Dickens and the Late Victorians
Selections from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection
February 18, 2012 – March 1, 2012
Petra Clark and Mark Samuels Lasner
Ye dirty old man: a legend of Bishopsgate, reprinted from Household words, conducted by Charles Dickens. [London]: D. D. Cellars, [1870 or later].
Allingham, the Anglo-Irish poet and diarist, was a friend of Dickens and an occasional contributor to Household words, the weekly magazine Dickens edited from 1850-1859. The earliest version of his poem, “The Dirty Old Man,” was published there in 1852. In his 1877 collection titled Songs Ballads and Stories, Allingham appended a note on the poem explaining the origins of “Dirty Dick”:
A singular man, named Nathaniel Bentley, for many years kept a large hardware shop in Leadenhall Street, London. He was best known as ‘Dirty Dick’ (Dick for alliteration’s sake, probably), and his place of business as ‘the Dirty Warehouse.’ He died about the year 1809. The verses accord with accounts respecting himself and his house. Some twelve of fifteen years ago [Allingham’s manuscript annotation remarks that this would have been about 1860] I saw a placard in the window of a coffee-house in Leadenhall Street, --‘Formerly the residence of the celebrated Dirty Dick.’ But the original house had then been made into two. A woodcut of Dirty Dick’s shop is given in Willis’s Current Notes. ‘The Dirty Old Man,’ and ‘The Schoolfellows’ (p. 295), were first published in Mr. Dickens’s Household Words, and I believe had the honour of suggesting to the great novelist something in Great Expectations and in A Tale of Two Cities respectively.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil, crayon, and charcoal, .
The John Lane collection of original drawings by Aubrey Beardsley . . . November. 22, 1926. New York: Anderson Galleries, 1926.
One would not immediately associate Aubrey Beardsley, who epitomized Decadence in 1890s London, with Charles Dickens. But like everyone else growing up in the late Victorian period, he was of course familiar with the novelist’s works. Beardsley’s drawing, Xmas Eve at Dingley Dell, depicting a scene from Pickwick Papers, first reproduced in this catalogue of publisher John Lane’s collection, was one of several youthful illustrations to Dickens. We might take issue with the catalogue entry’s claim that the work “points” to the artist’s mature manner. The self-portrait, a recent acquisition, shows the artist just as the moment when the famous Yellow Book brought him worldwide fame—and infamy.
A Christmas garland, woven by Max Beerbohm. London: William Heinemann, 1912.
Called by many the best book of parodies in the English language, A Christmas Garland might not have been written if Dickens had not made Christmas a central part of British national culture. In each of the seventeen pieces, Beerbohm brilliantly captured the style and ideas of a different contemporary author—beginning with Henry James, and taking in Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, and George Meredith, among others—making each write a story or an essay somehow connected to the holiday. In “Dickens,” the parody of the Irish novelist George Moore favorably compares the realism of the Christmas scene in Pickwick papers —the only thing by Dickens he has ever read—to the work of Zola and the French Impressionists, the obsessions of Moore’s fictionalized autobiographies. Initially presented to Beerbohm’s mother, this copy was later embellished with original caricatures when it came back into Beerbohm’s possession. The sketch of Moore, apparently showing him listening to the musician Arnold Dolmetsch, is a visual parody, referring loosely to Cezanne’s painting, Paul Alexis reading to Émile Zola (1870).
Subscription testimonial to George Cruikshank. [London: The Committee, 1866].
Known as the most famous political humorist of early nineteenth-century Britain, Cruikshank was a prolific book illustrator. He produced some of his best-known work for Dickens, including the illustrations for Sketches by Boz (1836) and Oliver Twist (1838). This testimonial records the donors to a fund established when the artist had fallen on hard times. The president of the committee was John Ruskin, and the list of contributors constitutes a veritable "who's who" of Victorian arts and letters. Among the signers were William Allingham, Robert Browning, Edward Burne-Jones, Gustave Doré, George Du Maurier, Lord Leighton, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne, Alfred Tennyson ("Poet Laureate"), and James McNeill Whistler. One would expect Dickens’s name to be included in such an illustrious list. As an article in The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music & Romance noted:
We have received a circular of the subscription testimonial to George Cruikshank, and we observe one or two unaccountable omissions from the first list of names on the committee—notably those of Charles Dickens and Harrison Ainsworth . . .
