Henry Fielding Dickens

Henry Fielding Dickens KC on his father, Charles Dickens

From the Whitefriars Journal, vol. IV, no.2, February 1914, pp. 60-66, 74-45.

December 5th, 1913.—Mr Henry Fielding Dickens, K.C., who was accorded an enthusiastic welcome as the principal guest of the evening, delighted us with a long, eloquent, and intimate ‘Chat About My Father’. Friar Sir William Robertson Nicoll was Prior. The gathering numbered a hundred, including a large proportion of distinguished guests. Friar Sir Robert Hudson brought three sons of the Club guest. The Prior said the honour of presiding was never greater and the duty never more welcome than it was that night. Highly honoured on his own account, our guest was more than highly honoured on account of what had been described as his ‘almost Divine’ parentage. Mr Henry Fielding Dickens had achieved for himself a distinguished career, which, happily, was by no means ended. There was not one of us who did not earnestly desire and hope to see Mr Dickens elevated to the judicial bench. He had this great happiness: his father lived long enough to witness with pride and joy the beginning of his career, that distinguished beginning at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The Prior alluded to Mr Dickens’s devotion to his father’s memory, recalled a remarkable recital by him of the Christmas Carol without a single note, and concluded by quoting John Hollingshead’s dictum that Charles Dickens was one of the very few predestined for immortality; compared him with Shakespeare as one of the ‘supermen’; envied President Garfield’s abstinence in never allowing himself to complete the Pickwick Papers, and said he himself honoured Charles Dickens ‘this side idolatry’ as much as any man could.

Mr Henry Fielding Dickens, replying to the enthusiastic cheers that greeted his rising, said our very cordial welcome added greatly to the compliment of asking him to be our guest, an honour, he assured us, he very cordially accepted, more especially as it came from a club composed largely of journalists and men of letters. From such a source we would all understand that invitation appealed very much indeed to one whose happiness it was to be the son of a man who devoted his whole life to literature and journalism, and one who through his whole career was bound to his fellow-workers by the ties of sympathy and good-fellowship. For himself, he could not pretend that his path lay much in the direction of the profession indicated, but he did claim to have had some connection with the Press. When he was a boy at school he used to ‘run’, in his holiday time, a very terrible newspaper entitled The Gadshill Gazette, of which he was sole editor, sub-editor, manager, printer, and publisher all rolled into one. In one number of that highly valued paper he had a poem of his own, dear to his heart, an ‘Ode to a Dying Dog’. As to his subject that night, he had been rather puzzled as to what he should talk about; so at last he consulted his old friend Friar Hudson, who was quite certain that the one thing we should like to hear him talk about was his father. He was still a little doubtful, but Friar Hudson insisted, and as he was some what of ‘a harbitry gent’ he took it as a royal command; but if we thought that from his knowledge of the past he was able to throw any further light on so elusive a subject as the mystery of Edwin Drood we should be disappointed. He commended to us the very interesting book by the Prior,* which contained a masterly and highly exhaustive study of the evidence on that subject. With much that Sir William Robertson Nicoll had written our guest entirely agreed. He himself never entertained the slightest doubt that Edwin Drood was murdered by Jasper; indeed, he never entertained any other idea. He never understood how there could be any possible doubt about it. There was another question: Who was Datchery? Here our guest said he could not agree with the Prior. When Sir William lent his support to the theory that Datchery was Helena Landless, much as he admired his argument, and greatly as he respected his views, he had to part company with him at once. There were insuperable difficulties against such a theory; and if the idea was entertained that Dickens has lost his ‘grip’ and had reached a stage of decadence, all he could himself say was that he saw no sign of anything of the kind in EdwinDrood. Some very good judges had said that some of Charles Dickens s finest work was in that book; and he could heartily endorse what his sister had said, that his father’s brain was never so bright and clear as when he wrote it. Apart from this, The Mystery of Edwin Drood had a very melancholy interest for him, because, after his father had finished the last line of that sixth number, he wrote him the last letter he ever received from him. The next day Charles Dickens died, and when the news was published a working-man paid to his father’s memory a tribute which, in his humble judgment, ranked as high as any on record. Throwing his money on the counter of a tobacconist’s shop, the man said: ‘Charles Dickens is dead; we have lost our best friend’. We had asked him (proceeded Mr Dickens) to chat about his father. The subject was a large one. All he could reasonably do was to try to show us, from his own knowledge and experience of one whom, he loved with all his heart and soul, what had impressed him about him. He should say without hesitation that what had struck him most about his father was his extreme modesty. His freedom from affectation was more than surprising when it was remembered that at the age of twenty-four he suddenly rose to the height of his profession and that he remained there to the end. What had impressed him secondarily was his father’s extreme power for work. He did not suppose any man had lived a more strenuous life than he did. His mind was always at work. He was no Anthony Trollope, able to reel off his three thousand words before breakfast. On the contrary, Forster had told us of the difficult and painful physical and mental conditions in which he worked, of the constant strain, of the anxious wasting of what no man could less afford to spare. A great deal of his work was done far away from his desk, through hours which to many people would be hours of leisure. Often and often had he walked with his father through the pastures and fields of Kent without a word being exchanged between them. With his highly imaginative nature, it was not surprising that his temperament was highly mercurial. He was subject to strange fits of depression. He was haunted constantly by the dread of failing health and the loss of his imaginative powers. As to failing popularity, nothing of the kind happened in his lifetime. Whether there were any traces of it now must be left for us to judge. One thing about his father that Mr Dickens insisted upon was the intense earnestness and thoroughness which characterised everything he did. His father’s advice was this; ‘Do everything at your best; if you do so, no one can blame you if you fail. I can only tell you I have taken this advice in the small things of life as with the biggest.’ And everyone who knew him knew that this was true. In work or in play he always gave us of his best. Thomas Carlyle was the greatest influence on his life, and what struck him most about Carlyle was the latter’s sincerity. Mr Dickens had the privilege as a young man of going once or twice to see Carlyle in his home at Chelsea. He recalled one occasion, when he had just taken his degree at Cambridge and reference was made to his future. Carlyle patted him on the back at parting, and said, in his broad Scots, ‘Well, all I can wish you is just to do a honest mon’s work.’ Our guest proceeded. ‘Whatever the future may say of my father, whatever place in literature he may fill in years to come, I think it will be conceded by every body that he acted up to Carlyle’s standard; that he did an honest man’ s work.’

