Authors: Les Standiford
ccording to the memoirs of Sir E. W. Watkin, one of his Manchester hosts, there was no hint that the Dickens who arrived in Manchester was in any way out of sorts. To Watkin, whose recollections admittedly have the ring of enthusiasm, if not outright awe, for his subject, Dickens was the picture of affability and beneficence.
“We were indebted for the presence of Charles Dickens to the kind influence of his elder sister—Mrs. Burnett—a self-denying saint, if ever one existed,” Watkin writes. The evening before Dickens’s appearance at the Athenaeum, Watkin and a few companions visited Dickens at the Burnetts’ home.
Inside, the group found Dickens standing by the fireplace, ready with a decanter of wine. “In passing the decanter, [he] upset his own glass,” Watkin recalls, “and deluged a very pretty book lying on the table.”
The mishap did not seem to bother Dickens, though, who was quick to press the delegation for details of the next day’s program and to inquire of Watkin who they thought to seat him beside. When Watkin suggested the author might be most comfortable with his sister and brother-in-law at hand, Dickens shook his head.
“No, I should not wish that,” he told Watkin, “not by any means. You must look upon your object in choosing my supporters,” he explained.
In that case, Watkin replied, how about Mr. Cobden on one side of Dickens, and Mayor Kershaw of Manchester on the other? And Dickens agreed that would do very well.
From there, the talk moved along to Dickens’s hopes for a decent crowd (“You had ten thousand in at the Education meeting, had you not?” he asked one of Watkin’s group). And then, somewhat to Watkin’s surprise, Dickens himself launched into a fulsome and well-informed elucidation of the Athenaeum’s value, history, and current state of want.
“In all this Dickens appeared to take great interest,” Watkin wrote appreciatively. When one of the group remarked upon the traditional opposition of conservatives to such grassroots educational undertakings as the Athenaeum, Dickens responded with vigor.
“If a certain party choose to oppose the education of the masses,” he said, “we cannot help it. We must go on in spite of them.”
Someone else wished to thank Dickens for his great generosity in lending his celebrity to their cause. An author of his accomplishment speaking on their behalf stood much more effectively than a mere politician, the Manchester man said, beaming.
“He modestly disclaimed the merit we wished to attach to his visit,” Watkin reports. Dickens simply waved away such praise and reiterated that he was there because he supported the Athenaeum’s position: there was “a too general desire to get the utmost possible amount of work out of men instead of a generous wish to give the utmost possible opportunity of improvement.”
“I shall enforce the necessity and usefulness of education,” Dickens told the group. “I must give it to them strong.”
When talk turned finally to matters of pounds and shillings and pence, Dickens suggested that it would be a mistake to paint too dire a picture of the organization’s circumstances during his address, as donors might be more likely to support a cause on its way up than to toss money at one sinking surely toward the bottom. “I may say that the debts of the institution are in rapid course of liquidation, eh?” he told them. “That will be the way.”
The group agreed with that tack, and also agreed that it would be a mistake for Dickens to ask outright for money. “Too much like making a commodity of him,” Watkin chimed in.
Dickens nodded. “I will try to excite their liberality in another and equally or more useful way,” he assured the party.
They should remember that more was at stake than their own institution, Dickens went on to say. “The Manchester Athenaeum is not the sole thing depending upon your efforts. It is the principle of athenaeums that you are really struggling for.” And with that, their meeting was closed.
uring a pre-performance tour of the Athenaeum the next afternoon, Dickens was introduced to Richard Cobden, the fiery orator, and the two exchanged compliments and ideas as they wound their way through the institution, and, according to Watkin, “diving into its cellars and mounting to its top, amid sundry jokes” about politics and politicians, including those at the expense of James Crossley, a rather stoutly built local who opposed Cobden fiercely.
One of the chief topics of discussion was Cobden’s involvement in the national Anti–Corn Law League. Cobden, who had in 1839 spearheaded a similar local organization in Manchester, had been successful in organizing a national committee to unite all interests who sought to put an end to the tariffs protecting Britain’s landed gentry. A former member of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce and one of the city’s first aldermen, Cobden was elected to Parliament in 1841, and he quickly became one of the principal spokesmen against the vested interests propping up British grain prices and keeping the price of bread artificially high.
The severe depression of 1840–42, combined with a series of bad harvests, led to shortages and high prices that increased support among the general British population for Cobden’s position. The group also picked up the backing of manufacturers, who feared that the duties that kept corn prices inflated would ultimately lead to stoppages by workmen seeking higher wages. Cobden crisscrossed the whole of England, speaking to increasingly growing audiences, and had become a national workingman’s hero by the time he and Dickens met in Manchester.
