The Independent published an article a couple of years ago about Charles Dickens and his many publishing ventures such as Household Words, Household Narrative and All the Year Round, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Here’s why.
The author of the piece, Jeremy Parrott, ¹ described how he had unravelled the roll call of contributors to these journals which up until his research had largely remained something of a mystery. Within his article he refers to the University of Buckingham’s online digitised archive of these magazines which can be accessed by researchers and the public alike. I was especially intrigued with this extract from the article:
“As well as staff writers for the magazine, Dickens had a small group of regulars including the nigh-indefatigable Walter Thornbury who wrote close to 200 pieces for All the Year Round and Household Words before dying of exhaustion in a mental asylum at the age of 48″. ²
It would seem that in the service of Household Words and All the Year Round Thornbury travelled widely, writing articles that vividly depicted the United States and Palestine, the Iberian Peninsula, and European Turkey. He also wrote a long series of articles in All the Year Round entitled “Old Stories Retold”, where he covered topics such as “Trafalgar in 1805”, “Bombardment of Algiers in 1816”, “The Assassination of Mr. Perceval in 1812”, “The Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820”, “The Two Great Murders in the Ratcliffe Highway in 1811”, and “The Resurrection Men—Burke and Hare, in 1829”.
Apparently the series was curtailed due to Dickens’ dislike of their sanguinary and salacious content!
You can read more about Walter George Thornbury, Dickens’ indefatigable writer here
² Sadly, Thornbury died of overwork at Camberwell House Asylum, Peckham Road, London, on 11th June 1876, and was buried on the 13th at Nunhead Cemetery. He was survived by a wife and three sons.
I suppose if we’re being honest we would all confess to being a tad bumptious on occasion, say, perhaps when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. It’s also highly likely that we’ve encountered someone who is irritatingly self-assertive all the damn time: the sort of person who’s never wrong and is more than eager to let everyone know.
Certainly such characters are found depicted in novels by Dickens and Trollope or in Ealing comedy films of the 1940s, 50s and 60s and those of the Carry On comedies. Contemporaries which spring to mind as fitting the definition of the word are John Bercow (Speaker of the House of Commons), Boris Johnson (now British PM), Donald J. Trump (President of the United States of America), Morrissey (singer-songwriter, now turned writer of fiction), Kanye West (giant ego), Piers Morgan (another giant ego) and Ricky Gervais, who in real life and in fictional representation as David Brent, reveals an ego the size of a planet.
Synonyms of bumptious are equally splendid: swollen-headed, puffed-up, sententious, pontificating, overweening, strutting, cocky, snooty, uppity. You get my drift?
Bumptious is as bumptious does: a word that perfectly signifies its meaning when pronounced. A compound of the words “bump” and “fractious” its etymological origin believed to be an expression coined by students at Cambridge University in the nineteenth century ¹ to denote those who were deemed “showy” – a social sin far greater than most in the best social circles.
¹ Bristed, Charles Astor, Five Years in an English University, 3rd ed., (G. P. Putnam & Sons), 1873, p. 193.
Here’s another glorious #wonderword – oleaginous. As you pronounce (olee-a-gee-nus) it’s hard to resist elongating and savouring the sound of this elastic adjectival word.
Its etymological origin is Middle English from the French oléagineux and the Latin oleaginous (“of the olive tree”) and its meaning is two-fold:
1) rich in, covered with, or producing oil;
2) unctuous, exaggeratedly complimentary, fawning, smarmy.
Thus, oleaginous is a perfect combination of meaning and descriptive representation.
Charles Dickens’ character Uriah Heep in David Copperfield is arguably the most powerful depiction of someone who’s oleaginous. When Dickens’ eponymous hero first encounters Heep, Dickens holds nothing back in his descriptive powers:
“Heep’s face was quite as cadaverous as it had looked in the window, though in the grain of it there was that tinge of red which is sometimes to be observed in the skins of red-haired people. It belonged to a red-haired person – a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older – whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep.”
“He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention, as he stood at the pony’s head, rubbing his chin with it, and looking up at us in the chaise.”
Like many of Dickens’ villains, Heep is motivated mainly by greed; yet embodied in his character there’s a commentary on the English class system. As the plot of David Copperfield unfolds Heep eventually reveals his lifelong resentment at being the object of charity and low expectations. His thwarted ambition is the driving force behind his cunning and villainy.
Much of Dickens’ fiction was inspired by personal experience and scholars have attributed the inspiration for Uriah Heep as either Hans Christian Andersen, ¹ whom the author met in 1847 shortly before writing David Copperfield or more likely Thomas Powell, a friend of Dickens’ ne’er do well brother Augustus and an employee of Thomas Chapman, a friend of the author. Powell apparently ” … ingratiated himself into the Dickens household” and was duly discovered to be a forger and a thief, having embezzled £10,000 from his employer. He later attacked Dickens in a number of pamphlets, calling particular attention to Dickens’ social class and background. ² So quite a step from olives to embezzlement!
¹ Hawes, Dennis, Who’s Who in Dickens, (Routledge), 1998, p. 109.
² “The Extraordinary Life of Charles Dickens” see http://www.charlesdickensonline.com/Gallery/g322.htm
Click here for a biography of Charles Dickens at the BBC website.
Click here for information about the actor Bransby Williams.