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The Wicked Wit of Charles Dickens
By Shelley Klein
Michael O'Mara Books LimitedCopyright © 2011 Michael O'Mara Books Limited
All rights reserved.
Timeline of Charles Dickens's Life
1812 born in Portsmouth on 7 February, the second of eight children of John, a clerk in the Royal Navy Pay Office, and his wife Elizabeth
1821 spends the happiest period of his boyhood in Chatham, where his family moved in 1817. Charles is in this year sent to William Giles School
1823–4 starts work in a blacking factory, to his great humiliation, in order to help support his father's growing debts. Much of this miserable period in his life inspired parts of David Copperfield. Dickens's father, John, is imprisoned in Marshalsea debtors' prison for three months. On his release John removes his son from the factory and sends him back to school, this time at Wellington House Academy
1827 John Dickens again falls into debt, removing Charles from school. Charles then goes to work for a solicitor's, leaving after a year to become a freelance reporter
1828–35 reports on debates in the Commons for the Morning Chronicle, much of what he saw informing works such as Nicholas Nickleby and Bleak House. Dickens also contributes to the Monthly Magazine (1833–5) and the Evening Chronicle (1835)
1836 his journalistic efforts lead to the serialization of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Marries Catherine Hogarth on 2 April, daughter of the Evening Chronicle editor
1837 birth of first of ten children, also named Charles. First serialization of Oliver Twist in Bentley's Miscellany. Nicholas Nickleby soon follows
1840 launches his new weekly, Master Humphrey's Clock, which carried The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1) and Barnaby Rudge (1841)
1842 makes his first visit to America and Canada, where he is very well received, despite his advocating international copyright and the abolition of slavery
1843 writes A Christmas Carol, the first of a series of Christmas books, to meet the demands of the public and the further extension of his family with his wife's fifth pregnancy
1846 sets up Urania Cottage, a home for the reintegration of fallen women into society. About 100 women graduated between 1847 and 1859
1848–50 Dickens continues his success with the publication of Dombey and Son (1848) and David Copperfield (1849–50)
1852–7 publishes Bleak House (1852–3), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855–7)
1857–8 Dickens co-writes and produces a fundraising performance of The Frozen Deep with Wilkie Collins and meets the actress Ellen Ternan. His immediate bond with her strains his already deteriorating relationship with his wife Catherine; they separate in 1858
1858 Dickens is asked by the founder of the Great Ormond Street Hospital to give a charitable speech to aid it in surviving a financial crisis. Dickens wholeheartedly complied, speaking at the hospital's first annual dinner and later giving a public reading of A Christmas Carol at St Martin-in-the-Fields church hall. His aid helped the hospital raise enough money to enable them to buy the neighbouring house and expand their number of beds from twenty to seventy-five
1858 embarks on a gruelling public reading tour of England, Scotland and Ireland, giving a total of eighty-seven performances
1859–61A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1860–1) published. During this time he also published, edited and contributed to the journals of Household Worlds and All the Year Round
1865 survives the Staplehurst rail crash, where the first seven carriages fell off a bridge under repair.The only first-class carriage remaining was the one Dickens was in. He manages to retrieve the manuscript for Our Mutual Friend, which finished its publication run this year
1867–8 Dickens makes his second trip to America, spending four of his five months there giving public readings. It was on this trip that his health started to deteriorate; by the end of it he could barely manage solid foods
1868–9 gives a series of 'farewell readings' in England, Scotland and Ireland. After a mild stroke in April 1869, he later returns to make up the performances he missed due to his ill health
1870 makes his final public appearance at a Royal Academy Banquet in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales. He suffers another stroke on 8 June, and dies the following day at Gad's Hill Place in Higham, Kent, exactly five years after the Staplehurst crash. He is buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey
His last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, remained unfinishedCHAPTER 2
Definition of a Horse: Childhood and Adolescence
Family life was at the centre of the Victorian social ideal but the period also nurtured some of the poorest living and working conditions for both children and adults, meaning family life was often far from pleasant. As if to make this point Dickens often populated his novels with highly dysfunctional families such as the Jellybys in Bleak House and the Gradgrinds in Hard Times, while several of his adult characters also testify to appalling experiences as waifs and strays having to fend for themselves. 'I've been locked up, as much as a silver tea-kettle ...' says Magwitch in Great Expectations. 'I've been carted here and carted there, and put out of this town and put out of that town, and stuck in the stocks, and whipped and worried and drove. I've no more notion where I was born, than you have – if so much. I first become aware of myself, down in Essex, a-thieving turnips for my living. Summun had run away from me – a man – a tinker – and he'd took the fire with him, and left me wery cold.'
