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Charles Dickens and David Copperfield

Non-Fiction > Ten Novels and Their Authors >


Charles Dickens, though far from tall, was graceful and of a pleasing appearance. A portrait of him, painted by Maclise when he was twenty-seven, is in the National Portrait Gallery. He is seated in a handsome chair at a writing-table, with a small, elegant hand resting lightly on a manuscript. He is grandly dressed, and wears a vast satin neck-cloth. His brown hair is curled and falls well below the ears down each side of his face. His eyes are fine, and the thoughtful expression he wears is such as an admiring public might expect of a very successful young author. What the portrait does not show is the animation, the shining light, the activity of heart and mind, which those who came into contact with him saw in his countenance. He was always something of a dandy, and in his youth favoured velvet coats, gay waistcoats, coloured neck-cloths and white hats; but he never quite achieved the effect he sought: people were surprised and even shocked by his dress, which they described as both slipshod and flashy.

His grandfather, William Dickens, began life as a footman, married a housemaid and eventually became steward at Crewe Hall, the seat of John Crewe, Member of Parliament for Chester. William Dickens had two sons, William and John; but the only one that concerns us is John, first because he was the father of England’s greatest novelist, and secondly because he served as a model for his son’s greatest creation, Mr. Micawber. William Dickens died, and his widow stayed on at Crewe Hall as housekeeper. After thirty-five years she was pensioned off, and, perhaps to be near her two sons, went to live in London. The Crewes educated her fatherless boys, and provided them with a means of livelihood. They got John a post in the Navy Pay Office. There he made friends with a fellow-clerk and presently married his sister, Elizabeth Barrow. From the beginning of his married life he appears to have been in financial trouble, and he was always ready to borrow money from anyone who was foolish enough to lend it. But he was kind-hearted and generous, no fool, industrious, though perhaps but fitfully; and he evidently had a taste for good wine, since the second time he was arrested for debt, it was at the suit of a wine-merchant. He is described in later life as an old buck who dressed well and was for ever fingering the large bunch of seals attached to his watch.

Charles, the first son, but second child, of John and Elizabeth Dickens, was born in 1812 at Portsea. Two years later his father was transferred to London, and three years after that to Chatham. There the little boy was put to school, and there he began to read. His father had collected a few books, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Gil Blas, Don Quixote, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle; Charles read and re-read them. His own novels show how great and persistent an influence they had on him.

In 1822 John Dickens, who by this time had five children, was moved back to London. Charles was left at Chatham to continue his schooling, and did not rejoin his family for some months. He found them settled in Camden Town on the outskirts of the city, in a house which he was later to describe as the home of the Micawbers. John Dickens, though earning a little more than three hundred pounds a year, which to-day would be equivalent to at least four times as much, was apparently in more than usually desperate straits, and it would seem that there was not enough money to send little Charles to school again. To the boy’s disgust, he was put to minding the children, cleaning the boots, brushing the clothes and helping the maid Mrs Dickens had brought with her from Chatham with the housework. In the intervals he roamed about Camden Town, ‘a desolate place surrounded by fields and ditches’, and the neighbouring Somers Town and Kentish Town, and sometimes he was taken farther afield and got a glimpse of Soho and Lime-house.

Things grew so bad that Mrs. Dickens decided to open a school for the children of parents living in India, she borrowed money, presumably from her mother-in-law, and had handbills printed for distribution, which her own children were sent to push into letter-boxes in the neighbourhood. Naturally enough, no pupils were brought. Debts meanwhile grew more and more pressing. Charles was sent to pawn whatever articles they had on which cash could be raised; the books, the precious books which meant so much to him, were sold. Then James Lamert, vaguely related by marriage to Mrs. Dickens, offered Charles a job at six shillings a week in a blacking factory of which he was part-owner. His parents thankfully accepted the offer, but it cut the boy to the quick that they should be so manifestly relieved to get him off their hands. He was twelve years old. Shortly afterwards, John Dickens was arrested for debt and taken to the Marshalsea; and there his wife, after pawning the little that was left to pawn, joined him with her children. The prison was filthy, insanitary and crowded, for not only was it occupied by the prisoners, but by the families they might, if they chose, bring with them; though whether they were allowed to do this to alleviate the hardships of prison life or because the unfortunate creatures had nowhere else to go, I do not know. If a debtor had money, loss of liberty was the worst of the inconveniences he had to endure, and this loss in some cases might be mitigated: particular prisoners were permitted, on observing certain conditions, to reside outside the prison walls. In the past, the warden was in the habit of practising outrageous extortion on the prisoners and often treated them with barbarous cruelty; but by the time John Dickens was consigned to jail the worst abuses had been done away with, and he was able to make himself sufficiently comfortable. The faithful little maid lived out and came in daily to help with the children and prepare meals. He still had his salary of six pounds a week, but made no attempt to pay his debt; and it may be supposed that, content to be out of reach of his other creditors, he did not especially care to be released. He soon recovered his usual spirits. The other debtors ‘made him chairman of the committee by which they regulated the internal economy of the prison’, and presently he was on cordial terms with everyone from the turnkeys to the meanest inmate. The biographers have been puzzled by the fact that John Dickens continued meanwhile to receive his wages. The only explanation appears to be that, since government clerks were appointed by influence, such an accident as being imprisoned for debt was not considered so grave a matter as to call for the drastic step of cutting off a salary.

