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Charles Dickens at Age 47

Ah, those eventful, picturesque, uncomfortable old travelling days, when railways were unborn, or in their infancy; those interminable old dusty drives, in diligence or private carriage, along miles and miles of roads running straight to the low horizon, through a line of tall poplars, across the plains of France! What an old-world memory it seems, and yet, as the years go, not so very long since after all. The party that rumbled from Boulogne to Marseilles in the old "devil of a coach" aforesaid, "and another conveyance for luggage," and I know not what other conveyances besides, consisted of Dickens himself; Mrs. Dickens; her sister, Miss Georgina Hogarth, who had come to live with them on their return from America; five children, for another boy had been born some six months before; Roche, the prince of couriers; "Anne," apparently the same maid who had accompanied them across the Atlantic; and other dependents: a somewhat formidable troupe and cavalcade. Of their mode of travel, and what they saw on the way, or perhaps, more accurately, of what Dickens saw, with those specially keen eyes of his, at Lyons, Avignon, Marseilles, and other places--one may read the master's own account in the "Pictures from Italy." Marseilles was reached on the 14th of July, and thence a steamer took them, coasting the fairy Mediterranean shores, to Genoa, their ultimate destination, where they landed on the 16th.

The Italy of 1844 was like, and yet unlike the Italy of to-day. It was the old disunited Italy of several small kingdoms and principalities, the Italy over which lowered the shadow of despotic Austria, and of the Pope's temporal power, not the Italy which the genius of Cavour has welded into a nation. It was a land whose interest came altogether from the past, and that lay as it were in the beauty of time's sunset. How unlike the United States! The contrast has always, I confess, seemed to me a piquant one. It has often struck me with a feeling of quaintness that the two countries which Dickens specially visited and described, were, the one this lovely land of age and hoar antiquity, and the other that young giant land of the West, which is still in the garish strong light of morning, and whose great day is in the future. Nor, I think, before he had seen both, would Dickens himself have been able to tell on which side his sympathies would lie. Thoroughly popular in his convictions, thoroughly satisfied that to-day was in all respects better than yesterday, it is clear that he expected to find more pleasure in the brand new Republic than his actual experience warranted. The roughness of the strong, uncultured young life grated upon him. It jarred upon his sensibilities. But of Italy he wrote with very different feeling. What though the places were dirty, the people shiftless, idle, unpunctual, unbusinesslike, and the fleas as the sand which is upon the sea-shore for multitude? It mattered not while life was so picturesque and varied, and manners were so full of amenity. Your inn might be, and probably was, ill-appointed, untidy, the floors of brick, the doors agape, the windows banging--a contrast in every way to the palatial hotel in New York or Washington. But then how cheerful and amusing were mine host and hostess, and how smilingly determined all concerned to make things pleasant. So the artist in Dickens turned from the new to the old, and Italy, as she is wont, cast upon him her spell.

First impressions, however, were not altogether satisfactory. Dickens owns to a pang when he was "set down" at Albaro, a suburb of Genoa, "in a rank, dull, weedy courtyard, attached to a kind of pink jail, and told he lived there." But he immediately adds: "I little thought that day that I should ever come to have an attachment for the very stones in the streets of Genoa, and to look back upon the city with affection, as connected with many hours of happiness and quiet." In sooth, he enjoyed the place thoroughly. "Martin Chuzzlewit" had left his hands. He was fairly entitled for a few weeks to the luxury of idleness, and he threw himself into doing nothing, as he was accustomed to throw himself into his work, with all energy. And there was much to do, much especially to see. So Dickens bathed and walked; and strolled about the city hither and thither, and about the suburbs and about the surrounding country; and visited public buildings and private palaces; and noted the ways of the inhabitants; and saw Genoese life in its varied forms; and wrote light glancing letters about it all to friends at home; and learnt Italian; and, in the end of September, left his "pink jail," which had been taken for him at a disproportionate rent, and moved into the Palazzo Peschiere, in Genoa itself: a wonderful palace, with an entrance-hall fifty feet high, and larger than "the dining-room of the Academy," and bedrooms "in size and shape like those at Windsor Castle, but greatly higher," and a view from the windows over gardens where the many fountains sparkled, and the gold fish glinted, and into Genoa itself, with its "many churches, monasteries, and convents pointing to the sunny sky," and into the harbour, and over the sapphire sea, and up again to the encircling hills--a view, as Dickens declared, that "no custom could impair, and no description enhance."

But with the beginning of October came again the time for work; and beautiful beyond all beauty as were his surroundings, the child of London turned to the home of his heart, and pined for the London streets. For some little space he seemed to be thinking in vain, and cudgelling his brains for naught, when suddenly the chimes of Genoa's many churches, that seemed to have been clashing and clanging nothing but distraction and madness, rang harmony into his mind. The subject and title of his new Christmas book were found. He threw himself into the composition of "The Chimes."

Earnest at all times in what he wrote, living ever in intense and passionate sympathy with the world of his imagination, he seems specially to have put his whole heart into this book. "All my affections and passions got twined and knotted up in it, and I became as haggard as a murderer long before I wrote 'the end,'"--so he told Lady Blessington on the 20th of November; and to Forster he expressed the yearning that was in him to "leave" his "hand upon the time, lastingly upon the time, with one tender touch for the mass of toiling people that nothing could obliterate." This was the keynote of "The Chimes." He intended in it to strike a great and memorable blow on behalf of the poor and down-trodden. His purpose, so far as I can make it out, was to show how much excuse there is for their shortcomings, and how in their errors, nay even in their crimes, there linger traces of goodness and kindly feeling. On this I shall have something to say when discussing "Hard Times," which is somewhat akin to "The Chimes" in scope and purpose. Meanwhile it cannot honestly be affirmed that the story justifies the passion that Dickens threw into its composition. The supernatural machinery is weak as compared with that of the "Carol." Little Trotty Veck, dreaming to the sound of the bells in the old church tower, is a bad substitute for Scrooge on his midnight rambles. Nor are his dreams at all equal, for humour or pathos, to Scrooge's visions and experiences. And the moral itself is not clearly brought out. I confess to being a little doubtful as to what it exactly is, and how it follows from the premises furnished. I wish, too, that it had been carried home to some one with more power than little Trotty to give it effect. What was the good of convincing that kindly old soul that the people of his own class had warm hearts? He knew it very well. Take from the book the fine imaginative description of the goblin music that leaps into life with the ringing of the bells, and there remain the most excellent intentions--and not much more.

