Telling Tales: Dictation, Gossip, Fact, and Fiction

So far our community of Dickens Code transcribers have transcribed three of the texts in Arthur’s shorthand notebook with headings in longhand – Two Brothers, Nelson and Anecdote. We are also busy trying to work out whether these are original pieces by Dickens or whether he is using different sources to construct them. As we do this, we also need to take account of the fact that Dickens is dictating to Arthur. Are the shorthand texts a verbatim record of Dickens telling stories? If so, how important is it that they are spoken? Do these ‘spoken texts’ even count as stories?

What was the last story you came across? When I ask my students this question, they usually tell me about a written story – often a piece of fiction they have just read. They do this because that is what the stereotypical story is. We think of stories as written texts in books with a beginning, a middle and an end. Yet it is generally not true that our most recent encounter with a story would be in the form of a book. Most stories crop up in conversation when we are chatting to people. Gossip is a good example – ‘do you know what I saw x doing yesterday?’ and off we go with our story. We tell stories to each other every day but don’t really notice that they are stories because they are part of the social conversations of everyday life. They come and go and are quickly forgotten. Is this the kind of storytelling we are dealing with in Arthur’s notebook?

The first person to study conversational stories systematically was William Labov, generally considered to be the father of sociolinguistics. Armed with just a tape recorder, he toured Brooklyn in the mid 1960s asking teenagers if they had ever faced a life-threatening experience and recording their answers. Labov found that their stories all had a similar structure; they were constructed around a set of events (first x, then y, then z) leading up to the ‘most reportable event’ of the story (the miraculous escape from death). For Labov, conversational stories are designed on the spot with their current audience in mind and always need to have a point. The skill of the storyteller is in designing the sequence of events and fleshing out their details to keep the listener interested. In his view, the key to making a story newsworthy is not what you say but how you organize the telling of it, i.e. the way you say it.

Boro Park, Brooklyn in 1963
Credit: Anthony Catalano via Flickr

Labov also pointed out that conversational storytellers have to be concerned to some extent with the truth of a story. Your juicy piece of gossip or near-death experience has to have a kernel of truth in it because otherwise your friends won’t believe it and will stop listening to you. Gossip can’t be fantasy. Yet having to keep a conversational story credible and interesting at the same time is hard because the most interesting stories are usually the ones that are hardest to believe. That is why good storytelling is like walking a tightrope and why we introduce a story with expressions like ‘You’re never going to believe this but …’. We are openly recognizing that the events which we are about to recount are hard to credit and inviting our listeners to suspend their disbelief. With written fiction this doesn’t happen because the suspension of disbelief is baked in before we start. When we pick up a book off the shelf marked ‘Fiction’, our expectations of truth fly out of the window. We don’t expect fiction to be true so the author doesn’t have to convince us that it is.

M. Blondin in Mid-air (3 November 1874) – Charles Blondin was a famous French acrobat and tightrope walker
Courtesy of the State Library Victoria [A/S03/11/74/129]

When I read the dictated stories in Arthur’s shorthand notebook, I wonder whether they are conversational stories or the fictional ones in books so beloved by my students. Dictation is speech and if we want to understand the notebook stories, we need to know if Dickens is just talking to Arthur informally and paraphrasing a story in his own words – ‘I heard a story the other day …’ – or whether he is reading the story from a written text, or doing a bit of both. Sydney Smith is neither, of course. It is a piece of philosophical argumentation. Nelson, Two Brothers and Anecdote, on the other hand, all contain stories. Of these Nelson is the hardest one to classify. Its main narrative focuses on the death of Nelson but there is no ‘most reportable event’ and no particular point. It reads more like a description than a story in Labov’s sense and is more reminiscent of Dickens’s journalism which often freewheels between different topics. However, towards the end, the narrator digresses into a new story about Nelson’s body being preserved in a cask of rum.

It is a circumstance not belonging to this story – but not un____ of the delicacy or want of delicacy of the time – that Nelson’s body was said to have been very _____  conveyed to Gibraltar in a cask of rum, and that any really or pretendedly choice rum offered in/on the market for a long time afterwards was called ‘The Admiral’. But it is easier to transmit the ____ weaknesses and grimness of men’s bodies than the worth of their souls and so a/the tale of fiction may have had some foundation of truth in it.

‘Nelson’, transcribed by the Dickens Decoders from the notebooks of Dickens’s shorthand pupil Arthur Stone

This narrative is much more conversational. The narrator describes the cask of rum story as ‘a tale of fiction’ which is based on hearsay (Nelson’s body was said to have been conveyed … in a cask of rum). In other words, it’s a piece of gossip. He then makes the interesting comment that the cask of rum story might have a kernel of truth in it because it is easier to talk about ‘the grimness of men’s bodies than the worth of their souls’. It’s a puzzling phrase.  What I think he means here is that stories that are easy to tell are more likely to be true. The narrator seems to be agreeing with Labov that conversational stories need an element of truth in them if they are going to work as stories. Dickens as narratologist!

Two Brothers and Anecdote are perhaps a different kind of gossip. Here we have two clearly defined ghost stories inside a conversational frame. They are also presented as hearsay – the narrator reports that they are stories that he has head from ‘a deceased judge’ (Two  Brothers) and ‘Cole’ (Anecdote). So these ghost stories are a form of literary gossip in which the question of ‘what happened?’ and the sequencing of events is the most important thing. In both stories the ‘most reportable events’ are the ghost’s exclamations ‘You have seen me before tonight and you know it’ and ‘My God there are two’. So far, so Labovian.

Did Dickens hear a version of Anecdote on the dinner party circuit?
Marcus Stone, ‘Bringing Him In’, an illustration for Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864-65)
Courtesy of Philip V. Allingham at The Victorian Web

Why does Dickens think Anecdote is ‘one of the best of ghost stories‘? Remember Labov’s dictum about keeping stories credible enough for the audience. Ghost stories were popular on Dickens’s dinner party circuit so perhaps he judged their quality on the design of the events so that their architecture had some ‘foundation of truth’. Like the ‘cask of rum’, story, there is just enough plausibility in Anecdote’s student prank for us to believe that it might have happened. There is a big difference between Anecdote and a fictional story like A Christmas Carol. In Carol we know the ghostly events didn’t actually happen and enjoy the fiction for its characterization and imaginative qualities. In Two Brothers and Anecdote, the audience would be much more interested in the question of ‘did this really happen?’ than the characters themselves. The plot is everything and the events had to be engagingly constructed.

This idea that the stories in Arthur’s shorthand notebook are conversational does not really help us with our big question of whether Dickens is improvising the stories or reading them aloud from a book (more on this in our next blog). However, it’s still a great reminder that there are important lessons from oral culture for our appreciation of literature. We can find a ‘tale of fiction’ in conversations as well as in books and the more conversational a story is, the more truthful it needs to be. We all know that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ anyway, don’t we?