George Sala's Dickens Obituary,
Daily Telegraph, 11 June 1870
[added 30 May 2018]
He is gone, then! – the gifted writer, the prince of story-tellers, the most genial of essayists, the master of humour and pathos, the compeller of laughter and tears, the wisest and kindest of moralists. All the world admired his genius; all those who were privileged to know him loved him. On him were bestowed, ere the golden bowl was broken and the silver cord loosened, an imperishable treasure of renown and an immeasurable endowment of affection. He appealed not only to the intellect, but to the hearts of the entire civilised community. Into well-nigh every living language which has a grammar and a form of printed expression his words had been translated; and among nations too rude to read him his name at least was known – as those of Shakespeare and Napoleon are known – as that of a great man. The most carping of his critics, the malignant of his detractors, will not now dare to deny that his memory is one which posterity will not let die. His record is an essential part of the nineteenth century and of the Victorian era; and it would be as difficult to obliterate from the chronicle of our time the remembrance of who he was and what he did, as to forget Fulton or Stephenson, Brewster or Faraday.
It was said by Johnson of Garrick that by his death was eclipsed for a season “the gaiety of nations”. The nations are more populous and busier and noisier than they were a hundred years ago; and even as the world rolls, day by day, society must scramble and jostle, traders must strive, lawyers must wrangle, legislators must debate, the great city must whirl in its maelstrom of passing and ambition and intrigue, unchecked for one moment even by the consciousness of the loss they have sustained – by the knowledge that Charles Dickens lies at Gadshill, dead. On the day that Goldsmith died Sir Joshua Reynolds threw down his pencil to resume it no more until his friend had been buried; but such a tribute of sorrow could hardly be spared by the toiling workers of to-day. The roaring looms cannot for one instant by arrested; the whirling and clanking of the machine cannot for one moment be hushed. He himself died at his post, in full and earnest and active pursuit of his vocation, and at an age when many men less earnest and less active would have withdrawn from public life to enjoy honourable, well-deserved repose. All that his contemporaries can do is to snatch a few hours from their appointed labour to record his achievements and to bewail his loss. That loss will be felt by the entire community as a national one, and the actual and personal sorrow experienced for the death of Charles Dickens will be equal in wide-spread feeling the grief which saddened the country at the death of the great Sir Robert Peel. That illustrious statesman, in old age and the mature vigour of his faculties, was called away, through a painful accident, as suddenly as Charles Dickens by a natural spasm was summoned on Thursday last; but the shock to the public mind, the impression on the public heart, will be the same. The face, the form, the garb, of Sir Robert were as familiar to the people twenty years ago as those of Dickens were only three days since. There were few who did not recognise, in his daily ride, the popular Baronet, with his cheerful countenance and light hair, his blue frock-coat and buff waistcoat. There were as few last week who would have been unable to point out the famous novelist, with his thought-lined face, his grizzled beard, his wondrous searching eye, his bluff presence and swinging gait, as, head aloft, he strode now through crowded streets, looking seemingly neither to the right nor the left, but of a surety looking at and into everything – now over the pleasant meads and breezy downs which stretched around his modest Kentish demesne hard by the hoary towers of Rochester. Just as the Kentish farmers and peasants would great with simple rural courtesy the neighbour they knew so well, and esteemed so highly for his frank and cordial bearing, so would London folks draw aside as the great writer – who seemed always to be walking a match against Thought – strode on, and looking after him, say, “There goes Charles Dickens!” The towering stature, the snowy locks, the glistening spectacles, the listless, slouching port, as that of a tired giant, of William Makepeace Thackeray, were familiar enough likewise in London a few years since, but comparatively speaking, only to a select few. He belonged to Club-land, and was only to be seen sauntering there or in West-end squares, or on his road to his beloved Kensington, or in the antique hall at Charterhouse on Founder’s Day, or on Eton Bridge on the fourth of June, or sometimes, haply, on the top of a Richmond omnibus journeying to a brief furlough at Rose Cottage. Thackeray in Houndsdith, Thackeray in Bethnal-green or at Camden Town, would have appeared anomalous; as well could we picture Carlyle at Cremorne, or Tennyson at Garraway’s; but Charles Dickens, when in town, was ubiquitous. He was to be met, by those who knew him, everywhere – and who did not know him? Who had not heard him, and who had not seen his photographs in the shop-windows? The omnibus conductors knew him, the street-boys knew him; and perhaps the locality where his