Friday, December 2, 2011

Dickens and the Learned Pig

With the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, everything Dickens is being celebrated, from the trivial to the Gigantic; we are about to be blessed with duelling versions of Great Expectactions, still more Christmas Carols than we are usually inundated with, and even a Scottish Falsetto sock-puppet tribute (I'm not making this up).

But the man who, by many lights, was the greatest novelist Britain ever produced, also possessed a whimsical side. That he was was acquainted with the history of learned pigs is clear from his early reference to the pig, a rival to our "Toby," exhibited by Mr. Fawkes, in an early piece for Bentley's Miscellany:
The earliest account that we have seen of a learned pig is to be found in an old Bartholomew Fair bill, issued by that Emperor of all conjurors, Mr Fawkes, which exhibits the portrait of the swinish pundit holding a paper in his mouth, with the letter Y inscribed upon it. This ‘most amazing pig’ which had a particularly early tail, was the pattern of docility and sagacity: the ‘Pig of Knowledge, Being the only one ever taught in England’. He was to be visited ‘at a Commodious Room, at the George, West-Smithfield, During the time of the Fair’ and the spectators were required to ‘See and Believe!’ Three-pence was the price of admission to behold ‘This astonishing animal’ perform with cards, money and watches, &c. &c. The bill concluded with a poetical apotheosis to the pig, from which we extract one verse:

A learned pig in George’s reign,
To Æsop’s brutes an equal boast;
Then let mankind again combine,
To render friendship still a toast.
And there's more: just recently, I came upon an account in an 1880 issue of The Graphic, which concerned the practice of concealing a door within a library behind panels covered with imitation spines bearing dummy book-titles. Thomas Hood, the author of the "Lament of Toby," was commissioned to prepare such a door for the Duke of Devonshire; among his titular facetiæ were such drolleries as "Lamb on the Death of Wolfe," "On Sore Throat and the Migration of the Swallow," and "Johnson's Contradictionary." Apparently, Dickens himself took up the idea, and had a doorway in his study at Gad's Hill Place so covered, inventing the titles himself. Among them: "The Quarrelly Review," "History of the Middling Ages," "Lady Godiva on the Horse," and -- here's the kicker -- "The Life and Letters of the Learned Pig."

This portmanteau portal is still in place, and can be seen 'round about 3:42 seconds into this video tour of the house, although Toby's letters, alas, are not visible.

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