Our guest went on to give some instances of his father’s extraordinary popularity as evidenced by himself. This popularity was amongst all sorts and conditions of men. When Mr Dickens was at Cambridge he was asked if he would like to meet Charles Kingsley. The introduction took place at a large luncheon party. Apparently Kingsley did not catch his name. During the meal some conversation took place with reference to his father’s handwriting, and he was appealed to by name. Kingsley dropped his knife and fork. ‘Good God!’ he exclaimed, ‘you are a son of Charles Dickens!’ He then got up and came all round the table to shake him by the hand. Then we were told of a Canadian railway-porter’s fervent ‘God bless you !’ Of the admiring confession of two Jamaicans that they had read every one of his father’s works. Of an inmate in Broadmoor Asylum, who, on hearing that Mr Dickens was a son of Charles Dickens, shouted out to him; ‘You a son of Charles Dickens! Take off your hat!’ Mr Dickens took off his hat. ‘A very small head. I am sorry to see a son of Charles Dickens with such a small head!’ was the comment.

Mr Dickens next touched more particularly on his father’s journalistic work. We all knew, he said, that Charles Dickens started the DailyNews and edited it for a few weeks. We knew that he started HouseholdWords and All the Year Round, papers familiar to us all. Apart, however, from these facts, very little was known until quite recently of the extent and value of his journalistic work. But the books of the two periodicals named had been gone through, and, thanks to the labours of Mr Rudolph Lehmann, Mr F. G. Kitton, and Mr B. W. Matz, much light had been thrown on the subject. In 1845 Charles Dickens was entertaining the idea of starting a paper to be called The Critic, which should anatomise humbug, be permeated with home and fireside and a jolly good temper; but the idea did not take shape until HouseholdWords and All the Year Round came into being.

He found the work of editing the DailyNews far too onerous for his strength. But early in the ’forties he contributed some very valuable articles to the Examiner. Very few of those articles were reprinted by him; they were anonymous. This made the Miscellaneous Papers in the Gadshill Edition very valuable. While some of the articles were of an ephemeral character, some of them were of quite remarkable value and interest, dealing, as they did, not only with burning questions of social reform but with every conceivable topic of general interest.

Mr Dickens supposed no one would deny that his father’s work led to many social reforms. How far this result was the object of his writing, and how far it was true that the reforms in question followed naturally, were questions that had been the subject of considerable discussion. Much light had been thrown on the topic by one of the articles to which reference had been made. This dealt with the improvement of the homes and dwellings of the poor.  Whatever the object of Charles Dickens’s novels may have been, this and other articles of his showed him to be an earnest and active social reformer, with a keen sense of the wretchedness and misery which surrounded him, and a fervent desire to press all this home upon a generally apathetic world. He had urged that the improvement of the habits of the people must precede all other reforms; and what he had written in 1848 on such subjects as education and ignorance and crime showed what a strong social reformer he was.

It had been suggested that Charles Dickens had no real sense of religion. Something of this spirit was in letters he received when he was suffering from the shock of the railway accident in 1849. But surely everything he ever wrote showed that he was a man of intense religious belief in the best sense of the word. What he hated was the cant of religion and the undue parade of it. One of the articles m the Miscellaneous Papers was on the misuse of money, and referred to money as naught in comparison with a single grain of duty. His views on dramatic licensing showed, too, his respect and sympathy for the drama. Charles Dickens would be better understood by those who dipped more into those two volumes of Miscellaneous Papers. Charles Dickens had one great ambition, and this would be understood by turning to Forster’s account of what he had said on his return from his visit to Venice. ‘When we met,’ wrote Forster, ‘he was fresh from Venice which had impressed him as ‘the wonder’ and the ‘new sensation’ of the world: but well do I remember how high above it all arose the hope that filed his mind. “Ah,” he said to me, “when I saw those places how I thought that to have one’s hand upon the time, with one tender touch for the mass of toiling people that nothing could obliterate, would be to lift oneself above the dust of all the Doges in their graves and stand upon a giant’s staircase that Samson couldn’t overthrow.’” Forster added: ‘In varying forms this ambition was in all his life.’

