Reminiscences Impressions & Anecdotes
IT was in 1854 that I first knew him, when he resided in “Tavistock House,” Tavistock Square. He was already the great celebrity, the centre and moving spirit of such a circle of eminent men and women as probably never assembled before or after under any one roof. He honoured me with his personal friendship, which in those days amounted to patronage, because I was much his junior-in point of age the contemporary of his eldest son, Charles. There was a supper party of about a dozen youngsters, including myself and my brother James, at Tavistock House, when “young Charles” came of age. We were an exceedingly merry lot; oysters were consumed by the hundred, and Songs were sung which it would be scarcely accurate to describe as of a “devotional” character. Dickens himself was not present, but looked in on his way to bed, about midnight, just to give us a nod of “approval and encouragement,” as much as to say, “Go it, my boys; enjoy your young selves.”
Everybody knows that Dickens was a fine Actor, and that, at one time, he very nearly “took to the stage “ as a vocation. He had “private theatricals” each Christmas-time, in which he himself, his family, and intimate friends acted. In this circle he was spoken of as “the Manager,” and his eldest son was known as “young Charles.” In 1855 Wilkie Collins wrote a Play for one of these occasions, called “The Lighthouse,” and Dickens asked me to compose for it an original Overture and arrange the Incidental Music, which I gladly undertook to do.
For these performances Dickens had a theatre specially constructed, in the rear of his house, with proper footlights, proper scenery, proper curtain—in fact no expense or trouble was spared to make the whole thing complete. “The Lighthouse,” after being played at Tavistock House, was reproduced at Campden House, Kensington, then occupied by Colonel Waugh. I had a small but efficient Orchestra to conduct, and presided at a Piano. The scenery was painted by Clarkson Stanfield, R.A.; the dresses were by Taylor of the Adelphi Theatre, and Nathan of Titchbourne Street; Wilson of the Strand was perruquier; and the properties were by Ireland of the Adelphi. The actors were Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Mark Lemon, Augustus Egg, Edward Hogarth, Miss Hogarth, and Mamie Dickens (Dickens’ elder daughter).
Like everything else that Dickens undertook, he was thoroughly in earnest about it, and its success was ensured by an immense amount of rehearsing. I think for three months we rehearsed twice in each week, so that by the time it was ready, not only was each Actor perfect in his part, but each knew everybody else’s as well, and W. H. Wills, the Prompter, had very little to prompt. It is so impressed on my memory that after half a century I could even now repeat whole scenes from it. After every rehearsal, all concerned remained to supper, and it was a supper, such as would have delighted John Browdie. And such grog, or punch! Brewed either by “the Manager” himself or by “Auntie” (Miss Hogarth), you may be sure it had the true Dickens flavour!
And here I must remark on a characteristic of Dickens which I think has scarcely been sufficiently noted by his biographers, and that is, his wholeheartedness. Whatever he did, he did as though that only were the principal thing to be done in life. His whole soul, his undivided energies, were in the occupation of the moment. No detail was forgotten, no personal discomfort was allowed to weigh. Whether getting up a “benefit” for a friend, or acting, or dancing, or brewing punch, it was always the same. Carlyle (a rather “difficult” person) writes of him as “the gentle, high-gifted, ever-friendly, noble Dickens,—every inch an Honest Man.”
In 1856 the Dickens family spent the Summer in Boulogne at M. Beaucourt’s “Villa des Moulineaux,” and Miss Hogarth most kindly obtained for me a bedroom in Beaucourt’s own house, “Villa Napolienne,” which stood in the same ground as the other. Here I saw a good deal of the Dickens family, and recall a particular dinner at which the only guests were Wilkie Collins and myself. When the pleasant meal was over, we all went into the town, to a fair. There is always a fair, or a fête, or something of the kind going on in Boulogne; and Dickens carried his youngest boy on his shoulders all the time for him to see the shows.
Wilkie Collins was then preparing his Play “The Frozen Deep” for the next Christmas theatricals, and I was to write the music. He consulted , “the Manager” about his Part, and Dickens advised him to write the Play irrespective of making it a “one-part” Play, and to leave it to him to introduce a scene, or to amplify, if necessary. And this was done. When the Play was put into rehearsal, for many weeks one particular scene was omitted, and when at last Dickens introduced it (it was a scene in which he had the stage all to himself) it was a most wonderful piece of Acting. Anything more powerful, more pathetic, more enthralling, I have never seen.
