I begin to doubt whether I had anything to do with a book called "Dombey," or ever sat over number five (not finished a fortnight yet) day after day until I half began . . . to think it be only reality in life, and to mistake all the realities for shortlived shadows. — Letter from Charles Dickens to the Countess of Blessington, January 24, 1847
You know my life..., and my character, and what has had its part in making them successful; and the more you see of me, the better perhaps you may understand that the intense pursuit of any idea that takes complete possession of me, is one of the qualities tbat makes me different — sometimes for good; sometimes I dare say for evil — from other men. — Letter from Charles Dickens to his wife, December 5, 1853
I hold my inventive capacity on the stern condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands upon me, and sometimes for months together put everything else away from me. If I had not known long ago tbat my place could never be held unless I were at any moment ready to devote myse1f to it entirely, I sbould have dropped out of it very soon.... Whoever is devoted to an Art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. — Letter from Charles Dickens to Mrs. Winter, April 3, 1858
sked about his famous son's education, John Dickens is reported to have made the jocose reply, "Why, indeed, Sir — ha! ha! — he may be said to have educated himself." To the virtual truth of this statement Charles Dickens' early life bears witness. From 1817 to 1822, between his fifth and tenth years, he lived at Chatham on the southeastern coast of England, where his father was employed as pay clerk in the naval dockyard. Although the boy received some rudimentary instruction in English and even Latin from his mother and for a time attended a dame school similar to that portrayed in the opening pages of Great Expectations, it was not until the end of this period that he enjoyed an all too brief exposure to solid instruction under an excellent and sympathetic master, named William Giles. Before this, however, Dickens' imagination had been aroused to precocious activity by less orthodox influences. In an autobiographical essay, entitled "Nurses' Stories," he recounts how he was introduced as a child to the realms of fairy and folklore through the hair-raising bedtime yarns of his nursemaid, who lives on as Peggotty in David Copperfield. Before long Dickens discovered his father's library, made up of cheap reprints of the great standard [5/6] works of fiction. The delight which attended their perusal is vividly recorded in the following passage of David Copperfield's youthful recollections:
My father had left a small collection of books in a little room up-stairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time, — they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii, . . . I have been Tom Jones (a child's Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch, I verily believe.... This was my only and my constant comfort When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. Every barn in the neighbourhood, every stone in the church, and every foot of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trumlion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlour of our little village alehouse.
According to John Forster, the novelist's biographer, the Tales of the Genii inspired Dickens' earliest writings, including "a tragedy called Misnar, the Sultan of India." From this time also dates an enduring fascination with all varieties of public entertainments. The boy was taken to the theatre and to pantomimes in London and Rochester, and in emulation of these shows achieved a local reputation as an impromptu performer. Forster states that: "He told a story offhand [6/7] so well, and sang small comic songs so especially well, that he used to be elevated on chairs and tables, both at home and abroad for more effective display of these talents.. .."
For the rest, a lad as observant and alert to new impressions as the young Dickens found opportunity enough for his sense of adventure in the region about Chatham and Rochester, so rich in historical associations and surviving traditions. "All my early readings and early imaginations dated from this place," he wrote in after years; and the nostalgic t one of many of the pieces in The Uncommercial Traveller testifies that the writer, like Wordsworth, continued to derive consolation from recalling this "fair seedtime" of his soul. Indeed, in periods of crisis Dickens was wont to make pilgrimages back to the scenes of his early life, until in 1857 he purchased as his final home Gad's Hill, the country house which he had first seen and admired in the Chatham days and which his father had promised that he might someday own if he worked hard enough. This part of England came to stand for what he thought of as the Eden of childhood innocence; and the poignancy with which he mourned its loss pervades the atmosphere of the passages in Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, , and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which are set in the locality.
Overnight the youthful idyll came to an end. John Dickens was transferred to London, and with this move his fortunes began to decline. He was a clever, but improvident man, more attentive to the affairs of others than to his own, like Micawber of whom he was partly the original. The family took up residence in Camden Town, the poorest of the London suburbs. Soon it was necessary to sell off household effects, Dickens' cherished books being the first things to go. Unable to meet his financial obligations, the father sought refuge [7/8] in Marshalsea Prison under the provisions of the Insolvent Debtors' Act, and he was joined there by his wife and younger children.
