On the 7th of February in 1812, 200 years ago, a boy was born to Mrs. Dickens in a village 80 miles outside of London. The boy was named Charles and would grow up to be an eminent author in the United Kingdom, which in those days pretty much spanned the globe.
At the height of his fame Dickens came to America to lecture and give public readings from his popular novels. American author and columnist Samuel Clemens went to one of Dickens’ presentations in New York and, writing as Mark Twain, shared this with his readers in San Francisco Alta California:
“The Great Dickens — An Honest Criticism
“I only heard him read once. It was in New York, last week. I had a seat about the middle of Steinway Hall, and that was rather further away from the speaker than was pleasant or profitable.
“Promptly at 8 P.M., unannounced, and without waiting for any stamping or clapping of hands to call him out, a tall, “spry,” (if I may say it,) thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his button-hole, gray beard and moustache, bald head, and with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came!
Clemens goes on in this vein for several paragraphs, concluding with:
“Style! — There is style about Dickens, and style about all his surroundings.”
But, what of the reading? How does the famous man read?
“He read David Copperfield. He is a bad reader, in one sense — because he does not enunciate his words sharply and distinctly — he does not cut the syllables cleanly, and therefore many and many of them fell dead before they reached our part of the house. [I say “our” because I am proud to observe that there was a beautiful young lady with me — a highly respectable young white woman.] I was a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens’ reading — I will go further and say, a great deal disappointed.”
Clemens went on at some length, but finally softened his remarks with the following:
“I have given ‘first impressions.’ Possibly if I could hear Mr. Dickens read a few more times I might find a different style of impressions taking possession of me. But not knowing anything about that, I cannot testify.”
–Mark Twain, February 5, 1868, by telegraph to San Francisco.
Authors on book tours take their chances, but imagine having Samuel Clemens in the audience. (Clemens notes in his Autobiography of Mark Twain that reporting on theater presentations by Telegraph was new and innovative. Too bad he wasn’t around to witness the internet and social networking.)
The published works of Charles Dickens are now in the public domain. The University of Adelaide in Australia has an extensive collection of Dickens’ novels in eBook format for free download. The lecture tour that Clemens attended is described in an eBook Adelaide biographical sketch:
Dickens was now in the full tide of his readings, and decided to give a course of them in America. Thither accordingly he went in the end of 1867, returning in the following May. He had a magnificent reception, and his profits amounted to £20,000; but the effect on his health was such that he was obliged, on medical advice, finally to abandon all appearances of the kind. In 1869 he began his last work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was interrupted by his death from an apoplectic seizure on June 8, 1870.
An untimely death to a great writer; Dickens was 58 years old.
Charles Dickens first wrote for gazettes and journals; his sketches, stories and word pictures appeared in a popular English monthly magazine. The articles were later collected into his first full-length book, Sketches by Boz in 1836:
Our Parish—Scenes—Characters—Tales—Sketches of Young Gentlemen—Sketches of Young Couples—The Mudfog and other sketches.
In Sketches by Boz we find this description of Scotland Yard as it existed in the late 19th century:
“Scotland-yard is a small — a very small-tract of land, bounded on one side by the river Thames, on the other by the gardens of Northumberland House: abutting at one end on the bottom of Northumberland-street, at the other on the back of Whitehall-place.
Dickens goes on to describe the scene at length, concluding with this nostalgic description of the changes coming to Scotland Yard.
“A few years hence, and the antiquary of another generation looking into some mouldy record of the strife and passions that agitated the world in these times, may glance his eye over the pages we have just filled: and not all his knowledge of the history of the past, not all his black-letter lore, or his skill in book-collecting, not all the dry studies of a long life, or the dusty volumes that have cost him a fortune, may help him to the whereabouts, either of Scotland-yard, or of any one of the landmarks we have mentioned in describing it.”
—Chapter 4, Scotland Yard, Charles Dickens
Scotland Yard is now the common name for the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Service of London. Dickens notes that the original Metropolitan Police Headquarters was at 4 Whitehall Place in the area known as Scotland yard. The Metropolitan Police have moved to a new building in a different location but they are still called “Scotland Yard.”
Why not download an eBook of a Charles Dickens’ novel this month to celebrate the author and his writing?
Week 5-2012: Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens (1836).