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   Chapter 15 DICKENS

Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century By Virginia Tatnall Peacock Characters: 17459

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

Thackeray's London was practically bounded on the east by the Temple, or perhaps by the Fleet Prison, which lay a little beyond the Punch office; it took in the Strand, Pall Mall, Piccadilly, and stretched out westward round Belgravia, Mayfair, Chiswick, and such selecter quarters of the town. But Dickens made the whole of London his province; you cannot go into any part of it but he has been there before you; if he did not at one time live there himself, some of his characters did. Go north through Somers Town and Camden Town: the homes of his boyhood were there in Bayham Street, in Little College Street, in the house that still stands at 13 Johnson Street, from which he walked daily to school at the Wellington House Academy in Hampstead Road. He lived in Cleveland Street, Fitzroy Square, and in Fitzroy Street, and whilst his father was a prisoner in the Marshalsea for debt and he himself was labelling bottles at the blacking factory in Hungerford Market, he had lodgings south of London Bridge in Lant Street, which were the originals of the lodgings he gave to Bob Sawyer in later years when he came to write Pickwick. When he was turned twenty, and working as a Parliamentary reporter in the House of Commons, and beginning to contribute his Sketches by Boz to the Monthly Magazine, he lived at 18 Bentinck Street, Cavendish Square. For a time he had lodgings in Buckingham Street, Strand, and afterwards lodged David Copperfield in the same rooms; he put up for a short time at Fulham before his marriage at St. Luke's Church, Chelsea, in April 1836, and after a brief honeymoon returned with his wife to the chambers in Furnival's Inn that he had rented since the previous year. He had three other London houses during his more prosperous days; then he quitted the town and went to live at Gad's Hill Place, where he died in 1870. But even after he was thus settled in Kent, he was continually up and down to the office of Household Words, in Wellington Street, Strand, and for some part of almost every year he occupied a succession of furnished houses round about Hyde Park.


A few months before his marriage he had started to write Pickwick, the first monthly part of which appeared in March 1836. Before the end of next month, Seymour, the artist who was illustrating that serial, having committed suicide, Thackeray went up to the Furnival's Inn chambers with specimens of his drawings in the hope of becoming his successor, but Dickens rejected him in favour of Hablot K. Browne ("Phiz"), who also illustrated most of his subsequent books. He had published the Sketches by Boz in two volumes, illustrated by Cruikshank, had written two dramatic pieces that were very successfully produced at the St. James's Theatre, had begun to edit Bentley's Miscellany, and was writing Oliver Twist for it, before he left Furnival's Inn and established his small household of his wife and their first son and his wife's sister, Mary Hogarth, at 48 Doughty Street, Mecklenburgh Square.

In later years Sala, who became one of Dickens's principal contributors to Household Words, used to live in Mecklenburgh Square, and at different times Sidney Smith, Shirley Brooks, and Edmund Yates all lived in Doughty Street (Shirley Brooks was born there, at No. 52), but Doughty Street's chief glory is that for the greater part of three years Dickens was the tenant of No. 48. George Henry Lewes called to see him there, and was perturbed to find that he had nothing on his bookshelves but three-volume novels and presentation copies of books of travel; clearly he was not much of a reader, and had never been a haunter of old bookstalls. But presently Dickens came in, says Lewes, "and his sunny presence quickly dispelled all misgivings. He was then, as to the last, a delightful companion, full of sagacity as well as animal spirits; but I came away more impressed with the fulness of life and energy than with any sense of distinction."

Mrs. Cowden Clarke, who saw him in his Doughty Street days, speaks of him as "genial, bright, lively-spirited, pleasant-toned," and says he "entered into conversation with a grace and charm that made it feel perfectly natural to be chatting and laughing as if we had known each other from childhood." His eyes she describes as "large, dark blue, exquisitely shaped, fringed with magnificently long and thick lashes-they now swam in liquid, limpid suffusion, when tears started into them from a sense of humour or a sense of pathos, and now darted quick flashes of fire when some generous indignation at injustice, or some high-wrought feeling of admiration at magnanimity, or some sudden emotion of interest and excitement touched him. Swift-glancing, appreciative, rapidly observant, truly superb orbits they were, worthy of the other features in his manly, handsome face. The mouth was singularly mobile, full-lipped, well-shaped, and expressive; sensitive, nay restless, in its susceptibility to impressions that swayed him, or sentiment that moved him." Which tallies sufficiently with Carlyle's well-known description of him a few months later: "A fine little fellow, Boz, I think. Clear, blue, intelligent eyes, eyebrows that he arches amazingly; large, protrusive, rather loose mouth, a face of most extreme mobility which he shuttles about-eyebrows, eyes, mouth and all-in a very singular manner while speaking. Surmount this with a loose coil of common-coloured hair, and set it on a small, compact figure, very small, and dressed a la D'Orsay rather than well-this is Pickwick. For the rest, a quiet, shrewd-looking little fellow, who seems to guess pretty well what he is and what others are." Forster sketches his face at this same period with "the quickness, keenness, and practical power, the eager, restless, energetic outlook on each several feature, that seemed to tell so little of a student and writer of books, and so much of a man of action and business in the world. Light and motion flashed from every part of it." "It was as if made of steel," said Mrs. Carlyle; and "What a face is his to meet in a drawing-room," wrote Leigh Hunt. "It has the life and soul in it of fifty human beings."

