Charles Dickens as a Reader
by Charles Kent
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By Charles Kent.

Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. London: Chapman & Hall, 193, Piccadilly.







As the title-page of this volume indicates, no more is here attempted than a memorial of Charles Dickens in association with his Readings. It appeared desirable that something in the shape of an accurate record should be made of an episode in many respects so remarkable in the career of the most popular author of his generation. A commemorative volume, precisely of this character, was projected by the writer in the spring of 1870. Immediately after the Farewell Reading in St James's Hall, on the 15th of March, Charles Dickens wrote, in hearty approval of the suggestion, "Everything that I can let you have in aid of the proposed record (which, of course, would be far more agreeable to me if done by you than by any other hand) shall be at your service." All the statistics, he added, should be placed freely at the writer's command; all the marked books from which he himself read should be confided to him for reference. In now realising his long-postponed intention, the writer's endeavour has been throughout to restrict the purpose of his book as much as possible to matters either directly or indirectly affecting these famous Readings.

The Biography of Charles Dickens having been undertaken by the oldest and dearest of his friends, all that is here attempted is to portray, as accurately as may be, a single phase in the career and character of one of the greatest of all our English Humorists. What is thus set forth has the advantage, at any rate, of being penned from the writer's own intimate knowledge. With the Novelist's career as a Reader he has been familiar throughout. From its beginning to its close he has regarded it observantly. He has viewed it both from before and from behind the scenes, from the front of the house as well as from within the shelter of the screen upon the platform. When contrasted with the writings of the Master-Humorist, these readings of his, though so remarkable in themselves, shrink, no doubt, to comparative insignificance. But simply considering them as supplementary, and, certainly, as very exceptional, evidences of genius on the part of a great author, they may surely be regarded as having been worthy of the keenest scrutiny at the time, and entitled afterwards to some honest commemoration.






















A celebeated writer is hardly ever capable as a Reader of doing justice to his own imaginings. Dr. Johnson's whimsical anecdote of the author of The Seasons admits, in point of fact, of a very general application. According to the grimly humorous old Doctor, "He [Thomson] was once reading to Doddington, who, being himself a reader eminently elegant, was so much provoked by his odd utterance, that he snatched the paper from his hand, and told him that he did not understand his own verses!" Dryden, again, when reading his Amphytrion in the green-room, "though," says Cibber, who was present upon the occasion, "he delivered the plain meaning of every period, yet the whole was in so cold, so flat, and unaffecting a manner, that I am afraid of not being believed when I affirm it." Elsewhere, in his Apology, when contrasting the creator with the interpreter, the original delineator with the actual impersonator of character, the same old stage gossip remarks, how men would read Shakspere with higher rapture could they but conceive how he was played by Betterton! "Then might they know," he exclaims, with a delightful extravagance of emphasis and quaint-ness of phraseology, "the one was born alone to speak what the other only knew to write!" The simple truth of the matter being that for the making of a consummate actor, reader, or impersonator, not only is there required, to begin with, a certain histrionic instinct or dramatic aptitude, but a combination—very rarely to be met with, indeed—of personal gifts, of physical peculiarities, of vocal and facial, nay, of subtly and yet instantly appreciable characteristics. Referring merely to those who are skilled as conversationalists, Sir Richard Steele remarks, very justly, in the Spectator (No. 521), that, "In relations, the force of the expression lies very often more in the look, the tone of voice, or the gesture, than in the words themselves, which, being repeated in any other manner by the undiscerning, bear a very different interpretation from their original meaning." Whatever is said as to all that is requisite in the delivery of an oration by the master of all oratory, applies with equal distinctness to those who are readers or actors professionally. All depends on the countenance, is the dictum of Cicero,{*} and even in that, he says, the eyes bear sovereign sway.

* De Oratore iii., 59.

Elsewhere, in his great treatise, referring to what was all-essential in oratorical delivery, according to Demosthenes, Tully, by a bold and luminous phrase, declares Action to be, as it were, the speech of the body,—"quasi sermo corporis." Voice, eyes, bearing, gesture, countenance, each in turn, all of them together, are to the spoken words, or, rather than that, it should be said, to the thoughts and emotions of which those articulate sounds are but the winged symbols, as to the barbed and feathered arrows are the bowstring. How essential every external of this kind is, as affording some medium of communication between a speaker and his auditors, may be illustrated upon the instant by the rough and ready argument of the reductio ad absurdum. Without insisting, for example, upon the impossibility of having a speech delivered by one who is actually blind, and deaf, and dumb, we need only imagine here its utterance, by some wall-eyed stammerer, who has a visage about as wooden and inexpressive as the figure-head of a merchantman. Occasionally, it is true, physical defects have been actually conquered, individual peculiarities have been in a great measure counteracted, by rhetorical artifice, or by the arts of oratorical delivery: instance the lisp of Demosthenes, the stutter of Fox, the brogue of Burke, and the burr of Brougham.

Sometimes, but very rarely, it has so happened that an actor of nearly peerless excellence, that a reader of all but matchless power, has achieved his triumphs, has acquired his reputation, in very despite of almost every conceivable personal disadvantage. Than the renowned actor already mentioned, for example, Thomas Betterton, a more radiant name has hardly ever been inscribed upon the roll of English players, from Burbage to Garrick. Yet what is the picture of this incomparable tragedian, drawn by one who knew him and who has described his person for us minutely, meaning Antony Aston, in his theatrical pamphlet, called the Brief Supplement? Why it is absolutely this,—"Mr. Betterton," says his truthful panegyrist, "although a superlative good actor, laboured under an ill figure, being clumsily made, having a great head, a short, thick neck, stooped in the shoulders, and had fat, short arms, which he rarely lifted higher than his stomach. He had little eyes and a broad face, a little pock-fretten, a corpulent body, and thick legs, with large feet. His voice was low and grumbling. He was incapable of dancing, even in a country dance." And so forth! Yet this was the consummate actor who was regarded by the more discerning among his contemporaries, but most of all by the brother actors who were immediately around him, as simply inimitable and unapproachable.

There was John Henderson, again, great in his time, both as a tragic and a comic actor, greatest of all as a reader or an impersonator. Hear him described by one who has most carefully and laboriously written his encomium, that is to say, by John Ireland, his biographer. What do we read of him? That in height he was below the common standard, that his frame was uncompacted, that his limbs were short and ill-proportioned, that his countenance had little of that flexibility which anticipates the tongue, that his eye had scarcely anything of that language which, by preparing the spectator for the coming sentence, enchains the attention, that his voice was neither silvery nor mellifluous. Nevertheless, by a subtlety of discrimination, that seemed almost intuitive, by a force of judgment and a fervency of mind, that were simply exquisite and irresistible, this was the very man who could at any moment, by an inflection of his voice or by the syncope of a chuckle, move his audience at pleasure to tears or to laughter. He could haunt their memories for years afterwards with the infinite tenderness of his ejaculation as Hamlet, of "The fair Ophelia!" He could convulse them with merriment by his hesitating utterance as Falstaff of "A shirt—and a half!" Incidentally it is remarked by the biographer of Henderson that the qualifications requisite to constitute a reader of especial excellence seem to be these, "a good ear, a voice capable of inflexion, an understanding of, and taste for, the beauties of the author." Added to this, there must be, of course, a feeling, an ardour, an enthusiasm sufficient at all times to ensure their rapid and vivid manifestation. Richly endowed in this way, however, though Henderson was, his gifts were weighted, as we have seen were those also of Betterton, by a variety of physical defects, some of which were almost painfully conspicuous. Insomuch was this the case, in the latter instance, that Tony Aston has oddly observed, in regard to the all but peerless tragedian, "He was better to meet than to follow; for his aspect [the writer evidently means, here, when met] was serious, venerable, and majestic; in his latter time a little paralytic." Accepting at once as reasonable and as accurate what has thus been asserted by those who have made the art of elocution their especial and chosen study for analysis, it is surely impossible not to recognise at a glance how enormously a reader must, by necessity, be advantaged, who, in addition to the intellectual and emotional gifts already enumerated, possesses those personal attributes and physical endowments in which a reader, otherwise of surpassing excellence, like Henderson, and an actor, in other respects of incomparable ability, like Betterton, was each in turn so glaringly deficient.

Whatever is here said in regard to Charles Dickens, it should be borne in mind, is written and published during the lifetime of his own immediate contemporaries. He himself, his readings, the sound of his voice, the ring of his footstep, the glance of his eye, are all still vividly within the recollection of the majority of those who will examine the pages of this memorial. Everything, consequently, which is set forth in them is penned with a knowledge of its inevitable revision or endorsement by the reader's own personal remembrance. It is in the full glare of that public remembrance that the present writer refers to the great novelist as an impersonator of his more remarkable creations. Everybody who has seen him, who has heard him, who has carefully watched him, though it may be but at a single one of these memorable readings, will recognise at a glance the accuracy or the inaccuracy of the delineation.

