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

Gen Con Writer’s Symposium 2013, Saturday in Review

WKS1345346 (Fiction Fundamentals Part 3: Putting on the Polish on Sat at 08:00 AM – 3 hours)
Lawrence Connolly, William Horner III
“In-depth workshop: learn how to make your story sing through application of effective revision and editing techniques.”

I was really sorry to miss this workshop because the other two these guys did on Thursday and Friday were so useful. I was feeling pretty under the weather Saturday morning, so I didn’t make it to this one. I’m hoping to get the handouts for this one from Horner on the internet, because the others were pretty great and I’ve already tacked them up to my bulletin board and started reviewing my outlines for two projects.

SEM1345284 (Exploring Genres: Urban Fantasy on Sat at 11:00 AM)
Richard Byers, Jennifer Brozek, Lucy Snyder, Larry Correia
“We teach you the tips and tricks you’ll need to write amazing urban fantasy stories.”

The urban fantasy genre is pretty popular right now, and in addition to that one popular storyline about sparkly vampires, there are a decent number of women writing in the genre — most of them writing stuff that’s not quite as silly as the sparkly vampires. Such a cool idea; supernatural in the city, in a landscape we recognize and understand. Lots of superhero comics are pretty much urban fantasy genres; interesting to see it take shape in novel form. Lots of the discussion surrounded setting; do you take a real city and transform it, copy and rename it, shift it’s landscape around? All of those are interesting strategies for world building in this genre.

SEM1345353 (Writer’s Craft: Dialogue, it is not just people talking! on Sat at 12:00 PM)
Maxwell Alexander Drake
“In-depth seminar: join author Maxwell Alexander Drake as he gives you some insights on how to craft dialogue.”

Drake is a pretty entertaining lecturer and although I knew most of what he covered in this seminar, I went to see him present again. I’m encouraged that my dialogue is already pretty damned solid and doesn’t hit any of the “don’ts” on the list.

WKS1345350 (Writer’s Craft: Schrödinger’s Plot on Sat at 01:00 PM)
Brad Beaulieu
“In-depth seminar: master plotting techniques, from basic structural concepts to plotting to breaking writer’s block.”

I took four different seminars on plot, and got something good from all of them, which is pretty cool. Brad’s turned around the idea that there’s not one potential answer but many about the direction your story could go.

SEM1345301 (Writer’s Craft: Screenwriting for Novelists on Sat at 02:00 PM)
Lou Anders
“Learn how novelists can apply Hollywood screenwriting techniques to enhance character, plot & theme.”

Lou really needed more time, because he had to move really quickly through his material. Fascinating stuff; he took a number of popular movies and made you identify the protagonist, antagonist and relationship characters, and it was a nice exercise in critical thinking about character motivation and how conflicting motivations drive the plot. I realized that in my own work I probably have too many characters and have pretty murky motivations for them that need to be more clearly defined in my head so that I can be more clear about what I’m writing and what I’m holding back on as my stories unfold.

learn the rules

Gen Con Writer’s Symposium 2013, Thursday and Friday in Review

Thursday

WKS1345344 (Fiction Fundamentals Part 1: Plotting and Planning on Thu at 08:00 AM – 3 hours)
Lawrence Connolly, William Horner III
“In-depth workshop: learn how to avoid extra work by planning your story and all of its elements from the beginning.”

This was easily the most useful of the day’s programs to me, although all of them added something to my arsenal of writing tools. I’ve read Story Structure Architect, but Horner’s overview on building plot spelled it out a bit more clearly for me, and Connolly’s character worksheet was the best one I’ve ever seen. I reworked a character that I have in progress while I was sitting in the seminar, and it completely lit the path to how I’ll approach writing that story.

SEM1345352 (Writer’s Craft: Don’t Tell Your Story, Show It! on Thu at 12:00 PM)
Maxwell Alexander Drake
“In-depth seminar: join author Maxwell Alexander Drake as he “shows” you some tricks to a more immersive writing style.”

