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Great Writers.

Edited by

Eric S. Robertson, M.A.,

Professor of English Literature and Philosophy in the University of
the Punjab, Lahore.

[Illustration: Portrait of Dickens]




Walter Scott
24 Warwick Lane, Paternoster Row



That I should have to acknowledge a fairly heavy debt to Forster's
"Life of Charles Dickens," and "The Letters of Charles Dickens,"
edited by his sister-in-law and his eldest daughter, is almost a
matter of course; for these are books from which every present and
future biographer of Dickens must perforce borrow in a more or less
degree. My work, too, has been much lightened by Mr. Kitton's
excellent "Dickensiana."



The lottery of education; Charles Dickens born February 7,
1812; his pathetic feeling towards his own childhood;
happy days at Chatham; family troubles; similarity between
little Charles and David Copperfield; John Dickens
taken to the Marshalsea; his character; Charles employed
in blacking business; over-sensitive in after years about
this episode in his career; isolation; is brought back into
family and prison circle; family in comparative comfort at
the Marshalsea; father released; Charles leaves the
blacking business; his mother; he is sent to Wellington
House Academy in 1824; character of that place of learning;
Dickens masters its humours thoroughly. 11


Dickens becomes a solicitor's clerk in 1827; then a reporter;
his experiences in that capacity; first story published in
_The Old Monthly Magazine_ for January, 1834; writes more
"Sketches"; power of minute observation thus early
shown; masters the writer's art; is paid for his contributions
to the _Chronicle_; marries Miss Hogarth on April 2,
1836; appearance at that date; power of physical endurance;
admirable influence of his peculiar education;
and its drawbacks 27


Origin of "Pickwick"; Seymour's part therein; first number
published on April 1, 1836; early numbers not a success;
suddenly the book becomes the rage; English literature
just then in want of its novelist; Dickens' kingship
acknowledged; causes of the book's popularity; its admirable
humour, and other excellent qualities; Sam Weller;
Mr. Pickwick himself; book read by everybody 40


Dickens works "double tides" from 1836 to 1839; appointed
editor of _Bentley's Miscellany_ at beginning of 1837, and
commences "Oliver Twist"; _Quarterly Review_ predicts
his speedy downfall; pecuniary position at this time;
moves from Furnival's Inn to Doughty Street; death of
his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth; his friendships; absence
of all jealousy in his character; habits of work; riding and
pedestrianizing; walking in London streets necessary to the
exercise of his art 49


"Oliver Twist"; analysis of the book; doubtful probability of
Oliver's character; "Nicholas Nickleby"; its wealth of
character; _Master Humphrey's Clock_ projected and begun
in April, 1840; the public disappointed in its expectations
of a novel; "Old Curiosity Shop" commenced, and miscellaneous
portion of _Master Humphrey's Clock_ dropped;
Dickens' fondness for taking a child as his hero or
heroine; Little Nell; tears shed over her sorrows; general
admiration for the pathos of her story; is such admiration
altogether deserved? Paul Dombey more natural; Little
Nell's death too declamatory as a piece of writing; Dickens
nevertheless a master of pathos; "Barnaby Rudge"; a
historical novel dealing with times of the Gordon riots 57


Dickens starts for United States in January, 1842; had been
splendidly received a little before at Edinburgh; why he
went to the United States; is enthusiastically welcomed;
at first he is enchanted; then expresses the greatest disappointment;
explanation of the change; what the
Americans thought of _him_; "American Notes"; his
views modified on his second visit to America in 1867-8;
takes to fierce private theatricals for rest; delight of the
children on his return to England; an admirable father 71


Dickens again at work and play; publication of "Martin
Chuzzlewit" begun in January, 1843; plot not Dickens'
strong point; this not of any vital consequence; a novel
not really remembered by its story; Dickens' books often
have a higher unity than that of plot; selfishness the
central idea of "Martin Chuzzlewit"; a great book, and
yet not at the time successful; Dickens foresees money embarrassments;
publishes the admirable "Christmas Carol"
at Christmas, 1843; and determines to go for a space to
Italy 84


