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October 23, 2017

Dickens, Beginning and End

On this day in 1870 Charles Dickens died at the age of fifty-eight. Family and friends report that Dickens was beset by increasing debility and depression throughout his last months, appearing suddenly much older than his years when he had for so long looked so much younger. George Eliot found him "looking dreadfully shattered" at dinner; another friend described how a foot problem now had the legendary walker -- sometimes all night, at four mph -- always "dragging one leg rather wearily behind him." Dickens himself was alarmed to find that he couldn't read the right-hand half of signs above shop doors. His financial responsibilities, his separation from his wife, and the stir created by his love life continued to trouble him. To daughter Kate, on one of his last nights, he regretted that he had not been "a better father, a better man."

His relentless work schedule continued throughout the spring, relieving and contributing to his burdens. The Mystery of Edwin Drood would not get finished, but his "farewell series" of readings were a triumphant close to fifteen years of one-man shows across England and America, though he would have to limp offstage and immediately lie down. Among the gifts of homage that poured in was a silver table centerpiece from a Liverpool merchant featuring designs etched to represent spring, summer and autumn but, in an effort at optimism, not winter. Dickens told friends that he thought it was the best present he had ever received, and that "I never look at it, that I don't think most of the Winter."

The man so associated with Christmas Day had to spend his last one in bed, but in the evening he hobbled to the drawing room to join the family. In My Father As I Knew Him, son Henry recalls Dickens playing "The Memory Game," one of his favorites: "My father, after many turns, had successfully gone through the long string of words and finished up with his own contribution, 'Warren's Blacking, 30 Strand.' He gave this with an odd twinkle in his eye and a strange inflection in his voice which at once forcibly arrested my attention and left a vivid impression on my mind for some time afterwards." Peter Ackroyd comments on this moment in his biography, Dickens:
    Warren's Blacking, 30 Strand. The blacking warehouse. The site of his childhood labour and humiliation. The source of all his agony. And yet the name meant nothing to his family; none of them knew of his past. Just another phrase in the course of a Christmas game; but, to Dickens, how pregnant with the whole mystery of his life. Yet it remained a mystery, even to those who knew and loved him best. Although he was here for the first time openly alluding to that terrible period, his family would not know the truth about his early life until they read of it in [John] Forster's biography.
Ackroyd and others regard Warren's Blacking as source and symbol of the two imperatives in Dickens's life -- that he had escaped it, and that most others had not. In Chapter 11 of David Copperfield, looking back at his long days at "Murdstone and Grinby," the older man becomes again the young, forsaken boy:
    Its panelled rooms, discoloured with the dirt and smoke of a hundred years, I dare say; its decaying floors and staircase; the squeaking and scuffling of the old grey rats down in the cellars; and the dirt and rottenness of the place; are things, not of many years ago, in my mind, but of the present instant. They are before me, just as they were in the evil hour when I went among them for the first time. . . .

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