It is now more than eighteen years since Charles Dickens, “the most popular novelist of the century, and one of the greatest humourists that England has produced” passed away, amidst the deep sorrow and regret of the whole English nation, and indeed of almost every civilized people. Turning over the leaves of Forster’s life of the great writer the other day, I was struck with his evident liking for Newcastle and Newcastle people. That this liking was genuine, and not assumed to please his friend Forster, seems plain enough, for he gives many good reasons why he was so fond of North Country men.
But first a word about Dickens’s birthplace, and the house in which he died at Gad’s Hill. The great novelist was born in the end house at Mile End Terrace (a short terrace of six houses) in Commercial Road, Landport, Portsmouth. Curiously enough, the house was owned and occupied by a Newcastle gentleman, as he himself lately stated in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, for about fifteen years. It is now in the same state, and has the same appearance, as when Dickens first saw the light within its walls. Gad’s Hill Place, where Dickens died suddenly on the 9th of June, 1870, is famous also for its association with the exploits of Shakspeare’s Sir John Falstaff. Indeed, there is an inn near it bearing the name of the redoubtable knight. It was at this inn that a waiter lamented the death of Charles Dickens because “he used to have all his beer there.” The dining-room of Gad’s Hill Place is depicted in Fildes’s celebrated picture, “The Empty Chair.” Here it was that Dickens died. Seized with a fit during dinner, he was laid on a couch in a corner of the room, and never rose more.
The first time Charles Dickens visited Newcastle was at the end of August, 1852. Some little while before that it was proposed that a series of amateur dramatic performances should be given by the most eminent authors and artists in behalf of the “Guild of Literature and Art,” which had just been established for the benefit of poor members of those crafts who had been overtaken by sickness, old age, or misfortune. Sir Bulwer Lytton had written a comedy “Not so Bad as we Seem” for the amateurs, and this was first played at Devonshire House, her Majesty and the Prince Consort being present. Amongst the actors were Mark Lemon, John Forster, Wilkie Collins, Douglas Jerrold, Charles Knight, John Tenniel, Augustus Egg, &c. Stanfield, Maclise, Grieve, Telbin, and other eminent artists painted the scenery, and the distinguished company the most remarkable company of actors that ever “starred” through the provinces set out on their tour through the large provincial towns. Everywhere the enterprise was a big success. Whether the room was large or small they did not perform in a licensed theatre it was always packed from floor to ceiling.
Before the company arrived at Newcastle, John Forster had to return to London on some important business or other. This was a disappointment, and so was the absence of Douglas Jerrold, who, from some cause which I cannot make out, did not appear in Newcastle. The comedy was performed in the Assembly Rooms on the 27th August, 1852. “Into the room,” writes Dickens, “where Lord Carlisle was, by-the bye, they squeezed 600 people at 12s. 6d. into a space reasonably capable of holding 300.” Of the performance as a whole, the Newcastle Chronicle has a well-written criticism. After lamenting the absence of Forster and Jerrold, that paper goes on to say : “The play itself is loosely hung together, the plot is insufficient and meagre, and does not furnish adequate motives for the development of the conclusion; but with the aid of fine music, costly costumes, magnificent scenery, and really respectable acting, it went off exceedingly well, and was most enthusiastically applauded.” The Chronicle speaks very highly of the acting of Charles Dickens, especially in the farce, where, along with Mark Lemon, he kept the audience in a continual roar of laughter. The farce, I believe, was a new one, entitled “Mr. Nightingale’s Diary,” and was played for the first time at Newcastle. An unfortunate accident had occurred at the Central Station on the arrival of the company, a pair of runaway horses upsetting one of the vans containing the scenery, every atom of which was turned over. By good luck, however, there was no damage done.
The Guild of Literature and Art Company were at Sunderland, August 28, the night after the Newcastle performance. Writing from the Wear borough to Forster, Dickens says : “Last night, in a hall built like a theatre, with pit, boxes, and gallery, we had about 1,200 people I dare say more. They began with a round of applause when Coote’s white waistcoat appeared in the orchestra, and wound up the farce with three deafening cheers. I never saw such good fellows. Stanny (Stanfield) is their fellow-townsman, was born here, and they applauded his scenes as if it was himself.” Dickens had walked from Newcastle to Sunderland that morning. The hall engaged by the amateurs at Sunderland was a perfectly new one, having, in fact, had the slates put on only overnight. As Dickens was manager of the company, and responsible for everything before and behind the curtain, his anxiety and “worrit” lest the place should prove unsafe, and an accident should happen to the immense audience assembled within its walls, nearly made him ill, and all but caused him to stop the performance. But Dickens always got fun out of the most serious difficulties, and we cannot help smiling at his own description of his dilemma, “I asked W..” he says, “what he thought, and he consolingly observed that his digestion was so bad that death had no terrors for him!” “The only comfort I had,” he continued, “was in stumbling at length on the builder, and finding him a plain, practical North Country man, with a foot rule in his pocket. I took him aside, and asked him should we, or could we, prop up any weak part of the place. He told me there wasn’t a stronger building in the world; that they had opened it on Thursday night to thousands of the working people, and induced them to sing and make every possible trial of the vibration.” This somewhat pacified Dickens; the performance took place, and, as we have seen, was a great success.