Disraeli, who would join them on stage—and though a Tory and a conservative at heart—had endeared himself to liberals for his demands that the landed interests were obligated to protect the rights and livelihood of the poor. Thus, the popular trio—politician, novelist, and novelist-cum-politician—made the perfect cast for the Athenaeum’s playbill. Cobden and Disraeli were perhaps more experienced as public speakers. (Taunted once by William Gladstone that he would probably die “by hanging or of some vile disease,” Disraeli retorted, “That would depend, sir, on whether I embraced your principles or your mistress.”) But despite his recent setbacks, Dickens’s long-standing celebrity made him the undisputed star of the show.
t would have been difficult for Dickens to throw himself into his savior’s role in Manchester that night in 1843—his marriage was troubled, his career tottering, his finances ready to collapse. With all that on his mind, could he truly put it aside and rally an audience on behalf of workingmen’s access to ideas, and arts, and education? But these principles formed the very heart and soul of Dickens’s own best work, and furthermore, he had once been one of those men on whose behalf he spoke.
At thirty-one, he was still developing as an artist, to be sure, but with the publication of
Sketches by Boz
(diffuse, but displaying the wide array of his social interests),
The Pickwick Papers
(episodic, but rich in character and comedy), and
(at times melodramatic, but nonetheless unified in power of theme), he had demonstrated the range and depth and dramatic facility that would build on the accomplishments of those who had come before him (Fielding, Defoe, Smollett, Richardson, and Scott), and which would make him, in the eyes of most present-day commentators, the first truly modern novelist, as well as the chief spokesman for his age.
In the latter regard, Dickens was well aware of the authority he had achieved as a spokesman and an artist. It may be difficult to appreciate such a status today, when celebrities are excoriated for expressing their political views during an awards ceremony—or during a phase of twentieth-century criticism proclaiming that novels are the subjective fancies of their respective authors and bear no practical relation to reality (if there even is such a thing as “reality”). “Art cannot rescue anybody from anything,” rings the last line of a well-known story by Gilbert Sorrentino.
But in Dickens’s time, the notion of a narrator-author standing in the wings of a fictitious story, always ready to step forward and explain the actions and motives of a character or to deliver an exegesis on the nature of the world surrounding him, was completely acceptable. For one thing, in an age when education was less than universal and where relatively few attended university, it only stood to reason that an informed author who was at all serious about his craft might have something instructive to pass along about the workings of human nature and the laws that governed commerce. In Dickens’s day, the novel was viewed not only as a source of entertainment but also very much as a potential source of information and enlightenment.
Furthermore, there existed in those times nothing like the network of governmental social services that a modern age takes for granted. Charitable enterprises for the poor and unfortunates of all types were run by churches and private organizations, many of which were guided by questionable motives and methods. Particularly galling to Dickens, who would “never, ever forget” his ignominious childhood, were the puritanical at heart, who demanded obeisance to their belief systems in return for a bowl of gruel. To Dickens, true charity was a matter of openhearted benevolence; to use the relief of poverty as a cudgel to beat a recipient into piousness was repellent and evil.
Dickens was no radical, and the theories of Marx and Engels (the latter’s family owned a cotton mill in Manchester at the time of Dickens’s appearance before the Athenaeum) went much too far for him. Dickens believed that a reasonable capitalistic society could be made to recognize its responsibility to all its citizens, and that it was the duty of those most fortunate to share a portion of their gain with those whose grasp had slipped while pulling at their bootstraps.
He opposed violent confrontation to achieve these means, of course; but he well understood why desperate men would be driven to crime and violence. And he was severely critical of individuals and moneyed interests who sought to shirk their responsibilities to the poor. Legislation that oppressed the unfortunate (such as the Corn Laws and the imprisonment of debtors and the failure to properly regulate labor practices) were particular targets of his wrath—as were bureaucratic incompetency, the scarcity of public works and sanitation, and personal greed, gluttony, and indifference.
But Dickens was not a humorless reformer. The end he sought in all his zeal was a society in which the pleasures of life could be enjoyed by everyone: culture, entertainment, good food and drink, convivial fellowship, and a happy family. Were he alive to hear a man named Rodney King call out, “Why can’t we all just get along?” the comment would have surely brought an approving nod and the Cockney-inflected phrase that Dickens was found of using: “Oh, law, yes.”
hus, though it may be true that Dickens had accepted his invitation to the Manchester Athenaeum because his sister Fanny had prevailed upon him to, everything in his philosophical makeup predisposed him to make that two-hundred-mile journey by rail from London. If England was at the world’s forefront of industrial revolution—with the consolidation of small farms into large, and the mechanization of agriculture and steel production and textiles leading the way—then coal-fired Manchester was leading the charge.
From a population of 6,000 in 1685, the town—with its ready access to the shipping port of Liverpool and its proximity to coal deposits and rapidly flowing rivers providing power—had become the world’s first modern industrial city, growing to 300,000 by 1830, and to more than 400,000 by the time that Dickens arrived. There were about 16 million residents in all of England at the time, and about 2 million living in London—a striking contrast to the United States, which had a comparable 17 million, but only 312,000 in its largest metropolis, New York City.
Prosperity for factory and mill and transportation interests had not come without cost, however. Owners lived like potentates, and a growing number of managerial workers were beginning to enjoy the relative ease of a middle class. But most of those who made the factories run were laborers, and they and their families lived in squalor.