Charles Dickens and Character Names in Bleak House

Bleak House 2005 Cast

Bleak House is a giant tome (it clocks in at 360,947 words!) and is regarded as one of Charles Dicken’s finest works.

One of the things that I’ve always loved about Charles Dickens’ books which struck me again while watching the 2005 BBC series of Bleak House was how evocative Dickens’ characters & places names are, and how they helps shape our perception of personalities and appearances:

  • Bleak House – as portrayed in the series, the seat of the Jardyce estate is bright and beautiful, but the inhabitants are living under strained circumstances and a looming sense of uncertain fate.
  • Chesney Wold – Home of the Sir Leicester Dedlock & Lady Dedlock. A wold is an ancient word for forest and not uncommon for a place name, but it also sounds like mold and decay.
  • Tom-All-Alone’s – The grim, dirty, disease-festering, terrible slum street where various characters seek refuge. I had the impression that it was an asylum for the homeless when viewing the BBC series, but despite the name, it wasn’t an organized shelter.
  • John Jarndyce – One of the claimants in the contested legal case, the name of which is repeated over and over – “Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce” evokes jaundice, a symptom of longstanding illness.
  • Esther Summerson – the bright spot of the story and the heroine.
  • Lady Dedlock (Honoria Barbary) – Her character is in a “deadlocked” situation, legally and emotionally. In the series, we don’t hear her first name until the final hour, when her character’s scandal is finally revealed – her honor having been lost in ruins when her illegitimate child is revealed. Not sure if that late reveal is true within the book.
  • Richard Carstone – one of the “wards in Jarndyce” – the claimants to the legal case who hope to inherit a fortune.
  • Ada Clare – the other “ward in Jarndyce” – a title frequently used in substitute for Ada & Richard’s names, and one that that makes the two young people sound like they are imprisoned in an asylum.
  • Harold Skimpole – a leech and hanger-on of John Jarndyce and a lesser villain, he skims money wherever he goes.
  • Lawrence Boythorn – the thorn in Leicester Dedlock’s side.
  • Sir Leicester Dedlock – like his wife, in a deadlocked situation
  • Mr. Tulkinghorn – the villain of the book; his name makes him sound like a maurauding beast
  • Mr. Snagsby – clerk who seems to be caught up against his will.
  • Miss Flite – keeper of numerous birds, and a flighty, eccentric woman
  • Mr. William Guppy – law clerk and an insignificant wet fish
  • Inspector Bucket – a blustering police officer
  • Mr. George (George Rouncewell) – military buddy of Hawdon, Mr. George drops his last name due to estrangement from his family.
  • Caddy Jellyby – named literally after a tea caddy, she is ordered about by her mother.
  • Krook – pretty straight-forward; his obsessive hoarding of papers essential steals everyones’ lives.
  • Jo – an orphan boy who has not much to his name, literally and figuratively.
  • Allan Woodcourt – an upright, kind many who is courting Ester Summerson
  • Grandfather Smallweed – a small, twisted man and noxious weed who complicated everyone’s lives
  • Mr. Vholes – a foraging rodent of a man.
  • Conversation Kenge – “His chief foible is his love of grand, portentous, and empty rhetoric” according to wikipedia, and I couldn’t have put that better.
  • Mr. Gridley – a victim of Chancery who dies without his legal circumstances resolved. Gridley reminds me of gridlock.
  • Mr. Nemo (Latin for “nobody”; alias of Captain James Hawdon) – a man who lost his name completely.
  • Prince Turveydrop – the dancing master whose name evokes a spinning top.
  • Mrs. Rouncewell – the housekeeper at Chesney Wold. “a fine old lady, handsome, stately, wonderfully neat” – she seems very well-rounded.
  • Phil Squod – Mr. George’s friend and an invalid with several disabilities due to working class labors.
  • Volumnia Dedlock – sixty-year old poor relation of Sir Leicester Dedlock “Lapsing then out of date, and being considered to bore mankind by her vocal performances”

And of course there are the names of Miss Flite’s caged birds who will be released “on the day of Judgement” which is meant to make us think “the day the Lord returns” but is actually when Jarndyce & Jarndyce will finally be settled. The bird’s names can be grouped into classes, according to J. Hillis Miller:

  • the victims of Chancery – Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life,
  • Chancery’s effects – Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death
  • Chancery’s qualities or tools – Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach (or Spinnage an earlier spelling of Spinach. Dickens uses the phrase “Gammon and spinnage” to mean “Gammon and nonsense” in David Copperfield as well.)
  • and finally, two new birds symbolic of Richard & Ada “the Wards in Jarndyce.”

We had a short discussion in my recent writing group about unusual Puritan Names when we discussed the character names in my own work-in-progress – Fidelia being one of the two main characters – a name I chose specifically because themes of the book circle around truth and secrets and when those secrets should be revealed and to whom. Puritans enjoyed giving their children names like “Preserved” or “Thankful” or “Faithful” or “Clemency” in hopes that the name would shape the character of the child to be virtuous and upright.

Many Puritan names are over the top, (“Humiliation”, “Abstinence” & “Sorry-for-sin” or “Job-rakt-out-of-the-asshes” are good examples) but names like Honoria or Grace or Fidelia are beautiful and wouldn’t be out of place for girls today. I’m not so certain that Increase or Stalwart or Anger or Conversation would be ideal for boys, but I could see enterprising hipster parents adopting something along those lines in the future.

It might be fairly heavy-handed and Dickensian to name all my characters this way, but I do enjoy the amount of thought and care that Dickens put into appellations. “Thought” and “Care” would be pretty cool character names, now that I think of it.

Other Reading
Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature
Miller, J. Hillis. “Interpretation in Dickens’s Bleak House” in Victorian Subjects (Durham: Durham University Press, 1991)
Naming and Violence in Bleak House
Curiosities of Puritan nomenclature (1888) by Charles W. Bardsley; 1888; Chatto and Windus, London
Ditching Dickensian

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