Chapter LXXXIV: Dickens--Smiles And Tears
CHARLES DICKENS was a novelist who lived and wrote at the same time as Thackeray. He was indeed only six months younger, but he began to make a name much earlier and was known to fame while Thackeray was still a struggling artist. When they both became famous these two great writers were to some extent rivals, and those who read their books were divided into two camps. For though both are men of genius, they are men of widely differing genius.
John Dickens, the father, was a clerk with a small salary in the Navy Pay Office, and his son Charles was born in 1812 at Portsea. When Charles was about four his father was moved to Chatham, and here the little boy Charles lived until he was nine. He was a very puny little boy, and not able to join in the games of the other boys of his own age. So he spent most of his time in a small room where there was some books and where no one else besides himself cared to go. He not only read the books, but lived them, and for weeks together he would make believe to himself that he was his favorite character in whatever book he might be reading. All his life he loved acting a part and being somebody else, and at one time thought of becoming an actor.
Then when Charles was seven he went to a school taught by a young Baptist minister. It was not an unhappy life for the "Very queer small boy" as he calls himself. There were fields in which he could play his pretending games, and there was a beautiful house called Gad's Hill near, at which he could go to look and dream that if he were very good and very clever he might some day be a fine gentleman and own that house.
When the very queer small boy was nine he and all his family moved to London. Here they lived in a mean little house in a mean little street. There were now six children, and the father had grown very poor, so instead of being sent to school Charles used to black the boots and make himself useful about the house. But he still had his books to read, and could still make believe to himself. Things grew worse and worse however, and John Dickens, who was kind and careless, got into debt deeper and deeper. Everything in the house that could be done without was sold, and one by one the precious books went. At length one day men came and took the father away to prison because he could not pay his debts.
Then began for Charles the most miserable time of his life. The poor, sickly little chap was set to work in a blacking factory. His work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking, tie them down neatly and paste on the labels. Along with two or three others boys he worked all day long for six or seven shillings a week. Oh, how the little boy hated it! He felt degraded and ashamed. He felt that he was forgotten and neglected by every one, and that never never more would he be able to read books and play pretending games, or do anything that he loved. All week he worked hard, ill clad and only half fed, and Sunday he spent with this father at the prison. It was a miserable, sordid, and pitiful beginning to life.
How long this unhappy time lasted we do not know. Dickens himself could not remember. He seldom spoke of this time, but he never forgot the misery of it. Long afterwards in one of his books called David Copperfield, when he tells of the unhappy childhood of his hero, it is of his own he speaks.
But presently John Dickens got out of prison, Charles left the blacking factory, and once more went to school. And although in after years he could never bear to think of these miserable days, at the time his spirits were not crushed, and at school he was known as a bright and jolly boy. He was always ready for any mischief, and took delight in getting up theatricals.
At fifteen Dickens left school and went into a lawyer's office, but he knew that he had learned very little at school, and now set himself to learn more. He went to the British Museum Reading-room, and studied there, and he also with a great deal of labor taught himself shorthand.
He worked hard, determined to get on, and at nineteen he found himself in the Gallery of the House of Commons as reporter for a daily paper. Since the days when Samuel Johnson reported speeches without having heard them things had changed. People were no longer content with such make-believe reporting, and Dickens proved himself one of the smartest reporters there had ever been. He not only reported the speeches, but told of everything that took place in the House. He had such a keen eye for seeing, and such a vivid way of describing what he saw, that he was able to make people realize the scenes inside the House as none had done before.
Besides reporting in the Houses of Parliament Dickens dashed about the country in post-chaises gathering news for his paper, writing by flickering candle-light while his carriage rushed along, at what seemed then the tremendous speed of fifteen miles an hour. For those were not the days of railways and motors, and traveling was much slower than it is now.
But even while Dickens was leading this hurried, busy life he found time to write other things besides newspaper reports, and little tales and sketches began to appear signed by Boz. Boz was a pet name for Dickens's youngest brother. His real name was Augustus, but he had been nicknamed Moses after Moses in the Vicar of Wakefield. Pronounced through the nose it became Boses and then Boz. That is the history of the name under which Dickens at first wrote and won his earliest fame.
