My father at his work.--Rooms in which he wrote.--Love for his child characters.--Genius for character drawing.--Nicholas Nickleby.--His writing hours.--His only amanuensis.--"Pickwick" and "Boz."--Death of Mr. Thackeray.
When at work my father was almost always alone, so that, with rare exceptions, save as we could see the effect of the adventures of his characters upon him in his daily moods, we knew but little of his manner of work. Absolute quiet under these circumstances was essential, the slightest sound making an interruption fatal to the success of his labors, although, oddly enough, in his leisure hours the bustle and noise of a great city seemed necessary to him. He writes, after an enforced idleness of two years, spent in a quiet place; "The difficulty of going at what I call a rapid pace is prodigious; indeed, it is almost an impossibility. I suppose this is partly the effect of two years' ease, and partly the absence of streets, and numbers of figures. I cannot express how much I want these. It seems as if they supplied something to my brain which, when busy, it cannot bear to lose. For a week or fortnight I can write prodigiously in a retired place, a day in London setting and starting me up again. But the toil and labor of writing day after day without that magic lantern is immense!"
As I have said, he was usually alone when at work, though there were, of course, some occasional exceptions, and I myself constituted such an exception. During our life at Tavistock House, I had a long and serious illness, with an almost equally long convalescence. During the latter, my father suggested that I should be carried every day into his study to remain with him, and, although I was fearful of disturbing him, he assured me that he desired to have me with him. On one of these mornings, I was lying on the sofa endeavouring to keep perfectly quiet, while my father wrote busily and rapidly at his desk, when he suddenly jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung 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, where he remained silently writing until luncheon time. It was a most curious experience for me, and one of which, I did not until later years, fully appreciate the purport. Then I knew that with his natural intensity he had thrown himself completely into the character that he was creating, and that for the time being he had not only lost sight of his surroundings, but had actually become in action, as in imagination, the creature of his pen.
His "studies" were always cheery, pleasant rooms, and always, like himself, the personification of neatness and tidiness. On the shelf of his writing table were many dainty and useful ornaments, gifts from his friends or members of his family, and always, a vase of bright and fresh flowers. The first study that I remember is the one in our Devonshire Terrace home, a pretty room, with steps leading directly into the garden from it, and with an extra baize door to keep out all sounds and noise. The study at Tavistock House was more elaborate; a fine large room, opening into the drawing-room by means of sliding doors. When the rooms were thrown together they gave my father a promenade of considerable length for the constant indoor walking which formed a favorite recreation for him after a hard day's writing.
At "Gad's Hill" he first made a study from one of the large spare sleeping rooms of the house, as the windows there overlooked a beautiful and favorite view of his. His writing table was always placed near a window looking out into the open world which he loved so keenly. Afterwards he occupied for years a smaller room overlooking the back garden and a pretty meadow, but this he eventually turned into a miniature billiard room, and then established himself, finally, in the room on the right side of the entrance hall facing the front garden. It is this room which Mr. Luke Fildes, the great artist and our own esteemed friend, made famous in his picture "The Empty Chair," which he sketched for "The Graphic" after my father's death. The writing table, the ornaments, the huge waste paper basket, which "the master" had made for his own use, are all there, and, alas, the empty chair!
That he was always in earnest, that he lived with his creations, that their joys and sorrows were his joys and sorrows, that at times his anguish, both of body and spirit, was poignant and heart-breaking, I know. His interest in and love for his characters were intense as his nature, and is shown nowhere more strongly than in his sufferings during his portrayal of the short life of "Little Nell," like a father he mourned for his little girl--the child of his brain--and he writes: "I am, for the time, nearly dead with work and grief for the loss of my child." Again he writes of her: "You can't imagine (gravely I write and speak) how exhausted I am to-day with yesterday's labors. I went to bed last night utterly dispirited and done up. All night I have been pursued by the child; and this morning I am unrefreshed and miserable. I do not know what to do with myself."