Journey through France; Genoa; the Italy of 1844; Dickens
charmed with its untidy picturesqueness; he is idle for a
few weeks; his palace at Genoa; he sets to work upon "The
Chimes"; gets passionately interested in the little book;
travels through Italy to read it to his friends in London;
reads it on December 2, 1844; is soon back again in Italy;
returns to London in the summer of 1845; on January 21,
1846, starts _The Daily News_; holds the post of editor three
weeks; "Pictures from Italy" first published in _Daily News_ 93


Dickens as an amateur actor and stage-manager; he goes to
Lausanne in May, 1846, and begins "Dombey"; has
great difficulty in getting on without streets; the "Battle
of Life" written; "Dombey"; its pathos; pride the
subject of the book; reality of the characters; Dickens'
treatment of partial insanity; M. Taine's false criticism
thereon; Dickens in Paris in the winter of 1846-7; private
theatricals again; the "Haunted Man"; "David Copperfield"
begun in May, 1849; it marks the culminating point
in Dickens' career as a writer; _Household Words_ started
on March 30, 1850; character of that periodical and its
successor, _All the Year Round_; domestic sorrows cloud
the opening of the year 1851; Dickens moves in same year
from Devonshire Terrace to Tavistock House, and begins
"Bleak House"; story of the novel; its Chancery episodes;
Dickens is overworked and ill, and finds pleasant
quarters at Boulogne 102


Dickens gives his first public (not paid) readings in December,
1853; was it _infra dig._ that he should read for money? he
begins his paid readings in April, 1858; reasons for their
success; care bestowed on them by the reader; their
dramatic character; Carlyle's opinion of them; how the
tones of Dickens' voice linger in the memory of one who
heard him 121


"Hard Times" commenced in _Household Words_ for April 1,
1854; it is an attack on the "hard fact" school of philosophers;
what Macaulay and Mr. Ruskin thought of it;
the Russian war of 1854-5, and the cry for "Administrative
Reform"; Dickens in the thick of the movement;
"Little Dorrit" and the "Circumlocution Office"; character
of Mr. Dorrit admirably drawn; Dickens is in Paris
from December, 1855, to May, 1856; he buys Gad's Hill
Place; it becomes his hobby; unfortunate relations with
his wife; and separation in May 1858; lying rumours; how
these stung Dickens through his honourable pride in the
love which the public bore him; he publishes an indignant
protest in _Household Words_; and writes an unjustifiable
letter 126


"The Tale of Two Cities," a story of the great French Revolution;
Phiz's connection with Dickens' works comes to
an end; his art and that of Cruikshank; both too essentially
caricaturists of an old school to be permanently the
illustrators of Dickens; other illustrators; "Great Expectations";
its story and characters; "Our Mutual Friend"
begun in May, 1864; a complicated narrative; Dickens'
extraordinary sympathy for Eugene Wrayburn; generally
his sympathies are so entirely right; which explains why
his books are not vulgar; he himself a man of great real
refinement 139


Dickens' health begins to fail; he is much shaken by an accident
in June, 1865; but bates no jot of his high courage,
and works on at his readings; sails for America on a
reading tour in November, 1867; is wretchedly ill, and yet
continues to read day after day; comes back to England,
and reads on; health failing more and more; reading has
to be abandoned for a time; begins to write his last and
unfinished book, "Edwin Drood"; except health all
seems well with him; on June 8, 1870, he works at his
book nearly all day; at dinner time is struck down; dies
on the following day, June the 9th; is buried in Westminster
Abbey among his peers; nor will his fame suffer
eclipse 149




Education is a kind of lottery in which there are good and evil
chances, and some men draw blanks and other men draw prizes. And in
saying this I do not use the word education in any restricted sense,
as applying exclusively to the course of study in school or college;
nor certainly, when I speak of prizes, am I thinking of scholarships,
exhibitions, fellowships. By education I mean the whole set of
circumstances which go to mould a man's character during the
apprentice years of his life; and I call that a prize when those
circumstances have been such as to develop the man's powers to the
utmost, and to fit him to do best that of which he is best capable.
Looked at in this way, Charles Dickens' education, however untoward
and unpromising it may often have seemed while in the process, must
really be pronounced a prize of value quite inestimable.

