Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  A couple of days before the appearance of the first number of The Pickwick Papers, in 1836, Dickens married Kate, the eldest daughter of George Hogarth, a colleague of Dickens on The Morning Chronicle. George Hogarth was the father of six sons and eight daughters. The daughters were small, plump, fresh-coloured and blue-eyed. Kate was the only one of marriageable age. That seems to have been the reason why Dickens married her rather than one of the others. After a short honeymoon, they settled down in Furnival’s Inn and invited Kate’s pretty sister, Mary Hogarth, a girl of sixteen, to live with them. Dickens accepted a contract to write another novel, Oliver Twist, and started it while he was still at work on The Pickwick Papers. This also was to appear in monthly numbers, and he devoted a fortnight to one and a fortnight to the other. Most novelists are so absorbed in the characters which are at the moment engaging their attention that, by no effort of will, they thrust back into their unconscious what other literary ideas they have had in mind; and that Dickens should have been able to switch, apparently with ease, from one story to another is an amazing feat.

  He took a fancy to Mary Hogarth, and when Kate found herself with child and could not go about with him, Mary became his constant companion. Kate’s baby was born, and as she might be expected to have several more, a move was made from Furnival’s Inn to a house in Doughty Street. Mary grew every day more lovely and more delightful. One May evening, Dickens took Kate and Mary to a play; they enjoyed themselves and came home in high spirits. Mary was taken ill. A doctor was sent for. In a few hours she was dead. Dickens took the ring from her finger and put it on his own. He wore it till his death. He was prostrated with grief. Not long after, he wrote in his diary: ‘If she were with us now, the same winning, happy, amiable companion, sympathising with all my thoughts and feelings more than anyone I know ever did or will, I think I should have nothing to wish for but a continuance of such happiness. But she is gone, and pray God I may one day, through his mercy, rejoin her.’ These are significant words, and they tell us a great deal. He arranged to be buried by Mary’s side. I think that there can be no doubt that he had fallen deeply in love with her. We shall never know whether he was aware of it.

  At the time of Mary’s death, Kate was once more pregnant, and the shock brought on a miscarriage. When she was well enough, Charles took her for a short trip abroad so that they might both recover their spirits. By the summer he, at all events, had sufficiently done so to have a boisterous flirtation with a certain Eleanor P.

  (3)

  With Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens was soundly launched on his triumphant career. He was a hard worker, and for several years started to write a new book long before he had finished with the old one. He wrote to please and kept his eye on the public reaction to the monthly numbers in which many of his novels appeared, and it is interesting to learn that he had no intention of sending Martin Chuz-zlewit to America till the declining sales showed that his numbers were not so attractive as usual. He was not the sort of author who looks upon popularity as something to be ashamed of. His success was enormous. But the life of a literary man who has achieved it is not as a rule eventful. It follows a uniform pattern. His profession obliges him to devote a certain number of hours a day to his work, and he discovers a routine to suit him. He is brought into contact with the celebrated people of the day, literary, artistic and polite. He is taken up by great ladies. He goes to parties and gives parties. He travels. He makes public appearances. This, broadly, was the pattern of Dickens’s life. The success he enjoyed, indeed, was such as has been the fortune of few authors to experience. His energy seemed inexhaustible. Not only did he produce long novels in quick succession, he founded and edited magazines and, for a short period, even edited a daily paper; he wrote a quantity of occasional pieces; he delivered lectures, he spoke at banquets, and later gave readings of his works. He rode, he thought nothing of walking twenty miles a day, he danced and played the fool with gusto, he did conjuring tricks to amuse his children, he acted in amateur theatricals. He had always been fascinated by the theatre, and once had seriously thought of going on the stage; at that time he took lessons in elocution from an actor, learned parts by heart and practised before a mirror how to enter a room, sit down on a chair and make a bow. One must suppose that these accomplishments were useful to him when he was introduced into the world of fashion. The censorious, notwithstanding, thought him faintly vulgar and his mode of dress showy. Accent in England has always ‘placed’ a man, and it is likely enough that Dickens, who had lived almost all his life in London, and in very modest circumstances, had something of a cockney accent. But he charmed by his good looks, the brightness of his eyes, his exuberance, vivacity and joyous laugh. He may have been dazzled by the adulation of which he was the object, but his head was not turned. He retained an attractive modesty. He was a genial, delightful, affectionate creature. He was one of those persons who, when they come into a room, bring with them delight.

