Charles Dickens - Facts, Plot Summaries and Information

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The last number of "Barnaby Rudge" appeared in November, 1841, and, on the 4th of the following January Dickens sailed with his wife for a six months' tour in the United States. What induced him to undertake this journey, more formidable then, of course, than now?

Charles Dickens Acting in a Play

Mainly, I think, that restless desire to see the world which is strong in a great many men, and was specially strong in Dickens. Ride as he might, and walk as he might, his abounding energies remained unsatisfied. In 1837 there had been trips to Belgium, Broadstairs, Brighton; in 1838 to Yorkshire, Broadstairs, North Wales, and a fairly long stay at Twickenham; in 1839 a similar stay at Petersham--where, as at Twickenham, frolic, gaiety and athletics had prevailed,--and trips to Broadstairs and Devonshire; in 1840 trips again to Bath, Birmingham, Shakespeare's country, Broadstairs, Devonshire; in 1841 more trips, and a very notable visit to Edinburgh, with which Little Nell had a great deal to do. For Lord Jeffrey was enamoured of that young lady, declaring to whomsoever would hear that there had been "nothing so good ... since Cordelia;" and inoculating the citizens of the northern capital with his enthusiasm, he had induced them to offer to Dickens a right royal banquet, and the freedom of their city. Accordingly to Edinburgh he repaired, and the dinner took place on the 26th of June, with three hundred of the chief notabilities for entertainers, and a reception such as kings might have envied. Jeffrey himself was ill and unable to take the chair, but Wilson, the leonine "Christopher North," editor of Blackwood, and author of those "Noctes Ambrosianæ" which were read so eagerly as they came out, and which some of us find so difficult to read now--Wilson presided most worthily. Of speechifying there was of course much, and compliments abounded. But the banquet itself, the whole reception at Edinburgh was the most magnificent of compliments. Never, I imagine, can such efforts have been made to turn any young man's brain, as were made, during this and the following year, to turn the head of Dickens, who was still, be it remembered, under thirty. Nevertheless he came unscathed through the ordeal. A kind of manly genuineness bore him through. Amid all the adulation and excitement, the public and private hospitalities, the semi-regal state appearance at the theatre, he could write, and write truly, to his friend Forster: "The moral of this is, that there is no place like home; and that I thank God most heartily for having given me a quiet spirit and a heart that won't hold many people. I sigh for Devonshire Terrace and Broadstairs, for battledore and shuttlecock; I want to dine in a blouse with you and Mac (Maclise).... On Sunday evening, the 17th July, I shall revisit my household gods, please heaven. I wish the day were here."

Yes, except during the few years when he and his wife lived unhappily together, he was greatly attached to his home, with its friendships and simple pleasures; but yet, as I have said, a desire to see more of the world, and to garner new experiences, was strong upon him. The two conflicting influences often warred in his life, so that it almost seemed sometimes as if he were being driven by relentless furies. Those furies pointed now with stern fingers towards America, though "how" he was "to get on" "for seven or eight months without" his friends, he could not upon his "soul conceive;" though he dreaded "to think of breaking up all" his "old happy habits for so long a time;" though "Kate," remembering doubtless her four little children, wept whenever the subject was "spoken of." Something made him feel that the going was "a matter of imperative necessity." Washington Irving beckoned from across the Atlantic, speaking, as Jeffrey had spoken from Edinburgh, of Little Nell and her far-extended influence. There was a great reception foreshadowed, and a new world to be seen, and a book to be written about it. While as to the strongest of the home ties--the children that brought the tears into Mrs. Dickens' eyes,--the separation, after all, would not be eternal, and the good Macready, tragic actor and true friend, would take charge of the little folk while their parents were away. So Dickens, who had some time before "begun counting the days between this and coming home again," set sail, as I have said, for America on the 4th of January, 1842.

