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The lottery of education ; Charles Dickens born February 7,
1812 ; his pathetic feeling towards his own childhood;
happy days at Chatham ; family troubles ; similarity be-
tween 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 learn-
ing ; 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 contribu-
tions to the Chronicle; marries Miss Hogarth on April 2,
1836 ; appearance at that date ; power of physical en-
durance ; admirable influence of his peculiar education ;
and its drawbacks ........ 27


Origin of " Pickwick " ; Seymour's part therein ; first number
published on April i, 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 admir-
able humour, and other excellent qualities ; Sam Weller ;
Mr. Pickwick himself ; l)ook read by everybody . . 40




Dickens works "double tides" from 1836 to 1839 ; appointed
editor of Fentley's Miscellany at beginning of 1837, and
commences " Oliver Twist " ; Quarterly Keview 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 mis-
cellaneous 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 dis-
appointment ; 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 5 P'ot 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 em-
barrassments ; publishes the admirable "Christmas Carol"
at Christmas, i?43 ; 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 '< 's soon back again in Italy ;
returns to London in the summer of 1S45 ; on January 21,
1846, starts The Daily Ne^vs ; holds the post of editor three
weeks; " Pictures from Italy "first published m 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 Copper-
field " begun in May, 1849 ; it marks the culminating point
in Dickens' career as a writer ; ffottseliold Words started
on March 30, 1850 ; character of that periodical and its
successor, All the Year Hound ; 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 epi-
sodes ; 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 i-Fonh for April i,
1854 ; it is an attack on the "hard fact " school of philo-
sophers; what Macaulay and Mr. Ruskin thought of it ;
the Russian war of 1854-5, and the cry for "Administra-
tive Reform"; Dickens in the thick of the movement;
"Little Dorrit " and the " Circumlocution Office"; cha-
racter of Mr. Dorrit admirably drawn ; Dickens is in Paris
from December, 1855, '^ ^I^)') 1856; he buys Gad's Hill
Place ; it becomes his hobby ; unfortunate relations with
his wife ; and separation in May 185S ; lying rumours ; how
these stung Dickens through his honourable pride in the
love which the public bore him ; he publishes an indignant
protest in HouseJiold Words ; and writes an unjustifiable
letter 126


'' The Tale of Two Cities," a story of the great French Revo-
lution ; Phiz's connection with Dickens' works comes to
an end ; his art and that of Cruikshank ; both too essen-
tially caricaturists of an old school to be permanently the
illustrators of Dickens ; other illustrators ; " Great Expec-
tations " ; 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 acci-
dent 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 West-
minster Abbey among his peers ; nor will his fame suffer
eclipse 149

INDEX i6->


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 necessarily borrow
in a more or less degree. My work, too, has been much
lightened by Mr. Kitton's excellent " Dickensiana."



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 apply-
ing exclusively to the course of study in school or college;
nor certainly, Avhen 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, how-
ever 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 Dock-
yard when little Charles first came into the world, at


Landport, in Portsea, on February 7, 18 12. Wealth can
never have been one of the fiimiliar friends of the house-
hold, 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 chil-
dren, and successive removals from Portsmouth to London,
and London to Chatham, and no more than the pay of a
Government clerk ' — pay which not long afterwards
dwindled to a pension, — even a better domestic financier
than the elder Dickens might have found some dithculty
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 for the pathos of childhood than
Dickens, or understood more fully how real and over-
whelming 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 ima-
ginary children and boys in the position he had once
occupied. Thus it is almost possible, by judiciously"

' ;^200 a year "without extras" from 1815 to 1820, and then
;i^350. Sec "Childhood and Youth of Charles Dickens," by Robert
Langton, a very valuable monograph.


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 Avhen 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
Bias,' 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 dis-
covering 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 out-
look, 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 countr)-, the
enchanted room, tenanted by the first fair)* day-dreams of
his genius, the day-school, where the master had already
formed a good opinion of his parts, giving him Gold-
smith's " Bee " as a keepsake. This pleasant land he
left for a ding)' 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. Micaw-
ber'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,' 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 nine-
teen 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 begin-
ning, 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 excep-
tional 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,

' Mr. Langton appears to doubt whether John Dickens was not
imprisoned in the King's Bench. But this seems scarcely a point on
which Dickens himself can have been mistaken.


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, con-
tracted 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 excellences and good gifts were
neutralized at this time, so far as his family were con-
cerned, and went for practically nothing. He was,
according to his son's testimony, full of industry, most
conscientious in the discharge of any business, unweary-
ing 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 with-
out 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 com-
pany — 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 arrange-
ment 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 litde 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 asso-
ciate 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 ware-
house, 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 IMarshalsea. 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

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Online LibraryFrank T. (Frank Thomas) MarzialsLife of Charles Dickens → online text (page 1 of 15)