  Oddly enough, though he had an immense power of observation and, in course of time, came to be on familiar terms with persons in the higher ranks of society, he never succeeded in his novels in making such characters as he created in those walks of life quite credible. One of the commonest charges against him, during his lifetime, was that he couldn’t draw a gentleman. His lawyers and lawyer’s clerks, whom he had known when he worked in an office, have a distinctiveness of feature which is lacking in his doctors and parsons; he was at his best when dealing with the ragtag and bobtail among whom his boyhood was spent. It looks as though a novelist can only know intimately enough, to use them with profit as models for creatures of his own invention, the persons with whom he has been connected at an early age. A child’s year, a boy’s year, is much, much longer than the year of a grown-up man, and he is thus given what seems like all the time in the world to make himself aware of the idiosyncrasies of the people who form his environment. ‘One reason why many English writers have totally failed in describing the manners of upper life,’ wrote Henry Fielding, ‘may possibly be, that in reality they knew nothing of it … Now it happens that this higher order of mortals is not to be seen, like all the rest of the human species, for nothing, in the streets, shops, and coffee houses: nor are they shown, like the upper ranks of animals, for so much a-piece. In short, this is a sight to which no persons are admitted without one or other of these qualifications, viz., either title or fortune, or, what is equivalent to both, the honourable profession of gamester. And, very unluckily for the world, persons so qualified very seldom care to take upon themselves the bad trade of writing; which is generally entered upon by the lower and poorer sort, as it is a trade which many think requires no kind of store to set up with.’

  As soon as circumstances permitted, the Dickenses moved into a new house in a more fashionable quarter, and ordered from firms of repute complete suites for the reception rooms and bedrooms. Thick pile carpets were laid on the floors and festooned curtains adorned the windows. They engaged a good cook, three maids and a manservant. They set up a carriage. They gave dinner parties, to which noble and distinguished people came. The profusion somewhat shocked Jane Carlyle, and Lord Jeffrey wrote to his friend, Lord Cockburn, that he had dined in the new house and had ‘a rather too sumptuous dinner for a man with a family and only beginning to be rich’. It was part of the generosity of Dickens’s spirit that he liked to surround himself with people, and after the meanness of his origins it is only natural that it should have pleased him to be lavish. But it cost money. His father and his father’s family, his wife’s family, were a constant drain on him. It was partly to meet his heavy expenses that he founded the first of his magazines, Master Humphrey’s Clock, and to give it a good send-off published The Old Curiosity Shop in it.

  In 1842, leaving the four children in the care of Georgina Hogarth, Kate’s sister, but taking Kate with him, he went to America. He was lionised as no author has ever been before or since. But the trip was not a complete success.
A hundred years ago the people of the United States, though ready enough to disparage things European, were exceedingly sensitive of any criticism of themselves. A hundred years ago the press of the United States was ruthless in its invasion of the privacy of any hapless person who was ‘news’. A hundred years ago in the United States the publicity-minded looked upon the distinguished foreigner as a God-given opportunity to get into the limelight, and called him conceited and supercilious when he showed a disinclination to be treated like a monkey in a zoo. A hundred years ago the United States was a land where speech was free, so long as it did not offend the susceptibilities or affect the interests of other people, and where everyone was entitled to his own opinions, so long as they agreed with those of everyone else. Of all this Charles Dickens was ignorant, and he made bad blunders. The absence of an International Copyright not only deprived English authors of any profit in the United States from the sale of their books, but also damaged American authors, since the booksellers very naturally preferred to publish books by English authors, which they could get for nothing, rather than books by American authors, for which they had to pay. But it was tactless of Dickens to introduce the subject in the speeches he made at the banquets given for him on his arrival. The reaction was violent, and the newspapers described him as ‘no gentleman, but a mercenary scoundrel’. Though he was mobbed by admirers, and at Philadelphia shook hands for two hours with the crowd who wanted to meet him, his rings and diamond pins, his gaudy waistcoats, excited a good deal of criticism, and there were some who found his behaviour far from well-bred. But he was natural and unpretending, and few in the end could resist his youth, comely looks and gaiety. He made some good friends, with whom he remained on affectionate terms till his death.

