Drinking With Dickens

My mother and I have been watching DVD’s of the BBC’s LD by CD–I mean, Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens. I watched it with Charlie, so I can give Mom some hints as to who’s who and what’s what and what they’re saying. Charlie and I watched it with the English subtitles on so we could decipher the accents. Some day, somebody is going to add American subtitles, so when somebody says, “‘P’n m’ w’d, m’m!” the subtitle will say, “Dang, gal!”

Anyway, Dickens is the king of the character, and of the character tag. Mom’s favorite, so far, is Flintwinch, who shuffles around like Frankenstein’s monster with rickets and who’s character tag is an impressive variety of expressive grunts. Charlie’s was Mr. Panks, who has an equally impressive variety of equally expressive snorts. My favorite is … I dare not say his name. People who even hear his name end up dead. Here’s his picture, and here’s something about him.

I am currently reading a review of the series on boston.com called Dickens Meets ‘Lost’ in hopes of untangling some threads that left us going, “Wait. What?” but, since the writer misused the word “pendulous” I have my doubts of being much assisted.

This, on dickenslit.com, helps explain one bit, and The Victorian Web sort of explains some of another bit, if you scroll down to the entry for Miss Wade. Even more interesting is this article from The Daily Mail about the inspiration for the character of Little Dorrit herself.

“But what about the drinking?” I hear you cry. “Get to the drinking!”

I’ve already gotten to it. Did you miss it? You missed  it, didn’t you? No, don’t bother to go back and reread, I’ll tell you. Dickens loves to use character tags. If Mr. Meagles told Tattycoram to count to five-and-twenty once, he must have told her five-and-twenty times. If you knocked back a shot of bourbon every time he said, “Five-and-twenty,” you’d be barfing your socks up in no time. What larks, eh? What larks.

Character tags are probably more irritating in the reduced medium of a film or miniseries than in a novel, where they’re more diffused; and small, understated ones are generally better than obtrusive ones. “Five-and-twenty, Tattycoram, five-and-twenty!” trumpeted at full volume gets old real fast. On the other hand, especially effective in film, are musical tags. That bad boy I’m afraid to name sings snatches of “Qu’est que passe ici si tarde” a few times, then whistles it. After his first few appearances, every time you hear a whistle, your skin creeps.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on character tags.

WRITING PROMPT: Come up with a character who has a distinguishing bit of business or way of talking or much-used phrase or gesture.


I think I need to read the book. I’m downloading it for free from Project Gutenberg to read on my Kindle for PC, but it’s available in many formats.


I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Drinking With Dickens

  1. Jim Hilton

    March 9, 2011 at 8:44am

    Loved the mini-series, I have the entire thing on my hard drive. I agree about the accents, though, sometimes hard to wade through. A mini-series that is actually a little better is “Martin Chuzzlewit”, another Dickens novel. Check it out!

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      March 9, 2011 at 8:54am

      Jim, Charlie and I watched it with the English sub-titles on! Thanks for the recommendation of Martin Chuzzlewit. We’ll certainly look that one up. 🙂

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  2. Jim Hilton

    March 9, 2011 at 10:14am

    Trivia for ya: In “Music Exploration” in college, we were taught that the musical equivalent of ‘character tag’ is ‘leitmotif’. The example they used for that is “Peter and the Wolf” where there are musical stanzas that play each time a particular character appears.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      March 9, 2011 at 8:41pm

      Peter and the Wolf is classic for those. Of course you know you have them all chasing each other around in my head now, don’t you?

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