In which ChatGPT writes a Dickensian scene where Mrs. Gamp meets Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller calls her not a lady.
How I used chatGPT to invent a scene I wish Dickens had written
It’s a mystery to me why Dickens’ characters don’t recur, the way Evelyn Waugh’s and P.G. Wodehouse’s do. Don’t you wish he had written a story where Mr Pickwick met Mrs Gamp? I do, so I asked chatGPT to write it for me.
I asked for a scene between Mr. Pickwick and Mrs. Gamp, made up only of quotes from their respective novels. To begin with I was over specifying and chatGPT was copying my lead too much. It took several iterations.
If you put this prompt in, for example, it doesn’t give a great result, using too many of the words from the prompt itself. I tried this sort of thing several times. (The result of this particular prompt is right at the bottom.1)
Write a fictional scene of 1000 words in the style of Charles Dickens. You must only use quotes from Dickens’ work. For description of places and weather, use quotes of phrases or sentences from any of his novels. The scene must be set in London, near High Holborn, at a tavern. Mrs Gamp goes to Mr Pickwick's room to treat him and realises she is in the wrong place. Seeing him drinking she invites herself into join him. She becomes tipsy. For Mr Pickwick's speech use only dialogue that Mr Pickwick speaks in "The Pickwick Papers". For Mrs Gamp's speech use only dialogue that Mrs Gamp speaks in "Martin Chuzzlewit." Remove pre-text.
A simplified prompt got much closer:
Select a series of character dialogue of Mrs Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit and Mr Pickwick from the Pickwick Papers. Arrange these quotes to create a scene between Gamp and Pickwick as if Charles Dickens had written it.
I made a series of finessing requests to edit or add lines, introduce characters, change the way the scene developed, and so on. You can read more detail about the prompts I used below.2 I put the outputs from each question together and only made one or two small edits myself. At times, it needed very specific instructions. I told it to add the phrase “[Mrs. Gamp] convulsed in speech, hiccups were heard and a glass was broken”, which is a quote from Pickwick, because it couldn’t get that right. It was rather like directing a play (“No darling, not like that. Watch me.”) but with a novel.
Perhaps there is a future new job emerging here. This has significant potential for use creating scripts based on novels. And for someone who knows the material, this seems to offer new ways of writing the sort fiction that carries on where famous authors left off. Is fan fiction about to become a more creative and significant genre? Imagine asking chatGPT to blend your own writing with that of Charles Dickens. We can all become our own favourite author…
Overall, I think the result is pretty good…
“Well, sir, I’m a-going to tell you something, and that is, as I ain’t a-going to stand it. Not a-going to stand it, Mr. Pickwick. So there’s the long and the short of it, and the Lord send it may be for your good!”
“My good, Mrs. Gamp? Pray, what do you mean?”
“Mean, Mr. Pickwick? Ah, that’s the very question as I expected to hear you ask. What do I mean, indeed! Why, I mean, Mr. Pickwick, as it ain’t enough for you to be a-going and tiring yourself with all manner of larks and fancies, but that you must be a-coming and worrying the lives out of your friends with your whims and your notions.”
“I assure you, Mrs. Gamp, you are quite mistaken. I had no intention of causing any worry or inconvenience to anyone.”
“No, no, Mr. Pickwick, I dare say not. You never mean it, sir, but that don't signify. You do it, sir, you do it. And what’s more, sir, you'll keep on a-doing it, unless you’re took down a peg or two, and taught your proper place. That's what you’ll do, sir.”
“Wery sorry to interrupt such a pleasant conversation, but wot is it that ain’t to be stood, Mrs. Gamp?”
“It’s Mr. Pickwick, Sam. He's always a-going and a-doing, and a-tiring himself out with his larks and his fancies. It’s more than flesh and blood can bear, Sam.”
“Lor bless your heart, Mrs. Gamp, you don’t mean to say Mr. Pickwick’s been a-having larks and fancies, do you?”