It is observable, in the first instance, in regard to Charles Dickens, that he had in an extraordinary degree the dramatic element in his character. It was an integral part of his individuality. It coloured his whole temperament or idiosyncracy. Unconsciously he described himself, to a T, in Nicholas Nickleby. "There's genteel comedy in your walk and manner, juvenile tragedy in your eye, and touch-and-go farce in your la'ugh," might have been applied to himself in his buoyant youth quite as readily and directly as to Nicholas. The author, rather than the hero of Nickleby, seems, in that happy utterance of the theatrical manager, to have been photographed. It cannot but now be apparent that, as an unpremeditated preliminary to Dickens's then undreamt-of career as a reader of his own works in public and professionally, the Private Theatricals over which he presided during several years in his own home circle as manager, prepared the way no less directly than his occasional Readings, later on, at some expense to himself (in travelling and otherwise) for purely charitable purposes. His proclivity stagewards, in effect, the natural trending of his line of life, so to speak, in the histrionic or theatrical direction, was, in another way, indicated at a yet earlier date, and not one jot less pointedly. It was so, we mean, at the very opening of his career in authorship, when having just sprung into precocious celebrity as the writer of the Sketches and of the earlier numbers of Pickwick, he contributed an opera and a couple of farces with brilliant success to the boards of the St. James's Theatre. Braham and Parry and Hullah winged with melody the words of "The Village Coquettes;" while the quaint humour of Harley excited roars of laughter through the whimsicalities of "Is She His Wife?" and "The Strange Gentleman." Trifles light as air though these effusions might be, the radiant bubbles showed even then, as by a casual freak which way with him the breeze in his leisure hours was drifting. A dozen years or more after this came the private theatricals at Tavistock House. Beginning simply, first of all, with his direction of his children's frolics in the enacting of a burletta, of a Cracker Bonbon for Christmas, and of one of Planche's charming fairy extravaganzas, these led up in the end through what must be called circuitously Dickens's emendations of O'Hara's version of Fielding's burlesque of "Tom Thumb," to the manifestation of the novelist's remarkable genius for dramatic impersonation: first of all, as Aaron Gurnock in Wilkie Collins's "Lighthouse," and afterwards as Richard War dour in the same author's "Frozen Deep." Already he had achieved success, some years earlier, as an amateur performer in characters not essentially his own, as, for example, in the representation of the senile blandness of Justice Shallow, or of the gasconading humours of Captain Bobadil. Just, as afterwards, in furtherance of the interests of the Guild of Literature and Art, he impersonated Lord Wilmot in Lytton's comedy of "Not so Bad as we Seem," and represented in a series of wonderfully rapid transformations the protean person of Mr. Gabblewig, through the medium of a delightful farce called "Mr. Nightingale's Diary." Whoever witnessed Dickens's impersonation of Mr. Gabblewig, will remember that it included a whole cluster of grotesque creations of his own. Among these there was a stone-deaf old man, who, whenever he was shouted at, used to sigh out resignedly, "Ah, it's no use your whispering!" Besides whom there was a garrulous old lady, in herself the worthy double of Mrs. Gamp; a sort of half-brother to Sam Weller; and an alternately shrieking and apologetic valetudinarian, who was, perhaps, the most whimsical of them all. Nothing more, however, need here be said in regard to Charles Dickens's share, either in these performances for the Guild or in the other strictly private theatricals. They are simply here referred to, as having prepared the way by practice, for the Readings, still so called, though, in all save costume and general mis en scene, they were from first to last essentially and intensely dramatic representations.

Readings of this character, it is curious to reflect for a moment, resemble somewhat in the simplicity of their surroundings the habitual stage arrangements of the days of Shakspere. The arena, in each instance, might be described accurately enough as a platform, draped with screens and hangings of cloth or of green baize. The principal difference, in point of fact, between the two would be apparent in this, that whereas, in the one case any reasonable number of performers might be grouped together simultaneously, in the other there would remain from first to last before the audience but one solitary performer. He, however, as a mere matter of course, by the very necessity of his position, would have to be regarded throughout as though he were a noun of multitude signifying many. Slashed doublets and trunk hose, might just possibly be deemed by some more picturesque, if not in outline, at least in colour and material, than the evening costume of now-a-days. But, apart from this, whatever would meet the gaze of the spectator in either instance would bear the like aspect of familiarity or of incongruity, in contrast to or in association with, the characters represented at the moment before actual contemporaries. These later performances partake, of course, in some sense of the nature of a monologue. Besides which, they involve the display of a desk and a book instead of the almost ludicrous exhibition of a board inscribed, as the case might be, "Syracuse" or "Verona." Apart from this, however, a modern reading is, in the very nature of it, like a reverting to the primitive simplicity of the stage, when the stage, in its social influences, was at its highest and noblest, when, for the matter of that, it was all but paramount. Given genius in the author and in the impersonator, and that very simplicity has its enormous advantages.

The greatest of all the law-givers of art in this later civilisation has more than merely hinted at what is here maintained. Goethe has said emphatically, in Wilhelm Meister, that a really good actor makes us soon enough forget the awkwardness, even the meanness, of trumpery decorations; whereas, he continues, a magnificent theatre is precisely the very thing that makes us feel the most keenly the want of actors of real excellence. How wisely in this Goethe, according to his wont, has spoken, we all of us, here in England, know by our own experience. Of the truth of his opinion we have had in this country, of late years, more than one startling illustration. Archaeological knowledge, scenic illusion, gorgeous upholstery, sumptuous costumes, have, in the remembrance of many, been squandered in profusion upon the boards of one of our London theatres in the getting up of a drama by the master-dramatist. All this has tended, however, only to realise the more painfully the inadequacy of the powers, no less of the leading star than of his whole company, to undertake the interpretation of the dramatic masterpiece. The spectacle which we are viewing in such an instance is, no doubt, resplendent; but it is so purely as a spectacle. Everything witnessed is—

"So coldly sweet, so deadly fair, We start, for soul is wanting there."

The result naturally is, that the public is disillusioned and that the management is bankrupt. Another strikingly-contrasted experience of the present generation is this, that, without any decorations whatever, enormous audiences have been assembled together, in the old world and in the new, upon every occasion upon which they have been afforded the opportunity, to hear a story related by the lips of the writer of it. And they have been so assembled not simply because the story itself (every word of it known perfectly well beforehand) was worth hearing again, or because there was a very natural curiosity to behold the famous author by whom it had been penned; but, above all, because his voice, his glance, his features, his every movement, his whole person, gave to his thoughts and his emotions, whether for tears or for laughter, the most vivid interpretation.

How it happened, in this instance, that a writer of celebrity like Charles Dickens became a reader of his own works before large public audiences may be readily explained. Before his first appearance in that character professionally—that is, as a public reader, on his own account—he had enjoyed more than twenty years of unexampled popularity as a novelist. During that period he had not only securely established his reputation in authorship, but had evidenced repeatedly, at intervals during the later portion of it, histrionic powers hardly less remarkable in their way than those gifts which had previously won for him his wholly exceptional fame as a writer of imagination.

Among his personal intimates, among all those who knew him best, it had long come to be recognised that his skill as an impersonator was only second to his genius as a creator of humorous and pathetic character. His success in each capacity sprang from his intense sympathy and his equally intense earnestness. Whatever with him was worth doing at all, was worth doing thoroughly. Anything he undertook, no matter what, he went in at, according to the good old sea phrase, with a will. He always endeavoured to accomplish whatever had to be accomplished as well as it could possibly be effected within the reach of his capabilities. Whether it were pastime or whether it were serious business, having once taken anything in hand, he applied to it the whole of his energies. Hence, as an amateur actor, he was simply unapproachable. He passed, in fact, beyond the range of mere amateurs, and was brought into contrast by right, with the most gifted professionals among his contemporaries. Hence, again, as an after-dinner speaker, he was nothing less than incomparable. "He spoke so well," Anthony Trollope has remarked, "that a public dinner became a blessing instead of a curse if he were in the chair—had its compensating twenty minutes of pleasure, even if he were called upon to propose a toast or thank the company for drinking his health." He did nothing by halves, but everything completely. How completely he gave himself up to the delivery of a speech or of a reading, Mr. Arthur Helps has summed up in less than a dozen words of singular emphasis. That keen observer has said, indeed quite truly, of Dickens,—"When he read or spoke, the whole man read or spoke." It was thus with him repeatedly, and always delightfully, in mere chance conversation. An incident related by him often became upon the instant a little acted drama. His mimetic powers were in many respects marvellous. In voice, in countenance, in carriage, almost, it might be said, at moments, in stature, he seemed to be a Proteus.

According to a curious account which has been happily preserved for us in the memoirs of the greatest reader of the last century, Henderson first of all exhibited his elocutionary skill by reciting (it was at Islington) an Ode on Shakspere. So exactly did he deliver this in Garrick's manner, that the acutest ear failed to distinguish the one from the other. One of those present declared, years afterwards, that he was certain the speaker must be either Garrick or Antichrist.

Imitative powers not one iota less extraordinary in their way were, at any moment, seemingly, at the command of the subject of this memorial. In one or two instances that might be named the assumption was all but identity. An aptitude of this particular kind, as everyone can appreciate upon the instant, would by necessity come wonderfully in aid of the illusive effect produced by readings that were in point of fact the mere vehicle or medium for a whole crowd of vivid impersonations. Anyone, moreover, possessing gifts like these, of a very peculiar description, not only naturally but inevitably enjoys himself every opportunity that may arise for displaying them to those about him, to his friends and intimates. "Man is of a companionable, conversing nature," says Goethe in his novel of The Renunciants, "his delight is great when he exercises faculties that have been given him, even though nothing further came of it." Seeing that something further readily did come of it in the instance of Charles Dickens, it can hardly be matter for surprise that the readings and impersonations which were first of all a home delight, should at length quite naturally have opened up before the popular author what was for him an entirely new, but at the same time a perfectly legitimate, career professionally.