That Dickens suffered a similarly turbulent if not quite such a distressing time as a young boy is a matter of history and perhaps one that explains why the issue of childhood is so central to his work. But in addition to his fictional rampages, Dickens also tried to be more constructive when it came to the poor, in particular by lobbying for a better educational system. Knowledge, Dickens instinctively felt, was the only way to improve children's lives and, as he was to write in the Examiner, 'Side by side with Crime, Disease, and Misery in England, Ignorance is always brooding, and is always certain to be found.'
Of course, most children ended up in factories such as the one Dickens himself worked in – a memory that pursued the writer throughout adult life to the extent that he sought to reform the whole system. For instance, having visited a factory at the bequest of the Earl of Shaftesbury, Dickens wrote, 'So far as seeing goes, I have seen enough for my purpose, and what I have seen has disgusted me and astonished me beyond all measure. I mean to strike the heaviest blow in my power for these unfortunate creatures ...'
Today, some hundred and fifty years or so later, that 'heaviest blow' endures in Dickens's characters like the Artful Dodger, David Copperfield, Smike and Oliver Twist – that he could also extract a certain degree of humour when describing them, and the terrible situations they found themselves in, only attests to his immense skill as a writer.
* * *
Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great armchair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new. Dombey and Son, 1846–8
* * *
'Well,' said my aunt, 'this is his boy – his son. He would be as like his father as it's possible to be, if he was not so like his mother, too.' David Copperfield, 1849–50
* * *
Much vexed by this reflection, Mr Squeers looked at the little boy to see whether he was doing anything he could beat him for. As he happened not to be doing anything at all, he merely boxed his ears, and told him not to do it again. Nicholas Nickleby, 1838–9
* * *
'Give me your definition of a horse.' (Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)
'Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!' said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. 'Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy's definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.'
The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely whitewashed room, irradiated Sissy ...
'Bitzer,' said Thomas Gradgrind. 'Your definition of a horse.'
'Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely, twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.' Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
'Now girl number twenty,' said Mr Gradgrind. 'You know what a horse is.'
Hard Times, 1854
* * *
The nephew revenges himself for this, by holding his breath and terrifying his kinswoman with the dread belief that he has made up his mind to burst. Regardless of whispers and shakes, he swells and becomes discoloured, and yet again swells and becomes discoloured, until the aunt can bear it no longer, but leads him out, with no visible neck, and with his eyes going before him like a prawn's. 'City of London Churches', The Uncommercial Traveller, 1860
* * *
Some medical beast had revived tar-water in those days as a fine medicine, and Mrs Joe always kept a supply of it in the cupboard; having a belief in its virtues correspondent to its nastiness. At the best of times, so much of this elixir was administered to me as a choice restorative, that I was conscious of going about, smelling like a new fence. PIP, Great Expectations, 1860–1
* * *
'My mother? Bolted, ma'am!' said Bounderby. Mrs Gradgrind, stunned as usual, collapsed and gave it up. 'My mother left me to my grandmother,' said Bounderby; 'and, according to the best of my remembrance, my grandmother was the wickedest and the worst old woman that ever lived. If I got a little pair of shoes by any chance, she would take 'em off and sell 'em for drink. Why, I have known that grandmother of mine lie in her bed and drink her fourteen glasses of liquor before breakfast!'
Mrs Gradgrind, weakly smiling, and giving no other sign of vitality, looked (as she always did) like an indifferently executed transparency of a small female figure, without enough light behind it.
'She kept a chandler's shop,' pursued Bounderby, 'and kept me in an egg-box. That was the cot of my infancy; an old egg-box. As soon as I was big enough to run away, of course I ran away. Then I became a young vagabond; and instead of one old woman knocking me about and starving me, everybody of all ages knocked me about and starved me. They were right; they had no business to do anything else. I was a nuisance, an incumbrance, and a pest. I know that very well.'