The omission was, of course, not “unaccountable.” Dickens and Cruikshank were no longer on speaking terms, having long before ended their twenty-year association. Their dispute arose from Cruikshank’s claim that he helped write Oliver Twist and was made worse by his becoming a temperance advocate. Dickens, an imbiber of wine and beer, not surprisingly, debunked Cruikshank and his cause in Household Words; at his death in June 1870 Cruikshank pronounced, “One of our greatest enemies gone.” This copy of the testimonial belonged to Cruikshank himself, inscribed to him by the secretary of the testimonial fund, Charles Augustus Howell.
The posthumous papers of the Pickwick Club, with forty-three illustrations. London: Chapman and Hall, 1890.
The Pines. Etching, 1921.
It is likely that among the late Victorians, Dickens had no greater (and more unexpected) admirer than the poet and critic, Algernon Charles Swinburne. A lover of Martin Chuzzlewit in particular, Swinburne was inordinately found of Mrs. Gamp, quoting from her often and, on occasion, translating ordinary language into what can only be called “Gampese.” He gave this volume in Chapman and Hall’s “Household Edition” to his house-mate, the lawyer and critic, Theodore Watts-Dunton, and it is inscribed “Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton from Algernon Charles Swinburne Marc 25th 1897.” In 1913 Watts-Dunton edited a selection of Swinburne’s writings on Dickens which included a general survey reprinted from the Quarterly Review and introduction to Oliver Twist, originally commissioned by an American publisher for an expensive set of the novelist’s works. Max Beerbohm drew several caricatures of Swinburne and Watts-Dunton after visiting The Pines, their house in Putney, southwest London. This etching, based on one of the illustrations to Rossetti and His Circle (1922), is the only original print he made and one of three known examples.
London: a pilgrimage. London: Grant & Co., 1872.
By 1872, the French artist, illustrator, and engraver, Doré had become famous for his masterful illustrations of the Bible (version published in English in 1866) and dark epics like Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Jerrold, a contributor to Dickens’s magazines, was less well known; a journalist and occasional playwright and novelist, he was Paris correspondent for several newspapers. London, their great collaboration, enjoyed enormous commercial success, but many contemporary critics considered the depiction of the city to be unflattering and misleading. Doré focused so heavily on the slums, particularly in the East End, that his engravings portray a singularly Dickensian version of London in the numerous scenes that feature the urban poor. A reviewer in the Westminster Review (1873) noted that Doré had created “sketches in which the commonest, the vulgarest external features are set down with an unsparing and rigorous hand,” yet praised the pathos conveyed. This illustration, titled “Opium Smoking—The Lascar’s Room from ‘Edwin Drood,’” invokes a famous scene from Dickens’s last, unfinished novel. The Dickensian feeling of the book is further underscored in the text, which includes such a glowing description of the novelist’s grave in Westminster Abbey that he is turned into an almost God-like figure; Jerrold also recalls Dickens’s funeral, which had taken place only two years before.
George Eliot's life as related in her letters and journals; arranged and edited by her husband J. W. Cross. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1885.
George Eliot. Pencil, [ca. 1878].
This biography, produced by Eliot’s husband shortly after her death, was meant to lend a certain respectability to her rather colorful life. Comprised mostly of personal writings, George Eliot's Life includes references to her association with Dickens: she variously comments on seeing him speak, having him over for dinner, being asked to contribute to All the Year Round, and reflecting on his sudden death. Perhaps the most interesting interaction between the two novelists is found in the first letter Dickens wrote to Eliot after she sent him a copy of Scenes from Clerical Life. Reproduced here, the letter playfully addresses Eliot as “My Dear Sir”—though he also shrewdly observes the “womanly touches in those moving fictions”— and commends the “extraordinary merit” of her work. This set of the three-volume first belonged to Henry James, a Dickens enthusiast, who reviewed the work in the Atlantic Monthly (May 1885, reprinted in Partial Portraits,1888).
Vagrant verses. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1886.
Dickens was instrumental in furthering the careers of a great number of other authors. One of those he encouraged was Rosa Mulholland, born in Belfast in 1841, who first intended to be an artist. Mulholland gained some attention for a poem published in Punch with illustrations by John Everett Millais, but it was only after Dickens printed a story, “Not to Be Told at Bed-Time,” in All the Year Round, that she decided to become a professional writer. Mulholland and Dickens became good friends and with his help she completed a novel about a young woman artist, Hester’s Story (serialized in All the Year Round). Much of Mulholland’s fiction had supernatural themes—shades of The Haunted Man and A Christmas Carol—localized to her native Ireland. As Lady Gilbert (her husband was Sir John Gilbert, the antiquary and librarian of the Royal Irish Academy) she travelled in cultivated Irish circles, contributing, like Oscar Wilde’s parents, to the Irish Monthly. By the end of her long life, Mulholland had published nearly fifty books. This copy of Vagrant Verse bears the inscription “To Lady Wilde with the Versifier’s kind regards.”
