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Chapter XXXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 4


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Besides these names, the death list of the year contains many of mark, on some of whom it would be pleasant to dwell. The French history of this century will give much space to the Comte de Montalembert, the friend of Lacordaire, and once the associate of Lamennais; much to Alexandre Dumas, the brilliant, voluminous, and perhaps not too profitable author of "Monte Christo;" and something to Prevost Paradol, the delicate-minded literary man who was induced to accept from the Empire which he mistrusted the post of Minister at Washington, and who, broken down by the failure of his hopes of peace and liberty for France, shot himself two days after the declaration of war. The history of English Art will also give a place of honour to Daniel Maclise. But, above all, the history of English literature will find room for the name of Charles Dickens. He died quite suddenly at his house, at Gad's Hill Place, near Rochester, on June 9th, at fifty-eight years of age. He was the son of Mr. John Dickens, who was once an officer of the Navy Pay Department, but who was thrown upon his own resources at the Peace in 1815. Mr. John Forster's elaborate " Life of Dickens " has made public the fact which a good many people knew in a half private manner before - namely, that this Mr. John Dickens gave his son the idea of one of his most famous characters - the illustrious Mr. Micawber. Much of the novelist's own life is explained by this. His early years, spent amidst vicissitudes and difficulties, which were always met with a happy-go-lucky solution by the father, not only gave him great experience of life, but also developed his sense of humour. It also may partly account, on hereditary grounds, for the inveterate restlessness which clung to him to the end, and which made him tire so rapidly of people and things. The father became a reporter for a London daily paper after the loss of his official post, and the son prepared himself for the law. But he could not settle down to the drudgery of an office. Like his own David Copperfield, he never could abide the sight of a parchment. He preferred the chances of journalism, and began as a reporter for the True Sun. Soon, however, he went over to the Morning Chronicle, where Mr. John Black presided - " a man," as Mr. Mill has called him, " of most extensive reading and information, great honesty and simplicity of mind," and, we may add, of a first-rate eye for literary excellence. He accepted Dickens' first important writings - the well- known " Sketches by Boz; " " Boz " having been a nickname given to one of Dickens' little brothers, who, as a child, had insisted on calling the Vicar of Wakefield's "Moses" that way. "Boz" took the town by storm, and Messrs. Chapman and Hall asked the young author to write a serial story for them. The result was the immortal " Pickwick," published during 1837, and owned by Dickens in the next year. From this time onward his success and fame were assured. He allowed himself no rest, and the public could never have enough from him. No writer since Scott had received such universal praise; and as a matter of mere sale, Scott's novels could never be compared for a moment with those of Dickens. The eagerness with which the monthly numbers of " Pickwick " were expected, not only in England, but in Indian barracks, and in the Australian bush, is still a matter of common talk among travelled veterans. And when he turned, as he did almost directly after, to attack certain abuses, the success was equally marked. Nothing struck such a blow at the system of cheap and bad schools as " Nicholas Nickleby; " nothing did so much to modify the terrors of the workhouse as " Oliver Twist." Very soon after this last had been published, about 1840, came " Master Humphrey's Clock," the name of a series which contained " Barnaby Rudge " and " The Old Curiosity Shop;" the latter much injured by the sickly sentimentalism of the "Little Nell" episode, but in other ways full of the writer's happiest inspiration. Then came the visit to America, which impressed him so unfavourably; and soon after "Martin Chuzzlewit," where the impressions of America were reproduced in a way which Americans did not soon forgive. The few years that followed may be considered the climax of Dickens' career. They were the years of "Dombey and Son," " David Copperfield," and " Bleak House." From the time of the publication of this last he steadily declined. There came a theatrical air into his novels, and a straining after the effect which in earlier years had come so readily at his call. He began to be more mysterious in his plots, more melodramatic in his contrasts, more far-fetched in his characters and in their utterances. David Copperfield gave place to Pip; Miss Mowcher to Jenny Wren. The last novel of all, " The Mystery of Edwin Drood," promised, it is true, a return to the fresher type of earlier days; but the author never lived to finish it. He died when hardly a quarter of it had been published, and little more had been written.

It should be mentioned that for twenty years Mr. Dickens conducted a cheap weekly magazine, at first called Household Words, and afterwards transformed into All the Year Bound. Also he was the first editor of the Daily News, which first appeared on New Year's Day, 1846. He stayed with it, however, but a few months. Journalism was not his line.

He was, as we have said, by far the most popular writer that ever lived in England. Living as he did at the same time as Thackeray, he reached a class of readers whom Thackeray could not touch; and judged by the mere test of the income derived from his writings, he is unapproachable. It may be said of him,

Uni cedit Homero
Propter mille annos.

Shakespeare is consecrated by two centuries and a half of fame, and yet as many people buy Dickens as buy Shakespeare, and for one that reads Shakespeare there are ten that read Dickens. For the truth is that he had a Shakespearian power of creation. His characters have a newness, a vividness, that commend them at a glance to all the world. The best of them, such as Sam Weiler and Mr. Pecksniff, have more than this; they have that truthfulness which makes the reader look upon them, not as characters in a novel, but as human beings. Besides, Dickens was the first person to bring home to the mind of Londoners the incessant flow of tragedy and comedy which was going on around them. " Oliver Twist " did more than a thousand police reports to show the tragedy of London life. "Pickwick," in spite of its delightful exaggerations, was true in showing the absurdities and elements of happy comedy that everyday life may present us with. These are perhaps the reasons of Dickens' success, and to have succeeded as he did stamps a man as most remarkable. We need not discuss the question, whether his writings will be read a century hence, nor any of the other similar questions that may suggest themselves. We may forget that his type of perfection, male and female, was not the highest; that he had no perception of the finer shades of character; that he could not draw a man who was noble without being theatrical, or a woman who was loving without being sentimental. Let us only remember the good practical work done by "Nicholas Nickleby" and " Oliver Twist," and that more human beings have been made to laugh by "Pickwick" than by any other English book that ever was written.

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