Dilke, Charles Wentworth (1789-1864) (DNB00)

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DILKE, CHARLES WENTWORTH (1789–1864), antiquary and critic, was born on 8 Dec. 1789. At an early age he entered the navy pay office, but his leisure hours were devoted to reading, and, sharing the enthusiasm for the Elizabethan dramatists which was created by the publication of Lamb's ‘Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets,’ he turned his attention in that direction. Gifford, who had edited Massinger, and was in the midst of his edition of Ben Jonson, encouraged him, and between 1814 and 1816 he brought out his continuation of Dodsley's ‘Old Plays,’ a very acute and careful piece of editing. He had by this time married and settled at Hampstead, and there made the acquaintance of Charles Armitage Brown [q. v.], and of what was then termed the cockney school, Keats, to whom he proved both a sympathetic and judicious friend, Leigh Hunt, J. H. Reynolds, and Hood. Shelley was also known to him. He was busy contributing to the periodicals which sprang up within a few years of the peace, such as the ‘London Review,’ the ‘London Magazine,’ and ‘Colburn's New Monthly,’ and naturally enough when the ‘Retrospective Review’ was started he became one of its chief supporters. His articles were mainly on literary topics, but in 1821 he produced a political pamphlet in the shape of a letter addressed to Lord John Russell, which was distinctly radical in tone, and pleaded for the repeal of the corn laws.

An event which formed a turning-point in Dilke's life was his becoming connected, about the end of 1829, with the ‘Athenæum,’ which, founded by James Silk Buckingham [q. v.] at the beginning of the previous year, had been purchased by John Sterling, and had subsequently passed into the hands of its printer and a number of men of letters. In the middle of 1830 Dilke became the supreme editor, and the effect of a firm hand on the management of the paper was speedily seen. Early in 1831 he reduced the price of the journal to fourpence, a measure which resulted in a marked increase in its sale and a corresponding reduction in the circulation of the ‘Literary Gazette,’ which adhered to the then customary price of a shilling. Meanwhile his co-proprietors, Reynolds, Hood, and Allan Cunningham, alarmed by the change, gave up their shares in the paper, although they continued to write largely for it, and the financial responsibility fell entirely upon the printer and the editor, who obtained the co-operation of Lamb, Barry Cornwall, Chorley [q. v.], George Darley, and others of his friends, and as soon as he had the opportunity enlisted the aid of Sainte-Beuve, Jules Janin, and other continental writers of repute, quite an unheard-of thing for a British journalist to do in those days. Although the circulation of the paper quickly developed, the heavy duty prevented the growth of advertisements, and for several years there was no surplus profit from which to pay Dilke a salary. The main principle of his editorship was to preserve a complete independence, and to criticise a book without caring who was the writer or who was the publisher, a principle which at the time was a startling novelty, and to maintain it Dilke withdrew altogether from general society, and avoided as far as possible personal contact with authors or publishers. In 1836 the navy pay office was abolished, and Dilke consequently retired on a pension, and devoted all his energies to the improvement of the paper.

In the forties the ‘Athenæum’ had become an established success, and no longer required the constant exertions which had been necessary in earlier days. Dilke consequently handed over the editorship to the late T. K. Hervey, and listened to the overtures of the ‘Daily News,’ which, started with great expectations of success under Charles Dickens, signally failed at first to realise the hopes of its proprietors. They therefore naturally turned to one who was politically in sympathy with them, and had proved his business faculty by converting a struggling journal into a paper of recognised influence and large circulation. Called in at first as a ‘consulting physician,’ he became in April 1846 manager of the ‘Daily News,’ John Forster being the editor, and applied to it the same policy that had proved successful in the case of the ‘Athenæum,’ reducing the price of the ‘Daily News’ by one-half. The capital of the paper proved, however, insufficient to meet the heavy expenses which the competition for news with the ‘Times,’ the ‘Herald,’ and the ‘Morning Chronicle’ involved, and another great stumbling-block was that, the proprietors belonging to various sections of the liberal party, each of them expected his own views to be advocated in the journal. In consequence, when the three years during which he had undertaken to superintend the ‘Daily News’ came to an end, Dilke withdrew from its management. It was not till several years afterwards that, by resuming his policy and reducing its price to a penny, the journal succeeded in obtaining the assured position it has held for the last seventeen years.