At the beginning of his father’s imprisonment, Charles lodged in Camden Town; but since this was a long way from the blacking factory, which was at Hungerford Stairs, Charing Cross, John Dickens found him a room in Lant Street, Southwark, which was near the Marshalsea. He was then able to breakfast and sup with his family. The work he was put to do was not hard; it consisted in washing the bottles, labelling them and tying them up. In April, 1824, Mrs. William Dickens, the Crewes’ old housekeeper, died and left her savings to her two sons. John Dickens’s debt was paid (by his brother), and he regained his freedom. He settled his family once more in Camden Town, and went back to work at the Navy Pay Office. Charles continued to wash bottles at the factory for a while, but then John Dickens quarrelled with James Lamert, ‘quarrelled by letter’, wrote Charles later, ‘for I took the letter from my father to him which caused the explosion.’ James Lamert told Charles that his father had insulted him, and that he must go. ‘With a relief so strange that it was like oppression, I went home.’ His mother tried to smooth things down, so that Charles should retain his job and the weekly wage, seven shillings by then, which she still sorely needed; and for this he never forgave her. ‘I never afterwards forgot, I shall never forget, I never can forget that my mother was warm for my being sent back,’ he added. John Dickens, however, would not hear of it, and sent his son to a school, very grandly called the Wellington House Academy, in the Hampstead Road. He stayed there two and a half years.

It is difficult to make out how long the boy spent at the blacking factory: he was there early in February and was back with his family by June, so that at the outside he could not have been at the factory for more than four months. It appears, however, to have made a deep impression upon him, and he came to look upon the experience as so humiliating that he could not bear to speak of it. When John Forster, his intimate friend and first biographer, by chance hit upon some inkling of it, Dickens told him that he had touched upon a matter so painful that ‘even at the present hour’, and this was twenty-five years later, ‘he could never lose the remembrance of it while he remembered anything.’

We are so used to hearing eminent politicians and captains of industry boast of having in their early youth washed dishes and sold newspapers that it is hard for us to understand why Charles Dickens should have worked himself up into looking upon it as a great injury that his parents had done him when they sent him to the blacking factory, and a secret so shameful that it must be concealed. He was a merry, mischievous, alert boy, and already knew a good deal of the seamy side of life. From an early age he had seen to what a pass his father’s improvidence reduced the family. They were poor people, and they lived as poor people. At Camden Town he was put to sweep and scrub; he was sent to pawn a coat or a trinket to buy food for dinner; and, like any other boy, he must have played in the streets with boys of the same sort as himself. He went to work at an age when at the time it was usual for boys of his class to go to work, and at a fair wage. His six shillings a week, presently raised to seven, was worth at least twenty-five to thirty shillings to-day. For a short time he had to feed himself on that, but later, when he lodged near enough to the Marshalsea to have breakfast and supper with his family, he only had to pay for his dinner. The boys he worked with were friendly, and it is hard to see why he should have found it such a degradation to consort with them. He had from time to time been taken to see his grandmother in Oxford Street, and he could hardly have helped knowing that she had spent her life in ‘service’. It may be that John Dickens was a bit of a snob and made pretensions that had no basis, but a lad of twelve surely has little sense of social distinctions. One must suppose, further, that if Charles was sophisticated enough to think himself a cut above the other boys at the factory, he would be smart enough to understand how necessary his earnings were to his family. One would have expected it to be a source of pride to him that he was become a wage-earner.

As a result, one may presume, of Forster’s discovery, Dickens wrote, and gave Forster, the fragment of autobiography from which the details of this episode in his life have been made known to us. As his imagination went to work on his recollections, he was filled, I suspect, with pity for the little boy he had been; he gave him the pain, the disgust, the mortification which he thought he, famous, affluent, beloved, would have felt if he had been in the little boy’s place. And seeing it all so vividly, his generous heart bled, his eyes were dim with tears, as he wrote of the poor lad’s loneliness and his misery at being betrayed by those in whom he had put his trust. I do not think he consciously exaggerated; he couldn’t help exaggerating: his talent, his genius if you like, was based on exaggeration. It was by dwelling upon, and emphasising, the comic elements in Mr. Micawber’s character that he excited his readers’ laughter; and it was by intensifying the pathos of Little Nell’s slow decline that he reduced them to tears. He would not have been the novelist he was if he had failed to make his account of the four months he spent at the blacking factory as moving as he alone knew how to make it; and, as everyone knows, he used it again to harrowing effect in David Copperfield. For my part, I do not believe that the experience caused him anything like the suffering that in after years, when he was famous and respectable, a social as well as a public figure, he persuaded himself that it had; and I believe even less that, as biographers and critics have thought, it had a decisive effect on his life and work.

While still at the Marshalsea, John Dickens, fearing that as an insolvent debtor he would lose his job in the Navy Pay Office, solicited the head of his department to recommend him for a superannuation grant on the ground of his ill-health; and eventually, in consideration of his twenty-years’ service and six children, he was granted ‘on compassionate grounds’ a pension of one hundred and forty pounds a year. This was little enough for such a man as John Dickens to support a family and he had to find some means of adding to his income. He had somehow acquired a knowledge of shorthand; and with the help of his brother-in-law, who had connections with the press, he got employment as a parliamentary reporter. Charles remained at school till, at fifteen, he went to work as an errand-boy in a lawyer’s office. He does not seem to have considered this beneath his dignity. He had joined what we now call the white-collar class. A few weeks later his father managed to get him engaged as a clerk in another lawyer’s office at ten shillings a week, which in course of time rose to fifteen shillings. He found the life dull and, with the hope of bettering himself, studied shorthand – to such purpose that after eighteen months he was sufficiently competent to set up as a reporter in the Consistory Court of Doctors’ Commons. By the time he was twenty he was qualified to report the debates in the House of Commons, and soon gained the reputation of being ‘the fastest and most accurate man in the Gallery’.

Meanwhile, he had fallen in love with Maria Beadnell, the pretty daughter of a bank clerk. They met first when Charles was seventeen. Maria was a flirtatious young person, and she seems to have given him a good deal of encouragement. There may even have been a secret engagement between them. She was flattered and amused to have a lover, but Charles was penniless, and she can never have intended to marry him. When after two years the affair came to an end, and in true romantic fashion they returned one another’s presents and letters, Charles thought his heart would break. They did not meet again till many years later. Maria Beadnell, long a married woman, dined with the celebrated Mr. Dickens and his wife: she was fat, commonplace and stupid. She served then as the model for Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. She had already served as the model for Dora in David Copperfield.