Also an incredibly useful seminar – “Show vs. Tell” is something I’ve only understood in abstract, but Drake did a great job of illustrating the difference with examples that make the concept more clear, and he gave us some tools to go over what we’ve written and identify points where we’re telling more than showing. This will help especially with my NaNo novel to make sure I’m getting images on the page instead of exposition.

WKS1345347 (Writer’s Craft: The Structure of Scenes on Thu at 01:00 PM)
Brad Beaulieu
“In-depth seminar: learn everything you need to know about structuring scenes to create compelling stories.”

I’ve never felt like I had a problem writing scenes – most of mine are pretty satisfying. So I was surprised that I was getting a lot out of this particular seminar. I’ve never looked at a scene as a way to make the protagonist’s problem worse, but that’s completely true when you look closely at it – the protagonist is trying to accomplish something and every scene is a setback as the story moves forward until they work out the problem at the climax. Framing every scene like that and looking at the elements of it really helps see what’s going on.

SEM1345249 (Writer’s Craft: Should You Plot or Not? on Thu at 03:00 PM)
George Strayton, Jim Hines, Larry Correia, Scott Lynch
“Discover the benefits and pitfalls of plotting in advance and letting the plot unfold as you write.”

The short answer to the question that the seminar posed is “yes, you should plot” given that all of the writers there advocated plotting and no one was arguing the counterpoint. But it was still an interesting panel, as all members came from slightly different backgrounds. All of them had some insight into the plotting process, especially the tension between plotting and letting characters drive story – Hines noted that he plots extensively, begins writing, sees where the characters are driving the plot and then adjusts plot to make sure the characters still get where they’re going. Someone on the panel noted that some famous writer called plotting “light posts in the fog” which seems particularly apt. I thought they were quoting George R.R. Martin, but in hunting around for the quote, I discovered that Martin is one of the “letting the plot unfold as you write” advocates:

I hate outlines. I have a broad sense of where the story is going; I know the end, I know the end of the principal characters, and I know the major turning points and events from the books, the climaxes for each book, but I don’t necessarily know each twist and turn along the way. That’s something I discover in the course of writing and that’s what makes writing enjoyable. I think if I outlined comprehensively and stuck to the outline the actual writing would be boring.

SEM1345063 (Writer’s Craft: Literary Alchemy on Thu at 05:00 PM)
Brad Beaulieu, Gregory Wilson, James Sutter
“The right words can make a reader laugh, cry, or leap for joy. Explore the uncanny power of words.”

I always get a little more from seminars than I do from Panels, and the interplay between panel members sometimes loses the threads or takes you off on tangents. This one was didn’t quite catch me, as it wasn’t specific enough with examples. They broke down authors they thought were alchemists because their writing was “transparent” in the sense that they stripped down the prose to the essential, vs. writers who were more poetic with turns of phrase, but their concepts were still fairly abstract for me.

Thursday Summary:

Overall, Thursday’s panels alone were worth the cost of the four-day badge for me, because I’m getting enough out of it that it’s helping me recognize ways I can improve the stories I’m working on, and I’m inspired to sit down and tinker in a way that I haven’t really been since November’s NaNo.

Now let’s talk about women and Gen Con for a second.

Until I got the GenCon catalog today, I didn’t really have a breakdown of the speakers at the Writer’s Symposium. There are 52 authors doing presentations as part of the Writer’s Symposium. Of them, 11 are women. That’s less than 25%, slightly more than 20%. That’s problematic, as 51% of the population is women. A 30% gap between the number of women on the planet and the number of speakers at a symposium is too big a gap to write off or chalk up as a fluke. I’m sure the problematic imbalance at Gen Con is a reflection of the problematic imbalance in sci-fi and fantasy that has grown wider over the last 15 years or so… there used to be a lot more well-known women writers in those fields, even if there has long been a gender imbalance. Marion Zimmer Bradley, Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey have all died, and a new generation of women has not stepped into the limelight to replace them. I’m not sure why that is, but it certainly has a ripple effect that makes it’s way to Gen Con. I don’t know exactly what Gen Con might do about that imbalance other than being aware of it and trying to attract women to speak on panels as much as they can to offset what’s going on in the sci fi and fantasy publishing genres as a whole.

