Sir Henry Fielding Dickens

MEMORIES OF MY FATHER

Duffield & Co, 1929

FOREWORD


Following upon the publication of " My Memories of My Father " in The Times on the 9th and 11th of June last, I received a large number of letters containing generous appreciation of my article, with an expression of a desire in some cases that it should be republished separately, so that every Dickens lover in the world might buy a copy if he wished to do so. In reproducing it in its present form, I have endeavoured to add to its attractiveness by including a few pictures illustrating the matters mentioned in my text, which I hope may not be altogether without interest to lovers of Charles Dickens. I may add that my article as it appears in these pages is exactly identical with the two articles which were published in The Times in June last, without any addition or omission of any kind.

HENRY F. DICKENS



MEMORIES OF MY FATHER

The personal links which connect Charles Dickens with this generation at the present time are few, and even these, few as they are, are rapidly disappearing. My dear sister, Mrs. Perugini, and I are his only surviving children. She was born in October 1839, while I may be said to be " getting on," as I have just entered upon my eightieth year, having attained the age of twenty-one shortly before his death. In these circumstances it has often been impressed upon me by friends and others whose opinion I value that any memories I may have of him would be likely to be of great interest to those of the English-speaking races who cherish his memory and admire his genius. In the belief that this is so I have jotted down such of my impressions as may tend to throw fresh light upon the personality and the inner life of the man, touching sometimes on his lighter, sometimes on his more serious side, without any attempt on my part to enter upon any sort of discussion or criticism of his literary work. The last is for posterity. My object is to give posterity some idea of the man himself.

In 1914 I wrote a short paper in Harper's Magazine entitled " A Chat about Charles Dickens." In that article I touched upon one or two of the episodes mentioned in these impressions, which, by the kind permission of Harper and Brothers, I am able to reproducee here.

The general impressions of a man, and those most likely to endure, are formed mostly from his ordinary everyday life, day after day, week after week, and not from any one or more episodes, however striking they may happen to be. The impression of my father which I retain is of this character. Of himself, judged from this point of view, my memory is not blurred in the least. It is as clear and vivid as it was at the time of his death, now fifty-eight years ago. I can see him now distinctly, as he lived day by day. In the morning at breakfast time, which was strictly punctual, for he unpunctuality ; I can follow him afterwards for half an hour in the garden, smoking his cigar before settling down to work, looking at the flowers, playing with " Mrs. Bouncer," my sister Mamie's dog.

At some such idle moments, or, rather, later in the day ,I have stood beside him watching the trial of wits between the raven, " Grip the Second," and the mastiff, " Turk." It was amusing to watch the triumph of mind over matter. When the tray of food was brought to the dog, the raven, alert and waiting, would hop at once on to the dish with his eye fixed sideways on the dog and take his fill, entirely undisturbed, while the dog dare not approach the tin until Grip," with an air of triumphant repletion, had hopped away. The raven, indeed, was a source of perpetual amusement to us. It was delightful to watch him going through the most studied pretence of busily burying something in a particular spot, know-ing well that we were watching him, covering up the hole with earth in order to deceive us, and then surreptitiously burying it in an entirely different place.

The half-hour's stroll being over, my father would settle down to work, either at his desk in the library, which has been immortalised by Sir Luke Fildes, R.A., in his picture of " The Empty Chair," or in the Swiss chalet situate in the shrub-bery, with a grand view over the marshes and the river, which he has so vividly described in Great Expectations. The chalet had been given to him by Charles Fechter, the actor, in.the beginning of 1865, and was so delightful to him that he used to love to work there in the summer time. This is how he himself described it : " My room is up among the branches of the trees, and the birds and the butterflies fly in and out, and the green branches shoot in at the open win-dows ; and the lights and shadows of the clouds come and go with the rest of the company. The scent of the flowers and, indeed, of everything that is growing for miles and miles is most delicious." It was indeed an ideal spot, where there was nothing to disturb him or arrest the play of his fancy or interfere with the working of his imagination. At luncheon time he would occasionally stroll into the dining-room to take a biscuit and a glass of sherry. But at such times his mind was far away ; walking about the room in deep thought he would speak but little, though he used on some such occasions in an abstracted sort of way to watch the movements of the goldfinch in his cage, who had been taught to draw his water from a small glass well by means of a very light chain and a thimble. This was a task which was far from arduous, and which, judging from the perky way in which he used to look round at us while drinking out of the thimble, was one which he thoroughly enjoyed.