Dickens's weakness, then and all his life through, was for something too dazzling and ornate in the way of personal adornment. We hear of a green overcoat with red cuffs. "His dress was florid," says one who met him: "a satin cravat of the deepest blue relieved by embroideries, a green waistcoat with gold flowers, a dress coat with a velvet collar and satin facings, opulence of white cuff, rings in excess, made up a rather striking whole." And there is a story of how, when an artist friend of both was presented by somebody with a too gaudy length of material, Wilkie Collins advised him to "Give it to Dickens-he'll make a waistcoat out of it!"


That jest belongs to a later year, but here you have a sufficiently vivid presentment of the man as he was when he could be seen passing in and out of the house in Doughty Street. He may have been dandified in appearance, but in all his other habits he was a hard and severely methodical worker. "His hours and days were spent by rule," we are told. "He rose at a certain time, he retired at another, and though no precisian, it was not often that his arrangements varied. His hours of writing were between breakfast and luncheon, and when there was any work to be done no temptation was sufficiently strong to cause it to be neglected. This order and regularity followed him through the day. His mind was essentially methodical, and in his long walks, in his recreations, in his labour, he was governed by rules laid down by himself, rules well studied beforehand and rarely departed from."


His rise out of poverty and obscurity into affluence and fame makes a more wonderful story than that of how Byron woke one morning and found himself famous. For Dickens had everything against him. He was indifferently educated, had no social advantages, and no influential friends behind him. In 1835 he was an unknown young author, writing miscellaneous stories and sketches for the papers; by the end of 1836 everybody was reading and raving of and laughing over Pickwick, and he was the most talked-of novelist of the hour. "It sprang into a popularity that each part carried higher and higher," says Forster, "until people at this time talked of nothing else, tradesmen recommended their goods by using its name, and its sale, outstripping at a bound that of all the most famous books of the century, had reached an almost fabulous number." Judges, street boys, old and young in every class of life, devoured each

month's number directly it appeared, and looked forward impatiently to the next one. Carlyle told Forster that "an archdeacon, with his own venerable lips, repeated to me the other night a strange, profane story of a solemn clergyman who had been administering ghostly consolation to a sick person; having finished, satisfactorily as he thought, and got out of the room, he heard the sick person ejaculate: 'Well, thank God, Pickwick will be out in ten days, any way!'"

Dickens's favourite recreation in those early years was riding, and frequently he would set out with Forster "at eleven in the morning for 'a fifteen mile ride out, ditto in, and lunch on the road,' with a wind-up of six o'clock dinner in Doughty Street." Other times he would send a note round to Forster, who lived at 58 Lincoln's Inn Fields, and if he could be persuaded to come, as generally he could, they would set out for a brisk walk to Hampstead and over the Heath, and have "a red-hot chop for dinner and a glass of good wine" at Jack Straw's Castle.

His daughter Mamie was born in Doughty Street, and there the first great grief of his life completely overwhelmed him for a time, when his wife's young sister, Mary Hogarth, died at the age of seventeen. There are several letters from that address in 1838 concerning his progress with Oliver Twist. In one, when he could not work, he says he is "sitting patiently at home waiting for Oliver Twist, who has not yet arrived." In another he writes, "I worked pretty well last night-very well indeed; but although I did eleven close slips before half-past twelve I have four to write to close the chapter; and as I foolishly left them till this morning, have the steam to get up afresh." "Hard at work still," he writes to Forster in August 1838. "Nancy is no more. I showed what I had done to Kate last night, who is in an unspeakable 'state'; from which and my own impression I augur well. When I have sent Sykes to the devil I must have yours." And "No, no," he wrote again to Forster next month, "don't, don't let us ride till to-morrow, not having yet disposed of the Jew, who is such an out-and-outer that I don't know what to make of him." Then one evening Forster went to Doughty Street and sat in Dickens's study and talked over the last chapter of Oliver Twist with him, and remained reading there whilst he wrote it.

From Doughty Street Dickens and "Phiz" set out together on that journey into Yorkshire to see the notorious school that was to become famous as Squeers's, and in due course there are letters from that street telling of the progress of Nicholas Nickleby. Early in 1839 the letters tell of how he is house-hunting, and in the intervals working "at racehorse speed" on Barnaby Rudge, and near the end of the year he moved to 1 Devonshire Terrace, at the corner of Marylebone Road.