Charles, the oldest son, was left to shift for himself. Through a family connection he went to work in Warren's Blacking Warehouse in the Strand, where for six shillings a week he was set the task of pasting labels on bottles. Although he subsequently looked back on this vassalage as of interminahle duration, it lasted not much longer than three months. His duties, quickly mastered, were not unduly taxing; and he was well enough treated by his rough associates, who respected the gentlemanly pretensions which he had acquired from his father. Nevertheless, the menial nature of his duties left the sensitive boy with a feeling of having been degraded. More desolating still was the extinction of further hope for the education which he so passionately desired and to which he felt that he was entitled. But deeper than either of these humiliations lay the despairing conviction that he had been unjustly and wantonly abandoned, consigned to the company of homeless waifs who roamed the London streets.
For many years afterwards Dickens could not bring himself to assess the scars left by this ordeal. So resolutely did he hide them that his family only learned the facts from Forster's Life after the novelist was dead. Indeed, they might never have been known if, nearly a quarter of a century later in 1847, Forster had not heard a friend of John Dickens remark that he remembered having seen the boy at his place of employment. Forster's curiosity over this chance discovery moved Dickens to write the fragment of an autobiography which he subsequently entrusted to his friend when he decided to incorporate the substance of his recollections almost verbatim in the Murdstone and Grinby episode of David Copperfield [8/9].
As given in full in Forster's Life, the original account movingly depicts the feelings of outrage and bitter resentment left by this youthful experience. "It is wonderful to me," he writes,
how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. It is wonderful to me, that; even after my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion enough on me — a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally — to suggest that something might have been spared, as certainly it might have been, to place me at any common school. Our friends, I take it, were tired out. No one made any sign. My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge.
And he continues, after describing his fellow workers:
No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; compared these every day associates with those of my happier childhood; and felt my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my breast. The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless, of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from me, never to be brought back any more; cannot be written. My whole nature was so penetrated with the 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, and wander desolately back to that time of my life.
After John Dickens, who had received a timely legacy, emerged from the Marshalsea, he arranged in turn for Charles' release from the blacking warehouse, [9/10] although Mrs. Dickens would have been content to have her son remain there. The novelist never forgave his parents for their treatment. Some of the father's traits are embodied in William Dorrit, as well as Micawber, while Mrs. Nickleby and Mrs. Micawber were modeled in part on the mother. More revealing, however, is the theme of parental neglect prominent in virtually all of the novels. Most of their protagonists are orphans or half-orphans, harbored in the homes of surrogate parents. The sense of insecurity instilled by this period of abandonment was to have its lifelong aftermath in other ways. It is reflected in Dickens' determination never again to be at the mercy of circumstance, and in the ruthlessness which as a result characterized all his business dealings. And this concern with material well-being in turn dominates his writings. As Humphry House has written:
is a main theme of nearly every book that Dickens getting, keeping, spending, owing, bequeathing provide the intricacies of his plots; character after character is constructed round an attitude to money. Social status without it is subordinate.
On the credit side must be reckoned certain imponderable gains traceable to this period when the young Dickens was thrown entirely on his own resources. For want of other diversion, he formed the habit of wandering the city streets, and as an onlooker at the "magic lantern" of the thronged metropolis, began to discipline his phenomenally accurate and retentive powers of observation. In the process he acquired the kind of knowledge which Mr. Weller prided himself on having provided for Sam: "I took a good deal o' pains with his eddication, sir: let him run in the streets when he was wery young, and shift for his-self. It's the only way to make a boy sharp, sir." [10/11]
Dickens' formal schooling came to an end with two years at Wellington House Academy, the brutal headmaster of which became Mr. Creakle in David Copperfield. At this establishment, where he was remembered as a waggish and somewhat dandified boy of quick parts, his literary and theatrical interests revived. When he was fifteen, he left to become office boy in a law firm, and soon after began to teach himself shorthand. On the basis of this skill (the arduous mastery of which is so hilariously described in David Copperfield), he was promoted in his seventeenth year to the position of legal reporter in Doctors' Commons.
Henceforth his progress was rapid. He reported parliamentary proceedings for a succession of newspapers, until at the age of twenty-two he took over this function for the influential Morning Chronicle. In tribute to the proficiency with which he carried out his exacting duties, an editor declared that among the eighty or ninety reporters in the gallery Dickens "occupied the very highest rank not merely for accuracy in reporting, but for marvelous quickness of transcript." Dickens filled the intervals when Parliament was in recess by traveling about England to cover political campaigns like that at Eatanswill in Pickwick Papers, and in this way extended his knowledge of the contemporary scene beyond the limits of London. He delighted in the rough-and-ready scramble of a journalist's life. "I have pursued the calling of a reporter," he told a gathering of newspapermen thirty years
under circumstances of which many of my brethren at home in England here, many of my modern successors, can form no adequate conception. I have often transcribed for the printer from my shorthand notes, important public speeches in which the strictest accuracy was required, and a mistake in which would have been to a young man [11/12] severely compromising, writing on the palm of my hand, by the light of a dark lantern, in a post chaise and four, galloping through a wild country, all through the dead of night, at the then surprising rate of fifteen miles an hour. . . . I have worn my knees by writing on them on the back row of the old gallery of the old House of Commons; and I have worn my feet by standing to write in a preposterous pen in the House of Lords, where we used to be huddled together like so many sheep, kept in waiting, say, until the woolsack might want re-stuffing. I have been, in my time, belated on miry by-roads, towards the small hours, in a wheelless carriage, with exhausted horses and drunken postboys, and have got back in time for publication....