His father, John Dickens, held a clerkship in the Navy Pay Office, and
was employed in the Portsmouth Dockyard when little Charles first came
into the world, at Landport, in Portsea, on February 7, 1812. Wealth
can never have been one of the familiar friends of the household, nor
plenty have always sat at its board. Charles had one elder sister, and
six other brothers and sisters were afterwards added to the family;
and with eight children, and successive removals from Portsmouth to
London, and London to Chatham, and no more than the pay of a
Government clerk[1] - pay which not long afterwards dwindled to a
pension, - even a better domestic financier than the elder Dickens
might have found some difficulty in facing his liabilities. It was
unquestionably into a tottering house that the child was born, and
among its ruins that he was nurtured.

But through all these early years I can do nothing better than take
him for my guide, and walk as it were in his companionship. Perhaps no
novelist ever had a keener feeling of the pathos of childhood than
Dickens, or understood more fully how real and overwhelming are its
sorrows. No one, too, has entered more sympathetically into its ways.
And of the child and boy that he himself had once been, he was wont to
think very tenderly and very often. Again and again in his writings he
reverts to the scenes and incidents and emotions of his earlier days.
Sometimes he goes back to his young life directly, speaking as of
himself. More often he goes back to it indirectly, placing imaginary
children and boys in the position he had once occupied. Thus it is
almost possible, by judiciously selecting from his works, and using
such keys as we possess, to construct as it were a kind of
autobiography. Nor, if we make due allowance for the great writer's
tendency to idealize the past, and intensify its humorous and pathetic
aspects, need we at all fear that the self-written story of his life
should convey a false impression.

He was but two years old when his father left Portsea for London, and
but four when a second migration took the family to Chatham. Here we
catch our first glimpse of him, in his own word-painting, as a "very
queer small boy," a small boy who was sickly and delicate, and could
take but little part in the rougher sports of his school companions,
but read much, as sickly boys will - read the novels of the older
novelists in a "blessed little room," a kind of palace of enchantment,
where "'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 him company."
And the queer small boy had read Shakespeare's "Henry IV.," too, and
knew all about Falstaff's robbery of the travellers at Gad's Hill, on
the rising ground between Rochester and Gravesend, and all about mad
Prince Henry's pranks; and, what was more, he had determined that when
he came to be a man, and had made his way in the world, he should own
the house called Gad's Hill Place, with the old associations of its
site, and its pleasant outlook over Rochester and over the low-lying
levels by the Thames. Was that a child's dream? The man's tenacity and
steadfast strength of purpose turned it into fact. The house became
the home of his later life. It was there that he died.