And a very rough experience he, and Mrs. Dickens, and Mrs. Dickens' maid seem to have had during that January passage from Liverpool to Halifax and Boston. Most of the time it blew horribly, and they were direfully ill. Then a storm supervened, which swept away the paddle-boxes and stove in the life-boats, and they seem to have been in real peril. Next the ship struck on a mud-bank. But dangers and discomforts must have been forgotten, at any rate to begin with, in the glories of the reception that awaited the "inimitable,"--as Dickens whimsically called himself in those days,--when he landed in the New World. If he had been received with princely honours in Edinburgh, he was treated now as an emperor in some triumphant progress. Halifax sounded the first note of welcome, gave, as it were, the preliminary trumpet flourish. From that town he writes: "I wish you could have seen the crowds cheering the inimitable in the streets. I wish you could have seen judges, law-officers, bishops, and law-makers welcoming the inimitable. I wish you could have seen the inimitable shown to a great elbow-chair by the Speaker's throne, and sitting alone in the middle of the floor of the House of Commons, the observed of all observers, listening with exemplary gravity to the queerest speaking possible, and breaking, in spite of himself, into a smile as he thought of this commencement to the thousand and one stories in reserve for home." At Boston the enthusiasm had swelled to even greater proportions. "How can I give you," he writes, "the faintest notion of my reception here; of the crowds that pour in and out the whole day; of the people that line the streets when I go out; of the cheering when I went to the theatre; of the copies of verses, letters of congratulation, welcomes of all kinds, balls, dinners, assemblies without end?... There is to be a dinner in New York, ... to which I have had an invitation with every known name in America appended to it.... I have had deputations from the Far West, who have come from more than two thousand miles' distance; from the lakes, the rivers, the backwoods, the log-houses, the cities, factories, villages, and towns. Authorities from nearly all the states have written to me. I have heard from the universities, congress, senate, and bodies, public and private, of every sort and kind." All was indeed going happy as a marriage bell. Did I not rightly say that the world was conspiring to spoil this young man of thirty, whose youth had certainly not been passed in the splendour of opulence or power? What wonder if in the dawn of his American experiences, and of such a reception, everything assumed a roseate hue? Is it matter for surprise if he found the women "very beautiful," the "general breeding neither stiff nor forward," "the good nature universal"; if he expatiated, not without a backward look at unprogressive Old England, on the comparative comfort among the working classes, and the absence of beggars in the streets? But, alas, that rosy dawn ended, as rosy dawns sometimes will, in sleet and mist and very dirty weather. Before many weeks, before many days had flown, Dickens was writing in a very different spirit. On the 24th of February, in the midst of a perfect ovation of balls and dinners, he writes "with reluctance, disappointment, and sorrow," that "there is no country on the face of the earth, where there is less freedom of opinion on any subject in reference to which there is a broad difference of opinion, than in" the United States. On the 22nd of March he writes again, to Macready, who seems to have remonstrated with him on his growing discontent: "It is of no use, I am disappointed. This is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination. I infinitely prefer a liberal monarchy--even with its sickening accompaniment of Court circulars--to such a government as this. The more I think of its youth and strength, the poorer and more trifling in a thousand aspects it appears in my eyes. In everything of which it has made a boast, excepting its education of the people, and its care for poor children, it sinks immeasurably below the level I had placed it upon, and England, even England, bad and faulty as the old land is, and miserable as millions of her people are, rises in the comparison.... Freedom of opinion; where is it? I see a press more mean and paltry and silly and disgraceful than any country I ever knew.... In the respects of not being left alone, and of being horribly disgusted by tobacco chewing and tobacco spittle, I have suffered considerably."

