Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

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* Go upstairs and look at Maurice's portrait ; it will do you


good to see his face,' he said to a young man who, shortly
before his death, had been sitting by his bedside writing his
letters for him.

Mr. King, his schoolmaster, had methods of teaching far in
advance of his time. An enthusiast for tlie classics and for
literature, he could not bear mechanical lessons, and tried to
make learning part of life instead of making life into learning.
To his pupils he was ever a man first, not a pedagogue, and
more than one of them has since made a mark in the world.
Here Charles Dickens sent his sons, and so did Macready the
actor — their appointed lessons are set down side by side with
those of their schoolmate Alfred Ainger ; here, too, Frederic
Harrison began life, and others more or less distinguished.
There was no academic mustiness in the school atmosphere, for
the Kings had interesting friends and their Thursday evenings
were frequented by people of note, by Charles Dickens and
Sir Edwin Landseer and by Keightley, the writer. Mr.
King's younger girl worked with the boys, and began and
continued Greek with Alfred ; her elder sister, Louisa, a
polished and deeply -versed scholar, taught Greek in the
school and was, beside her father, the only teacher of that
tongue there. She had never had a readier pupil than the
boy who now entered her class, for Alfred, hitherto confined
to Latin, was enchanted by the Greek language and, spurred
on by his girl companion, who vied with him in zeal, over-
came the rudiments with remarkable speed and quickly
plunged into Euripides. Their occupations, however, were not
always scholastic. As quickly as Alfred mastered Greek did
he grow to be one of the family, and his Sunday evenings with
them remained, as his letters testify, ' green places ' in his
memory long after. ' AVhere 's Alfred ? ' Mrs. King would
ask at any meal at which he was a few minutes late, and
Alfred would enter soon after, often with some little dainty
that he knew she fancied. ' Where's Alfred ? ' became indeed
a constant refrain on the lips of every member of the house-
hold. There still remains a frolic sermon, inscribed to his
playfellow, Gertrude King, on the text ' Do sit still and be
quiet ' — a homily divided into headings and directed against


too much unselfishness. The same ' Gertrude' keeps a lively
memory of a churchgoing not so solemn as usual, an occasion
when they did not go to hear Maurice and when the preacher
took the Woman of Samaria as his subject. ' She Avas,' he
said, ' a woman of remarkable energy. She had had five
husbands.' Alfred's companion never forgot his face, nor his
form trembling with suppressed laughter at this climax of
eloquence, and the clergyman's words were that day unforgotten
by at least two members of his flock.

Alfred Ainger's school-life had some unexpected results,
and not the least important of these was his friendship with
Charles Dickens, whose sons were Alfred's comrades at school.
' I have seen him and have touched him,' was all that he could say
on his return from spending the evening for the first time at
the great man's house. The relationship in itself was epoch-
making in Ainger's life, but it had a more direct effect. It
moulded, perhaps we should rather say fashioned, his literary
humour and his outlook upon men ; evoking a ready response
from something that lay already there, waiting for the magician's
wand to spring into life; and, once for all, shaping his
dramatic talent. From his schooldays and for several years
onwards, Alfred took part in all the play-actings at Tavistock
House, with the emperor of fun, Boz himself, as stage-
manager, and sometimes as fellow-actor. Charles Dickens
found an apt learner, one who could follow nimbly his will-o'-
the-wisp leading, flashing back some of his own light upon
him, answering genius in its own coin — smaller change, natur-
ally, but stamped in the same mint. Dickens delighted in
teaching him and used to say that he had never seen so docile
a pupil. And Ainger's acting at sixteen or seventeen must
have had the real electric quality, since his singing of ' Miss
Villikins' in the part of Lord Grizzle, on Twelfth Night,
1854, caused Thackeray to 'roll off his chair' in a burst
of laughter that became ' absurdly contagious.' The play
was Fielding's Tom Thumb, and was acted at Tavistock
House — it is Forster, in his Life of Diclcens, who chronicles the
episode. Nor does Forster speak without authority, for he used
to take part in these high revels. Alfred Ainger himself has


recorded his impressions in a paper that was written some
eighteen years later, soon after the death of Charles Dickens,
when sorrow had sharpened and concentrated the remem-
brance of those early days.^

