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- November 02, 1981
- Vol. 16
- No. 18
A Portrait, Drawing on Century-Old Documents Recently Discovered in People's London Bureau
25 September 1841
Yours of 10 August received, in which you request coverage of Mr. Charles Dickens, anticipating his tour of your country in the new year. His schedule has prevented us from speaking with him as yet, but we are providing biographical and critical information herein.
Frankly, we are astonished at your interest in Mr. Dickens. His Nickleby numbers, published monthly in 20 installments, were indeed well received of late, but by the working classes. We have many authors of greater excellence who are working in the more traditional three-volume fictional genre, who do not peddle mawk and sensation to the factory girls of Bristol.
Mr. Dickens' obsession with the dark underbelly of British life seems to us quite ungentlemanly. At the age of 29, the resourceful Mr. Dickens has five major works to his credit, all published first in periodicals: a collection of his newspaper and magazine articles (Sketches by Boz), The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nickleby and his latest, The Old Curiosity Shop. With this one, and the cloying death of Little Nell, he has reached bottom, we hope. Many of our eminent critics agree. John Ruskin calls the work "diseased extravagance," and Edward Fitzgerald has scourged it for its "sham pathos." Twist and Nickleby, with their attacks on child labour and certain British public schools, have at least the vigour of conviction. Queen Victoria actually praised Twist ("excessively interesting") and recommended it to the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Yet Melbourne feels, as we do, that the social problems in Mr. Dickens' work do not make for proper literature. "I don't like those things," he says. "I wish to avoid them: I don't like them in reality and therefore I don't wish them represented."
In point of fact, Mr. Dickens is a very odd fellow: compulsively gregarious, relentlessly convivial and usually in the company of bachelors (with a wife at home who is always pregnant and rarely presentable!). Mr. Dickens is altogether the dandyish man-about-town. In business he is all claws. He so badgered an illustrator for revisions in the first Pickwick numbers that the poor man killed himself. Mr. Dickens' relationship with the publisher of the monthly Bentley's Miscellany foundered on his unremitting extortion of better contractual terms. Last year he started his own cheap pseudo-literary periodical, a weekly called Master Humphrey's Clock. We quote the Monthly Review: "How Dickens, with his talents and experience, could have suffered such a thing to go forth under the sanction of his name is to us a matter of unfeigned marvel." Its unseemly profit has owed much to the fact that Little Nell breathed her last in its pages.
Mr. Dickens' apparent avarice may be traced to his less than distinguished parentage. His father, John, a spendthrift would-be gentleman from Cheshire, was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office in Portsmouth and, later, in London. Charles was a frail boy, and the family's frequent moves to ever poorer housing distressed him greatly. As a result of his father's habit of living far beyond his means, the family was forced to sell all its possessions, down to the spoons, when Charles was 12 years old. John Dickens was incarcerated for four months in the Marshal-sea, a debtors' prison. Charles was forced to leave school and take up work in a blacking factory, where he wrapped jars filled with paste and labelled them. Eventually he was able to finish his education and began his career reporting sessions of Parliament for various newspapers in London. His father, however, has been without regular employment for several years. His only apparent source of income has been his son's publishers, whom he blackmails regularly with the threat of making a public embarrassment of his poverty. He also has been known to hawk documents he has that bear his son's signature. John Dickens had the habit of running up bills on his son's good name, but last March Charles placed an announcement in the public prints to the effect that he would henceforth stand no debts except his own and his wife's.
Mr. Dickens was so mortified by his parents' neglect of him as a child that even his wife does not know of his days in the blacking factory (we have it from a thoroughly reliable source). One wonders, indeed, what else his wife does not know. There are reports of a great unrequited love in his young manhood [Dickens' biographers identified her as Maria Beadnell—Ed.] which pains him still. It is said that he carries her memory in his heart to this day as an ideal of womanhood. Possibly his subjection of his wife Catherine is the unfortunate result. Friends of Mr. Dickens describe Catherine as an awkward, dull woman who does not much like all the children she is bringing into the world. [Eventually Catherine gave birth to 10 children, and suffered five miscarriages—Ed.] While Catherine thus fulfills the grosser wifely functions, thoroughly credible whispers have it that her sisters, Mary and Georgina Hogarth, have received the greater part of Mr. Dickens' affections. (Mary's death four years ago sent Mr. Dickens into an inconsolable grief. Georgina stays often with the Dickenses now and regards their children as her own.)
You see what we are dealing with—a man who, in his life as in his "art," makes women into either saintly ideals or nagging shrews, and who incites the lower classes to insurrection to salve the bitterness of his own deprived childhood. We admit his work can be affecting, but the same may be said of a sharp stick in the eye.
We stand ready to provide an alternative to the Dickens story in the event you agree with our assessment of the man. In that fond hope, I remain,
Your Faithful Servant,
30 June 1870
Herewith our reportage for the obituary on Mr. Dickens, along with an earlier dispatch from our predecessor, Mr. Sleese. An astonishing document—his myopia should be a lesson to us all. Then, of course, he was only reflecting the blindness of the upper class of that time. Even when Mr. Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, there were those who accused him of political subversion. The Westminster Review actually declared that Scrooge's giving the Cratchit family a turkey for Christmas supper was a breach of financial responsibility. But finally Sleese and his kind were simply wrong: Mr. Dickens was clearly no radical; he was indeed popular with workers, but his heroes were invariably the genteel poor. Nor do his tales suggest any practical remedies for the social injustices he portrays, political or otherwise. He hated the inequities he saw, but his deepest wish seems to have been the engagement of his readers, by whatever means. After reading his teary, sentimental Christmas story of 1844, The Chimes, to his friend, the great tragedian William Macready, Mr. Dickens wrote to Catherine: "If you had seen Macready last night, undisguisedly sobbing and crying on the sofa as I read, you would have felt, as I did, what a thing it is to have Power."