Infelicia. London, Paris, New York: [John Camden Hotten], 1868.
Issued anonymously and posthumously, this volume of verse is the only book by the American actor and writer who was one of the first truly international celebrities. Menken was known for her starring role in Mazeppa (in which she appeared semi-nude in a body stocking); for her mysterious origins (possibly Jewish, African-American, or both); for her multiple marriages; and for her reputed affairs with, among others, Alexandre Dumas père and Algernon Swinburne. Dickens met Menken in London and correspondence ensued. However, the letter reproduced here, in which he appears to accept the book’s dedication, is in fact spurious, and was created by combining portions of two legitimate letters.
Forster’s life of Dickens, abridged and revised by George Gissing. London: Chapman and Hall, 1903.
George Gissing was profoundly influenced by Dickens and expressed his debt in several works, including Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1898) and this abridged edition of Forster’s seminal biography, intended as a pendant to a multivolume edition of Dickens that was never completed. This presentation copy is inscribed “To my dear mother. George Gissing” and contains two minor corrections by Gissing in the text. Displayed with it is an autograph postcard from Gissing to his mother, Margaret Gissing, [29 June 1903], giving his new address in France.
Father and son: a study of two temperaments. London: William Heinemann, 1907.
Father and Son, a brilliant and surprisingly funny account of youthful rebellion, remains the most famous book by Gosse, a poet and essayist who became librarian of the House of Lords, a close friend of Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, and the bête noir of Bloomsbury. His father, Philip Henry Gosse, a member of a fundamentalist sect, the Plymouth Brethren, was a distinguished naturalist whose religious views made him not only an opponent of Darwin, but a stern paterfamilias. In the words of Ann Thwaite, he wished “to protect Edmund from the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Concerned with his son’s salvation, Gosse senior carefully controlled Edmund’s reading—with the result that encountering Dickens for the first time was a truly transformative experience:
. . . although I might not touch the novels of Scott, I was free to read those of Dickens. I recollect that my stepmother showed some surprise at this, and that my Father explained to her that Dickens 'exposes the passion of love in a ridiculous light.' She did not seem to follow this recommendation, which indeed tends to the ultra-subtle, but she procured for me a copy of Pickwick, by which I was instantly and gloriously enslaved. My shouts of laughing at the richer passages were almost scandalous, and led to my being reproved for disturbing my Father while engaged, in an upper room, in the study of God's Word. I must have expended months on the perusal of Pickwick, for I used to rush through a chapter, and then read it over again very slowly, word for word, and then shut my eyes to realize the figures and the action.
I suppose no child will ever again enjoy that rapture of unresisting humorous appreciation of ‘Pickwick’. I felt myself to be in the company of a gentleman so extremely funny that I began to laugh before he began to speak; no sooner did he remark ‘the sky was dark and gloomy, the air was damp and raw,’ than I was in fits of hilarity. My retirement in our sequestered corner of life made me, perhaps, even in this matter, somewhat old-fashioned, and possibly I was the latest of the generation who accepted Mr. Pickwick with an unquestioning and hysterical abandonment. Certainly few young people now seem sensitive, as I was, and as thousands before me had been, to the quality of his fascination.
Little did Gosse know that the uncle of his future wife, Nellie Epps, had been the owner of the Bull Inn in Rochester, the scene of the opening scenes in Pickwick Papers. Gosse presented this copy of Father and Son to his friend, the poet and biographer, Austin Dobson.
The children. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1897.
The rhythm of life and other essays. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1893.
Hearts of controversy. London: Burs & Oates, .
Alice Meynell. Woodcut, , from William Archer, Poets of the younger generation: with thirty-three full-page portraits from woodcuts by Robert Bryden. London: John Lane, 1902.
