Charles Dickens - Facts, Plot Summaries and Information

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Charles Dickens as a Young Man

Dickens was not at all the man to rest on his oars while "Pickwick" was giving such a magnificent impetus to the boat that contained his fortunes. The amount of work which he accomplished in the years 1836, 1837, 1838, and 1839 is, if we consider its quality, amazing. "Pickwick," as we have seen, was begun with the first of these years, and its publication continued till the November of 1837. Independently of his work on "Pickwick," he was, in the year 1836, engaged in the arduous profession of a reporter till the close of the parliamentary session, and also wrote a pamphlet on Sabbatarianism, a farce in two acts, "The Strange Gentleman," for the St. James's Theatre, and a comic opera, "The Village Coquettes," which was set to music by Hullah. With the very commencement of 1837--"Pickwick," it will be remembered, going on all the while--he entered upon the duties of editor of Bentley's Miscellany, and in the second number began the publication of "Oliver Twist," which was continued into the early months of 1839, when his connection with the magazine ceased. In the April of 1838, and simultaneously, of course, with "Oliver Twist," appeared the first part of "Nicholas Nickleby"--the last part appearing in the October of the following year. Three novels of more than full size and of first-rate importance, in less than four years, besides a good deal of other miscellaneous work--certainly that was "good going." The pace was decidedly fast. Small wonder that The Quarterly Review, even so early as October, 1837, was tempted to croak about "Mr. Dickens" as writing "too often and too fast, and putting forth in their crude, unfinished, undigested state, thoughts, feelings, observations, and plans which it required time and study to mature," and to warn him that as he had "risen like a rocket," so he was in danger of "coming down like the stick." Small wonder, I say, and yet to us now, how unjust the accusation appears, and how false the prophecy. Rapidly as those books were executed, Dickens, like the real artist that he was, had put into them his best work. There was no scamping. The critics of the time judged superficially, not making allowance for the ample fund of observations he had amassed, for the genuine fecundity of his genius, and for the admirable industry of an extremely industrious man. "The World's Workers"--there exists under that general designation a series of short biographies, for which Miss Dickens has written a sketch of her father's life. To no one could the description more fittingly apply. Throughout his life he worked desperately hard. He possessed, in a high degree, the "infinite faculty for taking pains," which is so great an adjunct to genius, though it is not, as the good Sir Joshua Reynolds held, genius itself. Thus what he had done rapidly was done well; and, for the rest, the writer, who had yet to give the world "Martin Chuzzlewit," "The Christmas Carol," "David Copperfield," and "Dombey," was not "coming down like a stick." There were many more stars, and of very brilliant colours, to be showered out by that rocket; and the stick has not even yet fallen to the ground.[13]

Naturally, with the success of "Pickwick," came a great change in Dickens' pecuniary position. He had, as we have seen, been glad enough, before he began the book, to close with the offer of £14 for each monthly part. That sum was afterwards increased to £15, and the two first payments seem to have been made in advance for the purpose of helping him to defray the expenses of his marriage. But as the sale leapt up, the publishers themselves felt that such a rate of remuneration was altogether insufficient, and sent him, first and last, a goodly number of supplementary cheques, for sums amounting in the aggregate, as they computed, to £3,000, and as Forster computes to about £2,500. This Dickens, who, to use his own words, "never undervalued his own work," considered a very inadequate percentage on their gains--forgetting a little, perhaps, that the risks had been wholly theirs, and that he had been more than content with the original bargain. Similarly he was soon utterly dissatisfied with his arrangements with Bentley about the editorship of the Miscellany and "Oliver Twist,"--arrangements which had been entered into in August, 1836, while "Pickwick" was in progress; and he utterly refused to let that publisher have "Gabriel Varden, The Locksmith of London" ("Barnaby Rudge") on the terms originally agreed upon. With Macrone also, who had made some £4,000 by the "Sketches," and given him about £400, he was no better pleased, especially when that enterprising gentleman threatened a re-issue in monthly parts, and so compelled him to re-purchase the copyright for £2,000. But however much he might consider himself ill-treated by the publishing fraternity, he was, of course, rapidly getting far richer than he had been, and so able to enlarge his mode of life. He had begun, modestly enough, by taking his wife to live with him in his bachelor's quarters in Furnival's Inn,--much as Tommy Traddles, in "David Copperfield," took his wife to live in chambers at Gray's Inn; and there, in Furnival's Inn, his first child, a boy, was born on the 6th of January, 1837. But in the March of that year he moved to a more commodious dwelling, at 48, Doughty Street, where he remained till the end of 1839, when still increasing means enabled him to move to a still better house at 1, Devonshire Terrace, Regent's Park. But the house in Doughty Street must have been endeared to him by many memories. It was there, on the 7th of May, 1837, that he lost, at the early age of seventeen, and quite suddenly, a sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, to whom he was greatly attached. The blow fell so heavily at the time as to incapacitate him from all work, and delayed the publication of one of the numbers of "Pickwick." Nor was the sorrow only sharp and transient. He speaks of her in the preface to the first edition of that book. Her spirit seemed to be hovering near as he stood looking at Niagara. He felt her hallowing influence when in danger of growing too much elated by his first reception in America. She came back to him in dreams in Italy. Her image remained in his heart, unchanged by time, as he declared, to the very end. She represented to his mind all that was pure and lovely in opening womanhood, and lives, in the world created by his art, as the Little Nell of "The Old Curiosity Shop." It was in Doughty Street, too, that he began to gather round him the circle of friends whose names seem almost like a muster-roll of the famous men and women in the first thirty years of Queen Victoria's reign. I shall not enumerate them. The list of writers, artists, actors, would be too long. But this at least it would be unjust not to note, that among his friends were included nearly all those who by any stretch of fancy could be regarded as his rivals in the fields of humour and fiction. With Washington Irving, Hood, Douglas Jerrold, Lord Lytton, Harrison Ainsworth, Mr. Wilkie Collins, Mrs. Gaskell, and, save for a passing foolish quarrel, with Thackeray, the novelist who really was his peer, he maintained the kindliest and most cordial relations. Nor when George Eliot published her first books, "The Scenes of Clerical Life" and "Adam Bede," did any one acknowledge their excellence more freely. Petty jealousies found no place in the nature of this great writer.