It was in London, however, that Dickens always felt most at home; and during these years he continued to deepen that intimacy with every aspect of its manifold life which qualified him to be the first great English novelist of the modern city. An acquaintance said: "I thought I knew something of the town; but after a little talk with Dickens I found I knew nothing. He knew it all from Bow to Brentford.... He could imitate in a manner I never saw equalled the low population of the streets of London in all their varieties." The emergent lower middle class was awaiting its historian; and when Dickens first turned to imaginative writing, this was the segment of the populace which especially attracted his attention. His first original piece, entitled "A Dinner at Poplar Walk" (later renamed "Mr. Minns and His Cousin") appeared in the Monthly Magazine in December 1833. A succession of sketches and tales, eventually numbering fifty-nine, were published in the Morning Chronicle and its offshoot the Evening Chronicle, as well as in the Monthly Magazine and Bell's Life in London. For this work the author adopted in August 1834 the pseudonym of "Boz," a corruption of Moses, [12/13] the pet name of a younger brother. Dickens' literary career was fully launched when the publisher, John Macrone, contracted for a collection of these sketches, which came out in two volumes, illustrated by George Cruikshank, on the writer's twenty-fourth birthday. The contents were fittingly described by the full title: Sketches by Boz: Illustrative of Everyday Life and Everyday People. A Second Series was published in 1837. Of Dickens' achievement in this initial venture, Forster wrote:
it is a book that might have stood its ground, even if it had stood alone, as containing unusually truthful observation of a sort of life between the middle class and the low, which, having few attractions for bookish observers, was quite unhacknied ground. It had otherwise also the very special merit of being in no respect bookish or commonplace in its descriptions of the old city with which its writer was so familiar. It was a picture of every-day London at its best and worst, in its humours and enjoyments as well as its sufferings and sins, pervaded everywhere not only with the absolute reality of the things depicted, but also with that subtle sense and mastery of feeling which gives to the reader's sympathies invariably right direction, and awakens consideration, tenderness, and kindness precisely for those who most need such help.
Dickens' literary and reportorial activities by no means expended his boundless energy. At this period he attended the theater almost nightly, and took part in amateur dramatics whenever the opportunity offered. Indeed. he seriously considered becoming an actor, and to prepare himself, spent long hours in memorizing and rehearsing roles. Although from time to time he tried his hand at writing skits in the popular contemporary modes, he was most attracted by the dramatic projection of character. By preference he sought out plays which exhibited the talents of the [13/14] leading players of the day, among whom his favorite was the great master of pantomime, Charles Mathews. In estimating his own qualifications, he wrote: "I believed I had a strong perception of character and oddity, and a natural power of reproducing in my own person what I observed in others."
These also were the years in which Dickens survived a second emotional crisis, so damaging to his self-esteem that he omitted all reference to it in his fragment of an autobiography. At seventeen he met and fell deliriously in love with Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a bank official. Although disparity in social position, as well as the girl's flighty nature, portended disappointment from the outset, Dickens' infatuation dragged indecisively on through four years before her father put an end to the relationship in May 1833. Recalling the raptures and misery which Maria occasioned him, Dickens wrote more than twenty years later when she reopened correspondence:
I have always believed since, and always shall to the last, that there never was such a faithful and devoted poor fellow as I was. Whatever of fancy, romance, energy, passion, aspiration and determination belong to me, I never have separated and never shall separate from the hard-hearted little woman — you — whom it is nothing to say I would have died for, with the greatest alacrity! I never can think, and I never seem to observe, that other young people are in such desperate earnest or set so much, so long, upon one absorbing thought. It is a matter of perfect certainty to me that I began to fight my way out of poverty and obscurity, with one perpetual idea of you.... I have never been so good a man since, as I was when you made me wretchedly happy. I shall never be half so good a fellow any more.
