Authors: Les Standiford
There is no question that Dickens drew on his own experiences as a twelve-year-old working in Warren’s blacking factory and living alone in a rooming house while his father and the rest of his family were ensconced in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. His descriptions of the lair of Fagin, the master thief, have clear parallels to his own recollections of the rat-infested factory, and even that miscreant’s name is taken from Bob Fagin, one of young Dickens’s coworkers at Warren’s.
Dickens was profoundly ashamed of his childhood poverty and kept the details of his family’s misfortune and his experience at Warren’s a secret from everyone but his wife and Forster, who did not make them public until his publication of the
Life of Charles Dickens
following the writer’s death. And while passages in
would draw even more directly upon these memories, in
readers saw for the first time the power of what many critics consider the most profound influence on Dickens’s adult life and art.
Interpreting a work of art based upon knowledge of its author’s life has its limitations. Such an approach can lead to psychobabble at its worst and even at its best can end by placing more value upon the biographical facts than upon the power and pleasure of the work itself. As observers debate the reason for the Mona Lisa’s smile, the beauty of the smile itself seems to recede in direct proportion. But in reading a book such as
it is surely impossible to watch Oliver’s humiliation holding up his bowl for “more” without thinking of Dickens’s own words regarding his experiences tying off blacking pots at Warren’s while passersby gawked: “I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am, but I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget.” And thank heavens, readers might respond—if he had forgotten, then Oliver Twist might never have come to life.
The novel was read widely, and everyone had an opinion on its social agenda, from the humble man on the street to the most prominent citizens of England. Queen Victoria found
“excessively interesting,” even without any knowledge of Dickens’s life. Prime Minister Lord Melbourne complained, however, “It’s all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers, and Pickpockets…I don’t
these things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in
and therefore I don’t wish them represented.” Thackeray went so far as to accuse Dickens of romanticizing crime, and lumped the novel in with lurid pulp fiction of the day.
But perhaps the most telling evidence of the broad appeal of Dickens’s second novel is the fact that six separate stage plays based on the book were put into production during 1838. Most were pale imitations of the language that Dickens had got onto the page, unfortunately, and though the author himself was sometimes lured to these unauthorized performances, they could be trying. During one, Dickens confessed later, he had to lie down on the floor of his box from the middle of the first act until the play had ended.
n 1838, even before he had completed the final installments of
(its last issue appeared in April 1839), Dickens began work on his third novel,
published in twenty installments between March of 1838 and September of 1839. The story of a penniless young man who escapes from a cruel Yorkshire boarding school to fashion a better life for himself in London proved even more popular with audiences than did
with its first number selling 50,000 copies.
The Old Curiosity Shop,
however, that propelled Dickens into the literary stratosphere. The book, which featured the travails of the misbegotten waif Nell Humphrey, began its publication in weekly installments in April 1840 and was completed in February 1841, selling more than 100,000 copies per issue. Though the pure and pious Nell perishes midway through the proceedings, and critics were divided concerning whether Dickens had delivered the summa of all morality plays or a trifling melodramatic tract, readers flocked to the book, and Dickens himself declared, “I think I shall always like it better than anything I have done or may do.”
It is worth noting here, that in attracting 100,000 readers to issues of
The Old Curiosity Shop,
Dickens was reaching an unprecedented portion of his country’s audience. While no formal records of literacy rates were kept at the time, Francis Jeffrey (Lord Jeffrey), the eminent jurist and founder of the
wrote in an 1844 issue of that magazine that there might be 300,000 readers among the middle class in England (out of a total population of about 2 million), with perhaps another 30,000 in the upper classes. And even if the total readership was 500,000, as some commentators have suggested, Dickens was still selling his work to somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of the literate public of a nation. Compare those figures with modern-day America, where 200 million or so working, literate adults constitute the potential “book-buying public,” and where a sale of 75,000 to 100,000 copies—one-twentieth of one percent—is often enough to put an author high up on the list of
New York Times
Given that copies of each installment were often passed from hand to hand, and large audiences gathered regularly in pubs and coffeehouses to hear them read, the impact of Dickens’s work upon the world around him was even more profound, and far beyond anything that had come before. If publishers had been longing for a second coming of Sir Walter Scott, then with regular sales of novels exceeding five and ten times those of
Dickens had more than filled the bill. His success led to a complete remaking of the expectations of the book trade, commentators have pointed out, as well as “a new, unheard of scale of remuneration for popular writers.”
And yet for all his success, Dickens was not infallible in his judgments. While he was still wrapping up installments of
The Old Curiosity Shop,
Dickens began work on a fifth novel,
a historical tale built around the Gordon Riots of 1780, during which hundreds of anti-Papist protesters were shot in the London streets by government troops. Dickens had toyed with the story for several years, though he had never been able to make much headway. In 1838 he wrote to Forster of his frustration with the piece, calling it “a hideous nightmare,” which he could neither finish nor forget.
As it turned out, the latter course might have given him more peace. Though he finally threw himself into the project, publishing it between January and late November of 1841, the public’s response to
was dramatically disappointing. Sales plunged from 100,000 for issues of
The Old Curiosity Shop
to 70,000 for the initial issues of its successor, and to 30,000 by the end.
Though Dickens staunchly defended his work, telling Forster he was confident that “it comes out strong to the last word,” this downturn soon had him seriously considering an invitation issued by the American author Washington Irving. Irving, an ardent fan of Dickens’s work, had suggested that his British colleague undertake an American tour, insisting that the visit would be “such a triumph from one end of the States to the other, as was never known by any Nation.”
