The Man Who Invented Christmas (5 page)

Dickens had also been dismayed by what he considered an appalling lack of personal hygiene among his American brethren, and while some newsmen had expressed surprise at the “common” manner of the great visiting writer, Dickens for his part found Americans to be rubes, lacking in the most basic civilities.

British diplomats had remarked from the beginning upon the lack of formality in the American White House; Thomas Jefferson had been known to greet visiting heads of state while wearing slippers. During his own visit, Dickens was flabbergasted to find President Tyler’s reception room filled with lobbyists and congressmen jawing, smoking, and spitting as if they were idlers at a bar. Of the anteroom where he was taken while his arrival was announced, Dickens said it was “as unpromising and tiresome as any waiting-room in one of our public establishments, or any physician’s dining-room during his hours of consultation at home.”

There were fifteen or twenty others with him in the chamber, including a wiry old man from the West with a giant umbrella between his legs, “frowning steadily at the carpet, and twitching the hard lines about his mouth, as if he had made up his mind to fix the President on what he had to say, and wouldn’t bate him a grain.” Dickens ended this descriptive rhapsody with a portrait of another man who “did nothing but spit.” Of this pervasive habit he noted that “indeed, all these gentlemen were so very persevering and energetic in this latter particular, and bestowed their favours so abundantly upon the carpet, that I take it for granted the Presidential housemaids have high wages.”

Added to such disillusionments was the ever-mounting exhaustion both he and Catherine experienced at being constantly “on stage,” their appearance, their dress, their every gesture and chance remark subject to scrutiny and, often, vilification. In the end, Dickens would write to his actor friend and sometime business partner William Macready, “I
am
disappointed. This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination.” On June 7, 1842, and following a month’s respite in Canada, Dickens and Catherine debarked for their homeland, grateful to be leaving the shores where the writer had once dreamed of finding “cities growing up, like palaces in fairy tales, among the wilds and forests of the west.”

3.

D
uring his generally disappointing visit to the United States, Dickens wrote a number of lengthy letters to Macready and others, always intending them as the core of the book of “impressions” he planned to publish with Chapman and Hall upon his return. He quickly completed work on
American Notes for General Circulation
by October 1842, a volume that rather predictably focused on the national shortcomings he discovered there.

While his criticism of American table manners, its prison system (“rigid, strict, and hopeless…I believe it in its effects, to be cruel and wrong”), the institution of slavery, the rigors of travel both at sea and on the American frontier, and the hypocrisy, venality, and arrogance he found rampant might have been expected from Dickens, the indifference of his British readership to all this came as something of a surprise to him. Reviewers found little new in Dickens’s observations, the gist of which had found its way into print in many previous editions from British writers eager to share the rough-hewn “American experience.”

In contrast, the book sold rather well in the United States, though any pleasure that its author might have taken was tempered by the fact that it appeared there primarily in pirated versions and that the critical response was vituperative. The most heartening response to the book came from American abolitionists, who welcomed Dickens’s sentiments on the practice of slavery in their country.

Soon after the appearance of
American Notes,
Dickens began the publication of his sixth novel,
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit,
in January 1843. In 1842 Dickens had obtained an advance of £2,000 from Chapman and Hall, to see him through his travels in the United States and a corresponding furlough from writing, in return for a new novel to be published in monthly installments. The terms of his contract also specified that in addition to his advance, he would also receive three-quarters of the net profits from sales of the new novel. But, quite possibly owing to the disappointing sales of
Barnaby Rudge
and the fact that Dickens was already £3,000 in debt to the house, the publishers had insisted on a clause that would allow them to deduct £50 from his monthly payment of £200 should sales of
Martin Chuzzlewit
fail to reach numbers necessary to pay down his debt.

Insertion of such a clause was a first for Dickens and surely less than a stirring vote of confidence, but if Dickens thought much of it at the time, he said nothing to Chapman and Hall. Indeed, he seemed supremely confident as he went about the writing of his new book, the subject of which he announced as “English life and manners,” and which centered on the machinations of a family assembled in a country house and jockeying for the fortune of Martin Chuzzlewit Sr.

Early on, Dickens wrote glowingly to John Forster, his friend and literary adviser, of his pleasure in seeing how his characters had “opened out.” The publishers were plagued by falling sales, but he was particularly happy with his decision to send his young protagonist, Chuzzlewit junior, off to tour America by the time he was writing the twelfth episode of the book. Though some critics saw this turn as a desperate attempt to revive the sluggish sales, Dickens took great pleasure in the opportunity to unleash one more salvo against the nation that had so disappointed him. “Martin has made them all stark raving mad across the water,” he crowed to Forster in August of 1843.

Among the things that rankled Americans (and cost him the friendship of his former booster Washington Irving) were observations like those of Martin’s friend Mark Tapley, who explains how he might draw the likeness of a much-exalted American symbol. Says Tapley to Martin, as they stand at the bow of their ship, watching the shore of the States disappear behind them:

“Why, I was a-thinking, sir…that if I was a painter and was called upon to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?”
“Paint it as like an Eagle as you could, I suppose.”
“No,” said Mark. “That wouldn’t do for me, sir. I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its shortsightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity, like a Ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it.”

