by Paul Schlicke

Boz in the North

March 2, 2012 | by Paul Schlicke

Charles Dickens grew up in the shadow of Sir Walter Scott, and some of his deepest convictions had been articulated by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century. He was proud to marry into a Scottish family, and like Lord Byron, the romantic poet of Scottish descent, he ‘awoke one morning and found himself famous’. His first major public recognition came when, at the age of twenty-nine, he was granted the freedom of the city of Edinburgh, and he retained great affection for the Scottish capital for the rest of his life. Although quintessentially an English author, in many ways Dickens was imbued with a distinctly Scottish tincture.

From the Scottish enlightenment Dickens derived the image of the man of feeling, predisposed instinctively to benevolence. Linking ethics with aesthetics and locating virtue in spontaneous human affections, Francis Hutchison defined virtue in relation to beauty in 1725, in An Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, and Adam Smith proposed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that sympathy, by arousing interest in the feelings of others, provides the source of moral judgements. For these writers, as for Dickens, man was a creature of natural goodness. Sensibility, the faculty of feeling, predominated over reason, and sentiment, the capacity for moral reflection, was innate. Dickens pulled on readers’ heartstrings with the deaths of Little Nell and Paul Dombey; Florence Dombey, Sissy Jupe, and Lizzie Hexam combat heartlessness with selfless compassion; Mr. Pickwick is the first in a long line of Dickens’ men of sensibility.

Dickens’ sudden rise to fame was compared by the Quarterly Review in 1839 to that of Byron, and in his early works Dickens treated the lingering fascination with the most sensationally popular poet of the previous generation with comic ridicule. The schoolgirls in The Old Curiosity Shop scream with excitement when they see a wax effigy of Byron, and Dick Swiveller, in the same novel, spouts passages from Byron’s poems. Later, Dickens introduces gloomy Byronic heroes in his fiction, most notably James Steerforth in David Copperfield.

Sir Walter Scott was Dickens’ great predecessor, the writer whose success brought prestige and respectability to the novel, and it was a considerable accolade when, early in his career, Dickens’ works were compared to Scott’s. Scott’s romances, starting with Waverley, established the historical novel, in which ordinary people are caught up in great historical events, as the foremost manifestation of the genre, and Dickens consciously sought to emulate Scott when he first started writing fiction. In the event, other commitments intervened, and it was not until 1841, by which time he had already achieved success with four serialized novels, that he turned to the much-delayed Barnaby Rudge. Its subtitle, A Tale of the Riots of ’80, explicitly echoes that of Waver-ley – ’Tis Sixty Years Since, but although several of Dickens’ characters, events, and topics have precedent in Scott’s fiction, his conception of history differs markedly from Scott’s. He was to write only one more historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, which, even more than Barnaby Rudge, imbibes not Sir Walter’s Whiggish outlook on history but the apocalyptic vision of Thomas Carlyle, the sage from Ecclefechan.

Scott also mattered to Dickens in another way, providing an object lesson in the precariousness of writing as a profession and the danger of wearying the public by writing too much. In his last years Scott had attempted to extricate himself with his pen from financial ruin after being caught up in the bankruptcy of his publisher and printer. Dickens wrote three trenchant articles for the Examiner in 1838-9, defending the favourable account in Lockhart’s Life of Scott and affirming an author’s right to fame and fortune. In 1842 this position involved Dickens in acrimonious controversy with Americans over international copyright.

Dickens’ career as a literary figure began with the publication of ‘A Dinner at Poplar Walk’ in December 1833 in the Monthly Magazine. More stories and sketches followed, and in August of 1834 he was hired as a reporter on the Morning Chronicle, where his editor, an irascible Scot named John Black, was Dickens’ ‘first hearty out-and-out appreciator’. ‘Keep “Boz” in reserve for great occasions,’ Black was quoted as saying. ‘He will aye be ready for them.’ A few months later, in January 1835, Dickens was invited to supply an original sketch to the newly-founded Evening Chronicle, by its editor, another Scot who had migrated to London, George Hogarth, whose daughter Catherine Dickens was soon to marry. Dickens was intensely proud of this Scottish connection. He gave Catherine a toddy-kettle from Scot-land as a wedding present. To his uncle he described Hogarth as ‘an intimate friend and companion of Sir Walter Scott, and one of the most eminent among the literati of Edin-burgh’. Hogarth, whose sister was married to James Ballantyne of Scott’s publishing firm, had acted as Scott’s legal adviser; his wife was the daughter of George Thomson, Robert Burns’ publisher and friend. ‘All my relations by marriage are of Scotland,’ Dickens boasted.

