Dickens, Charles John Huffam

DICKENS, CHARLES JOHN HUFFAM (1812—1870), English novelist, was born on the 7th of February 1812 at a house in the Mile End Terrace, Commercial Road, Landport (Portsea)—a house which was opened as a Dickens Museum on 22nd July 2904. His father John Dickens (d. 1851), a clerk in the navy-pay office on a salary of £80 a year, and stationed for the time being at Portsmouth, had married in 1809 Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Barrow, and she bore him a family of eight children, Charles being thhe second. In the winter of 1814 the family moved from Portsea in the snow, as he remembered, to London, and lodged for a time near the Middlesex hospital. The country of the novelist’s childhood, however, was the kingdom of Kent, where the family was established in proximity to the dockyard at Chatham from 1816 to 1821. He looked upon himself in later years as a man of Kent, and his capital abode as that in Ordnance Terrace, or 18 St Mary’s Place, Chatham, ammid surroundings classified in Mr Pickwick’s notes as “ appearing “to be soldiers, sailors, Jews, chalk, shrimps, officers and dockyard men. He fell into a family the general tendency of which was to go down in the world, during one of it

ts easier periods (John Dickens was now fifth clerk on £250 a year), and he always regarded himself as belonging by right to a comfortable, genteel, lower middleclass stratum of society. His mother taught him to read; to his father he appeared very early in the light of a young prodigy, and by him Charles was made to sit on a tall chair and warble popular ballads, or even to tell stories and anecdotes for the benefit of fellow-clerks in the office.

John Dickens, however, had a small collection of books which were kept in a little room upstairs that led out of Charles’s own, and in this attic the boy found his true literary instructors in Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Huumphry Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, and Robinson Crusoe. The story of how he played at the characters in these books and sustained his idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch is picturesquely told in David Copperfield. Here as well as in his first and last books and in what many regard as his best, Great Expectations, Dickens returns with unabated fondness and mastery to the surroundings of his childhood. From seven to ni

ine years he was at a school kept in Clover Lane, Chatham, by a Baptist minister named William Giles, who gave him Goldsmith’s Bee as a keepsake when the call to Somerset House necessitated the removal of the family from Rochester to a shabby house in Bayham Street, Camden Town. At the very moment when a consciousness of capacity was beginning to plump his youthful ambitions, the whole flattering dream vanished and left not a rack behind. Happiness and Chatham had been left behind together, and Charles was about to enter a school far sterner and also far more instructive than that in Clover Lane. The family income had been first decreased and then mortgaged; the creditors of the “prodigal father” would not give him time; John Dickens was consigned to the Marshalsea; Mrs Dickens started an “Educational Establishment “ as a forlorn hope in Upper Gower Street; and Charles, who had helped his mother with the children, blacked the boots, carried things to the pawnshop and done other menial work, was now sent out to earn his owfi living as a young hand in a blacking warehouse, at Old Hungerford Stairs, on a salary of six shillings a week. He ti
ied, trimmed and labelled blacking pots for over a year, dining off a saveloy and a slice of pudding, consorting with two very rough boys, Bob Fagin and P01 Green, and sleeping in an attic in Little College Street, Camden Town, in the house of Mrs Roylance (Pipchin), while on Sunday he spent the day with his parents in their comfortable prison, where they had the services of a” marchioness “imported from the Chatham workhouse.

Dickens had no artistic ideals worth speaking about. The sympathy of his readers was the one thing he cared about and, like Cobbett, he went straight for it through the avenue of the emotions. In. personality, intensity and range of creative genius he can hardly be said to have any modern rival. His creations live, move and have their being about us constantly, like those of Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Moliere and Sir Walter Scott. As to the books themselves, the backgrounds on which these mighty figures are projected, they are manifestly too vast, too chaotic and too unequal ever to become classics. Like most of the novels constructed upon the unreformed model of Smollett and Fielding, those of Dickens are enormous stock-pots in

nto which the author casts every kind of autobiographical experience, emotion, pleasantry, anecdote, adage or apophthegm. The fusion is necessarily very incomplete and the hotch-potch is bound to fall to pieces with time. Dickens’s plots, it must be admitted, are strangely unintelligible, the repetitions and stylistic decorations of his work exceed all bounds, the form is unmanageable and insignificant. The diffuseness of the English novel, in short, and its extravagant didacticism cannot fail to be most prejudicial to its perpetuation. In these circumstances there is very little fiction that will stand concentration and condensation so well as that of Dickens

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