Hard Times, 1854
* * *
'These, young ladies,' said Mrs Pardiggle, with great volubility, after the first salutations, 'are my five boys. You may have seen their names in a printed subscription list (perhaps more than one), in the possession of our esteemed friend Mr Jarndyce. Egbert, my eldest (twelve), is the boy who sent out his pocket-money, to the amount of five-and-threepence, to the Tockahoopo Indians. Oswald, my second (ten-and-a-half), is the child who contributed two-and-ninepence to the Great National Smithers Testimonial.
'Francis, my third (nine), one-and-sixpence-halfpenny; Felix, my fourth (seven), eightpence to the Superannuated Widows; Alfred, my youngest (five), has voluntarily enrolled himself in the Infant Bonds of Joy, and is pledged never, through life, to use tobacco in any form.'
We had never seen such dissatisfied children. It was not merely that they were weazened and shrivelled – though they were certainly that too – but they looked absolutely ferocious with discontent.
Bleak House, 1852–3
* * *
I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born, in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the dissuading arguments of my best friends. PIP, Great Expectations, 1860–1
* * *
It being a part of Mrs Pipchin's system not to encourage a child's mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster ... Dombey and Son, 1846–8
* * *
'We go upon the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular education system. C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out of book, he goes and does it. It's just the same principle as the use of globes. Where's the second boy?'
'Please, sir, he's weeding the garden,' replied a small voice.
'To be sure,' said Squeers, by no means disconcerted.
'So he is. B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, bottin, n-e-y, ney, bottinney, noun substantive, a knowledge of plants. When he has learned that bottinney means a knowledge of plants, he goes and knows 'em. That's our system, Nickleby: what do you think of it?'
'It's a very useful one, at any rate,' answered Nicholas significantly.
'I believe you,' rejoined Squeers, not remarking the emphasis of his usher. 'Third boy, what's a horse?'
'A beast, sir,' replied the boy.
'So it is,' said Squeers. 'Ain't it, Nickleby?'
'I believe there is no doubt of that, sir,' answered Nicholas.
'Of course there isn't,' said Squeers. 'A horse is a quadruped, and quadruped's Latin for beast, as everybody that's gone through the grammar knows, or else where's the use of having grammars at all?'
'Where, indeed!' said Nicholas abstractedly.
'As you're perfect in that,' resumed Squeers, turning to the boy, 'go and look after my horse, and rub him down well, or I'll rub you down ...'
Nicholas Nickleby, 1838–9
* * *
'... Now, here you see young David Copperfield, and the question I put to you is, what shall I do with him?'
'What shall you do with him?' said Mr Dick, feebly, scratching his head. 'Oh! do with him?'
'Yes,' said my aunt, with a grave look, and her forefinger held up. 'Come! I want some very sound advice.'
'Why, if I was you,' said Mr Dick, considering, and looking vacantly at me, 'I should –' The contemplation of me seemed to inspire him with a sudden idea, and he added, briskly, 'I should wash him!'
'Janet,' said my aunt, turning round with a quiet triumph, which I did not then understand, 'Mr Dick sets us all right. Heat the bath!'
David, David Copperfield, 1849–50
'Very well,' said this gentleman, briskly smiling, and folding his arms. 'That's a horse. Now, let me ask you girls and boys, Would you paper a room with representations of horses?'
After a pause, one half of the children cried in chorus, 'Yes, Sir!' Upon which the other half, seeing in the gentleman's face that Yes was wrong, cried out in chorus, 'No, Sir!' – as the custom is, in these examinations.
'Of course, No. Why wouldn't you?'
A pause. One corpulent slow boy, with a wheezy manner of breathing, ventured the answer, Because he wouldn't paper a room at all, but would paint it.
'You must paper it,' said the gentleman, rather warmly.
'You must paper it,' said Thomas Gradgrind, 'whether you like it or not. Don't tell us you wouldn't paper it. What do you mean, boy?'
'I'll explain to you, then,' said the gentleman, after another and a dismal pause, 'why you wouldn't paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality – in fact? Do you?'
'Yes, Sir!' from one half. 'No, Sir!' from the other.
'Of course, No,' said the gentleman with an indignant look at the wrong half.
Hard Times, 1854
* * *
'The twins no longer derive their sustenance from Nature's founts – in short,' said Mr Micawber, in one of his bursts of confidence, 'they are weaned ...' David Copperfield, 1849–50
Excerpted from The Wicked Wit of Charles Dickens by Shelley Klein. Copyright © 2011 Michael O'Mara Books Limited. Excerpted by permission of Michael O'Mara Books Limited.
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