In order to be near the paper for which he was working, Dickens had taken lodgings in one of the dingy streets off the Strand, but, finding them unsatisfactory, he presently rented unfurnished rooms in Furnival’s Inn. But before he could furnish these, his father was again arrested for debt, and he had to provide money for his keep at the sponginghouse. ‘As it had to be assumed that John Dickens would not rejoin his family for some time,’ Charles took cheap lodgings for his family and camped out with his brother Frederick, whom he took to live with him in the ‘three-pair back’ at Furnival’s Inn. ‘Just because he was open-hearted as well as open-handed,’ wrote the late Una Pope-Hennessy in her very readable biography of Charles Dickens, ‘and seemed able to deal with difficulties of the kind easily, it became the custom in his family, and later on in his wife’s family, to expect him to find money and appointments for as spineless a set of people as ever breadwinner was saddled with.’


When he had been working for a year or so in the Gallery of the House of Commons, Dickens began to write a series of sketches of London life; the first were published in The Monthly Magazine, and later ones in The Morning Chronicle; he was paid nothing for them, but they attracted the attention of a publisher named Macrone, and on the author’s twenty-fourth birthday they were issued in two volumes, with illustrations by Cruickshank, under the title Sketches by Boz. Macrone paid him one hundred and fifty pounds for the first edition. The book was well reviewed, and within a short time brought him an offer of further work. There was a vogue at the time for anecdotic novels of a humorous character, which were issued in monthly parts at a shilling, with comic illustrations. They were the remote ancestors of the funnies of our own time, and they had the same prodigious popularity. One day a partner in the firm of Chapman and Hall called upon Dickens to ask him to write a narrative about a club of amateur sportsmen to serve as a vehicle for the illustrations of a well-known artist. There were to be twenty numbers, and he offered fourteen pounds a month for what we should now call the serial rights, with further payments when later they were published as a book. Dickens protested that he knew nothing about sport and did not think he could write to order, but ‘the emolument was too tempting to resist’. I need hardly say that the result was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. The first five numbers had no great success, but with the introduction of Sam Weller the circulation leaped up. By the time the work appeared in book form, Charles Dickens was famous. Though the critics made their reservations, his reputation was made. It is well to record that The Quarterly Review, speaking of him, said that ‘it requires no gift of prophecy to foretell his fate – he has risen like a rocket and he will come down like a stick’. But indeed, throughout his career, while the public devoured his books, the critics carped.

A couple of days before the appearance of the first number of The Pickwick Papers, in 1836, Dickens married Kate, the eldest daughter of George Hogarth, a colleague of Dickens on The Morning Chronicle. George Hogarth was the father of six sons and eight daughters. The daughters were small, plump, fresh-coloured and blue-eyed. Kate was the only one of marriageable age. That seems to have been the reason why Dickens married her rather than one of the others. After a short honeymoon, they settled down in Furnival’s Inn and invited Kate’s pretty sister, Mary Hogarth, a girl of sixteen, to live with them. Dickens accepted a contract to write another novel, Oliver Twist, and started it while he was still at work on The Pickwick Papers. This also was to appear in monthly numbers, and he devoted a fortnight to one and a fortnight to the other. Most novelists are so absorbed in the characters which are at the moment engaging their attention that, by no effort of will, they thrust back into their unconscious what other literary ideas they have had in mind; and that Dickens should have been able to switch, apparently with ease, from one story to another is an amazing feat.

He took a fancy to Mary Hogarth, and when Kate found herself with child and could not go about with him, Mary became his constant companion. Kate’s baby was born, and as she might be expected to have several more, a move was made from Furnival’s Inn to a house in Doughty Street. Mary grew every day more lovely and more delightful. One May evening, Dickens took Kate and Mary to a play; they enjoyed themselves and came home in high spirits. Mary was taken ill. A doctor was sent for. In a few hours she was dead. Dickens took the ring from her finger and put it on his own. He wore it till his death. He was prostrated with grief. Not long after, he wrote in his diary: ‘If she were with us now, the same winning, happy, amiable companion, sympathising with all my thoughts and feelings more than anyone I know ever did or will, I think I should have nothing to wish for but a continuance of such happiness. But she is gone, and pray God I may one day, through his mercy, rejoin her.’ These are significant words, and they tell us a great deal. He arranged to be buried by Mary’s side. I think that there can be no doubt that he had fallen deeply in love with her. We shall never know whether he was aware of it.

At the time of Mary’s death, Kate was once more pregnant, and the shock brought on a miscarriage. When she was well enough, Charles took her for a short trip abroad so that they might both recover their spirits. By the summer he, at all events, had sufficiently done so to have a boisterous flirtation with a certain Eleanor P.


With Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens was soundly launched on his triumphant career. He was a hard worker, and for several years started to write a new book long before he had finished with the old one. He wrote to please and kept his eye on the public reaction to the monthly numbers in which many of his novels appeared, and it is interesting to learn that he had no intention of sending Martin Chuz-zlewit to America till the declining sales showed that his numbers were not so attractive as usual. He was not the sort of author who looks upon popularity as something to be ashamed of. His success was enormous. But the life of a literary man who has achieved it is not as a rule eventful. It follows a uniform pattern. His profession obliges him to devote a certain number of hours a day to his work, and he discovers a routine to suit him. He is brought into contact with the celebrated people of the day, literary, artistic and polite. He is taken up by great ladies. He goes to parties and gives parties. He travels. He makes public appearances. This, broadly, was the pattern of Dickens’s life. The success he enjoyed, indeed, was such as has been the fortune of few authors to experience. His energy seemed inexhaustible. Not only did he produce long novels in quick succession, he founded and edited magazines and, for a short period, even edited a daily paper; he wrote a quantity of occasional pieces; he delivered lectures, he spoke at banquets, and later gave readings of his works. He rode, he thought nothing of walking twenty miles a day, he danced and played the fool with gusto, he did conjuring tricks to amuse his children, he acted in amateur theatricals. He had always been fascinated by the theatre, and once had seriously thought of going on the stage; at that time he took lessons in elocution from an actor, learned parts by heart and practised before a mirror how to enter a room, sit down on a chair and make a bow. One must suppose that these accomplishments were useful to him when he was introduced into the world of fashion. The censorious, notwithstanding, thought him faintly vulgar and his mode of dress showy. Accent in England has always ‘placed’ a man, and it is likely enough that Dickens, who had lived almost all his life in London, and in very modest circumstances, had something of a cockney accent. But he charmed by his good looks, the brightness of his eyes, his exuberance, vivacity and joyous laugh. He may have been dazzled by the adulation of which he was the object, but his head was not turned. He retained an attractive modesty. He was a genial, delightful, affectionate creature. He was one of those persons who, when they come into a room, bring with them delight.

