by WILFRED PARTINGTON
AT ONE of their earliest suppers at The Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street, Dr. Johnson told young Boswell that the biographical part of Literature was what he loved most. It is so with most of us. Even to fiction readers there often comes at some point in a novel, if it is written with the art of a Hardy, or a Dickens, or a Sinclair Lewis, or a Conrad, the impression that some character or other is real. In other words, they are reading the story as if it were biography — as not infrequently it is. We are rather less interested in the things done than in their doers and the forces that urged them; for therein lie the keys to the future undoing and reshaping. This is what Emerson meant when he affirmed
“There is properly no history, only biography.”
The real historians then are our biographers, autobiographers, and diarists. Their art is old enough by now, it might be thought, to ensure a general acceptance of and adherence to the Johnsonian precept that “if a man is to write A Panegyrick he may keep vices out of sight; but if he proposes to write A Life, he must represent it as it really was.” Yet with all the lessons they have had that Truth will out at last and that the researcher eventually elucidates Mystery and exposes the False, how often do biographers fail to represent a Life as it really was!
True, there are a few biographies which have engraved in Literature for all time vivid portaits of grand men — biographies like Lockhart’s of Sir Walter Scott, and Forster’s of Charles Dickens. But Lockhart in his classic played the devil’s tricks with correspondence (as I have seen in re-handling the originals); and in order to toady to wealthy publisher Robert Cadell, he savagely and unjustly mauled Sir Walter’s friend James Ballantyne, his “dear Tom Tell-Truth.” And both Lockhart and Forster were unfortunately reticent to the point of being misleading about certain phases in the lives of their heroes, including those matrimonial. It was Forster, too, who had the lamentable habit of cutting up Dickens’s letters to paste pieces into his MS. narrative — thus losing entirely the script on the back. The result, however unintentional, was to destroy the original evidence of whole letters.
Considering the variety and brilliance of subjects, it is strange that so few impressive and satisfying Lives have been added to English-written literature, One opportunity was missed with the authoritative biographizing of Charles Kingsley, who was worthy of a biography as vigorous and fullblooded as himself. Instead the writing and editing of his Memoir and Letters was left to the object of his devotion. Good wives ought to be prohibited from perpetrating bad biographies and incurring literary damnation. Woman is revealing only to her beloved or about her rival. Fanny Kingsley had difficulties apart from those inherent to the feminine psychology. I learned of them when her large and lavendered bandbox full of personal documents came into my possession. As I saw how the manuscript of her work had been submitted to Very Important People for this one to prune and that one to puff out, and how her own emasculating and suppressing had taken so much character out of her husband’s papers, it was obvious why those two volumes seemed like a stuffed Life on two legs. If her ardent lover-husband anticipated the Fleshly School of Poetry in unprinted love-lyrics fit to make Swinburne and Rossetti shout with joy, that was Fanny’s dear secret. It was not for biography — certainly not for a biography by the Rector’s widow writing within the shadows of Queen Victoria’s ample petticoats and the episcopal aprons of the Church of England. Good Heavens, No!
There is one grave circumstance that has for years increasingly tended to restrict biography both as historical record and as an ethical instrument the latter a function which seems generally unappreciated. This is the present clamping effect of the libel laws in America and Britain on writers whose duty it is to deal with delicate matters where people concerned are still living. For example, the truth is just as likely as an untruth to constitute an actionable libel. And satire, which in sturdier conditions was so often the most effective corrector, has been robbed of its one vital force: for it is now punishable, by involvement in costly legal proceedings, if used (however deservedly) to hold up a person or thing to ridicule that is damaging.
Among modern biographers there is a growing tendency to keep the picture pretty at all costs: to leave unpleasant facts alone. It is safer and easier nowadays to whitewash than portray faithfully. Perhaps those who bow to the modern forces of corruption and regimentation, working hand in hand, stifle their consciences by the hopeful philosophizing that as the evil man does lives after him why should they worry? But, if Truth is suppressed, then Evil not merely goes unchecked but is encouraged. The success of rascality and unscrupulousness lies not in their profit immediately, but in their being kept dark ultimately.