I can recall with the utmost vividness the long walks in the afternoon when his desk work was done, ten miles or more, when I and the dogs were sometimes his sole companions. He rarely went out without his dogs, and I remember the villagers used to talk about Mr. Dickens with his roost of dogs, a quaint expression in that connection. While on this subject of dogs, I had an extraordinary letter only a short time ago in which I was seriously asked if it were true that my father had an objection to all animals except horses. A preposterous question. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He loved all domestic animals. So far as the dogs are concerned, there were " Turk," the sweet-tempered mastiff; Linda," the St. Bernard, who was brought, when a puppy, straight from the St. Bernard monastery, a gift from Albert Smith, who was at one time an Alpine climber; " Bumble, " the Newfoundland, whose ludicrous blundering antics as a puppy used to convulse us with laughter; and "Mrs. Bouncer, the Pomeranian, who was his special favourite. There was another dog, "Sultan," an Irish bloodhound, given him by Mr. Percy Fitzgerald, whose end was tragic. He turned out to be very dangerous, and so bad-tempered that when let loose he had to be muzzled. His pet aversion was anything red ; and when we met on the highroad a company of soldiers marching from Gravesend to Chatham he used to dash into the midst of them and scatter them all over the road, though, being muzzled, he did them no harm. It was in consequence of this propensity that my father dubbed him " The Fenian." At last, a little girl getting within reach of his chain in the yard, he made such a ferocious dash at her that it was impossible to keep him, and he had to be shot. For cats, we had a de-lightfully companionable one called " Wilhelmina, who used to follow us in our short walks in the country lanes and run ahead of us like a dog. The horses comprised a strong horse who used to do the heavy work, and the sprightly " Newman Noggs," with a hogged mane, who was furnished with a set of bells, which used to ring a merry jingle as my father drove him along the countryside. For birds, there were not only ”Grip” and the goldfinch, but also a canary, who was buried in the garden with a headstone, which I hope still remains there, ”In memory of Dick, the best of birds.”

These afternoon walks used to,extend all over the surrounding country. I have wandered with him alon the Great Expectations marshes. I have with him looked down upon the tombstone of " Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, also Ge-orgiana, wife of the above," with the five little stone lozenges arranged in a neat row beside their graves sacred to the memory of five little brothers of Pip, " who gave up trying to get a living exceedingly early in that universal struggle." On these walks we rarely spoke a word. I knew his mind was at work, but he loved the companionship for all that. How well do I recall him at dinner time, when he threw aside work for the day and was his own bright, irresistible, interesting, radiant self, full of life, with wonderful animal spirits, and bubbling over with humour !

But, of course, with his sensitive and emotional nature it is not to be wondered at that he had his moods ; heavy moods of deep depression, of intense nervous irritability, when he was silent and oppressed. These, however, were never of long duration, and passed from him as quickly as they came. We know from Forster's Life that in the times anterior to those of which I am writing these moods sometimes took the form of fits of intense and feverish restlessness when ve-rything seemed to go wrong with him ; which impelled him to wander through the streets of London for hours at night to calm himself and induce sleep. These were by no means infrequent, and occurred, no doubt, at times when he was overwrought and his brain was unduly strained.

Such occasions, however, must not be confounded with those other night excursions which he made to the East End of London, accompanied by a police inspector, in order to visit the thieves' kitchens, common lodging-houses, and other haunts of the criminal classes which existed in those days. These continued even in my time, the last of such visits taking place, indeed, very shortly before his death. That was a memorable one, because it was from what he saw on that occasi-on he evolved the opium- smoking scene which was such a prominent feature in Edwin Drood. I was to have accompa-nied him on that night, but unfortunately I had to go to Cambridge, and so missed a most interesting experience.

He was not musical in the classical sense, but he loved the simple ballads which my sister Mamie used to sing after din-ner, until the supreme moment came for him at 10 o'clock to mix his gin punch; when he looked like Mr. Micawber, as if he were mixing " not punch merely, but a fortune for his whole family down to the latest posterity."

