Charles Dickens

Portret van Charles Dickens

Hieronder het artikel uit Chambers’s cyclopædia of English Literature uit 1886 over Charles Dickens.


Letter Few authors succeed in achieving so brilliant a reputation as that which was secured by Mr.CHARLES DICKENS in a few years. The sale of his works has been almost unexampled, and several of them have been translated into various languages, including even the Dutch and Russian. Writings so universally popular must appeal to passions and tastes common to mankind in every country, and at the same time must possess originality, novelty of style or subject, and force of delineation.

Mr.Dickens was born February 7, 1812, at Landport, in Portsea, in that middle rank of English life, within and below which his sympathies and powers as a novelist were bounded. His father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, and was then stationed in the Portsmouth Dockyard. He was a good-natured thriftless man; but both he and his wife lived to enjoy the properity of their celebrated son. Charles was the second in a family of eight children, two of whom died in infancy, and only one of whom (a sister) survived her distinguished brother.

When only two years old, Charles was brought with his parents to London; but their home was soon afterwards again changed, as the elder Dickens was placed upon duty in Chatham. There Charles lived till he was about nine years of age, and made his first acquaintance with Don Quixote and The Vicar of Wakefield, with Gil Blas, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphry Clinker, Tom Jones, The Arabian nights, and Tales of the Genii, some of the essayists, and Mrs.Inchbald’s collection of farces. The dramatic spirit was always strong in him.

The family was again moved to London; and the circumstances of the elder Dickens getting embarrassed, he was before long imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt. Almost everything in the house was by degrees sold or pawned, the books among other things, and little Charles was the agent in these sorrowful transactions. About the same time a relative of the family took a share in a blacking warehouse, which was started in opposition to „Warren’s Blacking”. Charles, then a weakly, sensitive child, was sent to work in this establishment at a wage of six or seven shillings a week, his occupation being to cover the blacking-pots with paper. In a fragment of autobiography which he left unpublished, Charles describes his wretchedness at this time. It does not appear that he was over-wrought or received unkind treatment, but a sense of degradation settled on his mind, his lively imagination intensified the misery of his situation, and he suffered bitterly while suffering in silence.

He was only eleven or twelve years old when he left this uncongenial emplyment. Writing about a quarter of a century afterwards, he says: „From that hour till this my father and my mother have been stricken dumb upon it. I have never heard the least allusion to it, however far off and remote, for either of them. I have never, until I now impart this to paer, in any burst of confidence with any one, my own wife not excepted, raised the curtain which I dropped, thank God.”

He adds that he never had the courage to go back to the place where his servitude began (about Hungerford Stairs) until the very nature of the ground was changed! The bitterness with which Dickens speaks of this portion of his life, and of the seeming neglect of his parents, appears rather the reflection of what he felt in after-life, in the midst of his success, than what he experienced at the time. It reminds us of Swift’s recollection of what he deemed the sordid parsimony and neglect of his uncle, on whose protection the was thrown. In both cases there was an unhealthy morbid feeling.

The affairs of the elder Dickens afterwards improved a little, and Charles was put to school. When about fifteen he was placed in an attorney’s office among the inferior grade of young clerks. Having probably small prospect of advancement there, he took to the study of short-hand, frequented the British Museum, and read diligently. “Pray, Mr.Dickens,” said a friend one day to the young student’s father, “where was your son educated?” “Why, indeed sir – ha! ha! – he may be said to educated himself.”. In Pickwick, Mr.Weller speaks in a similar strain about his hopeful son Sam: “I took a good deal o’ pains with his eddication, sir; let him run in the streets when he was wery young, and shift for his-self.”

Charles got to practice as a reporter in the law-courts, his father having also taken to it in aid of the family resources. At the age of nineteen the persevering youth made his way into the gallery of the House of Commons, first as a reporter for the True Sun, and afterwards for the Morning Chronicle. At this employment Dickens distinguished himself: out of eighty or ninety reporters he was acknowledged as the best. The situation was one calculated to sharpen his faculties and store his mind with miscellaneous information. Parliamentary reporting is more a mental than mechanical labour.
To the power of writing rapidly, there must be joined quickness of apprehension, judgment to select and condense, and a degree of imagination, ready sympathy, or dramatic talent which identifies the reporter with the speaker, and enables him to render his meaning faithfully and vividly. The difficulty is, to find the mechanical art combined with the intellectual qualifications; but these Dickens possessed in perfection. The Reporter’s Gallery was a good field if discipline and observation for the future novelist, and out of it, in his long unemplyed forenoons, he had the range of the world of London – its oddities, humours, streets and houses – which he made his favourite study.