His love and care for this little one are shown most pathetically in the suggestions which he gave to Mr. George Cattermole for his illustrations of the "Old Curiosity Shop." "Kit, the single gentleman, and Mr. Garland go down to the place where the child is and arrive there at night. There has been a fall of snow. Kit, leaving them behind, runs to the old house, and with a lantern in one hand, and the bird in its cage in the other, stops for a moment at a little distance, with a natural hesitation, before he goes up to make his presence known. In a window--supposed to be that of the child's little room--a light is burning, and in that room the child (unknown, of course, to her visitors, who are full of hope), lies dead."
Again: "The child lying dead in the little sleeping room, behind the open screen. It is winter time, so there are no flowers, but upon her breast and pillow there may be strips of holly and berries and such green things. A window, overgrown with ivy. The little boy who had that talk with her about the angels may be by the bedside, if you like it so; but I think it will be quieter and more peaceful if she is quite alone. I want the scene to express the most beautiful repose and tranquillity, and to have something of a happy look, if death can do this."
Another: "The child has been buried within the church, and the old man, who cannot be made to understand that she is dead repairs to the grave and sits there all day long, waiting for her arrival to begin another journey. His staff and knapsack, her little bonnet and basket, lie beside him. 'She'll come to-morrow,' he says, when it gets dark, and then goes sorrowfully home. I think an hour glass running out would keep up the notion; perhaps her little things upon his knee or in his hand. I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it."
In acknowledging the receipt of a letter concerning this book from Mr. John Tomlin, an American, he wrote: "I thank you cordially and heartily for your letter, and for its kind and courteous terms. To think that I have awakened among the vast solitudes in which you dwell a fellow feeling and sympathy with the creatures of many thoughtful hours, is the source of the purest delight and pride to me; and believe me that your expressions of affectionate remembrance and approval, sounding from the green forests of the Mississippi, sink deeper into my heart and gratify it more than all the honorary distinctions that all the courts of Europe could confer. It is such things as these that make one hope one does not live in vain, and that are the highest rewards of an author's life."
His genius for character sketching needs no proof--his characters live to vouch for themselves, for their reality. It is ever amazing to me that the hand which drew the pathetic and beautiful creations, the kindly humored men, the lovely women, the unfortunate little ones, could portray also with such marvellous accuracy the villainy and craftiness of such characters as Bumble, Bill Sykes, Pecksniff, Uriah Heep and Squeers. Undoubtedly from his earliest childhood he had possessed the quick perception, the instinct, which could read in people's characters their tendencies toward good and evil, and throughout his life he valued this ability above literary skill and finish. Mr. Forster makes a point of this in his biography, speaking of the noticeable traits in him: "What I had most, indeed, to notice in him at the very outset of his career, was his indifference to any praise of his performances on their merely literary merit, compared with the higher recognition of them as bits of actual life, with the meaning and purpose on their part, and the responsibility on his, of realities rather than creatures of fancy."
But he was always pleased with praise, and always modest and grateful in returning it. "How can I thank you?" he writes to a friend who was expressing his pleasure at "Oliver Twist." "Can I do better than by saying that the sense of poor Oliver's reality, which I know you have had from the first, has been the highest of all praise to me? None that has been lavished upon me have I felt half so much as that appreciation of my intent and meaning. Your notices make me very grateful, but very proud, so have a care."
The impressions which were later converted into motives and plots for his stories he imbibed often in his earliest childhood. The crusade against the Yorkshire schools which is waged in "Nicholas Nickleby," is the working out of some of these childish impressions. He writes himself of them: "I cannot call to mind how I came to hear about Yorkshire schools, when I was not a very robust child, sitting in by-places near Rochester Castle with a head full of Partridge, Strap, Tom Pipes and Sancho Panza, but I know my first impressions of the schools were picked up at this time." We can imagine how deeply the wrongs must have sunk into the sensitive heart of the child, rankling there through many years, to bear fruit in the scourging of them and their abuses from the land. While he was at work upon "Nicholas Nickleby," he sent one of his characteristic letters in reply to a little boy--Master Hasting Hughes--who wrote to ask him to make some changes in the story. As some of you may not have read this letter, and as it is so extremely amusing, I shall quote part of it:
"DOUGHTY STREET, LONDON.
"December 12th, 1838.
