Sunday, 18 December 2011

Chokepears and Blackberries

I’m still wincing at the article I read recently in the Christmas issue of the first year of Punch, 1841: How Mr Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas.  It's a moral tale of how Mr Chokepear and his family clearly enjoy Christmas – they have a fine festive dinner after their trip to church - but challenges their attitudes towards their fellows.  Their turkey has been dispatched from Norfolk, and is described as ‘only a little lower than an ostrich’.  Their celebrations are Dickensian and merry, and thrown into sharp relief by comparison with the situation of two people who are not sharing the day with them.  The second of these is a debtor who owes Mr Chokepear £5 and is consequently spending Christmas Day in a debtors’ prison, but the first is a daughter of the family who has married beneath their expectations financially; she has been cast out, in a very nineteenth-century bourgeois version of the ‘family crime of honour’ that is becoming a shocking facet of British culture (in 2010 3,000 violent ‘crimes of honour’ in the UK were reported – BBC, 3rd Dec 2011).

The story is quietly told, and the more powerful because of it, particularly the final message.  Only now have I come to consider the family name – Chokepear seeming to be a simple odd name.  But the OED shows ‘chokepear’ to have a specific and very old meaning.  Chokepears were bitter pears, used for making perry.  In Turner’s Seconde Parte Herball of 1562, the quote given is the tasty-sounding ‘The wyld Pere tre or chouke Pere tre or worry Pear tre’, the last of which brings to mind the tree that features in January’s garden in Chaucer's  The Merchant’s Tale.  But the first quote is even more enticing: from Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement of 1530: ‘Estrangvillon, a choke peare’.  There’s a feast in this alone: John Palsgrave wrote Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse as an aid to English-speakers wishing to learn French, and it is supposed to be the first comprehensive French grammar in English.  Tetsuro Hayashi proposes it as ‘the first work in the genre of dictionaries of the modern languages’; most importantly it was a teach-yourself book, one intended to allow the reader to learn a language without recourse to a teacher.

From the apparently common use of the word to mean an actual fruit, there grew a figurative use as an obstacle, or something hard to swallow, or something that might shut you up.  The quotes offered for this usage suggest things that are too difficult to avoid, and which would stop your flow, the final quote given by the OED suggesting an instrument of torture.  Perhaps the most indigestible part of Mr Chokepear’s Christmas was the knowledge of having made a decision which favoured economic concerns over those of the love of a parent for a child. 

I’m trying to match this with the story in 14th December’s Metro of the 13-year-old Bedford girl who ‘has warned Father Christmas that he will be “killed” if he fails to deliver at least two of her long list of gifts – including a BlackBerry smartphone and “the real-life Justin Bieber”’.  Shock-horror notwithstanding, the irony is pretty smart for a thirteen-year-old, I would say.  Her mother has stated ‘When I first found the letter, I thought it was funny.  Now I think I’d better get her what she wants.  The last thing I want is for her to kill Santa’.  I hope she is playing along with the joke.

How would Mr Chokepear have dealt with this?  Rage?  A thorough Victorian Barretts-of-Wimpole-Street style apoplexy?  Perhaps just the opposite.  Given that he cast off his daughter for having chosen poverty, it is more likely that he would applaud this 'go get it' approach: he’d be rushing to snap up a last-minute BlackBerry to get on the phone to Justin Bieber’s agent to see if he's available.

More about Dickensian Christmases on

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