Recitations or readings of his own works in public by a great writer are, in point of fact, as old as literature itself. They date back to the very origin of polite letters, both prose and poetic. It matters nothing whether there was one Homer, or whether there may have been a score of Homers, so far as the fact of oral publication applies to the Iliad and the Odyssey, nearly a thousand years (900) before the foundation of Christianity. By the lips of a single bard, or of a series of bards, otherwise of public declaimers or reciters, the world was first familiarised with the many enthralling tales strung together in those peerless masterpieces. Again, at a period of very nearly five hundred years (484) before the epoch of the Redemption, the Father of History came to lay the foundation, as it were, of the whole fabric of prose literature in a precisely similar manner—that is to say, by public readings or recitations. In point of fact, the instance there is more directly akin to the present argument. A musical cadence, or even possibly an instrumental accompaniment, may have marked the Homeric chant about Achilles and Ulysses. Whereas, obviously, in regard to Herodotus, the readings given by him at the Olympic games were readings in the modern sense, pure and simple. Lucian has related the incident, not only succinctly, but picturesquely.

Herodotus, then in his fiftieth year, reflected for a long while seriously how he might, with the least trouble and in the shortest time, win for himself and his writings a large amount of glory and reputation. Shrinking from the fatigue involved in the labour of visiting successively one after another the chief cities of the Athenians, the Corinthians, and the Lacedaemonians, he ingeniously hit upon the notion of appearing in person at the Olympian Games, and of there addressing himself simultaneously to the very pick and flower of the whole Greek population. Providing himself beforehand with the choicest portions or select passages from his great narrative, he there read or declaimed those fragments of his History to the assembled multitude from the stage or platform of the theatre. And he did this, moreover, with such an evident captivation about him, not only in the style of his composition, but in the very manner of its delivery, that the applause of his hearers interrupted him repeatedly—the close of these recitations by the great author-reader being greeted with prolonged and resounding acclamations. Nay, not only are these particulars related as to the First Reading recorded as having been given by a Great Author, but, further than that, there is the charming incident described of Thucydides, then a boy of fifteen, listening entranced among the audience to the heroic occurrences recounted by the sonorous and impassioned voice of the annalist, and at the climax of it all bursting into tears. Lucian's comment upon that earliest Reading might, with a change of names, be applied almost word for word to the very latest of these kinds of intellectual exhibitions. "None were ignorant," he says, "of the name of Herodotus; nor was there a single person in Greece who had not either seen him at the Olympics, or heard those speak of him that came from thence: so that in what place soever he came the inhabitants pointed with their finger, saying 'This is that Herodotus who has written the Persian Wars in the Ionic dialect, this is he who has celebrated our victories.' Thus the harvest which he reaped from his histories was, the receiving in one assembly the general applause of all Greece, and the sounding his fame, not only in one place and by a single trumpet, but by as many mouths as there had been spectators in that assembly." As recently as within these last two centuries, indeed, both in the development of the career of Moliere and in the writing of his biography by Voltaire, the whole question as to the propriety of a great author becoming the public interpreter of his own imaginings has been, not only discussed, but defined with precision and in the end authoritatively proclaimed. Voltaire, in truth, has significantly remarked, in his "Vie de Moliere," when referring to Poquelin's determination to become Comedian as well as Dramatist, that among the Athenians, as is perfectly well known, authors not only frequently performed in their own dramatic productions, but that none of them ever felt dishonoured by speaking gracefully in the presence and hearing of their fellow-citizens.{*}

* "On sait que chez les Atheniens, les auteurs jouaient souvent dans leurs pieces, et qu'ils n'etoient point deshonores pour parler avec grace devant leurs concitoyens."

In arriving at this decision, however, it will be remarked that one simple but important proviso or condition is indicated—not to be dishonoured they must speak with grace, that is, effectively. Whenever an author can do this, the fact is proclaimed by the public themselves. Does he lack the dramatic faculty, is he wanting in elocutionary skill, is his deliver dull, are his features inexpressive, is his manner tedious, are his readings marked only by their general tameness and mediocrity, be sure of this, he will speedily find himself talking only to empty benches, his enterprise will cease and determine, his name will no longer prove an attraction. Abortive adventures of this kind have in our own time been witnessed.

With Charles Dickens's Readings it was entirely different. Attracting to themselves at the outset, by the mere glamour of his name, enormous audiences, they not only maintained their original prestige during a long series of years—during an interval of fifteen years altogether—but the audiences brought together by them, instead of showing any signs of diminution, very appreciably, on the contrary, increased and multiplied. Crowds were turned away from the doors, who were unable to obtain admittance. The last reading of all collected together the largest audience that has ever been assembled, that ever can by possibility be assembled for purely reading purposes, within the walls of St. James's Hall, Piccadilly. Densely packed from floor to ceiling, these audiences were habitually wont to hang in breathless expectation upon every inflection of the author-reader's voice, upon every glance of his eye,—the words he was about to speak being so thoroughly well remembered by the majority before their utterance that, often, the rippling of a smile over a thousand faces simultaneously anticipated the laughter which an instant afterwards greeted the words themselves when they were articulated.

Altogether, from first to last, there must have been considerably more than Four Hundred—very nearly, indeed, Five Hundred—of these Readings, each one among them in itself a memorable demonstration. Through their delightful agency, at the very outset, largess was scattered broadcast, abundantly, and with a wide open hand, among a great variety of recipients, whose interests, turn by turn, were thus exclusively subserved, at considerable labour to himself, during a period of several years, by this large-hearted entertainer. Eventually the time arrived when it became necessary to decide, whether an exhausting and unremunerative task should be altogether abandoned, or whether readings hitherto given solely for the benefit of others, should be thenceforth adopted as a perfectly legitimate source of income for himself professionally. The ball was at his feet: should it be rolled on, or fastidiously turned aside by reason of certain fantastic notions as to its derogating, in some inconceivable way, from the dignity of authorship? That was the alternative in regard to which Dickens had to decide, and upon which he at once, as became him, decided manfully. The ball was rolled on, and, as it rolled, grew in bulk like a snowball. It accumulated for him, as it advanced, and that too within a wonderfully brief interval, a very considerable fortune. It strengthened and extended his already widely-diffused and intensely personal popularity. By making him, thus, distinctly a Reader himself, it brought him face to face with vast multitudes of his own readers in the Old World and in the New, in all parts of the United Kingdom, and at last, upon the occasion of his second visit to America, an expedition adventured upon expressly to that end, in all parts of the United States.

And these Readings were throughout so conspicuously and so radiantly a success, that even in the recollection of them, now that they are things of the past, it may be said that they have already beneficially influenced, and are still perceptibly advancing, the wider and keener appreciation of the writings themselves. In its gyrations the ball then rolling at the Beader's foot imparted a momentum to one far nobler and more lasting—that of the Novelist's reputation, one that in its movement gives no sign of slackening—"labitur et labetur in omne volubilis sevum."

The long continuance of the remarkable success attendant upon the Readings all through, is only to be explained by the extraordinary care and earnestness the Reader lavished continuously upon his task when once it had been undertaken. In this he was only in another phase of his career, consistently true to the one simple rule adopted by him as an artist throughout. What that rule was anyone might see at a glance on turning over the leaves of one of his books, it matters not which, in the original manuscript. There, the countless alterations, erasures, interpolations, transpositions, interlineations, shew plainly enough the minute and conscientious thought devoted to the perfecting, so far as might be in any way possible, of the work of composition. What reads so unaffectedly and so felicitously, it is then seen, is but the result of exquisite consideration. It is Sheridan's whimsical line which declares that,—

"Easy writing's cursed hard reading."

And it is Pope who summarizes the method by which not "easy writing" but "ease in writing" is arrived at, where it is said of those who have acquired a mastery of the craft,—

"They polish all with so much life and ease, You think 'tis nature and a knack to please: But ease in writing flows from art, not chance; As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance."

Precisely the same elaboration of care, which all through his career was dedicated by Charles Dickens to the most delightful labour of his life, that of writing, was accorded by him to the lesser but still eminently intellectual toil of preparing his Readings for representation. It was not by any means that, having written a story years previously, he had, in his new capacity as a reciter, merely to select two or three chapters from it, and read them off with an air of animation. Virtually, the fragmentary portions thus taken from his larger works were re-written by him, with countless elisions and eliminations after having been selected. Reprinted in their new shape, each as "A Reading," they were then touched and retouched by their author, pen in hand, until, at the end of a long succession of revisions, the pages came to be cobwebbed over with a wonderfully intricate network of blots and lines in the way of correction or of obliteration. Several of the leaves in this way, what with the black letter-press on the white paper, being scored out or interwoven with a tracery in red ink and blue ink alternately, present to view a curiously parti-coloured or tesselated appearance. As a specimen page, however, will afford a more vivid illustration upon the instant of what is referred to, than could be conveyed by any mere verbal description, a fac-simile is here introduced of a single page taken from the "Reading of Little Dombey."