The poet, critic, and editor Alice Meynell was, if not literally, at least figuratively, a child of Charles Dickens. For it was Dickens who introduced her parents, his good friends T. J. Thompson, a traveler and man about town, and Christina Weller, a pianist. The family connection was continued; having known Dickens personally, Meynell wrote an introduction (under the pseudonym Francis Phillimore) to the Dickens Memento, an 1884 reproduction of the auction sale of the contents of Gads Hill Place; her husband, Wilfrid, edited A Dickens Friendship as Told Through His Letters in 1931; and, eventually, Dickens’s complete works were published by the Nonesuch Press of their son, Francis, in 1937–1938. References to Dickens turn up in many of Alice Meynell’s insightful analyses of Victorian and contemporary texts and topics. In “Children and Burlesque,” included in The Children, for example, she discussed Dickens’s precocious youngsters and memorable urchins, and in “Penultimate Caricature,” the last essay in The Rhythm of Life, Dickens is mentioned among other mid-Victorian humorists. Meynell’s most extended commentary, “Dickens as a Man of Letters” (Hearts of Controversy) strongly defended him against those who found in his work a lack of style. Seeing him as a “moral” and “genial,” a master of invention with a fine visual sense, she admitted that Dickens “makes savage sport of women.” Though Meynell’s volumes appeared only three decades after Dickens’s death, they illustrated his canonical status in the literary world. The three volumes displayed here are presentation copies: The Children (incidentally with a cover design and illustrations by Charles Robinson, one of the few fin de siècle artists who did not illustrate Dickens) is inscribed to the bibliographer Arthur William Pollard; Meynell gave the large paper copy of The Rhythm of Life to her brother, Henry Thompson, and Hearts of Controversy to her niece, the daughter of her artist sister, Elizabeth Butler.
News from nowhere: or an epoch of rest, being some chapters from a utopian romance. [Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1892].
As an artist, writer, designer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris was truly one of the Victorian era’s most accomplished “renaissance men.” Despite the seeming disparity between his medievalism and Dickens’s populism, Morris was actually a great admirer of the novelist. He included Dickens’s work in his list of the hundred best books, published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1886, described them as “immeasurably ahead” of the other “novelists of our generation”; indeed, the only wrong Dickens did, in Morris’s eyes, was the “unforgivable” act of “dying before he had finished Edwin Drood,” according to his daughter May. Near the end of his life, Morris apparently even harbored hopes that he might print Dickens’s novels at the Kelmscott Press. J. W. Mackail’s 1899 biography, The Life of William Morris, remarks:
Of Dickens himself [Morris’s] knowledge and appreciation were both complete. It is not without value as an illustration of his curiously compounded personality that in the moods when he was not dreaming of himself as Tristram or Sigurd, he identified himself very closely with two creatures of a quite different mould, Joe Gargery and Mr. Boffin. Both of those amiable characters he more or less consciously copied, if it be not truer to say more or less naturally resembled, and knew that he resembled. The ‘Morning, morning!’ of the latter, and the ‘Wot larks!’ of the former he adopted as his own favourite methods of salutation.
In Morris’s utopian fantasy News from Nowhere, shown here in the Kelmscott edition printed in the Golden type, the characters discuss Dickens and the character of Mr. Boffin from Our Mutual Friend.
Charles Dickens. Watercolor, [ca. 1865].
A miniature portrait of Dickens by his daughter, in a contemporary oval gilt mount and silver-plated frame embossed with ribbons, flowers and butterflies. Kate Dickens’s first husband, Wilkie Collins’s brother Charles Allston Collins, died three years after Charles Dickens in 1873. She subsequently married Charles Edward Perugini, a painter. Kate was herself an artist; exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1877, she specialized in genre paintings and portraits. This watercolor of her father is undated, but presumably drawn from life.
A tour round my book-shelves. [Edinburgh]: Private printed for the author, 1890.
Odds and ends at Foxwold: a guide for the inquiring guest, illustrated by J. B. Backhouse Pym. [Edinburgh]: Privately printed by Ballantyne, Hanson, & Co., 1887.
While many took up collecting Dickens and Dickensiana few did so with as much fervor as the lawyer and occasional author, Horace N. Pym. His obituary in The Times described him as “reverencing Charles Dickens, and all that pertained to him” and the family country house, Foxwold, in Kent, contained many relics of the author, displayed amidst a catholic and curious gathering of art, objects, books, and manuscripts which ranged from a portrait of Richelieu to Japanese pottery. Not only was there“in nearly every room a different and complete set of his blessed works can be found,” but the “book-room” contained proper reigns a set of all his has written in their original issues.” Special treasurers included Dickens’s drinking cup (a gift from Mary Hogarth), the check paid by John Forster to the Dean of Westminster Abbey to cover the cost of Dickens’s grave, an extra-illustrated copy of Pickwick Papers, several important letters, and a drawing of Dickens at age twenty-five by Samuel Laurence. (The Laurence portrait is at the center in the view of the drawing-room reproduced in Odds and Ends at Foxwold, an elaborate catalogue of the house’s contents.) Interestingly, Pym’s closest friend among writers was Thomas Anstey Guthrie, (“F. Anstey”), whose illustrated novels and stories imitated, not always very successfully, Dickens’s style and humor.
Preferences in art, life, and literature. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1892.
Millais and his works. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1898.
