Wednesday 30 March 2011

Lady Flabella

One of the few occasions when Dickens parodies other literature is in Nicholas Nickleby, when Mrs. Witterly wants her companion, Kate, to amuse her. She reads her an extract from The Lady Flabella, a work that only existed in Dickens's imagination. Sadly, or mercifully, we have no more of this book than the extract below. My edition says this is a parody of 'silver fork' novels of the 1820s, which purported to give a detailed picture of the lives and manners of the aristocracy for a middle-class readership. It's also a cautionary piece for any novelist, about the dangers of too much description:

   It was four in the afternoon—that is, the vulgar afternoon of the sun and the clock—and Mrs Wititterly reclined, according to custom, on the drawing-room sofa, while Kate read aloud a new novel in three volumes, entitled 'The Lady Flabella,' which Alphonse the doubtful had procured from the library that very morning. And it was a production admirably suited to a lady labouring under Mrs Wititterly's complaint, seeing that there was not a line in it, from beginning to end, which could, by the most remote contingency, awaken the smallest excitement in any person breathing.
    Kate read on.

    '"Cherizette," said the Lady Flabella, inserting her mouse-like feet in the blue satin slippers, which had unwittingly occasioned the half-playful half-angry altercation between herself and the youthful Colonel Befillaire, in the Duke of Mincefenille's SALON DE DANSE on the previous night. "CHERIZETTE, MA CHERE, DONNEZ-MOI DE L'EAU-DE-COLOGNE, S'IL VOUS PLAIT, MON ENFANT."
    '"MERCIE—thank you," said the Lady Flabella, as the lively but devoted Cherizette plentifully besprinkled with the fragrant compound the Lady Flabella's MOUCHOIR of finest cambric, edged with richest lace, and emblazoned at the four corners with the Flabella crest, and gorgeous heraldic bearings of that noble family. "MERCIE—that will do."
    'At this instant, while the Lady Flabella yet inhaled that delicious fragrance by holding the MOUCHOIR to her exquisite, but thoughtfully-chiselled nose, the door of the BOUDOIR (artfully concealed by rich hangings of silken damask, the hue of Italy's firmament) was thrown open, and with noiseless tread two VALETS-DE-CHAMBRE, clad in sumptuous liveries of peach-blossom and gold, advanced into the room followed by a page in BAS DE SOIE—silk stockings—who, while they remained at some distance making the most graceful obeisances, advanced to the feet of his lovely mistress, and dropping on one knee presented, on a golden salver gorgeously chased, a scented BILLET.
     'The Lady Flabella, with an agitation she could not repress, hastily tore off the ENVELOPE and broke the scented seal. It WAS from Befillaire—the young, the slim, the low-voiced—HER OWN Befillaire.'

    'Oh, charming!' interrupted Kate's patroness, who was sometimes taken literary. 'Poetic, really. Read that description again, Miss Nickleby.'
     Kate complied.


  1. I don't know about you, but the quoted passage from Lady Flabella leaves me wondering...

    ... What happened next!?

  2. "the color of Italy's firmament" . . . delicious!

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