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" It is wonderful to me that, even after my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion enough on me — a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally — to suggest that something might have been spared, as certainly it might have been, to place me at any common school. Our friends, I take it, were tired out. No one made any sign. My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar school, and going to Cambridge.”
To get at his own impressions of his childhood one should read David Copperfield, his favorite novel, for there we have along with the Dichtung considerable of the Wahrheit of his childhood days. Like David he had been poor and neglected, and forced to work in mean surroundings; like him he knew the oppressiveness of duns and debts and the misery within the walls where men were imprisoned for debt.
Education. - His mother, be it said to her credit, had taught him to read, and with his sister Fanny, in his early days, he had attended a day school kept by a William Giles. And later in London when twelve years of age he attended an ordinary day school. But the schooldays of Dickens must be counted by months rather than by years, for in the conventional sense he had but little education. In his day the lack of a "classical education” was felt to be more of a detriment than it is today, and of a highly sensitive nature he always wished to be considered a well-educated man. In his earlier writings, however, he ridicules the pretensions of the classically educated. Mr. Feeder, Dr. Blimber, and Dr. Strong are satirized. In his later writings, after his own sons have been educated in the traditional manner, he portrays a classical tutor, Mr. Crisparkle in Edwin Drood, as a gentleman of sense and culture.
In the real sense of the word, Dickens, like Washington and Lincoln, Shakspere and Bunyan, was a very well educated man. He knew how to subdue his environment for the purposes he had in view. He learned from life rather than from books, and what he learned he assimilated. London with its courts and jails, blacking warehouses and tenements, schools and homes and
shops, theaters, clubs, and streets was the encyclopaedia of life whose pages he diligently conned. It is always dangerous to speculate what a man would have been had his training and environment been different. It is highly probable that Dickens, both as man and artist, would have had more of balance had he had a liberal education, but it is also probable that a wider acquaintance with the great masters of the past, and a mind disciplined by the rigors of a classical education, would have produced a different Dickens. But who is so hardy as to assert that a different Dickens would have been a greater Dickens ?
Dickens was never a wide reader. As a child, however, he read books of travel and tales like the Arabian Nights. To this must be added the works of Fielding and Smollett, Cervantes and Le Sage, a strange diet for a child of eight or nine. It is fortunate that the natural innocence of a child's mind carries its own antiseptic for much of the poison that lurks in some of the great literature of the past, for otherwise he might have been tainted with vulgarity and indecency. From David Copperfield and other sources we get a catalog of the books which he read in his youth - Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, Robinson Crusoe, The Arabian Nights, and Tale of the Genii; also the essays in The Idler, The Tattler, The Spectator, The Citizen of the World, and a Collection of Farces edited by Mrs. Inchbald.
A Reporter.— Before May, 1827, he had entered the office of a solicitor in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and on this date we find him entering the office of another solicitor in Gray's Inn at a salary of thirteen shillings and sixpence a week. Here he remained a year and a half, after which he entered upon the work of a reporter. Whatever Dickens undertook to do, whether pasting labels on blacking pots or giving public readings, he did with his whole might. Consequently we find him learning shorthand and devoting hours to general reading in the British Museum that he might become a first-class reporter. Late in life, in 1865, when presiding at a public dinner given in behalf of
the Newspaper Press Fund, he gave this account of his reportorial experience:
“I have pursued the calling of a reporter under circumstances of which many of my brethren at home in England here, many of my modern successors, can form no adequate conception. I have often transcribed for the printer, from my shorthand notes, important public speeches, in which the strictest accuracy was required, and a mistake in which would have been, to a young man, severely compromising, writing on the palm of my hand, by the light of a dark lantern, in a post chaise and four, galloping through a wild country, and through the dead of the night, at the surprising rate of fifteen miles an hour. I have worn my knees by writing on them on the old back row of the old gallery in the old House of Commons; and I have worn my feet by standing to write in a preposterous pen in the old House of Lords, where we used to be huddled together like so many sheep, kept in waiting, say, until the woolsack might want restuffing. Returning home from excited political meetings in the country to the waiting press in London, I do verily believe I have been upset in almost every description of vehicle known in this country. I have been in my time belated in miry by-roads, towards the small hours, forty or fifty miles from London, in a wheelless carriage, with exhausted horses, and drunken postboys, and have got back in time for publication, to be received with never-forgotten compliments by the late Mr. Black, coming in the broadest of Scotch from the broadest of hearts I ever knew."