Mr. Dickens’s earliest public readings were given at Birmingham on behalf of a new literary institute there, and his services were of course gratuitous. This was in the middle of December, 1853. Although he insisted that a number of seats should be reserved for working men at threepence each, the institution was benefited by these readings to the extent of between 400 and 500. In the following year, for a similar purpose, he read at Bradford in a carpenter’s shop, with equally satisfactory results, the price of admission being 5s., though he again stipulated that a number of threepenny seats should be reserved for workmen. The natural result of Dickens’s kindness was to overwhelm him with applications from all parts of the kingdom to read (without pay, we may be sure) for all sorts of institutions and objects, which in self-defence he was obliged to decline. From the great interest taken in his readings, however, and the enthusiasm with which they were always received, he conceived the idea of paid readings for the benefit of Charles Dickens himself. It was not till after much doubt and hesitation that he came to this resolution; indeed, it took him years of anxious thought before he finally decided. In April, 1858, however, he began with a series of sixteen readings in London, and in August of the same year he took his first provincial tour.
He visited Newcastle in its turn on the 24th and 25th September, 1859, and gave three readings in the Town Hall. The first evening he read his “Christmas Carol”. On the following afternoon he read “Little Dombey,” and the “Trial” from “Pickwick”; and at night, the “Poor Traveller,” “Boots at the Holly Tree,” and “Mrs. Gamp.” I was present at the first reading, when the room was full, but by no means crowded. Dickens did not read from the orchestra platform, but from his own table, constructed for the purpose, which was placed on the floor at the organ end of the hall. Afterwards he expressed himself as being much pleased with his visit, both as regards the audience and the hearty way in which he was received.
In 1861 Dickens was again in Newcastle, and gave three readings in the Music Hall, Nelson Street, on the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd November, “before an audience (said the Daily Chronicle) which any author, however distinguished, might feel proud to appear.” The people were packed as close almost as apples in a barrel, and the hall, which had just been enlarged and decorated, looked brilliant, fully one half of the audience being gaily dressed ladies. The readings were from “David Copperfield,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Little Dombey,” and the “Trial” from “Pickwick.” I cannot forbear quoting Dickens’s opinion of a Newcastle audience, which he gives in a letter to Forster : “At Newcastle, against the very heavy expenses, I made more than a hundred guineas profit. A finer audience there is not in England, and I suppose them to be a specially earnest people; for, while they can laugh till they shake the roof, they have a very unusual sympathy with what is pathetic or passionate.”
Bravo! Charles Dickens. I was myself present on the “Dombey” night, and could not help remarking how deeply affected the late Mr. Lockey Harle seemed to be when the reader came to the death of little Paul. He could not conceal his emotion, and indeed made no effort to do so. He was affected in quite another fashion however, when the “Trial” from “Pickwick” came to be read. No schoolboy at a pantomime could laugh more heartily at the eccentricities of clown or the mishaps of pantaloon than did Mr. Harle at the rich humour of the trial scene, and his merriment at times rose to a perfect shout at the turgid eloquence of Serjeant Buzfuz.
An accident, which might have been very serious, occurred on the second night, an account of which Dickens wrote, not only to Forster, but to his friends at home. I will give his own words : “An extraordinary thing occurred on the second night. The room was tremendously crowded, and my gas apparatus fell down. There was a terrible wave among the people for an instant, and God knows what destruction of life a rush to the stairs would have caused. Fortunately a lady in the front of the stalls ran out towards me, exactly in a place where I knew that the whole hall could see her. So I addressed her, laughing, and half asked and half ordered her to sit down again; and in a moment it was all over. It took five minutes to mend, and I looked on with my hands in my pockets.”
Early in March, 1867, Dickens was once more in Newcastle, and gave three readings in the Music Hall, which was again densely crowded. Writing to his friend Forster, he pays another high compliment to Newcastle people, which I think is worth giving: “The readings have made an universal effect in this place, and it is remarkable that, although the people are individually rough, collectively they are an unusually tender and sympathetic audience; while their comic perception is quite up to the high London standard.”
As far as I can discover, this was Charles Dickens’s fourth and last visit to Newcastle, and as I have only undertaken to give a brief account of his visits to the North of England, his future career, however interesting, has no place here. Everybody knows now that, although these readings were a splendid success, they undoubtedly shortened the life of the great novelist. There has been nothing like them, as regards their financial results, either before or since. Including America, the readings yielded him, in two years, the magnificent sum of thirty thousand pounds; but the earning of that large sum of money cost us the life of the most genial and popular writer that England has yet seen, or in all probability ever will see.
W. W. W.