Four Months with Charles Dickens

More

Continue to Part Two of this story, from the November 1870 Atlantic.

Part I.

In the year 1841 I was taking some lessons in painting of Francis Alexander, the well-known and highly esteemed Boston artist. Many of the most prominent men of the country, and a great many of the most beautiful women of Boston, had sat to Alexander. His portraits were unfailing in likeness, bold, strong, and masterly in execution, and characterized by that highest quality of portraiture, the expression of the soul of the sitter in the painted resemblance. His pictures are very numerous in Boston and vicinity, and in all that constitutes the highest type of portrait-painting they have seldom been equalled, and never surpassed, by those of any American artist.

Early in the winter of 1841 it had been announced that Charles Dickens would shortly visit this country, and Mr. Alexander wrote to him at London, inviting him to sit for his picture on his arrival. The next steamer brought a prompt answer from Mr. Dickens, accepting the invitation. I was quite glad of this arrangement, for having read all he had written, and sharing largely in the general enthusiasm for the author and his works, I looked forward with pleasure to the honor of an introduction, through my friend Alexander.

The steamer on board which Mr. Dickens and his wife had taken passage was telegraphed below on Saturday, January 22, 1842. On her arrival at the wharf Mr. Dickens rode at once to the Tremont House, where rooms had already been engaged for him. He had scarcely been housed before a crowd of admiring friends called to pay their respects ; and, as he says in his "Notes," before he and his wife had half finished their first dinner, they had received invitations to seats enough in the various churches, for the next day, to accommodate a score or two of grown-up families!

Mr. Dickens had left England an invalid, having suffered much from severe illness, and, after a rough voyage in midwinter, was in great need of rest. He fully appreciated the kindness and respect thus early shown him, and often referred to it with evident pleasure.

Sunday passed and Monday came, and a crowd of visitors thronged the house. Statesmen, authors, poets, scholars, merchants, judges, lawyers, editors, came, many of them accompanied by their wives and daughters, and his rooms were filled with smiling faces and resounded with cheerful voices. They found the great author just what they hoped and expected he would be from his writings, and no happier greetings were ever exchanged than those at the Tremont House on the arrival of Charles Dickens and his wife at Boston.

Meanwhile the press was active in describing his looks and manners, and all things connected with the arrival of the distinguished strangers. Go where you would in the city,—in the hotels, stores, counting-rooms, in the streets, in the cars, in the country as well as the city,—the all-absorbing topic was the "arrival of Dickens!" The New York and Philadelphia papers repeated all that was published by the Boston press, and delegations from societies, and committees of citizens from distant cities, came to see the great author and arrange for meetings and receptions in other places.

The young people were intensely interested in the matter. "Boz" was young, handsome, and possessed of wonderful genius, and everything relating to him and his family was of surpassing interest to them.

Mr. Dickens had appointed ten o'clock, on the Tuesday morning succeeding his arrival, for his first sitting to Alexander. The artist's rooms were at No. 41 Tremont Row, not far from the Tremont House. The newspapers had announced the fact, and, long before the appointed hour, a crowd of people were around the hotel and arranged along the sidewalk to see him pass. The doorway and stairs leading to the painter's studio were thronged with ladies and gentlemen, eagerly awaiting his appearance, and as he passed they were to the last degree silent and respectful. It was no vulgar curiosity to see a great and famous man, but an earnest, intelligent, and commendable desire to look upon the author whose writings—already enlisted in the great cause of humanity—had won their dear respect, and endeared him to their hearts. He pleasantly acknowledged the compliment their presence paid him, bowing slightly as he passed, his bright, dark eyes glancing through and through the crowd, searching every face, and reading character with wonderful quickness, while the arch smiles played over his handsome face.

On arriving at the anteroom Mr. Dickens found a large number of the personal friends of the artist awaiting the honor of an introduction, and he passed from group to group in a most kind and pleasant way. It was here that I received my own introduction, and I remember that after Mr. Dickens had passed around the room, he came again to me and exchanged some pleasant words about my name, slightly referring to the American hero of the Revolution who had borne it.

The crowd waited till the sitting was over, and saw him back again to the Tremont; and this was repeated every morning while he was sitting for his picture.

The engravings in his books which had then been issued either in England or America were very little like him. Alexander chose an attitude highly original, but very characteristic. Dickens is represented at his table writing. His left hand rests upon the paper. The pen in his right hand seems to have been stopped for a moment, while he looks up at you as if you had just addressed him. His long brown hair, slightly curling, sweeps his shoulder, the bright eyes glance, and that inexpressible look of kindly mirth plays round his mouth and shows itself in the arched brow. Alexander caught much of that singular lighting up of the face which Dickens had, beyond any one I ever saw, and the picture is very like the original, and will convey to those who wish to know how "Boz" looked at thirty years of age an excellent idea of the man.

