Charles Dickens – the man – was born on February 7, 1812 in Portsmouth, England. This is the event which the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City is celebrating with a bicentennial exhibition of rare photographs, manuscripts, letters and personal effects.
Charles Dickens – the writer – was born in a grim factory located at an aptly named London locale, Hungerford Stairs. There is a picture of Hungerford Stairs in the Morgan exhibition which looks relatively benign. But Dickens would later recall Warren’s Blacking Factory, to which he was sent to work as a boy, with the same vivid imagery that raised his novels, short stories and essays to the level of genius.
A crazy, tumbledown old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscotted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise visibly up before me, as if I were there again.
The experience of laboring in this hell-hole, pasting labels on bottles of boot polish, shaped Dickens’ personality and outlook. It was literally a life-transforming experience. That spell of hopeless, incomprehensible drudgery marked the beginning of his rise as the first global literary figure.
This living nightmare from his youth, to borrow a quote from A Christmas Carol, “must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story” of Charles Dickens’ life.
The curators of the Morgan Library exhibition wisely focus on Dickens’ career as a writer, rather than attempting an all-encompassing “life and times” presentation. But in a stroke of inspired planning, two concurrent exhibits at the Morgan accentuate key aspects of the extraordinary era in which Dickens lived – and which he helped to shape. These displays of art from the other side of the English Channel provide insight into one of the key features of early 19th century Europe: repeated revolutions in France contrasted with timely and successful efforts at reform in Great Britain.
Ingres at the Morgan, a small but choice selection of portrait sketches by Jean August Dominique Ingres, and the more wide-ranging exhibit, David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre show a brilliant, tormented society grappling with the effects of revolution. That fate might well have befallen Britain too, but for Charles Dickens.
Dickens’ novels probed the social ills of Victorian England in order to create unforgettable images of human misery and redemption in the minds of the literary public. Conscious of how the accompanying illustrations to his text would help in this respect, Dickens worked very closely with the artists who provided these memorable pictures.
The Morgan exhibition displays two of the water color drawings by George Cruikshank for Oliver Twist. Cruikshank’s depiction of Fagin in his prison cell, awaiting execution, is a masterpiece of psychological manipulation. The other, Oliver Asking for More, so familiar from later cinematic treatments of this famous scene, shows how Dickens and Cruikshank succeeded with a few words and a single image in capturing a vast range of human feeling.
Hunger, desperation, outrage and incredulity – these sentiments were captured with amazing fidelity, underscored by a ragged lack of polish, in Cruikshank’s drawing. These were also the emotions that burst to the surface of British society in 1830, just as Dickens was beginning his career as a writer.
“Three Glorious Days” of revolt in 1830 toppled the reactionary regime of Charles X in France and many thought the same would happen in Britain. The vast majority of the population of the “Tight Little Island” lived in squalor, without any semblance of political representation in Parliament. Protestors risked being attacked by the British Army. The most notorious of such incidents was the “Peterloo Massacre” in 1819 when a British cavalry regiment launched a charge on peaceful demonstrators calling for electoral reform.
The young Dickens, having escaped his brief, brutal exposure to the Industrial Revolution at Warren’s Blacking Factory, went on to work as a junior law clerk from 1827 to 1828. Teaching himself shorthand, he started writing as a freelance reporter in the law courts. As he did so, the British political system tottered toward collapse. But a measure of power-sharing, later heralded in history books as “The Great Reform Act of 1832,” kept the powder keg from exploding.
The Reform Act of 1832 was decidedly not a “great” moment in the history of liberty. It ushered in as many problems as it solved. But it gave Dickens a chance to cover the restructured Parliamentary elections in 1833 as a correspondent for the Morning Chronicle newspaper. The following year, the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act instituted a cruel system of treatment for families lacking employment or private means of support, as Dickens’ family had been a decade before. The Workhouse, where poor families were broken up and children labored in degrading forms of manual labor, became the dreaded symbol of the new, “reformed” Britain.
