Monday, May 2, 2016

The Mystery of the Analytical Chemist (updated)

Among the unpublished manuscripts of my late friend Dr. Watson … no, just kidding.

Our Mutual Friend, the last finished novel of Charles Dickens, does not lie at the center of most readers’ affections;  yet connoisseurs there are, who wóuld award the palm to that late work.   And one of the most memorable minor characters therein -- as minor as might be, since (if memory serves) he utters not a word at any time -- is the discreetly appearing and vanishing figure of the Analytical Chemist.  His denomination is never explained, and he is given no other name.  His ostensible function is to wait on the Veneering’s table, at that elegant or elegantesque or simili-elegant supper party which is to seal the coming-out of these arrivistes or nouvel-arrivés; his deeper purpose is … well, it must be guessed-at.   But whatever it was, Dickens was evidently quite satisfied with the results.

What does he mean, then -- and especially, why ever is he called that?
The proper approach, I now believe, is not to be overly … analytical about it (as I tried to be, upon first encountering the character, with wonder).  The phrase simply wandered into Dickens’ mind,  without any nicety of correspondence to the Dalton or Lavoisier theory of the day, and serves perfectly to suggest what needs suggesting:  neither fawning nor class resentment  on the part of the table-attendent, but cool detachment, and unwavering observation.  In this he is a forerunner of that other supranatural butler, Jeeves.
(There are differences, but these are subtle, and must await another time  for treatment, when Jeeves himself shall consent to appear at the center of our lens.)

Bonus quote:

Hungarian goulash, always a dish to be avoided unless you had had the forethought to have it analysed by a competent analytical chemist.
-- P.G. Wodehouse, Ice in the Bedroom (1961)

For further Dickensiana:

[Postscript May 2016] A foretaste of the denomination may be found in chapter 8 of Barnaby Rudge (1841).  Describing the farcical Tubby’s-Clubhouse-style subterranean meeting of the ‘Prentice Knights:

One of the conductors of this novice held a rusty blunderbuss pointed towards his ear, and the other, a very ancient sabre, with which he carved imaginary offenders as he came along  in a sanguinary and anatomical manner.

Savor the semantics of that “anatomical manner”, and you will be well on the way towards the Analytical Chemist.

No comments:

Post a Comment