Such, however, was very far from being Dickens' view. He had "undergone," he said, "as much sorrow and agitation" in the writing "as if the thing were real," and on the 3rd of November, when the last page was written, had indulged "in what women call a good cry;" and, as usually happens, the child that had cost much sorrow was a child of special love.[19] So, when all was over, nothing would do but he must come to London to read his book to the choice literary spirits whom he specially loved. Accordingly he started from Genoa on the 6th of November, travelled by Parma, Modena, Bologna, Ferrara, Venice--where, such was the enchantment of the place, that he felt it "cruel not to have brought Kate and Georgy, positively cruel and base";--and thence again by Verona, Mantua, Milan, the Simplon Pass, Strasbourg, Paris, and Calais, to Dover, and wintry England. Sharp work, considering all he had seen by the way, and how effectually he had seen it, for he was in London on the evening of the 30th of November, and, on the 2nd of December, reading his little book to the choice spirits aforesaid, all assembled for the purpose at Forster's house. There they are: they live for us still in Maclise's drawing, though Time has plied his scythe among them so effectually, during the forty-two years since flown, that each has passed into the silent land. There they sit: Carlyle, not the shaggy Scotch terrier with the melancholy eyes that we were wont to see in his later days, but close shaven and alert; and swift-witted Douglas Jerrold; and Laman Blanchard, whose name goes darkling in the literature of the last generation; and Forster himself, journalist and author of many books; and the painters Dyce, Maclise, and Stanfield; and Byron's friend and school companion, the clergyman Harness, who, like Dyce, pays to the story the tribute of his tears.

Dickens can have been in London but the fewest of few days, for on the 13th of December he was leaving Paris for Genoa, and that after going to the theatre more than once. From Genoa he started again, on the 20th of January, 1845, with Mrs. Dickens, to see the Carnival at Rome. Thence he went to Naples, returning to Rome for the Holy Week; and thence again by Florence to Genoa. He finally left Italy in the beginning of June, and was back with his family in Devonshire Terrace at the end of that month.

To what use of a literary kind should he turn his Italian observations and experiences? In what form should he publish the notes made by the way? Events soon answered that question. The year 1845 stands in the history of Queen Victoria's reign as a time of intense political excitement. The Corn Law agitation raged somewhat furiously. Dickens felt strongly impelled to throw himself into the strife. Why should he not influence his fellow-men, and "battle for the true, the just," as the able editor of a daily newspaper? Accordingly, after all the negotiations which enterprises of this kind necessitate, he made the due arrangements for starting a new paper, The Daily News. It was to be edited by himself, to "be kept free," the prospectus said, "from personal influence or party bias," and to be "devoted to the advocacy of all rational and honest means by which wrong may be redressed, just rights maintained, and the happiness and welfare of society promoted." His salary, so I have seen it stated, was to be £2,000 a year; and the first number came out on the morning of the 21st of January, 1846. He held the post of editor three weeks.

The world may, I think, on the whole, be congratulated that he did not hold it longer. Able editors are more easily found than such writers as Dickens. There were higher claims upon his time. But to return to the Italian Notes: it was in the columns of The Daily News that they first saw the light. They were among the baby attractions and charms, if I may so speak, of the nascent paper, which is now, as I need not remind my readers, enjoying a hale and vigorous manhood. And admirable sketches they are. Much, very much has been written about Italy. The subject has been done to death by every variety of pen, and in every civilized tongue. But amid all this writing, Dickens' "Pictures from Italy" still holds a high and distinctive position. That the descriptions, whether of places and works of art, or of life's pageantry, and what may be called the social picturesque, should be graphic, vivid, animated, was almost a matter of course. But à priori, I think one might have feared lest he should "chaff" the place and its inhabitants overmuch, and yield to the temptation of making merriment over matters which hoar age and old associations had hallowed. We can all imagine the kind of observation that would occur to Sam Weller in strolling through St. Mark's at Venice, or the Vatican; and, guessing beforehand, guessing before the "Pictures" were produced, one might, I repeat, have been afraid lest Dickens should go through Italy as a kind of educated Sam Weller. Such prophecies would have been falsified by the event. The book as a whole is very free from banter or persiflage. Once and again the comic side of some situation strikes him, of course. Thus, after the ceremony of the Pope washing the feet of thirteen poor men, in memory of our Lord washing the feet of the Apostles, Dickens says: "The whole thirteen sat down to dinner; grace said by the Pope; Peter in the chair." But these humorous touches are rare, and not in bad taste; while for the historic and artistic grandeurs of Italy he shows an enthusiasm which is individual and discriminating. We feel, in what he says about painting, that we are getting the fresh impressions of a man not specially trained in the study of the old masters, but who yet succeeds, by sheer intuitive sympathy; in appreciating much of their greatness. His criticism of the paintings at Venice, for instance, is very decidedly superior to that of Macaulay. In brief the "Pictures," to give to the book the name which Dickens gave it, are painted with a brush at once kindly and brilliant.


[19] He read "The Chimes" at his first reading as a paid reader.

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