Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

  Balzac had a marked predilection for Rastignac. He endowed him with noble birth, good looks, charm, wit; and made him immensely attractive to women. Is it fanciful to suggest that he saw in Rastignac the man he would have given all but his fame to be? Balzac worshipped success. Perhaps Rastignac was a rascal, but he succeeded. True, his fortune was founded on the ruin of others, but they were fools to let themselves be taken in by him, and Balzac had little sympathy with fools. Lucien de Rubempré, another of Balzac’s adventurers, failed because he was weak; but Rastignac, because he had courage, determination and strength, succeeded. From the day when, at Père-Lachaise, he had flung his challenge in the face of Paris, he had let nothing stand in his way. He had resolved to conquer Paris; he conquered it. Balzac could not bring himself, I fancy, to regard Rastignac’s moral delinquencies with censure. And after all, he was a good sort: though ruthless and unscrupulous where his interests were concerned, he was to the end ever willing to do a service to the old friends of his poverty-stricken youth. From the beginning, his aim had been to live in splendour, to have a fine house with a host of servants, carriages and horses, a string of mistresses and a rich wife. He had achieved his aim: I don’t suppose it ever occurred to Balzac that it was a vulgar one.


  Charles Dickens and David Copperfield


  Charles Dickens, though far from tall, was graceful and of a pleasing appearance. A portrait of him, painted by Maclise when he was twenty-seven, is in the National Portrait Gallery. He is seated in a handsome chair at a writing-table, with a small, elegant hand resting lightly on a manuscript. He is grandly dressed, and wears a vast satin neck-cloth. His brown hair is curled and falls well below the ears down each side of his face. His eyes are fine, and the thoughtful expression he wears is such as an admiring public might expect of a very successful young author. What the portrait does not show is the animation, the shining light, the activity of heart and mind, which those who came into contact with him saw in his countenance. He was always something of a dandy, and in his youth favoured velvet coats, gay waistcoats, coloured neck-cloths and white hats; but he never quite achieved the effect he sought: people were surprised and even shocked by his dress, which they described as both slipshod and flashy.

  His grandfather, William Dickens, began life as a footman, married a housemaid and eventually became steward at Crewe Hall, the seat of John Crewe, Member of Parliament for Chester. William Dickens had two sons, William and John; but the only one that concerns us is John, first because he was the father of England’s greatest novelist, and secondly because he served as a model for his son’s greatest creation, Mr. Micawber. William Dickens died, and his widow stayed on at Crewe Hall as housekeeper. After thirty-five years she was pensioned off, and, perhaps to be near her two sons, went to live in London. The Crewes educated her fatherless boys, and provided them with a means of livelihood. They got John a post in the Navy Pay Office. There he made friends with a fellow-clerk and presently married his sister, Elizabeth Barrow. From the beginning of his married life he appears to have been in financial trouble, and he was always ready to borrow money from anyone who was foolish enough to lend it. But he was kind-hearted and generous, no fool, industrious, though perhaps but fitfully; and he evidently had a taste for good wine, since the second time he was arrested for debt, it was at the suit of a wine-merchant. He is described in later life as an old buck who dressed well and was for ever fingering the large bunch of seals attached to his watch.

  Charles, the first son, but second child, of John and Elizabeth Dickens, was born in 1812 at Portsea. Two years later his father was transferred to London, and three years after that to Chatham. There the little boy was put to school, and there he began to read. His father had collected a few books, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Gil Blas, Don Quixote, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle; Charles read and re-read them. His own novels show how great and persistent an influence they had on him.