On the hypothesis, therefore, that present-day criticism in general, and biography in particular, are— by a combination of corruptive influences — failing to do their job honestly and with proper regard for the higher purpose of Literature, I come to a remarkable instance of this failure in the allimportant department of National Biography. For this is a department which, concerned only with historical fact and under obligation to observe judicial detachment and impartiality, might be considered impervious to the restrictive and subversive circumstances which have been indicated.
IN the eighteen-forties there flourished in the City of London, then waxing fat with wealth from sweated labour, one Thomas Chapman, senior proprietor in the firm of John Chapman & Company, merchants of 2 Leadenhall Street. He also held the high position of Chairman of Lloyds Register of Shipping: so that for power and affluence his business house could truly be described by the term, which has long been a world-wide criterion of excellence, “A 1. at Lloyds.” On the 28th of June 1846 Charles Dickens wrote to his confidant John Forster exultantly announcing that yesterday he
The relationship of these two contemporaneous circumstances lies in the identification of Thomas Chapman as the original of Paul Dombey senior, the central figure of Dickens’s immediately successful novel.
But Forster, who in the hey-day of Dickens’s friendship with Chapman was taken to dine at the proud merchant’s house, would have none of the identification; and he quoted Dickens (although not in support of his contention) as having said that the man for Dombey, if Hablot K. Browne the illustrator could see him, was “Sir A — E — of D — s.” But this may have been a suggestion to throw the artist off the scent, or to prevent him from making a literal delineation of the real original. Edwin Pugh, that worthy Dickensian who in 1912 listed all (save one) of the identifiable Dickens originals, unhesitatingly adopted the Chapman prototype for Dombey senior, and made fun of the too Podsnappish disclaimer by Forster.
In the counting-house of Chapman and Co. was employed Charles Dickens’s youngest brother, Augustus, engaged in 1844; and also a remarkable character named Thomas Powell, then aged thirtyfive. Augustus, on leaving school, was comfortably installed with the merchant by the influence of his big and popular brother, who assured Chapman that he had no reason to suppose the youth was “addicted to authorship, or had any bad habits of that nature.” Charles’s nickname for Augustus was “Moses”: which, facetiously pronounced “Boses,” became “Boz;” and so was immortalized in the title of Dickens’s first work Sketches by Boz. Another nickname given by Charles to his brother was “Shrimp.” Augustus, however, did not find the merchant’s counting-house very comfortable for long. After a few years he crossed the Atlantic to the Land of Promise, where no doubt he was flattered and spoiled by the American adorers of brother Charles, and where certainly he died in comparative obscurity.
But, unlike Shrimp, Thomas Powell, who was a married man with a family of conventional Victorian size, was addicted to the habit of authorshipnot to speak of graver ones for the moment. He wrote second-class poetry with some facility, and better class prose with more success: also, he was a playwright. Becoming friendly with Wordsworth, he produced in collaboration with him, Leigh Hunt, R. H. Horne, and others, a modernized edition of Chaucer. He is stated by Kitton (in his work Charles Dickens, 1902) to have had “a trick of becoming very confidential on small orno provocation, and possessed a perfect mania for writing letters, even to persons in the same room.”
These idiosyncrasies were presumably partial basis for the report, first quoted by Kitton, that Powell — as well as Dickens’s father — contributed to the character of Mr. Micawber: an identification accepted and adopted by Pugh. Powell’s literary activities, as a relief from his responsible duties in Chapman’s office, were expensive rather than lucrative. But he appeared to the world to be a man of independent means: he entertained lavishly. Wellfed guests can be cheap and useful publicity agents.
Among the authors he got in with, naturally, was the creator of Pickwick, whose regard for the agreeable dilettante can be estimated by the following extract from a typically high-spirited letter: —
Sixteenth April, 1844.