Oddly enough, though he had an immense power of observation and, in course of time, came to be on familiar terms with persons in the higher ranks of society, he never succeeded in his novels in making such characters as he created in those walks of life quite credible. One of the commonest charges against him, during his lifetime, was that he couldn’t draw a gentleman. His lawyers and lawyer’s clerks, whom he had known when he worked in an office, have a distinctiveness of feature which is lacking in his doctors and parsons; he was at his best when dealing with the ragtag and bobtail among whom his boyhood was spent. It looks as though a novelist can only know intimately enough, to use them with profit as models for creatures of his own invention, the persons with whom he has been connected at an early age. A child’s year, a boy’s year, is much, much longer than the year of a grown-up man, and he is thus given what seems like all the time in the world to make himself aware of the idiosyncrasies of the people who form his environment. ‘One reason why many English writers have totally failed in describing the manners of upper life,’ wrote Henry Fielding, ‘may possibly be, that in reality they knew nothing of it … Now it happens that this higher order of mortals is not to be seen, like all the rest of the human species, for nothing, in the streets, shops, and coffee houses: nor are they shown, like the upper ranks of animals, for so much a-piece. In short, this is a sight to which no persons are admitted without one or other of these qualifications, viz., either title or fortune, or, what is equivalent to both, the honourable profession of gamester. And, very unluckily for the world, persons so qualified very seldom care to take upon themselves the bad trade of writing; which is generally entered upon by the lower and poorer sort, as it is a trade which many think requires no kind of store to set up with.’

As soon as circumstances permitted, the Dickenses moved into a new house in a more fashionable quarter, and ordered from firms of repute complete suites for the reception rooms and bedrooms. Thick pile carpets were laid on the floors and festooned curtains adorned the windows. They engaged a good cook, three maids and a manservant. They set up a carriage. They gave dinner parties, to which noble and distinguished people came. The profusion somewhat shocked Jane Carlyle, and Lord Jeffrey wrote to his friend, Lord Cockburn, that he had dined in the new house and had ‘a rather too sumptuous dinner for a man with a family and only beginning to be rich’. It was part of the generosity of Dickens’s spirit that he liked to surround himself with people, and after the meanness of his origins it is only natural that it should have pleased him to be lavish. But it cost money. His father and his father’s family, his wife’s family, were a constant drain on him. It was partly to meet his heavy expenses that he founded the first of his magazines, Master Humphrey’s Clock, and to give it a good send-off published The Old Curiosity Shop in it.

In 1842, leaving the four children in the care of Georgina Hogarth, Kate’s sister, but taking Kate with him, he went to America. He was lionised as no author has ever been before or since. But the trip was not a complete success. A hundred years ago the people of the United States, though ready enough to disparage things European, were exceedingly sensitive of any criticism of themselves. A hundred years ago the press of the United States was ruthless in its invasion of the privacy of any hapless person who was ‘news’. A hundred years ago in the United States the publicity-minded looked upon the distinguished foreigner as a God-given opportunity to get into the limelight, and called him conceited and supercilious when he showed a disinclination to be treated like a monkey in a zoo. A hundred years ago the United States was a land where speech was free, so long as it did not offend the susceptibilities or affect the interests of other people, and where everyone was entitled to his own opinions, so long as they agreed with those of everyone else. Of all this Charles Dickens was ignorant, and he made bad blunders. The absence of an International Copyright not only deprived English authors of any profit in the United States from the sale of their books, but also damaged American authors, since the booksellers very naturally preferred to publish books by English authors, which they could get for nothing, rather than books by American authors, for which they had to pay. But it was tactless of Dickens to introduce the subject in the speeches he made at the banquets given for him on his arrival. The reaction was violent, and the newspapers described him as ‘no gentleman, but a mercenary scoundrel’. Though he was mobbed by admirers, and at Philadelphia shook hands for two hours with the crowd who wanted to meet him, his rings and diamond pins, his gaudy waistcoats, excited a good deal of criticism, and there were some who found his behaviour far from well-bred. But he was natural and unpretending, and few in the end could resist his youth, comely looks and gaiety. He made some good friends, with whom he remained on affectionate terms till his death.

The Dickenses returned to England after four eventful, but exhausting, months. The children had grown attached to their Aunt Georgina, and the weary travellers asked her to make her home with them. She was sixteen, the age of Mary when she went to live at Furnival’s Inn with the newly-married couple, and so like her that from a distance she might have been taken for her. The resemblance was so strong ‘that when she and Kate and I are sitting together,’ wrote Dickens, ‘I seem to think that what has happened is a melancholy dream from which I am just awakening.’ Georgy was pretty, attractive and unassuming. She had a gift of mimicry by means of which she could make Dickens roar with laughter. In course of time he came to depend more and more on her. They took long walks together, and he discussed his literary plans with her. He found her a useful and reliable amanuensis. The style of living Dickens had adopted was expensive, and soon he found himself uncomfortably in debt. He decided to let his house and take his family, including Georgy of course, to Italy, where living was cheap and he could retrench. He spent a year there, chiefly at Genoa, and though he did a good deal of sight-seeing up and down the country, he was too insular, and his culture too tenuous, for the experience to have any spiritual effect on him. He remained the typical British tourist. But having discovered how pleasant (and economical) it was to live abroad, Dickens began to spend long periods on the Continent. Georgy, as one of the family, went with them. On one occasion, when they were going to settle in Paris for a considerable time, she went there alone with Charles to find an apartment, while Kate waited in England till they had made everything ready for her.