recognition would have been least frequent – for all that he was a member of the Athenaeum Club – was Pall-mall. Elsewhere he would turn up in the oddest places, and in the most inclement of weather: in Ratcliff Highway on Haverstock-hill, on Camberwell-green, in Gray’s Inn-lane, in the Wandsworth-road, at Hammersmith Broadway, in Norton Folgate, and at Kensal New Town. A hansom whirled you by the Bell and Horns at Brompton, and there was Charles Dickens striding, as with seven-league boots, seemingly in the direction of North-end Fulham. The Metropolitan Railway sent you forth at Lisson-grove, and you met Charles Dickens plodding speedily towards the Yorkshire Stingo. He was to be met rapidly skirting the grim brick wall of the prison in Coldbath-fields, or trudging along the Seven Sisters-road at Holloway, or bearing, under a steady press of sail, underneath Highgate Archway, or pursuing the even tenor of his way up the Vauxhall Bridge-road. He seemed to prefer the lengthy thoroughfares of our exterior boulevards to narrow and intricate streets. They offered, perhaps, a better opportunity for fair and honest walking, and for the performance of that self-appointed task of pedestrianism, which for so many years he had undertaken, and which well-nigh undeviatingly, and wherever he was – in London, at home at Gadshill, in France, in Italy, or in America – he performed to its last root and furlong. It was one of Mr. Dickens maxims that a given amount of mental exertion should be counteracted by a commensurate amount of bodily fatigue; and for a length of years his physical labours were measured exactly by the duration of his intellectual work. It is idle at this time to inquire whether he took too much exercise, and whether, in some cases, Nature will not resent unvarying regularity in the observance of her laws, or refuse to respond by the gift of health and long life to the most rigidly-pursued system of hygiene. If Charles Dickens erred in this respect, he erred with Cornaro, with Franklin, and with Prescott, all of whom lived by line and rule; measuring the sands of their time by the grain, weighing out their sustenance by the ounce and the gill, adjusting even the weight of the garments they wore in summer or in winter to the minutest flections of the balance. Charles Dickens was a man who never exceeded; whose nature, strongly impulsive as it was, seemed to have been brought under an inexorable discipline.
Those who had followed Charles Dickens from the morning of his career to its dazzling noontide, and so to its golden evening – those who, knowing him of old, watched the man as well as the master with that reverent love which Raphael’s scholars, which Luther’s disciplines, and which the personal attendants of the First Napoleon bore for their chiefs – might now, in very mournful retrospect, call to mind the different phases of personal aspect of him who was at once the leader and the friend, the king and the colleague. The photographic portraits of Charles Dickens form a legion; and the more recent ones give a life-like resemblance of him as he seemed to the present generation – a bronzed, weather-worn, hardy man, with somewhat of a seaman’s air about him. His carriage was remarkably upright, his mien almost aggressive in its confidence. He was one of the few men whose individuality was not effaced by the mournful conventionality of evening dress. Many a prince, many a peer, would be absorbed at public dinners or evening parties by the terrible dead level of the black coat and white cravat, but for their stars and ribands; but under such circumstances the face and figure of Charles Dickens were always unmistakably conspicuous. The same prominence of individuality was curiously manifest in Mr. Leslie’s well-known picture of Mr. Dickens as the Copper Captain in “Every Man in his Humour” in the recent Exhibition of Deceased Masters at the Royal Academy. The dramatic travestissement was complete; the picturesque “make up” was perfect; the simulated Captain was the genuine swashbuckler and braggadocio of Ben Johnson; and yet beneath all these there shone forth, strongly as the sun darting from behind a summer cloud, the searching eyes, the determined visage, the irresistible smile of Charles Dickens. His appearance in walking dress in the streets, during his later years, was decidedly “odd”, and almost eccentric, being marked by strongly pronounced colours, and a cut of the garments which had somewhat of a sporting and somewhat of a theatrical guise. To those who did not know that he was Charles Dickens he might have been some prosperous sea-captain home from a long votage, some Western senator on a tour in Europe, some country gentleman of Devon or of Yorkshire who now and then bred a colt or two, and won a cup, but never betted. But those who could look far back remembered when Charles Dickens was in countenance like Milton in his youth, “eminently beautiful”, and when in attire he was, next to Count D’Orsay, the choicest and most tastefully dressed dandy in London. For the similitude of the elderly Dickens we must rely upon the wonderfully faithful photographic portraits lately published; for the Dickens of middle age we must refer to the noble portrait by Mr. Frith, or to the grand but somewhat dusty picture by Ary Sheffer; but for the Dickens of