MY DEAR POWELL, — Lord bless you! Thursday or Friday!!! Why, I composed (though I say it as shouldn’t) the best little party you can imagine; comprehending everybody I had room for, whom I thought Mr. Chapman would like to know. Let me see. Rogers for Poetry, Sydney Smith for Orthodoxy, Charles Kemble and Young for Theatricality, Lord Denman for Benehity, Lord Dudley Stuart for Polarity, Mr. & Mrs. Milner Gibson for Anti Corn Law Leagueability, Mrs. Norton for beauty, and divers other for variety. Lord love you! Why at this time of the year it couldn’t be done again under three weeks. Not to mention the Dwarf, general Tom Thumb, whom on the word of a spiritiwal creetur, I had summoned, and have summoned, for the Evening in question. No. We won’t come down with the run. We’ll have a long notice, and see what can be done with the second wentur. When we doos go in, we plays to win, Sir.
Says Shrimp to me (I allude to the humble individual who has the honor to be my brother). “Mr. Powell is coming up one evening”. — “Shrimp,” said I. “Why evening? We dine at half-past 5. Cannot said Powell, with a day’s notice (to ensure my not being out) come up to dinner?” I saw that I had touched him; and had a modest confidence in my message reaching you safely. Whether Shrimp broke down, or Prawn (otherwise Powell) I don’t know. . . .
WHEN a novelist or a dramatist takes a prototype from life for one of his characters the degree of faithfulness in the subsequent portraiture depends upon the individual writer’s art and the particular requirement of his work as a whole. Novelists like Honoré de Balzac, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad, were psychological analysts who tended to work closely to their models, or their conceptions of them, in order to obtain fidelity to life. Charles Dickens arrived at the same end by different methods, taking this or that physical or mental idiosyncrasy from his originals and exaggerating it in the manner of a caricaturist.
Thus, for example, while the chief proprietor of Chapman and Company no doubt inspired the character of Mr. Dombey, in the result the head of Dombey and Son became a caricature of Mr. Chapman. This is borne out by the facts as we know them and also by the few letters from Dickens to the merchant of Leadenhall Street. Dombey, with his single-track mind, with the firm of Dombey and Son as the Alpha and Omega of existence, would not have had either time or inclination for the arts, which meant nothing to his ledgers. He would have felt himself above those rather irregular and financially unsound persons who wrote high-falutin stuff, or painted scandalous pictures of men out of their shirts and women out of their chemises, or mimicked on the stage — amusing as they might sometimes be. With Thomas Chapman, when away from his counting-house, the reverse was the case; and in this respect at least he as the original differed from and was superior to the character in the book.
The first recorded association of the novelist with the real-life merchant is in 1836— an engagement to dine with him; and later the same year “We are just going to Chapman’s sister’s quadrille party.” The few letters that Dickens subsequently wrote to him are mainly concerned with such mutually agreeable social amenities, one to do with a play performance. They evince the cordiality, mingled with respect, in which he held the magnate.
Chapman was obviously proud of employing in the “House” a brother of England’s most popular author, and also the trusted young man Thomas Powell — who, when away from his responsible duties with the merchant’s finances, hob-nobbed with Wordsworth, Dickens, Leigh Hunt, the Brownings, and other lights. This was contact with the great, brought about by the influence of the great House. The thought was highly satisfying to its head.
Then one awful day in the year 1846 the bladder of Mr. Chapman’s pride and complacency was pricked — just as Mr. Dombey’s was when Fate dared to take away his son Paul, heir to the Firm of Dombey and Son. But Thomas Powell only took from the original firm some 50,000 dollars. The amount has never been authoritatively stated: Chapman and Co. in a certified testimony spoke of his “series of frauds, effected both by forgery and peculation, to a large amount;" and Dickens mentioned “thousands of pounds.”
The details of the affair are scanty apart from the dramatic accounts written at the time by Dickens and now to be given here. It is sufficient for the moment to say that apparently out of consideration for Powell’s wife and family, and most probably also having regard to his distinguished literary connexions, the forger was not prosecuted by his employers, who were content to dismiss him summarily. The amount would be written off in the year’s balance-sheet, which was perhaps endorsed with a new rule: “No more literary geniuses or relatives of literary geniuses to be employed here.” Certainly Mr. Dombey would have so ordained, had he been as indiscreet as his prototype.