  In 1822 John Dickens, who by this time had five children, was moved back to London. Charles was left at Chatham to continue his schooling, and did not rejoin his family for some months. He found them settled in Camden Town on the outskirts of the city, in a house which he was later to describe as the home of the Micawbers. John Dickens, though earning a little more than three hundred pounds a year, which to-day would be equivalent to at least four times as much, was apparently in more than usually desperate straits, and it would seem that there was not enough money to send little Charles to school again. To the boy’s disgust, he was put to minding the children, cleaning the boots, brushing the clothes and helping the maid Mrs Dickens had brought with her from Chatham with the housework. In the intervals he roamed about Camden Town, ‘a desolate place surrounded by fields and ditches’, and the neighbouring Somers Town and Kentish Town, and sometimes he was taken farther afield and got a glimpse of Soho and Lime-house.

  Things grew so bad that Mrs. Dickens decided to open a school for the children of parents living in India, she borrowed money, presumably from her mother-in-law, and had handbills printed for distribution, which her own children were sent to push into letter-boxes in the neighbourhood. Naturally enough, no pupils were brought. Debts meanwhile grew more and more pressing. Charles was sent to pawn whatever articles they had on which cash could be raised; the books, the precious books which meant so much to him, were sold. Then James Lamert, vaguely related by marriage to Mrs. Dickens, offered Charles a job at six shillings a week in a blacking factory of which he was part-owner. His parents thankfully accepted the offer, but it cut the boy to the quick that they should be so manifestly relieved to get him off their hands. He was twelve years old. Shortly afterwards, John Dickens was arrested for debt and taken to the Marshalsea; and there his wife, after pawning the little that was left to pawn, joined him with her children. The prison was filthy, insanitary and crowded, for not only was it occupied by the prisoners, but by the families they might, if they chose, bring with them; though whether they were allowed to do this to alleviate the hardships of prison life or because the unfortunate creatures had nowhere else to go, I do not know. If a debtor had money, loss of liberty was the worst of the inconveniences he had to endure, and this loss in some cases might be mitigated: particular prisoners were permitted, on observing certain conditions, to reside outside the prison walls. In the past, the warden was in the habit of practising outrageous extortion on the prisoners and often treated them with barbarous cruelty; but by the time John Dickens was consigned to jail the worst abuses had been done away with, and he was able to make himself sufficiently comfortable. The faithful little maid lived out and came in daily to help with the children and prepare meals. He still had his salary of six pounds a week, but made no attempt to pay his debt; and it may be supposed that, content to be out of reach of his other creditors, he did not especially care to be released. He soon recovered his usual spirits. The other debtors ‘made him chairman of the committee by which they regulated the internal economy of the prison’, and presently he was on cordial terms with everyone from the turnkeys to the meanest inmate. The biographers have been puzzled by the fact that John Dickens continued meanwhile to receive his wages. The only explanation appears to be that, since government clerks were appointed by influence, such an accident as being imprisoned for debt was not considered so grave a matter as to call for the drastic step of cutting off a salary.

  At the beginning of his father’s imprisonment, Charles lodged in Camden Town; but since this was a long way from the blacking factory, which was at Hungerford Stairs, Charing Cross, John Dickens found him a room in Lant Street, Southwark, which was near the Marshalsea. He was then able to breakfast and sup with his family. The work he was put to do was not hard; it consisted in washing the bottles, labelling them and tying them up. In April, 1824, Mrs. William Dickens, the Crewes’ old housekeeper, died and left her savings to her two sons. John Dickens’s debt was paid (by his brother), and he regained his freedom. He settled his family once more i
n Camden Town, and went back to work at the Navy Pay Office. Charles continued to wash bottles at the factory for a while, but then John Dickens quarrelled with James Lamert, ‘quarrelled by letter’, wrote Charles later, ‘for I took the letter from my father to him which caused the explosion.’ James Lamert told Charles that his father had insulted him, and that he must go. ‘With a relief so strange that it was like oppression, I went home.’ His mother tried to smooth things down, so that Charles should retain his job and the weekly wage, seven shillings by then, which she still sorely needed; and for this he never forgave her. ‘I never afterwards forgot, I shall never forget, I never can forget that my mother was warm for my being sent back,’ he added. John Dickens, however, would not hear of it, and sent his son to a school, very grandly called the Wellington House Academy, in the Hampstead Road. He stayed there two and a half years.

