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The Life of Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens was born at Landport, now a great town, but then a little suburb of Portsmouth, or Portsea, lying half a mile outside of the town walls. The date of his birth was Friday, February 7, 1812. His father was John Dickens, a clerk in the navy pay-office, and at that time attached to the Portsmouth dockyard. The familiarity which the novelist shows with sea-ports and sailors is not, however, due to his birthplace, because his father, in the year 1814, was recalled to London, and in 1816 went to Chatham. They still show the room in the dockyard where the elder Dickens worked, and where his son often came to visit him. The family lived in Ordnance Place, Chatham, and the boy was sent to a school kept in Gibraltar Place, New Road, by one William Giles. As a child he is said to have been a great reader, and very early began to attempt original writing. In 1821, Charles being then nine years of age, the family fell into trouble; reforms in the Admiralty deprived the father of his post, and the greater part of his income. They had to leave Chatham and removed to London, where a mean house in a shabby street of Camden Town received them. But not for long. The unfortunate father was presently arrested for debt and consigned to the Marshalsea, and Charles, then only ten years of age, and small for his age, was placed in a blacking factory at Hungerford Market, where all he could do was to put the labels on the blacking-bottles, with half a dozen rough and rude boys. The degradation and misery of this occupation sunk deep into the boy's soul. He could never dare to speak of this time; it was never mentioned in his presence. Not only were his days passed in this wretched work, but the child was left entirely to himself at night, when he made his way home from Hungerford Market to Camden Town, a distance of four miles, to his lonely bedroom. On Sundays he visited his father in the prison. Of course such a neglected way of living could not continue. They presently found a lodging for him in Lant Street, close to the Marshalsea, where at least he was near his parents, and his father shortly afterward recovering his liberty, they all went back to Camden Town, and the boy was sent to school again. It was to a private school in the Hampstead Road, where he remained for three or four years of quiet work. It must have been then, one suspects, rather than at Chatham, that he became so great a devourer of books. But he was never a scholar in any sense, and the books that he read were novels and plays. That the family fortunes were still low is proved by the fact that, when he was taken from school, no better place could be found for him than a stool at the desk of a solicitor. Meantime his father had obtained a post as reporter for the Morning Herald, and Charles, feeling small love for the hopeless drudgery of a lawyer's office, resolved also to attempt the profession of journalist. He taught himself shorthand with the resolution—even the rage—which he always threw into everything he undertook; and he frequented the British Museum daily in order to supplement some of the shortcomings of his reading. In his seventeenth year he became a reporter at Doctors' Commons. At this period all his ambitions were for the stage. He would be an actor. All his life, indeed, he loved acting and the theatre above all things. As an actor, one feels certain that he would have succeeded. He would have made an excellent comedian. Fortunately, he was saved for better work.

It was not until he was two-and-twenty that he succeeded in getting permanent employment on the staff of a London paper, as a reporter. In this capacity he was sent about the country to do work which is now mainly supplied by local reporters. It must be remembered that there were as yet no railways. He had to travel by stage-coach, by post, by any means that offered. "I have been upset," he said years afterward, speaking of this time, "in almost every description of vehicle used in this country."

About this time he began the real work of his life. In December, 1833, the Monthly Magazine published his first original paper, called "A Dinner at Poplar Walk." Other papers followed, but produced nothing for the contributor except the gratification of seeing them in print, because the magazine could not afford to pay for anything. However, they did the writer the best service possible, in enabling him to prove his power, and he presently made an arrangement with the editor of the Evening Chronicle to contribute papers and sketches regularly, continuing to act as reporter for the Morning Chronicle, and getting his salary increased from five guineas to seven guineas a week. To be making an income of nearly four hundred pounds a year at the age of two or three and twenty, would be considered fortunate in any line of life. Sixty years ago, such an income represented a much more solid success than would now be the case. The sketches were collected and published in the beginning of the year 1836, the author receiving a hundred and fifty pounds for the copyright. He afterward bought it back for eleven times that amount. In the last week of March in the same year appeared the first number of the "Pickwick Papers;" three days afterward Dickens married the daughter of his friend, George Hogarth, editor of the Evening Chronicle, and his early struggles were finished.