Dickens when he heard the sensational news was in Switzerland; he at once wrote, 3rd July 1846, the following letter to Chapman, the tenor of which it is important to remember in view of the sequel:
MY DEAR SIR, — It was a very considerate and friendly act for you to time your communication on the most painful subject of the breach of confidence in your house, as you did, and to make it to me yourself. Accept my thanks for this proof of your regard among many others, and with this, the assurance of my friendship and esteem.
I have been perfectly horrified by the whole story. I could hardly name a man in London whom I should have thought less likely to stand so committed, than he. Not that I had any intimate knowledge of his pursuits, or any close acquaintance with himself, or with his usual mode of thinking and proceeding — but I had an idea of his great steadiness and reliability, and a conviction of his great respect and regard for you. God help him. I believe even now, that he was sincere in the latter feeling, and was overcome and swept away by the tide of circumstances on which he had madly cast himself. The more I hear and see of such surprises, the more I echo that clause in Christ’s prayer in which they are all shadowed forth, and shrink from the prospect of temptation being presented to anybody dear to me, or to myself.
It has often awakened great wonder within me how all those publishing expenses (of the extent of which, I am able to form a pretty accurate idea) were defrayed. But whenever I have sounded Augustus on the subject; which I have done once or twice, he always hinted at a rich uncle, and some unknown share in some unknown business, which of course I could not gainsay. He told the tale as it was told to him, and had every reason to believe it. Indeed I suppose you and your partners laboured under the like delusion?
I should be very glad if you would tell me, when it is all done, whether you have any intelligence of him, or any knowledge of his destiny. It is terrible to think of his wife and children. . . .
It is necessary to keep in mind that at the date of this letter the novelist, so far removed from the City of London, was writing the opening chapters of Dombey and Son and building up its central character on Thomas Chapman. There are two predominant features in the letter: firstly, the absence in it of any particular expression of sympathy with the House in its heavy financial loss; and secondly, the extenuatory, almost sympathetic, nature of Dickens’s references to Powell.
The course of the forger’s destiny during the remainder of 1846 and the next two years is obscure. It is most likely that he lay low for this period — hoping that the scandal would be forgotten as it had been forgiven, and waiting with Mr. Micawber’s philosophy for something to turn up.
Sure enough, in the last few weeks of 1848 something did turn up. But it was something most unpleasant: a warrant issued by the Croydon magistrates for Powell’s arrest in connexion with further alleged forgeries. By a conspiracy which temporarily gave him refuge in a private lunatic asylum, Powell eluded the clutches of a Police Inspector Shaw. For the second time he escaped the justice of the law. And in the Spring of 1849, as George Barrington the Prince of Pick-pockets had done in 1791, he “left his country for his country’s good.” He landed in America.
THE self-imposed incarceration in Miles’s Lunatic Asylum at Hoxton, and the succeeding voyage across the Atlantic, seem not only to have induced a new vigour and self-confidence in Thomas Powell but to have inspired some ambitious plans including the highly desirable one of beginning on a clean leaf of his life’s record. After reaching New York he bustled about, and was soon among its newspaper editors. This was not difficult. Did he not come from England as a man of letters with published poems and plays to show? Had he not really fine credentials in the shape of letters and presentation books to him from the great authors of the old country? It was all very impressive; and so was Mr. Powell in person. The busy editors had no reason to look twice at some of those letters and book-inscriptions. Why should they doubt, even had there been similar material at hand for comparison?
Moreover, the dear fellow was doubly welcome to those New York editors already beginning to set the pace for the World’s journalism. For he came with topical copy in his capacious pockets — personalia about Popular Persons in the form of short Lives of darling Dickens, Lord Galahad Tennyson, those romantic elopers the Brownings, the caustic Carlyle, and others. Hot stuff, too! The “dear fellow’ ? Yes, truly a likeable man. His more or less “official” American biographer does not fail to give a snapshot picture of him, whatever else he omits. Here is the picture: it is sufficient to explain the success among the New Yorkers of the Old Englander: . . . When the first number appeared the likeness was readily recognized by this wealthy merchant’s relatives, and he was christened Dombey on the spot, and he himself was not averse to the “high distinction of being the hero of a work by so popular a writer as Mr. Dickens:” we ourselves have seen him blandly smile as the allusion has been made in his hearing; but as the work proceeded, and the heartless mercenary character of a London merchant was unfolded, his face grew tragically dismal at the slightest reference to what had formerly fed his pride!