  It is difficult to make out how long the boy spent at the blacking factory: he was there early in February and was back with his family by June, so that at the outside he could not have been at the factory for more than four months. It appears, however, to have made a deep impression upon him, and he came to look upon the experience as so humiliating that he could not bear to speak of it. When John Forster, his intimate friend and first biographer, by chance hit upon some inkling of it, Dickens told him that he had touched upon a matter so painful that ‘even at the present hour’, and this was twenty-five years later, ‘he could never lose the remembrance of it while he remembered anything.’

  We are so used to hearing eminent politicians and captains of industry boast of having in their early youth washed dishes and sold newspapers that it is hard for us to understand why Charles Dickens should have worked himself up into looking upon it as a great injury that his parents had done him when they sent him to the blacking factory, and a secret so shameful that it must be concealed. He was a merry, mischievous, alert boy, and already knew a good deal of the seamy side of life. From an early age he had seen to what a pass his father’s improvidence reduced the family. They were poor people, and they lived as poor people. At Camden Town he was put to sweep and scrub; he was sent to pawn a coat or a trinket to buy food for dinner; and, like any other boy, he must have played in the streets with boys of the same sort as himself. He went to work at an age when at the time it was usual for boys of his class to go to work, and at a fair wage. His six shillings a week, presently raised to seven, was worth at least twenty-five to thirty shillings to-day. For a short time he had to feed himself on that, but later, when he lodged near enough to the Marshalsea to have breakfast and supper with his family, he only had to pay for his dinner. The boys he worked with were friendly, and it is hard to see why he should have found it such a degradation to consort with them. He had from time to time been taken to see his grandmother in Oxford Street, and he could hardly have helped knowing that she had spent her life in ‘service’. It may be that John Dickens was a bit of a snob and made pretensions that had no basis, but a lad of twelve surely has little sense of social distinctions. One must suppose, further, that if Charles was sophisticated enough to think himself a cut above the other boys at the factory, he would be smart enough to understand how necessary his earnings were to his family. One would have expected it to be a source of pride to him that he was become a wage-earner.

  As a result, one may presume, of Forster’s discovery, Dickens wrote, and gave Forster, the fragment of autobiography from which the details of this episode in his life have been made known to us. As his imagination went to work on his recollections, he was filled, I suspect, with pity for the little boy he had been; he gave him the pain, the disgust, the mortification which he thought he, famous, affluent, beloved, would have felt if he had been in the little boy’s place. And seeing it all so vividly, his generous heart bled, his eyes were dim with tears, as he wrote of the poor lad’s loneliness and his misery at being betrayed by those in whom he had put his trust. I do not think he consciously exaggerated; he couldn’t help exaggerating: his talent, his genius if you like, was based on exaggeration. It was by dwelling upon, and emphasising, the comic elements in Mr. Micawber’s character that he excited his readers’ laughter; and it was by intensifying the pathos of Little Nell’s slow decline that he reduced them to tears. He would not have been the novelist he was if he had failed to make his account of the four months he spent at the blacking factory as moving as he alone knew how to make it; and, as everyone knows, he used it again to harrowing effect in David Copperfield. For my part, I do not believe that the experience caused him anything like the suffering that in after years, when he was famous and respectable, a social as well as a public figure, he persuaded himself that it had; and I believe even less that, as biographers and critics have thought, it had a decisive effect on his life and work.