This experience of first love survives in David Copperfield's courtship of Dora Spenlow, which is an [14/15] instructive example of how the material of real life undergoes artistic transmutation. Just as the novelist provides for his hero at Dr. Strong's Academy the kind of educational opportunity of which he had been deprived, and just as David becomes an articled clerk in Doctors' Commons where his creator had been a humble reporter, so Dickens allows his alter ego to try the not unmixed joys of wedded life with Maria's counterpart before she is removed from the scene in the interests of David's further development. In the aftermath Dickens took a crueller revenge for his twice-frustrated hopes. Recognizing her portrait in Dora, Maria, now long married, made overtures in 1855, to which Dickens, who had become increasingly unhappy in his own domestic life, at first eagerly responded, only to find that the pretty and vivacious girl whom he remembered had become a rather dumpy and gushing middle-aged woman. When she appeared again in his fiction, it was as one of his great comic conceptions, the ineffably foolish Flora Finching of Little Dorrit.
Samuel Lawrence's portraits of Charles and Catherine Dickens, c. 1837. [Not in print edition.]
The year 1836 was Dickens' annus mirabilis. In April he married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of the editor of the Evening Chronicle, who was to bear him ten children. At the end of the previous month the Times had announced as forthcoming the first monthly installment of a new work by "Boz," entitled The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. The success of the Sketches had led the newly established publishing house of Chapman and Hall to invite the author to compose the prose commentary for a sequence of sporting plates by the popular artist Robert Seymour. Dickens accepted the offer with the stipulation that the subject matter be broadened in scope and that he be given a larger share in determining it. When Seymour committed suicide before the publication of the second [15/16] number, Dickens assumed full control. The monthly text was considerably expanded to thirty-two pages and the number of illustrations (no longer regarded as the raison d'etre of the work) was reduced from three or four to two. Dickens chose as Seymour's successor Hablot K. Browne, "Phiz," who so scrupulously carried out the writer's suggestions for the cuts that he was to be the principal illustrator of the novels for many years to come. From the outset it was decided that Pickwick Papers should appear in twenty parts over a period of nineteen months (the last issue being a double one). The undertaking did not get off to an especially auspicious start; only four hundred copies of the first number were printed for distribution on March 31. With the fourth number in which Sam Weller made his entrance, however, sales rapidly climbed until they reached the unprecedented figure of forty thousand. At twenty-five Dickens found himself the most widely read author in England.
In the first flush of popularity Dickens recklessly accepted new commitments, and in so doing ran the danger of overextending himself, while he laid the basis for future disputes with a succession of publishers, whom he habitually treated in a somewhat cavalier manner. In May 1836 he contracted with Macrone for a three-volume novel, to be entitled Gabriel Vardon, The Locksmith of London. The rights for this work, renamed Barnaby Rudge, were later acquired by Richard Bentley, from whom they passed to Chapman and Hall, who finally brought it out in monthly parts more than four years later. Meanwhile, Dickens had taken on the editorship of Bentley's Miscellany in which began to appear in February 1837, when the parts of Pickwick Papers had run only half their course. In 1837 Dickens also edited for Bentley the Memoirs of Grimaldi, the famous clown. On [16/17] concluding Pickwick Papers in November 1837, but while Oliver Twist was still half finished, Dickens agreed to write for Chapman and Hall another novel in twenty parts. This was Nicolas Nickleby, begun in February 1838 after the author had paid a visit to Yorkshire to inspect the notorious school on which Dotheboys Hall was modeled.
In the midst of these hectic literary activities Dickens was afflicted by a third blow, which, like his servitude in the blacking warehouse and his infatuation for Maria Beadnell, shadowed his future career. At the time of their marriage, Catherine Dickens' younger sister, Mary, aged sixteen, had become a member of the household. A year later in May 1837 she died with an "awful suddenness" in Dickens' arms. She was a sweet-natured girl of exceptional promise, and had won her brother-in-law's deep devotion. Shattered by grief, he was, for the first and only time in his career, unable to meet the deadlines for the installments of the two stories which he then had in progress. Throughout life he wore the ring which he had slipped from the dying girl's finger. For many months she appeared to him nightly in dreams, and he long cherished the hope of being buried at her side. It seems certain that her early death became associated in Dickens' imagination with his own unfulfilled youth. Some of her qualities were embodied in the character of Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist, and she inspired Little Nell. Indeed, all of Dickens' saintly girl heroines owe something to his sorrowful memories of this brief, but strangely intense relationship.