The sketches by Boz were well received, but real fame came to Dickens with the Pickwick Papers which he now began to write. This story came out in monthly parts. The first few numbers were not very successful, only about four hundred copies being sold, but by the fifteenth number London was ringing with the fame of it, and forty thousand copies were quickly sold. "Judges on the bench and boys in the street, gravity and folly, the young and the old"* all alike read it and laughed over it. Dickens above everything is a humorist, and one of the chief features in his humor is caricature, that is exaggerating and distorting one feature or habit or characteristic of a man out of all likeness to nature. This often makes very good fun, but it takes away from the truth and realness of his characters. And yet no story- teller perhaps is remembered so little for his stories and so much for his characters. In Pickwick there is hardly any story, the papers ramble on in unconnected incidents. No one could tell the story of Pickwick for there is really none to tell; it is a series of scenes which hang together anyhow. "Pickwick cannot be classed as a novel," it has been said; "it is merely a great book."**
So in spite of the fact that they are all caricatures it is the persons of the Pickwick club that we remember and not their doings. Like Jonson long before him, Dickens sees every man in his humor. By his genius he enables us to see these humors too, though at times one quality in a man is shown so strongly that we fail to see any other in him, and so a caricature is produced.
Dickens himself was full of fun and jollity. His was a florid personality. He loved light and color, and sunshine. He almost covered his walls with looking-glasses and crowded his garden with blazing geraniums. He loved movement and life, overflowed with it himself and poured it into his creations, making them live in spite of rather than because of their absurdities.
Winkle, one of the Pickwickians, is a mild and foolish boaster, who pretends that he can do things he cannot. He pretends to be able to shoot and succeeds only in hitting one of his friends. He pretends to skate, and this is how he succeeds:--
"'Now,' said Wardle, after a substantial lunch had been done ample just to, 'what say you to an hour on the ice? We shall have plenty of time.'
"'Capital!' said Mr. Benjamin Allen.
"'Prime!' ejaculated Mr. Bob Sawyer.
"'You skate of course, Winkle?' said Wardle.
"'Ye-yes; oh, yes,' replied Mr. Winkle. 'I--I am rather out of practice.'
"'Oh, do skate, Mr. Winkle,' said Arabella. 'I like to see it so much.'
"'Oh, it is so graceful,' said another young lady. A third young lady said it was elegant, and a fourth expressed her opinion that it was 'swanlike.'
"'I should be very happy, I'm sure,' said Mr. Winkle, reddening,
'but I have no skates.'
"This objection was at once overruled. Trundle had a couple of pair, and the fat boy announced that there were half-a-dozen more, downstairs: whereat Mr. Winkle expressed exquisite delight, and looked exquisitely uncomfortable.
"Old Wardle led the way to a pretty large sheet of ice, and the fat boy and Mr. Weller, having shovelled and swept away the snow which had fallen on it during the night, Mr. Bob Sawyer adjusted his skates with a dexterity which to Mr. Winkle was perfectly marvellous, and described circles with his left leg, and cut figures of eight, and inscribed upon the ice, without once stopping for breath, a great many other pleasant and astonishing devices, to the excessive satisfaction of Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Tupman, and the ladies: which reached a pitch of positive enthusiasm, when old Wardle and Benjamin Allen, assisted by the aforesaid Bob Sawyer, performed some mystic evolutions, which they called a reel.
"All this time Mr. Winkle, with his face and hands blue with the cold, had been forcing gimlet into the soles of his boots, and putting his skates on, with the points behind, and getting the straps into a very complicated and entangled state, with the assistance of Mr. Snodgrass, who knew rather less about skates than a Hindoo. At length, however, with the assistance of Mr. Weller, the unfortunate skates were firmly screwed and buckled on, and Mr. Winkle was raised to his feet.
"'Now, then, Sir,' said Sam, in an encouraging tone; 'off with you, and shoe 'em how to do it.'
"'Stop, Sam, stop!' said Mr. Winkle, trembling violently and clutching hold of Sam's arms with the grasp of a drowning man.
'How slippery it is, Sam!'
"'Not a uncommon thing upon ice, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller. 'Hold up, Sir!'
