The reader of Dickens, be he child or man or woman, has this pleasing and yet unusual advantage, when he follows the tale of one of these dramatic fairy children, for he will learn that, in many cases, he is listening to the accounts of Dickens' own childhood. In Copperfield, Boz, the name under which Dickens wrote, has taken so little trouble to disguise his revelations that in one instance I know of he sent merely a family letter, unrevised, to the printer. In Oliver Twist we find a suffering, agonised, drab childhood steeped in the horrors of the workhouse as it was then. The likeness of Oliver, as realised by Cruikshank, is strangely like certain portraits of the author. It was Dickens who first thought of introducing an entirely new set of characters into his stories. [7/8] What, it occurred to him, if he interpreted the minds and feelings of dogs, horses, birds, and above all, of children? No-one had done so before. It enlarged his dramatis personae.
Whenever Boz comes to touch on the subject of children a tender chord seems to be struck charged with love and affection and all the sympathies. His very heart seemed to go out them. This was owing to his interest in the poor, crippled child of his sister, Mrs. Burnett, whom he framed, as it were, in that exquisite and truly perfect crysolite, "The Christmas Carol," and where it is figured as Tiny Tim. All who heard the readings will recall his almost broken accents, as he described it; and what a general flutter of joy there was when he officially announced that Tiny Tim did not die. I thought of Tiny Tim one night after a reading in St. James' Hall, when Dickens' son, then a delicate lad who was lamed by an accident, was taken in charge by myself to bring home, and he had to be led carefully. It seemed an odd coincidence. The master who contrived to carry off any awkward situation with a pleasant jest — for like Gratiano, his eye begat occasion for his tongue — we are told was a little taken aback when it was first announced to him that he was a grandfather, [8/9] and he did not exactly relish his patriarchal title. As the quivers began to overflow, he contrived a pleasant device for easing the situation. This was, he was to be styled affectionately "Old Venerables." It was a light farcical fiction which carried the thing off, and saved dignity and the suggestion of old age, which the children would naturally have accepted. Boz had no end of these little pleasantries. He was a boy, a child himself ever, and no one knew the child better.
Boz raised the engaging little world of children from the ranks to the dignity of most capable performers. He taught them to think and plan like grown folks, to feel acutely, show affection, and placed them on a complete level. Such seemed in the nature of prodigies, but such was his art that no one thought so. He took us all into that wonderful fairyland which he created — where he made Lady Dedlock walk in one night from London to Barnet and back, without fatigue, this miraculous feat being accepted as a matter of course simply because every one was delighted who cared to be thus amused. The engaging Little Nell or the ever interesting Little Dombey could never in real life have conducted any one so skilfully all about the country or have talked [9/10] so wisely from morning till night. But what did it matter?
There were good reasons for the affectionate hold which Little Neil and Little Dombey have always had upon the reader. Boz was writing from experiences of his own, a family experience well known-the story of his affectionate regard for the sweet girl whose likeness and death actually ran near to wrecking "Pickwick," and stopped its course for a time. This shows how acutely he felt her loss. He seemed to keep her memory green by reviving her image whenever he could. In a story introduced into "Nicholas Nickleby" she figured as one of "the three sisters of York"; in "Oliver Twist" as Rose Maylie (the Scotch name will be noted) she also appears, not as dying, but not very far from it. So with Little Dombey, who was drawn from a child of his own family, while, as we have said, Tiny Tim was the little Burnett, his sister's child. This touch of reality was sure to supply a strong leverage and motor force.
There is wonderful variety of patterns in the children he puts before us, but particularly in the case of the "boys," to settle accurately whether they are urchins, lads or youths. Boz himself seemed to [10/11] be a little uncertain. In the case of "the Dodger" and his "pals" he himself would fluctuate, making the entertaining rascals now old, now young. They were called boys of say twelve years old, but at times the writer made them older, and indeed their talk is too wise and experienced to come from a juvenile. Boz had a rare delight in limning young rascals of this sort; he renewed the pattern in Quilp's Boy.
The premier children — the "super-children," as Mr Shaw would have it — in whose case Boz exercised all his power, and which rank in the very first place, were, of course, Little Neil and Little Dombey, also the pathetic, little, lame Tiny Tim. These portraits are of the most affecting kind, the reason perhaps being that they were drawn out of his own soul. Not only was Boz the introducer of these children, but he was also the creator of the most popular type — that is, of the heroic, tender-hearted, self-sacrificing, affectionate child, whom others, now that the way was shown, found it easy to make one of their characters — that is the advanced child, who was to a degree grown up. Nay, we go a little further still, and claim for him that he so elevated and refined the type that he brought this attractive form of child into real life and taught us how to [11/12] love and appreciate it, which we did not before. And yet these are, all the time, in Elia's happy words, Dream Children, lent from the beyond: spiritualised and yet accepted; imperfect, as real as living. Alas, we do not meet, nor are we likely to meet, Little Nells or Paul Dombeys or Tiny Tims. They are the true Dream Children.
Dickens, Mary Angela [Charles Dickens' grand-daughter]. Dickens' Dream Children. London, Paris New, York: Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., 1926.
Last modified 12 September 2010