With the start of his editorship of Household Words Dickens tried his hand at criticism of contemporary art. In this collection of essays, the much later critic Harry Quilter revisits and reproduces the complaints of painter William Holman Hunt concerning the oft-mentioned (yet rarely fully-cited) spat between Dickens and the mid-nineteenth-century artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of which Hunt was a founding member. The quarrel began in 1850 with Dickens’s vitriolic attack on the (at the time) hyper-realistic depiction of the Holy Family in John Everett Millais’s painting, Christ in the House of his Parents:
In the foreground of that carpenter's shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy in a bed- gown; who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England.
Dickens published further negative reviews of the PRB in The Times, prompting John Ruskin to write a polemical defense of the young artists. Although the quarrel faded from memory—there is, for instance, no reference to it in M. H. Spielmann’s 1898 biography of Millais, which reproduces the offending painting—Holman Hunt still felt injured. In his 1905 autobiography, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he expressed regret that he and his associates failed to secure Dickens’s approval: “Who is there among his admirers, of whom I am heartily one, that would not wish he had never written the cruel and foolish words in question?”
Autograph collecting: a practical manual for amateurs and historical students. London: L. Upcott Gill, 1894.
Scott was the Rector of Swettenham in Cheshire and apparently an avid collector of autograph letters. This guide promised to provide “Ample information on the Selection and Arrangement of Autographs, the Detection of Forged Specimens, &c., &c. to which are added numerous facsimiles for study and reference and an extensive valuation table of autographs worth collecting.” Among the “autographs worth collecting” was that of Dickens, then considered a “modern” author, to whom Scott devotes an entire page of facsimiles that illustrate the development of his signature from its earliest form to his “latest style” of 1859.
Literary geography. London: Offices of the “Pall Mall Publications,” 1904.
These accounts of writers’ homes and haunts, typical of their time and suggestive of the growth of literary tourism, appeared at intervals during 1903 and 1904 in the Pall Mall Magazine. The illustrations in “Dickens-Land” include photographs of Gad’s Hill Place and other locations that could be seen by the public, if not visited. Sharp gave this copy to the American writer Thomas A. Janvier, who, with his wife Catherine, was among the few who knew of the author’s secret identity as the female Scots novelist and poet, “Fiona Macleod.”
Intentions: The decay of lying; Pen, pencil and poison; The critic as artist; The truth of masks. London: James R. Osgood, McIlvaine & Co., 1891.
Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde: with reminiscences of the author by Ada Leverson. [London]: Duckworth, 1930.
Michael Field. Silver gelatin carte-de-visite (likely copy of a platinotype). Bristol, [1884–1889].
Although Wilde referred to Dickens in his writings, notably in “The Critic as Artist” collected in Intentions, he was not a fan—to say the least. Like many of his contemporaries he thought Dickens a relic and disliked his sentimentality. Reviewing (not very favorably) Frank T. Marzials’s Life of Charles Dickens in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1887, he wrote:
. . . concerning the “question of Dickens’s immortality. If our descendants do not read him they will miss a great source of entertainment, and if they do, we hope they will not model their style upon his.
Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, the aunt and niece couple that published poetry and dramas under the name “Michael Field” recorded in their diary Works and Days an “Oscar story,” told to them by the artist William Rothenstein:
The kind warder at Reading Gaol thought he might turn his chances to good account—so questioned Oscar as to what he should think of various authors. “Well, sir, there’s Dickens?”
“Dickens?” Well, what should one think of him?”
“As he is safely dead you can think what you like.”
“And John Strange Winter, is he any good, sir?”
“A charming lady—he is a charming lady. I prefer to talk to her rather than to read his books.”
“And now would you tell me about Marie Corelli?”
At last Oscar turned.
“I could bear it no more. I approached him—‘Of course there is nothing against her moral character—nothing in the world, you understand that: but as to her books, she ought to be standing here in gaol where I am—and I should be out where she is!”
Wilde’s most famous remark on Dickens comes from another recollection of his talk, this time by a close friend, Ada Leverson, the novelist and parodist whom he nicknamed “the Sphinx”:
To those who praised Dickens he said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
The quip has been repeated so often, and in so many different versions and almost never with a source indicated, that it now almost seems apocryphal. Whether Wilde really did say it (Leverson herself was a considerable wit) this must be the best-known single criticism of Dickens. Leverson’s Letters to the Sphinx and the photograph of “Michael Field” are accompanied by a first edition of Intentions in which Max Beerbohm has drawn a caricature of the author.
For more information about Charles Dickens, see the University of Delaware's Special Collections exhibition
Dickens at 200: 1812-2012.