"This last observation of Mr. Weller's bore reference to a demonstration Mr. Winkle made at the instant, of a frantic desire to throw his feet in the air, and dash the back of his head on the ice.
"'These--these--are very awkward skates; ain't they, Sam?' inquired Mr. Winkle, staggering.
"'I'm afeerd there's an orkard gen'l'm'n in 'em, Sir,' replied Sam.
"'Now, Winkle,' cried Mr. Pickwick, quite unconscious that here was anything the matter. 'Come, the ladies are all anxiety.'
"'Yes, yes,' replied Mr. Winkle, with a ghastly smile. 'I'm coming.'
"'Just a-goin' to begin,' said Sam, endeavouring to disengage himself. 'Now, Sir, start off!'
"'Stop an instant, Sam,' gasped Mr. Winkle, clinging most affectionately to Mr. Weller. 'I find I've got a couple of coats at home, that I don't want, Sam. You may have them, Sam.'
"'Thank'ee, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller.
"'Never mind touching your hat, Sam,' said Mr. Winkle, hastily.
'You needn't take your hand away to do that. I meant to have given you five shillings this morning for a Christmas-box, Sam. I'll give it you this afternoon, Sam.'
"'You're wery good, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller.
"'Just hold me at first, Sam; will you?' said Mr. Winkle.
'There--that's right. I shall soon get in the way of it, Sam. Not too fast, Sam; not too fast.'
"Mr. Winkle, stooping forward with his body half doubled up, was being assisted over the ice by Mr. Weller, in a very singular and un-swanlike manner, when Mr. Pickwick most innocently shouted from the opposite bank,--
"'Sir?' said Mr. Weller.
"'Here, I want you.'
"'Let go, Sir,' said Sam. 'Don't you hear the governor a- callin'? Let go, Sir.'
"With a violent effort Mr. Weller disengaged himself from the grasp of the agonised Pickwickian; and, in so doing, administered a considerable impetus to the unhappy Mr. Winkle. With an accuracy which no degree of dexterity or practice could have insured, that unfortunate gentleman bore swiftly down into the centre of the reel, at the very moment when Mr. Bob Sawyer was performing a flourish of unparalleled beauty. Mr. Winkle struck wildly against him, and with a loud crash they both fell heavily down.
"Mr. Pickwick ran to the spot. Bob Sawyer had risen to his feet, but Mr. Winkle was far too wise to do anything of the kind, in skates. He was seated on the ice, making spasmodic efforts to smile, but anguish was depicted on every lineament of his countenance.
"'Are you hurt?' inquired Mr. Benjamin Allen, with great anxiety.
"'Not much,' said Mr. Winkle, rubbing his back very hard.
"'I wish you'd let me bleed you,' said Mr. Benjamin, with great eagerness.
"'No, thank you,' replied Mr. Winkle hurriedly.
"'What do you think, Mr. Pickwick?' enquired Bob Sawyer.
"Mr. Pickwick was excited and indignant. He beckoned to Mr. Weller, and said in a stern voice, 'Take his skates off.'
"'No; but really I had scarcely begun,' remonstrated Mr. Winkle.
"'Take his skates off,' repeated Mr. Pickwick firmly.
"The command was not to be resisted. Mr. Winkle allowed Sam to obey it, in silence.
"'Lift him up,' said Mr. Pickwick. Sam assisted him to rise.
"Mr. Pickwick retired a few paces apart from the bystanders; and beckoning his friend to approach, fixed a searching look upon him, and uttering in a low, but distinct and emphatic tone, these remarkable words,--
"'You're a humbug, Sir.'
"'A what!' said Mr. Winkle starting.
"'A humbug, Sir. I will speak plainer, if you wish it. An impostor, Sir.'
"With these words Mr. Pickwick turned slowly on his heel, and rejoined his friends."
There is much life and fun and jollity and some vulgarity in Pickwick. There is a good deal of eating and far too much drinking. But when the fun is rather rough, we must remember that Dickens wrote of the England of seventy years ago and more, when life was rougher than it is now, and when people did not see that drinking was the sordid sin we know it to be now.