Whatever thought was lavished thus upon the composition of the Readings, was lavished quite as unstintingly upon the manner of their delivery. Thoroughly natural, impulsive, and seemingly artless, though that manner always appeared at the moment, it is due to the Reader as an artist to assert that it was throughout the result of a scarcely credible amount of forethought and preparation. It is thus invariably indeed with every great proficient in the histrionic art, even with those who are quite erroneously supposed by the outer public to trust nearly everything to the momentary impulses of genius, and who are therefore presumed to disdain anything whatever in the way either of forethought or of actual preparation by rehearsal.

According to what is, even down to this present day, very generally conjectured, Edmund Kean, one of the greatest tragedians who ever trod the stage, is popularly imagined to have always played simply, as might be said, hap-hazard, trusting himself to the spur of the moment for throwing himself into a part passionately;—the fact being exactly the reverse in his regard, according to the earliest and most accurate of his biographers. Erratic, fitful though the genius of Edmund Kean unquestionably was—rendering him peerless as Othello, incomparable as Overreach—we are told in Mr. Procter's life of him, that "he studied long and anxiously," frequently until many hours after midnight.{*} No matter what his occupations previously might have been, or how profound his exhaustion through rehearsing in the forenoon, and performing in the evening, and sharing in convivialities afterwards, Barry Cornwall relates of him that he would often begin to study when his family had retired for the night, practising in solitude, after he had transformed his drawing-room into a stage in miniature.

* Barry Cornwall's Life of Edmund Kean, Vol. II. p. 85

"Here," says his biographer, "with a dozen candles, some on the floor, some on the table, and some on the chimney-piece, and near the pier-glass, he would act scene after scene: considering the emphasis, the modulation of the verse, and the fluctuations of the character with the greatest care." And this, remember, has relation to one who was presumably about the most spontaneous and impulsive actor who ever flashed meteor-like across the boards of a theatre. Whoever has the soul of an artist grudges no labour given to his art, be he reader or actor, author or tragedian. Charles Dickens certainly spared none to his Readings in his conscientious endeavour to give his own imaginings visible and audible embodiment. The sincerity of his devotion to his task, when once it had been taken in hand, was in its way something remarkable.

Acting of all kinds has been pronounced by Mrs. Butler—herself in her own good day a rarely accomplished reader and a fine tragic actress—"a monstrous anomaly."{*}

* Fanny Kemble's Journal, Vol. II. p. 130.

As illustrative of her meaning in which phrase, she then adds, "John Kemble and Mrs. Siddons were always in earnest in what they were about; Miss O'Neil used to cry bitterly in all her tragic parts; whilst Garrick could be making faces and playing tricks in the middle of his finest points, and Kean would talk gibberish while the people were in an uproar of applause at his." Fanny Kemble further remarks: "In my own individual instance, I know that sometimes I could turn every word I am saying into burlesque,"—immediately observing here, in a reverential parenthesis "(never Shakspere, by-the-bye)—and at others my heart aches and I cry real, bitter, warm tears as earnestly as if I was in earnest." Reading which last sentence, one might very safely predicate that in the one instance, where she could turn her words into burlesque, she would be certain to act but indifferently, whereas in the other, with the hot, scalding tears running down her face, she could not by necessity do otherwise than act to admiration.

So thorough and consistent throughout his reading career was the sincerity of Dickens in his impersonations, that his words and looks, his thoughts and emotions were never mere make-believes, but always, so far as the most vigilant eye or the most sensitive ear could detect, had their full and original significance.

With all respect for Miss O'Neil's emotion, and for that candidly confessed to by Mrs. Butler, as having been occasionally evidenced by herself, the true art, we should have said, subsists in the indication and the repression, far rather than in the actual exhibition or manifestation of the emotions that are to be represented. Better by far than the familiar si vis me flere axiom of Horace, who there tells us, "If you would have me weep, you must first weep yourself," is the sagacious comment on it in the Tatler, where (No. 68) the essayist remarks, with subtle discrimination: "The true art seems to be when you would have the person you represent pitied, you must show him at once, in the highest grief, and struggling to bear it with decency and patience. In this case," adds the writer, "we sigh for him, and give him every groan he suppresses." As for the extravagant idea of any artist, however great, identifying himself for the time being with the part he is enacting, who is there that can wonder at the snort of indignation with which Doctor Johnson, talking one day about acting, asked Mr. Kemble, "Are you, sir, one of those enthusiasts who believe yourself transformed into the very character you represent?" Kemble answering, according to Boswell, that he had never himself felt so strong a persuasion—"To be sure not, sir," says Johnson, "the thing is impossible." Adding, with one of his dryly comical extravagances: "And if Garrick really believed himself to be that monster Richard the Third, he deserved to be hanged every time he performed it." What Dickens himself really thought of these wilder affectations of intensity among impersonators, is, with delicious humour, plainly enough indicated through that preposterous reminiscence of Mr. Crummies, "We had a first-tragedy man in our company once, who, when he played Othello, used to black himself all over! But that's feeling a part, and going into it as if you meant it; it isn't usual—more's the pity." Thoroughly giving himself up to the representation of whatever character he was endeavouring at the moment to portray, or rather to impersonate, Charles Dickens so completely held his judgment the while in equipoise, as master of his twofold craft—that is, both as creator and as elocutionist, as author and as reader—that, as an invariable rule, he betrayed neither of those signs of insincerity, by the inadvertent revelation of which all sense of illusion is utterly and instantly dissipated.

Whatever scenes he described, those scenes his hearers appeared to be actually witnessing themselves. He realised everything in his own mind so intensely, that listening to him we realised what he spoke of by sympathy. Insomuch that one might, in his own words, say of him, as David Copperfield says of Mr. Peggotty, when the latter has been recounting little Emily's wanderings: "He saw everything he related. It passed before him, as he spoke, so vividly, that, in the intensity of his earnestness, he presented what he described to me with greater distinctness than I can express. I can hardly believe—writing now long afterwards—but that I was actually present in those scenes; they are impressed upon me with such an astonishing air of fidelity." While, on the one hand, he never repeated the words that had to be delivered phlegmatically, or as by rote; on the other hand, he never permitted voice, look, gesture, to pass the limits of discretion, even at moments the most impassioned; as, for example, where Nancy, in the famous murder-scene, shrieked forth her last gasping and despairing appeals to her brutal paramour. The same thing may be remarked again in regard to all the more tenderly pathetic of his delineations. His tones then were often subdued almost to a whisper, every syllable, nevertheless, being so distinctly articulated as to be audible in the remotest part of a vast hall like that in Piccadilly.

Whatever may be insinuated in regard to those particular portions of the writings of our great novelist by cynical depreciators, who have not the heart to recognise—as did Lord Jeffrey, for instance, one of the keenest and shrewdest critics of his age—the exquisite pathos of a death-scene like that of little Nell or of little Paul Dombey, in the utterance by himself of those familiar passages nothing but the manliest emotion was visible and audible from first to last. Insomuch was this the case, that the least impressionable of his hearers might readily have echoed those noble words, written years ago, out of an overflowing heart, in regard to Charles Dickens, by his great rival and his intense admirer, W. M. Thackeray: "In those admirable touches of tender humour, who ever equalled this great genius? There are little words and phrases in his books which are like personal benefits to the reader. What a place to hold in the affections of men! What an awful responsibility hanging over a writer!" And so on, Thackeray saying all this! Thackeray speaking thus in ejaculatory sentences indicative of his gratitude and of his admiration! Passages that to men like William Thackeray and Francis Jeffrey were expressive only of inimitable tenderness, might be read dry-eyed by less keen appreciators, from the printed page, might even be ludicrously depreciated by them as mere mawkish sentimentality. But, even among these, there was hardly one who could hear those very passages read by Dickens himself without recognising at last, what had hitherto remained unperceived and unsuspected, the gracious and pathetic beauty animating every thought and every word in the original descriptions. Equally, it may be said, in the delineation of terror and of pathos, in the murder-scene from Oliver Twist, and in the death-scene of little Dombey, the novelist-reader attained success by the simple fact of his never once exaggerating.

It has been well remarked by an eminent authority upon the art of elocution, whose opinions have been already quoted in these pages, to wit, John Ireland, that "There is a point to which the passions must be raised to display that exhibition of them which scatters contagious tenderness through the whole theatre, but carried, though but the breadth of a hair, beyond that point, the picture becomes an overcharged caricature, as likely to create laughter as diffuse distress." Never, perhaps, has that subtle boundary-line been hit with more admirable dexterity, just within the hair's breadth here indicated, than it was, for example, in Macready's impersonation of Virginius, where his scream in the camp-scene betrayed his instantaneous appreciation of the wrong meditated by Appius Claudius against the virginal purity of his daughter. As adroitly, in his way, as that great master of his craft, who was for so many years among his most cherished friends and intimates, Dickens kept within the indicated lines of demarcation, beyond which no impersonator, whether upon the stage or upon the platform, can ever pass for a single instant with impunity.

Speaking of Munden, in one of the most charming of his Essays, Charles Lamb has said, "I have seen him diffuse a glow of sentiment which has made the pulse of a crowded house beat like that of one man; when he has come in aid of the pulpit, doing good to the moral heart of a people." The words, applied thus emphatically to the humorous and often grotesque comedian, are exactly applicable to Dickens as a Reader. And, as Elia remarks of Munden at another moment, "he is not one, but legion; not so much a comedian as a company"—any one might say identically the same of Dickens, who bears in remembrance the wonderful variety of his impersonations.