  The Dickenses returned to England after four eventful, but exhausting, months. The children had grown attached to their Aunt Georgina, and the weary travellers asked her to make her home with them. She was sixteen, the age of Mary when she went to live at Furnival’s Inn with the newly-married couple, and so like her that from a distance she might have been taken for her. The resemblance was so strong ‘that when she and Kate and I are sitting together,’ wrote Dickens, ‘I seem to think that what has happened is a melancholy dream from which I am just awakening.’ Georgy was pretty, attractive and unassuming. She had a gift of mimicry by means of which she could make Dickens roar with laughter. In course of time he came to depend more and more on her. They took long walks together, and he discussed his literary plans with her. He found her a useful and reliable amanuensis. The style of living Dickens had adopted was expensive, and soon he found himself uncomfortably in debt. He decided to let his house and take his family, including Georgy of course, to Italy, where living was cheap and he could retrench. He spent a year there, chiefly at Genoa, and though he did a good deal of sight-seeing up and down the country, he was too insular, and his culture too tenuous, for the experience to have any spiritual effect on him. He remained the typical British tourist. But having discovered how pleasant (and economical) it was to live abroad, Dickens began to spend long periods on the Continent. Georgy, as one of the family, went with them. On one occasion, when they were going to settle in Paris for a considerable time, she went there alone with Charles to find an apartment, while Kate waited in England till they had made everything ready for her.

  Kate was of a placid and melancholy disposition. She was not adaptable, and liked neither the journeys Charles took her on, the parties she went to with him, nor the parties at which she acted as hostess. She was clumsy, colourless and rather stupid, it would appear; and it is likely enough that the great and important persons who were eager to enjoy the celebrated author’s company found it a nuisance to have to put up with his dull wife. Some of them, to her annoyance, persistently treated her as a cipher. It is not easy to be the wife of a distinguished man. She is unlikely to make a good job of it, unless she has tact and a lively sense of humour. In default of these, she must love her husband, and sufficiently admire him to find it natural that people should be more interested in him than in her. She must be clever enough to find solace in the fact that he loves her and, whatever his intellectual infidelities may be, in the end returns to her for comfort and reassurance. Kate does not appear ever to have been in love with Dickens. There is a letter he wrote to her during their engagement in which he reproaches her for her coldness. It may be that she married him because at that time marriage was the only occupation open to a woman, or it may be that, as the eldest of eight daughters, some pressure was put upon her by her parents to embrace an offer that provided for her future. She was a kindly, gentle little thing, but incapable of meeting the claims which her husband’s eminence made on her. In fifteen years she gave birth to ten children, and had four miscarriages. During her pregnancies, Georgy accompanied Dickens on the jaunts he was fond of taking, went to parties with him, and increasingly presided at his table in Kate’s place. One would have expected Kate to resent the situation: we do not know that she did.

