We all have our fancies about words, I suppose! Some words, though strictly accurate in their application, do not seem to fit comfortably. And I must confess that my mind entirely refuses to admit the word "dream" in connection with my grandfather's work. Truly, one of the dictionary definitions of the word 'dream' is, "a matter which has only an imaginary reality." And all fiction is covered by this term. But he who dreams is a dreamer, and the word 'dreamer' I find inapplicable to my grandfather. There is something passive about a dreamer — necessarily so; and any one less passive never took up a pen.
He was a visionary. Vision involves an act. It is a gift, first of all, of course, and one of the supreme gifts! Few men see into life. Fewer will see through it and beyond it. But granted [13/14] the gift, there must still be the personal effort, the personal strain, the personal suffering, which alone can make it available. Perhaps no man ever used the vision granted him more wholly and completely than did Charles Dickens. The word 'strenuous ' was not in ordinary use in his day; but it expresses him exactly. Eager, ardent, throwing his whole strength into all he did, he is the example in his life and the teacher in his words of the value of concentrated and persevering work. Patient, also, he was. Not patient temperamentally, probably; but untiringly patient in his struggles with those limitations which press so hardly on every man of vision — the limitations of the medium through which he must express that vision, the limitation of words, the limitation of physical powers, illness, fatigue. Of all the gallant struggles against failing health of which the history of literature is full, his, towards the end of his life, is not one of the least, it seems to me.
But it is not with him that I am now concerned, but with his children; the children of his imagination, the children of his vision. And I think when we run through their names, when we call them up, one after another, we must surely be struck first of all by this; there is among them hardly [14/15] one normal, happy outcome of a normal, happy child life.
The first explanation of this fact is obvious. It is to be found in the letter in which he explains to his friend John Forster the link between himself and the favourite child of his imagination, David Copperfield. It is a terrible page of autobiography, and he could never look back to that part of his life which it records without horror.
A bias was thus probably given to his vision of childhood. But I do not think his children are wholly accounted for thus. There are some beautiful little child vignettes, scattered up and down the books, which show how delicate was his appreciation of unspoiled childhood. The little daughter of the French jailer in the first chapter of Little Dorrit is an instance of his sureness of touch in this respect. And in Mr. and Mrs. Harry Walmers, Junior — allowing for an exuberance for which exaggeration would be much too harsh a word — we have the child idyl at its best.
But when we think of the representative children of the Dickens novels, we see little creatures, pale and thin, bruised and twisted many of them, either in body or in soul — victims, all of them, in one sense or another. And I fancy [15/16] the reason is this. My grandfather, this humorist whose first success was almost sheer farce, was also the keen and merciless exposer of abuses. It easy to recall the crying evils which he dragged into the light, and indirectly ended, sometimes by the mighty force of ridicule, sometimes by scathing denunciation. But his vision went deeper still. Because he loved his kind and because vision was granted him, he saw the deep wounds of life of which these crying evils were the outcome. He saw selfishness, love of money, love of power. He saw them and he hated them, and he wanted to make them seen and hated of all men. It was surely a very true instinct which made him, over and over again, drag them from their hiding-places and pin them down, so to speak, for all to see, through their effects upon the most helpless of all helpless creatures — children.
Oliver Twist is the typical victim, of course. He is the victim of a system, certainly, and of system which the book to which he gives his name did much to abolish. But he is the victim also of individual avarice and cruelty. The gallant little Marchioness — who never went out or had a clean face, or took off her coarse apron or looked out of window, or stood at the street door for a breath of air, or had any rest or refres- [16/17] ment whatever — is another obvious victim. But not less a victim is Paul Dombey. Mr. Dombey is a type of human nature stupefied, one may almost say, by narrow pride and self-importance. He had starved in himself the power to love, and he could not love his son. He substituted for love the selfish desire to be proud of his heir. He put him into the most expensive kind of forcing house known to those days, in order that he might be proud of him. And the child life went out.
And what of Little Nell? I think she is the personification of an idea. And I think it is because the idea reaches so high that there are those who find themselves a little out of touch with her. She is innocence and purity, spending themselves to save another from the degrading tyranny of self. She is weakness unspoiled, upheld by heroism, supporting weakness tainted and dishonoured. She is not a child, perhaps; rather, an angel guardian. And as her gentle spirit passes peacefully and tranquilly from this world to the next, "the sure and certain hope" of immortality lights up the soul of her creator and shines on some of the most beautiful pages which he ever wrote. "I am half dead with work and grief for the loss of my child," he writes to a friend, as the book draws to its end. He spent the night after [17/18] he had written of her death wandering about the streets of London. The gleam which he had caught from the other side had made him restless here, perhaps!
Children of vision, all of them! Not real. Existing only in imagination. And yet — what is reality ? I will tell a dream which I have had.
It began by daylight in the bustling streets of a seaside town; not an environment suggestive of dreams, on a hot afternoon. In the little market-place chars-a-bancs were loading up, conductors were touting, passengers were expostulating, fruit-stalls and ice-cream-barrows were doing a roaring trade, and every one was bent on cramming the greatest possible amount of enjoyment into the smallest possible space of time. It is an old town. That is to say there has been a town there for centuries. There is just a touch of the old world still to be seen in a roof or a gable here and there, and in the winding, hilly road. I was contrasting old and new, when the new came up against me forcibly in the shape of a building which simply shouted its modernity and seemed to block my path at an angle of the market-square. I stopped to disapprove at leisure and I saw a tablet let into the wall —
"Here is the site of the steps on which Charles [18/19] Dickens represents David Copperfield as resting in his search for his aunt Betsy Trotwood."