No article, however short, treating of Charles Dickens, can avoid entering into the details of his early history with a fulness which would be out of all proportion to what follows, but for the remarkable fact that the events of his childhood and his youth impressed his imagination and influenced the whole of his literary career so profoundly, that to the very end of his life there is not a single work in which some of the characters, some of the places, are not derived from his early recollections. Many other writers there are who have passed their childish days among the petites gens, but none who have so remembered their ways, their speech, and their mode of thought. The Marshalsea prison of Little Dorrit is the place where for two years he went in and out. The Queen's Bench and its Rules were close to the Marshalsea; Bob Sawyer's lodgings in Lant Street were his own; David Copperfield, the friendless lad in the dingy warehouse, was himself; the cathedral of Edwin Drood was that in whose shadow he had lived; Mrs. Pipehin is his old landlady of Camden Town; the most delightful features in Mr. Micawber are borrowed from his own father; the experiences of Doctors' Commons, the solicitor's clerks, the life in chambers, are all his own; while of individual characters, the list of those which are known to be portraits more or less true to nature might be indefinitely extended. And yet, while he was early drawing on these early recollections, while they constantly furnished him with scenes and characters, he could not bear to speak of them, and no one except his friend and biographer, Forster, ever knew that he was himself, with all the shabby, mean surroundings in early life, exactly such as David Copperfield.

The rest of Dickens's life has the interest which belongs to success after success. It was a long, triumphal march. He had no failures; he suffered no defeats. There were times when his hand was not at his best, but never a time when his hand lost its power. This indeed seems the crowning happiness of a successful and singularly happy life, that when he was cut off—he died June 6, 1870—after fifty-eight years of continuous work, his brain was still as vigorous, his eye as keen, his hand as sure as in the first fresh running of his youth. It was indeed more than literary success which he achieved; he conquered the whole English-speaking world. This world, which now numbers nigh upon a hundred millions, loves him; all who can read his books love him. This love cheered him in his life, and will keep his memory green. Of the solid wealth which he acquired, the honor he enjoyed, the friends who gathered round him, and the brave and resolute front which he always showed, there is no space here to speak.

The following is the list of Dickens' works, in their order of appearance omitting certain farces and pamphlets which belong to a more extended notice:

"Sketches by Boz" (1836), "The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club" (1837), "Oliver Twist" (1838), "Nicholas Nickleby" (1839), "The Old Curiosity Shop" (1840-41), "Barnaby Rudge" (1841), "American Notes" (1842), "Martin Chuzzlewit" (1843), "The Christmas Tales"—viz., "The Christmas Carol," "The Chimes," "The Cricket on the Hearth," "The Battle of Life," "The Haunted Man," and "The Ghost's Bargain"—(1843, 1846, 1848), "Pictures from Italy" (1845), "Dombey and Son" (1846-48), "David Copperfield" (1849-50), "Bleak House" (1852-53), "The Child's History of England" (1854), "Hard Times" (1854), "Little Dorrit" (1855-57), "A Tale of Two Cities" (1859), "The Uncommercial Traveller" (1861), the "Christmas Numbers" in Household Words and All the Year Round, "Great Expectations" (1860-61), "Our Mutual Friend" (1864-65), "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" (unfinished). This long roll by no means represents the whole work of this most active of mankind. Public readings both in this country and in America, private theatricals, speeches, letters innumerable, journeys many, pamphlets, plays, the conduct of a popular magazine—first called Household Words, and then All the Year Round—and an ever-present readiness to enjoy the society of his friends, fill up the space when he was not actually writing. That he could do so much was mainly due to his orderly and methodical habits, to his clearness of mind, and to a capacity for business as wonderful as his genius for fiction. He knew no rest from the day when he first attacked shorthand, to the day when he fell from his chair in the fit from which he never recovered. He was incomparably the most active man, the hardest-working-man of his age. In the history of letters there are many who have produced more work in bulk; there is not one who led a life so varied, so full, so constantly busy, so active, and so rich.

