Why does Dickens continue to prove such an elusive subject for biographers? Curator Declan Kiely takes a look at one particularly revealing letter.
In April I discussed Dickens’s biographical elusiveness with Professor Michael Slater, who published his magisterial biography of Dickens in 2009.
Listen to an extract:
Dickens wrote this letter—which made him feel like “a wild beast in a caravan, describing himself in the keeper’s absence”—in response to a request from his friend, Wilkie Collins, for some biographical details. It was highly unusual for Dickens to reveal personal information in his correspondence; he had done so only once before, twenty years earlier, at the request of another journalist who sought information for a biographical sketch. Except with his wife, and his closest friend (and later biographer) John Forster, Dickens was reticent about his early life.
But in January 1856 Dickens signed a contract with the French publisher Hachette to produce a complete translation of his novels and, in response to increasing interest in Dickens’s work in France, Collins was asked to assist Emile Durand Forgues to write what we would now refer to as an author profile. Forgues’s essay, published in the Paris weekly journal L’Ami de la Maison, incorporated all of the information Dickens was prepared to reveal in this letter. Read today, however, the letter is fascinating for its candor, self-deprecation (and self-promotion), and for what is left out or left unsaid. Dickens notably excludes any mention of the fact that, at the age of twelve, he was withdrawn from school and sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory, where he spent ten hours each day pasting labels onto pots of blacking, which was used for boot polish. For Dickens, this interlude remained always “the secret agony of my soul,” and it was only revealed to the public after Dickens’s death, when Forster published his biography.
Dickens is amusingly unafraid to make large claims for himself in his letter—that he is “the best and most rapid Reporter ever known,” and “the best Short Hand Writer in the World.” And yet, this self-confident boast stands in stark contrast with his lackluster educational attainment—he says that he was able to distinguish himself at school “like a Brick.”
He also leaves out the notable failure of his editorship of The Daily News, the massive success of his Christmas books, his successful editorship of the magazine Household Words, or his considerable philanthropic endeavors, although his postscript includes an example of his prowess as a fund-raiser for good causes. Future posts will delve into these other aspects of Dickens’s biography.
At the end of the letter Dickens sends his “kindest regard to Mrs. Glutch”—Collins’s name for his London landlady, and a name that sounds like it could have come straight out of one of Dickens’s own novels. But my favorite part of this letter, its most interesting statement, is Dickens’s acutely insightful declaration that “I had been a writer when I was a mere Baby, and always an Actor from the same age.” It is what readers of Dickens’s work have always recognized, of course: that the root of the author’s creative energies, and the source material for his greatest fiction lay in childhood, and its formative early experiences.
To Wilkie Collins, 6 June 1856
Tavistock House, Sixth June 1856
My Dear Collins
I have never seen anything about myself in Print, which has much correctness in it — any biographical account of myself, I mean. I do not supply such particulars when I am asked for them by editors and compilers, simply because I am asked for them every day. If you want to prime Forgues you may tell him without fear of being wrong, That I was born at Portsmouth on the 7th. of February 1812. That my father was in the Navy Pay office. That I was taken by him to Chatham when I was very young, and lived and was educated there till I was — 12 or 13, I suppose. That I was then put to a school near London, where (as at the other place) I distinguished myself like a Brick. That I was put in the office of a Solicitor, a friend of my father's, and didn't much like it, and after a couple of years (as well as I can remember) applied myself with a celestial or diabolical energy to the study of such things as would qualify me to be a first-rate Parliamentary Reporter — at that time a calling pursued by many clever men who were young at the Bar. That I made my debut in the Gallery (at about 18, I suppose), engaged on a Voluminous publication no longer in existence, called The Mirror of Parliament. That when the Morning Chronicle was purchased by Sir John Easthope and acquired a large circulation I was engaged there, and that I remained there until I had begun to publish Pickwick; when I found myself in a condition to relinquish that part of my labors. That I left the reputation behind me of being the best and most rapid Reporter ever known, and that I could do anything in that way under any sort of circumstances — and often did. (I dare say I am at this present writing, the best Short Hand Writer in the World.)
That I began, without any interest or introduction of any kind, to write fugitive pieces for the old Monthly Magazine, when I was in the Gallery for the Mirror of Parliament. That my faculty for descriptive writing was seized upon, the moment I joined the Morning Chronicle, and that I was liberally paid there, and handsomely acknowledged, and wrote the greater part of the short descriptive "Sketches by Boz" in that paper. That I had been a writer when I was a mere Baby, and always an Actor from the same age.
That I married the daughter of a Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh who was the great friend and assistant of Scott, and who first made Lockhart known to him.
And That here I am.
Finally, if you want any dates of publication of books, tell Wills and he'll get them for you.
This is the first time I ever set down even these particulars, and, glancing them over, I feel like a Wild Beast in a Caravan, describing himself in the keeper's absence.
With my kindest regard to Mrs. Glutch.
I made a Speech last night at the London Tavern, at the end of which all the Company sat holding their napkins to their eyes with one hand, and putting the other into their pockets. A hundred people or so, contributed Nine Hundred Pounds, then and there.