' What niffhts have we seen at the " Mermaid " ! ' What even-
ings were those at Tavistock House, when the best wit and fancy
and culture of the day met within its hospitable walls ! There
was Thackeray, towering in bodily form above the crowd, even as
he towered in genius above them all, save only one : Jerrold,
with the blue convex eye, which seemed to pierce into the very
heart of things and trace their subtle resemblances ; Leech, with
his frank and manly beauty, fresh from the portrayal of " Master
Jacky," or some other of the many forms of boyhood he knew so
well: Mark Lemon, "the frolic and the gentle" (dear to all us
younger ones, irrespective of blood-relationship, as " Uncle Mark") :
Albert Smith, dropping in late in the evening after a two or three
thousandth ascent of Mont Blanc, but never refusing, at our
earnest entreaty, to sit down to the piano and sing us " My Lord
Tomnoddy," or his own latest edition of" Galignani's Messenger" :
Augustus Egg, with his dry humour, touching from contrast with
the face of suffering that gave sad presage of his early death :
Frank Stone, the kindly neighbour and friend, keen as any of
us boys for his pai't in the after-piece : Stanfield, with the beam-
ing face, "a largess universal like the sun," his practised hand
and brush prompt to gladden us with masterpieces of scene-
painting for the Lighthouse or the Icefields : and last, but not
here to be dismissed with a few lines only — our bountiful host,
like Triplet, "author, manager, and actor too " ; organiser, deviser,
and harmoniser of all the incongruous assembled elements ; the
friend whom we have so lately lost — the incomparable Dickens.
... In one sense our theatricals began and ended in the school-
room. To the last that apartment served us for stage and audi-
torium and all. But in another sense we got promotion from the
children's domain by degrees. Our earliest efforts Avere confined
to the children of the family and their equals in age, though
always aided and abetted by the good-natured manager, who
improvised costumes, painted and corked our innocent cheeks,
and susfffested all the most effective business of the scene. Our
first attempt was the performance of Albert Smith's little burletta

^ Macmillan's Magazine y 1871.


of Guy Fawkcs, which appeared originally in the pages of his
monthly periodical, the Man in the Moon ; at another time we
played William Tell, from the late Mr. Robert Brough's clever
little volume^ A Cracker Bon-bon for Evening Parties. In those
days there were still extravaganzas written with real humour and
abundant taste and fancy. The Broughs, Gilbert a Beckett, and
Mr. Blanche could write rhymed couplets of great literary excel-
lence, without ever overstepping the bounds of reverence and
good taste. . . . Mr. Brough brought up before Gesler for "con-
tempt of hat" ; Albert, his precocious son, resolving that, as to
betraying his father, " though torn in half, I '11 not be made to
split" ; and when he comforts his father, about to shoot at the
apple, by assuring him that he is " game," the father replying,
" Wert thou game, I would preserve, not shoot thee." This is
drollery, it seems to us, not unworthy of Sydney Smith or Hood,
and in no way to be placed in the same catalogue with the
vulgarities and inanities of a later brood.

' Another year found us more ambitious, and with stronger
resources, for Mr. Dickens himself and Mr. Mark Lemon joined
our acting staff, though, with kindly consideration for their
young brethren, they chose subordinate parts. In Mr. Blanche's
elegant and most witty fairy extravaganza of Fortunio and his
Seven Gifted Servants, Mr. Dickens took the part of the old
Baron Dunover, whose daughters so valiantly adopt man's attire
and go to the wars ; Mr. Lemon contenting himself with the role
of the Dragon, who is overcome by Fortunio's stratagem of adulter-
ating the well, whither he usually resorted to quench his thirst,
with a potent admixture of sherry. What fun it was, both on and
off the stage ! The gorgeous dresses from the eminent costumier
of the Theatres Royal ; our heads bewigged and our cheeks
rouged by the hands of Mr. Clarkson himself; the properties
from the Adelphi ; the unflagging humour and suggestive
resources of our manager, who took upon him the charge of every-
thing, from the writing of the playbills to the composition of
the punch, brewed for our refreshment between the acts, but
" craftily qualified," as Michael Cassio would have said, to suit
the capacities of the childish brain, for Dickens never forgot the
maxima reverenlia due to children, and some of us were of very
tender age : the comedian who played (in a complete jockey's
suit and top-boots) Fortunio's servant Lightfoot was — we are
afraid to say horn young — but it was somewhere between two
and three, and he was announced in the bill as having been