“Yes, I do, Sam. That’s just what I do mean to say. And it’s time somebody took him down a peg or two, and taught him his proper place.”
“Why, I never see such a game! Mr. Pickwick a-having larks and fancies! Why, he hasn’t got no more idea of wot a lark is than a crab has got of wot a dancing master is. You must be mistaken, Mrs. Gamp.”
“No, I ain’t, Sam. I knows what I knows, and I sees what I sees. Mr. Pickwick may be a very clever gentleman, but he don’t know how to take care of himself.”
“Well, I never! This is wery strange, indeed. I must have a serious talk with Mr. Pickwick about this, Mrs. Gamp. He can’t go a-having larks and fancies, you know. It ain’t dignified.”
“Let us have a glass of wine, my dear friends,” said Mr. Pickwick, beckoning to the landlord. “It will do us all good.”
“I don’t mind if I do, Mr. Pickwick,” replied Mrs. Gamp, taking a seat at the table.
“As the bottle was drained and the table convulsed with laughter, Mrs. Gamp convulsed in speech, hiccups were heard and a glass was broken, causing much embarrassment for Mr. Pickwick.”
“Dear me, Mrs. Gamp,” said Mr. Pickwick, trying to hide his discomfort, “perhaps you have had enough wine for now.”
“Hark! Hark! Hark! Hear him, hear him!” exclaimed Mrs. Gamp, between hiccups. “I’m sorry, Mr. Pickwick, I cannot help it. These hiccups always get the better of me after a drink.”
“It’s not just the hiccups that are the problem, Mrs. Gamp,” said Sam Weller, frowning. “You’re as drunk as a wheelbarrow, ma’am.”
“Yes, Mrs. Gamp,” added Mr. Pickwick sternly. “You are not behaving in a manner befitting a lady. I suggest you compose yourself at once.”
Mrs. Gamp hiccupped again and glared at the two men. She said, waving a hand dismissively, “I’m only having a bit of fun. As Mr. Gamp used to say, ‘I won't have no more of it. I won't be made a fool of, Mrs. Gamp. I won't be dictated to, Mrs. Gamp. I won't be put down, Mrs. Gamp. I'm a man of spirit, Mrs. Gamp, and I won't be trespassed upon.’”
Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller exchanged frustrated glances. “Mrs. Gamp,” said Mr. Pickwick, “I’m afraid we cannot continue this evening if you cannot behave in a more civilized manner.”
“Oh, fie upon it! Oh, fie, fie upon it!” cried Mrs. Gamp, with a gesture of disgust. “A gentleman’s spirit is one thing, and a lady's delicate feelings is another. What would you have, sir? You must not expect a lady, sir, however desperate the circumstances, to compromise her dignity and her reputation by entering into discussions with any stranger of the opposite sex. No, no, sir. Mrs. Gamp, sir, is but a woman, and she knows her station.”
“Wery good, ma’am,” replied Sam Weller, with a wink. “You’re quite right, and I’m wery sorry I spoke out of turn. But let me just say this: if you’re a lady, then I’m a Dutchman, and that’s all about it.”
“Oh, Mr. Weller, you should know better than to speak to a lady in such a manner,” replied Mrs. Gamp, shaking her head sternly. “As I always say, ‘I will not be talked to in that way, sir. I am a moral woman, and I am not to be trifled with.’”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” said Mr. Pickwick, raising his hands in a conciliatory manner. “Let us not allow our tempers to get the better of us. Remember, as I always say, ‘We are all bound to one another by the ties of humanity, and it is our duty to extend a helping hand to those who may be in need of it.’”
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This is what I got for the very long prompt I started with.
It was a gloomy day in London, the kind of day when the fog seemed to seep into one's very bones. Mr Pickwick wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself as he made his way down High Holborn, muttering to himself about the "damp, unhealthy streets." Suddenly, a figure emerged from the mist, a woman swathed in shawls and carrying a basket.