Kate was of a placid and melancholy disposition. She was not adaptable, and liked neither the journeys Charles took her on, the parties she went to with him, nor the parties at which she acted as hostess. She was clumsy, colourless and rather stupid, it would appear; and it is likely enough that the great and important persons who were eager to enjoy the celebrated author’s company found it a nuisance to have to put up with his dull wife. Some of them, to her annoyance, persistently treated her as a cipher. It is not easy to be the wife of a distinguished man. She is unlikely to make a good job of it, unless she has tact and a lively sense of humour. In default of these, she must love her husband, and sufficiently admire him to find it natural that people should be more interested in him than in her. She must be clever enough to find solace in the fact that he loves her and, whatever his intellectual infidelities may be, in the end returns to her for comfort and reassurance. Kate does not appear ever to have been in love with Dickens. There is a letter he wrote to her during their engagement in which he reproaches her for her coldness. It may be that she married him because at that time marriage was the only occupation open to a woman, or it may be that, as the eldest of eight daughters, some pressure was put upon her by her parents to embrace an offer that provided for her future. She was a kindly, gentle little thing, but incapable of meeting the claims which her husband’s eminence made on her. In fifteen years she gave birth to ten children, and had four miscarriages. During her pregnancies, Georgy accompanied Dickens on the jaunts he was fond of taking, went to parties with him, and increasingly presided at his table in Kate’s place. One would have expected Kate to resent the situation: we do not know that she did.


The years passed. In 1857 Charles Dickens was forty-five. Of his nine surviving children, the elder ones were grown up, the youngest was five. His reputation was world-wide and he was the most popular author in England. He was influential. He lived, as greatly appealed to his theatrical instincts, in the public eye. Some years before, he had made the acquaintance of Wilkie Collins, and the acquaintance quickly ripened into a close friendship. Collins was twelve years younger than Dickens. Mr. Edgar Johnsons thus writes of him: ‘He loved rich food, champagne and music halls; he was often involved in intricate tangles with several women at once; he was amusing, cynical, good-humoured, unrestrained to the point of vulgarity.’ For Dickens, Wilkie Collins stood, again quoting Mr. Johnson, ‘for fun and freedom’. They travelled about England together and went to Paris to have a lark. It is likely enough that Dickens took the opportunity, as many a man in his place would do, to have a little flutter with any young person of easy virtue who was at hand. Kate had not given him all he expected, and for a long time he had been increasingly dissatisfied with her. ‘She is amiable and complying,’ he wrote, ‘but nothing on earth would make her understand me.’ From early in their marriage she had been jealous of him. I suspect he found the scenes she made him easier to bear when he knew that she had no reason to be jealous than later when she surely had. He persuaded himself then that she had never suited him. He had developed, but she had remained what she was at the beginning. Dickens was convinced that he had nothing to reproach himself with. He was assured that he had been a good father, and had done everything possible for his children. The fact is that, though none too pleased at having to provide for so many, for which he seems to have thought that Kate alone was to blame, he liked them well enough when they were small; but as they grew up he somewhat lost interest in them, and at a suitable age packed the boys off to remote parts of the world. It is true that they were scarcely a promising lot.

But it is likely that, but for an unforeseen accident, nothing very much would have changed the relations between Dickens and his wife. Like many another uncongenial couple, they might have drifted apart and yet to the world retained a semblance of unity. Dickens fell in love. He had, as I have said, a passion for the stage, and on more than one occasion had given amateur performances of one play or another for charitable purposes. At the time with which I am now dealing, he was asked to give some performances in Manchester of a play, The Frozen Deep, which Wilkie Collins had written with his help, and which had been performed at Devonshire House with great success before the Queen, the Prince Consort and the King of the Belgians. But when he agreed to repeat the play at Manchester, since he did not think his daughters, who had taken the girls’ parts before, would be heard in a big theatre, he decided that their parts should be acted by professionals. A young woman called Ellen Ternan was engaged for one of them. She was eighteen. She was small and fair, and her eyes were blue. The rehearsals took place in Dickens’s house, and he directed the play. He was flattered by Ellen’s adoring attitude and by her pathetic desire to please him. Before the rehearsals were over, he was in love with her. He gave her a bracelet, which by mistake was delivered to his wife, and she naturally made him a scene. Charles seems to have adopted the attitude of injured innocence which a husband in such an awkward juncture finds it most convenient to adopt. The play was produced, and he played the leading part, that of a self-sacrificing Arctic explorer, with such pathos that there was not a dry eye in the house. He had grown a beard to play it.

The relations between Dickens and his wife grew more and more tense. He, who had always been so genial, so good-humoured, so easy to get on with, now was moody, restless and out of temper with everyone – but Georgy. He was very unhappy. At last he came to the conclusion that he could live with Kate no longer; but his position with the public was such that he was fearful of the scandal that an open break might cause. His anxiety is comprehensible. By his immensely profitable Christmas Books he had done more than anyone to make Christmas the symbolic festival to celebrate the domestic virtues and the beauty of a united and happy family life. For years he had assured his readers in moving terms that there was no place like home. The situation was delicate. Various suggestions were made. One was that Kate should have her own suite of rooms apart from his, act as hostess at his parties and accompany him to public functions. Another was that she should stay in London while he was at Gad’s Hill (a house in Kent Dickens had recently bought), and stay at Gad’s Hill when he was in London. A third was that she should settle abroad. All these proposals she rejected, and finally a complete separation was decided on. Kate was installed in a little house on the edge of Camden Town with an income of six hundred a year. A little later, Dickens’s eldest son, Charles, went to live with her for a period.