It was also while living at Doughty Street that he seems, in great measure, to have formed those habits of work and relaxation which every artist fashions so as to suit his own special needs and idiosyncrasies. His favourite time for work was the morning, between the hours of breakfast and lunch; and though, at this particular period, the enormous pressure of his engagements compelled him to work "double tides," and often far into the night, yet he was essentially a day-worker, not a night-worker. Like the great German poet Goethe, he preferred to exercise his art in the fresh morning hours, when the dewdrops, as it were, lay bright upon his imagination and fancy. And for relaxation and sedative, when he had thoroughly worn himself out with mental toil, he would have recourse to the hardest bodily exercise. At first riding seems to have contented him--fifteen miles out and fifteen miles in, with a halt at some road-side inn for refreshment. But soon walking took the place of riding, and he became an indefatigable pedestrian. He would think nothing of a walk of twenty or thirty miles, and that not merely in the vigorous heyday of youth, but afterwards, to the very last. He was always on those alert, quick feet of his, perambulating London from end to end, and in every direction; perambulating the suburbs, perambulating the "greater London" that lies within a radius of twenty miles, round the central core of metropolitan houses. In short, he was everywhere, in all weathers, at all hours. Nor was London, smaller and greater, his only walking field. He would walk wherever he was--walked through and through Genoa, and all about Genoa, when he lived there; knew every inch of the Kent country round Broadstairs and round Gad's Hill--was, as I have said, always, always, always on his feet. But if he would pedestrianize everywhere, London remained the walking ground of his heart. As Dr. Johnson held that nothing equalled a stroll down Fleet Street, so did Dickens, sitting in full view of Genoa's perfect bay, and with the blue Mediterranean sparkling at his feet, turn in thought for inspiration to his old haunts. "Never," he writes to Forster, when about to begin "The Chimes," "never did I stagger so upon a threshold before. I seem as if I had plucked myself out of my proper soil when I left Devonshire Terrace, and could take root no more until I return to it.... Did I tell you how many fountains we have here? No matter. If they played nectar, they wouldn't please me half so well as the West Middlesex Waterworks at Devonshire Terrace.... Put me down on Waterloo Bridge at eight o'clock in the evening, with leave to roam about as long as I like, and I would come home, as you know, panting to go on. I am sadly strange as it is, and can't settle." "Eight o'clock in the evening,"--that points to another of his peculiarities. As he liked best to walk in London, so he liked best to walk at night. The darkness of the great city had a strange fascination for him. He never grew tired of it, would find pleasure and refreshment, when most weary and jaded, in losing himself in it, in abandoning himself to its mysteries. Looked at with this knowledge, the opening of the "Old Curiosity Shop" becomes a passage of autobiography. And how all these wanderings must have served him in his art! Remember what a keen observer he was, perhaps one of the keenest that ever lived, and then think what food for observation he would thus be constantly collecting. To the eye that knows how to see, there is no stage where so many scenes from the drama of life are being always enacted as the streets of London. Dickens frequented that theatre very assiduously, and of his power of sight there can be no question.


[13] I think critics, and perhaps I myself, have been a little hard on this Quarterly Reviewer. He did not, after all, say that Dickens would come down like a stick, only that he might do so if he wrote too fast and furiously.

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Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity Shop

Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens

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