*'kept out of bed at a vast expense." The same veracious
document represented the sole lessee and manager of the
Theatre Royal, Tavistock House, as Mr. Vincent Crummies, dis-
guising Mr. Dickens himself in the list of dramatis personce as
the " Modern Roscius/' and Mark Lemon as the " Infant Pheno-
menon " — an exquisitely conceived surprise for the audience, who
by no means expected from the description to recognise in the
character the portly form of the editor of Punch. The time, by
the way, must have been the winter preceding the commence-
ment of hostilities with Russia, for Mr. Dickens took advantage
of there being a ferocious despot in the play — the Emperor
Matapa — to identify him with the Czar in a capital song (would
we could recall it!) to the tune of "The Cork Leg," in which
the Emperor described himself as ''the Robinson Crusoe of
absolute state," and declared that though he had at his Court
"many a show-day and many a high-day," he hadn't in all his
dominions ''a Friday!" Mr. Planche had in one portion of the
extravaganza put into the mouth of this character for the moment
a few lines of burlesque upon Macbeth, and we remember Mr,
Dickens's unsuccessful attempt to teach the performer how to
imitate Macready, whom he (the performer) had never seen !
And after the performance, when we were restored to our
evening-party costumes, and the schoolroom was cleared for
dancing, still a stray " property " or two had escaped the vigilant
eye of the property-man ; for Douglas Jerrold had picked up the
horse's head (Fortunio's faithful steed Comrade), and was holding
it up before the greatest living animal painter, with " Looks as
if it knew you, Edwin ! "

' Another time we attempted Fielding's Tom Thumb, using
O'Hara's altered version, further abridged and added to by the
untiring master of our ceremonies. Fielding's admirable piece
of mock-heroic had always been a favourite of Charles Dickens.
It has often been noticed how rarely he quotes in his books, but
the reader of Pickwick will remember how in an early chapter of
that immortal work Mr. Alfred Jingle sings the two lines : —

'•' In hurry, post-haste, for a licence,
lu hurry, ding-song, I come back."

They are from Lord Grizzle's song in To7n Thumb. Mr. Lemon
played the giantess Glumdalca, in an amazing get-up of a com-
plete suit of armour and a coal-scuttle bonnet ; and Mr. Dickens
the small part of the ghost of Gaffer Thumb, singing his own


song, on the occasion, a verse of which may be quoted, if only to
illustrate the contrast between the styles of the earlier and later
burlesques. In O'Hara's version the ghost appears to King
Arthur, singing : —

" Pale death is prowling.
Dire omens scowling
Doom thee to slaughter.
Thee, thy wife and daughter ;
Furies are growling
With horrid groans.
Grizzle's rebellion
What need I tell you on ?
Or by a red cow
Tom Thumb devour'd ?
Hark the cock crowing, [Cock crows."]
I must be going.
I can no more ! " [Vanishes.']

Mr. Dickens's substituted lines were, as nearly as we remember,
the following : —

" I 've got up from my churchyard bed.
And assumed the perpendicular.
Having something to say in my head.
Which isn't so very particular !
I do not appear in sport.
But in earnest, all danger scorning —
I 'm in your service, in short.
And I hereby give you warning —

[Cock crows.]
Who's dat crowing at the door?
Dere's some one in the house with Dinah !
I 'm called (so can't say more)
By a voice from Cochin China ! "

Nonsense, it may be said, all this; but the nonsense of a great
genius has always something of genius in it.

' The production next year, on the same stage, of the drama of
The Lighthouse, marked a great step in the rank of our perform-
ances. The play was a touching and tragic story, founded, if we
are not mistaken, upon a tale by the same author, Mr. Wilkie
Collins, which appeared in an early number of his friend's weekly
journal. Household Words. The principal characters were sus-
tained by Mr. Dickens, Mr. Mark Lemon, Mr. Wilkie Collins,
and the ladies of Mr. Dickens's family. The scenery was painted
by Clarkson Stanfield, and comprised a drop-scene representing


the exterior of Eddystone Lighthouse, and a room in the interior
in which the whole action of the drama was carried on. The
prologue was written, we believe, by Mr. Dickens, and we can
recall as if it were yesterday the impressive elocution of Mr.
John Forster as he spoke behind the scenes the lines which
follow : —

" A story of those rocks where doomed ships come
To cast their wrecks upon the steps of home :
Where solitary men, the whole year throug-h,
The wind their music, and the brine their view,
Teach mariners to shun the fatal light, —
A story of those rocks is here to-night :
Eddystone Lighthouse."