Attending his Readings, character after character appeared before us, living and breathing, in the flesh, as we looked and listened. It mattered nothing, just simply nothing, that the great author was there all the while before his audience in his own identity. His evening costume was a matter of no consideration—the flower in his button-hole, the paper-knife in his hand, the book before him, that earnest, animated, mobile, delightful face, that we all knew by heart through his ubiquitous photographs—all were equally of no account whatever. We knew that he alone was there all the time before us, reading, or, to speak more accurately, re-creating for us, one and all—while his lips were articulating the familiar words his hand had written so many years previously—the most renowned of the imaginary creatures peopling his books. Watching him, hearkening to him, while he stood there unmistakably before his audience, on the raised platform, in the glare of the gas-burners shining down upon him from behind the pendant screen immediately above his head, his individuality, so to express it, altogether disappeared, and we saw before us instead, just as the case might happen to be, Mr. Pickwick, or Mrs. Gamp, or Dr. Marigold, or little Paul Dombey, or Mr. Squeers, or Sam Weller, or Mr. Peggotty, or some other of those immortal personages. We were as conscious, as though we saw them, of the bald head, the spectacles, and the little gaiters of Mr. Pickwick—of the snuffy tones, the immense umbrella, and the voluminous bonnet and gown of Mrs. Gamp—of the belcher necktie, the mother-of-pearl buttons and the coloured waistcoat of the voluble Cheap Jack—of little Paul's sweet face and gentle accents—of the one eye and the well-known pair of Wellingtons, adorning the head and legs of Mr. Wackford Squeers—of Sam's imperturbable nonchalance—and of Mr. Peggotty's hearty, briny, sou'-wester of a voice and general demeanour!

Even the lesser characters—those which are introduced into the original works quite incidentally, occupying there a wholly subordinate position, filling up a space in the crowded tableaux, always in the background—were then at last brought to the fore in the course of these Readings, and suddenly and for the first time assumed to themselves a distinct importance and individuality. Take, for instance, the nameless lodging-housekeeper's slavey, who assists at Bob Sawyer's party, and who is described in the original work as "a dirty, slipshod girl, in black cotton stockings, who might have passed for the neglected daughter of a superannuated dustman in very reduced circumstances." No one had ever realised the crass stupidity of that remarkable young person—dense and impenetrable as a London fog—until her first introduction in these Readings, with "Please, Mister Sawyer, Missis Raddle wants to speak to you!"—the dull, dead-level of her voice ending in the last monosyllable with a series of inflections almost amounting to a chromatic passage. Mr. Justice Stareleigh, again!—nobody had ever conceived the world of humorous suggestiveness underlying all the words put into his mouth until the author's utterance of them came to the readers of Pickwick with the surprise of a revelation. Jack Hopkins in like manner—nobody, one might say, had ever dreamt of as he was in Dickens's inimitably droll impersonation of him, until the lights and shades of the finished picture were first of all brought out by the Reading. Jack Hopkins!—with the short, sharp, quick articulation, rather stiff in the neck, with a dryly comic look just under the eyelids, with a scarcely expressible relish of his own for every detail of that wonderful story of his about the "neckluss," an absolute and implicit reliance upon Mr. Pickwick's gullibility, and an inborn and ineradicable passion for chorusing.

As with the characters, so with the descriptions. One was life itself, the other was not simply word-painting, but realisation. There was the Great Storm at Yarmouth, for example, at the close of David Copperfield. Listening to that Reading, the very portents of the coming tempest came before us!—the flying clouds in wild and murky confusion, the moon apparently plunging headlong among them, "as if, in a dread disturbance of the laws of nature, she had lost her way and were frightened," the wind rising "with an extraordinary great sound," the sweeping gusts of rain coming before it "like showers of steel," and at last, down upon the shore and by the surf among the turmoil of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, "the tremendous sea itself," that came rolling in with an awful noise absolutely confounding to the beholder! In all fiction there is no grander description than that of one of the sublimest spectacles in nature. The merest fragments of it conjured up the entire scene—aided as those fragments were by the look, the tones, the whole manner of the Reader. The listener was there with him in imagination upon the beach, beside David. He was there, lashed and saturated with the salt spray, the briny taste of it on his lips, the roar and tumult in his ears—the height to which the breakers rose, and, looking over one another bore one another down and rolled in, in interminable hosts, becoming at last, as it is written in that wonderful chapter (55) of David Copperfield, "most appalling!" There, in truth, the success achieved was more than an elocutionary triumph—it was the realisation to his hearers, by one who had the soul of a poet, and the gifts of an orator, and the genius of a great and vividly imaginative author, of a convulsion of nature when nature bears an aspect the grandest and the most astounding. However much a masterly description, like that of the Great Storm at Yarmouth, may be admired henceforth by those who never had the opportunity of attending these Readings, one might surely say to them, as AEschines said to the Rhodians, when they were applauding the speech of his victorious rival: "How much greater would have been your admiration if only you could have heard him deliver it!"


How it happened that Charles Dickens came to give any readings at all from his own writings has already, in the preceding pages, been explained. What is here intended to be done is to put on record, as simply and as accurately as possible, the facts relating to the labours gone through by the Novelist in his professional character as a Public Reader. It will be then seen, immediately those facts have come to be examined in their chronological order, that they were sufficiently remarkable in many respects, as an episode in the life of a great author, to justify their being chronicled in some way or other, if only as constituting in their aggregate a wholly unexampled incident in the history of literature.

No writer, it may be confidently asserted, has ever enjoyed a wider popularity during his own life-time than Charles Dickens; or rather it might be said more accurately, no writer has ever enjoyed so wide a popularity among his own immediate contemporaries. And it was a popularity in many ways exceptional.

It knew no fluctuation. It lasted without fading or faltering during thirty-four years altogether, that is to say, throughout the whole of Dickens's career as a novelist. It began with his very first book, when, as Thackeray put it, "the young man came and took his place calmly at the head of the whole tribe, as the master of all the English humorists of his generation." It showed no sign whatever of abatement, when, in the middle of writing his last book, the pen fell from his hand on that bright summer's day, and through his death a pang of grief was brought home to millions of English-speaking people in both hemispheres. For his popularity had, among other distinctive characteristics, certainly this,—it was so peculiarly personal a popularity, his name being endeared to the vast majority who read his books with nothing less than affectionate admiration.

Besides all this, it was his privilege throughout the whole of his literary career to address not one class, or two or three classes, but all classes of the reading public indiscriminately—the most highly educated and the least educated, young and old, rich and poor. His writings obtained the widest circulation, of course, among those who were the most numerous, such as among the middle classes and the better portion of the artisan population, but they found at the same time the keenest and cordialest appreciation among those who were necessarily the best qualified to pronounce an opinion upon their merits, among critics as gifted as Jeffrey and Sydney Smith, and among rivals as-illustrious as Lytton and Thackeray. It seems appropriate, therefore, that we should be enabled to add now, in regard to the possession of this exceptional reputation, and of a popularity in itself so instant, sustained, personal, and comprehensive, that, thanks entirely to these Readings, he was brought into more intimate relations individually with a considerable portion at least of the vast circle of his own readers, than have ever been established between any other author who could be named and his readers, since literature became a profession.

Strictly speaking, the very first Reading given by Charles Dickens anywhere, even privately, was that which took place in the midst of a little home-group, assembled one evening in 1843, for the purpose of hearing the "Christmas Carol," prior to its publication, read by him in the Lincoln's-Inn Square Chambers of the intimate friend to whom, eighteen years afterwards, was inscribed, as "of right," the Library Edition of all the Novelist's works collectively. Thus unwittingly, and as it seems to us not unbefittingly, was rehearsed on the hearth of Dickens's future biographer, the first of the long series of Readings, afterwards to be given very publicly indeed, and to vast multitudes of people on both sides of the Atlantic.

As nearly as possible ten years after this, the public Readings commenced, and during the five next years were continued, though they were so but very intermittingly. Throughout that interval they were invariably given for the benefit of others, the proceeds of each Reading being applied to some generous purpose, the nature of which was previously announced. It was in the Town Hall at Birmingham, that immediately before the Christmas of 1853, the first of all these public Readings took place in the presence of an audience numbering fully two thousand. About a year before that, the Novelist had pledged himself to give this reading, or rather a series of three readings, for the purpose of increasing the funds of a new Literary and Scientific Institution then projected in Birmingham. On Thursday, the 6th of January, 1853, a silver-gilt salver and a diamond ring, accompanied by an address, expressive of the admiration of the subscribers to the testimonial, had been publicly presented in that town to the popular author, at the rooms of the Society of Arts in Temple Row. The kind of feeling inspiring this little incident may be recognised through the inscription on the salver, which intimated that it, "together with a diamond ring, was presented to Charles Dickens, Esq., by a number of his admirers in Birmingham, on the occasion of the literary and artistic banquet in that town, on the 6th of January, 1853, as a sincere testimony of their appreciation of his varied literary acquirements, and of the genial philosophy and high moral teaching which characterise his writings." It was upon the morrow of the banquet referred to in this inscription, a banquet which took place at Dee's Hotel immediately after the presentation of the testimonial to the Novelist, that the latter generously proposed to give later on some public Readings from his own books, in furtherance of the newly meditated Birmingham and Midland Institute.