  While still at the Marshalsea, John Dickens, fearing that as an insolvent debtor he would lose his job in the Navy Pay Office, solicited the head of his department to recommend him for a superannuation grant on the ground of his ill-health; and eventually, in consideration of his twenty-years’ service and six children, he was granted ‘on compassionate grounds’ a pension of one hundred and forty pounds a year. This was little enough for such a man as John Dickens to support a family and he had to find some means of adding to his income. He had somehow acquired a knowledge of shorthand; and with the help of his brother-in-law, who had connections with the press, he got employment as a parliamentary reporter. Charles remained at school till, at fifteen, he went to work as an errand-boy in a lawyer’s office. He does not seem to have considered this beneath his dignity. He had joined what we now call the white-collar class. A few weeks later his father managed to get him engaged as a clerk in another lawyer’s office at ten shillings a week, which in course of time rose to fifteen shillings. He found the life dull and, with the hope of bettering himself, studied shorthand – to such purpose that after eighteen months he was sufficiently competent to set up as a reporter in the Consistory Court of Doctors’ Commons. By the time he was twenty he was qualified to report the debates in the House of Commons, and soon gained the reputation of being ‘the fastest and most accurate man in the Gallery’.

  Meanwhile, he had fallen in love with Maria Beadnell, the pretty daughter of a bank clerk. They met first when Charles was seventeen. Maria was a flirtatious young person, and she seems to have given him a good deal of encouragement. There may even have been a secret engagement between them. She was flattered and amused to have a lover, but Charles was penniless, and she can never have intended to marry him. When after two years the affair came to an end, and in true romantic fashion they returned one another’s presents and letters, Charles thought his heart would break. They did not meet again till many years later. Maria Beadnell, long a married woman, dined with the celebrated Mr. Dickens and his wife: she was fat, commonplace and stupid. She served then as the model for Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. She had already served as the model for Dora in David Copperfield.

  In order to be near the paper for which he was working, Dickens had taken lodgings in one of the dingy streets off the Strand, but, finding them unsatisfactory, he presently rented unfurnished rooms in Furnival’s Inn. But before he could furnish these, his father was again arrested for debt, and he had to provide money for his keep at the sponginghouse. ‘As it had to be assumed that John Dickens would not rejoin his family for some time,’ Charles took cheap lodgings for his family and camped out with his brother Frederick, whom he took to live with him in the ‘three-pair back’ at Furnival’s Inn. ‘Just because he was open-hearted as well as open-handed,’ wrote the late Una Pope-Hennessy in her very readable biography of Charles Dickens, ‘and seemed able to deal with difficulties of the kind easily, it became the custom in his family, and later on in his wife’s family, to expect him to find money and appointments for as spineless a set of people as ever breadwinner was saddled with.’


  When he had been working for a year or so in the Gallery of the House of Commons
, Dickens began to write a series of sketches of London life; the first were published in The Monthly Magazine, and later ones in The Morning Chronicle; he was paid nothing for them, but they attracted the attention of a publisher named Macrone, and on the author’s twenty-fourth birthday they were issued in two volumes, with illustrations by Cruickshank, under the title Sketches by Boz. Macrone paid him one hundred and fifty pounds for the first edition. The book was well reviewed, and within a short time brought him an offer of further work. There was a vogue at the time for anecdotic novels of a humorous character, which were issued in monthly parts at a shilling, with comic illustrations. They were the remote ancestors of the funnies of our own time, and they had the same prodigious popularity. One day a partner in the firm of Chapman and Hall called upon Dickens to ask him to write a narrative about a club of amateur sportsmen to serve as a vehicle for the illustrations of a well-known artist. There were to be twenty numbers, and he offered fourteen pounds a month for what we should now call the serial rights, with further payments when later they were published as a book. Dickens protested that he knew nothing about sport and did not think he could write to order, but ‘the emolument was too tempting to resist’. I need hardly say that the result was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. The first five numbers had no great success, but with the introduction of Sam Weller the circulation leaped up. By the time the work appeared in book form, Charles Dickens was famous. Though the critics made their reservations, his reputation was made. It is well to record that The Quarterly Review, speaking of him, said that ‘it requires no gift of prophecy to foretell his fate – he has risen like a rocket and he will come down like a stick’. But indeed, throughout his career, while the public devoured his books, the critics carped.

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