I stared! David Copperfield? But David Copperfield never lived. David Copperfield was not real. It was a real building which faced me. All the holiday makers about me — they were real. And it was a real tablet — solid, graven stone. A real tablet to commemorate an unreal person!
I felt rather giddy, as if I had accidentally stepped off the edge of the world. I shook myself hastily, got back my mental footing and went on my way. And at night this happened.
The market-place was empty and silent. The moon was rising. There was just light enough to show the outline of the old square, just darkness enough to soften and blur the details. There was that strange brooding hush over it which rests always at night on places which by day are full of human life — not the night peace of great open country spaces, but a peace with something in it which suggests a respite. Presently, down the hill there came a little dusty, sun-burnt boy, only half clothed, it seemed, in trousers and a little shirt, and ragged shoes. He looked hungry, thirsty, worn out. He stood for a moment looking miserably about him. Then he made for a certain [19/20] corner of the square and sat down. Apparently he found some steps there, and his face cleared.
"It's all right now," he murmured. "This is the place. But I wonder why I'm here again!"
As he spoke a blue-eyed mite of a child, with a necklace of blue beads on, ran up the sea road with a light fluttering step, stopped, and turned as if to run away again, as the boy jumped up and ran towards her. But she let him catch her up and they kissed each other as he cried —
"Why, little Em'ly! You!"
"Hush!" she whispered. "Look, Davy!"
The market-square seemed to be full of children. Close to them — she seemed to have been made out of the moonlight — was a child with a very small, delicate frame and bright blue eyes. Her light brown hair hung loose about her neck. She wore a little straw bonnet and had a basket hanging on her arm. She was hand-in-hand with a very small servant, a little slipshod girl in a dirty coarse apron and bib which left nothing of her visible but her face and her feet. Near them a cripple, with an active little crutch, was hopping nimbly over the stones helped by a thin and pallid boy, gentle and timid in manner, with a refinement about him which seemed to contradict his poor, [20/21] worn clothes. Further off were a brother and sister, apparently; a slight, spare boy with an innocent, old-fashioned look, and a modest little beauty of a girl whose arm was round the feeble frame which leaned against her as she bent over him until her luxuriant curls touched his upturned face. There was another cripple with bright, long fair hair, falling in a beautiful shower over the poor shoulders which were much in need of such adorning rain. And close by a very little creature with a pitiful and plaintive look and an anxious motherliness about her shrinking manner. Behind, there was a fine young gentleman not eight years old with his head well up, arm-in-arm with a fine young woman of seven in a sky-blue mantle, who was looking with big compassionate eyes at a little crossing-sweeper who shuffled along very muddy, very ragged, with an old broom. Behind, again, there seemed to be other childish figures, half merged into the shadows.
There were no signs of shyness or uneasiness among these children. Wide as were the differences among them in station and in character, each seemed to know the other and to be completely at home in the company in which he found himself. But gradually they gathered round the boy who had been the first arrival, as if expecting [21/22] something. And as if in answer to a question, though there had been no sound, he said
"I don't know! I had to come — somebody sent for me!"
There was a pause. The children looked at one another and waited. Then round the bend of the winding road down which the boy had come, there came another child. It was a little girl in a white pinafore, short white socks and strap shoes, very neat, with soft, straight, brown hair brushed back and held by a round comb. She came on sedately with a shy smile. And then she stopped. The children towards whom she was advancing were drawing together, were shrinking away from her. No one spoke. But between the little figure in the pinafore and those other children there seemed to be an invisible barrier. At last the boy made a step or two towards her.
"Excuse me," he said, very politely, but — we don't know you."
The new-comer took courage.
"I — we — we are relations, really," she said earnestly. "I — invited you to come to-night. I wanted very much that you should come. Because — I do belong to you."
"We think not!" answered the boy gently [22/23] but firmly. "There's something — I don't know what it is — but, we think not."
"You are — his. And I am — his. So we must be relations, mustn't we?" pleaded the little girl. "I don't know what you call him — I call him Venerables — that means the same as grandfather, you know."
She stopped, confused and troubled by the unresponsive child faces as she looked from one to the other.
"The only difference," she faltered, "the only difference is that once — I really was!"
The gentle child with the little basket on her arm dropped the hand of her quaint companion and went up to the boy, who stood perplexed and hesitating.
"I understand," she said softly. " She's not like us — except in this. She has no place on earth. The whole world is our home. We count our friends by thousands. We hear it said, so often, that we are immortal. But we are only the children of Time, after all. Dreams are of time. And we are only Dreams. She is — different. Nobody knows her. She is only a little ghost. But she is that which we are not. Because once — she was real."
The little ghost looked with serious brown eyes at the speaker. Then she said, [23/24] "I see! Yes, we are different. Real is a word which nobody understands, not even grown-up people. It's funny there are words like that. You are more real than I am — I am more real than you are. Because we are different. I wonder — can we kiss good-bye?" She stretched out her hands. The moon passed behind a cloud. There was a sound of children, laughing happily. When the light came again the square was empty except that the little girl in the pinafore stood smiling and tracing with a small forefinger the words cut in a stone tablet let into a wall. And over her shoulder looked a queer small boy. A real child! A dream child! But which is which ? And who was the queer small boy?
Dickens, Mary Angela [Charles Dickens' grand-daughter]. Dickens' Dream Children. London, Paris New, York: Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., 1926.
Last modified 12 September 2010