Charles Dickens (1812–70)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 5, 368–370.
Born on 7 February 1812, three months ahead of RB, this Browning acquaintance and correspondent was the most popular English writer of his time, possibly because of childhood experiences that helped him to identify closely with the common people. His parents were John and Elizabeth (née arrow) Dickens, and his birthplace was Portsea, near Portsmouth, where the father was a Navy clerk. Before long John Dickens’s job took the family to London and to Chatham. Amiable and improvident, the father is recognized as Charles Dickens’s model for Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield. He was finally imprisoned for debt; and Charles, at an early age, learned first-hand about child labour in a factory warehouse. With little formal schooling, he went to work as an office boy at age 15, then became a reporter by about 20. As a sideline, he wrote fictional magazine sketches, which were collected and published as Sketches by Boz in 1836; hence EBB’s occasional reference to Dickens as “Boz” in her letters. Serialization of the famous Pickwick Papers began in 1836, and they appeared as a collected edition in the following year. The success of these sketches, first appearing piece by piece, encouraged RB and his publisher Edward Moxon to use a similar procedure for Bells and Pomegranates, which appeared in eight parts from 1841 to 1846. The works of Dickens are remarkable for their social commentary and their creation of unforgettable characters. He was a writer who showed a “sense of identity with the human lot everywhere” (Maynard, p. 130). Despite an enthusiastic reception in the United States and Canada during an 1842 visit, for various reasons he became soured, and subsequently his American Notes for General Circulation (1842) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44) depicted his erstwhile hosts in an unfavourable light and gave great offence. An 1867–68 visit went more smoothly. His marriage to Catherine Hogarth, which occurred in 1836, ended in separation in 1858. Dickens worked hard until the time of his death, which came on 9 June 1870 after a sudden collapse the previous day. Burial was in Westminster Abbey. Charles Dickens is mentioned at least twice in Queen Victoria’s journal. Of a conversation with him on 9 March 1870 she wrote: “He is very agreeable, with a pleasant voice and manner. He talked of his latest works, of America, the strangeness of the people there, of the division of classes in England, which he hoped would get better in time. He felt sure that it would come gradually.” On 11 June of the same year, two days after Dickens’s death, she wrote: “He is a very great loss. He had a large, loving mind and the strongest sympathy with the poorer classes. He felt sure that a better feeling, and much greater union of classes would take place in time. And I pray earnestly it may.” These passages are printed in The Letters of Queen Victoria, Second Series, ed. George Earle Buckle, (1926, II, 9 and 21).
Personal association between Dickens and RB began in the 1830’s. G & M (p. 112) pictures the latter in 1838 as “day after day” attending play rehearsals with Dickens and others. RB’s first known letter to the novelist (no. 859) was written on 7 October 1841 while Dickens was ill, and offered a “get well” gift of apples, presumably from the Browning family’s garden at Hatcham. Dickens had a peculiar involvement with RB’s not-very-successful A Blot in the ’Scutcheon (1843). Before the publication and production of this play, RB’s acquaintance John Forster showed it to Dickens, who on 25 November 1842 responded: “Browning’s play … is full of genius, natural and great thoughts, profound and yet simple and beautiful in its vigour.... And if you tell Browning that I have seen it, tell him that I believe from my soul there is no man living (and not many dead) who could produce such a work.” Forster did not tell RB of Dickens’s involvement, but he quoted the letter in his The Life of Charles Dickens (1873), II, 25. There RB eventually saw it, more than 30 years after the writing. He made a copy on Athenaeum Club stationery and noted: “I was never ‘told’ a word of the above, and read it for the first time thirty years after the telling would have been useful to me” (Reconstruction, E579). However, whether RB knew of it or not, Dickens’s high regard for A Blot was publicly mentioned long before 1873. An article by Gertrude Reese Hudson in Modern Language Notes, 63 (April 1948), 237–240, cites references to his favourable opinion, published in 1848 and 1849. (Graham’s Magazine, reviewing an American edition of RB’s poems in December 1849, said Dickens regarded A Blot as the finest poem of the century.) Dr. Hudson observes that RB was “somewhat isolated in Italy” at the time, and thus may not have learned of these published comments.
EBB lacked early personal contacts with Dickens, but she got an interesting glimpse of him in a letter written from London by her brother Sam to Henrietta in Torquay on 14 June 1839 (SD1009): “Tell Ba I met ‘Dickens’ alias [‘]Sam Weller’—& a number of other Lions & Lionesses at Mr. Kenyons [“a feeder of lions”; see vol. 3, p. 316] the other night … Dickens is my height exact, rather darker, about my age & wears his hair ‘à la Brosy’ [their brother Edward], very animated but I should not have given him credit for so much real fun & talent.” Four years after this, in a letter to Mary Russell Mitford dated 30 June 1843, EBB declared herself not to be a great “enthusiast” about Dickens, then went on to say: “But he makes me feel his power again & again & again—he has the heart of a man & it beats audibly, & I must confess that I hear the vibration of it.” In a letter to Miss Mitford dated 30 December 1844 she wrote of “Boz”: “I never sent to ask him for his hair. I do not enter into the madness of his idolaters in any degree: & my secret opinion has always been that he is of that class of writers who arrive during their own lives at the highest point of their popularity. … But to deny his genius … No—I could not, & would not.” EBB deplored Dickens’s treatment of Americans in Martin Chuzzlewit. She wrote to Miss Mitford on 4 September 1843: “To think of a man .. a man with a heart .. going to a great nation to be crowned ... & then to come home & hiss at them with all the venom in his body! … I am as angry as if I were an American.” She was willing to give credit where credit was due, however, in writing to Miss Mitford on 27 December 1843 concerning A Christmas Carol: “The exquisite scenes about the clerk & little Tiny [Tim]; I thank the writer in my heart of hearts for them.” Much earlier, on 1 January 1838 (letter 605), she had admitted to Miss Mitford that her young brothers Septimus and Octavius were avid fans of Dickens’s Mr. Pickwick—“great Pickwickians,” as she put it. RB referred to Dickens occasionally in his 1845–46 letters to EBB. On 24 September 1845 he mentioned attending an amateur theatrical performance given by Dickens, John Forster, and others. On 11 January 1846 he mentioned meeting “Dickens and his set” the previous night. On 21 May 1846 he wrote of Dickens’s Pictures from Italy (1846): “He seems to have expended his powers on the least interesting places,—and then gone on hurriedly, seeing or describing less and less, till at last the mere names of places do duty for pictures of them.” RB and EBB visited Paris at the same time as did Dickens in 1856; and EBB, writing a letter to her sister Henrietta on 10 and 11 April of that year, mentioned RB’s having been “at Dickens’s.” On 22 April 1864, after EBB’s death, RB wrote from London to his son, Pen: “I dine with Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Forster at Greenwich.” Dickens is known to have owned copies of EBB’s Aurora Leigh and Casa Guidi Windows (Reconstruction, M15, 30). A substantial number of Dickens’s works were given and inscribed by RB to Pen on the latter’s fifteenth birthday, 9 March 1864 (Reconstruction, A786–789, 792–798). Some years after Dickens’s death, RB reminisced about him in a conversation with American painter Daniel Sargent Curtis, whose report appears in More Than Friend, ed. Michael Meredith (1985), p. 172. (See also Reconstruction, L84.) RB recalled Dickens’s father (“Micawber was easily recognizable”) and the novelist’s account of his grandmother as “house-keeper to Lord Crewe.” Curtis quoted RB as saying that Dickens “in dress and manners was rather like a shop-keeper.”