Long before Dickens’ birth, Edinburgh, the ‘Athens of the North’, rivalled London as a literary and cultural Mecca. In the 19th century it was a vigorous centre of publishing, and its literati quickly recognised Dickens’ importance. An Edinburgh Pickwick Club was founded in 1837; the same year his comic operetta The Village Coquettes was staged here, and the year after that Dickens was gratified to learn that Oliver Twist was well received in Scotland. Francis Lord Jeffrey, founder and influential editor of the Edinburgh Review, admired Dickens intensely, calling himself Dickens’ ‘Critic Laureate’, and was famous for weeping over Little Nell – ‘nothing so good as Nell since Cordelia’, he told Dickens. John Gib-son Lockhart, son-in-law and biographer of Scott and editor of the Quarterly Review, commissioned an important early review of Dickens.

Instigated by Lord Jeffrey, a public dinner was held in Dickens’ honour on 25 June 1841. John Wilson (‘Christopher North’), trenchant editor of Blackwood’s, presided. Dickens was immensely flattered, and wrote to his closest friend John Forster, ‘It was the most brilliant affair you can conceive; the completest success possible, from first to last.’ More than 250 men were present, with another seventy turned away, and some 150 ladies sat in the gallery to hear the speeches. Wilson described Dickens as ‘perhaps the most popular writer now alive’, and Dickens’ own speeches (he gave three) were rapturously received. His friend Angus Fletcher, proposing the toast to the ladies, declared that Dickens ‘owed much of his distinction to his having selected as his partner for life a Scottish lady’, to which Dickens replied that he ‘had always looked with pleasure upon his children as half bred English and Scotch’. Four days later he was voted the freedom of the city, and his ‘Burgess Ticket’ was still proudly displayed in his study at Gad’s Hill Place at the time of his death. Dickens stayed in Edinburgh for ten days, fêted everywhere, and when he went, supposedly ‘incognito’, to the theatre, the orchestra struck up ‘Charlie is my Darling’. Following his triumph, he and Catherine proceeded to tour the Highlands for twelve days. He found himself ‘exalted’ by the glens of Glencoe, ‘fearful in their grandeur and amazing solitude’, an impression altogether lacking, he felt, when he witnessed Niagara Falls the next year.

Dickens had made his first visit to Edin-burgh in 1834, when he reported for the Morning Chronicle on banquet in honour of Lord Grey, whose government had enacted the Reform Bill. He returned to Scotland a number of times, taking his amateur theatrical productions to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and giving public reading performances not only in those two cities but also in Aberdeen, Dundee, and Perth. He repeatedly praised the audiences of Edinburgh, ‘most intelligent…with a capacity of being affected by the pathetic parts, such as I never saw before’, and evincing greater geniality and ‘a quicker sense of humour’ than anywhere else. The feeling was reciprocated: in a long and laudatory review, the Scotsman wrote, ‘Hear Dickens, and die; you will never live to hear anything of its kind so good.’

Among his closest friends, Jeffrey and Fletcher resided in Edinburgh, and he admired the Edinburgh-based Scotsman as ‘a really good newspaper’. But he considered the Scott monument ‘a failure. . .like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground’, and he deplored the oppressiveness of Presbyterian Sundays in the ‘city of whited sepulchres’ as Edinburgh was described in an essay he published in Household Words (‘A Sabbath Hour’). He was delighted with the ‘enthoozymoozy’ of the reception when he presided over the opening of the Athenaeum in Glasgow in 1847, but generally he associated Glasgow with incessant rain. He found other towns in Scotland similarly uncongenial: Dundee was ‘an odd place, like Wapping with rugged hills behind it’, and his readings manager George Dolby reported that Aberdeen gave Dickens the coldest welcome of any place he ever visited. Dickens turned down an invitation to stand for rector of Marischal College in Aberdeen 1849, and he expressed ‘surprise and indignation’ to find that his name had been placed on the ballot for rector at Glasgow University in 1858.

For all his familiarity with Scotland, then, it is noteworthy that it goes virtually unmentioned in his fiction. The sole adventure of his which is set in Scotland is Chapter 49 of Pickwick, ‘The Tale of the Bagman’s Uncle’, which (no doubt influenced by Burns’s ‘Tam O’Shanter’) hilariously recounts a drunken nocturnal adventure in Edinburgh. Lord George Gordon, in Barnaby Rudge, hails from Scotland; the child lovers in ‘Boots at the Holly Tree Inn’ set off for Gretna but never reach their destination; and Dickens briefly tries his hand in representing a Scottish accent in ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’, but whereas other countries visited by Dickens (the United States, France, Switzerland, Italy) figure prominently in his writings, Scotland, like Ireland and Wales, receives the merest glance. When all is said, Dickens remains, as the Quarterly Review put in 1839, ‘English to the backbone’.

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