The Times/1870/Obituary/Charles Dickens
MR. CHARLES DICKENS.
(leading Article, Friday, June 10, 1870.)
One whom young and old, wherever the English language is spoken, have been accustomed to regard as a personal friend is suddenly taken away from among us. Charles Dickens is no more. The loss of such a man is an event which makes ordinary expressions of regret seem cold and conventional. It will be felt by millions as nothing less than a personal bereavement. Statesmen, men of science, philanthropists, the acknowledged benefactors of their race might pass away, and yet not leave the void which will be caused by the death of Dickens. They may have earned the esteem of mankind; their days may have been passed in power, honour, and prosperity; they may have been surrounded by troops of friends, but, however pre-eminent in station, ability, or public services, they will not have been, like our great and genial novelist, the intimate of every household. Indeed, such a position is attained not even by one man in an age. It needs an extraordinary combination of intellectual and moral qualities to gain the hearts of the public as Dickens has gained them. Extraordinary and very original genius must be united with good sense, consummate skill, a well-balanced mind, and the proofs of a noble and affectionate disposition before the world will consent to enthrone a man as their unassailable and enduring favourite. This is the position which Mr. Dickens has occupied with the English and also with the American public for the third of a century. If we compare his reputation with that of the number of eminent men and women who have been his contemporaries, we have irresistible evidence of his surpassing merits. His is a department of literature in which ability in our time has been abundant to overflowing. As the genius of the Elizabethan age turned to the drama, so that of tho reign of Victoria seeks expression in the novel. There is no more extraordinary phenomenon than the number, the variety, and the general high excellence of the works of fiction in our own day. Their inspirations are as many as the phases of thought and social life. They treat not only of love and marriage, but of things political and ecclesiastical, of social yearnings and sceptical disquietudes; they give us revelations from the empyrean of fashion and from the abysses of crime. Their authors have their admirers, their party, their public, but not the public of Dickens. It has been his peculiar fortune to appeal to that which is common to all sorts and conditions of men, to excite the interest of the young and the uninstructed, without shocking the more refined taste of a higher class and a more mature age. Thus the news of his death will hardly meet the eye of an educated man or woman who has not read his works and who has not been accustomed to think of him with admiration and friendly regard.
To the survivors, at least, there is something terrible in sudden death, and when we hear that Dickens is gone we cannot but recall how Thackeray died before him, also in the vigour of age, and apparently in the fulness of health. Dickens has lived longer than his great rival, for he was born only a year after, and he has survived him several years. But he has been cut off while still in what may be called middle age. He was born in February, 1812, and has consequently not long attained his fifty-eighth year. As men live and work now, this is an age which would give the hope of many years of successful exertion, to be succeeded by a period of honoured repose. But we have this consolation, that the life of Dickens has been long enough to allow full scope for his genius, and to enable him not only to earn, but to enjoy his fame. In this respect his career has been extraordinary. He was one whose marvellous powers were developed early, and he attained the highest eminence in the first years of his literary career. It is certainly a wonderful phenomenon that a book like "Pickwick," the pages of which overflow with humour, and are marked in every sentence with the keenest observation of men and things, should have been produced by a young man of 24. After the light but clever "Sketches by Boz," Dickens began "Pickwick" in 1836, and finished it in the course of the succeeding year. We are inclined to think that this, the first considerable work of the author, is his masterpiece; but, whatever may be the world's decision on this point, it can hardly be doubted that the prize must be given to one of the group of fictions which he produced within the first ten or twelve years of his literary life. "Nicholas Nickleby" teems with wit, and the characters, with one or two exceptions, are life-like in the extreme. "Oliver Twist" everybody knows; "Martin Chuzzlewit" is excellent, and the American portions are not only the most amusing satire that has been published in the present age, but fill us with wonder that the peculiarities of thought, manner, and diction of a people should be so surely seized and so inimitably expressed by a young writer who had been only a few months in the country.
