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Emily Bowles, ‘Boz, Tibbs, and the Sparkler of Albion: The Many Names of Charles Dickens’

2015 May 19

Emily Bowles is a PhD student at the University of York. Her research focuses on Charles Dickens’s self-representation 1857-1870, and representations by Dickens’s friends and family 1870-1939. You can find her on Twitter @EmilyBowles.

 

Charles Dickens knew the power of a name. From the immortally disgruntled Scrooge to the oft-imitated Pickwick Club, everyone is familiar with a Dickens character or two. It is unsurprising, then, that he also experimented with different names and titles for himself, although perhaps the only one familiar today is the ‘inimitable Boz’ of his early career.

From Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens to 2013’s The Invisible Woman, there is an ongoing fascination with Dickens’s self-fashioning both inside and outside of academia: the transition from ‘Boz’ to Dickens is a focal moment in an impressive literary life, and this was an author who knew how to connect with his public while keeping secrets. He also never did things by halves, as his exuberant signature shows (if he didn’t have space for it, he would finish the ‘flourish’ in the next letter):

Dickens loved to devise names for himself (and others): Boz; Tibbs; the Inimitable; Revolver; Venerables; the Sparkler of Albion. His lifelong friend and biographer John Forster separated him from some of these bombastic names in the seminal Life of Charles Dickens (1872-74), attributing the ‘inimitable’ to Dickens’s teacher Mr Giles, who sent him an inscribed silver snuffbox during the publication of Pickwick. Forster suggests that the ‘inimitable’ was a given title, rather than self-created. This allows Forster to use it when quoting letters and giving anecdotes as something detached from the author’s opinion of himself, and therefore avoid passing judgement even while hinting at its fittingness. Bowen points out, however, that Dickens’s friend Percy Fitzgerald later demonstrated the name was used earlier than this. [1] The Inimitable needed no encouragement, it seems. Forster tactfully avoids using other nicknames, giving us an origin story for the great author Charles Dickens that begins with Boz, a writer with ‘animal spirits’ who needed a higher purpose. When he finds this, ‘Charles Dickens’ comes into his own – but remains inimitable.

Chittick also suggests that ‘Boz’ was a comic persona that overlapped with ‘Charles Dickens’ until the latter “had become its own identity”, more connected to reform: Boz’s higher purpose. [2] However, while it seems to have defined Dickens’s career, this was not the only name he used. It first appeared in print in the Monthly Magazine in August 1834, but ‘Tibbs’ was used later in Bell’s Life in London (September 1835 to January 1836) as Dickens tried on different identities. Tibbs, interestingly, is derived from Oliver Goldsmith (as ‘Boz’ was, in Forster’s account), this time his Citizen of the World (1760). Dickens roots his identity in the literature of a previous generation.

The Pilgrim letters also include one written by ‘Revolver’ from early September 1838:

 

[…]

And as Ann is a maid

By no means afraid

Of doing what’s right

By day or by night,

And perfectly able

To wait well at table,

If she’s wrong here or there

Don’t bluster and swear

But of slight faults absolve her.

Yours truly — Revolver. [3]

 

This poem, alongside Boz, Tibbs and even the over-the-top signature, shows a playfulness with regards to identity and naming that Dickens explored throughout his life – ‘Revolver’ fits with the rhyme, though it is difficult to find much deeper meaning. Who Charles Dickens might be was a question that his readers were fascinated by, and Dickens dropped hints at his life in his journalism, speeches and fiction, mostly through entertaining anecdotes about a precocious, middle-class childhood and a fated rise from talented parliamentary reporter to beloved novelist. Enough to tantalise the reader, but, as Forster’s revelations about Dickens’s troubled childhood would show after his death, not enough to convey the reality.

While it was quite common for authors of the time to publish anonymously, these nicknames spilled over both into Dickens’s public persona and also his private correspondence. In America he was welcomed with a Boz Ball, and Boz cropped up regularly in his letters with family, friends, collaborators. The last letter in which Dickens signs himself ‘Boz,’ in the Pilgrim edition of his letters, is 1842, [4] so it is interesting that it is the one alter ego out of the many that has lived on. In Dickens’s correspondence, however, as Boz recedes, the Sparkler comes into his own.

‘Sparkler’ doesn’t appear in Forster’s Life or, in fact, outside of Dickens’s letters. It was revealed in the three-volume Collected Letters published by Dickens’s daughter Mamie and sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth (1880). This particular nickname appeared in the 1840s and 50s, after ‘Boz’ has been largely put to rest, used with close friends and family. Like the flourish, Sparkler could be accompanied by rays. [5] The full title ‘Sparkler of Albion’ appears only twice in Pilgrim and seems to have been entirely of Dickens’s own devising, no less ironically self-aggrandising than ‘inimitable’: the OED gives us “One who sparkles or shines in respect of beauty of accomplishments; esp. a vivacious, witty, or pretty young woman”, and the invocation of Albion again roots Dickens in the past. Perhaps the feminine connotations explain this name’s short life. Dickens’s critics began to focus more on a perceived femininity and sentimentality, particularly in the 1850s and later: one wrote that “There is a sex in minds as well as in bodies, and Mr Dickens’s literary progeny seem to us to be for the most part of the feminine gender”. [6]

The one nickname that endured within Dickens’s correspondence and self-conception, unsurprisingly, is ‘inimitable’, used continuously throughout his life. Perhaps he deserves that moniker more than most, although the ‘inimitable’ seems to have spend much of his life donning, casting off, and imitating, different identities.

[1] John Bowen, Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 42.

[2] Kathryn Chittick, ‘Boz’ in The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens. Ed. Paul Schlicke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 53.

[3] Charles Dickens, letter to hotel-owner John Groves. The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1820-1870. Ed. Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson. Pilgrim Edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965). Volume 1 pp. 432-33.

[4] Charles Dickens, letter to George Cruikshank.  The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1820-1870. Volume 3 p. 310.

[5] Charles Dickens, letter to Frank Stone. The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1820-1870. Volume 6 pp. 155-56.

[6] ‘Unsigned Review of the Library Edition of the Works’, Saturday Review, 8 May 1858 in Dickens: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Philip Collins (London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 383–86. See also George Henry Lewes, ‘Dickens in Relation to Criticism’, Fortnightly Review 62, 1 February 1872, pp. 141–54.

 

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