What the Dickens

F.S. Schwarzbach

On 25 May 1851 Dickens wrote no fewer than 11 letters – or perhaps it is better to say that 11 of those he wrote have survived. Several were only a line or two, declining an invitation to a public dinner at the Royal Literary Fund, thanking a theatre manager for the use of the stage for rehearsals of his amateur players, and the like. But most were substantial: a few involved business relating to the Guild of Literature and Art, a sort of union and mutual aid society for authors that Dickens was then busy launching; one thanked a Sheffield firm (innocently mentioned in David Copperfield) for the gift of a set of knives; another attempted to patch up his lapsed friendship with George Cruikshank, who had probably been offended by Dickens’s attacks on his temperance pamphlets; another was a long, newsy report to a Swiss friend he hadn’t seen in years and one more thanked a Scottish author for sending a book of literary lectures. All in all, a busy but not an untypical day.

These were three busy years, and productive ones. As 1850 began, Dickens was halfway through David Copperfield, and as 1852 ended half-done with Bleak House. In those same years he founded and edited a weekly journal, Household Words, and wrote or collaborated on about a hundred articles, essays and stories for it – nearly one a week. Included among these were his Child’s History of England and several long Christmas stories.

So much for writing. But Dickens was busy in other ways as well, helping to found the Guild of Literature and Art, and attempting to create for it an endowment by producing, directing and acting lead roles in an ‘amateur’ theatrical company to give benefit performances for it. The company was in fact all but professional, giving a private performance for the Queen and public ones several times in London and on three provincial tours (the last in seven cities). One of the two plays in the repertoire was a farce Dickens co-authored for the occasion with Mark Lemon. All the while Dickens continued his management of Urania Cottage, Angela Burdett Coutts’s home for the reformation of prostitutes, supervising it daily on the most minute matters. He was constantly visiting magistrate’s courts, prisons and other likely places to interview prospective inmates, and appears to have vetted every new woman personally. In 1852 he also began working with Miss Coutts to purchase a site on which to erect cheap housing for working people, a project which eventually developed into a large housing estate at Columbia Square in Bethnal Green. (The name survives, but the buildings were demolished not long ago.) And all the while there were speaking engagements.

This frenetic activity went on in the midst of other important events in his life. Two children were born, the first, Dora, dying suddenly at the age of eight months. Only a fortnight before that his father, John Dickens, had died after enduring a horrifying surgical operation (while his son looked on) without the benefit of anesthesia. His wife suffered for some time from a ‘nervous’ condition, perhaps post-natal depression, or perhaps simply exhaustion. In 1851 he moved house, which involved virtually gutting and reconstructing the new residence in Tavistock Square, where the offices of the London Review now stand. Dickens wrote almost daily for weeks to provide his instructions (including construction of a cold shower). And, as 1852 drew to a close, three of his closest friends died.

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