Hazel McHaffie

Charles Dickens: The Gas-Light Boy

Last week I shared with you something of Dickens’ mastery of the written word. Seems appropriate in this week’s post to follow it with a dip into a book I’ve just finished reading. It’s the first of two volumes about the author’s own early life: Charles Dickens: The Gas-Light Boy by Michael and Mollie Hardwick, published back in 1976.

Written very much in the style of Dickens himself, it takes the form of a rags-to-riches novel and is eminently readable. I particularly love the use of dialect to convey so much about class and education and place. Here’s an exchange between the young Charles and an orphan servant girl:

She threw him a gap-toothed grin of admiration. ‘You do talk nice, Master Charles. But it’s all a lot of rot for all that, ‘cos we need bread today. We can’t feed the nippers on jam tomorrow, Master Charles.’
‘I take your point, Orfling dear …’
Suddenly she flared up. ‘Oh, drop it, Master Charles, drop it!’
He stared. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nuffin.’
‘Really, my dear Orfling …’
‘If you must know, Master Charles,’ she almost spat at him, ‘it don’t relish a person to be called Orfling all the time. Orfling, Orfling!’ She threw up her hands and jumped down from the sacking.
It had never occurred to him. Perhaps the Chatham Orfling has felt so. ‘I suppose not,’ he said slowly, climbing down. ‘I never thought about it.’
‘Well, fink about it, then.’
‘All right. What is your name?’ There was no answer.
‘What is it for, goodness sake? What shall I call you? Miss Crumbs? Henrietta Apple, Lady Bluenose? What?’
She jerked round to face him. ‘If you must know – I don’t ‘ave a bloody name.’
‘Exactly why we call you Orfling.’
She began to cry. ‘I may be an Orfling but I got me rights to ‘aving a proper name like uvver coves do.’

At the tender age of 12, Charles was pressured into taking a job much against his will – ‘My education isn’t finished. How will I succeed if I’m only half finished?’ – knowing even at that age and stage that all he really wanted to do was write. For six or seven shillings a week he got a book-keeping job in a stinking rat-infested waterside blacking factory where he was bullied relentlessly and felt most terribly alone.

No detail of this traumatic twelfth year of his life was ever to vanish from the mind of Charles Dickens.

But by the time he reached his late teens, the family fortunes were temporarily reversed by the death of a rich relative. He was given another stab at school, and became proficient in shorthand, leading to his employment as a law clerk and successful reporter. All these opportunities, plus hard work, determination and ingenuity – qualities he recognised as the hallmarks of ‘a true professional writer‘ – started to generate a decent income.

It was mixing with people across all strata of society that exposed Dickens to the reality of life in those times, giving him the extraordinary insights and empathy that we see in the rich authenticity of his characters. He knew at first hand what it felt like to live in penury, even in a debtors’ prison, because of his feckless father’s irresponsibility; but he also knew the comforts that came from success. He knew the pain of unfulfilled love, as well as the ups and downs of married life and fatherhood. Drawing heavily on his experiences, he produced lively articles and serialised stories; papers began to pay him, publishers to offer substantial advances.

Although he loved acting and the theatre, it was writing that turned him from a nobody into ‘Somebody‘. But despite his success and growing fame, working with publishers and illustrators was not without its own headaches, and the scene over the cover for Pickwick Papers will resonate with many an author still today. Chapman and Hall had seen fit to depict Mr Pickwick in a punt, dozing over a fishing line.

‘Mr Pickwick does not go fishing,’ declared his creator emphatically. ‘it is most unlikely that he will ever go fishing. I believe, indeed, that he absolutely detests fishing.’
By now Chapman and Hall were thoroughly intimidated by their fiery young protégé. They exchanged a nervous glance before Hall ventured, ‘I suppose he might go fishing – sometime – under protest. Might he not, Mr Dickens?’
‘Out of the question, Mr Hall.’
Chapman cleared his throat. ‘Look here, Dickens. I doubt if the readers will take Mr Pickwick up as a sort of religious matter, you know. They will be content enough to see him fishing in a good drawing on the cover and read of him doing something else in the text within.’
Hall backed him up. ‘I daresay Mr Chapman is right, you know.’
Charles gave them an acid smile. ‘I have no doubt that Mr Chapman is right. The point at issue, though, it seems to me, is something different. I believe my readers will expect my characters to have a consistency and a truth which will justify them in following their adventures with devoted application.’
…..
Chapman sighed. ‘It’s a question, then, of whether the artist is to follow the writer, or the writer the artist.’
‘The text comes first, Mr Chapman.’
‘In this case the plates came first. The initial idea was Mr Seymour’s, you know.’
‘Pickwick is mine!’ Charles cried passionately. ‘I will not allow him to be misrepresented by anyone.’
Dear me, said Chapman’s eye to Hall’s, this fellow is a confounded maniac.