Extracts like these could be multiplied to any extent, and the question arises, why did such a change come over the spirit of Dickens? Washington Irving, at the great New York dinner, had called him "the guest of the nation." Why was the guest so quickly dissatisfied with his host, and quarrelling with the character of his entertainment? Sheer physical fatigue, I think, had a good deal to do with it. Even at Boston, before he had begun to travel over the unending railways, water-courses, and chaotic coach-roads of the great Republic, that key-note had been sounded. "We are already," he had written, "weary at times, past all expression." Few men can wander with impunity out of their own professional sphere, and undertake duties for which they have neither the training nor acquired tastes. Dickens was a writer, not a king; and here he was expected to hold a king's state, and live in a king's publicity, but without the formal etiquette that hedge a king from intruders, and make his position tolerable. He was hemmed in by curious eyes, mobbed in the streets, stared at in his own private rooms, interviewed by the hour, shaken by the hand till his arm must often have been ready to drop off, waylaid at every turn with formal addresses. If he went to church the people crowded into the adjacent pews, and the preacher preached at him. If he got into a public conveyance, every one inside insisted on an introduction, and the people outside--say before the train started--would pull down the windows and comment freely on his nose and eyes and personal appearance generally, some even touching him as if to see if he were real. He was safe from intrusion nowhere--no, not when he was washing and his wife in bed. Such attentions must have been exhausting to a degree that can scarcely be imagined. But there was more than mere physical weariness in his growing distaste for the United States. Perfectly outspoken at all times, and eager for the strife of tongues in any cause which he had at heart, it horrified him to find that he was expected not to express himself freely on such subjects as International Copyright, and that even in private, or semi-private intercourse, slavery was a topic to be avoided. Then I fear, too, that as he left cultured Boston behind, he was brought into close and habitual contact with natives whom he did not appreciate. Rightly or wrongly, he took a strong dislike for Brother Jonathan as Brother Jonathan existed, in the rough, five and forty years ago. He was angered by that young gentleman's brag, offended by the rough familiarity of his manners, indignant at his determination by all means to acquire dollars, incensed by his utter want of care for literature and art, sickened by his tobacco-chewing and expectorations. So when Dickens gets to "Niagara Falls, upon the English side," he puts ten dashes under the word English; and, meeting two English officers, contrasts them in thought with the men whom he has just left, and seems, by note of exclamation and italics, to call upon the world to witness, "what gentlemen, what noblemen of nature they seemed!"

And Brother Jonathan, how did he regard his young guest? Well, Jonathan, great as he was, and greater as he was destined to be, did not possess the gift of prophecy, and could not of course foresee the scathing satire of "American Notes" and "Martin Chuzzlewit." But still, amid all his enthusiasm, I think there must have been a feeling of uneasiness and disappointment. Part, as there is no doubt, of the fervour with which he greeted Dickens, was due to his regarding Dickens as the representative of democratic feeling in aristocratic England, as the advocate of the poor and down-trodden against the wealthy and the strong; "and"--thus argued Jonathan--"because we are a democracy, therefore Dickens will admire and love us, and see how immeasurably superior we are to the retrograde Britishers of his native land." But unfortunately Dickens showed no signs of being impressed in that particular way. On the contrary, as we have seen, such comparison as he made in his own mind was infinitely to the disadvantage of the United States. "We must be cracked up," says Hannibal Chollop, in "Martin Chuzzlewit," speaking of his fellow countrymen. And Dickens, even while fêted and honoured, would not "crack up" the Americans. He lectured them almost with truculence on their sins in the matter of copyright; he could scarcely be restrained from testifying against slavery; he was not the man to say he liked manners and customs which he loathed. Jonathan must have been very doubtfully satisfied with his guest.

It is no part of my purpose to follow Dickens lingeringly, and step by step, from the day when he landed at Halifax, to the 7th of June, when he re-embarked at New York for England. From Boston he went to New York, where the great dinner was given with Washington Irving in the chair, and thence to Philadelphia and Washington,--which was still the empty "city of magnificent distances," that Mr. Goldwin Smith declares it has now ceased to be;--and thence again westward, and by Niagara and Canada back to New York. And if any persons want to know what he thought about these and other places, and the railway travelling, and the coach travelling, and the steamboat travelling, and the prisons and other public institutions--aye, and many other things besides, they cannot do better than read the "American Notes for general circulation," which he wrote and published within the year after his return. Nor need such persons be deterred by the fact that Macaulay thought meanly of the book; for Macaulay, with all his great gifts, did not, as he himself knew full well, excel in purely literary criticism. So when he pronounces, that "what is meant to be easy and sprightly is vulgar and flippant," and "what is meant to be fine is a great deal too fine for me, as the description of the Falls of Niagara," one can venture to differ without too great a pang. The book, though not assuredly one of Dickens' best, contains admirable passages which none but he could have written, and the description of Niagara is noticeably fine, the sublimity of the subject being remembered, as a piece of impassioned prose. Whether satire so bitter and unfriendly as that in which he indulged, both here and in "Martin Chuzzlewit," was justifiable from what may be called an international point of view, is another question. Publicists do not always remember that a cut which would smart for a moment, and then be forgotten, if aimed at a countryman, rankles and festers if administered to a foreigner. And if this be true as regards the English publicist's comment on the foreigner who does not understand our language, it is, of course, true with tenfold force as regards the foreigner whose language is our own. He understands only too well the jibe and the sneer, and the tone of superiority, more offensive perhaps than either. Looked at in this way, it can, I think, but be accounted a misfortune that the most popular of English writers penned two books containing so much calculated to wound American feeling, as the "Notes" and "Martin Chuzzlewit." Nor are signs entirely wanting that, as the years went by, the mind of Dickens himself was haunted by some such suspicion. A quarter of a century later, he visited the United States a second time; and speaking at a public dinner given in his honour by the journalists of New York, he took occasion to comment on the enormous strides which the country had made in the interval, and then said, "Nor am I, believe me, so arrogant as to suppose that in five and twenty years there have been no changes in me, and that I had nothing to learn, and no extreme impressions to correct when I was here first." And he added that, in all future editions of the two books just named, he would cause to be recorded, that, "wherever he had been, in the smallest place equally with the largest, he had been received with unsurpassable politeness, delicacy, sweet temper, hospitality, consideration, and with unsurpassable respect for the privacy daily enforced upon him by the nature of his avocation there" (as a public reader), "and the state of his health."

