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Charles Dickens: The Life of the Author

Boz Takes Off Like a Rocket: The Sketches and Pickwick

His formal education complete at fifteen, Dickens found a position as a clerk at the office of Ellis and Blackmore, solicitors at Holborn Court, Gray's Inn. Finding the law "a very little world, and a very dull one," he entertained himself by leaning out the window and dropping cherry pits on passersby. He also convulsed his coworkers by mimicking, with uncanny and dead-on perfection, any- and everyone he saw on the streets of London. Here was a foretaste of the protean novelist who would create a veritable army of characters to inhabit Dickens-Land, ranging from the most angelic of tots to the foulest of murderers, and everything in between to be sure. (As Chesterton said, Dickens did not "point out things, he made them.") We also see a hint of the great actor to come, of his dazzling attractiveness to audiences in both amateur theatricals (a great passion) and in the public readings from his own works that would make him a wealthy man.

Boz: What's in a name?
Sketches by Boz NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge A note on "Boz," the famous pseudonym under which Dickens published his popular "Sketches," first collected as the Sketches by Boz in 1836 (second series shown here).
Realizing that the law was not his calling, Dickens studied shorthand with singular application, and was soon freelancing as a court reporter. Then for The Mirror of Parliament and later the True Sun, he took on the House of Commons, which he described, soberly, as a pantomime that was "strong on clowns." His colleagues in the dingy gallery to which the press was consigned were astonished by the speed and accuracy of his transcriptions.

"There never was such a shorthand writer," marveled one reporter. It was this "wholesome training of severe newspaper work" (as Dickens joked late in life) that launched his career.

In his early 20s, Dickens began to publish occasional, and most amusing, stories and sketches that, when they were first collected as Sketches by Boz in 1836, were hailed by one reviewer as "a perfect picture of the morals, manners and habits of a great portion of English Society." It was also noted that the young author possessed (not unlike his mother) "a strong sense of the ridiculous."

The Sketches enjoyed a great success, which was certainly due as well to the delightful illustrations that accompanied them. In his preface to the first collection, Dickens wrote that "the Author of these volumes throws them up as his pilot balloon, trusting it may catch favourable current, and devoutly and earnestly hoping it may go off well...." Admitting to "no inconsiderable feeling of trepidation at the idea of making so perilous a voyage in so frail a machine," he secured, as the preface graciously continued, the "assistance and companionship" of a well-known individual who had contributed to the success of similar undertakings in the past, namely George Cruikshank.

Cruikshank sketches enlarge
Detail from a sheet of George
Cruikshank's portrait sketches
of Charles Dickens, drawn from
life, April 1837.
NYPL, Berg Collection

Cruikshank, who would next work with Dickens on Oliver Twist (1837-39; 1838), is only one of the many gifted artists whose names will be linked forever with Dickens's. Acclaimed from the beginning of his career for the vividly pictorial quality of his writing, Dickens understood the importance and the value of the image. In 1858, perhaps with a little exaggeration, he declared that there were very few debates in Parliament "so important to the public welfare as a really good picture." "I have also a notion," he continued, "that any number of bundles of the driest legal chaff that was ever chopped would be cheaply exchanged for one really accessible, really humanising, really meritorious engraving." He would collaborate brilliantly and for the most part smoothly with his many illustrators; and in fact only two of his major works of fiction--Hard Times (1854) and Great Expectations (1861)--were first published without illustrations.

Pickwick triumphant
The success of the Sketches led to a commission from publishers Chapman and Hall to write the story for a series of etchings of sporting life by Robert Seymour, which were to be published in monthly parts. This became The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which was to make Dickens's name.

Serial publication, or books in parts
The Pickwick Papers NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge A note on serial publication, which Dickens exploited so brilliantly throughout his career, beginning with The Pickwick Papers (No. 4, published in July 1836, is shown here).

The first of Pickwick's twenty numbers (the last a double issue) was published on March 31, 1836; and the original intention had been that Dickens's text was to be written to the order of Seymour's drawings. But soon it was the incomparable gallery of originals, with Samuel Pickwick as cynosure, whose "perambulations, perils, travels, adventures and sporting transactions" Dickens narrated with such exhilarating humor and dash, that all England was talking about.

It was Seymour who had originally suggested the storyline of a Cockney hunting club, which became The Pickwick Papers, but he committed suicide early in the production of the series. His successor, Hablot K. Browne, would soon adopt the sobriquet "Phiz" to harmonize with Dickens's "Boz"--the beginning of a brilliant partnership between author and illustrator that would be sustained for twenty-three years and nine more novels, coming to a close with A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

Pickwick was a publishing phenomenon, and it appealed to everyone, even the most discriminating reader. As an early enthusiast, one Miss Mitford, observed: "It is fun--London life--but without anything unpleasant: a lady might read it aloud ... All the boys and girls talk his fun ... and yet they who are of the highest taste like it the most." And the critics too were generally more than enthusiastic. Sydney Smith, for one, announced that "The Soul of Hogarth has migrated into the Body of Mr Dickens" (linking Dickens to the great visual artists of the past would become a critical commonplace). As the exultant author was able to report, in well-deserved capitals: "PICKWICK TRIUMPHANT."

