Friday, January 29, 2010

A Read Letter Day For Dickens

Mr. Charles Dickens's Last Reading.
(George C. Leighton for The Illustrated London News, Vol.56, 1870.)

Of the greatest writer of the Elizabethan age, William Shakespeare, so little is known that many doubt him to be the true author of his incomparable plays. At the other end of the biographical spectrum is the greatest writer of the Victorian age, Charles Dickens. As British writer Simon Callow put it: "Of Shakespeare, we know next to nothing; of Dickens we know next to everything." The Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. added a little more to that knowledge on January 27, 2010 when they announced the acquisition of 35 letters written by Dickens, 27 of which have never been published.

The Huntington already had roughly 1,000 Dickens letters in its collection, which is about 1/15 of the writer's surviving correspondence. Yes, you read that right: approximately 15,000 letters written by Charles Dickens are known to survive today. And as astonishingly large as that number is, it pales in comparison to what he actually wrote. In 1860 Dickens made a bonfire out of a large portion of his correspondence, sparing only letters which were strictly business. His mistress, Ellen Ternan, did the same with the love letters Dickens sent to her. And all of the letters he wrote to his daughter Kate were also lost to fire in 1873.

The most comprehensive published collection of Dickens letters is a massive 12 volumes of at least 600 pages each. Which begs the question, how did he find the time to write 14 complete novels and half of a 15th, 5 Christmas-themed novellas, 4 collections of short stories, 5 non-fiction works, a collection of plays, and innumerable poems, speeches, articles, and short stories for magazines? (And, in case you're wondering, he died at age 58!)

Dickens In A (Very) Rare Moment of Repose.
(Sketch by Alfred Bryan for the 1893 Entr'acte Annual.)

Charles Dickens seems to have been a true human dynamo. He routinely walked 10 to 15 miles a day, and enjoyed a dizzying social life including dancing, horseback riding, putting on magic shows, and throwing lavish parties. Somehow he found the time to marry, father ten children, and take on at least one mistress. On top of all that, he managed the editing and publishing of journals, and mounted numerous public crusades for social justice. He traveled widely in Europe and the Americas, and performed countless public readings from his works. As Dickens biographer Edgar Johnson said: "It was more than a reading; it was an extraordinary exhibition of acting ...without a single prop or bit of costume, by changes of voice, by gesture, by vocal expression, Dickens peopled his stage with a throng of characters." By the end of one American reading tour Dickens was too exhausted to eat, and was living on raw eggs, champagne and sherry.

Despite all of the demands on his time, Dickens never let his writing take a backseat. He told a friend nothing could stop his "invincible determination to work, and...profound conviction that nothing of worth is done without work." He even went so far as to credit hard work over talent in accounting for his success: "My own invention or imagination, such as it is . . . would never have served me as it has but for the habit of commonplace, humble, patient, daily, toiling, drudging attention." Dickens's unique combination of incredible energy and dogged determination somehow combined to create an astoundingly prolific and accomplished body of work.

An 1853 Daguerreotype Of A Decidedly Weary Dickens.
(John Jabez Edwin Mayall.)

The Huntington Library's latest piece of the monumental output of Charles Dickens will eventually go on display in their main exhibition hall, according to Sara S. "Sue" Hodson, curator of manuscripts. Hodson herself is "not a huge fan" of Dickens, finding "some of his characters...a little cardboard." Perhaps she should forgive the man a few less-than-well-rounded creations considering his inexhaustible productivity. According to John R. Greenfield, in his Dictionary of British Literary Characters, Dickens created 989 named characters during his career.

Charles Dickens finally worked himself to death, insisting on giving yet another public reading at a Royal Academy banquet attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales. This despite having collapsed and suffered a stroke at a similar event the previous year. He died in June of 1870, less than a month after taking that final bow. Perhaps he knew he'd eventually burn himself out, in one of those 15,000+ letters he told a friend: "As to repose, for some men there's no such thing in this life."

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting commentary on Dickens.


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