Before the termination of Oliver Twist, Dickens relinquished the editorship of Bentley's Miscellany and began negotiations which resulted in the consolidation of all of his literary affairs in the hands of Chapman and Hall. The essayists, Addison, Steele, and especially [17/18] Goldsmith, had helped form the novelist's manner; and he now projected a weekly magazine which would reproduce the range of topics, as well as the colloquial tone, of the eighteenth-century periodicals. Master Humphrey's Clock, as it was named, first appeared in March 1840, with an initial circulation of seventy thousand. What the public wanted from the editor, however, was a new novel rather than a mixed bag of odds and ends, the by-products of his teeming fancy; and when sales began to decline, Dickens decided to abandon his original plan and to convert the publication exclusively into a vehicle for his fiction. From the fourth number, therefore, each issue was largely devoted to The Old Curiosity Shop, "the little childstory" which had been originally designed as a short tale. Although the Preface to Master Humphrey's Clock expressed the hope that "to shorten the intervals of communication between himself and his readers would be to bind more closely [their] pleasant relations," he found both now and later the limitations of weekly serialization severely cramping, in contrast to the ampler scope provided by his preferred method of publication in monthly parts. Nevertheless, the sales of Master Humphrey's Clock climbed to one hundred thousand while The Old Curiosity Shop was running; and the same form was retained for the immediately succeeding story, Barnaby Rudge, the historical novel of the Gordon Riots of 1780, which had first been planned over four years earlier.
After Barnaby Rudge had run its course in 1841, Dickens discontinued his weekly and turned to preparations for his first visit to the United States, in the winter and spring of 1842. The novelist's American public was as extensive and enthusiastic as his following in Great Britain; and despite his outspoken statements about the need for an international copyright law to [18/19] prevent the wholesale pirating of works by English writers, he was lionized throughout most of a journey which took him and Mrs. Dickens as far west as St. Louis. Yet, having come over in the eager expectation of finding a nation emancipated from the tyrannous usages of the old world, Dickens soon became disillusioned by his American experiences. He wrote to Forster:
I believe that there is no country, on the face of the earth, where there is less freedom of opinion on any subject in reference to which there is a broad diflference of opinion than in this.... I do fear the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country, in the failure of its example to the earth.
Indignation over the coarse manners of the Americans and over such evils as the traffic in slaves further darkened Dickens' views; and a letter to the actor Macready reached the bitter conclusion:
This is not the republic I came to see, this is not the republic of my imagination.... The more I think of its youth and strength, the poorer and more trifling in a thousand aspects it appears in my eyes. In everything of which it has made a boast — excepting its education of the people and its care for poor children — it sinks immeasurably below the level I had placed it upon; and England, even England, bad and faulty as the old land is, and miserable as millions of her people are, rises in comparison.
By October Dickens had gathered his impressions into American Notes, which went through four editions by the end of the year and which, not surprisingly, provoked howls of indignation from his overseas readers. But the last word was still to be said. The first monthly installment of Martin Chuzzlewit came out in January 1843. When sales fell below the author's [19/20]expectations, he transferred the scene of the protagonist's adventures to America in the fifteenth chapter, hoping thereby to reinvigorate the interest of at least the British portion of his audience.
In a further overt bid for the popular market Dickens in 1843, inaugurated his series of annual Christmas books. The first of these five novellas was "A Christmas Carol," followed by "The Chimes" (1844), "The Cricket in the Hearth" (1845), "The Battle of Life" (1846), and "The Haunted Man" (1848). As an indication of how deeply the writer could become involved even in work undertaken primarily for financial gain, there is his admission to a friend that in writing "A Christmas Carol" he "wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition; and thinking whereof he walked about the black streets of London fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all sober folks had gone to bed."
The writing of six major novels in seven years had momentarily drained Dickens' vitality, tremendous though it was; and in July 1844 he took his family for a year's holiday in Italy, with headquarters at Genoa. This sojourn among the pleasure-loving people of southern Europe was recorded in a volume entitled Pictures from Italy (1846); but; the real profit which Dickens derived from this vacation was the opportunity it provided to gain perspective on affairs at home. The vestiges of outworn traditions surviving on the continent made him aware as never before of the compulsive thrust for change accompanying the industrial revolution in his own country; and "The Chimes," [20/21] written in Genoa, exhibits in its treatment of class antagonism a new note of urgency, as well as a profounder awareness of social injustice. Dickens' avowed intent in this story was to strike "a great blow for the poor"; "if my design be anything at all," he asserted, 'it has a grip upon the very throat of the time."