The Doughty Street house remains as he left it, but 1 Devonshire Terrace has been rather considerably altered. The new residence was such a much more imposing one than the other that absurd rumours got about that he was lapsing into extravagance and living beyond his income, and "I perfectly remember," writes Sala, "when he moved from his modest residence in Doughty Street to a much grander but still not very palatial house in Devonshire Terrace, an old gentleman calling one day upon my mother and telling her, with a grave countenance, that Dickens had pawned his plate, and had been waited upon for the last fortnight by bailiffs in livery." It was about this time, too, that the Quarterly made its famous prediction that in the case of work such as Dickens was doing "an ephemeral popularity will be followed by an early oblivion." But there was no ground for any of these fears. His life was a triumphal procession; he went forward from victory to victory. At Devonshire Terrace he wrote most of Barnaby Rudge: and the prototype of Grip, Barnaby's raven, the special playmate of Dickens's children, died there; from here he went on his first visit to America, and on his return, with intervals of holiday at Broadstairs, in Cornwall, and in Italy, wrote the American Notes, Martin Chuzzlewit, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, Pictures from Italy, Dombey and Son, and commenced the writing of David Copperfield. Whilst he was here, too, he was for a brief space the first editor of the Daily News, and in March 1850 opened his Wellington Street office and started Household Words. Incidentally, he was taking an active share in a dozen or more public movements; acting as chairman at meetings and dinners, managing and playing in private theatricals, writing miscellaneous articles for his new magazine, and attending closely to its business organisation. Never was a more strenuous literary worker, or one who brought more enthusiasm to whatever he undertook.

In the autumn of 1851, in the flowing and rising tide of his prosperity, he removed to the now vanished Tavistock House, in Tavistock Square, and in the next six years, before his removal to Gad's Hill, wrote Bleak House, Hard Times, and Little Dorrit, to say nothing of the numerous short stories and articles he contributed to Household Words, and began to give those public readings from his books that were in his last decade to occupy so much of his time, add so enormously to his income and his personal popularity, and play so sinister a part in the breaking down of his health and the shortening of his career.

Writing immediately after Dickens's death, Sala said that twenty years ago the face and form of Sir Robert Peel were familiar to almost everybody who passed him in the street, and "there were as few last week who would have been unable to point out the famous novelist, with his thought-lined face, his grizzled beard, his wondrous searching eyes, his bluff presence and swinging gait as, head aloft, he strode, now through crowded streets, looking seemingly neither to the right nor the left, but of a surety looking at and into everything-now at the myriad aspects of London life, the ever-changing raree-show, the endless roundabout, the infinite kaleidoscope of wealth and pauperism, of happiness and misery, of good and evil in this Babylon-now over the pleasant meads and breezy downs which stretched round his modest Kentish demesne hard by the hoary tower of Rochester.... Who had not heard him read, and who had not seen his photographs in the shop windows? The omnibus conductors knew him, the street boys knew him; and perhaps the locality where his recognition would have been least frequent-for all that he was a member of the Athen?um Club-was Pall Mall. Elsewhere he would make his appearance in the oddest places, and in the most inclement weather: in Ratcliff Highway, on Haverstock Hill, on Camberwell Green, in Gray's Inn Lane, in the Wandsworth Road, at Hammersmith Broadway, in Norton Folgate, and at Kensal New Town.... His carriage was remarkably upright, his mien almost aggressive in its confidence-a bronzed, weatherworn, hardy man, with somewhat of a seaman's air about him." London folks would draw aside, he continues, "as the great writer-who seemed always to be walking a match against Thought-strode on, and, looking after him, say, 'There goes Charles Dickens!' The towering stature, the snowy locks, the glistening spectacles, the listless, slouching port, as that of a tired giant, of William Makepeace Thackeray were familiar enough likewise but, comparatively speaking, only to a select few. He belonged to Clubland, and was only to be seen sauntering there or in West End squares, or on his road to his beloved Kensington.... Thackeray in Houndsditch, Thackeray in Bethnal Green or at Camden Town, would have appeared anomalous ... but Charles Dickens, when in town, was ubiquitous."

There are statues in London of many smaller men, of many who mean little or nothing in particular to London, but there is none to Dickens, and perhaps he needs none. Little critics may decry him, but it makes no difference, it takes nothing from his immortality. "It is fatuous," as Trollope said of his work, "to condemn that as deficient in art which has been so full of art as to captivate all men." And to the thousands of us who know the people and the world that he created he is still ubiquitous in London here, even though he has his place for ever, as Swinburne says, among the stars and suns that we behold not:

"Where stars and suns that we behold not burn,

Higher even than here, though highest was here thy place,

Love sees thy spirit laugh and speak and shine

With Shakespeare and the soft bright soul of Sterne,

And Fielding's kindliest might and Goldsmith's grace;

Scarce one more loved or worthier love than thine."

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