"Ah, Mrs Gamp, my good woman," Mr Pickwick exclaimed, trying to peer at her face through the thick veil of fog. "What brings you out on such a miserable day?"
Mrs Gamp seemed to start at the sound of her name, and she peered at Mr Pickwick through rheumy eyes. "Why, Mr Pickwick, I do declare," she said, her voice slurred. "I thought you was one of my patients, come to see me for a spot of nursing. But I can see now that I was mistaken."
Mr Pickwick chuckled and offered her his arm. "Shall we step inside and get out of this miserable weather?" he said. "I'll buy you a drink to warm your bones."
Mrs Gamp accepted the offer with alacrity, and the two of them made their way to the nearest tavern. As they settled themselves by the fireplace, Mrs Gamp produced a flask from her basket and took a long swig.
"Ah, that's better," she said, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. "I shouldn't really be drinking on the job, but it's a cold day, and I need something to keep me going."
Mr Pickwick nodded sympathetically. "I understand completely," he said. "But perhaps it would be best if we didn't drink too much. After all, I'm sure you have patients to attend to, and I have a busy day ahead of me as well."
Mrs Gamp waved a hand dismissively. "Nonsense, Mr Pickwick," she said. "I'm sure a little bit of drink won't do any harm. And who knows, it might even do us some good."
As the evening wore on, Mrs Gamp became increasingly tipsy, regaling Mr Pickwick with tales of her various patients and their various ailments. Mr Pickwick listened attentively, his sense of professionalism at war with his desire to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
"And then there was Mr Chuffey," Mrs Gamp said, her words slurring together. "Oh, he was a strange one, he was. Always talking to himself and muttering about things that didn't make any sense. I used to have to tie a bell around his neck so I could keep track of him."
Mr Pickwick chuckled. "It sounds as though you've had quite an eventful career, Mrs Gamp," he said.
"Oh, I have, Mr Pickwick, I have," she replied, taking another swig from her flask. "But it's all worth it, if it helps my patients. That's what I always say."
As the night wore on and the fire in the fireplace burned low, Mr Pickwick began to feel the effects of the drink himself. He knew he should probably head home, but the warmth of the tavern and the company of Mrs Gamp were too tempting to resist.
As the two of them bade each other farewell, Mr Pickwick knew that he would never forget the strange encounter with the tipsy nurse on that cold, foggy night in London.
After the simplified prompt, I started correcting with prompts like this:
Mr Pickwick never says, "I must protest at this language. I have always treated you with the utmost respect and consideration."
Asked it to continue the scene:
Continue the scene with the arrival of Sam Weller, writing Sam with quotes from "The Pickwick Papers"
At this point have the landlord of the inn come in with a bottle of wine and all three character have a drink. This ends with Mrs Gamp hiccuping and embarrasing Mr Pickwick
I asked for specific edits to one particular section:
Re-write this paragraph to make it longer and give a more detailed description of Mrs Gamp's drinking: "The three of them sat down and enjoyed their glasses of wine, chatting and laughing together. As the bottle emptied, Mrs. Gamp began to hiccup loudly, much to the embarrassment of Mr. Pickwick."
The result was too inventive, not Dickensian, so I said:
Better. Now rewrite it using only quotes from Charles Dickens
I did some more editorial prompts, told it to use quotes from Mr Jingle to describe Mrs Gamp’s hiccups, added one specific quote, then said this:
The end is wrong. Sam Weller and Mr Pickwick ought to be upset. Make Mrs Gamp nastier
Again I had to correct certain things and gave this prompt:
Instead of this: Mrs. Gamp hiccupped again and glared at the two men. "I'm sorry, gentlemen," she said, "I didn't mean to cause any offense." Use a quote from Martin Chuzzlewit in the scene where Mr Gamp and Betsy Trot have an argument.
I asked it to “try again” then to carry on the scene and end it in an argument, again asking it to change certain lines for different quotes (or actual Dickens quotes).