thirty years since, for the “unknown young man” who, as his greatest critic and admirer, Mr. Thackeray, said, “calmly and modestly took his place at the head of English literature,” we must turn to the portrait by his early friend, Daniel Maclise, an engraving of which forms the frontispiece, we think to the first completed edition of “Nicholas Nickleby”. There is a also a very characteristic sketch of the youthful Dickens in an etching by George Cruikshank, illustrating one of the “Sketches by Boz”, and in which both the author and the artist are depicted with wands in their hands, as stewards at a public dinner at the Freemason’s Tavern; but for grace and refinement and intellectual force we must go to Maclise’s canvas, and ponder over that exquisite delineation of the young man with the long silky hair, the fascinating smile, and the marvellous clear and inquiring eyes which, even from the copper-plate, seem to follow the beholder everywhere as the eyes of Guido Beatrice do in the gallery at Rome. This was the Charles Dickens who, in high satin stock and double breast pin, in glossy frock coat and velvet collar , in cut velvet waistcoat and glistening chain, was, in the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign, one of the best looking and best dressed young fellows about town; or who, a few years later, in a blue frock, white vest, and white trousers, looked even nattier and comelier. This was the brilliantly successful young author who, without effort, as it seemed, had risen from the lowest to the topmost rung of the ladder of literature; who, the day before yesterday as it were, lawyer’s clerk, reporter at a police-court, short-hand writer in the House of Commons gallery, scribbler of fugitive articles in an evening paper, found himself suddenly admired, courted, lionised, almost idolised, by almost all that was wealthy, and dignified, and beautiful in society; who, emerging from a model middle-class home and middle-class surroundings, found himself also at once the peer and the associate of Bulwer and Miles, of Lockhart and Jeffrey, of Moore and Campbell, of Talfourd, and Proctor, and who, ere he had long enjoyed his first wreath of laurels, had the high honour to be virulently abused by the Right Honourable John Wilson Croker. About four-and-thirty years have elapsed since the publication of “Pickwick.” Lifted into immediate and prodigious celebrity, Charles Dickens, until the day of his death, never knew what it was for that celebrity to have decreased one jot. In 1836, England and all America knew him, rejoiced in him, and were proud of him; all England and all America, and all the civilised world beside, know and are proud of him in 1870; although, alas! their rejoicing is turned to sorrow and the greenest of bays of all their chaplets, which they would have wreathed round the brows of the author of the “Mystery of Edwin Drood,” must now be laid upon a grave. There is something eminently touching and consoling in this thoroughness and completeness of the good writer’s life – in this insoluble community of fame, in this long day of renown whose brightness knew no overclouding, no storms, no dank chilliness after the meridian heat. And as, in the tropics, there is no twilight, and while the sky is all ablaze with the crimson and gold of the setting sun a great black pall suddenly falls and extinguishes all in night, so, while the genius of Charles Dickens was at its brightest and the splendour of his name most luminous, comes Death, and drops a cloak over all the light and splendour and shuts it up; and there is night – and we can only hope that it will be a night of stars.
Le pauvre en sa cabane ou le chame le couvre
Est sujet a ses lois.
Et la garde qui veille aux barriers du Louvre
N’en defend pas nos rois.
In such magnificent lines has Malesherbes echoed the eloquent warning of the heathen poet. But its boots not to dilate on the brevity or the uncertainty of life, to strain rhetoric into high-flown reflections on this transitory existence, or to indulge in vain lamentations on the suddenness of the event, for which it is impossible to know whether the deceased was prepared or unprepared. It is sufficient to know that God took him in His own good time, and that he had been permitted to fil la place in the history of his age, to enjoy a career, and to accomplish a life-work, the completeness of which kings and conquerors might envy. He never failed. We will not be so rash as to say that he was born to succeed in anything he might have attempted; but it is certain that he brought his powers under mastery, that he had so disciplined his capacity, that he had so trained and developed the direction of his genius as to be able to ensure and to command a certain amount of success in every one of his endeavours. His triumphs were neither fortuitous nor accidental. They were premeditated, consummated and deserved. His introduction Messrs. Chapman and Hall – his earliest, his latest, and his most appreciative publishers – had, perhaps, some appearance of “luck” about it; and it might be argued that, if poor Seymour had not proposed to execute a series of humorous etchings for Messrs. Chapman and Hall, and if those gentlemen had not been compelled to cast about for a clever young man to “write the engravings,” Charles Dickens might have