Sunday 8 January 2012

Dickens and Daughter

I had my week all planned, but my mother has been ill, and I have been with her. Thankfully, she is much better, so I’m back home, it’s catch-up time on the computer, and I’m posting a piece I was going to do on Tuesday as part of a Dickens tribute. I’m hoping to re-read his novels during the year, but thought I’d start by finding out more about him.

I have Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life and The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, but I wanted to see what people who knew him had to say, so (thanks to my Kindle and Project Gutenberg) I’ve downloaded The Life of Charles Dickens by his friend John Forster, and My Father as I Recall Him, by Mamie Dickens, his eldest daughter.

Mamie Dickens
Mamie, born in 1838, was christened Mary Hogarth Dickens in memory of her mother’s younger sister. Her book, published in 1897 (the year after her death), is very short, only six chapters long, but it offers the most delightful, and touching, glimpses of Dickens as a family man, as well as providing insights into the way he wrote. It’s very readable as Mamie seems to have inherited her father’s gift with words and makes him leap off the page.  She was obviously devoted to Dickens, and at the outset she says:

“But in what I write about my father I shall depend chiefly upon my own memory of him, for I wish no other dearer remembrance. My love for my father has never been touched or approached by any other love. I hold him in my heart of hearts as a man apart from all other men, as one apart from all other beings.”

She speaks of his ‘tender and most affectionate nature’, and remembers: “He was always glad to give us ‘treats’ as he called them, and used to conceive all manner of these ‘treats’ for us.” The biggest treat of all was Christmas, and she tells us: “In our childish days my father used to take us, every twenty-fourth day of December, to a toy shop in Holborn, where we were allowed to select our Christmas presents, and also any that we wished to give to our little companions. Although I believe we were often an hour or more in the shop before our several tastes were satisfied, he never showed the least impatience, was always interested, and as desirous as we, that we should choose exactly what we liked best.”

Mamie describes the dinners and parties held at the various homes where the family lived, the famous visitors, and the many activities organised by Dickens, who seems to have taken a leading role in everything – sporting events, theatrical performances, charades, conjuring shows. He was a charismatic figure who did everything, and did it all outstandingly well.

Charles Dickens
His writing was very much part of his home life. Whatever house they lived in, his writing room was always a special place. He liked peace and quiet when working, and preferred to be alone. He always wrote in blue ink, never in pencil; was very affected by the death of characters, especially children, and became so immersed in a story that he would actually take on the characteristics of his creations as he wrote. On one occasion, says Mamie: “... he suddenly jumped up from his chair and rushed to the mirror which hug near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror. The facial pantomime was resumed, and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing, me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice. Ceasing this soon, however, he returned once more to his desk....”

She gives an equally lively account of the way he practised his public readings: “...into their performance and preparation he threw the best energy of his heart and soul, practising and rehearsing at all times and places. The meadow near our home was a favourite place, and people passing though the lane, not knowing who he was or what doing, must have thought him a madman from his reciting and gesticulation.”

I have this image of him in the meadow, declaiming his work aloud, pulling faces and waving his arms around, to the consternation of passing strangers. Imagine their surprise if they had realised who he was!

Mamie makes no mention of her mother, or the split between her parents, but paints an enchanting picture of a magical childhood, packed with fun and games and laughter, emphasising her father’s love of children and animals. There’s an enchanting account of the family pets, with a description of Dickens’ sorrow when Grip, his first raven, died. Above all else, she says, he was a ‘home-man in every respect’, and she explains: “His care and thoughtfulness about home matters, nothing being deemed too small or trivial to claim his attention and consideration, were really marvellous when we remember his active, eager, restless, working brain.”

She says: “There never existed, I think, in all the world, a more thoroughly tidy or methodical creature than was my father,” and adds that his punctuality was ‘almost frightul’.

Mamie attributes Dickens’ obsessive attention to detail as sign of his love and affection for others, but personally, I’m inclined to think he was a bit of a control freak, and perhaps the happy family life Mamie remembers was as much a creation as the wonderful plots and characters Dickens brought to life in his stories, requiring constant supervision if it was to be maintained. I think stability must have been very important to him, and he wanted his own children to have the kind of life he missed out on when he was young.
The small, plain stone which marks Dickens' grave
at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.
The book ends with Mamie’s account of her father’s death and funeral, which I found very moving. However, Tomalin believes Dickens was taken ill while he was with his mistress, Nelly Ternan,  and if this is true, Mamie must have made a conscious decision to perpetuate the myth of her father as a perfect family man. 

I was planning to join the Dickens Month being hosted by Amanda at, so I've linked in - a little late, but never mind. Take a look nd see what other people are reading.

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