On his return to England in 1845 Dickens immersed himself in amateur theatricals with a fervor which suggests that through the make-believe world of the staple he achieved the same imaginative release which accompanied the act of fictional creation. To the novelist Bulwer Lytton he confessed: "Assumption has charms for me — I hardly know for how many wild reasons — so delightful that I feel a loss of, oh! I can't say what exquisite foolery, when I lose a chance of being someone in voice, etc. not at all like myself." He set about forming a company of his literary and artist friends. In addition to acting parts himself, he took on the duties of director, stage manager, scene designer, property man, even prompter. The first production as Jonson's Every Man in His Humour with Dickens in the role of Bobadil, but the repertory was soon extended not only at this time, but in 1847-1848 and again in 1850-1852, the company, which Dickens had brought to a high degree of professional skill, played before crowded houses, both in London and throughout the provinces. One run of nine performances, given over a period of three months in 1848, grossed more than £2500. The productions were invariably offered as charitable benefits, the last series being in support of the Guild of Literature and Art, which Dickens helped originate to provide for impoverished writers and artists.
In connection with Dickens' dramatic activities, his persistent fondness for shows of all kinds must again be emphasized. His correspondence testifies to the fact [21/22] that, wherever he chanced to be, he never missed the opportunity to attend a theatrical exhibition, whether it was Mazeppa staged by a circus at Ramsgate, the Italian marionettes in the stable of a Roman palazzo, or a French medieval mystery play at a country fair at Arras. Typical is the following comment in a letter to Forster of 1842:
At the Isle of Thanet races yesterday I saw — oh! who shall say what an immense amount of character in the way of inconceivable villainly and blackguardism! I even got some new wrinkles in the way of showmen, conjurors, pea-and-thimblers, and trampers generally.
Dickens himself became an accomplished magician and delighted to display feats of legerdemain at the children's entertainments he arranged at his London residence, Tavistock House, during the 1850s.
In the summer of 1846 Dickens again took his family abroad, this time to Switzerland, where he commenced work on Dombey and Son. Progress was slow at the start, for his hand was out after two years' respite from novel writing. More than anything else he missed the stimulation of an urban environment. Of "the absence of streets and numbers of figures," he wrote Forster:
I can't express how much I want these. It seems as if they supplied something to my brain, which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose. For a week or a fortnight I can write prodigiously in a retired place (as at Broadstairs), day in London sets me up again and starts me. But the toil and labour of writing day after day, without that magic lantern, is IMMENSE!!
Broadstairs, Kent, and places Dickens lived while there. Click on thumbnails for larger
images and information about Dickens in Broadstairs. [Not in print edition: added 23
Dombey and Son was continued in Paris and completed in London. Dickens had never before taken such pains over planning a story, and the artistic [22/23] advance is apparent, both in the thematic focus and in the increased control over the ramifications of the narrative. The sales of the first number, exceeding those of Martin Chuzzlewit by over ten thousand, relieved the author from any further need for financial anxiety.
David Copperfield was begun early in 1849, shortly after Dickens visited Yarmouth, the home of the Peggottys. The circumstances of the composition of this novel have already been in part described. Forster had made the proposal that he try first-person narrative (conceivably as a result of the brilliant success of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in the previous year); and Dickens' decision to incorporate passages from his early life in this form led to the discontinuance of the autobiography which he had started. Of his satisfaction with the results the author wrote to his friend: "I really think I have done it ingeniously, and with a very complicated interweaving of truth and fiction." Whether or not, as critics have argued, David Copperfield was undertaken as a purgative exercise through which the writer was finally able to come to terms with unhappy can be no doubt that it remained Dickens' favorite among his works. On its completion in October 1850, he announced to Forster, "I seem to be sending some part of myself into the shadowy world"; and the Preface of 1869 repeats this sentiment with the addition: "No one can ever believe this Narrative, in the reading, more than I believed it in the writing." Ever since the demise of Master Humphrey's Clock, Dickens had recurrently, considered starting a new weekly; and in 1849, concurrently with the writing of David Copperfield, he again took up the idea. The deepening social consciousness, manifest in "The Chimes" and Dombey and Son, combined with his [23/24] prestige as a leading Victorian man of letters, had led to increasing participation in contemporary reform movements. A great admirer of Carlyle he accepted the intellectual leadership of that thinker, voiced in such thundering denunciations of the spirit of the times as Chartism and Past and Present. As early as 1835 he had met the great public benefactress, Angela Burdett Coutts, and during the 18405 he was her principal adviser in a number of charitable enterprises, including a home for reformed prostitutes and projects for slum clearance. His fascination with the criminal mentality had also led him to make a special study of current theory and practice in prison administration, an interest very much to the fore during his travels in the United States. In the long list of other causes which enlisted his support, educational systems and sanitary measures were prominent.