One day he ventured to drop a story he had written into the letter-box of the Old Monthly Magazin; it appeared in all the glory of print; and the young author followed it up with other sketches, signed „Boz,” which appeared in that magazine and in the Evening Chronicle. In consideration of the Chronicle sketches, his salary was raised from five to seven guineas a week.

The year 1836 was a memorable one in Dicken’s career. In that year he collected into two volumes the first series of Sketches of Boz, for the copyright of which he received £150, and which he repurchased next year for £2000! On 31st March, he commenced the Pickwick Papers, the foundation of his fame. On the 2d of April he was married to Catherine, eldest daughter of Mr. Hogarth, one of his fellow-workers on the Chronicle. In August he closed his connection with the Reporters’s Gallery, trusting henceforth to literature as a profession; and in the same month he agreed to edit Bentley’s Miscellany (which was to be started in the following January), and to contribute to it a serial story; and before the year was out he had written two dramatic pieces – The Strange Gentleman, a farce, acted in September, and The Village Coquettes, an opera, performed in December 1836.

Pickwick was commenced with illustrations by a comic draughtsman named Seymour; but between the first and second number, the artitst, in some moment of despondency, committed suicide. Another artist, Mr. Hablot Browne, was procured, and continued the illustrations under the name of “Phiz.” Boz and Phiz, after the first four or five numbers, became the rage of the town. The sale before the close of the work had risen to 40,000!
Though defective in plan and arrangement, as Dickens himself admits – in fact, originally intended as only a representation of a club of oddities – the characters, incidents, and dialogues in this new series of sketches were irresistibly ludicrous and attractive. The hero, Pickwick, is almost as genial, unsophisticated, and original as My Uncle Toby; while his man, Sam Weller, and Sam’s father, Mr Weller, senior, were types of low life new to fiction. They were caricatures, as every one saw; but so many curious traits of character were depicted, with such overflowing, broad, kindly humour, felicities of phrase and slang expression, and such a mass of comic incidents and details, that the effect of the whole was to place Dickens at one bound at the head of all his contemporary novelists.
The pictorial accompaniments aided greatly in the succes of the work. What Boz conceived and described, Phiz represented with truth, spirit and individuality. The intimate acquaintance evinced in Pickwick with the middle and low life of London, and of the tricks and knavery of legal and medical pretenders, the arts of bookmakers, and generally of paricular classes and usages common to large cities, was a novelty in our literature. It was a restoration of the spirit of Hogarth adapted to the times in which the story appeared.
“So much can’t,” as one of Dickens’s critics remarks, “had been in fashion about the wisdom of our ancestors, the glorious constitution, the wise balance of King, Lords, and Commons, and other such topics, which are embalmed in the Noodle’s Oration, that a large class of people were ready to hail with intense satisfaction the advent of a writer who naturally, and without an effort, bantered everything in the world, from elections and lawcourts, down to Cockney sportsmen, the boots at an inn, cooks and chambermaids.”

In the midst of the brilliant success of Pickwick a personal sorrow occured, which illustrates the keen sensibility of the novelist. His wife’s younger sister Mary, who lived with them, and had made herself “the ideal of his life,” died with a terrible suddenness that completely bore him down. The publication of Pickwick was interrupted for two months, the effort of writing it not being possible to him. This Mary appears to have been the original of his Agnes in David Copperfield, in which novel he embodied much of his own early career and experiences.

While Pickwick was in progress, Oliver Twist was in course of publication in Bentley’s Miscellany. It is a story of outlaw English life – of vice, wretchedness, and misery. The hero is an orphan brought up by the parish, and thrown among scenes and characters of the lowest and worst description. That he should not, under such training, have become utterly callous and debased, is an improbability which the author does not well get over; but the interest of the story is admirably sustained. The character of the ruffian Sikes, and the detail of his atrocities, particularly his murder of the girl Nancy, are brought out with extraordinary effect. The descriptive passages evince that close observation and skilful management of detail in which Dickens never fails, except when he attempts scenes in high life, or is led to carry his humour or pathos into the region of caricature.

Dickens’s next work, Nicholas Nickleby, was also published in monthly numbers, 1838-39, and was no less extensively read. The plan of this work is more regular and connected than that of Pickwick, and the interest of the narrative is well sustained. The pedagogue Squeers, and his seminary of Dotheboys Hall, is one of the most amusing and graphic of English satirical delineations; and the picture it presents of imposture, ignorance, and brutal cupidity, is known to have been little, if at all, caricatured. The exposure was a public benefit. The ludicrous account of Mr.Crummles and his theatrical company will occur to the reader as another of Dicken’s happiest conceptions, though it is pushed into the region of farce.