Friar Richard Whiteing said that, to him personally, very much that our guest had’ said about his father’s work stood as a complement to the views in regard to the uses of literature that he, humbly as he should say it, had always held. We lived in the times of the New Critics, who held that literature should be something wholly abstractive, free from any idea of purpose, and free from any idea of world-bettering. We wanted one great example to sustain us in this conflict; and here it was. Glory be to Dickens, he was just everything that the New School of Literary Mandarins maintained that a literary man should not be.

Friar Sir Robert Hudson cited from a friend’s recollections of a visit to Brantwood, Ruskin’s remark that it being a fine day they should drive to Duddon Valley and take with them Plato and Pickwick. In Ruskin’s view, the strength of Dickens lay very largely in his sympath with the poor.

Professor Thomas Seccombe, describing Dickens as First Consul in the Republic of Letters, compared his influence with that of Carlyle, Burns, and Borrow, all men of humble origin, and concluded that his miraculous gift of magnetism affected not one but every class in the community.

Friar J. A. Steuart suggested that Dickens derived very largely from Tobias Smollett.

In a brief reply on the discussion, Mr Dickens gave one or two further reminiscences of his father. Charles Dickens was once asked to stand for Parliament for Birmingham. A round robin was signed offering to pay all his expenses. His reply was: ‘No; I can do far more good for the poor in my own sphere of life.’ Thackeray’s name had been mentioned. Mr Dickens, with much feeling, deprecated the setting up of his father at the expense of Thackeray, or the praise of Thackeray to the minimising of Dickens. Neither course was called for. Both men were giants, and would go down side by side as such in the history of the world. One speaker had referred to the humble station in life from which Charles Dickens had risen. On this point Mr Dickens concluded : ‘When my father’s biography, written by Forster, appeared, it contained, you remember, that terrible page of autobiography in which my father had drawn upon his recollection of those painful days of his youth, when he was tying up blacking-bottles near the Strand, and described his agony of soul at the thought that he would never rise to anything above that; I reverenced my father with all my soul before I read that; when I read it my reverence increased a thousandfold.’

Comments made at the Dickens Dinner taken down by the Journal’s editor, Friar G.B. Burgin

Sir W. Robertson Nicoll:––’Harrison Ainsworth, whatever the critics may say of him, had the root of the matter in him… Charles Dickens was a superman… He towered above his associates to the snow line, and ranks with Shakespeare.’

Mr Henry Fielding Dickens:–– I once wrote an ode to a dead dog. If you have ever in later years been confronted with the literary sins of your youth, you will understand my feelings on seeing it again… I loved my father with all my heart and soul. To talk about him, I look upon as a royal command… His brain was never so bright and clear as when he wrote Edwin Drood… The thing which struck me most about my father was his absolute modesty… At rare intervals he had strange fits of depression, and was haunted continually by fear of failing health and the loss of his imaginative power. He once told me, ‘I have taken as much pains with the smallest thing I ever did in my life as with the biggest.’ It has been said that my father had no sense of religion. This is so outrageously absurd that I need not refer to it. What my father really hated was cant.’

With reference to Mr Dickens’s story of a lunatic who once commanded him to take off his hat, and said, ‘Fancy a son of Charles Dickens with so small a head as that,’ Shelley and Byron both had unusually small heads. I fancy it is the density of the brain rather than the size which counts.

Mr Dickens’s ‘chat’ about his father will never be forgotten by anyone who heard it. No report could convey more than a very faint idea of its wonderful expressiveness. It was a pity the time rule was not extended. There were many present who could have spoken to advantage. Friar Catling, for example, should have been able to recall interesting memories. Mr Dickens set before us the man his father was. But two phases of the great novelist’s work were not dwelt upon: its purity and its connection with the drama. What was said might have served for the text of Mr Frederic Harrison’s delightful essay. By the way, is it an indication of Lytton’s waning influence that not one speaker referred to him? He was, to some extent, a colleague of Dickens. That he was ignored was all the more remarkable because of the attention paid in the Press to the newly published biography by his grandson.

And this is the more unjust, as Lytton’s novels are so frequently ‘cribbed from’ by modern authors. In recent fiction, there are at least two fights with blacksmiths which can clearly be traced to Kenelm Chillingly. The motive (jealousy) in one of them is absolutely identical. The Caxtons, My Novel, and Kenelm Chillingly are well worth re-reading. As a small boy, I was discovered by the gifted author of them reading Rienzi under a tree in the garden. When he found I could not understand it, he did his best to enlighten me. He also produced a crystal from his pocket and shook his head dubiously because I failed to see anything in it.

* Nicholl, Sir William Robertson, The Problem of ‘Edwin Drood’, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912.