Sunday, August 30, 2009

Department of Clarification: Plush shorts and cottons

Sunday, August 30, 2009
Loretta reports:

From this society, little Mr. Perker detached himself, on his clerk being announced in a whisper; and repairing to the dining-room, there found Mr. Lowten and Job Trotter looking very dim and shadowy by the light of a kitchen candle, which the gentleman who condescended to appear in plush shorts and cottons for a quarterly stipend, had, with a becoming contempt for the clerk and all things appertaining to 'the office,' placed upon the table.

Being a Nerdy History Girl, I didn’t just shrug and keep reading. I wondered who the contemptuous individual was and what he was wearing. I noted the phrase--incorrectly-- as “plush shorts and stockings.” Then I stuck it in a blog, and aroused the curiosity of one of our Gentle Readers.

Being a NHG, I had to put on my deerstalker’s cap, take out my magnifying glass, and heft the Oxford English Dictionary onto my desk. Here's the result of my detective efforts:

Shorts” in this case must mean “knee-breeches, small-clothes.”
Plush” meant the same then as now. The breeches would be plush silk or cotton.
The “and cottons”? Trickier. It could mean flannel (stockings or waistcoat?). But after studying various definitions, I’m gambling on a type of coarse or nappy wool fabric known as “Manchester cottons.”

Since this episode dealt with legal matters, I started out thinking the gentleman was connected to the law courts. There were law messengers called beadles, who wore plush breeches. But the “contempt for the clerk and all things appertaining to ‘the office’" led me to believe this was a footman (technically, not a gentleman), dressed in livery that included plush knee-breeches and perhaps a coarse or nappy wool coat. ???

I wish Norton would make a Critical Edition of The Pickwick Papers, to stop NHGs driving themselves crazy. Meanwhile, if anyone's solved the mystery, please enlighten us.


Lauren Lee said...

Thank you so much for the definitions, Loretta. Very interesting about cotton not being cotton and the footman in his plush breeches. Dare I ask about the inexpessibles?
So much for you Nerdy History Girls to teach us Gentle Readers, and how we appreciate it!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Good work with the clarification, Loretta! You look quite fetching in that deerstalker hat, too.

Mr. Perker and Job Trotter. ::sigh:: has there ever been any other author with such an ear for names as Dickens?

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

This is the part I love: the gentleman who condescended to appear in plush shorts and cottons for a quarterly stipend. I would hire one such as he, were he comely. And spot on, Susan. -- Rock on, NHGs!

Vanessa Kelly said...

Dickens does rule. I can really visualize that condescending gent in his plush shorts and cottons.

Loretta Chase said...

Lauren Lee, "inexpressibles" is a euphemism for men's trousers, breeches, etc. We think the euphemism started because some of the materials for men's pants was very tight and stretchy Susan, I think he did have a gift for the names, and got better at it as time passed. Michelle, great minds think alike. After writing this, I realized we need a Footmen blog: tall, good-looking, well-built guys in clothes that display their musclely assets. Vanessa, I'd give one of my few remaining vital organs to create the kinds of visual images Dickens does.

Vanessa Kelly said...

Oh, yes! Please do a footmen blog!

Stephen Jarvis said...

Hi - I am the author of the novel Death and Mr Pickwick, published by Random House in 2015, which tells the story behind the creation of The Pickwick Papers. I don't think we have communicated before - my memory is getting worse! - though I am pretty certain I have seen this website before. Anyway, one of my fans has just pointed out your page to me, with your investigation of this phrase in Pickwick. I think you are probably right in your interpretation of the phrase, but it is a bit mysterious. The thing is, there are a number of unanswered historical questions relating to The Pickwick Papers - there is no definitive annotated version. A few years ago, a person was in fact working on a complete guide to Pickwick - this was the late Dr David Parker, the former curator of the Dickens Museum. He was meticulously going through the text, and investigating every historical mystery, phrase by phrase. However, he abandoned the project when he was about halfway through. What happened is a bit unclear. It seems he had some kind of dispute with his publisher. But he also told me that he was 'getting lazy', and said that he was drinking too much. He died suddenly a couple of years ago, so the project remains unfinished and unpublished, alas. Anyway, I will share your link on the Death and Mr Pickwick facebook page, You can find out more about Death and Mr Pickwick at All the best Stephen Jarvis

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