... He found time from his work, however, for hours of congenial companionship, and for conversation upon many subjects to which his friends never wearied of listening. In personal appearance he was the conventional bluff, hearty, and bulky Englishman of the John Bull type, and he retained his national characteristics through all the years of his association with Americans, living in the memories of his friends and associates as one of the liveliest and best-liked of the coterie of New York journalists and literary men that assembled regularly at the famous Pfaff’s. . . . [Dictionary of American Biography, 1935.]
But Powell early blotted his new leaf in New York. After two-and-a-half years of retreat and asylum from the scenes of his London triumphs, and after the expense of his emigration, he was naturally low in funds; and he had resort again to his ingenuity with the pen. He forged a letter of credit for £250 on a Quebec firm in the name of Mr. John Allan, a partner in Chapman and Co., his former employers who had forgiven his enormities. This credit was negotiated through a Mr. J. G. Body of New York; who, on the strength of the great London House’s name, promptly advanced the cash. The fraud was soon discovered (about July 1849). Powell was taken before the New York “police;” but, as proper evidence that the letter of credit was a forgery could not there and then be produced, he was discharged. The evidence of the forgery was later supplied by Chapman and Co. in a Declaration: the document from which this summary of events is taken does not, however, carry the legal proceedings further. Perhaps they were dropped.
Whether they were not reported in the New York Press and remained unknown to its editors, or alternatively whether they were explained away by the bluff, hearty John Bull, the facts are that he continued to be accepted at his own generous valuation. The New York Tribune and its associate New York Evening Post gave him laudatory notices, the latter beginning the publication of his biographical and critical sketch of Charles Dickens. It was one of thirty-eight such sketches in Powell’s first American book, then printing, that was to be issued the same year under the title The Living Authors of England (1849) and republished in Britain in 1851 with some of the minor subjects omitted. And with the serialisation in the New York Evening Post, which quickly reached Dickens, were laid charges of a highly explosive nature.
Powell’s sketch of Dickens is of some importance because it is written from first-hand knowledge and also because it contains early and contemporary criticisms which later were to be applied to the novelist, even by admirers of his work. Some of the critic’s literary estimates lose their effect by their antithesis: as when he compares his subject with Thackeray who “never loses his temper or his judgment, Dickens often does.” Powell’s judgment of his man may be summed up in the comment: “If this estimate be correct, it necessarily places the author of Pickwick in the second class of literature.”
But the sketch is most interesting, and to an extent valuable, when it engraves a portrait of “our distinguished countryman.” We are shown Mr. Dickens in private life” as good-tempered and hospitable. His eye “is hazel” (a subject on which there has been much controversy). He is “a very gay dresser,”and “as fond of rings and gold chains as a Mosaic Jew . . . and is reported to live not too wisely, but too well.” An amusing story retailed from Dickens’s dinner-table is followed by these biting strokes of the graver: “Notwithstanding his apparent theoretical sympathy with the lower classes, he pays an absrurd deference to men of rank, and thinks no dinner-table complete without a lord, or a very rich merchant or banker. This has been decidedly injurious to his writings; it has cramped his hand and ‘checked the thunder in midvolley’.”
It is, however, more especially my next and final selection from Powell’s sketch which is remarkable, and which caused explosions on both sides of the Atlantic. As we have seen, Dickens was beginning Dombey and Son in 1846 when he heard from Thomas Chapman of Powell’s first frauds on the House. The publication of the novel in the usual monthly parts began in October of the same year, and ended in April 1848. They came in the nick of time for Powell to notice that the hero of Mr. Dickens’s last novel “is well-known as intended to represent a shipowner and merchant ‘not a hundred miles’ from Leadenhall Street, in whose office a relative of the novelist is clerk.” Then this follows: —
. . . We cannot help in this place remarking, that when Mr. Dickens commenced “ Dombey ” he stated to several that, in his new work, it was his intention to expose the arrogance and pride of every English merchant, with an eye to the correction of those notorious vices. It is evident to all that he either lacked the courage or the power to achieve so great and praiseworthy an object. It has resulted in the miserable failure of grossly libelling and caricaturing one person, and thus narrowing a great public object to a private end. Had the castigator of the Yorkshire schoolmasters, the paid magistrates, the impostor architects, the dandy milliners, and the grinding usurers, possessed the nerve to teach the arrogant merchants of London that their clerks and dependents were worthy better treatment than they receive at the hands of their Egyptian taskmasters, Mr. Dickens might have secured a fame which is fast fading away under his new dispensation of writing; but this narrowing of an originally fine and broad-viewed mind will always happen when an author deserts the manly code of his early years, and transforms himself into the companion of fashionable dandies, literary lords  and heartless millionaires.