I think hearing from more women would have given me a lot of additional insight into writing and publishing that I didn’t get just from the male speakers, as great as they were. I would be curious to hear how women writers feel about job opportunities, querying publishers and agents and networking, and if they feel their experiences are more difficult or more easy than men in those areas.

After I noticed the gender imbalance among speakers on Thursday evening, I spent Friday doing a head count in each of the panels I attended, and got roughly 45-50% women attendees, so there are clearly women interested in writing who seem to be interested in sci-fi and fantasy as genres. I’m hoping asking questions of the organizers to speak to the issue and keep it in mind might improve the situation in future years.

Friday

WKS1345345 (Fiction Fundamentals Part 2: Creating Scenes on Fri at 08:00 AM – 3 hours)
Lawrence Connolly, William Horner III
“In-depth seminar: learn everything you need to know about structuring scenes to create compelling stories.”

This was another good solid workshop with some nice fundamentals – how to create tension, how to add sensory detail to help immerse the reader in the story, how to observe and convey emotion effectively, some notes on writing dialog well and some exercises in observing detail to help convey a realistic story. I’m pinning these handout pages up to my bulletin board over my desk so I’m looking at them and thinking about them as I’m writing.

SEM1345260 (Business of Writing: Career Building on Fri at 12:00 PM)
Gregory Wilson, Matt Forbeck, Kerrie Hughes
“Explore ways to make a career out of writing, and learn to build that career once you have it.”

Awesome session covering how those folks got into publishing and how to go about querying publishers and agents, what to put on your author website, how to promote your work, and what to focus on to get your career moving well. Gave me a real sense of optimism about the possibilities and a motivation to get my stuff in order and try to get people reading it and giving feedback. Kerrie was the first woman I’ve seen speak here, and I would have loved some more time to pick her brain about how she felt about women authors in her genre, since they are more rarely published.

SEM1345351 (Writer’s Craft: Point of View – What is the point? on Fri at 01:00 PM)
Maxwell Alexander Drake
In-depth seminar: join author Maxwell Alexander Drake as he breaks this confusing piece of the writing puzzle down.

Drake was great again today. I knew the basics of Point of View, but he did help highlight the advantages of different POV options and how POV should be something that you consciously choose based on your outline, not something you just fall into writing. Some aspects of your story might not be able to be told if you tell from the wrong point of view, so making the right choice can shape how your story goes.

WKS1345348 (Writer’s Craft: Tension on Every Page on Fri at 03:00 PM)
Brad Beaulieu
“In-depth seminar: discuss types of tension, as well as ways to maximize them to keep your reader glued to the page.”

Brad covered some of the same ground that Connolly and Horner did in my earlier session, but in greater scope, which was nice. His explanation of how to vary tension, how to use different types of tension and how to use short, medium, and long tension arcs over the course of the story to keep it moving made a lot of sense to me and made me want to go edit my Nano novel immediately.

SEM1345264 (Writer’s Craft: Novel Outlines on Fri at 04:00 PM)
John Helfers, Jerry Gordon, Saladin Ahmed, Brandon Sanderson, Erik Scott De Bie
“Discover the techniques and tricks for creating effective, compelling, and pitch-able novel outlines.”

It was really fun to watch everyone in the room turn into fangirls over Brandon Sanderson. He has a different technique for outlining than I had heard before, and that I thought it would be interesting to try. He picks key exciting “must have” scenes in his story and writes a paragraph synopsis of what happens in them, then puts three or four bullet points on what has to happen to get him to that scene from the previous one. That’s how he works out his own plots and how he was able to finish Robert Jordan’s work from fairly irregular notes about how the ending of the Wheel of Time saga should go. The other panelists were also strong advocates of plotting, and it was interesting to hear the critique of authors who famously don’t plot out their stories in advance – Stephen King, George R.R. Martin. I think I’m convinced that having a stronger outline is definitely something I need to work harder on. Fortunately I feel like I have a bit more insight into how to accomplish that.

Here’s another cool thing – they randomly select five or so attendees and give them free books in each of the panels, and I won a free book:

Also, I won this free book