer, Appleby's pal] appears, as director of the play, and the cast has many upper-upper-crust characters. A spy element, but basically a good mystery. The Hamlet stuff is very good, as is Lady Elizabeth's [the daughter of the house, romantically linked with Gott although in a fairly desultory way] method of hiding from the killer. The killer is also a fascinating study, and the misdirection by the author that also contains the solution. Gott, of course, comes up with a logically ingenious explanation that turns out to be completely wrong.


Years since I'd read an Innes, and I enjoyed reading this one, although it places various obstacles in the reader's way ... I don't mean 'obstacles to solving the mystery', because obviously that's a mystery-writer's job: but obstacles to the reader actually turning the next page and carrying on reading. It's often prolix, and fatally prone to stretched digressions, a book trading on a ponderous university-academic English Literature wit and leaden levity that I, as a university academic in an English Literature department, found only intermittently entertaining, and which will presumably be as dull to non-specialist crime readers as jokes about academic molecular physics would be to those who don't work in university departments of molecular physics. A fairly high proportion of the text is a kind of novelistic adipose tissue, in which one occasionally comes across chunks of gristle in the form of antiquated cultural attitudes to gender, class and race--the latter especially jarring, actually: a mixture of condescension, orientalism and plain ugly racism in respect of the Indian character Mr Bose ('the black man' the characters call him, when they're not calling him 'the nigger'). The country house setting, the artificially isolated and thought-experimental nature of the crime, the cast of witty, charming and eccentric aristocratics, some with attendant old family retainers who speak wholly in caricature vernacular: it is all so overdone that it almost achieves a weird postmodern escape velocity to soar into the ether of revolutionary counter-text. 'Are you a Jacobin, John?' a character asks Appleby at one point, who replies: 'I'm probably violently reactionary' [139]. Isn't that probably a nice touch?
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Certainly Appleby gives Innes the opportunity to vent a variety of crusty-to-Blimpish, sentiments. For example: on the subject of the sightseers who assemble on the edge of the estate at Scamnum Court to rubberneck the scene of a sensational murder of a member of the aristocracy and Lord Chancellor to boot, Appleby is scathing:
It was quite a crowd now: idlers in the neighbouring towns, reading the stimulating news in their morning paper, had hurried to get out the car and motor over to see what they could. And soon there would be similar arrivals from London; people 'running down for the day'. And portents these, thought Appleby, of a society running down in another sense: clogged by its own mass-production of individuals who, let loose from a day's or a lifetime's specialized routine, will neither think, nor read, nor practise any craft, but only gape. [201]
Of course we might prefer to describe these folk not as portents, but just people indulging a natural human curiosity. The opinion that 'society [is] running down [because] clogged by its own mass-production of individuals' reads, in a novel published in 1937, as rather more disturbing than Innes perhaps intended; for hindsight reveals how easily violent reactionaries, or for that matter violent revolutionaries, could enact as solution to this very problem the remedy exterminate a good percentage of the brutes. The treatment of murder as an elaborate game, and (indeed) dramatic performance, feeds into this too; as perhaps it inevitably will in a work of this genre. Innes occasionally, though, strikes a curiously modern note:
Gott hesitated, as if seeking some brief expression of what was in his mind. 'All over the world today are we not facing a rising tide of ideological intolrance, and are not violence and terrorism more and more in men's thoughts?' [249]
Well, quite. Other moments, on the other hand, have aged less well ('"What magnificent Dorothy Perkins!" said Mrs Terborg', 229).
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The novel manages some attractively ingenious reveals, mind you; and the prosiness throughout works, intentionally or not, as a sort of defamiliarisation technique that lifts the book into a strange, mannered, rather striking realm of its own. 'Scamnun' is a good shammy name for the country house, too; and the Hamlet-scamming-playlet is neatly worked in.
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The final solution lacks the necessary rubber-band snap-back of the best puzzle-crime writing, though. A moment's thought reveals all sorts of problems with it. So: the murderer shot Auldearn from close range as the old man stood behind the stage. Now, our killer could have shot him from the anonymity of various backstage drapes and curtains; but chose not to do this, instead stepping up to shoot him at close range ... even though in doing so they revealed themselves to the beady eye of the prompter. The detective uncovers the reason for this aberrant behaviour: the shooter in question must be a woman, because a man would have shot Auldearn from a safe distance, but a woman can only hit a target from close range. (Our survey says: do what?) Exposing herself to the victim with a gun in her hand, and (we assume) a murderous glint in her eye, causes the victim to call out 'help, help' just as scripted in Shakespeare's play; but how could she be sure he wouldn't shout out 'Madame Merkalova! Why are you pointing that pistol at me?' The prompter--the aforementioned and saintly Mr Bose--witnesses the crime, but instead of telling the police he evades questioning and hurries back to his room to write a letter to his father in India asking him what the proper course of action should be. (He is himself murdered before he can post this letter). That's a pretty crazy response; and, more to the point, it's not something Merkalova could possibly have anticipated. Finally we discover that Merkalova and her accomplice, the actor Clay (the play's lead) came to the amateur theatricals on the offchance that the Lord Chancellor would be carrying some or other vital secret state document about his person which they could murder him to steal. A pretty far-off offchance you might think; but when they discover that Auldearn had indeed arrived with just such a document they rapidly concoct the whole elaborate 'let's kill him during the play, then record a spoken version of the secret document onto the experimental recording equipment brought along by the American academic we probably didn't even realise would be present at the performance, replace the document, and then spirit away the wax cylinder' plot. Credulity, she is strained. Credulity, she is broken. Woe!
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PS: "Lady Elizabeth's method of hiding from the killer is very good." And the method is? Well, at novel's-end, Clay is chasing her across the grounds of Scamnum through a dark night intermittently illuminated by moonlight. In a dark interlude young Elizabeth is able to strip nude and clamber up to stand motionless on an empty plinth. The killer, glancing about furiously, doesn't notice her. Innes just about pulls this off; although I can't be the only reader to have read this and thought to myself, ahem ... pubic hair?