A Little Local Irritation

Stephen Wall

  • The Letters of Charles Dickens. Vol. IX: 1859-61 edited by Graham Storey
    Oxford, 610 pp, £70.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 19 812293 4

In October 1860 Dickens finally moved what remained of his family from Tavistock Square in Bloombury to Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. He’d bought it four years earlier (for £1750), steadily improved it, and it remained his home until he died there in 1870. On high ground between Rochester and Gravesend, it was the very spot, as his letters insist, where Falstaff ran away. For Dickens, though, the house had a more personal association: he’d admired it as a small boy living nearby, and had been told by his father that if he worked really hard he might one day be able to live there. Recounting this story earlier in the year in a piece written for his weekly, All the Year Round, Dickens had wisely declined to congratulate himself on the realisation of his childish ambition. The household at Gad’s Hill hardly matched the domestic idylls with which his novels so often conclude.

Dickens’s wife wasn’t part of it, for a start. Catherine had been pensioned off, following the messy separation of 1858, and was living near Regent’s Park with their eldest son Charley. In a letter to Miss Burdett Coutts – a friend to both parties – Dickens unforgivingly vetoes the reconciliation she suggests: ‘That figure is out of my life for evermore (except to darken it), and my desire is, Never to see it again.’ This ban didn’t apply to Charley, whose shaky City career Dickens tried to foster despite his disapproval of Charley’s marriage to the daughter of his former publisher, with whom he’d now quarrelled. Dickens predicted disaster for the marriage – ‘It is sure not to answer’ – but according to one of the quietly corrective notes the Pilgrim Edition so usefully supplies, there is no evidence of unhappiness. The other child to marry at this time was Katie. Her choice of Wilkie Collins’s younger brother was more acceptable, and Dickens presided genially enough over the pastoral festivities: ‘the people of the village strewed flowers in the churchyard, and erected triumphal arches, and fired guns.’ It was ‘a great success’, he conceded. ‘So far.’

In the absence of his wife Dickens’s table was ‘gracefully’ headed by his eldest daughter Mary, or Mamie. One of his annual letters to his old Lausanne friend de Cerjat describes her as a ‘capital housekeeper’, delegating ‘certain appointed duties to her sister and her aunt ... they are all three devotedly attached’. A year later he tells de Cerjat that Georgina Hogarth, the aunt, remains the general guide, philosopher and friend, which means that she was really the one in charge. Doubting that Georgina will ever marry, Dickens hardly knows whether to be glad or sorry, ‘finding the subject perplexing – not being a judge of marriages’. The fact that this was deleted in earlier editions of the letters indicates how sensitive the subject of his home life continued to be long after his death.

Of Dickens’s sons, only the youngest, known as ‘Plorn’, stayed on at Gad’s Hill. News of the others – Charley at Baring’s, Walter out in India, Frank trying to learn German in Hamburg, Sydney being accepted for the Navy, Alfred and Henry at various schools – is relayed in a style sometimes more cheery than convincing. Dickens’s treatment of his boys has been thought dictatorial, but the letters reveal anxiety and pride as well as irritation; there’s certainly no comparison between his sense of paternal responsibility and his own feckless parents’ lack of it. It may be just an accident of survival or typical of the reticences of the period, but the number of full and affectionate letters included in this volume which were written to Mamie and Georgina when Dickens was away from home contrasts strikingly with the absence of any similar correspondence with his sons.

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