One remembers, for instance, how he was called in to arbitrate between Thackeray and George Augustus Sala, who had quarreled. One remembers how Lord Byron’s daughter, Lady Lovelace, when upon her sick-bed, used to send for Dickens because there was something in his genial, sympathetic manner that soothed her. Crushing pieces of ice between her teeth in agony, she would speak to him and he would answer her in his rich, manly tones until she was comforted and felt able to endure more hours of pain without complaint.
Dickens was a jovial soul. His books fairly steam with Christmas cheer and hot punch and the savor of plum puddings, very much as do his letters to his intimate friends. Everybody knew Dickens. He could not dine in public without attracting attention. When he left the dining-room, his admirers would descend upon his table and carry off egg-shells, orange-peels, and other things that remained behind, so that they might have memorials of this much-loved writer. Those who knew him only by sight would often stop him in the streets and ask the privilege of shaking hands with him; so different was he from—let us say—Tennyson, who was as great an Englishman in his way as Dickens, but who kept himself aloof and saw few strangers.
It is hard to associate anything like mystery with Dickens, though he was fond of mystery as an intellectual diversion, and his last unfinished novel was The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Moreover, no one admired more than he those complex plots which Wilkie Collins used to weave under the influence of laudanum. But as for his own life, it seemed so normal, so free from anything approaching mystery, that we can scarcely believe it to have been tinged with darker colors than those which appeared upon the surface.
A part of this mystery is plain enough. The other part is still obscure—or of such a character that one does not care to bring it wholly to the light. It had to do with his various relations with women.
The world at large thinks that it knows this chapter in the life of Dickens, and that it refers wholly to his unfortunate disagreement with his wife. To be sure, this is a chapter that is writ large in all of his biographies, and yet it is nowhere correctly told. His chosen biographer was John Forster, whose Life of Charles Dickens, in three volumes, must remain a standard work; but even Forster—we may assume through tact—has not set down all that he could, although he gives a clue.
As is well known, Dickens married Miss Catherine Hogarth when he was only twenty-four. He had just published his Sketches by Boz, the copyright of which he sold for one hundred pounds, and was beginning the Pickwick Papers. About this time his publisher brought N. P. Willis down to Furnival’s Inn to see the man whom Willis called “a young paragraphist for the Morning Chronicle.” Willis thus sketches Dickens and his surroundings:
In the most crowded part of Holborn, within a door or two of the Bull and Mouth Inn, we pulled up at the entrance of a large building used for lawyers’ chambers. I followed by a long flight of stairs to an upper story, and was ushered into an uncarpeted and bleak-looking room, with a deal table, two or three chairs and a few books, a small boy and Mr. Dickens for the contents.