The 1834 Poor Law gave Dickens the subject matter for his first serious work, Oliver Twist, published in 1838. While covering the jockeying for power in “that great Dust Heap down at Westminster,” as he referred to Parliament, Dickens wrote a series of humor-laden stories, collected in Sketches by Boz, published in 1836. The same year saw the first serialized installments of The Pickwick Papers. At that point, Dickens might have become a great satirist like his friend and rival, William Makepeace Thackeray.
But there was always the memory of the rats and the filth at Hungerford Stairs.
In an 1855 letter on display in the Morgan exhibit, Dickens wrote to Angela Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy philanthropist, “The people will not bear for any length of time what they bear now. . . . For this reason solely, I am a Reformer heart and soul. I have nothing to gain—everything to lose (for public quiet is my bread)—but I am in desperate earnest, because I know it is a desperate case.”
The Morgan exhibition is arranged thematically. The topics include the role of Dickens as a “Story Weaver,” Dickens’ work in collaboration with artists like Cruikshank and Hablot K. Browne, who illustrated David Copperfield, and the social reform initiatives with Angela Burdett-Coutts that led to the creation of Urania College, a shelter for the homeless women of London. Displays of Dickens’ letters, the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend, political pamphlets which he wrote, vintage photographs, and personal items, including his portable writing set and his ivory-handled seal, are some of the rarely seen items on view.
But the greatest treasure of all is the manuscript of A Christmas Carol. Here all the elements of Dickens’ complex personality – “story weaver,” social activist, lover of spiritualism and devotee of pseudo-scientific ideas like “animal magnetism” – converged in a grand synthesis of all he was and all he believed in.
A Christmas Carol in Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas was also a book Dickens needed to write because he needed money. Written in only six weeks to meet the Christmas publication date of December 19, 1843, the handwritten text shows the mark of a powerful intellect and remarkable resolve: writing, editing and reworking the text of a holiday book that virtually defines the word “classic.”
The huge popular success of A Christmas Carol enabled Dickens to pay-off a debt of £200 to a friend, Thomas Mitten. A Christmas Carol was the collateral for the loan. The letter to Mitten, in its original envelope was later pasted into the front endpapers of the bound manuscript of A Christmas Carol. It too is on display in the Morgan exhibition.
“I wouldn’t trouble you about the money, if it were not a case of necessity,” Dickens wrote to Mitten. The underlying tone of desperation is indicative of life in the opening decades of the 19th century. The 1840’s, beset with famine, bank panics and cholera epidemics, were called “the Hungry Forties.”
The underlying reasons for this current of anxiety can be traced to the rejection of older forms of social organization and the rise of middle-class professionalism. The French Revolution and the social ferment that followed destroyed traditional forms of support for the poor and of much of the patronage for brilliant commoners like Dickens. The earlier forms of “parish relief” were by no means the ennobling Christian charity depicted by Dickens’ contemporary, A.W.N. Pugin, the charismatic architect of the Gothic Revival. However, even the modest and often sporadic funding for factory workers during economic slumps or for struggling writers with growing families like Dickens was gone. Prompt payment for services rendered was the creed of the day.
Dickens’ era, the early 19th century, was an age without a safety net.
Look closely at the faces on the brilliant portrait sketches in Ingres at the Morgan and David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France across the hall from the Dickens exhibition and you will behold the stress and tension of life during this period. There were numerous differences between French and British culture during the 1800’s – the French penchant for grand historical painting like Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus never took hold in Britain. But the subjects of Ingres’ pencil portraits might well be those conjured-up by Dickens’ pen.
In fact, it takes a lot of mental discipline not to look at the beefy, beaming countenance of Guillaume Guillon Lethière, and not think of Samuel Pickwick or Mr. Fezziwig. And is that sad-eyed dowager in the ridiculous bonnet really Lady Glenbervie or is it Betsey Trotwood from David Copperfield?
It is, of course, a mistake to interpret masterpieces of visual art by Ingres in terms of Dickens’ fictional creations. But in fact, Ingres’ subjects and Dickens’ protagonists struggled against fearful tides of adversity. Lady Glenbervie’s eyes stare at her own mortality. She died but a year after Ingres sketched her. Likewise, the bonhomie of Monsieur Lethière masked a life of struggle. Lethière, born in the West Indies, was the illegitimate son of a French colonial official and a freed mulatto slave woman. Through talent and astute maneuvering in the halls of power during Napoleon’s reign, he rose to be director of the French Academy in Rome, a prestigious position which he promptly lost after Napoleon’s fall.