A third period in Dilke's career began with his retirement from newspaper management, and the articles on which his reputation rests are all of them subsequent to 1847. While editing the ‘Athenæum’ he had on principle avoided writing in it; having ceased to edit it he became a contributor. Although he preserved his early partiality for the Elizabethan drama—a couple of articles on Shakespeare were among his later contributions to the paper—he had studied the literary history of the seventeenth century, and still more carefully that of the eighteenth. The mystery attaching to the authorship of the ‘Letters of Junius’ especially fascinated him, and he acquired with his wonted thoroughness a knowledge of everything bearing on the problem that none of his contemporaries could rival. Unlike other students of the riddle, he was not so anxious to find out who Junius was as to show who he was not; and although he is said to have had his own ideas of the identity of the unknown, his published criticisms were entirely destructive. He commenced in the ‘Athenæum’ of July 1848 by demolishing Britton's theory that Colonel Barré was Junius, and in the course of the five following years he wrote a series of reviews which form the most weighty contribution to the perennial controversy that has yet appeared. The study of Junius led inevitably to the study of Burke and Wilkes, and he was the first to rescue Wilkes from the obloquy that attached to his name. He also became the apologist of Peter Pindar.

To Dilke's papers on Junius succeeded his articles on Pope. He had been long interested in Pope, but his investigations were much aided by the purchase by the British Museum in 1853 of the Caryll papers, which revealed the manner in which Pope prepared his correspondence for publication. In a series of contributions to the ‘Athenæum’ and ‘Notes and Queries’ Dilke was able to explain the mystery of the publication of the letters by Curll, to make clear the poet's parentage, to settle several matters in his early life, to identify the ‘Unfortunate Lady,’ and in various other points to throw fresh light on Pope's career and his poetry. These articles brought the writer into controversy with Peter Cunningham, the late Mr. Carruthers, Mr. Kerslake, and other students of Pope, but his conclusions remained unshaken by his assailants, and have been adopted by Mr. Elwin and Mr. Courthope in their elaborate edition of Pope, an edition in which Dilke was invited to take part, but owing to his advancing years he was obliged to decline. One of his last articles in the ‘Athenæum’ was devoted to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her quarrel with Pope, an article prompted by the appearance of Mr. Moy Thomas's edition of her works in 1861.

In his later life the affairs of the Literary Fund occupied a large part of Dilke's attention. As early as 1836 he began to scrutinise the management of the fund; but it was not till 1849 that the controversy became open and violent. In 1858 he joined with Dickens and Forster in the manifesto called ‘The Case of the Reformers of the Literary Fund,’ which will be found in the ‘Athenæum’ for 6 March of that year. The reformers, although they had the best of the argument, had the worst of the voting, and, finding it impossible to convert their minority into a majority, they attempted, with the aid of Lord Lytton, to found the Guild of Art and Literature, a scheme which did not meet with the success anticipated.

Dilke in 1862 withdrew altogether from London and settled at Alice Holt in Hampshire, where he died after a few days' illness on 10 Aug. 1864. The best comments on his character and his literary work were those of his old friend Thoms in ‘Notes and Queries:’ ‘The distinguishing feature of his character was his singular love of truth, and his sense of its value and importance, even in the minutest points and questions of literary history.’

[The articles on Pope, Junius, &c. of Dilke were collected and published in 1875, under the title of ‘Papers of a Critic,’ by the present Sir C. W. Dilke, who prefixed to them a memoir of his grandfather, from which the facts of the above notice have been derived.]

N. McC.