In his new periodical Dickens proposed to canvass all such issues as they affected the public welfare; but besides giving vent to his reforming zeal, it was also to provide the kind of racy coverage of topics of general interest that characterizes modern news magazines. Forster has well described the resulting editorial policy:
It was to be a weekly miscellany of general literature; and its stated obiects were to be, to contribute to the entertainmenr and instruction of all classes of readers, and to help in the discussion of the more important social questions of the rime. It was to comprise short stories by others as well as himself; matters of passing interest in the liveliest form that could be given to them; subjects suggested by books that might most be atrracting attention; and poetry in every number if possible, but in any case something of romantic fancy. This was to be a cardinal point. There was to be no mere utilitarian spirit, with all familiar things, but especially those repellent on the surface something was to be connected that should be fanciful or [24/25] kindly; and the hardest workers were to be taught that their lot is nor necessarily excluded from the sympathies and graces of imagination.
Household Words, as the weekly was named after long deliberation, made its first appearance on March 30, 1850. With the able assistance of his subeditor, William Henry Wills, Dickens exercised the same autocratic control over its production that he exhibited in the direction of amateur theatricals. He solicited contributions from the principal literary figures of the day, himself read all work submitted, and rigorously edited or gave stringent instructions for the rewriting of pieces which he deemed acceptable. At the same time, out of his vast experience of Victorian reading tastes, he generously helped unfledged writers to get a start. His success in running Household Words led Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail and later owner of the Times, to call Dickens the greatest of all magazine editors.
For the serious student of Dickens Household Words is an important primary source, not only because the articles reflect the novelist's expanding intellectual horizon, but because many of them present in embryonic form themes which were to be developed in the later work. This is particularly true for the great, so-called "dark" novels of social criticism which now began to appear. The first was Bleak House, published in monthly parts from March 1852, and enjoying a steady circulation of nearly thirty-five thousand. Next came Hard Times, dedicated to Carlyle and first issued as a weekly serial in Household Words, the circulation of which it more than doubled. Little Dorrit, again written in monthly numbers, began to appear in December 1855.
During a number of years another serious crisis [25/26] in the novelist's private life had been coming on. Despite their large family, husband and wife had never been really compatible since the early days of their union. Catherine Dickens was a well-meaning but ineffectual woman, devoid alike of the social graces and the mental alertness which might have qualified her to take an active part in Charles' public life. To his growing restiveness under the domestic yoke may perhaps be attributed the prevalence of unhappy marriages in Dombey and Son and the succeeding novels; and his correspondence increasingly hints at the want of harmony in his home. A letter of 1852 to Mary Boyle, who acted in his dramatic company, sounds a note recurrent in David Copperfield: "This is one of what I call my wandering days, before I fall to work. I seem to be always looking at such times for something I have not found in life, but may possibly come to a few thousands of years hence, in some other part of some other system. God knows." And again to Forster three years later Dickens writes: "Why is it, that as with poor David, a sense comes always crushing on me now, when I fall into low spirits, as of one happiness I have missed in life, and one friend and companion I have never made?"
The open break with his wife may be dated from the presentation in 1857 of Wilkie Collins' The Frozen Deep, a melodrama in which Dickens played a part anticipatory of Sydney Carton's role in A Tale of Two Cities. For the feminine characters he had chosen the well-known actress, Mrs. Ternan, and her two daughters. With the younger of these, Ellen Lawless Ternan, a pretty blonde girl, Dickens became infatuated. Although he conducted the ensuing relationship with such discretion that Ellen remains a shadowy figure in the background, it is now known that their liaison lasted to the end of Dickens' life. The girl's name [26/27] certainly influenced the naming of the heroines of the last three novels, Estella in Great Expectations, Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend, and Helena Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The wilful and imperious ways of the first two of these characters represent a noteworthy departure from the earlier ideal of saintly meekness embodied in Florence Dombey, Agnes Wickfield, Esther Summerson, and Amy Dorrit. And there can be no mistaking that Dickens' later fiction explores sexual passion with an intensity and perceptiveness not previously apparent.
In 1858 Dickens permanently separated from Catherine, for whom he maintained a separate establishment, while the majority of their children lived with him at Gad's Hill. To this recently purchased home he was also accompanied by his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, who acted as his housekeeper. She had lived with the Dickens ever since their return from America, and her unfaltering loyalty to the novelist through all the trials of his final years went far to compensate for the still lamented death of Mary Hogarth.