The proposition, in fact, was thrown out, gracefully and almost apologetically, in a letter, addressed by him to Mr. Arthur Ryland on the following day, the 7th of January. In this singularly interesting communication, which was read by its recipient on the ensuing Monday, at a meeting convened in the theatre of the Philosophical Institution, not only did Charles Dickens offer to read his "Christmas Carol" some time during the course of the next Christmas, in the Town Hall at Birmingham, but referring to the complete novelty of his proposal, he thus plainly intimated that the occasion would constitute his very first appearance upon any public platform as a Reader, while explaining, at the same time, the precise nature of the suggested entertainment. "It would," he said, "take about two hours, with a pause of ten minutes half-way through. There would be some novelty in the thing, as I have never done it in public, though I have in private, and (if I may say so) with a great effect on the hearers." He further remarked, "I was so inexpressibly gratified last night by the warmth and enthusiasm of my Birmingham friends, that I feel half ashamed this morning of so poor an offer: but as I decided on making it to you before I came down yesterday, I propose it nevertheless." As a matter of course the proposition was gratefully accepted, the Novelist formally undertaking to give the proffered Readings in the ensuing Christmas. This promise, before the year was out, Dickens returned from abroad expressly to fulfil—hastening homeward to that end, after a brief autumnal excursion in Italy and Switzerland with two of his friends, the late Augustus Egg, R. A., and Wilkie Collins, the novelist. On the arrival of the three in Paris, they were there joined by Charles Dickens's eldest son, who, having passed through his course at Eton, had just then been completing his scholastic education at Leipsic. The party thus increased to a partie carree, hastened homewards more hurriedly than would otherwise have been necessary, so as to enable the author punctually to fulfil his long-standing engagement.

It was on Tuesday, the 27th of December, 1853, therefore, that the very first of these famous Readings came off in the Town Hall at Birmingham. The weather was wretched, but the hall was crowded, and the audience enthusiastic. The Reading, which was the "Christmas Carol," extended over more than three hours altogether, showing how very little of the original story the then unpractised hand of the Reader had as yet eliminated. Notwithstanding the length of the entertainment, the unflagging interest, more even than the hearty and reiterated applause of those who were assembled, showed the lively sense the author's first audience had of his newly-revealed powers as a narrator and impersonator. On the next day but one, Thursday, the 29th of December, he read there, to an equally large concourse, the "Cricket on the Hearth." Upon the following evening, Friday, the 30th of December, he repeated the "Carol" to another densely packed throng of listeners, mainly composed, this time, according to his own express stipulation, of workpeople. So delighted were these unsophisticated hearers with their entertainer—himself so long familiarly known to them, but then for the first time seen and heard—that, at the end of the Reading, they greeted him with repeated rounds of cheering.

Those three Readings at Birmingham added considerably to the funds of the Institute, enhancing them at least to the extent of L400 sterling. In recognition of the good service thus effectively and delightfully rendered to a local institution, to the presidency of which Charles Dickens himself was unanimously elected, an exquisitely designed silver flower-basket was afterwards presented to the novelist's wife. This graceful souvenir had engraved upon it the following inscription: "Presented to Mrs. Charles Dickens by the Committee of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, as a slight acknowledgment of the debt of gratitude due to her husband, for his generous liberality in reading the 'Christmas Carol,' and the 'Cricket on the Hearth,' to nearly six thousand persons, in the Town Hall, Birmingham, on the nights-of December 27, 29, and 30, 1853, in aid of the funds for the establishment of the Institute." The incident of these three highly successful Readings entailed upon the Reader, as events proved, an enormous amount of toil, none of which, however, did he ever grudge, in affording the like good service to others, at uncertain intervals, in all parts, sometimes the remotest parts, of the United Kingdom.

It would be beside our present purpose to catalogue, one after another, the various Readings given in this-way by the Novelist, before he was driven to the necessity at last of either giving up reading altogether, or coming to the determination to adopt it, as he then himself expressed it, as one of his recognised occupations; that is, by becoming a Reader professionally.. It is with his career in his professional capacity as a Reader that we have here to do. Until he had formally and avowedly assumed that position, his labours in this way were, as a matter of course, in no respect whatever systematised. They were uncertain, and in one sense, as the sequel shewed, purely tentative or preliminary. They yielded a world of delight, however, and did a world of good at the same time; while they were, unconsciously to himself, preparing the way effectually—that is, by ripening his powers and perfecting his skill through practice—for the opening up to himself, quite legitimately, of a new phase in his career as a man of letters. Previously, again and again, with the pen in his hand, he had proved himself to be the master-humorist of his time. He was now vividly to attest that fact by word of mouth, by the glance of his eye, by the application to the reading of his own books, of his exceptional mimetic and histrionic gifts as an elocutionist. Added to all this, by merely observing how readily he could pour through the proceeds of these purely benevolent Readings, princely largess into the coffers of charities or of institutions in which he happened to be interested, he was to realise, what must otherwise have remained for him wholly unsuspected, that he had, so to speak, but to stretch forth his hand to grasp a fortune.

During the lapse of five years all this was at first very gradually, but at last quite irresistibly, brought home to his conviction. A few of the Readings thus given by him, out of motives of kindliness or generosity, may here, in passing, be particularised.

A considerable time after the three Readings just mentioned, and which were distinctly inaugurative of the whole of our author's reading career, there was one, which came off in Peterborough, that has not only been erroneously described as antecedent to those three Readings at Birmingham, but has been depicted, at the same time, with details in the account of it of the most preposterous character. The Reader, for example, has been portrayed,—in this purely apocryphal description of what throughout it is always referred to as though it were the first Reading of all, which it certainly was not,—as in a highly nervous state from the commencement of it to its conclusion! This bemg said of one who, when asked if he ever felt nervous while speaking in public, is known to have replied, "Not in the least "—adding, that "when first he took the chair he felt as much confidence as though he had already done the like a hundred times!" As corroborative of which remark, the present writer recalls to recollection very clearly the fact of Dickens saying to him one day,—saying it with a most whimsical air by-the-bye, but very earnestly,—"Once, and but once only in my life, I was—frightened!" The occasion he referred to was simply this, as he immediately went on to explain, that somewhere about the middle of the serial publication of David Copperfield, happening to be out of writing-paper, he sallied forth one morning to get a fresh supply at the stationer's. He was living then in his favourite haunt, at Fort House, in Broadstairs. As he was about to enter the stationer's shop, with the intention of buying the needful writing-paper, for the purpose of returning home with it, and at once setting to work upon his next number, not one word of which was yet written, he stood aside for a moment at the threshold to allow a lady to pass in before him. He then went on to relate—with a vivid sense still upon him of mingled enjoyment and dismay in the mere recollection—how the next instant he had overheard this strange lady asking the person behind the counter for the new green number. When it was handed to her, "Oh, this," said she, "I have read. I want the next one." The next one she was thereupon told would be out by the end of the month. "Listening to this, unrecognised," he added, in conclusion, "knowing the purpose for which I was there, and remembering that not one word of the number she was asking for was yet written, for the first and only time in my life, I felt—frightened!" So much for the circumstantial account put forth of this Reading at Peterborough, and of the purely imaginary nervousness displayed by the Reader, who, on the contrary, there, as elsewhere, was throughout perfectly self-possessed.

On Saturday, the 22nd December, 1855, in the Mechanics' Hall at Sheffield, another of these Readings was given, it being the "Carol," as usual, and the proceeds being in aid of the funds of that institution. The Mayor of Sheffield, who presided upon the occasion, at the close of the proceedings, presented to the author, as a suitable testimonial from a number of his admirers in that locality, a complete set of table cutlery.