Here the green curtain rose and discovered Stanfield's drop-
scene, the Lighthouse, its lantern illuminated by a transparency.
. . . The main incident of the plot — the confession of a murder
by the old sailor, Aaron Gurnock, under pressure of impending
death from starvation (no provisions being able to reach the light-
house owing to a continuance of bad weather), and his subsequent
retraction of the confession when supplies unexpectedly arrive —
afforded Mr. Dickens scope for a piece of acting of gi*eat power.

' The farce of Mr. Nightingale s Diary, the joint production of
Dickens and Mark Lemon, which followed Mr. Collins's play at
Tavistock House, was well calculated to exhibit the versatility
of the principal actor. Mr. Dickens played one Mr. Gabblewig,
in which character he assumed four or five different disguises,
changing his dress, voice, and look with a rapidity and complete-
ness which the most practised "entertainer" might envy. This
whimsical piece of extravagance had been before played by the
same actors in the performances for the benefit of the Guild of
Literature and Art, but has never been printed, except privately
for the use of the original actors. What portions were contri-
buted by the joint authors respectively we can only surmise ;
but there were certain characters and speeches which bore very
clearly stamped upon them the mark of their authorship. One
of the characters played by Mr. Dickens was an old lady, in great
trouble and perplexity about a missing child ; of which character
(being nameless in the drama) he always spoke, when he had
occasion to refer to her off the stage, as Mrs. Gamp, some of
whose speeches were as well worthy of preservation for droll
extravagance of incongruity as the best of her famous prototype
in Martin Chuzzleivit. In addition to her perplexity about the



missing infant, she is further embarrassed as to the exact surname
of Mr. Nightingale, whose name she remembers to be that of a
bird, but cannot always refer to the correct species of that order.
A quotation we make from memory will leave no doubt as to
the fertile and singular fancy from whose mint it came : —

* " No, sir, I will not leave the house ! I will not leave the
establishment without my child, my boy. My boy, sir, which he
were his mother's hope and his father's pride, and no one as I am
aweer on 's joy. Vich the name as was giv' to this blessedest
of infants and vorked in best Vitechapel mixed upon a pin-cushion
and ' Save the mother ' likewise, were Abjalom, after his own
parential father, Mr. Nightingale, who no other ways than by
being guv' to liquor, lost a day's vork at the wheelwright business,
vich it was but limited, Mr. Skylark, being veels of donkey-chaises
and goats ; and vun vas even drawn by geese for a wager, and came
up the aisle o' the parish church one Sunday arternoon by reason
of the perwerseness of the animals, as could be testified by Mr.
Wix the beadle, afore he died of drawing on Vellinton boots to
which he was not accustomed, after an 'earty meal of roast beef
and a pickled walnut to which he were too parjial ! Yes, Mr.
Robin Redbreast, in the marble fontin of that theer church was
he baptized Abjalom, vich never can be unmade or undone, I am
proud to say, not to please nor give offence to no one, nohows and
noveres, sir. . . . Ah ! 'affliction sore long time Maria Nightingale
bore; physicians was in vain ' — not that I am aweer she had any
one in particular, sir, excepting one, vhich she tore his hair by
handfuls out in consequence of disagreements relative to her
complaint ; and dead she is and will be, as the hosts of the
Egyptian fairies ; and this I shall prove, directly minute, on the
evingdence of my brother the sexton, whom I shall here produce,
to your confusion, young person, in the twinkling of a star or
humin eye ! "

'Scarcely had the old woman quitted the stage when Mr.
Dickens reappeared as "my brother the sexton," a very old
gentleman indeed, with a quavery voice and self-satisfied smile
(pleasantly suggesting how inimitable must have been the same
actor's manner as Justice Shallow), and afflicted with a " hardness
of hearing " which almost baffled the efforts of his interrogators
to obtain from him the desired information as to the certificate of
Mrs. Nightingale's decease. "It 's no use your whispering to me,
sir," was the gentle remonstrance which the first loud shout in his
ear elicited ; and on the question being put whether " he had


