In Galsworthy’s epic novel, “The Forsyte Saga”, the author uses the word ‘Quilpish’ three times in the beginning of the book.  It describes George Forsyte, one of the author’s characters, but left me stumped as to what this strange new expression was illuminating. 

I reasoned, because of the suffix (“-ish”), that it meant “Quilp-like.”  And since the word was capitalized I imagined that it named a person.  If this were true, what kind of person was Quilp?  What was it about Forsyte’s character that was so distinct, so unusual that it could only be described by a reference to another personage?  This word promised that if I understood Quilp I would understand Forsyte.

I accepted the challenge and looked in every available dictionary – including the Oxford – without success.  On the Internet I found only one promising hit: a reference to a heavy metal, punk band.  Hmmm…a group of Quilpish musicians whose video clip captured the essence of everything heavy, metal and punk.  This gave me the feel of ‘Quilpish’ but did not cinch it for me.  I wanted specific words lined up like a choir of ducks that quacked the definition clearly.  So I looked for the character himself – Quilp.

I found him on a site called The Victorian Web where his description clearly reflects what those musicians wanted us to know about them.  Daniel Quilp inhabits a twisted landscape in Charles Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop”.  He is Little Nell’s ‘cruel, lecherous persecutor’ – ‘a monster of self-destruction.’  Quilp skulks from the shadows of a quote, deformed, perverse – his outward appearance the ambassador of a warped soul.

The child was closely followed by an elderly man of remarkably hard features and forbidding aspect, and so low in statute as to be quite a dwarf, though his head and face were large enough for the body of a giant. His black eyes were restless, sly, and cunning; his mouth and chin, bristly with the stubble of a course hard beard; and his complexion was one of that kind which never looks clean or wholesome.  But what added most to the grotesque expression of his face, was a ghastly smile, which, appearing to be the mere result of habit and to have no connexion with any mirthful or complacent feeling, constantly revealed the few discoloured fangs that were yet scattered in his mouth, and gave him the aspect of a panting dog.

Now I understand what Galsworthy wanted me to know about George Forsyte when “…even in his compassion George’s Quilpish humour broke forth.”


10 thoughts on “Quilpish?

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  2. Thanks for the quick take on Quilp and Quilpish. I suspected Quilp was a Dicken’s villain, yet Old Curiosity shop is one of the few of his books I have not read. Thanks again

  3. When I was reading Galsworthy’s novel and came across the term ‘quilpish’ I found it aggravating that I could not find it in any dictionary. I looked everywhere! I think it should be included in the Oxford dictionary as a new word. It certainly captured the essence of the man Galsworthy was describing.


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  5. Discovering what quilpish meant was an important contribution to my appreciation of George’s character. Glad it was helpful for you too, Kim.

  6. Thank you so much for finding this out! I just started reading The Forsyte Saga, and having resolved to stop inventing meanings for unfamiliar words and instead look them up I was totally narked to NOT find Quilpish. Glad I kept looking and found your blog as the impression of the word to me was soft, warm, comforting – probably because it sounds like quilt, and pish is a very gentle nonsense word. Couldn’t have been much further from reality! I got as far as capital Q meaning a person and ish meaning like, but haven’t read much Dickens. Anyway, thanks again, now I can read on in happiness.

  7. Finding the meaning to this word helped me a great deal in understanding one of Galsworthy’s characters. Glad you appreciated it too.

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