Beginnings as Writer. - A Dinner at Poplar Walk, afterwards changed to Mr. Minns and His Cousin, published in the Monthly Magazine, December, 1833, is his first story in print. By February, 1835, ten of his stories had appeared in the same magazine. To one of these papers he had signed the name of “Boz,” the nickname of one of his brothers. The first remuneration for his stories was that received for his contributions to the Evening Chronicle. His salary for his regular work on the Morning Chronicle, a paper published by the same firm that issued the Evening Chronicle, was increased from five to seven guineas a week. These stories were collected and published in two volumes in 1836 under the title, Sketches by Bog. For the copyright the author received £150.
As might be expected the Sketches lack the finish of his later work; but they contain the germ of his future mastery of middle class London life.
“Hardly a topic associated with Dickens in his maturity (writes Mr. Gissing) is missing from the earliest attempts. . . . To the lower middle class, a social status so peculiarly English, so rich in virtues yet so provocative of satire, he by origin belonged; in its atmosphere he always breathed most freely, and had the largest command of his humorous resources. . . . No one, indeed, had ever made such use as this of material taken the very dust-heap of decent London life; such common paltry stuff of the town, yet here so truthfully described, with such intimate touches, such glimpses of mirthful motive, as come only from the hand of the born artist. Veracity I take to be the high merit of these sketches."
On April 2, 1836, Dickens was married to Catharine Hogarth, the daughter of a newspaper man connected with the Chronicle. After living together for more than twenty years they separated in May, 1858, Dickens granting his wife an allowance of £600 a year. He wrote to Forster:
“ Poor Catharine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it. It is not only that she makes me uneasy and unhappy, but that I make her so too, and much more so. She is exactly what you know in the way of being amiable and complying; but we are strangely ill-sorted for the bond that is between us. Her temperament will not go with mine."
Pickwick. - Men of ordinary talent plod to the mastery of their art through a long and laborious apprenticeship, men of genius seern to attain fulness of power at a single bound. Dickens belongs to the latter class. With the publication of Pickwick he entered upon the highroad of fame and worldly prosperity. At this time Disraeli, Bulwer, Ainsworth, and Marryat were the leaders in fiction; in poetry Tennyson and Browning were but little more than names, and Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, though published, had made its appeal but to the chosen few. With Pickwick the English-speaking world recognized that a new planet had swum into its ken and all eyes were turned to the new light in the literary world. As to the personal appearance of Dickens at this time Carlyle himself has given us one of his inimitable sketches :
“He is a fine little fellow — Boz— I think. Clear, blue, intelligent eyes, eyebrows that he arches amazingly, large protrusive rather loose
mouth, a face of most extreme mobility, which he shuttles about — eyebrows, eyes, mouth, and all - in a very singular manner while speaking. Surmount this with a loose coil of common-colored hair, and set it on a small compact figure, very small, and dressed à la D'Orsay rather than well — this is Pickwick. For the rest, a quiet, shrewd-looking little fellow, who seems to guess pretty well what he is and what others are.”
Dickens himself has told us the history of the origin of Pickwick. Chapman and Hall, publishers, observing the popularity of the Sketches, came to Dickens with the request that he write something to accompany the monthly illustrations of Mr. R. Seymour, a caricaturist of some merit. Dickens, unwilling to play a secondary part, persuaded Mr. Hall to allow him to write the story which Mr. Seymour was to illustrate. Before the second number was published Mr. Seymour had died by his own hand, and another illustrator had to be secured. For his work Dickens was to receive fourteen pounds a month. The first issue appeared in the spring of 1836. Though the first number attracted but little attention, by the time the fifteenth appeared the advance orders had risen from the original of 400 copies to 40,000. It is estimated that the publishers, who in the early stages of the monthly numbers considered the abandonment of the project, eventually made £20,000 from Pickwick. Dickens himself, according to the publishers, received £3000.
Pickwick has always been a great favorite with readers of Dickens. Lord Campbell said that he would rather have written Pickwick than be Chief Justice of England. Frederic Harrison thinks that it is "his first, his best, his inimitable triumph," and that its drollery, human nature, originality, and vitality place it in a class by itself. What are the elements that constitute the charm of this rambling, ill-constructed account of the adventures of a London Club? Plot there is none, for the story has neither beginning, middle, or end; the characters border upon caricatures, and yet the book is great in the sense in which Don Quixote is great. In Pickwick, his first great triumph, we have the same qualities which characterize the later work of Dickens, abounding vitality, broad humor, and a wholesome optimism.