Four Months with Charles Dickens

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.

The people flocked to the Tremont day by day; the most eminent men of the time were constant in their attentions. I remember that among them came often Mayor Chapman, Charles Sumner, and Professor Felton of Cambridge. Invitations to private parties—most of which Mr. Dickens was obliged to decline for want of time—came daily. Visits to the Blind Asylum and other public institutions, and one also to Lowell, were made by Mr. Dickens, most of which are described in his "American Notes." Letters came from eminent people all over the land, asking him to visit them at their homes; letters came asking his opinion upon matters of reform, and a host of letters asking his autograph. These requests were, I believe, always granted. One or two of them were from young ladies, who asked in addition to an autograph a lock of his hair! The autographs were given; but the last request was in a few pleasant words refused.

A few days after the arrival of Mr. Dickens at Boston, the presentation by Mr. Dickens of a testimonial to Captain Hewitt, the gallant commander of the steamship in which he came, took place in Tremont Temple. The hall was filled to overflowing, and hundreds of people were unable to obtain admission. The whole affair passed off most happily.

A grand dinner to Mr. Dickens was given by the leading citizens of Boston, a full account of which may be found in the papers of that day. I remember that one of the most felicitous speeches on that occasion was made by the elder Quincy.

With a very high opinion of Boston and its people, and a heart full of gratitude for the kind attentions shown him, Mr. Dickens left the city on Saturday, February 5th, to spend the Sabbath with Governor Davis at Worcester, and to go from thence to Hartford. At Springfield a committee of gentlemen from Hartford met him; and there being in those days no railroads from Springfield to Hartford, the journey was made in a nice little steamboat, propelled, Mr. Dickens thought, by an engine of about "half-pony-power." The voyage was very pleasant indeed.

At Hartford a complimentary dinner was given him, at which very interesting speeches were made, his own being exceedingly happy; and here, in speaking of the subject of an international copyright law, he made a most eloquent and touching allusion to the death of Sir Walter Scott.

From Hartford Mr. Dickens went to New Haven. Arriving there in the evening, the news spread rapidly that "Dickens had come," and at once the throng of visitors poured in. Before he had been there an hour the hotel was crowded and the street outside filled with people. Citizens of the highest distinction hastened, with their families, to pay their respects, for it was understood that his stay in the city would be very short. The Yale students were there in force, and such was the desire to see him that he was urgently requested to receive the throng assembled, and for hours the people filled the reception-room and held the halls and passages of the hotel. As the crowd increased, the landlord found it necessary to post two stout porters on the main staircase, who locked their hands across the stairs and kept the throng somewhat at bay. As fast as those in the reception-room had their introduction and retired by another way, the two porters on the stairs would raise their arms and suffer another installment of the crowd to pass; and thus till near eleven o'clock at night the admirers of "Boz" pressed around him for a look and an introduction, and all this was evidently from a love and appreciation of the man. It was nearly midnight before Mr. Dickens could retire to his room.

The next day, in company with Professor Felton of Cambridge, Mr. and Mrs. Dickens took the steamer for New York. On arriving in the evening they went at once to the Carleton House on Broadway, where rooms had been already engaged for them.

The next morning the city papers were full of the "arrival of Dickens"; and there was a repetition substantially of the scenes at Boston and New Haven. Then commenced his visits to the public institutions for Mr. Dickens came, not expecting to be received with such boundless enthusiasm as a guest, but to see our people, and learn all he could during his stay of America and her free institutions, and his great popularity among the people was as surprising to him as it was unexpected.

He was constantly invited to visit the schools, the benevolent asylums, and the prisons in and around the metropolis; and he and Mrs. Dickens often had three or four engagements of an evening to social gatherings at the homes of the elite of the city.

Professor Felton was often with him, and some quiet evening walks about the metropolis were taken by the two, in which they doubtless visited some of the fashionable restaurants of the city;—speaking of the oyster-suppers, in his "Notes," Mr. Dickens alludes to his friend as the "heartiest of Greek professors!"

Washington Irving came very often, and the meeting of these kindred spirits was such as might have been expected. They were greatly delighted with each other, and at all hours Irving and Felton were admitted. A great ball was given in honor of Mr. Dickens and lady, a full account of which was given in the papers of that day.

Besides Irving and Felton came Bryant, Willis, Halleck, Clark of the "Knickerbocker," and many others of the stars in the literary firmament; and on one occasion Mr. Dickens had to breakfast Irving, Bryant, and Halleck. The clerk of the Carleton was himself a great lover of literature, and remarked to me: "Good Heaven! To think what the four walls of that room now contain! Washington Irving, William C. Bryant, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and Charles Dickens!"

But in New York came many others determined to see the great author, and if possible make him useful for their private purposes,—people who had literary and other "axes" to grind; but they were generally foiled in their plans.

I recollect an Irish book-peddler who was most impudent and persevering. He wanted Mr. Dickens to give him money to set up a bookstore; and I had no small trouble to keep him from intruding into the very presence of Mr. Dickens. He claimed that Dickens owed much of his American popularity to him, because he had peddled large quantities of the American editions of his works! He did not, however, get the money he wanted, and wrote Mr. Dickens a letter, full of threats and indignation.