An occasional Reading, moreover, was given at Chatham, to assist in defraying the expenses of the Chatham, Rochester, Strood, and Brompton Mechanics' Institution, of which the master of Gadshill was for thirteen years the President. His titular or official connection with this institute, in effect, was that of Perpetual President. His interest in it in that character ceased only with his life. Throughout the whole of the thirteen years during which he presided over its fortunes, he was in every imaginable way its most effective and energetic supporter. Six Readings in all were given by him at the Chatham Mechanics' Institution, in aid of its funds. The first, which was the "Christmas Carol," took place on the 27th December, 1857, the new Lecture Hall, which was appropriately decorated with evergreens and brilliantly illuminated, being crowded with auditors, conspicuous among whom were the officers of the neighbouring garrison and dockyard. The second, which consisted of "Little Dombey" and "The Trial Scene from Pickwick," came off on the 29th December, 1858. Long before any arrangement had been definitively made in regard to this second Reading, the local newspaper, in an apparently authoritative paragraph, announced, "on the best authority," that another Reading-was immediately to be given, by Mr. Dickens, in behalf of the Mechanics' Institution. It is characteristic of him that he, thereupon, wrote to the Chatham newspaper, "I know nothing of your 'best authority,' except that he is (as he always is) preposterously and monstrously wrong." Eventually this Reading was arranged for, nevertheless, and came off at the date already mentioned. A third Reading at Chatham, comprising within it "The Poor Traveller" (the opening of which had a peculiar local interest),"Boots" at the "Holly Tree Inn," and "Mrs. Gamp," took place in 1860, on the 18th December. A fourth was given there on the 16th January, 1862, when the Novelist read his six selected chapters from "David Copperfield." A fifth, consisting of "Nicholas Nickleby at Dotheboys Hall," and "Mr. Bob Sawyer's-Party," took place in 1863, on the 15th December. Finally, there came off the sixth of these Chatham readings, on the 19th December, 1865, when the "Carol" was repeated, with the addition of the great case of "Bardell versus Pickwick." Upwards of L400 were thus, as the fruit of these exhilarating entertainments, poured into the coffers of the Chatham Institute. It can hardly be wondered at that, in the annual reports issued by the committee, emphatic expression should have been more than once given to the deep sense of gratitude entertained by them for the services rendered to the institution by its illustrious president-A fragmentary portion of that issued by the committee in the January of 1864—referring, as it does, to-Charles Dickens, in association with his home and his favourite haunts down at Gadshill—we are here tempted to give, as indicative of the feelings of pride and admiration with which the great author was regarded by his own immediate neighbours. After referring to the large sums realised for the institution through the Readings thus generously given by its president, the committee went on to say in this report, at the beginning of 1864, "Simply to have the name of one whose writings have become household words at every home and hearth where the English language is spoken, associated with their efforts for the public entertainment and improvement, must be considered a great honour and advantage. But, when to this is added the large pecuniary assistance derived from such a connection, your committee find that they—and, of course, the members whom they represent—owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Dickens, which words can but poorly express. They trust that the home which he now occupies in the midst of the beautiful woodlands of Kent, and so near to the scene of his boyish memories and associations, may long be to him one of happiness and prosperity. If Shakspere, our greatest national poet, had before made Gadshill a classic spot, surely it is now doubly consecrated by genius since Dickens, the greatest and most genial of modern humorists, as well as one of the most powerful and pathetic delineators of human character, has fixed his residence there. To those who have so often and so lately been moved to laughter and tears by the humour and pathos of the inimitable writer and reader, and who have profited by his gratuitous services to the institution, your committee feel that they need make no apology for dwelling at some length upon this most agreeable part of their report." Thus profound were the feelings of respect, affection, and admiration with which the master-humorist was regarded by those who lived, and who were proud of living, in his own immediate neighbourhood.

On the evening of Tuesday, the 30th June, 1857, Charles Dickens read for the first time in London, at the then St. Martin's Hall, now the Queen's Theatre, in Long Acre. The occasion was one, in many respects, of peculiar interest. As recently as on the 8th of that month, Douglas Jerrold had breathed his last, quite unexpectedly. Dying in the fulness of his powers, and at little more than fifty years of age, he had passed away, it was felt, prematurely. As a tribute of affection to his memory, and of sympathy towards his widow and orphan children, those among his brother authors who had been more intimately associated with him in his literary career, organised, in the interests of his bereaved family, a series of entertainments. And in the ordering of the programme it was so arranged that this earliest metropolitan reading of one of his smaller works by Charles Dickens should be the second of these entertainments. Densely crowded in every part, St. Martin's Hall upon this occasion was the scene of as remarkable a reception and of as brilliant a success as was in any way possible. It was a wonderful success financially. As an elocutionary—or, rather, as a dramatic—display, it was looked forward to with the liveliest curiosity. The author's welcome when he appeared upon the platform was of itself a striking attestation of his popularity.

Upwards of fourteen years have elapsed since the occasion referred to, yet we have still as vividly in our remembrance, as though it were but an incident of yesterday, the enthusiasm of the reception then accorded to the great novelist by an audience composed, for the most part, of representative Londoners. The applause with which he was greeted, immediately upon his entrance, was so earnestly prolonged and sustained, that it threatened to postpone the Reading indefinitely. Silence having at last been restored, however, the Reader's voice became audible in the utterance of these few and simple words, by way of preliminary:—

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have the honour to read "to you 'A Christmas Carol,' in four staves. Stave "one, 'Marley's Ghost.'"

The effect, by the way, becoming upon the instant rather incongruous, as the writer of this very well remembers, when, through a sudden and jarring recollection of what the occasion was that had brought us all together, the Reader began, with a serio-comic inflection, "Marley was dead: to begin with. There's no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed." And so on through those familiar introductory sentences, in which Jacob Marley's demise is insisted upon with such ludicrous particularity. The momentary sense of incongruity here referred to was lost, however, directly afterwards, as everyone's attention became absorbed in the author's own relation to us of his world-famous ghost-story of Christmas.

Whereas the First Reading of the tale down in the provinces had occupied three hours in its delivery, the First Reading of it in the metropolis had been; diminished by half an hour. Beginning at 8 p.m., and ending at very nearly 10.30 p. m., with merely five minutes' interruption about midway, the entertainment so enthralled and delighted the audience throughout, that its close, after two hours and a half of the keenest attention, was the signal for a long outburst of cheers, mingled with the waving of hats and handkerchiefs. The description of the scene there witnessed is in noway exaggerated. It is the record of our own remembrance.

And the enthusiasm thus awakened among Charles Dickens's first London audience can hardly be wondered at, when we recall to mind Thackeray's expression of opinion in regard to that very same story of the Christmas Carol immediately after its publication, when he wrote in Fraser, July, 1844, under his pseudonym of M. A. Titmarsh: "It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man and woman who-reads it a personal kindness;" adding, "The last two people I heard speak of it were women; neither knew the other, or the author, and both said, by way of criticism, 'God bless him!'" Precisely in the same way, it may here be said, in regard to that first night of his own public reading of it in St. Martin's Hall, that there was a genial grasp of the hand in the look of every kind face then turned towards the platform, and a "God bless him" in every one of the ringing cheers that accompanied his departure.

A Reading of the "Carol" was given by its author in the following December down at Coventry, in aid of the funds of the local institute. And about a twelvemonth afterwards, on the 4th of December, 1858, in grateful acknowledgment of what was regarded in those cases always as a double benefaction (meaning the Reading itself and its golden proceeds), the novelist was entertained at a public banquet, at the Castle Hotel, Coventry, when a gold watch was presented to him as a testimonial of admiration from the leading inhabitants.

Finally, as the last of all these non-professional readings by our author, there was given on Friday the 26th of March, 1858, a reading of the "Christmas Carol," in the Music Hall at Edinburgh. His audience consisted of the members of, or subscribers to, the Philosophical Institution. At the close of the evening the Lord Provost, who had been presiding, presented to the Beader a massive and ornate silver wassail bowl. Seventeen years prior to that, Charles Dickens had been publicly entertained in Edinburgh,—Professor Wilson having been the chairman of the banquet given then in his honour. He had been at that time enrolled a burgess and guildbrother of the ancient corporation of the metropolis of Scotland. He had, among other incidents of a striking character marking his reception there at the same period, seen, on his chance entrance into the theatre, the whole audience rise spontaneously in recognition of him, the musicians in the orchestra, with a courtly felicity, striking up the cavalier air of "Charley is my Darling." If only out of a gracious remembrance of all this, it seemed not inappropriate that the very last of the complimentary readings should have been given by the novelist at Edinburgh, and that the Lord Provost of Edinburgh should, as if by way of stirrup-cup, have handed to the Writer and Reader of the "Carol," that souvenir from its citizens, in honour of the author himself and of his favourite theme, Christmas.

It was in connection with the organisation of the series of entertainments, arranged during the summer of 1857, in memory of Jerrold, and in the interests of Jerrold's family, that the attention of Charles Dickens was first of all awakened to a recognition of the possibility that he might, with good reason, do something better than carry out his original intention, that, namely, of dropping these Readings altogether, as simply exhausting and unremunerative. He had long since come to realise that it could in no conceivable way whatever derogate from the dignity of his position as an author, to appear thus in various parts of the United Kingdom, before large masses of his fellow-countrymen, in the capacity of a Public Reader. His so appearing was a gratification to himself as an artist, and was clearly enough also a gratification to his hearers, as appreciators of his twofold art, both as Author and as Reader. He perceived clearly enough, therefore, that his labours in those associated capacities were perfectly compatible; that, in other words, he might, if he so pleased, quite reasonably accept the duties devolving upon him as a Reader, as among his legitimate avocations.

Conspicuous among those who had shared in the getting up of the Jerrold entertainments—including among them, as we have seen, the first of his own Readings in London—the novelist had especially observed the remarkable skill or aptitude, as a general organiser, manifested from first to last by the Honorary Secretary, into whose hands, in point of fact, had fallen the responsibility of the entire management. This Honorary Secretary was no other than Albert Smith's brother Arthur—one who was not only the right-hand, as it were, of the Ascender of Mont Blanc, and of the Traveller in China, but who (behind the scenes, and unknown to the public) was the veritable wire-puller, prompter, Figaro, factotum of that farceur.among story-tellers, and of that laughter-moving patterer among public entertainers. Arthur Smith, full of resource, of contrivance, and of readiness, possessed in fact all the qualifications essential to a rapid organiser. He was, of all men who could possibly have been hit upon, precisely the very one to undertake in regard to an elaborate enterprise, like that of a long series of Readings in the metropolis, and of a comprehensive tour of Readings in the provinces, the responsible duties of its commercial management. Brought together accidentally at the time of the Jerrold testimonial, the Honorary Secretary of the fund and the Author-reader of the "Carol" came, as it seems now, quite naturally, to be afterwards intimately associated with one another, more in connection with the scheme of professional Readings, which reasonably grew up at last out of the previous five years' Readings, of a purely complimentary character.