And now, with three observations, I will conclude what I have to say about the visit to America in 1842. The first is that the "Notes" are entirely void of all vulgarity of reference to the private life of the notable Americans whom Dickens had met. He seems to have known, more or less intimately, the chief writers of the time--Washington Irving, Channing, Dana, Bryant, Longfellow, Bancroft; but his intercourse with them he held sacred, and he made no literary capital out of it. Secondly, it is pleasant to note that there was, so far, no great "incompatibility of temper" between him and his wife. He speaks of her enthusiastically, in his correspondence, as a "most admirable traveller," and expatiates on the good temper and equanimity with which she had borne the fatigues and jars of a most trying journey. And the third point to which I will call attention is the thoroughly characteristic form of rest to which he had recourse in the midst of all his toil and travel. Most men would have sought relaxation in being quiet. He found it in vigorously getting up private theatricals with the officers of the Coldstream Guards, at Montreal. Besides acting in all the three pieces played, he also accepted the part of stage manager; and "I am not," he says, "placarded as stage manager for nothing. Everybody was told that they would have to submit to the most iron despotism, and didn't I come Macready over them? Oh no, by no means; certainly not. The pains I have taken with them, and the perspiration I have expended, during the last ten days, exceed in amount anything you can imagine." What bright vitality, and what a singular charm of exuberant animal spirits!

And who was glad one evening--which would be about the last evening in June, or the first of July--when a hackney coach rattled up to the door of the house in Devonshire Terrace, and four little folk, two girls and two boys, were hurried down, and kissed through the bars of the gate, because their father was too eager to wait till it was opened? Who were glad but the little folk aforementioned--I say nothing of the joy of father and mother; for children as they were, a sense of sorrowful loss had been theirs while their parents were away, and greater strictness seems to have reigned in the good Macready's household than in their own joyous home. It is Miss Dickens herself who tells us this, and in whose memory has lingered that pretty scene of the kiss through the bars in the summer gloaming. And she has much to tell us too of her father's tenderness and care,--of his sympathy with the children's terrors, so that, for instance, he would sit beside the cot of one of the little girls who had been startled, and hold her hand in his till she fell asleep; of his having them on his knees, and singing to them the merriest of comic songs; of his interest in all their small concerns; of the many pet names with which he invested them.[17] Then, as they grew older, there were Twelfth Night parties and magic lanterns. "Never such magic lanterns as those shown by him," she says. "Never such conjuring as his." There was dancing, too, and the little ones taught him his steps, which he practised with much assiduity, once even jumping out of bed in terror, lest he had forgotten the polka, and indulging in a solitary midnight rehearsal. Then, as the children grew older still, there were private theatricals. "He never," she says again, "was too busy to interest himself in his children's occupations, lessons, amusements, and general welfare." Clearly not one of those brilliant men, a numerous race, who when away from their homes, in general society, sparkle and scintillate, flash out their wit, and irradiate all with their humour, but who, when at home, are dull as rusted steel. Among the many tributes to his greatness, that of his own child has a place at once touching and beautiful.


[17] Miss Dickens evidently bears proudly still her pet name of "Mamie," and signs it to her book.

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