But in this, as in all things appertaining to eating or drinking, he was studiously moderate and abstemious. I remember him as being at his best either at Christmas time or at other times when Gad's Hill was full of guests, for he loved social intercourse and was a perfect host. At such times he rose to the very height of the occasion, and it is quite impossible to express in words his geniality and brilliancy amid a brilliant circle. Touching the lighter side of his character, I remem-ber an amusing scene one evening at Gad's Hill which tends to illustrate his buoyant nature and wonderful fund of ani-mal spirits. It was in the summer time, and a bat had found its way into the hall, which ran from the front to the rear of the house. We were sitting in the hall at the time in consequence of the hot weather ; and as the bat fluttered up and down in its efforts to escape, flying high and flying low, everyone rushed for shelter. At last my father, taking his coura-ge in both hands, resolved to dislodge the intruder, which, at that time, had taken refuge in a corner of the ceiling. Cal-ling for the library ladder and a hib-bath, he mounted the steps with the bath covering his head as a protection from the bat. As he mounted the ladder the bath, which was in a state of most unstable equilibrium, began to wobble. As he mounted higher it wobbled still more; and from that time it may be said that the struggle became in reality one as bet-ween himself and the bath, rather than one between the bat and himself. This could not continue for long, however, for the ridiculous nature of the situation soon became too much for him. So strongly, in fact, did it appeal to his sense of humour that, while standing on the steps with the bath still uppermost, he burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter, which I need hardly say the whole of the family re-echoed. This finished it. The bath fell down with a crash, while the bat, stimulated to fresh endeavours, or frightened to death by the noise below, emerged from its resting-place and disap-peared through the open door, from which it had made its unwelcome appearance.

To walk with him in the streets of London was in itself a revelation ; a royal progress ; people of all degrees and classes taking off their hats and greeting him as he passed. One such occasion I can particularly recall. It was at the Zoo, and my father and I were walking down the broad walk when we saw, a little distance away from us, a lady and gentleman coming towards us with a bright and pretty girl of about fourteen or fifteen running ahead of them. Suddenly the little girl, catching sight of my father, ran back to her mother crying out delightedly, " Oh, mummy! mummy ! it is Charles Dickens." My father, who had heard and seen it all, was strangely embarrassed; but, oh, so pleased, so truly delighted. It was a pretty scene; but such things were constantly happening. It was this popular adulation he courted and wooed ; but it never spoilt him. He remained to the end modest and quite untouched by any appearance of affectation or self-conceit. This sketch of mine must necessarily be incomplete, and is, in fact, confined to the last few years of his life at Gad's Hill. I was only eight when we first went there, after which date I was constantlyaway from home, either at school or at Cam-bridge, for months at a time, and was consequently absent at many important events of his life.

I have been asked what is my strongest outstanding memory of him, or whether there are any particular phrases or re-marks of his which live in my memory. The first part of the question is difficult to answer ; but as to my remembering any particular phrases or remarks that fell from him, it is highly improbable that I should do so,,for the simple reason that in ordinary conversation he never talked for the sake of mere effect ; he never turned a sentence or coined an epigram with a view to its being recorded, as-some literary and learned people are inclined to do. He was as simple and natural in his speech as he was in his manner, which was always quiet, refined, and entirely free from ostentation.

Looking back now upon the years that are gone, I find that there are one or two scenes or incidents which arise with astonishing vividness to my mind that may be worth recording. The first is one which I can never forget, as it was so peculiarly personal to myself. I hope it will not be thought that, I tell this story vaingloriously, as it was but a small mat-ter so far as I was concerned. Nothing is farther from my thoughts. I do so because it is typical of a strange reticence on his part, an intense dislike of " letting himself go " in private life or of using language which might be deemed strained or over-effusive ; though, as will be seen later, when he was deeply moved he was at no pains to hide the depth of his emotion. Thus it came about that, though his children knew he was devotedly attached to them, there was still a kind of reserve on his part which seemed occasionally to come as a cloud between us and which I never quite understood.

In the year 1869, after I had been at college about a year, I was fortunate enough to gain one of the principal scholar-ships at Trinity Hall, Cambridge- not a great thing, only 5o pounds a year ; but I knew that this success, slight as it was, would give him intense pleasure, so I went to meet him at Higham Station upon his arrival from London to tell him of it. As he got out of the train I told him the news. He said, " Capital ! capital "-nothing more. Disappointed to find that he received the news apparently so lightly, I took my seat beside him in the pony carriage he was driving. Nothing more happened until we had got half-way to Gad's Hill, when he broke down comurning towards me with tears in his eyes and giving me a warm grip of the hand, he said,." God my boy ; God bless you! " That pressure of the hand I can feel now as distinctly as I felt it then, and it will remain as strong and real until the day of my death.


Part II