And when Charles met the artist himself sparks flew. Dickens tried to soften Mr Seymour up with a fragrant tankard of grog and lavish compliments but met only supercilious disdain.

‘I have come, Mr Dickens, not to get your puerile advice on my career, but to give you a little advice about your own. It is this: a shorthand-writer may become a first class hack, but the best hack in the world will never, never be an artist.’
To which Dickens replies: ‘… let me tell you this, Mr Seymour: whether I am a shorthand-writer, a hack or an artist, I care not. I tell tales for money. But if you are to draw my tales, sir, you will draw them as I write them. Good night to you, sir.’

Rich considering who this particular ‘shorthand writer’ and ‘hack’ was, huh?

It came as no small shock to the self-dazzled Charles, still infatuated with his brain-child, to hear that on the night Seymour finished the new plate for The Dying Clown he had gone into the garden and blown his brains out.

His brother Fred tried to comfort him; Charles couldn’t have known the man was ill, he assured him.

‘He was ill!’ Charles shouted. ‘I am ill. Every artist, every writer is ill, Fred. The illness is loneliness, the impossibility of communicating with people other than those who live in our minds.’

And this obsession with his imaginary worlds became more and more pronounced as his fame grew.  His internal companions took him over completely, his real wife was neglected. The early death of his teenage sister-in-law, Mary, for whom he felt real love, immortalised her in his mind: ‘Mary would always be perfect, because she was dead.’ But his devastating grief spawned even more intense writing, further enhancing his appeal.

At twenty-six, he was a celebrity. Fashionable hostesses vied with each other to entertain him, and he maintained the same debonair ease at the table of the terrifying aristocrat Lady Holland as at that of the beautiful Countess of Blessington, queen of the demi-monde society at Gore House. The actor in him came out strong on these occasions, enabling him to conceal his lack of formal education and social background. He knew nothing of art or literature in the widest sense. He had never had a lesson on which forks and knives to use at a banquet, but he was learning fast, and it would be a sharp eye indeed that detected him in making a mistake. Almost incredibly, he was elected a member of the exclusive sought-after Athenaeum Club, on the grounds of being an Eminent Person.

At twenty-six!

But his success was to be always over-shadowed by his father’s irresponsibility and improvidence. John Dickens lurked ‘in his shabby lodgings, spider-like, ready to creep out at any fortuitous moment to snatch a few guineas from his son’s pockets‘. He even sank to stealing scraps of his son’s writing from his wastepaper basket or desk to sell to collectors, and to concocting a fraudulent scheme to obtain money from Charles’ insurers. As a result it fell to Dickens Junior to carry the burden of supporting the entire family:

‘… writing, ever writing, to support his ‘petticoats’, Catherine and Georgina, the ever-growing brood of children, the brothers who were turning out to have the streak of extravagant fecklessness in them which he would struggle so hard to discourage in his own sons, even his father-in-law, George Hogarth, now fallen on poor times. And, for another nine years after the flight from Alphington, there would be his chief pensioner, his father: ebullient, self-confident, shameless, treading the flowery path which his son had carved out for him, dipping into that son’s pocket as cheerfully as the growing cuckoo grabs food from its harassed foster-parents.

It was some small revenge perhaps that John Dickens became the model for Mr Macawber in the book that was most autobiographical: David Copperfield. Charles was thirty-nine and a very famous figure indeed when his father eventually died.

‘Whatever John Dickens had owed Charles throughout his life, it was fully repaid now, and would be, over and over again, in the sales of the book.’

Perfect poetic revenge, huh? But bought at a very high price.

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