The correspondence poured in as at Boston; and while most of it was what it should have been, some of it was very ridiculous and amusing.

Voluminous manuscripts came, whose modest authors requested Mr. Dickens to read them carefully, and note any alterations or corrections he thought proper, and requesting that he superintend their publication in England, and receive a percentage on the sales!

One letter came from the South, asking an original epitaph for the tombstone of an infant. Another came from a Southern lady, soliciting an autograph copy of the lines by Mrs. Leo Hunter to an "expiring frog."

One lady from New Jersey wrote that many funny things had taken place in her family, and many interesting and tragic events also, and that she had all the records for a hundred years past or more. She proposed to furnish this record, with explanations, to Mr. Dickens, that he should arrange and rewrite them and have them published in England, and divide equally with her the profits.

One man, a most disagreeable person, came often. He brought for Mr. Dickens the Lord's Prayer written in twenty-four languages! "Ah," said Mr. Dickens, "twenty-four languages! One would be sufficient, if men would only live that prayer!"

One day I was called out to meet an elderly woman, dressed in rusty black and wearing a huge black bonnet. She had passed the "outer guard" of clerk and porters below, and had reached the door to Mr. Dickens's parlor.

He had been out all the morning, and, being excessively tired, had thrown himself down on the sofa for a little rest. The old lady had a volume under her arm, and said she had come upon business of great importance, and "must see Mr. Dickens!" I explained to her that it was impossible, but that I would carry any message to him she wished; but all would not do, she "must see Mr. Dickens!" At last I convinced her that it could not be done, and so she unburdened her mind to me. She said she had "been a Mormon," but had left them because of their wicked ways, and the book was an exposé of Mormonism, and she couldn't leave it, because it was borrowed; but she knew that a great many English people were constantly coming over here to "jine the Mormons," and she wanted Mr. Dickens to go home and lecture on the subject, and if possible baffle the efforts of the Mormon leaders. I promised her that I would lay the whole subject before Mr. Dickens without delay, and he would take such action as he saw proper; and so the old lady left. Mr. Dickens heard most of the conversation, and was much amused at it.

It was in New York that it was first suspected that Charles Dickens would not be likely to approve American slavery; he had also at the Hartford dinner broached the very unpopular subject of an "international copyright law"; and the newspapers began extensively to exhibit that unfriendly feeling toward him which afterward became so violent and even malignant.

After a stay of some weeks at New York, Mr. Dickens and party left for Philadelphia, and took up their quarters at the United States Hotel in that city. Here, as in Boston and New York, the best and purest of the people came to pay their respects, and many pleasant friendships were formed. Mr. Dickens visited most of the public institutions, quite an elaborate account of which is given in his "Notes."

A day or two after his arrival in Philadelphia an individual somewhat prominent in city politics came with others and obtained an introduction. On taking his leave, he asked Mr. Dickens if he would grant him the favor to receive a few personal friends the next day; and Mr. Dickens assented. The next morning it was announced through the papers that Mr. Dickens would "receive the public" at a certain hour! At the time specified the street in front was crowded with people, and the offices and halls of the hotel filled. Mr. Dickens asked the cause of the assembling, and was astonished and indignant when he learned that all this came of his permission to the individual above mentioned to "bring a few personal friends for an introduction," and he positively refused to hold a "levee." But the landlord of the house and others came and represented to him that his refusal would doubtless create a riot, and that great injury would be done to the house by the enraged populace; and so at last Mr. Dickens consented, and, taking his place in one of the large parlors up stairs, prepared himself for the ordeal. Up the people came, and soon the humorous smiles played over his face, for, tedious and annoying as it was, the thing had its comic side, and, while he shook hands incessantly, he as usual studied human character. For two mortal hours or more the crowd poured in, and he shook hands and exchanged words with all, while the dapper little author of the scene stood smiling by, giving hundreds and thousands of introductions, and making, no doubt, much social and political capital out of his supposed intimacy with the great English author. This scene is substantially repeated in "Martin Chuzzlewit," when his new-made American friends insisted upon Martin's "holding a levee," having announced without his authority, as in the case of Mr. Dickens, that he would "receive the public":—

"Up they came with a rush, up they came till the room was full, and through the open door a dismal perspective of more to come was shown upon the stairs. One after another, dozen after dozen, score after score, more, more, more, up they came, all shaking hands with Martin. Such varieties of hands, the thick, the thin, the short, the long, the fat, the lean, the coarse, the fine, such differences of temperature, the hot, the cold, the dry, the moist, the flabby, such diversities of grasp, the tight, the loose, the short-lived, and the lingering. Still up, up, up, more, more, more, and ever and anon the Captain's voice was heard above the crowd: 'There's more below, there's more below. Now, gentlemen, you that have been introduced to Mr. Chuzzlewit, will you clear? gentlemen, will you clear? Will you be so good as clear, gentlemen, and make a little room for more?'"

At last, in Mr. Dickens's case, the "levee" was over, and, tired to the last degree, he went to his room.

Continue to Part Two of this story.