In several of our author’s works there appears a minute knowledge of dramatic rules and stage affairs. He took great interest and pleasure in the business of the drama. As an amateur comedian – in which he occasionally appeared for benevolent objects – he is described as having been equal to the old masters of the stage, such as Charles Lamb loved to see and write about; and doubtless some of his defects as well as excellences as a novelist may be traced to this predilection. To paint strongly to the eye, and produce striking contrasts of a pathetic or grotesque description – to exaggerate individual oddities and traits of character, as marking individuals or classes – are almost inseparable from dramatic representation.

Dickens was soon independent of all criticism. He was recognised master of the English fiction, and critics and readers alike looked forward with anxiety to each successive appearance of the popular novelist.

In 1840, he commenced a new literary project, entitled Master Humphrey’s Clock, designed like the the Tales of my Landlord, to comprise different tales under one general title, and joined by one connecting narrative. The outline was by no means prepossessing; but as soon as the reader had got through this exterior scaffolding, and entered on the first story, The old curiosity shop, there was no lack of interest. The effects of gambling are depicted with great force. There is something very striking in the conception of the helpless old gamester, tottering upon the verge of the grave, and at that period when most of our other passions are as much worn out as the frame which sustains them, still maddened with that terrible infatuation, which seems to shoot up stronger and stronger as every other desire and energy dies away.
Little Nell, the grandchild, is a beautiful creation of pure-mindedness, and innocence, yet with those habits of pensive reflection, and that firmness and energy of mind, which misfortune will often ingraft on the otherwise buoyant and unthinking spirit of childhood; and the contrast between her and her grandfather, now dwindled in every respect but the one into a second childhood, and conforted, directed, and sustained by her unshrinking formness and love, is very fine managed. The death of Nell is the most pathetic and touching of the author’s serious passages – it is also instructive in its pathos, for we feel with the author, that “when Death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes. In the destroyer“s steps there spring up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark paths becomes a way of light to heaven.”
The horrors of the almost hopeless want which too often prevails in the great manufacturing towns, and the wild and reckless despair which it engenders, are described with equal mastery of colouring and effect. The account of the wretch whose whole life had been spent in watching, day and night, a furnace, until he imagined it to be a living being, and its roaring the voice of the only friend he had ever known, although grotesque, has something in it very terrible: we may smile at the wildness, yet shudder at the horror of the fancy.

A second story, Barnaby Rudge, is included in Master Humphrey’s Clock, and this also contains some excellent minute painting, a variety of broad humour and laughable caricature, with some masterly scenes of passion and description. The account of the excesses committed during Lord George Gordon’s riots in 1780 may vie with Scott’s narrative of the Porteous Mob; and poor Barnaby Rudge with his raven may be considered as no unworthy companion to Davie Gellatly. There is also a picture of an old English inn, the Maypole, near Epping Forest, and an old inkeeper, John Willet, which is perfect in its kind – such, perhaps, as only Dickens could have painted, though Washington Irving might have made the first etching.

On the succes of this work and of its author, we have a passing glimpse in one of Lord Jeffrey’s letters, dated May 4, 1881:

“I have seen a good deal of Charles Dickens, with whom I have struck up what I mean to be an eternal and intimate friendship. I often sit an hour tête-à-tête or take a long walk in the park with him – the only way really to know or be known by either man or woman. Taken in his way, I think him very amiable and agreeable. In mixed company, where he is now much sought after as a lion, he is rather reserved, &c. He has dined here, and me with him, at rather too sumptuous a dinner for a man with a family, and only beginning to be rich, though selling 44.000 copies of his weekly [monthly] issues.”

In 1841 Dickens was entertained to a great public dinner in Edinburgh, Professor Wilson in the chair; after which he made a tour in the Highlands, visiting Glencoe and neighbouring scenery – “tremendous wilds, really fearful in their grandeur and amazing solitude.” Next year he made a trip to America, of which he published an account in 1842, under the somewhat quaint title of American Notes for General Circulation. This work disappointed the author’s admirers, who may be considered as formling nearly the whole of the reading public.
The field had already been well gleaned, the American character and institutions frequently described and generally understood, and Dickens could not hope to add to our knowledge on any of the great topics connected with the condition or future destinies of the New World. His descriptive passages (as that on the Falls of Niagara) are often overdone. The newspaper press he describes as corrupt and debased beyond any experience or conception in this country. He also joines with Captain Basil Hall, Mrs. Trollope, and Captain Marryat, in representing the social state and morality of the people as low and dangerous, destitute of high principle or generosity. So acute and practised an observer as Dickens could not travel without noting many oddities of character and viewing familiar objects in a new light.