The arrangement is surprising. One cannot but wonder why, placid as she was and stupid as she may have been, Kate allowed herself to be driven from her own house, and why she consented to leave her children behind. She knew of Charles’s infatuation with Ellen Ternan, and would have supposed that, with this trump-card in her hand, she could have made what terms she chose. In one of his letters Dickens refers to a ‘weakness’ of Kate’s, and in another letter, unfortunately published at the time, he alludes to a mental disorder ‘which caused his wife to think that she would be better away’. It is pretty well certain now that these were discreet references to the fact that Kate drank. It would not be strange if her jealousy, her sense of inadequacy, the mortification of feeling that she was not wanted, had driven her to the bottle. If she was to become a confirmed alcoholic, it would explain why Georgy should have managed the house and looked after the children, why they should have remained at home when their mother left it, why Georgy could write that ‘Poor Kate’s incapacity for looking after children was no secret to anyone.’ It may be that her eldest son went to live with her to see that she did not tipple overmuch.

Dickens was far too celebrated for his private affairs not to give rise to gossip. Scandalous rumours were spread abroad. He heard that the Hogarths, Kate’s and Georgy’s mother and sister, were saying that Ellen Ternan was his mistress. He was furious and forced them, by threatening to turn Kate out of her house without a penny, to sign a declaration that they did not believe there was anything reprehensible in his relations with the little actress. The Hogarths took a fortnight before they could bring themselves to be thus blackmailed. They must have known that, if he carried out his threat, Kate could go to law with a cast-iron case; if they dared not let things go to such lengths, it can surely only have been because there were faults on Kate’s side which they were unwilling to have divulged. There was also a good deal of talk about Georgy. She is, indeed, the enigmatic figure in the whole affair. I wonder that no one has been tempted to make her the central figure of a play. Earlier in this chapter I remarked on the significance of what Dickens wrote in his diary after Mary’s death. This made it clear, it seemed to me, not only that he had been in love with her, but was already dissatisfied with Kate. And when Georgy came to live with them, he was charmed with her because of her astonishing resemblance to Mary. Did he then fall in love with her too? Did she love him? No one can tell. Georgy was jealous enough of Kate to cut out all sentences in praise of her when, after Charles’s death, she edited a selection of his letters; but the attitude of Church and State towards marriage with a deceased wife’s sister had given any connection of the sort an incestuous aspect, and it may never have entered her head that there could be more between herself and the man in whose house she had lived for fifteen years than the fond affection a sister might legitimately feel for a brother by blood. Perhaps it was enough for her to be in the confidence of so famous a man, and to have established a complete ascendancy over him. The strangest part of it all is that when Charles fell passionately in love with Ellen Ternan, Georgy made a friend of her and welcomed her at Gad’s Hill. Whatever she felt, she kept to herself.

The connection between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan was dealt with, by those in a position to know, so discreetly that the details are uncertain. It seems that she resisted his advances for some time, but in the end yielded to his insistence. It is believed that under the name of Charles Tringham he took a house for her at Peckham, and there she lived till his death. According to his daughter Katie, he had a son by her; since nothing more was heard of him it is presumed that he died in infancy. But Ellen’s surrender, it is said, did not bring Dickens the radiant bliss he expected; he was more than twenty-five years older than she was, and he could not but have known that she was not in love with him. Few pains are harder to bear than those of an unrequited passion. He left her a thousand pounds in his will, and she married a parson. She told a clerical friend, a certain Canon Benham, that she ‘loathed the very thought of the intimacy’ Dickens had forced upon her. Like many another member of the gentle sex, she seems to have been ready enough to accept the prequisites of her position, but saw no reason why she should be asked to give anything in return.

At about the time of the break with his wife, Dickens began to give readings of his work, and for this purpose travelled over the British Isles and again went to the United States. His histrionic gift served him well, and his success was spectacular. But the effort he exerted, and the constant journeys, wore him out, and people began to notice that, though still in his forties, he looked an old man. These readings were not his only activity: during the twelve years between the separation and his death he wrote three long novels and conducted an immensely popular magazine called All the Year Round. It is not surprising that his health failed. He began to suffer from tiresome ailments and it was evident that the lectures were wearing him out. He was advised to give them up, but he wouldn’t; he loved the publicity, the excitement that attended his appearances, the face-to-face applause, the thrill of power that he felt as he swayed an audience to his will. And is it not just possible that he felt it might make Ellen fonder of him when she saw the adulation of the crowds that thronged his lectures? He decided to make a final tour, but was taken so ill in the middle of it that he had to abandon it. He went back to Gad’s Hill and sat down to write The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But to make up to his managers for the readings he had had to cut short, he arranged to give twelve more in London. This was in January 1870. ‘The audiences at St. James’s Hall were immense and sometimes they rose and cheered in a body as he entered and when he left.’ Back at Gad’s Hill, he resumed work on his novel. One day in June, while he was dining alone with Georgy, he was taken ill. She sent for the doctor, and for his two daughters who were in London, and next day the younger one, Katie, was despatched by her resourceful and competent aunt to break the news to his wife that he was dying. Katie returned to Gad’s Hill with Ellen Ternan. He died the day after, June 9, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


In a famous essay Matthew Arnold insists that poetry to be truly excellent must have a high seriousness, and because he finds it lacking in Chaucer, refuses him, though praising him handsomely, a place among the greatest poets. Arnold was too austere not to look upon humour without a faint misgiving, and I don’t suppose he could ever have been brought to admit that there might be as high a seriousness in Rabelais’ laughter as in Milton’s desire to justify the works of God to man. But I see his point, and it does not apply only to poetry. It may be that it is because this high seriousness is lacking in Dickens’s novels that, for all their great merits, they leave us faintly dissatisfied. When we read them now with the great French and Russian novels in mind, and not only theirs, but George Eliot’s, we are taken aback by their naïveté. In comparison with them, Dickens’s are scarcely adult. But, of course, we must remember that we do not read the novels he wrote. We have changed, and they have changed with us. It is impossible for us to recapture the emotions with which his contemporaries read them, as they came hot from the press. In this connection, I will quote a passage from Una Pope-Hennessy’s book: ‘Mrs Henry Siddons, a neighbour and friend of Lord Jeffrey, peeped into his library and saw Jeffrey with his head on the table. He raised it with his eyes suffused with tears. She begged to be excused, saying, “I had no idea that you had any bad news or cause of grief or I would not have come. Is anyone dead?” “Yes, indeed,” replied Lord Jeffrey. “I’m a great goose to have given away so, but I could not help it. You’ll be sorry to hear that little Nelly, Boz’s little Nelly, is dead.”’ Jeffrey was a Scottish judge, a founder of The Edinburgh Review and a severe, caustic critic.