In this marvellous precocity of genius Dickens formed a contrast to some of those with whom a comparison naturally suggests itself. Scott was 34 years old before he published his first great poem, the "Lay of the Last Minstrel," and it was nearly ten years afterwards, in 1814, that he made his experiment as a novelist with "Waverley." So, too, Thackeray, though known for some time in the field of literature, made his first great success with "Vanity Fair" when no longer a young man. Of Dickens it may be said, also, that his early books show no signs of juvenility. When young in years he showed the mental balance of an experienced writer. And yet what freshness and vigour there were in those wonderful serials which, about the time the present Queen came to the throne, changed the popular literature of the day! When that young, unknown author appeared on the field he was at once hailed as the new chief of popular fiction. It is a long time ago, but our older readers will remember the excitement caused by the "Pickwick Papers." The shilling numbers of "Boz", carried everything before them. They were read here by tens of thousands, though the reading public 30 years ago was not what it is now; and they were reprinted in every possible form in America. In fact, half the newspapers in the States transferred them to their columns bodily the day after their arrival. This popularity they fully deserved. They are among the few books of the kind that one can return to again and again, or, having opened at any page, can read straight on, carried forward by a sense of real enjoyment. The best characters stand out in real flesh and blood, and in this respect are superior to those of Thackeray, which, though excellently designed, show too much the art of an able sketcher from artificial types. For this reason, Thackeray, though he has always maintained his hold on the London world in which his personages figure, has never come near to Dickens in popularity with the great mass of the people. The characters of Dickens have been accepted by all men's discernment as the true reflection of human nature; not merely of manners or costumes. Squeers is to everybody the low, tyrannical schoolmaster; Bumble the representative of parochial pomposity; Mrs. Gamp is the type of her vulgar, hard-hearted sisterhood. Perhaps a more signal proof of the genius of Dickens is the manner in which his style and diction have penetrated into the ordinary literature of the country. So much has become naturalized and is used quite unconsciously that it is only by re-reading those earlier works which most impressed his contemporaries that one becomes aware how great has been their influence.
We cannot conclude these remarks without paying a tribute to the moral influence of the writings of which we have spoken. Mr. Dickens was a man of an eminently kindly nature, and full of sympathy for all around him. This, without being paraded, makes itself manifest in his works, and we have no doubt whatever that much of the active benevolence of the present day, the interest in humble persons and humble things, and the desire to seek out and relieve every form of misery is due to the influence of his works. We feel that we have lost one of the foremost Englishmen of the age. There are clever writers enough, but no one who will take the place, literary and social, that belonged to him. It was but the other day that at the Royal Academy banquet he made the best speech of the evening, in matter, language, and manner. His powers as an actor are well known, though, of late years, they have been only exhibited in the narrower field of public readings. He was made to be popular, and, even irrespective of his literary genius, was an able and strong-minded man, who would have succeeded in almost any profession to which he devoted himself. We can but condole with the public on his sudden and premature loss.
(Obituary Notice, Saturday, June 11, 1870.)
The mere announcement that Charles Dickens is dead repeats the common sentence passed on all humanity. Death has once again demanded its own, and a claim which all men must sooner or later meet. We forget how many mortals breathe their last in every minute according to the calculations of statistical authorities. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and Thursday, the 9th day of June, 1870, will be an evil day in the memories of all who can appreciate true genius and admire its matchless works. We have had greater writers both in poetry and prose, but they were not of our day and generation. For us just now this loss is our greatest. It would have been great at any time from the moment when he turned with aversion from the drudgery of a solicitor's office, amid the forebodings of his friends, and thenceforward rose in the clear light of literature, until he soared in the sunshine of success far above all his fellows. There are minds of such jealous fibre that the very merits of an author, his mightiest gifts and his most special talents, only serve as food on which to nourish their prejudices. Such are they who, while forced to admit the wit, humour, and power of Charles Dickens, always added, "but he was vulgar." Yes, in one sense he was vulgar; he delighted in sketching the characters not of dukes and duchesses, but of the poor and lowly. He had listened to their wants and sorrows, seen them in their alleys and garrets, had learnt their accents and dialect by heart, and then, with a truth and liveliness all his own, he photographed them in his immortal works. In that sense alone was Charles Dickens "vulgar." He was of the people, and lived among them. His was not the close atmosphere of a saloon or of a forcing house. In the open air of the streets, and woods, and fields, he lived and had his being, and so he came into closer union with common men, and caught with an intuitive force and fulness of feature every detail of their daily life. His creations have become naturalized, so to speak, among all classes of the community, and are familiar to every man, high or low. How many fine gentlemen and ladies, who never saw Pickwick or Sam Weller in the flesh, have laughed at their portraits by Charles Dickens. How many have been heartbroken at the sufferings of Oliver, been indignant at the brutality of Bill Sykes, wept over the fallen Nancy's cruel fate, and even sympathized with the terrible agony of Fagin in the condemned cell, who but for Charles Dickens would never have known that such sorrows and crimes, such cruel wrongs, and such intensity of feeling existed in those lower depths of London life, far above which, like the golden gods of Epicurus, they lived in careless ease till this great apostle of the people touched their hearts and taught them that those inferior beings had hearts and souls of their own, and could be objects of sympathy as well as victims of neglect.