The most striking “compare and contrast” image from the exhibits of French early 19th century art at the Morgan is the stunning black and white chalk portrait of Constance Mayer by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, dating to 1804. The story of this tragic woman, which appears in Germaine Greer’s book, The Obstacle Race, might well have been written by one of the Bronte sisters – or by Dickens himself, had there not been a parallel with his own life that he worked diligently to keep from the public scrutiny.
Marie-Françoise-Constance Mayer-Lamartinière (1775 -1821) was one of a growing number of women artists in late 18th century France. She became the student of Prud’hon, a leading neo-classical painter like Lethière. When Prud’hon’s wife went mad, Mayer became his mistress, care-giver of his children and painting assistant. Her life, full of promise, became subsumed in his. Prud’hon eventually told Mayer that he could never marry her, even if his deranged wife died. The knife edge of living in a society where there was no place for an independent, unmarried woman pierced Mayer’s heart. She took Prud’hon’s razor and slashed her own throat.
The point of comparison of the ill-starred life of Constance Mayer with the literary world of Charles Dickens is that there was little place for independent women in his imaginative realm. Dickens was well aware of the plight of women in the harsh reality of modern, industrial society. Along with Angela Burdett-Coutts, he worked hard to protect the women of London’s streets from the fate of one of his few, fully-realized heroines, Nancy in Oliver Twist, murdered by the brutal Bill Sikes. In his writing, Dickens created memorable supporting characters like Miss Havisham and Betsey Trotwood, who nurse bitter memories of ill-usage at the hands of men. But there are very few vital, talented young women like Constance Mayer in the pages of his novels.
Dickens, in fact had a tragic love match of his own making to deal with in real life. This was his secret relationship with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, which eventually led to the break-up of his marriage and may have hastened his death. Fittingly, the Morgan exhibition treats Nelly Ternan as Dickens did himself, as a matter to be covered-up at all cost. The exhibition includes a letter recounting Dickens’ brush with death in a railroad accident on June 9, 1865 at Staplehurst, Kent. Dickens described the incident in a letter to his sister.
My Dear Letitia
I am a little shaken; not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was, but by the work afterwards in taking out the dying and dead, which was most horrible. I was in the only carriage that did not go over into the stream. It tilted up, and was caught upon the turn by some of the ruin of the bridge. Two ladies were my fellow-passengers. I said to them “Pray don’t cry out. We can’t help ourselves. Let us be quiet and composed.” One of them, an elderly lady, replied: “Rely upon me. Upon my soul I won’t call out, or stir.” We were all down together in a corner of the carriage, and they remained perfectly still until I could get them out.
The other woman in the dangling railroad carriage was Nelly Ternan. Dickens succeeded in rescuing her, the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend and his own reputation. Does this make Dickens an eminent Victorian hypocrite?
Dickens, by 1865, occupied a place in British society very close to being the keeper of the nation’s conscience. He spoke for the disposed of Great Britain, and in some degree for those of the entire world. His novels served up slices of life from the real world and offered deep insight into the recesses of the human soul. Rich and poor read Dickens and this was a bond of unity that helped save Britain from a working-class revolution that Karl Marx, for one, confidently expected to occur. To a remarkable degree, by the time Dickens died in 1870, the British government had begun to institute reforms governing education and childhood welfare that he had championed in his writing.
This is the man and the writer celebrated in the Morgan Library’s insightful exhibition. If Dickens’ faults are less a feature of this exhibition than his virtues, then it is because his deeds of public service far outweighed his private indiscretions.
Dickens described himself as a “Reformer heart and soul.” And it could be said of him that he worked hard to reform his own heart and to keep his own soul well, “if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
Appearing at The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street
New York, NY 10016
Charles Dickens at 200 September 23, 2011 through February 12, 2012
David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre September 23 through December 31, 2011
Ingres at the Morgan September 9 through November 27, 2011