For my part, I find myself still immensely amused by Dickens’s humour, but his pathos leaves me cold. I am inclined to say that he had strong emotions, but no heart. I hasten to qualify that. He had a generous heart, a passionate sympathy with the poor and oppressed, and, as we know, he took a persistent and effective interest in social reform. But it was an actor’s heart, by which I mean that he could feel intensely an emotion that he wished to depict in the same way as an actor playing a tragic part can feel the emotion he represents. ‘What’s he to Hecuba or Hecuba to him?’ With respect to this, I am reminded of something an actress, at one time in Sarah Bernhardt’s Company, told me many years ago. The great artist was playing Phèdre and, in the midst of one of her most moving speeches, when to all appearance she was distraught with anguish, she became aware that some persons standing in one of the wings were loudly talking; she moved towards them and, turning away from the audience as though in her misery to hide her face, hissed out what was the French equivalent to ‘Stop that bloody row, you lousy bastards’; and then, turning back with a magnificent gesture of woe, went on with her tirade to its impressive end. The audience had noticed nothing. It is hard to believe that she could have given expression so noble and tragic to the words she had to utter unless she had truly felt them; but her emotion was a professional emotion, skin-deep, an affair of nerves rather than of heart which had no effect on her self-possession. I have no doubt that Dickens was sincere, but it was an actor’s sincerity; and that, perhaps, is why now, no matter how he piled up the agony, we feel that his pathos was not quite genuine and so are no longer moved by it.

But we have no right to ask of an author more than he can give, and if Dickens lacked that high seriousness which Matthew Arnold demanded of the greatest poets, he had much else. He was a very great novelist. He had enormous gifts. He thought David Copperfield the best of all his books. An author is not always a good judge of his own work, but in this case Dickens’s judgment seems to me correct. David Copperfield, as I suppose everyone knows, is in great part autobiographical; but Dickens was writing a novel, not an autobiography, and though he drew much of his material from his own life, he made only such use of it as suited his purpose. For the rest, he fell back on his vivid imagination. He was never much of a reader, literary conversation bored him, and such acquaintance with literature as he made later in life seems to have had little effect in lessening the very strong impressions he had received from the works he first read as a boy at Chatham. Of these it was, I think, the novels of Smollett that in the long run chiefly influenced him. The figures Smollett presents to the reader are not so much larger than life as more highly coloured. They are ‘humours’ rather than characters.

So to see people well suited the idiosyncrasy of Dickens’s temper. Mr. Micawber was drawn from his father. John Dickens was grandiloquent in speech and shifty in money matters, but he was no fool and far from incompetent; he was industrious, kindly and affectionate. We know what Dickens made of him. If Falstaff is the greatest comic character in literature, Mr. Micawber is the greatest but one. Dickens has been blamed, to my mind unjustly, for making him end up as a respectable magistrate in Australia, and some critics have thought that he should have remained reckless and improvident to the end. Australia was a sparsely settled country. Mr. Micawber was a man of fine presence, of some education and of flamboyant address; I do not see why, in that environment and with those advantages, he should not have attained official position. But it was not only in his creation of comic characters that Dickens was masterly. Steerforth’s smooth servant is admirably drawn; he has a mysterious, sinister quality which sends cold shivers down one’s back. Uriah Heep smacks of what used to be called transpontine melodrama; but for all that he is a powerful, horrifying figure, and he is most skilfully presented. Indeed, David Copperfield is filled with characters of the most astonishing variety, vividness and originality. There never were such people as the Micawbers, Peggotty and Barkis, Traddles, Betsy Trotwood and Mr. Dick, Uriah Heep and his mother: they are the fantastic inventions of Dickens’s exultant imagination; but they have so much vigour, they are so consistent, they are presented with so much verisimilitude and with so much conviction, that while you read you cannot but believe in them. They may not be real; they are very much alive.

Dickens’s general method of creating character was to exaggerate the traits, peculiarities, foibles, of his models and to put into the mouth of each one some phrase, or string of phrases, which stamped his quintessence on the reader’s mind. He never showed the development of characters and, on the whole, what his creatures were at the beginning they remain at the end. (There are in Dickens’s work one or two exceptions, but the change of nature he has indicated is highly unconvincing; it is occasioned to bring about a happy ending.) The danger of drawing character in this way is that the limits of plausibility may be exceeded, and the result is caricature. Caricature is all very well when the author presents you with a character at whom you can laugh, as you can at Mr. Micawber, but it will not serve when he expects you to sympathise. Dickens was never particularly successful with his female characters unless, like Mrs. Micawber, with her ‘I will never desert Mr. Micawber’, and Betsy Trotwood, they were caricatured. Dora, drawn after Dickens’s first love, Maria Beadnell, is too silly and too childish; Agnes, drawn after Mary and Georgy Hogarth, is too good and too sensible: they are both fearfully tiresome. Little Em’ly seems to me a failure. Dickens evidently meant us to feel pity for her: she only got what she asked for. Her ambition was to be a ‘lady’, and in the hope, presumably, that she would be able to get Steerforth to marry her, she ran away with him. She seems to have made him a most unsatisfactory mistress, sullen, tearful and sorry for herself; and it is no wonder that he grew tired of her. The most baffling female character in David Copperfield is Rosa Dartle. I suspect that Dickens meant to make greater use of her in his story than he did, and if he did not do so, it was because he feared to offend his public. I can only suppose that Steerforth had been her lover and she hated him because he had abandoned her, but, notwithstanding, loved him still with a jealous, hungry, vindictive love. Dickens here invented a character that Balzac would have made much of. Of the leading actors in David Copperfield, Steerforth is the only one that is drawn ‘straight’, using the word as actors do when they speak of a ‘straight part’. Dickens has given the reader an admirable impression of Steerforth’s charm, grace and elegance, his friendliness, his kindliness, his amiable gift of being able to get on with all kinds of people, his gaiety, his courage, his selfishness, his unscrupulousness, his recklessness, his callousness. He has drawn here a portrait of the sort of man that most of us have known, who gives delight wherever he goes and leaves disaster behind him. Dickens brought him to a bad end. Fielding, I think, would have been more lenient; for, as Mrs. Honour, speaking of Tom Jones, put it: ‘And when wenches are so coming, young men are not so much to be blamed neither; for to be sure they do no more than what is natural.’ To-day, the novelist is under the necessity of making the events he relates not only likely, but so far as possible inevitable. Dickens was under no such constraint. That Steerforth, coming from Portugal by sea after an absence from England of some years, should be wrecked and drowned in sight of Yarmouth just when David Copperfield had gone there on a brief visit to his old friends, is a coincidence that really puts too great a strain on the reader’s credulity. If Steerforth had to die in order to satisfy the Victorian demand that vice should be punished, Dickens might surely have thought of a more plausible way of bringing this about.