We have heard it objected also by gentlemen that Charles Dickens could never describe "a lady," and by ladies that he could never sketch the character of "a gentleman"; but we have always observed that when put to the proof these male and female critics failed lamentably to establish their case. We are not sure that Charles Dickens's gentlemen were all as well dressed as those who resort to Poole's temple of fashion, or that his ladies were always attired in the very last fancy of Worth. Dress is no doubt what may be called in the catechism of gentility the "outward and visible sign" of a gentleman, just as the outward fashion of a lady is shown by her dress; but even these are nothing if that "inward and spiritual grace" which is characteristic of the true gentleman and real lady be wanting, and in that grace, however negligent they may be in their attire, the ladies and gentlemen in Charles Dickens's works are never deficient. We are not denying that the true type of gentle life is to be found in the upper classes. Far from it. We only insist, when we are told that Charles Dickens could not describe either a lady or a gentleman, that there are ladies and gentlemen in all ranks and classes of life, and that the inward delicacy and gentle feeling which we acknowledge as the only true criterion of the class may be found under the smockfrock of the plough boy as well as beneath the mantle of an earl.
When a great writer, on his deathbed, was with his last breath instructing his children in the secret of his success, he said,—"Be natural, my children, for the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art." And this was pre-eminently the case with Charles Dickens. His great characters have struck fast root in the hearts of his countrymen, for this, above all other reasons, that they are natural—natural both relatively to the writer who created them and to the station in life in which they are supposed to live. Like the giant who revived as soon as he touched his mother earth, Charles Dickens was never so strong as when he threw himself back on the native soil of the social class among which he had been born and bred, whose virtues, faults, and foibles he could portray with a truth and vigour denied to any other man. That he was eminently successful may be proved by his works. He is gone, indeed, but they remain behind and will long speak for him. Every day will only add to the universal feeling that he wrote not for this age alone, but for all time, and that this generation, in losing sight of him, will hardly look upon his like again.
That he was eminently truthful, trustworthy, and self-denying can be gainsaid by none. But of the man himself, apart from the writer, it is as yet too soon to speak. We live too close to the man to be able to discriminate his excellence, which will live for ever, from his faults, which will be forgotten ere the year is out. In this the world is very charitable. It has no memory for small errors; they wane and perish while the pearl which they encrust and perhaps conceal grows day by day more truly orient, and increases with value as generation after generation vanishes away.
Nor do we know why we should repine at the manner of his death. It was said of old that those whom the gods love die young. If it cannot be said that Charles Dickens died young, he has departed from among us at least at an earlier age than many who were at least not more than his equals in fame. Happy, no doubt, he was in that he was snatched away in a moment of time. He died without a pang, and the victim to no lingering disease. That still and solemn voice to which we must all one day listen whispered to him "Come," and he went. His work was done on earth; and in the fulness of his labours, though not of his years, he obeyed the summons, and departed from among us without a murmur. In this working country, and especially in this working age, which incessantly proclaims the worth of labour as its watchword, it is something to mark the career of one who still toiled on, and not the less patiently and earnestly for his triumphs, till, when the shout of victory was ringing in his ears, he was cut off in an instant, like a flower of the field, so that when people rose up and looked to see the news of the morning, a sudden affliction fell upon them as they read that a great master of English had passed away from them at nightfall, and that the magic pen of Charles Dickens would write no more.
During the whole of Wednesday Mr. Dickens had manifested signs of illness, saying that he felt dull, and that the work on which he was engaged was burdensome to him. He came to the dinner table at 6 o'clock, and his sister-in-law, Miss Hogarth, observed that his eyes were full of tears. She did not like to mention this to him, hut watched him anxiously, until, alarmed by the expression of his face, she proposed sending for medical assistance. He said, "No," but said it with imperfect articulation. The next moment he complained of toothache, put his hand to the side of his head, and desired that the window might be shut. It was shut immediately, and Miss Hogarth went to him, and took his arm, intending to lead him from the room. After one or two steps he suddenly fell heavily on his left side, and remained unconscious and speechless until his death, which came at ten minutes past 6 on Thursday, just 24 hours after the attack. As soon as he fell a telegram was despatched to his old friend and constant medical attendant, Mr. F. Carr Beard, of Welbeckstreet, who went to Gad's-hill immediately, but found the condition of his patient to be past hope. Mr. Steele, of Strood, was already in attendance; and Dr. Russell Reynolds went down on Thursday, Mr. Beard himself remaining until the last. The pupil of the right eye was much dilated, that of the left contracted, the breathing stertorous, the limbs flaccid until half an hour before death, when some convulsion occurred. The symptoms point conclusively to the giving way of a blood-vessel in the brain, and to consequent large hemorrhage, or, in other words, to what is called apoplexy.