Fri, 15 Jul 2005
I am twenty-nine years old and have just finished reading David Copperfield for the first time. I was led to the book by G.K. Chesterton. In reading the Penguin collection of his essays and poems, some months ago, I was obliged to skip over the essay on David Copperfield, in case it should gave away any plot points that I might prefer be kept a surprise. In order that I could go back and read Chesterton’s essay (and also that I could borrow the DVD of the 1935 George Cukor production which has frequently caught my attention at the library), it was necessary that I, in all promptness, read the book.
I don’t have anything to say that Chesterton doesn’t say, about the tidiness of Dickens’ ending – the way David’s silly wife Dora is conveniently disposed of, and Mr. Micawber is sent off to Australia to become a magistrate. So, no more on David Copperfield. But one thing more on Chesterton: I wanted to mention that I’m onto Evelyn Waugh, who borrows a passage from one of Chesterton’s essays for an early chapter of Brideshead Revisited.
In “Simmons and the Social Tie”, Chesterton mentions a certain “Mrs. Buttons, a charwoman in Battersea”, with “a powerful stoop and an ugly, attractive face”, whom he has selected as the representative of her gender. He writes, “…When I hear the modern generalisations about her sex on all sides I simply substitute her name, and see how the thing sounds then.” Thus the declaration, “Woman, leaping to life at the trumpet call of Ibsen and Shaw, drops her tawdry luxuries and demands to grasp the sceptre of empire and the firebrand of speculative thought”, becomes, “Mrs. Buttons, leaping to life at the trumpet call of Ibsen and Shaw”, etc. “…It is extraordinary,” Chesterton concludes, “what a difference the substitution seems to make.”
In Brideshead Revisited, Captain Charles Ryder is plagued by a certain vulgarly pragmatic, though incompetent, junior officer named Hooper: “Hooper became a symbol to me of Young England, so that whenever I read some public utterance proclaiming what Youth demanded in the Future and what the world owed to Youth, I would test these general statements by substituting ‘Hooper’ and seeing if they still seemed as plausible.”
Elsewhere in Brideshead, Waugh quotes directly from one of the Father Brown stories, so it’s doubtful that he was trying to get away with anything; the “Hooper” passage is probably something in the way of an homage, or an inside joke, a little sideways wink to fellow Chesterton fans. If that was his intention, it certainly works on that level. It gave me great pleasure to detect it.