It was a misfortune for English literature that Keats died too soon and Wordsworth too late; it was a misfortune almost as serious that, just at the time when the greatest novelists our country has produced were in full possession of their gifts, the methods of publication then prevalent encouraged, to the detriment of their production, the tendency to diffuseness and prolixity and digression to which by their nature English novelists have for the most part been inclined. The Victorian novelists were working men who lived by their pen. They had to accept contracts to provide a definite amount of copy for eighteen, twenty or twenty-four numbers, and they had so to arrange their narrative as to end each number in such a way as to induce the reader to buy the following one. They doubtless had in mind the main lines of the story they set out to tell, but we know that they were satisfied if they had two or three numbers written before publication started. They wrote the rest as they were needed, trusting that their invention would provide them with enough material to fill the requisite number of pages; and we know, from their own admissions, that on occasion their invention failed them and they had to make the best job they could when they had nothing to write about. Sometimes it happened that their story was finished when there were perhaps two or three numbers still to be written, and then they had to use any device they could think of to delay the conclusion. Naturally their novels were shapeless and long-winded; they were forced to digression and prolixity.

Dickens wrote David Copperfield in the first person. This straightforward method served him well, since his plots were often complicated, and the reader’s interest was sometimes diverted to characters and incidents that have no bearing on the story’s course. In David Copperfield there is only one major digression of this kind, and that is the account of Dr. Strong’s relations with his wife, his mother and his wife’s cousin; it does not concern David and is in itself tedious. I surmise that he used this episode to cover on two occasions a lapse of time which otherwise he didn’t know what to do with: the first was the years that David spent at school at Canterbury, and the second was the period between David’s disappointment with Dora and her death.

Dickens did not escape the danger that confronts the author of a semi-biographical novel in which himself is the principal character. David Copperfield at the age of ten was put to work by his stern stepfather, as Charles Dickens was by his father, and suffered from the ‘degradation’ of having to mix with boys of his own age whom he did not consider his social equals, in the same way as Dickens, in the fragment of autobiography which he gave to Forster, persuaded himself that he had suffered. Dickens did all he could to excite the reader’s sympathy for his hero, and indeed on the celebrated journey to Dover, when David ran away in order to seek the protection of his aunt Betsy Trotwood, a delightful, amusing character, he loads his dice without scruple. Innumerable readers have found the narration of this escapade wonderfully pathetic. I am made of sterner stuff. I am surprised that the little boy should have been such a ninny as to let everyone he came across rob and cheat him. After all, he had been in the factory for some months and had wandered about London early and late; one would have thought that the other boys at the factory, even though they were not up to his social standard, would have taught him a thing or two; he had lived with the Micawbers and pawned their bits and pieces for them, and had visited them at the Marshalsea; if he had really been the bright boy he is described to be, even at that tender age he would surely have acquired some knowledge of the world and enough sharpness to fend for himself. But it is not only in his childhood that David Copperfield shows himself sadly incompetent. He is incapable of coping with a difficulty. His weakness with Dora, his lack of common sense in dealing with the ordinary problems of domestic life, are almost more than one can bear; and he is so obtuse that he does not guess that Agnes is in love with him. I cannot persuade myself that in the end he became the successful novelist we are told he did. If he wrote novels, I suspect that they were more like those of Mrs. Henry Wood than those of Charles Dickens. It is strange that his creator should have given him none of his own drive, vitality and exuberance. David was slim and good-looking; and he had charm, or he would not have attracted the affection of almost everyone he encountered; he was honest, kindly and conscientious; but he was surely a bit of a fool. He remains the least interesting person in the book. Nowhere does he show himself in so poor a light, so feckless, so incapable of dealing with an awkward situation, as in the monstrous scene between Little Em’ly and Rosa Dartle in the attic in Soho which David witnesses but, for the very flimsiest reason, makes no attempt to stop. This scene affords a good example of how the method of writing a novel in the first person may result in the narrator being forced into a position so shockingly false, so unworthy of a hero of fiction, that the reader is justly indignant with him. If described in the third person, from the standpoint of omniscience, the scene would still have been melodramatic and repellent, but, even though with difficulty, credible. But of course the pleasure one gets from reading David Copperfield does not arise from any persuasion one may have that life is, or ever was, anything like what Dickens describes. That is not to depreciate him. Fiction, like the kingdom of heaven, has many mansions, and the author may invite you to visit whichever he chooses. One has just as much right to exist as another, but you must suit yourselves to the surroundings into which you are led. You must put on different spectacles to read The Golden Bowl and to read Bubu de Montparnasse. David Copperfield is a fantastication, sometimes gay, sometimes pathetic, on life, composed out of recollections and wish-fulfilments by a man of lively imagination and warm feelings. You must read it in the same spirit as you read As You Like It. It provides an entertainment almost as delightful.

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