Authors: Les Standiford
However, as many an old storyteller has put it, we have gotten a bit ahead of ourselves.
n the evening of October 5, 1843, thirty-one-year-old Charles Dickens sat on a stage in the smoke-laden city of Manchester, surely unaware that on this evening a process would begin that would change his life—and Western culture—forever. At the moment he was simply trying to pay attention as fellow novelist and junior member of Parliament Benjamin Disraeli completed his remarks to their eager audience.
Dickens and Disraeli, along with political firebrand Richard Cobden, were the featured speakers for this special program, a fund-raiser for the Manchester Athenaeum, the industrial capital’s primary beacon of arts and enlightenment. Designed by Charles Berg, architect of the Houses of Parliament, the Athenaeum’s headquarters (as well as its mission) was greatly revered by culture-starved workingmen and the more progressive of the city’s leaders. But a lingering downturn in the nation’s economy—part of the industrial revolution’s ceaseless cycle of boom and bust—had sent the Athenaeum into serious debt and placed its future in doubt.
Hoping to turn the tide, Cobden, a Manchester alderman and also an MP, had joined with other concerned citizens to lay plans for a bazaar and “grand soirée” in the adjoining Free Trade Hall. A popular and vociferous opponent of the onerous Corn Laws, which imposed stiff duties on imported grain and inflated the profits of England’s landowners at the expense of a citizenry often unable to buy bread, Cobden could always be counted upon to draw an audience. But with the addition of popular authors Disraeli and Dickens to the bill, the promoters hoped for a bonanza of shopping and new subscriptions that would secure the future of the Athenaeum once and for all.
Disraeli—the man who would go on to serve nearly forty years in his nation’s government, including two stints as prime minister, propelling his country into such epic undertakings as the annexation of Cyprus and the building of the Suez Canal—was at that time simply the socially conscious son of Jewish parents, a budding politician who had left the study of law to write a series of popular romances.
The evening’s headliner, however, was Dickens, who had become perhaps the world’s first true celebrity of the popular arts. The author of
Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby,
The Old Curiosity Shop
was far and away his country’s best-selling author, acclaimed as much for his themes—the passionate portrayals of the misery of the poor and the presumption and posturing of the rich—as for his spellbinding powers as a storyteller. And yet, for all his accomplishments, Dickens sat upon that Manchester stage a troubled man. True, he had risen from a poverty-stricken childhood of his own to enjoy unimaginable success and influence. But what preoccupied him on that evening was how rapidly—and how unaccountably—his good fortune had fled.
n fact, an account of Dickens’s rise from his miserable days in a London boot-blacking factory up until the time of his appearance in Manchester reads like melodrama:
His education was first interrupted at the age of twelve, when his father—a naval pay clerk who always struggled to meet his obligations—was imprisoned for debt (in time, the rest of the family, including Dickens’s mother, Elizabeth, and his three younger brothers and sisters finally joined his father in Marshalsea). Though he was able to resume school briefly after his father was released, the family’s fortunes plunged again, and at fifteen, young Charles was taken from school and apprenticed as a law clerk. Though he found the work there only slightly less dismal than the bottling of boot polish—and though he quickly came to loathe the hypocrisy of a labyrinthine and self-serving legal system—he formed a lifelong commitment to the distinction between “justice” and “the law.”
In 1829, at the age of seventeen, Dickens took a job as a court stenographer, and five years later, at twenty-two, began writing for a British newspaper, the
which dispatched him across the country to cover various elections. Along the way, Dickens discovered an interest in and facility for writing of the foibles, eccentricities, and tragedies embedded in the nation’s legal and political machinations; his keen eye and caustic wit enabled him to place a number of pieces in periodicals, a practice that not only supplemented his income but gratified his ego as well.
Of his first publication, a sketch titled “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” in the December 1833 issue of
Dickens recalls the purchase of “my first copy of the magazine in which my first effusion—dropped stealthily one evening at twilight, with fear and trembling, into a dark letter-box, in a dark office, up a court in Fleet Street—appeared in all the glory of print; on which occasion by-the-bye,—how well I recollect it!—I walked down to Westminster Hall, and turned into it for half-an-hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride, that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen there.”
While many of his first “outside” publications took the form of rudimentary short stories, Dickens began to make a name for himself with his nonfiction work for the
especially the series of “Street Sketches” that offered readers for the first time a vivid and empathetic view of ordinary London life. Pieces such as “Brokers and Marine Store Shops,” “The Old Bailey,” and “Shabby-Genteel People,” not only fascinated the readers of Dickens’s time but foreshadowed the dramatic style of today’s so-called new journalism. As the critic Michael Slater notes, “Already in these sketches Dickens is experimenting, very effectively, with that blending of the wildly comic and the intensely pathetic that was to win and keep him such thousands of devoted readers in after years.”