To many people Pickwick remains Dickens's best book. "The glory of Charles Dickens," it has been said, "will always be in his Pickwick, his first, his best, his inimitable triumph."*
Just when Dickens began to write Pickwick he married, and soon we find him comfortably settled in a London house, while the other great writers of his day gathered round him as his friends.
Although not born in London, Dickens was a true Londoner, and when his work was done he loved nothing better than to roam the streets. He was a great walker, and thought nothing of going twenty or thirty miles a day, for though he was small and slight he had quite recovered from his childish sickliness and was full of wiry energy. The crowded streets of London were his books. As he wandered through them his clear blue eyes took note of everything, and when he was far away, among the lovely sights of Italy or Switzerland, he was homesick for the grimy streets and hurrying crowds of London.
After Pickwick many other stories followed; in them Dickens showed his power not only of making people laugh, but of making them cry. For the source of laughter and the source of tears are not very far apart. There is scarcely another writer whose pathetic scenes are so famous as those of Dickens.
In life there is a great deal that is sad, and one of the things which touched Dickens most deeply was the misery of children. The children of to-day are happy in knowing nothing of the miseries of childhood as it was in the days when Dickens wrote. In those days tiny children had to work ten or twelve hours a day in factories, many schools were places of terror and misery, and few people cared. But Dickens saw and cared and wrote about these things. And now they are of a bygone day. So children may remember Dickens with thankful hearts. He is one of their great champions.
Dickens loved children and they loved him, for he had a most winning way with them and he understood their little joys and sorrows. "There are so many people," says his daughter writing about her father, "There are so many people good, kind, and affectionate, but who can not remember that they once were children themselves, and looked out upon the world with a child's eyes only." This Dickens did always remember, and it made him a tender and delightful father to whom his children looked up with something of adoration. "Ever since I can remember anything," says his daughter, "I remember him as the good genius of the house, or as its happy, bright and funny genius." As Thackeray had a special handwriting for each daughter, Dickens had a special voice for each child, so that without being named each knew when he or she was spoken to. He sang funny songs to them and told funny stories, did conjuring tricks and got up theatricals, shared their fun and comforted their sorrows. And this same power of understanding which made him enter into the joys and sorrows of his children, made him enter into the joys and sorrows of the big world around him. So that the people of that big world loved him as a friend, and adored him as a hero.
As the years went on Dickens wrote more and more books. He started a magazine too, first called Household Words and later All the Year Round. In this, some of his own works came out as well as the works of other writers. It added greatly to his popularity and not a little to his wealth. And as he became rich and famous, his boyish dream came true. He bought the house of Gad's Hill which had seemed so splendid and so far off in his childish eyes, and went to live there with his big family of growing boys and girls.
It was about this time, too, that Dickens found a new way of entertaining the world. He not only wrote books but he himself read them to great audiences. All his life Dickens had loved acting. Indeed he very nearly became an actor before he found out his great powers of writing. He many times took part in private theatricals, one of his favorite parts, you will like to know, being Captain Bobadil, in Jonson's Every Man in his Humor. And now all the actor in him delighted in the reading of his own works, so although many of his friends were very much against these readings, he went on with them. And wherever he read in England, Scotland, Ireland, and America, crowds flocked to hear him. Dickens swayed his audiences at will. He made them laugh, and cry, and whether they cried they cheered and applauded him. It was a triumph and an evidence of his power in which Dickens delighted and which he could not forego, although his friends thought it was beneath his dignity as an author.
But the strain and excitement were too much. These readings broke down Dickens's health and wore him out. He was at last forced to give them up, but it was already too late. A few months later he died suddenly one evening in June 1870 in his house at Gad's Hill. He was buried in Westminster, and although the funeral was very quiet and simple as he himself had wished, for two days after a constant stream of mourners came to place flowers upon his grave.
I have not given you a list of Dicken's books because they are to be found in nearly every household. You will soon be able to read them and learn to know the characters whose names have become household words.
Dickens was the novelist of the poor, the shabby genteel, and the lower middle class. It has been said many times that in all his novels he never drew for us a single gentleman, and that is very nearly true. But we need little regret that, for he has left us a rich array of characters we might never otherwise have known, such as perhaps no other man could have pictured for us.
BOOKS TO READ
Stories from Dickens, by J. W. M'Spadden. The Children's Dickens.Next