Round 12 - Dickens

Here is a look at some of this celebrated author’s allusions to the pugilistic ‘science’. In an early episode from The Pickwick Papers (1837), an irate coach-driver commences ‘sparring away like clockwork’ and then assaults Pickwick’s party:

'[He] knocked Mr Pickwick’s spectacles off, and followed up […] with a blow on Mr Pickwick’s nose […] and a third in Mr Snodgrass’s eye, and a fourth, by way of variety, in Mr Tupman’s waistcoat, and then danced into the road, and then back again to the pavement, and finally dashed the whole temporary supply of breath out of Mr Winkle’s body; and all in half-a-dozen seconds'.

No flash is necessary for Charles Dickens (1812-70) to provide a comical picture of a frenzied, whirling cab-driver meting out swift, yet relatively innocuous, physical admonishment. The same sense of over-excitable activity is later displayed by Sam Weller’s father:

'“Now Sammy”, said Mr Weller, taking off his great coat with much deliberation […] Before Sam could interfere […] his heroic parent had penetrated into a remote corner of the room, and attacked the reverend Mr Stiggins with manual dexterity […] and without further invitation he gave the reverend Mr Stiggins a preliminary tap on the head, and began dancing round him in a buoyant and cork-like manner'.

The notion of pugilistic chastisement being an expeditious means of resolving disputes, or administering punishment, is perpetuated. In addition, it is implied that those holding the moral high ground are most likely to possess some degree of pugilistic ability. Essentially, honourable conduct is being associated with Fancy ideology, and James Marlow couches Pickwick’s development in prize-ring terms: ‘Pickwick learns to adapt a stance, neither truculent nor obsequious, neither priggish nor unprincipled, which can withstand the blows of the world. This spiritual stance […] is analogous […] with the practical goal of the Fancy’. Dickens’s ploy of applying the image of a bobbing cork to the elderly man is humorous, and cannot be realistically attributed to anything other than his own inventiveness. Marlow adds: ‘Dickens was consistently in touch with the Fancy […] His work is filled with allusions to and the diction from boxing, as well as characters who are boxers by vocation, avocation, or evocation’.

Later, in an early scene from Hard Times (1854), Dickens portrays a school inspector in pugilistic terms:

'A mighty man at cutting and drying, he was; a government officer […] a professed pugilist; always in training, always with a system to force down the general throat […] ready to fight all England. To continue in fistic phraseology, he had a genius for coming up to scratch, wherever and whatever it was, and proving himself an ugly customer. He would go in and damage any subject whatever with his right, follow up with his left, stop, exchange, counter, bore his opponent […] and fall upon him neatly. He was certain to knock the wind out of common sense and render that unlucky adversary deaf to the call of time'.

This excerpt is unequivocally couched in sporting parlance, but without embracing Egan’s flash style. Nevertheless, its effectiveness in conveying the persevering adherence to duty in this governmental official is convincing. The piece succeeds in humorously impugning the unrelenting officiousness of ‘a system’, thus imparting a degree of weighty social comment whilst simultaneously providing a comic analogy. It is in such pieces, melding insightful gravitas and entertainment, where, in overall effect and literary worthiness, Egan is surpassed rather than simply imitated. When Dickens advanced the vicissitudes of Pickwick as a reflection of prize-ring fortunes, figuratively parrying and weaving against the blows of life, profound social concerns were thinly concealed behind a metaphorical image. This approach is more compelling than the author’s more simplistic deployment of sporting flash, such as that used by the threatening Mr Flintwinch to his wife in Little Dorrit (1857): “You shall have it, my woman […] Oh! You shall have a sneezer, you shall have a teaser”. Or, in the piece ‘Main Line. The Boy at Mugby’ (1866): ‘Agitation became awakened. Excitement was up in the stirrups’.