Dickens's Letters

THE letters of Charles Dickens,1 which Miss Hogarth and Miss Mary Dickens have lately given the public, are material which for one reason or another was not placed in the hands of the late Mr. John Forster for use in his biography of the novelist. Some of them are such as it is incredible a biographer should not have asked for, — even so autobiographical a biographer as Mr, Forster. They are what he would have wished to see, even if he did not wish to use them, but we are not at all sure that they would have lent much value to his work. They do not throw fresh light upon a character which we have learned to know in its energetic and egotistic hardness, upon a philosophy extraordinarily limited; upon the life so separately lived in its personal and its literary phases that the same man may be said to have carried on a double train of being. In most lives authorship reflects experience, or takes form and color from it; but Dickens’s work after the wreck of his domestic happiness did not lose the charm that it had drawn from such happiness, and did not cease to portray it. His iron nerve was equal to this tremendous tour de force ; but the sort of consciousness in which it resulted is matter for no analysis less subtle than George Eliot’s or Hawthorne’s, and is not pleasant to imagine. It seems to have resulted at least in an intensification of his disposition to centralize all things in himself.

He was a man who did not arrive at a Copernican conception of the universe. The sun always rose on his right hand and set on his left, and for the rest employed its time in revolving about him. As he advanced in life his universe narrowed, till there was scarcely room in it for the sun to perform this necessary function without incommoding the central figure. His last letters from America are curious and pathetic witness of his self-absorption. No fable was too gross for his vanity. He wrote home to Miss Hogarth in the actual belief that people brought their beds and slept all night in the streets, that they might be up betimes to buy tickets to his readings, and he mistook the movement of newspaper gossip about him for an excitement stirring the country to its depths. Life in the United States appears from these letters to have been a struggle for three terrible months to see and hear Charles Dickens; and the sound of Mr. Dolby stamping thousands of tickets in the room above the novelist’s bed-chamber was a noise that rose above all public and private clamor in a nation that was then settling the terms upon which a conquered empire was to be readmitted to union and self-government. Twice he is sure that half Boston will be out to see his agent walk a match ; and he is perpetually astonished that, though people turn and look after him, they do not follow him up, or block his progress on the street. The letters are not very discreetly edited, as regards America, and the boasted English tenderness of the privacy of living persons has not been used. Those who had the misfortune to be immediately connected with Dickens suffer most; they are classed with his doorkeeper and his man-servant; but very few Americans whom he mentions escape his patronage. He finds the country much reformed, in respect to himself; and the nation at large seems to have made a vast advance in not intruding upon him. But otherwise he did not find much to surprise him. The tobacco-chewers and the newspapers keep it up as badly as ever ; and there are furnaces and stoves everywhere that discomfort him. There is a disease, he tells us, known as the American catarrh ; he has this terribly, and he insists upon it a great deal.

But for observation of the country, or reflections upon it of the slightest value, the reader will look in vain. Perhaps it was the professional habit of exaggeration that had grown upon him; perhaps we did not deserve the exact truth; but he puts even unimportant facts concerning us a little awry. Mr. Staunton, as he calls the great secretary of war, he found remarkable as knowing Dickens’s novels better than Dickens himself; and he pronounces upon the subtlety of his own insight by admiring the late President Johnson. His letters from this country during his last visit are, in fine, chiefly a shout of astonishment and exultation at the success of his readings. They are written in the boisterously high spirits, tending to horseplay in the humorous passages, which characterize all the letters. He did not like us, and small blame to him. We stood before him in the attitude of pirates offering a splendid ovation to their victim, and he naturally found us ridiculous and contemptible. His purpose was to get all the money he could out of us; and, if we would not legally grant him his rights in his property, and pay for the privilege of reading him, at least to make us pay for seeing and hearing him. He did not have any hope of the international copyright, which we now fondly trust is near ; and he did not recognize the fact that all decent American publishers now pay copyright to English authors, while American authors seldom receive compensation from English publishers. He was not a philosopher, and it is probable that the loss of copyright colored his opinions of us in all respects. He was not our friend during the war; and even after the war he was sorry that England had not joined the “ French usurper ” in breaking us up. A certain vulgarity of heart is shown in the terms in which he speaks of the Eyre massacre of the blacks in Jamaica ; but he shared this vulgarity with another eminent paper-philanthropist, and it is probable that if they had both lived he would have stood shoulder to shoulder with Canon Kingsley in the foremost ranks of the Jingoes.

The letters relating to his first visit to America are few and unimportant ; but they are characterized by the same inability to philosophize, — by the same narrow horizon, shutting down ten feet away from an observer who saw superficial generalities with preternatural keenness within that limit; though even within that limit he did not see detail correctly, or was unable to report it correctly. His literary conscience was a matter of slow growth; the critical reader of his earlier books must see how willing he is to sacrifice truth to effect, and stage effect at that; but he cannot help seeing, too, that while Dickens clings, to the last, to certain conventionalities and mannerisms of his own, he grows more and more truly dramatic, and more and more true to life. In these letters, however, there is no growth, apparently, of judgment or feeling. They are a young man’s letters in 1837, and a young man’s letters in 1870; a young man always in high spirits, fluent, quick, restless, not deep nor wise. Considering that the half century of Dickens’s literary life covered a period full of the most important events in the world’s history ; considering that he passed them in a great capital where he must daily have met famous and interesting people of every sort, it is prodigiously astonishing how devoid of generous interest they are. They relate almost wholly to himself, and not even to himself in an entertaining or significant way. They tell how he came and went, where he slept, and what he had for dinner. In the second volume they are intolerably full as to his readings and his amateur theatricals, and his audiences and his fellow performers. Unless his whole heart was in these things, they show very little of his intimate life. They are even more silent as to his literary art and method, and the reader of his books will get no light from his letters. A fair half of his work was such as the author of these letters might have produced, you say; but the other half seems beyond him. Perhaps no greater proof of his genius could be demanded than this fact, that his own work seems greater than he in any light which he or his friends have been able to throw upon him. Great genius he was and remains, and his genius will shine more and more as his personality becomes remote.

  1. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Edited by his Sister-in-Law and his eldest Daughter. In two volumes. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1879.