Altogether, as has been said on an earlier page, Charles Dickens cannot have given less than some Five Hundred Readings. As a professional Reader alone he gave considerably over Four Hundred. Beginning in the spring of 1858, and ending in the spring of 1870, his career in that capacity extended at intervals over a lapse of twelve years: those twelve years embracing within them several distinct tours in England, Ireland, and Scotland, and in the United States; and many either entirely distinct or carefully interwoven series in London at St. Martin's Hall, at the Hanover Square Rooms, and at St. James's Hall, Piccadilly.

The first series in the metropolis, and the first tour in the United Kingdom, were made in 1858, under Mr. Arthur Smith's management. The second provincial tour, partly in 1861, partly in 1862, and two sets of readings in London, one at the St. James's Hall in 1862, the other at the Hanover Square Rooms in 1863, took place under Mr. Thomas Headland's management. As many as four distinct, and all of them important tours, notably one on the other side of the Atlantic, were carried out between 1866 and 1869, both years inclusive, under Mr. George Dolby's management. As showing at once the proportion of the enormous aggregate of 423 Readings, with winch these three managers were concerned, it may be added here that while the first-mentioned had to do with 111, and the second with 70, the third and last-mentioned had to do with as many as 242 altogether.

It was on the evening of Thursday, the 29th of April, 1858, that Charles Dickens first made his appearance upon a platform in a strictly professional character as a public Reader. Although, hitherto, he had never once read for himself, he did so then avowedly—not merely by printed announcement beforehand, but on addressing himself by word of mouth to the immense audience assembled there in St. Martin's Hall. The Reading selected for the occasion was "The Cricket on the Hearth," but before its commencement, the author spoke as follows, doing so with well remembered clearness of articulation, as though he were particularly desirous that every word should be thoroughly weighed by his hearers, and taken to heart, by reason of their distinctly explaining the relations in which he and they would, thenceforth stand towards each other:—

"Ladies and Gentlemen,—It may, perhaps, be "known to you that, for a few years past I have been "accustomed occasionally to read some of my shorter "books to various audiences, in aid of a variety of "good objects, and at some charge to myself both in "time and money. It having at length become im- "possible in any reason to comply with these always "accumulating demands, I have had definitely to "choose between now and then reading on my own "account as one of my recognised occupations, or not "reading at all. I have had little or no difficulty in "deciding on the former course.

"The reasons that have led me to it—besides the "consideration that it necessitates no departure what- "ever from the chosen pursuits of my life—are three- "fold. Firstly, I have satisfied myself that it can "involve no possible compromise of the credit and "independence of literature. Secondly, I have long "held the opinion, and have long acted on the opinion, "that in these times whatever brings a public man "and his public face to face, on terms of mutual con- "fidence and respect, is a good thing. Thirdly, I "have had a pretty large experience of the interest "my hearers are so generous as to take in these occa- "sions, and of the delight they give to me, as a tried "means of strengthening those relations, I may "almost say of personal friendship, which it is my "great privilege and pride, as it is my great respon- "sibility, to hold with a multitude of persons who will "never hear my voice, or see my face.

"Thus it is that I come, quite naturally, to be here "among you at this time. And thus it is that I pro- "ceed to read this little book, quite as composedly as "I might proceed to write it, or to publish it in any "other way."

Remembering perfectly well, as we do, the precision with which he uttered every syllable of this little address, and the unmistakable cordiality with which its close was greeted, we can assert with confidence that Reader and Audience from the very first instant stood towards each other on terms of mutually respectful consideration. Remembering perfectly well, as we do, moreover, the emotion with which his last words were articulated and listened to on the occasion of his very last or Farewell Reading in the great hall near Piccadilly—and more than two thousand others must still perfectly well remember that likewise—we may no less confidently assert that those feelings had known no abatement, but on the contrary, had, during the lapse of many delightful years, come to be not only confirmed but intensified.

Sixteen Readings were comprised in that first series in London, at St. Martin's Hall. Inaugurated, as we have seen, on the 29th of April, 1858, the series was completed on the 22nd of the ensuing July. It may here be interesting to mention that, midway in the course of these Sixteen Readings, he gave for the first time in London, on Thursday the 10th of June, "The Story of Little Dombey," and on the following Thursday, the 17th of June, also for the first time in London, "The Poor Traveller," "Boots at the Holly Tree Inn," and "Mrs. Gamp." Whatever the subject of the Reading, whatever the state of the weather, the hall was crowded in every part, from the stalls to the galleries. Eleven days after the London season closed, the Reader and his business manager began their enormous round of the provinces.

As many as Eighty-Seven Readings were given in the course of this one provincial excursion. The first took place on Monday, the 2nd of August, at Clifton; the last on Saturday, the 13th of November, at Brighton. The places visited in Ireland included Dublin and Belfast, Cork and Limerick. Those traversed in Scotland comprised Edinburgh and Dundee, Aberdeen, Perth, and Glasgow. As for England, besides the towns already named, others of the first importance were taken in quick succession, an extraordinary amount of rapid railway travelling being involved in the punctual carrying out of the prescribed programme. However different in their general character the localities might be, the Readings somehow appeared to have some especial attraction for each, whether they were given in great manufacturing towns, like Manchester or Birmingham; in fashionable watering-places, like Leamington or Scarborough; in busy outports, like Liverpool or Southampton; in ancient cathedral towns, like York or Durham, or in seaports as removed from each other, as Plymouth and Portsmouth. Localities as widely separated as Exeter from Harrogate, as Oxford from Halifax, or as Worcester from Sunderland, were visited, turn by turn, at the particular time appointed. In a comprehensive round, embracing within it Wakefield and Shrewsbury, Nottingham and Leicester, Derby and Ruddersfield, the principal great towns were taken one after another. At Hull and Leeds, no less than at Chester and Bradford, as large and enthusiastic audiences were gathered together as, in their appointed times also were attracted to the Readings, in places as entirely dissimilar as Newcastle and Darlington, or as Sheffield and Wolverhampton.

The enterprise was, in its way, wholly unexampled. It extended over a period of more than three months altogether. It brought the popular author for the first time face to face with a multitude of his readers in various parts of the three kingdoms. And at every place, without exception throughout the tour, the adventure was more than justified, as a source of artistic gratification alike to himself and to his hearers, no less than as a purely commercial undertaking, the project throughout proving successful far beyond the most sanguine anticipations. Though the strain upon his energies, there can be no doubt of it, was very considerable, the Reader had brought vividly before him in recompense, on Eighty-Seven distinct occasions, the most startling proofs of his popularity—the financial results, besides this, when all was over, yielding substantial evidence of his having, indeed, won "golden opinions" from all sorts of people.

His provincial tour, it has been seen, closed at Brighton on the 13th of November. Immediately after this, it was announced that three Christmas Readings would be given in London at St. Martin's Hall—the first and second on the Christmas Eve and the Boxing Day of 1858, those being respectively Friday and Monday, and the third on Twelfth Night, Thursday, the 6th of January, 1859. Upon each of these occasions the "Christmas Carol" and the "Trial from Pickwick," were given to audiences that were literally overflowing, crowds of applicants each evening failing to obtain admittance. In consequence of this, three other Readings were announced for Thursday, the 13th, for Thursday, the 20th, and for Friday, the 28th of January—the "Carol" and "Trial" being fixed for the last time on the 13th; the Reading on the second of these three supplementary nights being "Little Dombey" and the "Trial from Pickwick;" the last of the three including within it, besides the "Trial," "Mrs. Gamp" and the "Poor Traveller." As affording conclusive proof of the sustained success of the Readings as a popular entertainment, it may here be added that advertisements appeared on the morrow of the one last mentioned, to the effect that "it has been found unavoidable to appoint two more Readings of the 'Christmas Carol' and the 'Trial from Pickwick'"—those two, by the way, being, from first to last, the most attractive of all the Readings. On Thursday, the 3rd, and on Tuesday, the 8th of February, the two last of these supplementary Readings in London, the aggregate of which had thus been extended from Three to Eight, were duly delivered. And in this way were completed the 111 Readings already referred to as having been given under Mr. Arthur Smith's management.

Upwards of two years and a half then elapsed without any more of the Readings being undertaken, either in the provinces or in the metropolis. During 1860, in fact, Great Expectations was appearing from week to week in All the Year Round. And it was a judicious rule with our author—broken only at the last, and fatally, at the very end of his twofold career as Writer and as Reader—never to give a series of Readings while one of his serial stories was being produced. At length, however, in the late summer, or early autumn of 1861, the novelist was sufficiently free from literary pre-occupations for another tour, and another series of Readings in London to be projected. The arrangements for each were sketched out by Mr. Arthur Smith, as the one still entrusted with the financial management of the undertaking. His health, however, was so broken by that time, that it soon became apparent that he could not reasonably hope to superintend in person the carrying out of the new enterprise. It was decided, therefore, provisionally, that Mr. Headland, who, upon the former occasion, had acted with him, should now, under his direction and as his representative, undertake the actual management. Before the projected tour of 1861 actually commenced, however, Mr. Arthur Smith had died, in September. The simply provisional arrangement lapsed in consequence, and upon Mr. Headland himself devolved the responsibility of carrying out the plans sketched out by his predecessor.

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