This power was what Mr. Dickens wanted more than anything: It accounts for the kind of fiction he wrote and the domination of his wife. Consider also his fascination with mesmerism, an inane pseudo-science which involves putting people into trances and applying magnets to their bodies in order to cure their maladies. During Mr. Dickens' season in Genoa in 1845 he became friendly with Augusta de la Rue, the wife of a Swiss banker who lived nearby and whose symptoms of hysteria—headaches, insomnia, convulsions and occasional hallucinations—he offered to treat with mesmerism. Her husband, being a liberal man, allowed Mr. Dickens to make the attempt during a tour of the Italian countryside. The latter wrote in a letter to a friend: "Every day I magnetised her; sometimes under olive trees, sometimes in vineyards, sometimes in the travelling carriage, sometimes at wayside inns during the midday halt." His wife's open suspicions that their mesmerism sessions were becoming something more deterred him not at all; he told the de la Rues dismissively that Catherine was having a nervous breakdown.
His desire for power no doubt had its roots in the helplessness he had felt in childhood. In 1848 he set about examining those parts of his past which he had buried by starting to work on an autobiographical account of his childhood. "No one had compassion enough on me," he wrote. "No advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no support from anyone...My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation of such considerations that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life."
He never finished the autobiography, nor allowed any of it to be published (I was fortunate enough to see the ms. at our mutual club, the Athenaeum), but into his next book, David Copperfield, he poured all his most painful early memories. In that effort he seems to have made a kind of peace with his father, whose irresponsibility is transformed in Mr. Micawber into good-natured optimism. It was as if Mr. Dickens were saying at last, "I forgive you, Father."
In the years that followed, his loveless marriage to Catherine collapsed. Sleese rightly sniffed that out. The couple separated in 1858. His budding affair with the young actress Ellen Ternan—his junior by 27 years—was the proximate cause, but his openness to a true affair of the heart suggests a deeper reason. He did not handle his romantic predicament well at all. He admitted his love for Miss Ternan to his friends, yet strenuously—in print—denied it ("I know her to be innocent and pure," etc.); he even made his estranged wife pay a call on her as if to prove the point. "This affair brought out all that was worst, all that was weakest in him," says Mr. Dickens' daughter Kate. "He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home."
He made a new life for himself, taking a hideaway flat near the theatre district, installing Ellen Ternan in a house at Windsor and spending time with a new circle of friends who were tolerant of his relationship with her. Fellow author Wilkie Collins, with whom he was given to exploring the seamier quarters of London and Paris, was now among his closest friends. His new life, however, was no happier than his old one.
Mr. Dickens' consolation was his work. He had always overworked, but never more than he did during these years. He conducted two more highly successful weeklies, first Household Words, then All the Year Round. In them, in seven years' time, he published Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. He started a London home for fallen women as well. Ah, Sleese would make much of that. In fact, Mr. Dickens was a true benefactor. Once rehabilitated, many of the women were sent to Australia, where wives were in short supply. Mr. Dickens also mounted amateur theatricals to assist impoverished authors and artists, and to satisfy his lifelong love of the footlights.
In 1858 he undertook the first of the public reading tours whose rigours would eventually tire and kill him. The reason he gave was money; the demands of his large, extended family were great. His brother Frederick, like his father before him, had become a sponger. (There also have been suggestions that Miss Ternan bore a child who died in infancy.) Mr. Dickens did precisely what he set out to do on his tour: He made some £45,000 from his 425 appearances in the last dozen years of his life. His public readings were costly to his health, but doctors' orders were nothing to him. Despite a painful, chronic inflammation of his left foot, he also tried to keep up his almost daily 10-to 15-mile constitutionals, which he took at a pace so brisk many younger men were left breathless in his wake. "It is a dreadful locomotive to which he is bound," Ralph Waldo Emerson said after observing Mr. Dickens during his U.S. tour in 1867. "[He] can never be free from it nor set at rest."
At the same time, Mr. Dickens' performances of his own work may well have been the highest fulfillment of all his gifts: The power he had exercised over his friends in private readings he now wielded over great audiences across America and the British Isles. He wrote to his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, from Ireland: "I wish you and the dear girls could have seen the people look at me in the street; or heard them ask me...to 'do me the honour to shake hands Misther Dickens, and God bless you sir...for the light you've been in mee house sir (and God love your face!) this many a year.' "
His incandescent light lit many houses, and it burned him up. Groggy from the laudanum he took to ease the pain in his foot, he carried on bravely. Limping, relying on a cane, he continued his late-night treks about London, his face so lined with care and pain even old friends scarcely recognized him. His gifts were failing—Wilkie Collins bluntly called his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, "a last laboured effort, the melancholy work of a worn-out brain." Mr. Dickens retired increasingly to Gad's Hill Place, a country house he had purchased in 1856, which his father had regarded longingly on walks with young Charles. He remodelled it continually from the day he bought it, as if trying to make one childhood wish come true at last.
It was there that he died, at 6 o'clock the evening of 9 June, of an aneurysm in the brain. The end was quick and painless: He gave a deep sigh, a tear fell down his cheek, and it was-over. He was 58 years old.
Five days before, he had sat up late talking with his daughter Kate, confessing the wish that he had been "a better father, and a better man." Who could not wish that? Mr. Dickens most assuredly had his flaws. Still, I think it fair to predict that 100 years from now there will still be houses and hearts lit by the glow of Dickens, and by the cast of memorable characters he fashioned from his own adversities to keep us warm in a world so often cold. May God love his face.
December 20, 2014
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