"Respected Sir: I have given Squeers one cut on the neck, and two on the head, at which he appeared much surprised, and began to cry, which, being a cowardly thing, is just what I should have expected from him--wouldn't you?
"I have carefully done what you told me in your letter about the lamb and the two 'sheeps' for the little boys. They have also had some good ale and porter and some wine. I am sorry you did not say what wine you would like them to have. I gave them some sherry, which they liked very much, except one boy who was a little sick and choked a good deal. He was rather greedy, and that's the truth, and I believe it went the wrong way, which I say served him right, and I hope you will say so too. Nick has had his roast lamb, as you said he was to, but he could not eat it all, and says if you do not mind his doing so he should like to have the rest hashed to-morrow with some greens, which he is very fond of, and so am I. He said he did not like to have his porter hot, for he thought it spoilt the flavour, so I let him have it cold. You should have seen him drink it. I thought he never would have left off. I also gave him three pounds in money, all in sixpences to make it seem more, and he said directly that he should give more than half to his mamma and sister, and divide the rest with poor Smike. And I say he is a good fellow for saying so; and if anybody says he isn't, I am ready to fight him whenever they like--there!
"Fanny Squeers shall be attended to, depend upon it. Your drawing of her is very like, except that I do not think the hair is quite curly enough. The nose is particularly like hers, and so are the legs. She is a nasty, disagreeable thing, and I know it will make her very cross when she sees it, and what I say is that I hope it may. You will say the same, I know--at least I think you will."
The amount of work which he could accomplish varied greatly at certain times, though in its entirety it was so immense. When he became the man of letters, and ceased the irregular, unmethodical life of the reporter, his mornings were invariably spent at his desk. The time between breakfast and luncheon, with an occasional extension of a couple of hours into the afternoon, were given over to his creations. The exceptions were when he was taking a holiday or resting, though even when ostensibly employed in the latter, cessation from story writing meant the answering of letters and the closer attention to his business matters, so that but little of real rest ever came into his later life.
While in Italy he gave a fragmentary diary of his daily life in a letter to a friend, and the routine was there very much what it was at home. "I am in a regular ferocious excitement with the Chimes; get up at seven; have a cold bath before breakfast; and blaze away, wrathful and red-hot, until three o'clock or so, when I usually knock off (unless it rains) for the day. I am fierce to finish in a spirit bearing some affinity to that of truth and mercy, and to shame the cruel and the wicked, but it is hard work." His entire discomfort under sound interruptions is also shown in the above, in his reference to the Chimes, and the effect which they had upon him.
Despite his regularity of working hours, as I have said, the amount of work which my father accomplished varied greatly. His manuscripts were usually written upon white "slips," though sometimes upon blue paper, and there were many mornings when it would be impossible for him to fill one of these. He writes on one occasion: "I am sitting at home, patiently waiting for Oliver Twist, who has not yet arrived." And, indeed, "Oliver" gave him considerable trouble, in the course of his adventures, by his disinclination to be put upon paper easily. This slowness in writing marked more prominently the earlier period of my father's literary career, though these "blank days," when his brain refused to work, were of occasional occurrence to the end. He was very critical of his own labors, and would bring nothing but the best of his brain to the art which he so dearly loved--his venerated mistress. But, on the other hand, the amount of work which he would accomplish at other times was almost incredible. During a long sojourn at Lausanne he writes: "I have not been idle since I have been here. I had a good deal to write for Lord John about the ragged schools; so I set to work and did that. A good deal to Miss Coutts, in reference to her charitable projects; so I set to work and did that. Half of the children's New Testament to write, or pretty nearly. I set to work and did that. Next, I cleared off the greater part of such correspondence as I had rashly pledged myself to, and then--began Dombey!"
I know of only one occasion on which he employed an amanuensis, and my aunt is my authority for the following, concerning this one time: "The book which your father dictated to me was 'The Child's History of England.' The reason for my being used in this capacity of secretary was that 'Bleak House' was being written at the same time, and your father would dictate to me while walking about the room, as a relief after his long, sedentary imprisonment. The history was being written for 'Household Words,' and 'Bleak House' also as a serial, so he had both weekly and monthly work on hand at the same time." The history was dedicated: "To my own dear children, whom I hope it will help, by-and-by, to read with interest larger and better books upon the same subject."