This success in the
led its publisher, George Hogarth, to invite Dickens to fashion a similar piece for the launch of a new publication, the
Soon Dickens was contributing regularly to the new publication and others, signing off as “Boz,” and creating something of a stir in London literary circles. In October of 1835, the publisher John Macrone offered Dickens one hundred pounds for the rights to publish a collection of
Sketches by Boz,
a handsome sum for a young reporter making just seven pounds per week.
Writers’ use of pseudonyms for the publication of literary items was a standard affectation of the time, and more than a small amount of gossip arose among those “in the know” as to the true identity of such widely read figures as Fitzboodle, Titmarsh, and Mr. C. J. Yellowplush. Dickens was fond of passing along to friends the contents of a hush-hush note he had received informing him in no uncertain terms that the writer behind the moniker of “Boz” was none other than his friend and fellow essayist Leigh Hunt.
It was not until advertisements for
were placed that the true identity of “Boz” (taken from a childhood nickname for Dickens’s youngest brother, Augustus) was revealed, and for several years afterwards, Dickens maintained the good-natured and popular affectation. Friends called him Boz, and Dickens often referred to himself in the third person as Boz. (Later he would be fêted at the “Boz Ball” during a tour of the United States, and as late as 1843, his novel
though acknowledging its author as Charles Dickens, still carried the notation “Edited by Boz” on its title page.)
was published in February of 1836 and met with unqualified success. Suddenly, Dickens saw himself validated as a spokesman for the underclass and an appointed foe of buffoonery, unwarranted privilege, and chicanery. One paper lauded him as “a kind of Boswell to society,” and another called the sketches “a perfect picture of the morals, manners, and habits of a great portion of English Society.” John Forster, who would one day become Dickens’s great friend, adviser, editor, and first biographer, wrote in the
that Dickens had excelled particularly in his portraits of the ludicrous and the pathetic, all rendered in an “agreeable, racy style.”
The success of
Sketches by Boz
led the publishers Chapman and Hall to contact Dickens regarding a project they had been turning over for some time. An artist named Robert Seymour had approached them with an idea for a serial publication on sporting life, with his own woodcuts to be accompanied by someone else’s lively text. Given what he had accomplished in
Dickens was just the man to add spice to this endeavor, the publishers told him, and offered him fourteen pounds per month to take the project on.
Dickens, however, was initially cool to the idea. He objected that “although born and partly bred in the country I was no great sportsman, except in the regard of all kinds of locomotion; that the idea was not novel, and had been already much used; that it would be infinitely better for the plates to arise naturally out of the text [instead of the other way around]; and that I should like to take my own way, with a freer range of English scene and people, and I was afraid I should ultimately do so in any case.”
Given their admiration for
Chapman and Hall agreed to see it Dickens’s way—he was to be the dog, with Seymour the tail—and once that was settled, Dickens was off and running. As he would write later, “My views being deferred to, I thought of Mr. Pickwick, and wrote the first number.”
What Seymour had conceived of as a kind of extended set of cartoons profiting at the expense of Cockney sportsmen became something much richer in Dickens’s hands. He and Seymour met face to face only once, on April 17, 1836, “to take a glass of grog” in Dickens’s words, and to discuss a few changes Dickens thought necessary for the plates that would go in the second issue of what was now being called
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club,
by Boz. Seymour, quite well known in his own right, must have seen which way the winds were blowing, but still he seemed agreeable enough. He made the changes Dickens asked for…
…and then, on April 20, after dashing off a note to his wife—“best and dearest” of her kind—Seymour killed himself.
Seymour made no mention in that letter of his own career’s downward trajectory, nor was there any bitter lament to the effect that the master of a project had become its slave. It is one of history’s undeniable ironies, however, that the demise of one artistic career would mark the meteoric rise of another.
With Seymour gone, Dickens was forced to arrange for another artist, Halbot Browne, to draw the plates for
Now a married man (he and Catherine Hogarth had proclaimed their vows on April 2), Dickens also negotiated a raise with Chapman and Hall to twenty pounds per month, with the understanding that he would expand each issue of
from twenty-six to thirty-two pages.
It was something of a leap of faith for Chapman and Hall to continue the project, for the sales of the first issue were fewer than five hundred copies, and the second and third did only marginally better. By the fourth issue, however, Dickens was in full control of the publication. Beginning with that number, he began the transformation of Mr. Pickwick from a fool into a benevolent, incomparable comic protagonist, served and advised by the faithful Sam Weller, whose pungent asides to his earnest but bumbling master have provided the inspiration for mordant comics to this very day: “now we look compact and comfortable, as the father said ven he cut his little boy’s head off, to cure him o’ squintin.”
As the magazine’s original harmless buffoonery was replaced by such often dark and pointed humor, the stock of the Pickwick Club rose in the eyes of the public. Sales for the fourth number jumped to 4,000. By the eleventh, 14,000 copies were sold. And by the end of the run, in November of 1837, more than 40,000 readers were lining up for installments. The era of Dickens as a true literary star had begun.