Still, if Dickens thought a fiction-based campaign against the United States would win him an increased readership in his homeland, he had once again miscalculated. Sales rose slightly for the later installments of the book, from 20,000 copies to 23,000, but that remained a far cry from the 50,000 per issue for
Nicholas Nickleby
and 100,000 for
The Old Curiosity Shop.
When publisher William Hall reminded Dickens of the clause in their contract allowing for a reduction in his salary based on slow sales, an already agitated Dickens exploded. He dashed off a letter to Forster in which he vowed never again to write for Chapman and Hall, and stated his intentions of striking an agreement with the firm of Bradbury and Evans, the printers of his books, who had demonstrated their generosity and loyalty—in the author’s mind, at least—by sending him a turkey each Christmas.

From the outside, Dickens’s response might seem petulant. There are few writers to this day even in countries with populations far larger than Victorian England who would not be thrilled with the prospect of 23,000 copies of anything they had written flying out the doors of bookshops over the course of a week or a month, and most of them would be willing to put up with the barbs of a few critics and the enmity of a public that lay an ocean away.

But the truth is—just as the bar is never lowered in the course of a vaulting competition—few writers drop their expectations from book to book. A diminution of sales, interest, and public gestures of approval is tantamount to a lowering of self-worth. And certainly, for anyone who had ascended to the heights of literary Olympus, as Dickens had, the prospect of banishment to the foothills would be unbearable.

As his friend Forster often bristled when reminded of his origins as the son of a butcher, Dickens would never forget whence he had come. He was no child of privilege. There was no trust fund backing his endeavors. There was no family estate to which he might retire. He was, as is often said, only as good as his next book.

He might have passed off the disappointing response to
Barnaby Rudge
as his own fault, a miscalculation born of exhaustion. His sense that he needed a bit of time away from the grind of writing to gather his perspective was one reason he had conceived of his tour to the United States, after all. And perhaps he could attribute the failure of
American Notes
to the glut of similar books—however inferior—already in print. But, given the relative indifference to
Martin Chuzzlewit,
how could he help doubting his own judgment? Which is to say, his literary talent. Which is to say, his very sense of self.

4.

W
hen Charles Dickens made his way to Manchester to make his appearance before the Athenaeum, it is safe to say that he was wearing a sign of his cares on his brow. A French journalist who interviewed him during this time described him as having “long, brown, rather untidy hair…over the forehead of an unhealthy pallor.” However, the reporter also noted, “The bright, restless eyes testify to an unusual sagacity and quick intelligence.”

While a willingness to put a shoulder to the wheel to help improve the Athenaeum’s fortunes was in keeping with Dickens’s nature, he had come to Manchester (a place that Sir Charles Napier had described as “the entrance to Hell realized”) primarily at the urging of his sister Frances, eighteen months his senior. Fanny, as she was known to her brother, had married a pious Evangelical named Henry Burnett, and the couple had lived in the Manchester suburb of Ardwick for some time. Dickens and Fanny had always been close, though given his distrust of organized religion in general and of restrictive, small-minded sects in particular, he was not so sure about her choice of a husband. Still, Dickens, weary of the ceaseless crush caused by his celebrity, had chosen to stay with his sister and her husband instead of taking a room at a local hotel.

It is highly unlikely that he would even have considered the invitation to Manchester if it had not been for his sister’s involvement in the city’s welfare. In recent months the writer had more than done his part for the greater good.

As biographer Peter Ackroyd notes, Dickens had delivered speeches at the Printers’ Pension Society in London, the Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, the Charitable Society for the Deaf and Dumb, the Literary Fund, and for the Sanitorium. He had also agreed to arrange a testimonial dinner for his friend Macready—who was leaving a post at the Drury Lane Theater—to head up the formation of a Guild of Authors, to chair a committee formed to act on behalf of international copyright for authors, and to direct the relief effort for the surviving children of an actor named Edward Elton, who had recently drowned.

Given such a full slate, it is little surprise that Dickens had tired a bit of the endless round of parties and social occasions to which he was called (including the ball at which Thackeray had conceived his sniping portrait of Dickens and his wife, Catherine). Proof of Dickens’s deteriorating mood in this regard is evident in his notes on a dinner on behalf of the Charterhouse Square Infirmary, where he characterizes his fellow guests as “sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, overfed, apoplectic, snorting cattle.”

Then, too, there had come news from Catherine that she was again pregnant, with their fifth child in only seven years. Biographers have generally surmised that Dickens settled for Catherine Hogarth when he married her in 1833, after the love of his young life, Maria Beadnell, a banker’s daughter, had rejected him. But the relationship of Dickens and Catherine, if not passionate, had always been a fond and respectful one. The fact, then, that he called her “a Donkey” after she divulged to him that she was once more with child, suggests that Dickens was teetering on the edge of a very steep precipice indeed.

He had even gone so far as to suggest that they might think of moving their family, including Catherine’s sister Georgina, who was now living with them, to some new home on the Continent, where they might live more frugally and Dickens could more easily supplement his income by writing travel pieces. Perhaps he was simply overexposed, Dickens theorized. Perhaps once he had stopped writing and was out of the public eye, readers and critics would come to appreciate what they had lost. But, meanwhile, he had come to Manchester, and the show there would have to go on.