|Photo of Dickens (38 yrs.) from 1850 daguerrotype|
After completing the monthly serialisation of Dombey and Son in April 1848, Charles Dickens took a break of about six months before contemplating a new novel in the last few months of that same year. As always, events in his own life influenced the type of novel he would write and the key theme – or “leading idea” – that would guide the enterprise. William Hall, the man who had published Dickens’s first sketch fourteen years earlier had died in March; Dickens attended the funeral in Highgate Cemetry and spent a good deal of time thinking about the man and the effect that he’d had on his life. And then his sister Fanny, the oldest of his parents’ eight children, died of tuberculosis on September 2. Her crippled son Henry died a few months later. During the writing of Dombey and Son, Dickens had been much moved by the long account of the decline and death of the young Paul Dombey – especially as he had narrated that section from the lad’s point-of-view. Death and dying must have been on his mind and prompting him to reflect on the course his life had taken. And entering, as writer, into the consciousness of a child may have released further painful memories of his own childhood.
Some time after Fanny’s death, Dickens wrote an extended fragment of autobiography (about 7,000 words), which he then sent to John Forster – his friend, confidant and agent. For the very first time he shared with somebody else the deep humiliation he had experienced as a boy of twelve, when his father had been incarcerated in the Marshalsea Debtors Prison in 1824, and he had been sent to work at the Warren’s Blacking Warehouse at the Hungerford Steps. The whole experience would be included in the upcoming novel. But even though Dickens had finally unburdened his mind, so to speak, about this incident – which had been the most formative event of his life – the public would not be aware that some of the key events described in David Copperfield were autobiographical until Forster revealed it in his biography, published three years after Dickens’s death.
Meanwhile, Dickens was busy writing a new Christmas Book. He hadn’t managed one the previous year, and this one proved to be his last. The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain was about lost time. It is concerned with the power of memory – how memory has the ability to heal psychic wounds. And Dickens even suggests that it is through memories of our own suffering that we are able to empathise with the pain of others.
|Dickens (37 yrs.) - daguerrotype by John Mayall|
As Dickens went through his typically tortuous gestation for this new book, other events in his life were being drawn on for the content of the novel. In early January of 1849, Dickens travelled with a couple of friends to Norwich, in order to visit the site of a notorious murder that had been much in the news. On the afternoon of their arrival, they made a side-trip to Yarmouth, and visited the beach, looked out over the North Sea surf, and wandered around the nearby marshes. Dickens said it reminded him of the Medway he had known as a child in Kent. Yarmouth would become the atmospheric home of the Peggotty family in the new book. And on a long walk back to Yarmouth from Lowestoft he passed a signpost pointing to the village of Blundeston. He remembered the name and used it as the location for the young Copperfield’s early life – changed slightly to Blunderstone. On January 15, Catherine Dickens gave birth to another son, their eighth child. Charles named the boy Henry Fielding, after the eighteenth-century author of Tom Jones, whose spirit and style – Forster later recalled – Dickens hoped to emulate in his new work. Finally, Dickens was also busy, at this time, writing a series of articles for the Examiner about the sufferings of abused children. Specifically, he criticised the practice of “baby-farming” – the shipping out of young children from workhouses and orphanages into the care of freelance guardians. They often became victims of abuse that was even worse than they had received in their former institutions. It was a situation that Dickens had described twelve years earlier in Oliver Twist, when the young Oliver is “raised” (neglected) for an extended period by Mrs. Mann.
So, Dickens was toying with all this material – struggling to find a “leading idea”. He constantly took long walks during the day and night through the streets of London pondering his book. He described the process as a “violent restlessness … vague ideas of going I don’t know where …”. Eventually he committed himself to an autobiographical novel written in the first person. As he set to work writing at the end of February, 1849, an announcement was made of the imminent arrival of the novel's first instalment. But the writing did not come easily. He worked at it steadily throughout March. His main problem seemed to be finding the right tone. The content was so personal - often quite painful for him to remember - but he still managed to sustain a convincing and sympathetic tone. He took the utmost care on this book and planned it carefully. There would be no theatricals and foreign-travel during the first year of its careful composition.
|Charles Dickens's desk and writing chair|
|Dickens (46 yrs.) photographed by George Watkins in 1858|
|Cover of monthly issue of David Copperfield|
Surprisingly – given the quality of the writing and its cavalcade of fascinating characters – the monthly issues did not sell as well as previous novels. Sales were down significantly from Dombey and Son. David Copperfield was selling, on average, 20,000 copies. Compare that to the 35,000 copies of its predecessor. When he realised the effect the drop in sales would have on his income, Dickens decided to take on other work to provide a more stable source of funds. He had long wanted to establish a weekly magazine - a literary and journalistic compendium stamped with his personal touch. The political manifesto for his magazine, he said, was “the raising up of those that are down, and the general improvement of our social conditions.” He would pay particular attention to education, housing and sanitation. What he proposed to his publishers, Bradbury and Evans, was that he edit the weekly, and be given full editorial control. Regardless, he needed significant help, and he got it from the experienced journalist and writer W.H. Wills, whom Dickens hired as sub-editor. He was an excellent choice: a meticulous editor, careful with detail, and frugal in running an enterprise. Dickens picked Household Words as the title of his new magazine; it’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V – from the famous feast-of-Crispian speech:
|Dickens's magazine Household Words|
|Uriah Heep, Mrs. Heep (both "very 'umble"), the young David and Wilkins Micawber|
|Daniel Peggotty searching for the fallen Little Emily|
|Clara Peggotty, David's nurse and friend|
|David's saviour, great-aunt Betsey Trotwood|
These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Charles Dickens was to start again, read through all 14 of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. I'll give it a try, anyway! So this is the ninth of a series.]
Next: Bleak House
|David Copperfield meets the Micawber family|