ever buried " — he at once interrupted to reply that he had
brewed; and that he and his old woman — "my old woman was
a Kentish woman, gentlemen ; one year, sir, we brewed some of
the strongest ale that ever you drank, sir ; they used to call it
down in our part of the country (in allusion, you understand, to
its great strength, gentlemen) 'Samson with his hair on.' . . .
A third character in the farce, sustained by Dickens, was that of
a mahide imaginaire, for the time being under treatment by a new
specific, "mustard and milk," the merits of which he could not
highly enough extol, but which, nevertheless, was not so soothing
in its effects but that the patient gave every minute a loud shriek
— explaining apologetically, " That 's the mustard ! " followed
immediately by a still louder one, "That's the milk ! " We are
afraid to say in how many other disguises our manager appeared,
but there was certainly one other, a footman or waiter, in which
character the actor gave us a most amusing caricature of the
manner of one of his own servants ; and we remember with what
glee, one night at supper after rehearsal, Dickens learned that
the man in question had been heard imitating his master in
the part for the amusement of his fellow-servants, in utter
ignorance that he himself had sat in the first instance for the

Meanwhile, amid all this social stir, Alfred was maturing
and quickening his pace towards manhood. Charles Dickens
and Frederick Maurice sound incongruous names to couple, yet
both played an equal part in his existence. For Dickens was
the other great influence which at this, the most impression-
able moment, more or less formed Alfred's life and, to some
extent, his career. And this is no cHance eifect of his fortunate
contact with the two men, it springs from a deeper cause.
For they represent, as it were, his dual nature, the two
distinct sides of his character which he always kept strictly
apart ; on the one hand the sober and spiritual, on the other
the humorous and dramatic. In most complex persons the
varied elements are so fused that the conflicting threads in
the woof are almost indistinguishable. In his case there was
never any fusion ; there was, instead, a clear-cut contrast, and
his differing tendencies ran alongside of each other on parallel
roads to the end. Dickens, as we have said, defined and gave


voice to his tastes ; Maurice, whose teaching took even
stronger hold upon him, satisfied his spiritual instincts and
his great need of seriousness; and, early crystallising his
beliefs, probably turned his thoughts towards the possibility
of taking orders. The counsels of the elder Miss King, whose
advice weighed considerably with him, also drew him this
way. But the idea came gradually ; as yet it had taken
no shape, or assumed any permanent hold, and other plans

Many causes, public and private, made IMaurice about
this time the most prominent person in his thoughts. When
Alfred was sixteen, he left Mr. King''s school and proceeded
to King's College, London, where Maurice was at that time
Professor of Divinity and of English Literature. It was just
then, in the year 1853, that his volume of Theological Essays
appeared. What happened thereupon will be remembered :
how the Council of King's College condemned certain
passages in the book concerning a future life and eternal
punishment as heterodox and harmful, and on that charge
dismissed Maurice from his professorial chair. Alfred
Ainger's boyish wrath knew no bounds at this catastrophe
to the College and to the master who inspired its students —
whose only crime had been to rob religion of its terrors and
make God more accessible — the man whom he regarded as the
revelation of true Christianity. Miss King still remembers
how he looked as he came into her room with the first news
of the verdict, all his indignation fresh upon him ; and how,
under the pressure, as it were, of his anger, he suddenly
broke into a lightning-flash of verse. He was strong in his
defence and in later years he formulated it.

' It is,' he wrote long after, ' a remark of Maurice's own (I forget
where) that the man who is most careful about the precise and
accurate meaning of the woi'ds he uses is sure to be accused by
those who do not understand him of juggling with them. This
has been his own fate. Because he went back to the fountain-
head of Christian doctrine for the primary meaning of life, death,
eternal, sin, miracle, and other apparently simple, and really all
but unfathomable words, he was supposed by those who were


repelled by his method to be using them in an arbitrary sense of
his own, invented by him to justify some foregone conclusion. . . .
After all, the key to understanding the writings of Maurice is one of
a moral rather than intellectual kind. It is an appreciation of, and
sympathy with, his spn-itual temper which soon finds his language
clear and his method reasonable. The often-quoted lines of his
favourite Wordsworth are as applicable to him as to the imaginary
character of whom they were written — that we must love him, ere
to us he will seem worthy of our love. The old editors of
Shakespeare had perhaps the same vague idea of which was
cause and which was effect, when they used language about their
great dramatist which I venture here to apply to Frederick
Maurice : '' If you do not like him, you are in some manifest

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 2 of 32)