continued, for many years longer, to vegetate in his chambers in Furnival’s Inn. We all know with what painful, toilsome slowness Thackeray ascended the staircase of renown; in how many ante-chambers he was forced to wait; at how many doors he was fain to knock unavailingly; how he laboured in obscurity in magazines, and reviews, and newspapers, and weekly serials, till at length, but tardily, success, celebrity, and glory came. And yet Thackeray was, in his sphere of letters, as distinctly original and as distinctly unapproachable as Dickens. Both men have had followers and imitators by the score – doleful creatures, who have copied the faults of their models, even as monkeys mimic the meanest motions of men, but who have been wholly unable to imitate their beauties. There were no social satirists of note to compete with Thackeray when he began “Vanity Fair.” There was no humorist of note textent to compete with Dickens when he began “Pickwick”. The last sprang at once into transcendent fame; the first – who was a practised member of Fraser’s staff before Dickens had been heard of – saw no less than ten years elapse before “Vanity Fair”, bandied about, rejected, from publisher was at length accept. The reason for the long-deferred recognition in the one case, and the immediate and tremendous acclaim in the other, was probably, that Thackeray only appealed to a cultivated and a somewhat cynical section of society, and that Dickens appealed to all humanity. “Pickwick” was a literary panacea. The Spanish King who from his palace window saw a student rolling in ecstacies of laughter with a book in his hand on the banks of the Mancanares, remarked to his courtiers, “That scholar must either be mad or reading ‘Don Quixote’.” And Philip III. Had very probably just been reading Cervantes masterpiece himself. It was every one’s portion. Only a limited number of scholars and worldlings could understand the mordant satire, the delicate equivoque, the scathing iron of “Vanity Fair,” or could understand the polished humour of Backy Sharpe and the Marquis of Steyne, or of Major Pendennis and Barnes Newcome. Thackeray essayed to construct an English Quixote in Colonel Newcome, butt he succeeded only in producing a beautiful work of art, whose most natural acts were less true to nature than the wildest Quixotism of the ingenious Hidalgo. On the other hand, every one – the prince, the peasant, the judge, the charity boy, the learned professor, and the servant maid – could understand, and could enjoy “Pickwick”. It was the universal recreation and solace. When the luckless Irish rebel, John Mitchel, after his condemnation to transportation in Dublin, was conveyed in a war steamer to the convict depot at Spike Island, the officer commanding the ship mercifuly lent the prisoner in his lonely cabin some novels of Charles Dickens to read. Mitchel, in his “Gaol Journal,” has recorded the consolation their perusal afforded him. And precisely the same alleviation of suffering, or weariness, or low spirits, might have been felt by a Princess of the Blood Royal turning over the pages of “Pickwick” or “Nickleby” at the very moment that the wretched Irish convict was deep in Dickens, and endeavouring to divert his thoughts from the imminent hulks. The only “luck” experienced by Charles Dickens at the outset of his career was, that he discovered a great national want which had not yet been supplied. The age would no longer tolerate the grossness of Smollett and Sterne, and could not understand the philosophy, while it still applauded the wit, of Fielding. The “comic literature” of the decade preceding the advent of Charles Dicken s was simply deplorable in its dull idiocy. When it happened to be somewhat funny, it was usually ribald. Charles Lamb had written, and written exquisitely, but the circulation of his essays, from the medium adopted for their publication was restricted; and even at the present day the people at large fail to appreciate the arrowy wit and delicate fancy of Elia. But to whom are Saw Weller, Tony Veller, Mr. Winkle, Mr. Snodgrass, Mr. Tupman, Mr. Jingle and the immortal Fat Boy, mysteries? Who has ever found Bob Cratchit, Scrooge, Tiny Tim, or even Marley’s Ghost, recondite? Is any world-wide experience necessary to understand Mrs. Gamp? Need we be cynical to enjoy Mr. Peckniff? It was through the universality of his epopoea and the thorough humanity of his personages that Charles Dickens at once attained world-wide fame. He was “lucky” to find a liberal publisher in the Strand for the “Pickwick Papers,” but had he never written that enchanting piece of drollery he would have been as “lucky” with Mr. Macrone in St. James’s-square with his “Sketches by Boz”, as lucky with Mr. Bentley in New Burlington-street with “Oliver Twist.” His genius was bound to “pierce”. It was the hour for him – the hour when the school-master began to be abroad; when a young generation was rising, determined to be kept no longer in ignorance; when the presence of a young and blameless Queen on the throne made thoughtful men reflect with horror on the scurrility and the ribaldry of bygone literature – and for that hour Charles Dickens was the Man. Had he approved himself nothing but a comic writer, his celebrity, vast as it would have been for a time, might very soon have waned. Samuel