WHAT with “Mr, Dickens’s” novel and now this man Powell’s terrible identification of its chief character, the pride of Thomas Chapman must have been finally humbled almost as abjectly as was Dombey’s when his beautiful and haughty wife eloped with the reptilian Carker — ran away from HIM, the head of Dombey and Son. That earlier matter of the frauds had been hushed up: the loss written off silently, however bitterly. But these awful revelations were now for the world and his wife to read and laugh over.
In the Dickens menage at Devonshire Terrace, itself beginning to grow uncomfortable, the Powell gunpowder exploded with more violent effects; for it blew up not only the novelist’s complacency but also his rather sympathetic attitude to the forger. It was bad enough to have it bruited about in Britain (where the Lord God of Snobbery kinged it alongside Queen Victoria) that he Dickens, the champion of the poor and oppressed, pandered to men of title and wealth. But that he should be branded a snob over there — there in the new Republic of Equality (more or less) — where his writings were getting so popular, was intolerable. Also, there was that awkward identification of his influential friend Chapman with Dombey, and its pendent charge of faithlessness of declared principles. These Powellizings got under Dickens’s skin, which was not so tough as his muscles. He also would do some exploding. To parody his own playful boast to Powell, it was a case of “when we doos fight, we fights for the K.O., Sir.” And from the moment Powell’s biographical broadside was poured into London, Dickens determined on the K.O. — to knock Thomas Powell out of American society. The Battle of Life (new version) was on.
The novelist threw himself into the battle furiously and with all his energy. The course he decided on was a campaign to denounce Powell and expose his forgeries: or at least those Dickens knew of; for the more interesting ones — the literary frauds — were then unknown. He began with a letter (20th October 1849) to Chapman, “My dear Sir,” saying that as a cheap edition of American Notes was just in preparation
... I hope you will see no objection to my instancing in a new Preface this fellow’s connexion with an American newspaper as a striking proof of the justice of the estimation in which I hold that Press, and to my setting forth his history in the plainest possible terms. I think such an unmitigated villain should be denounced, and I know that it would go all over the States instantly. . . .
But American Notes came out without any such history of the villain in its new preface. In the absence of Chapman’s reply, the inescapable inference is that he disapproved of the suggestion—a decision in keeping with his attitude throughout. It may or may not be significant that, so far as is known, Dickens’s correspondence with Chapman practically ceased with this letter,
Dickens was not to be baulked. What he was deterred (immediately, that is) from doing in print, he did in script: writing to American correspondents to describe in forthright terms Powell’s career, and suggesting the dissemination of the details. At least two editors of English newspapers were in likewise circularized. Of the letters to America, one is that to L. Gaylord Clark — firstly, because it has never been printed in any collection of Dickens’s correspondence (not even in the Nonsuch Edition of 1937-8); and secondly, to amplify the story already outlined: —
. . . But I have another piece of news for you — I am going to give you a serious caution, respecting a man who has been, and possibly may yet be in New York and who I think may likely to have fallen in your way. I learn from a brother of mine, that one of vour newspapers (I think it is called “The New York Evening Post”) has been PUFFING a Mr. Thomas Powell, an English literary gentleman, and publishing a life of me by that eminent individual purporting to be a part of some forthcoming book. which is from beginning to end, one intact and complete lie. I think Mr. Powell a very likely man indeed to form a ready connection with the American Press. He is a forger and a thief. He was managing clerk to an eminent merchant’s house in the City of London, and during a series of years forged and altered checks until he had defrauded them to the extent of thousands of pounds.