In the course of the year 1843, Dickens entered upon a new tale, Martin Chuzzlewit, in which many of his American reminiscences are embodied. The quackeries of architects are admirably ridiculed in the character of Pecksniff; and the nurse, Mrs.Gamp, with her eidolon, Mrs.Harris, is one of the most finished and original of the author’s portraits. About Christmas of the same year the fertile author threw off a light production in his happiest manner, A Christmas Carol, in Praise, which enjoyed vast popularity, and was dramatised at the London theatres. A goblin story, The Chimes greeted the Christmas of 1844; and a fairy tale, The Cricket on the Hearth, was ready for the same genial season in 1845. These little annual stories are imbued with excellent feeling, and are redolent of both tenderness and humour.

A residence in Italy furnished Dickens with materials for a series of sketches, originally published in e new morning paper, The daily news, which was for a short time under the charge of our author: they were afterwards collected and republished in a volume, bearing the title of Pictures from Italy, 1846. It is perhaps characteristic of Dickens that Rome reminded him of London!

We began in a perfect fever to strain our eyes for Rome; and when, after another mile or two, the Eternal City appeared, at length, in the distance, it looked like – I am half afraid to write the word – London. There it lay under a thick cloud, with innumerable towers, and steeples, and roofs of houses rising up into the sky, and high above them all, one dome. I swear that, keenly as I felt the seeming absurdity of the comparison, it was so like London, at that distance, that if you could have shewn it me in a glass, I should have taken it for nothing else.

Though of the slightest texture, and generally short, these Italian pictures of Dickens are not unworthy of his graphic pencil.

The novelist afterwards visited Switzerland, and resided several summers in France; and his letters written during these residences abroad, have all the liveliness, humour, and interest of his published works. In 1848 appeared his novel Dombey and son, and in 1850, David Copperfield, perhaps the most perfect, natural, and agreeable of his novels. In this story, Dickens introduced much of his own life and experience, his father sitting for the character of Micawber, one of the most humorous and finished of his portraitures.

In his next work, Black House, he also drew from living originals – Savage Landor and Leigh Hunt. The latter, though a faithful, was a depreciatory sketch, and led to much remark, which its author regretted. In 1850, Dickens commenced a literary periodical, Household Words, which he carried on with marked success until 1859, when, in consequence of a disagreement with his publishers (in which Dickens was clearly and decidedly in the wrong), he discontinued it, and established another journal of the same kind, under the title of All the year round.

His novels subsequent to Black House were – Hard times, 1854; Little Dorrit, 1855; A Tale of Two Cities, 1859; Great Expectations, 1861; Our Mutual Friend, 1865. During part of this time, he was engaged in giving public readings from his works, by which he realised large sums of money, and gratified thousands of his admirers in England, Ireland and Scotland. He also extended his readings to America, having revisited that country in 1867, and met with a brilliant reception.

His health, however, suffered from the excitement and fatigue of these readings, into which he threw a great amount of dramatic power and physical energy. The combined effects of a love of money and a love of applause urged him on incessantly long after he should have ceased. He gave his final reading in London, March 15, 1870, and in the same month appeared the first part of a new novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which promised to be one of the best of his long file of fictions. About half of this novel was written, when its author one afternoon, whilst after dinner, was struck down by an attack of apoplexy. He lingered in a state of unconsciousness for about twenty-four hours, and died on the evening of the 9th of Juni 1870. He was interred in Westminster Abbey.

The sudden death of an author so popular and so thoroughly national, was lamented by all classes, from the sovereign downwards as a personal calamity. It was not merely as a humorist – though that was his great distinguishing characteristic – that Charles Dickens obtained such unexampled popularity. He was a public instructor, a reformer, and moralist.

“Ah!” said he, speaking of the glories of Venice, “when I saw those places, how I thought that to leave one’s hand upon the time, with one tender touch for the mass of toiling people that nothing could obliterate, would be to lift one’s self above the dust of all the doges in their graves, and stand upon a giant’s staircase that Samson couldn’t overthrow!” Whatever was good and amiable, bright and joyous in our life anf nature, he loved, supported, and augmented by his writings; whatever was false, hypocritical, and vicious, he held up to ridicule, scorn, or contempt.