My father wrote always with a quill pen and blue ink, and never, I think, used a lead pencil. His handwriting was considered extremely difficult to read by many people, but I never found it so. In his manuscripts there were so many erasures, and such frequent interlineations that a special staff of compositors was used for his work, but this was not on account of any illegibility in his handwriting. The manuscripts are most of them, exhibited at the South Kensington Museum in "the Forster Collection," and they all show I think, the extreme care and fastidiousness of the writer, and his ever-constant desire to improve upon and simplify his original sentence. His objection to the use of a lead pencil was so great that even his personal memoranda, such as his lists of guests for dinner parties, the arrangement of tables and menus, were always written in ink. For his personal correspondence he used blue note paper, and signed his name in the left-hand corner of the envelope. After a morning's close work he was sometimes quite pre-occupied when he came into luncheon. Often, when we were only our home party at "Gad's Hill," he would come in, take something to eat in a mechanical way--he never ate but a small luncheon--and would return to his study to finish the work he had left, scarcely having spoken a word in all this time. Again, he would come in, having finished his work, but looking very tired and worn. Our talking at these times did not seem to disturb him, though any sudden sound, as the dropping of a spoon, or the clinking of a glass, would send a spasm of pain across his face.
The sudden, almost instantaneous, popularity of "Pickwick" was known to the world long before it was realized by its anxious young author. All the business transactions concerning its publication were modest to a degree, and the preparations for such a success as came to it were none. As to its popularity, Mr. Forster writes: "Judges on the bench, and boys in the streets, gravity and folly, the young and the old, those who were entering life, and those who were quitting it, alike found it irresistible." Carlyle wrote: "An archdeacon repeated to me, with his own venerable lips, the other evening, a strange, profane story of a solemn clergyman who had been summoned to administer consolation to a very ill man. As he left the room he heard the sick man ejaculate: "Well thank God, Pickwick will be out in ten days, anyway!" No young author ever sprang into more sudden and brilliant fame than "Boz," and none could have remained more thoroughly unspoiled, or so devoid of egotism under success. His own opinion of his fame, and his estimate of its value, may be quoted here: "To be numbered amongst the household gods of one's distant countrymen, and associated with their homes and quiet pleasures; to be told that in each nook and corner of the world's great mass there lives one well-wisher who holds communion with one in the spirit, is a worthy fame, indeed. That I may be happy enough to cheer some of your leisure hours for a long time to come, and to hold a place in your pleasant thoughts, is the earnest wish of 'Boz.'"
On the Christmas Eve of 1863 my father was greatly shocked and distressed to hear of the sudden death of Mr. Thackeray. Our guests, naturally, were full of the sad news, and there was a gloom cast over everything. We all thought of the sorrow of his two daughters, who were so devoted to him, and whom his sudden taking away would leave so desolate. In "The Cornhill Magazine" of the February following, my father wrote: "I saw Mr. Thackeray for the first time nearly twenty-eight years ago, when he proposed to become the illustrator of my earliest book. I saw him last shortly before Christmas, at the Athenaeum Club, when he told me he had been in bed three days, and that he had it in his mind to try a new remedy, which he laughingly described. He was cheerful, and looked very bright. In the night of that day week he died.
* * * * *
No one can be surer than I of the greatness and goodness of his heart. In no place should I take it upon myself at this time to discourse of his books, of his refined knowledge of character, of his subtle acquaintance with the weakness of human nature, of his delightful playfulness as an essayist, of his quaint and touching ballads, of his mastery over the English language. But before me lies all that he had written of his latest story, and the pain I have felt in perusing it has not been deeper than the conviction that he was in the healthiest region of his powers when he worked on this last labor. The last words he corrected in print were 'and my heart throbbed with an exquisite bliss.' God grant that on that Christmas Eve, when he laid his head back on his pillow and threw up his arms as he had been wont to do when very weary, some consciousness of duty done, and of Christian hope throughout life humbly cherished, may have caused his own heart so to throb when he passed away to his rest."