His robberies being discovered one day, he took up his hat, went to a chemist, bought some laudanum, walked off to a warm bath and was found in it insensible. I don’t know whether he took enough laudanum to kill himself but I should say he was careful to keep on the safe side — he was recovered and forgiven by the gentleman whom he had robbed — dismissed of course but not prosecuted. They were tender of his wife and family. After some months’ endurance of the misery and shame of his position, he was taken up at Croydon (ten miles from London) for passing several forged checks to divers tradespeople in that neighbourhood; was stated to the magistrate to be mad; and was actually confined for some time in a lunatic asylum that the prosecution against him might not go on.
From the lunatic asylum he found his way to New York. He arrived there with a forged letter of recommendation to credit purporting to come from a partner in the very house he had robbed and drew two bills upon that gentleman (cashed in New York) which of course has been protested and returned. The very same house, to whose moderation he is indebted for not working in chains in Norfolk Island at [?this] instant, is of course the subject of his blackest ingratitude and is libelled in all sorts of ways in his aforesaid life of me.
Before his character was discovered he wrote some plays — one dedicated to me — by pushing which he got into the houses of certain literary men, and among others into mine, where he once dined, I am sorry to say. I know his late employers well, and tell you this story with the full and complete personal knowledge of its truth in every particular. Indeed, it is under-stated. Yon are at liberty to make any use of this communication that you think proper. I am responsible for its truth and think your American readers will do well to consider whom they trust to sometimes.
Ever, my dear Clark, faithfully yours,
Devonshire Terrace, Oct. 22. 1849.
When the above let ter appeared in the New York Tribune Powell rose on his massive legs and fought back hard. First, he put the gentleman who published Dickens’s letter into prison, as its writer plaintively informed Alexander Ireland (24. Dec. 1849). Next, he began proceedings against Dickens for libel, claiming 10,000 dollars.
The unfortunate journalist to be imprisoned was perhaps Gaylord Clark himself: his identity does not emerge from the dossier before me. But when the staggering news reached London, and later there came a letter of advice from “one of the first lawyers in New York” telling Dickens what he must do and do quickly, the novelist acted with speed and resolution to save the horrid situation. The Battle of Life had become a Battle of Liberty. What would they say of him in the States when it became known that an innocent American citizen had been thrown into prison on account of Charles Dickens. And in the result he produced what book-collectors, bibliographers, and rare-book dealers, have not realized all these years is the rarest of Dickens’s first editions.
What, of course, was wanted, both to release the imprisoned victim and to counter the threat of a libel action was Proof— testimony in some quicklysendable and legally-acccptable form that would substantiate the public denunciation of Powell; for it must be remembered that no judicial proceedings had decided his guilt, however provable it may have been. Dickens’s first step was to write to Chapman and Co. the following letter which also has never appeared in any collection of his correspondence: —
Thursday 13th December, 1849.
I beg to call your attention to the accompanying extract cut from an American newspaper called the “New York Tribune,” in which, in a letter to Mr. Clark of New York, I describe Mr. Thomas Powell as “a Forger and a Thief;” and I entreat the favour of your informing me whether he was employed in your house many years, and whether you detected him at last, in any proceedings which justify that description.
I also beg you to state to me, if you can, when certain criminal charges were preferred against him before the Magistrates at Croydon.
Dear Sir, Faithfully yours,
The House duly supplied the required Declaration, affirming inter alia the description as “too painfully true.” Our novelist-turned-attomcy also wrote for a statement from Dr. South wood Smith (famed for his sanitary reforms) who had obligingly assisted to find Powell asylum from the hands of the police. The naïvete of the doctor’s certificate was equalled by Powell’s when, including the doctor in The Living Authors of England, he said: “His good offices are always at the disposal of his friends.”