I saw the picture daily as it progressed, and, being in the artist's room on the Thursday following the first sitting, Mr. Alexander told me that he had "just made a disposal of my services." I did not know what he meant. He then told me that Mr. Dickens and his wife had been at his house that forenoon, and Mr. Dickens said: "Mr. Alexander, I have been in the country but a few days, and my table is already heaped high with unanswered letters! I have a great number of engagements already. I did not expect a correspondence like this, and I must have a secretary. Can you find me one?" And Mr. Alexander at once mentioned me. I felt very diffident in regard to it, for I did not feel qualified for such a posïtion with such a man, however great the pleasure I knew I should derive from it. But my friend would take no excuses, insisted that I was just the man for the place; and while we were talking a note came from Mr. Dickens, requesting that he would bring me to the Tremont House. So I went with Mr. Alexander, and was received with great cordiality and kindness by Mr. Dickens and his wife, and made an appointment to commence my duties on the following morning.

On Friday morning I was there at nine o'clock, the time appointed. Mr. and Mrs. Dickens had their meals in their own rooms, and the table was spread for breakfast. Soon they came in, and, after a cheerful greeting, I took my place at a side-table and wrote as he ate his breakfast, and meanwhile conversed with Mrs. Dickens, opened his letters, and dictated the answers to me.

In one corner of the room, Dexter the sculptor was earnestly at work modelling a bust of Mr. Dickens. Several others of the most eminent artists of our country had urgently requested Mr. Dickens to sit to them for his picture and bust, but, having consented to do so to Alexander and Dexter, he was obliged to refuse all others for want of time.

While Mr. Dickens ate his breakfast, read his letters and dictated the answers, Dexter was watching with the utmost earnestness the play of every feature, and comparing his model with the original. Often during the meal he would come to Dickens with a solemn, business-like air, stoop down and look at him sideways, pass round and take a look at the other side of his face, and then go back to his model and work away for a few minutes; then come again and take another look and go back to his model; soon he would come again with his callipers and measure Dickens's nose, and go and try it on the nose of the model; then come again with the callipers and try the width of the temples, or the distance from the nose to the chin, and back again to his work, eagerly shaping and correcting his model. The whole soul of the artist was engaged in his task, and the result was a splendid bust of the great author. Mr. Dickens was highly pleased with it, and repeatedly alluded to it, during his stay, as a very successful work of art.

Alexander's picture and Dexter's bust of Dickens should be exhibited at this time, that those who never saw him in his young days may know exactly how he looked. The bust by Dexter has the rare merit of action, and in every respect faithfully represents the features, attitude, and look of Charles Dickens.

It would be very natural in this connection for the young ladies and gentlemen of this generation to expect some description of the wife of Charles Dickens.

Mrs. Dickens was a lady of moderate height; with a full, well-developed form, a beautiful face and good figure. I call to mind the high, full forehead, the brown hair gracefully arranged, the look of English healthfulness in the warm glow of color in her cheeks, the blue eyes with a tinge of violet, well-arched brows, a well-shaped nose, and a mouth small and of uncommon beauty. She was decidedly a handsome woman, and would have attracted notice as such in any gathering of ladies anywhere. She had a quiet dignity mingled with great sweetness of manner; her calm quietness differing much from the quick, earnest, always cheerful, but keen and nervous temperament of her husband,—a temperament belonging to the existence, and absolutely necessary to the development, of a great genius like that of Charles Dickens.

Mrs. Dickens was accompanied by her favorite waiting-maid, Ann—a warm-hearted English girl,—I believe London born and bred,—and devotedly attached to the family. Ann had many cockney notions, and it was pleasant to hear her comical expressions of surprise at our American words and ways. She had got a very strong impression of the wildness of our country, especially the West, which Mr. Dickens intended to visit, and anticipated no small danger from the Indians.

Mrs. Dickens felt all a mother's anxiety for the little ones left at home, and seemed impatient to return to them. They brought from England a large pencil-drawing of their four children, "Charles, Walter, Kate, and Mary," made by their friend Maclise, the eminent English artist. The picture was framed, and wherever we afterwards went it was at once taken from its case and placed on the mantel-piece or table. Mr. and Mrs. Dickens talked constantly of their children, and seemed to derive great comfort from the pictured presence of their little ones. The picture possessed also great attraction for the thousands who called, and who were much interested, of course, in the children of their distinguished visitors.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to a Seaside Town in Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In