It is as yet too early to speak with certainty as to the lasting popularity of his work as a whole. Very much of it owed its general success to the faithful delineation of manners already passed away. He was the prophet of the middle class, and the manners of that great section of the community have greatly changed since the days when Charles Dickens lived among them and observed them. With the decay of these manners some part of present popularity must certainly pass out of his work; already a generation has appeared to whom a great deal of Dickens' work proves of no interest, because it portrays manners with which they are not familiar. They do not laugh with those who laughed fifty, forty, twenty years ago, because the people depicted have vanished. But when the second quarter of this century shall belong so truly to the past, that not one survives who can remember it, then these books will become a precious storehouse for the study and the recovery of part, and that a large part, of its life and manners.

Again, it is the essential quality of genius to create the type. In this Dickens has been more successful than any other novelist, ancient or modern. With him every leading character stands for his class. Squeers is the representative of the schoolmaster, then too common, ignorant, brutal, and grasping; Winkle is the Cockney sportsman; it is impossible to think of red tape without naming Mr. Tite Barnacle; and so on through all the books. If he sometimes too plainly labels his characters with their qualities and defects, it is a fault caused by his own clearness of conception and of execution. It is another note of genius to suffer every character to work out its own fate without weakness or pity, and though Dickens deals seldom with the greater tragedies of the world in his domestic dramas, necessity pursues his characters as grimly and certainly as in real life. The villain Quilp and his tool make us forget, in the amusement which they cause, their own baseness. But their creator is not deceived. He makes them bring their own ruin upon their heads. To be true, not only to the outward presentment and speech and thought of a character, but also to the laws which surround him, and to the consequences of his actions, is a rare thing indeed with those who practise the art of fiction. Further, in this art there are permissible certain exaggerations, as upon the stage. There is exaggeration of feature, exaggeration of talk, exaggeration in action. There are degrees of exaggeration, by which one passes through tragedy, comedy, farce, and burlesque; but in all there must be an exaggeration. Dickens was master of exaggeration—if he sometimes carried it too far, he produced farce, but never burlesque. As for selection, which is perhaps the most important point after exaggeration, it came to him by instinct; he knew from the very outset how to select. It is by selection that the novelist maintains the interest of his story and develops his characters. There are countless things that are said and done in the progress of the history which have little interest and small bearing on the things which have to be told; and it is the first mark of the bad novelist that he does not know how to suppress irrelevant scenes. In the constructive branch of his art Dickens continually advanced. His earlier stories seem, like the "Pickwick Papers," to be made up of scenes. "Nicholas Nickleby" is a long series of scenes brilliantly drawn, in which new characters are always appearing and playing their disconnected part and disappearing. But as he grew older his conceptions of the story itself grew clearer, and his arrangement more artistic. It is, however, in description that Dickens proved himself so great a master. He laid his hand by instinct upon the salient and characteristic features, and he never failed in finding the right—the only—words fit for their illustration. In description he is never conventional, always real, and yet he allows himself, here as in his scenes of character and dialogue, a certain exaggeration which produces the happiest effects. In the hands of his imitators it becomes grotesque and intolerable.

As to his great and splendid gallery of portraits, it is difficult to speak briefly. The whole of London life—the life of the streets, of the city, of the middle class—seems at first sight depicted in this gallery. Here are merchant, shopkeeper and clerk, lawyer and client, money-lender and victim, dressmaker, actor—one knows not what. Yet there are great omissions. The scholar, the divine, the statesman, the country gentleman, are absent, partly because Dickens had no knowledge of them, and partly because he forbore to hold them up to the ridicule which he loved to pour over his characters. His methods imposed upon him certain limitations; he aimed at commanding his reader's attention by compelling laughter and tears, but especially laughter. He who can command neither the one nor the other is no true artist in fiction. But in his laughter and in his tears one feels always the kindly heart as well as the skilful hand. It is for the former—for the deeply human heart—even more than for the latter, that the world will continue to love the memory of Charles Dickens.


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