Foote was called “The English Aristophanes;” yet what sane publisher would undertake, at the present day, a reissue of Foote’s works? Rabelais was the merriest droll imaginable; his writings are a mine of roaring fun; yet who, save laborious scholars, reads Rabelais through? Scarron, Tom Browne, D’Urfey, George Coleman have all been laughed at – and forgotten; and even the reputation of the arch-way, Tom Hood, would have been ephemeral but for his noble services to humanity as a serious poet – as the writer of the “Song of the Shirt” and the “Bridge of Sighs.” When Charles Dickens was about midway in his career, it was a favourite device with those who decried him to exaggerate beyond measure the merits of “Pickwick” to the disparagement of his later and more serious works, and to declare that he would never again write anything half so good as his first, his most facetious, but certainly his least artistically constructed novel. But these backbiters were speedily silenced when it was found that the great master of fun was likewise a great master of sentiment; that Dickens could be, on occasion, not only irresistibly comic, not only slily humorous, could be infinitely tender, graceful, and pathetic – that he could be dramatic, tragical, and terrible. The hand which drew Mr. Pickwick “in the pound” gave us, almost simultaneously, Fagin in the condemned cell. From Little Nell, and the marriage of Mrs. M’Stinger; the description of Mr. John Smawker’s “Swarry’, and the picture of the Gordon Riots; the “terrific combat” of Mr. Crummles and his sons, and the storm in “David Copperfield;” the christening of Little Paul Dombey, and the murder of Sir Leicester Dedlock. We conscientiously believe that, had Charles Dickens never written “Pickwick” at all, his hold on the public mind and on the public love would have been as great, and as promising of permanence as it is now.
He was a great traveller. We are not alluding to his two journeys to the United States, to his long residence in Italy, to his frequent excursions to France, or even to his prolonged explorations – now on business, now on pleasure – of his own country. Where he travelled longest, where he had looked deepest and learned most, was in inner London. We was no Regent-street lounger; he scarcely ever mentions Pall-mall; he rarely alludes to Piccadilly; he is not much at home in the fashionable squares; he is not to be found in the Ladies’ Mile; he is not at home at Brompton, or in the Regent’s Park, or in Great Gaunt-street, or at Greenwich, or Richmond, or any of the localities so well beloved by Thackeray. But he knew all about the back streets behind Holborn, sidling streets of the remoter suburbs, the crooked little alleys of the City, the dank and oozy wharfs of the water-side. He was at home in all lodging-houses, station-houses, cottages, hovels, Cheap Jack’s caravans, workhouses, prisons, school-rooms, chandlers’ shops, back attics, barbers’ shops, areas, back yards, dark entries, public-houses, rag-shops, police-courts, and markets in poor neighbourhoods. And, curiously, from these localities, unseemly and unsavoury as they might be, he produced pictures of life and manners, and produced characters of men and women and children that have been the wonder and delight and edification of millions, not only of his own countrymen, but of strangers at the uttermost ends of the earth. He was the good genius who turned everything into gold. Upon offal and garbage, upon crime and misery, upon poverty and pestilence, upon the dullest, densest, ugliest things the bright light of his amazing fancy shone, and of the social reptiles he held up to view only the precious jewels in their heads remained. He was a great traveller – as earnest and as eloquent a pilgrim, indeed, as that wandered whom John Bunyan has shown us travelling from this world to the next. And he, too, like Christian, has got to his journey’s end – to the cold, dark river with the shining city beyond.
Of his private life it behove us not, at this time, and in this place, to speak. We have dealt with Charles Dickens thus briefly only as a public man, and as the foremost writer of the Victoria era. Biographers there will be in plenty, no doubt, and at no distant period, who will retail his minutest words and deeds; who will publish his correspondence, and who will do justice to the amiability of his character, to the cordiality of his manner, to the charms of his conversation, to the frankness of his hospitality, to the inflexible integrity which he ever showed in his dealings with his fellow-men, to his private charities – which were untiring – to his public spirit and lofty sense of right, to his industry, his punctuality, his forbearance under provocation, his placable nature after wrong. It has been our task only to touch upon the leading points in his literary career, and to recall the outward aspect of the man who but three days since was so warm a friend, so kind a host, so true a master, so ready a writer, so eloquent a speaker, so merry a companion – and who now lives cold and dumb. He is gone. There is no longer a Charles Dickens; and to the veterans and worn-out coursers in the race of life, whose old feet seem to do naught but stumble at graves, this last yawning tomb can but suggest the grim question, “Who next, and next?”