Dickens, a foe of conservative government and a champion of individual liberty, was well aware that the Gordon Riots had taken place during the same period as the American Revolution. Perhaps the anti-Tory sentiments of
might be better appreciated in the United States than they had been in his own country. Surely, Dickens thought, he would be well received in a country where crowds were said to have awaited the arrival of British packet ships bearing the latest installment of
The Old Curiosity Shop,
calling out to crew members, “Is Little Nell still alive?”
Furthermore, as a child of poverty, Dickens felt a great affinity for the underdog colonies and their great experiment in democracy. And besides, personal accounts by British authors touring the States had become something of a phenomenon in publishing, and he might be able to earn some extra income.
With such thoughts in mind, Dickens approached his publishers, Chapman and Hall, hoping to persuade them to advance the necessary funds for the trip. Not only would the publicity help sell the books he had already published, Dickens argued, but the experience would become the stuff of a forthcoming travel memoir of his own.
The publishers agreed, and on January 2, 1842, Dickens and his wife, Catherine, set sail aboard the 115-passenger
leaving behind their four children—including their youngest, only seven months old—in the care of Dickens’s brother Fred. Though Catherine dreaded the prospect of a risky and arduous North Atlantic journey of nearly three weeks (the first steamship crossing had taken place only four years previously), and though Dickens himself was taken aback by the quality of the shipboard accommodations (pillows “no thicker than crumpets” and a mattress that he said was beaten as flat as a muffin), they arrived in Boston on January 22, where there began an assault by reporters, editors, admirers, and curiosity seekers that would not abate for the four and a half months of their visit.
The initial crush in Boston was so great that Dickens was forced to hire a secretary and arrange a formal daily reception at which the British consul would introduce him. In New York City, more than 3,000 turned out at the Park Theater for the Boz Ball on February 14, where a huge portrait of Dickens crowned by an eagle gazed down upon a series of staged tableaux representing various scenes and characters from his works.
During his stay, Dickens met essentially all of the new nation’s most esteemed writers and thinkers, including his staunch admirer Washington Irving, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allan Poe, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greely, Henry Clay, James Russell Lowell, and Daniel Webster. In Washington, D.C., President John Tyler received him at the White House.
And yet, despite this unprecedented level of attention and acclaim, all did not go smoothly for Dickens in America. For one thing, some Americans found Dickens in person somewhat less impressive than the earth-bounding titan his success might have suggested. While accounts from his days as a junior law clerk describe a young man with a glowing pink complexion, “a fine forehead,” and “beautiful expressive eyes full of animation,” the American author Richard Henry Dana wrote to Bryant that the first sight of Dickens “may not wholly please you.” Others commented that although he stood five feet nine inches (well above average for a man of his time), he nonetheless came across as short and stout, with ears a bit too big, and unkempt hair that he fussed with a bit too much in public and over dinner.
There was also Dickens’s penchant for speaking in low, hurried tones, his accented speech somewhat thick and difficult for the American ear to apprehend. He also had a propensity for dressing in a way that trended beyond the artistic to the ostentatious, with too much jewelry on his fingers, wrists, and tie-keeps, and his colorful vests a bit too bright for local tastes. Thackeray had once described the couple at a society ball: “How splendid Mrs. Dickens was in pink satin and Mr. Dickens in geranium and ringlets.” One can only imagine how his appearance struck a rawboned American audience.
“Foppish,” one U.S. reporter described him, “of the flash order.”
All that might have been accepted as artistic eccentricity, were it not for Dickens’s inability to hold his tongue regarding a particular economic issue that pained him mightily. From his first public appearances in the United States onward, and though he was predictably complimentary regarding America’s public institutions and philosophies, he invariably brought his speeches around to the matter that seemed to consume him: he painted a vivid picture of Sir Walter Scott lying penniless on his deathbed, the victim of international publishers who had pirated the great author’s work without payment of any royalty. From that plaintive starting point, Dickens went on to call for a worldwide copyright agreement that would protect all authors’ rights—his own of course included.
Given that literary piracy was common business practice in the former colonies (as it remains today in some countries in Eastern Europe and the Far East where copyright is not recognized), it was not long before newspapers with ties to or empathy for American publishers were attacking Dickens in print, alleging that his tour was undertaken as a veiled campaign for an international copyright agreement. Dickens was outraged, and wrote to an American friend, Jonathan Chapman, “I have never in my life been so shocked and disgusted, or made so sick and sore at heart as I have been by the treatment I have received in reference to the International Copyright question. I merely say that I hope the day will come when Writers will be justly treated; and straightway there fall upon me scores of your newspapers…attacking me in such terms of vagabond scurrility as they would denounce no murderer with.”
The popular response to the copyright issue was not the only matter that diminished Dickens’s original idealization of the United States. Following stops in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., he planned a tour of the American South, including a stay in Charleston, South Carolina, but got no farther than Richmond, Virginia.
As Dickens explained later in
he had already begun to realize that his long-held fantasies concerning the United States were at considerable odds with the reality he was experiencing. “When I came to consider the length of time which this journey would occupy, and the premature heat of the season, which even at Washington had been often very trying; and weighed, moreover, in my own mind, the pain of living in the constant contemplation of slavery…stripped of the disguises in which it would certainly be dressed,” he wrote, he decided to cancel his trip to the deep South.