  (4)

  The years passed. In 1857 Charles Dickens was forty-five. Of his nine surviving children, the elder ones were grown up, the youngest was five. His reputation was world-wide and he was the most popular author in England. He was influential. He lived, as greatly appealed to his theatrical instincts, in the public eye. Some years before, he had made the acquaintance of Wilkie Collins, and the acquaintance quickly ripened into a close friendship. Collins was twelve years younger than Dickens. Mr. Edgar Johnsons thus writes of him: ‘He loved rich food, champagne and music halls; he was often involved in intricate tangles with several women at once; he was amusing, cynical, good-humoured, unrestrained to the point of vulgarity.’ For Dickens, Wilkie Collins stood, again quoting Mr. Johnson, ‘for fun and freedom’. They travelled about England together and went to Paris to have a lark. It is likely enough that Dickens took the opportunity, as many a man in his place would do, to have a little flutter with any young person of easy virtue who was at hand. Kate had not given him all he expected, and for a long time he had been increasingly dissatisfied with her. ‘She is amiable and complying,’ he wrote, ‘but nothing on earth would make her understand me.’ From early in their marriage she had been jealous of him. I suspect he found the scenes she made him easier to bear when he knew that she had no reason to be jealous than later when she surely had. He persuaded himself then that she had never suited him. He had developed, but she had remained what she was at the beginning. Dickens was convinced that he had nothing to reproach himself with. He was assured that he had been a good father, and had done everything possible for his children. The fact is that, though none too pleased at having to provide for so many, for which he seems to have thought that Kate alone was to blame, he liked them well enough when they were small; but as they grew up he somewhat lost interest in them, and at a suitable age packed the boys off to remote parts of the world. It is true that they were scarcely a promising lot.

  But it is likely that, but for an unforeseen accident, nothing very much would have changed the relations between Dickens and his wife. Like many another uncongenial couple, they might have drifted apart and yet to the world retained a semblance of unity. Dickens fell in love. He had, as I have said, a passion for the stage, and on more than one occasion had given amateur performances of one play or another for charitable purposes. At the time with which I am now dealing, he was asked to give some performances in Manchester of a play, The Frozen Deep, which Wilkie Collins had written with his help, and which had been performed at Devonshire House with great success before the Queen, the Prince Consort and the King of the Belgians. But when he agreed to repeat the play at Manchester, since he did not think his daughters, who had taken the girls’ parts before, would be heard in a big theatre, he decided that their parts should be acted by professionals. A young woman called Ellen Ternan was engaged for one of them. She was eighteen. She was small and fair, and her eyes were blue. The rehearsals took place in Dickens’s house, and he directed the play. He
was flattered by Ellen’s adoring attitude and by her pathetic desire to please him. Before the rehearsals were over, he was in love with her. He gave her a bracelet, which by mistake was delivered to his wife, and she naturally made him a scene. Charles seems to have adopted the attitude of injured innocence which a husband in such an awkward juncture finds it most convenient to adopt. The play was produced, and he played the leading part, that of a self-sacrificing Arctic explorer, with such pathos that there was not a dry eye in the house. He had grown a beard to play it.

  The relations between Dickens and his wife grew more and more tense. He, who had always been so genial, so good-humoured, so easy to get on with, now was moody, restless and out of temper with everyone – but Georgy. He was very unhappy. At last he came to the conclusion that he could live with Kate no longer; but his position with the public was such that he was fearful of the scandal that an open break might cause. His anxiety is comprehensible. By his immensely profitable Christmas Books he had done more than anyone to make Christmas the symbolic festival to celebrate the domestic virtues and the beauty of a united and happy family life. For years he had assured his readers in moving terms that there was no place like home. The situation was delicate. Various suggestions were made. One was that Kate should have her own suite of rooms apart from his, act as hostess at his parties and accompany him to public functions. Another was that she should stay in London while he was at Gad’s Hill (a house in Kent Dickens had recently bought), and stay at Gad’s Hill when he was in London. A third was that she should settle abroad. All these proposals she rejected, and finally a complete separation was decided on. Kate was installed in a little house on the edge of Camden Town with an income of six hundred a year. A little later, Dickens’s eldest son, Charles, went to live with her for a period.

 
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