It was during this period that Dickens, against the advice of such intimates as Forster, entered on the first series of paid readings from his works. He doubtless welcomed these performances as a distraction from his domestic difficulties, and there was the added motive of financial gain. The principal inducement, however, was to draw still tighter the ties which united him with his audience by exploiting the dramatic properties of his writings. To Forster he wrote: "Will you then try to think of this reading project (as I do) apart from all personal likings and dislikings, and solely with a view to its effect on that particular relation (personally affectionate and like no other man's) which subsists between me and the public?" [27/28] on the suffrage of his readers is indicated by the fact that on June 12, 1858, he had printed on the front page of Housebold Words a statement reporting that he and Mrs. Dickens had agreed to separate and denouncing all scandal mongers who might reflect discredit on the reasons for this decision.
Dickens had long been in the habit of trying out the effect of his works through oral presentation, first to an inner circle of friends and later in unpaid public recitations, the first of which was given in December 1858 before the newly founded Birmingham and Midland Institute. He began to read for his own profit on April 29, 1858, and between that date and October 27, 1859, appeared 125 times before packed auditoriums that often accommodated between two and three thousand. The success of his initial tour was duplicated on three succeeding occasions, in 1861-1863, in 1866-1867 (when the novelist made his second trip to the United States), and in 1868-1870 In all, Dickens gave 423 readings.
The most popular of the passages adapted for delivery included at the outset "A Christmas Carol," the trial scene from Pickwick Papers, Paul Dombey's death, and Mrs. Gamp. For the second tour the Steerforth-Emily episode from David Copperfield and Dotheboys Hall from Nicholas Nickleby were added to a repertoire that eventually included sixteen readings. These appearances enlisted the full range of Dickens' histrionic talents, and he spared no effort to refine them. Even though the physical effort of projecting himself night after night into such a variety of roles began after the first series seriously to undermine his health, he became, like one addicted to drugs, increasingly reliant on the excitement of evoking the illusory world he shared with his auditors. "So real are my fictions to myself," he wrote, "that, after hundreds [28/29] of nights, I come with a feeling of perfect freshness to that little red table, and laugh and cry with my hearers, as if I had never stood there before."
In 1844 Chapman and Hall had been supplanted by Bradbury and Evans as Dickens' publishers. Falling out with this house, which disliked the publicity attending the separation, he decided in 1859 to return to Chapman and Hall. One result of this change was that Dickens severed connections with Household Words and established a new weekly, named All the Year Round, which principally differed from its predecessor in that the opening pages of each issue were devoted to the serial publication of extended works of fiction. The initial installment of Dickens' second historical novel, Tale of Two Cities, appearing in the first number, at once established the popularity of All the Year Round, which eventually attained a circulation of three hundred thousand. To its pages the novelist also contributed the essays gathered under the title The Uncommercial Traveller, and, starting in December 1860, Great Expectations. This story, originally planned in twenty parts, was recast as a weekly serial to take the place of a novel by another author which had adversely affected sales.
Dickens' last completed novel in his preferred form of monthly parts was Our Mutual Friend, published between May 1864 and November 1865. The literary activities of these years also included a number of short stories; and although he was never at home within the limitations of this form, these tales present some interesting technical experiments, indicative of the author's readiness to explore new modes of expression. The market for his writings is attested by the fact that he received £1,000 each from American publishers for first rights to "George Silverman's Explanation" and "A Holiday Romance." [29/30] During 1863-1864 the first intimations that Dickens was dangerously overtaxing his stamina came with the painful lameness in his left foot which was to torment him through the years remaining. Furthermore, in 1865 he sustained a disabling nervous shock when he and Ellen Ternan nearly lost their lives in a railway accident at Staplehurst. The third reading tour, which took him overseas from December 1867 to April 1868, implanted more favorable impressions of life in the United States than he had brought back from his first visit, although he had constantly to struggle against ill health in meeting his engagements. From these seventy-six readings alone he realized about £20,000.
In preparation for what was to be his farewell series of appearances in England, begun in October 1868, Dickens worked up a version of Sikes' murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist, the brutal ferocity of which so exhausted him that it was soon necessary to keep a doctor in attendance. A physical breakdown necessitated the interruption of these performances in April 1869, but Dickens compulsively insisted on resuming them in January and February of the following year. The last reading took place on March 15, less than three months before his death. Meanwhile, Dickens had in the autumn of 1869 embarked on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a novel which in both subject and method struck out in new directions. It was to be published at monthly intervals in twelve parts. Only six had been completed when on June 8, 1870, after a long day's writing in his chalet on the grounds of Gad's Hill, he suffered the stroke from which he died on the following day. With professional reticence he took to the grave the secret of Drood's murder.
Last Modified January 2000