Dickens emerges
Only a few days after the first number of Pickwick was issued, Dickens and Catherine (Kate) Hogarth were married. The daughter of a prominent editor and man-of-letters whom Dickens knew from The Morning Chronicle, the gentle and diffident Kate was sketched by a woman who knew her about this time as: "a pretty little woman, plump and fresh-coloured ... the forehead good, mouth small, round and red-lipped with a genial smiling expression of countenance, notwithstanding the sleepy look of the slow-moving eyes." She would bear Dickens's ten children; but her sedate temperament was poorly suited to her husband's restless and high-spirited nature. It was, as V.S. Pritchett nicely put it, "as if she had been tied to the tail of a comet." The marriage would last for more than twenty years before coming apart very publicly in 1858, a sad spectacle in which Dickens comes off none too attractively.

Pickwick Images Pickwick manuscript Charles, Catherine and Mary.
enlarge Explore the work of
artists who sought to
capture the "constant
succession of characters
and incident" of Dickens's
Pickwick Papers,
including the colorful
character sketches of
Alfred Crowquill (shown
NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge A fragment of Dickens's
original manuscript of
The Pickwick Papers,
coming from chapter 28,
the famous "Good-humoured
Christmas Chapter" set
at Dingley Dell, which
was first published in
December 1836.
NYPL, Berg Collection
enlarge Group portrait of Charles
Dickens, his wife, Catherine
(center), and her younger
sister Georgina, engraved by
Edward Stodart after the 1843
pencil drawing by Daniel Maclise.
NYPL, Berg Collection


Strangely, it was Kate's younger sisters--Mary and Georgina--who were much more powerful presences in Dickens's life.

A fresh world
I think Dickens is one of the best friends mankind has ever had. He has held the mirror up to nature, and of its reflected fragments has composed a fresh world, where the men and women differ from real people only in that they live in a literary medium, so that all ages and places may know them. And they are worth knowing, just as one's neighbours are, for their picturesque characters and their pathetic fates. Their names should be in every child's mouth; they ought to be adopted members of every household.

--George Santayana, "Dickens" (1921)
The completely unexpected death of Mary, only seventeen, was a blow that left Dickens reeling. She had come to live with Dickens and Kate at Doughty Street shortly after their marriage, where she was, he said, "the grace and life of our home." Late one evening, after the three returned from the theater, Mary collapsed, and the next afternoon she sank away into a "calm and gentle sleep" in Dickens's arms. For the rest of his life, Dickens wore a ring on his own finger that he had slipped from her lifeless one. Georgina Hogarth was subsequently to become an indispensable member of the household, gradually assuming all of her sister Kate's responsibilities--and, in the process, taking a position as trusted confidante and companion for Dickens.

With Pickwick, Dickens had unquestionably arrived. His vision certainly darkened as his artistry matured, the satire growing increasingly slashing and the critiques of social injustice more trenchant, while the panoramic presentation of "great portions" of English society, even its grimmest corners and byways, would become only more masterful in the novels that followed the early triumphs. But for the young Dickens, the exuberantly good-humored Pickwick held a special place in the affections (as indeed it does for many Dickensians).

Bentley's Miscellany enlarge
An advertising circular, written by
Dickens, promoting the recently
launched Bentley's Miscellany,
showing its inaugural editor,
as drawn by Phiz, leading a porter
groaning under a huge crate
laden with copies of the new magazine.
NYPL, Berg Collection
On November 1, 1836, he wrote to his publisher Chapman and Hall: "If I were to live a hundred years, and write three novels in each, I should never be so proud of any of them, as I am of Pickwick, feeling as I do, that it has made its own way, and hoping, as I must own I do hope, that long after my hand is withered as the pens it held, Pickwick will be found on many a dusty shelf with many a better work."

Three days later, on November 4, Dickens signed an agreement with the publisher Richard Bentley, who had been observing the extraordinary rise of "Boz" with keen interest. Bentley wanted Dickens to take on the editorship of a new magazine he planned to launch, which at first was to be called Wits' Miscellany. Dickens finally accepted the offer, on the condition that his new responsibilities did not interfere with Pickwick, which still had a year to go in its serial run. Always a shrewd businessman, Dickens well knew his worth, as he reminded Bentley in a letter setting out his terms: "I need not enlarge on the rapidly increasing value of my time and writings to myself, or on the assistance 'Boz's' name just now, would prove to the circulation, because I am persuaded that no one is better able to form a correct estimate of both points, than you are."

Dickens agreed to sign on for one year only (in the event, he lasted three), with the first number of--as it was finally titled--Bentley's Miscellany scheduled for January 1837. The next month, in the Miscellany's second issue, a celebrated literary orphan, one Oliver Twist, would make his debut.

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