But death was a long way forward in those old Chatham days; nor, as
the time slipped by, and his father's pecuniary embarrassments began
to thicken, and make the forward ways of life more dark and difficult,
could the purchase of Gad's Hill Place have seemed much less remote.
There is one of Dickens' works which was his own special favourite,
the most cherished, as he tells us, among the offspring of his brain.
That work is "David Copperfield." Nor can there be much difficulty in
discovering why it occupied such an exceptional position in "his heart
of hearts;" for in its pages he had enshrined the deepest memories of
his own childhood and youth. Like David Copperfield, he had known what
it was to be a poor, neglected lad, set to rough, uncongenial work,
with no more than a mechanic's surroundings and outlook, and having to
fend for himself in the miry ways of the great city. Like David
Copperfield, he had formed a very early acquaintance with debts and
duns, and been initiated into the mysteries and sad expedients of
shabby poverty. Like David Copperfield, he had been made free of the
interior of a debtor's prison. Poor lad, he was not much more than ten
or eleven years old when he left Chatham, with all the charms that
were ever after to live so brightly in his recollection, - the gay
military pageantry, the swarming dockyard, the shifting sailor life,
the delightful walks in the surrounding country, the enchanted room,
tenanted by the first fairy day-dreams of his genius, the day-school,
where the master had already formed a good opinion of his parts,
giving him Goldsmith's "Bee" as a keepsake. This pleasant land he left
for a dingy house in a dingy London suburb, with squalor for
companionship, no teaching but the teaching of the streets, and all
around and above him the depressing hideous atmosphere of debt. With
what inimitable humour and pathos has he told the story of these
darkest days! Substitute John Dickens for Mr. Micawber, and Mrs.
Dickens for Mrs. Micawber, and make David Copperfield a son of Mr.
Micawber, a kind of elder Wilkins, and let little Charles Dickens be
that son - and then you will have a record, true in every essential
respect, of the child's life at this period. "Poor Mrs. Micawber! she
said she had tried to exert herself; and so, I have no doubt, she had.
The centre of the street door was perfectly covered with a great
brass-plate, on which was engraved 'Mrs. Micawber's Boarding
Establishment for Young Ladies;' but I never found that any young lady
had ever been to school there; or that any young lady ever came, or
proposed to come; or that the least preparation was ever made to
receive any young lady. The only visitors I ever saw or heard of were
creditors. _They_ used to come at all hours, and some of them were
quite ferocious." Even such a plate, bearing the inscription, _Mrs.
Dickens's Establishment_, ornamented the door of a house in Gower
Street North, where the family had hoped, by some desperate effort, to
retrieve its ruined fortunes. Even so did the pupils refuse the
educational advantages offered to them, though little Charles went
from door to door in the neighbourhood, carrying hither and thither
the most alluring circulars. Even thus was the place besieged by
assiduous and angry duns. And when, in the ordinary course of such sad
stories, Mr. Dickens is arrested for debt, and carried off to the
Marshalsea prison,[2] he moralizes over the event in precisely the
same strain as Mr. Micawber, using, indeed, the very same words, and
calls on his son, with many tears, "to take warning by the Marshalsea,
and to observe that if a man had twenty pounds a year, and spent
nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy;
but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched."

The son was taking note of other things besides these moral apothegms,
and reproduced, in after days, with a quite marvellous detail and
fidelity, all the incidents of his father's incarceration. Probably,
too, he was beginning, as children will, almost unconsciously, to form
some estimate of his father's character. And a very queer study in
human nature _that_ must have been, giving Dickens, when once he had
mastered it, a most exceptional insight into the ways of
impecuniosity. Charles Lamb, as we all remember, divided mankind into
two races, the mighty race of the borrowers, and the mean race of the
lenders; and expatiated, with a whimsical and charming eloquence, upon
the greatness of one Bigod, who had been as a king among those who by
process of loan obtain possession of other people's money. Shift the
line of division a little, so that instead of separating borrowers and
lenders, it separates those who pay their debts from those who do not
pay them, and then Dickens the elder may succeed to something of
Bigod's kingship. He was of the great race of debtors, possessing
especially that _ideal_ quality of mind on which Lamb laid such
stress. Imagination played the very mischief with him. He had
evidently little grasp of fact, and moved in a kind of haze, through
which all clear outlines would show blurred and unreal.
Sometimes - most often, perhaps - that haze would be irradiated with
sanguine visionary hopes and expectations. Sometimes it would be
fitfully darkened with all the horrors of despair. But whether in
gloom or gleam, the realities of his position would be lost. He never,
certainly, contracted a debt which he did not mean honourably to pay.
But either he had never possessed the faculty of forming a just
estimate of future possibilities, or else, through the indulgence of
what may be called a vague habit of thought, he had lost the power of
seeing things as they are. Thus all his excellencies and good gifts
were neutralized at this time, so far as his family were concerned,
and went for practically nothing. He was, according to his son's
testimony, full of industry, most conscientious in the discharge of
any business, unwearying in loving patience and solicitude when those
bound to him by blood or friendship were ill or in trouble, "as
kind-hearted and generous a man as ever lived in the world." Yet as
debts accumulated, and accommodation bills shed their baleful shadow
on his life, and duns grew many and furious, he became altogether
immersed in mean money troubles, and suffered the son who was to shed
such lustre on his name to remain for a time without the means of
learning, and to sink first into a little household drudge, and then
into a mere warehouse boy.