Dickens next added to his indictment a report from The Times of 10 January 1849 of the medical legal manïuvrings by which Powell avoided appearing before the magistrates; who were highly incredulous, declaring that they were not satisfied the defendant’s condition was “occasioned by the act of God; ” but that by the use of opium and other means he had brought on his present condition to evade justice. This Dickensian indictment concluded with the correspondence between Chapman & Co. and J. G. Body uncovering Powell’s fraud in New York.
THESE documents Dickens rushed to his printers, who type-set them over the household words of their imprint “Bradbury and Evans” in a large quarto pamphlet of four fully-covered pages. It had no title-page, but bore at the head of P.  —
[PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL.]
Concerning this pamphlet, a not unimportant digression from the story ought to be made. The printing was recorded by John C. Eckel of Philadelphia in his Dickens Bibliography (1913). The copy he described, with inadequate appreciation of its status, came from the library of Harry B. Smith the American book-collector. It was one Dickens had sent to editor Charles Kent of the London newspaper The Sun with a covering letter which spoke of it as “a Proof I have had privately printed.” The bibliographer, after hazarding that it was the only copy known, added “which leads to the supposition that it was the only copy printed” —a conclusion slightly qualified to “it may have been the only copy printed” in his 1932 edition.
This supposition is fantastic. Ignoring the implication in the covering letter, Eckel seems to have been misled by the wording at the head of the pamphlet and to have considered the printing as a solitary proof or printer’s pull. But disregarding the odd and meaningless brackets (which are probably a compositor’s error in the haste with which the job was done) the word Proof is Dickens’s title for the printing — meaning Proof of Thomas Powell’s Forgeries, or some such wording. For in these four large close-printed pages was in truth substantiation of the charges: and the facts here marshalled show beyond question that there was actually an edition privately printed mainly for America to meet the two crises there. Dickens himself said so in the covering letter to Kent that should be read in conjunction with the one to Alexander Ireland, editor of the Manchester Examiner, above mentioned. His words to the latter, after referring to the denunciation in New York, are “. . . having but one day before the sailing of the last steamer to collect the proofs printed on the accompanying sheet [i.e. the pamphlet folded after printing to make four pages]. ... I got them together in short time, and sent them out to justify the character I gave him.”
There were at least half-a-dozen persons in New York alone who would need copies; and Dickens, with his knowledge of legal process, doubtless added sufficient duplicates. We have seen him giving out copies to two English editors; and there were others in London (Thomas Chapman, John Allan, and himself, particularly) who would wish to have specimens by them — at least until the trouble was settled. Thus the pamphlet had to be printed in the limited edition normal with such things. And somewhere in both America and England copies of this, the rarest item of Dickensiana and worth almost more than its weight in diamonds, are probably still lurking in musty legal offices and long unopened deed-boxes.
On the result of the dispatch to America of copies of the precious pamphlet my Powell dossier throws no light. It is a reasonable surmise that the gentleman in jail was speedily released. Maybe he found solace, even glory, in his unexpected and perhaps not too painful martyrdom in the cause of Truth and Charles Dickens. As for the threatened libel action, that certainly never materialized. The bluff hearty John Bull could only have been bluffing. And Dickens successfully called his bluff. But he failed to deliver the knock-out.
The only mystery that remains (and even equally long researches in New York might not solve it now) is how Thomas Powell’s reputation survived all the ugly scandal. It did, however. The biographer (and provoker!) of The Living Authors of England went on from one journalistic and literary success to another, becoming the esteemed — even the adored — of his wide circle in the United States, until his death in 1877: when, according to Eckel, he committed suicide. If the last statement is correct, it is another fact omitted from the notices of him in American “official” biographies.
When Chapman disclosed the first of Powell’s financial frauds, Dickens was Christlike towards the robber, and rather crusty towards the robbed. It was the biographical sketch and identification of the Dombey original that set him on his campaign of denunciation. But however sincere Powell may have been in the purely literary estimate of his subject, there was unmistakeable hostility, an underlying motive of retaliation, in his personal criticisms. Dickens was entitled to defend himself. Whether the method he chose had the approval of his mentor John Forster is questionable. And the fact that the biographer is silent about all these momentous proceedings, the very stuff of biography, may be his commentary on the issue.
- * [A reference to Dickens’s partiality for that peculiar person Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton.]↩