So little Charles, aged from eleven to twelve, first blacked boots,
and minded the younger children, and ran messages, and effected the
family purchases - which can have been no pleasant task in the then
state of the family credit, - and made very close acquaintance with the
inside of the pawnbrokers' shops, and with the purchasers of
second-hand books, disposing, among other things, of the little store
of books he loved so well; and then, when his father was imprisoned,
ran more messages hither and thither, and shed many childish tears in
his father's company - the father doubtless regarding the tears as a
tribute to his eloquence, though, heaven knows, there were other
things to cry over besides his sonorous periods. After which a
connection, James Lamert by name, who had lived with the family before
they moved from Camden Town to Gower Street, and was manager of a
worm-eaten, rat-riddled blacking business, near old Hungerford Market,
offered to employ the lad, on a salary of some six shillings a week,
or thereabouts. The duties which commanded these high emoluments
consisted of the tying up and labelling of blacking pots. At first
Charles, in consideration probably of his relationship to the manager,
was allowed to do his tying, clipping, and pasting in the
counting-house. But soon this arrangement fell through, as it
naturally would, and he descended to the companionship of the other
lads, similarly employed, in the warehouse below. They were not bad
boys, and one of them, who bore the name of Bob Fagin, was very kind
to the poor little better-nurtured outcast, once, in a sudden attack
of illness, applying hot blacking-bottles to his side with much
tenderness. But, of course, they were rough and quite uncultured, and
the sensitive, bookish, imaginative child felt that there was
something uncongenial and degrading in being compelled to associate
with them. Nor, though he had already sufficient strength of character
to learn to do his work well, did he ever regard the work itself as
anything but unsuitable, and almost discreditable. Indeed it may be
doubted whether the iron of that time did not unduly rankle and fester
as it entered into his soul, and whether the scar caused by the wound
was altogether quite honourable. He seems to have felt, in connection
with his early employment in a warehouse, a sense of shame such as
would be more fittingly associated with the commission of an unworthy
act. That he should not have habitually referred to the subject in
after life, may readily be understood. But why he should have kept
unbroken silence about it for long years, even with his wife, even
with so very close a friend as Forster, is less clear. And in the
terms used, when the revelation was finally made to Forster, there has
always, I confess, appeared to me to be a tone of exaggeration. "My
whole nature," he says, "was so penetrated with grief and humiliation,
... that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my
dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man, and
wander desolately back to that time of my life." And again: "From that
hour until this, at which I write, no word of that part of my
childhood, which I have now gladly brought to a close, has passed my
lips to any human being.... I have never, until I now impart it to
this paper, in any burst of confidence with any one, my own wife not
excepted, raised the curtain I then dropped, thank God." Great part,
perhaps the greatest part, of Dickens' success as a writer, came from
the sympathy and power with which he showed how the lower walks of
life no less than the higher are often fringed with beauty. I have
never been able to entirely divest myself of a slight feeling of the
incongruous in reading what he wrote about the warehouse episode in
his career.

At first, when he began his daily toil at the blacking business, some
poor dregs of family life were left to the child. His father was at
the Marshalsea. But his mother and brothers and sisters were, to use
his own words, "still encamped, with a young servant girl from Chatham
workhouse, in the two parlours in the emptied house in Gower Street
North." And there he lived with them, in much "hugger-mugger," merely
taking his humble midday meal in nomadic fashion, on his own account.
Soon, however, his position became even more forlorn. The paternal
creditors proved insatiable. The gipsy home in Gower Street had to be
broken up. Mrs. Dickens and the children went to live at the
Marshalsea. Little Charles was placed under the roof - it cannot be

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Online LibraryFrank MarzialsLife of Charles Dickens → online text (page 1 of 15)