The Piece was duly produced at “Tavistock House” and was an enormous success. It was the talk of London. Illustrated Papers produced scenes from it. We played it three or four times, my parents being among the invited guests, and my brother James being a “super” in a crowd of sailors. Surely there never was such a “select” audience. Authors, poets, painters, actors, journalists, judges (including the Lord Chief Justice of England), barristers, ambassadors, members of Parliament, ladies of fashion, equerries to the Queen, publishers, critics, sat side by side in spellbound admiration, or jostled one another in the crowded refreshment-room after the performance.
Queen Victoria having expressed her wish to see it, Mr. and Mrs. T. German Reed, who were at the time running an Entertainment of their own at the “Gallery of Illustration” in Regent Street, placed that at Dickens’ disposal, and a “strictly private performance” was given on July 4, 1857, which the Queen attended, accompanied by Prince Albert, the King of the Belgians, and a number of ladies and gentlemen of the Court. Copies of my Overture (which had been published by Ewer & Co.), elegantly bound in satin, were handed to the Royal Couple, who graciously accepted them and carried them away on leaving. They were delighted with the performance, and, at its conclusion, waited till “the Manager” could change his ragged stage-dress for ordinary evening attire in order personally to congratulate and thank him. There is one comic bit in it, which falls to the lot of a sea-cook (Augustus Egg played it), a bit about sea-sickness. I wondered how the august visitors would receive it—but the Queen and Prince laughed heartily at it, and indeed it was one of the “hits” in the Piece.
An influential Paper of the day, The Leader, wrote the following account on January 10, 1857 (pp18-23)
[published here separately as The Leader 1857]
After the final performance at “Tavistock House,” I received a letter from Dickens, written in his customary blue ink on his usual bluish note-paper, which is here reproduced.
The “little memorial” is a set of three exquisite shirt-front studs, with diamonds set in blue enamel, and each one is engraved on the reverse with “C. D. to F. B.” It is quite impossible to say how much I value the gift, or how I prize the letter. On June 16, 1857, he wrote me
“A thousand thanks for your kind and cordial letter. I am delighted to accept the compliment you offer me,* as I am always truly proud to be associated with you. I have ventured to put you down as one of the Conductors at the Concert. It is finally arranged to take place at St. Martin’s Hall on Saturday, June 27. It will be very good indeed, and I hope you will like to be associated with it. We are all out of town. Can you dine with me here [Garrick Club, King Street, Covent Garden] on Thursday next at half-past-five? or if you can come down to Gad’s Hill with Charley on Saturday we shall all be pleased to see you. As to dining with me, send me one line here.
“Faithfully yours ever,
*This was the dedication of my Overture.
I accepted the invitation to dinner, and found only one other guest in Arthur Smith. As we were finishing, a tall, square-shouldered man entered the room. Dickens immediately rose, went to greet him, and brought him to our table. It was Thackeray! and I was introduced to him.
Dickens at this time organised a series of entertainments in remembrance of his friend Douglas Jerrold, and the Concert he alludes to in his letter was one of these. (See pp. 33 and 34.) [Word files of these bills and the next]
On page 36 appears the play-bill of the public performance, given for the same object, of “The Frozen Deep,” at the Gallery of Illustration.
I attended Thackeray’s lecture on “Week-day Preachers “ on July 22, 1857, at St. Martin’s Hall. His object was to show that the teaching by which the world has profited had not come exclusively from the pulpit, but that lay-preachers of all times had largely helped to enlighten, to purify, to ameliorate mankind. He traced this influence for good back to the early writers, and came step by step to the writers of his day. Then, to my great delight, I heard him make that wonderful pronouncement which has become so well known, and is as often misquoted. He said, “The other day my daughter said to me, ‘Pa, why don’t you write books like Mr. Dickens does?’ and I replied, ‘I only wish I could.’” This is the exact wording of the tribute paid to the genius of Dickens by the lips of Thackeray, and I heard him say it.
In August of the same year the whole of the “Dickens Amateur Theatrical Company,” including myself, went to Manchester to give several performances of “The Frozen Deep” in the Free Trade Hall there, for the same object. The ladies of the original cast were replaced by “professionals,” and I had a larger Orchestra to conduct; in other respects the cast was precisely the same. On our journey down I was with some others in a compartment next to “the Manager”; somehow our train was much delayed, and to beguile the time we made up conundrums, scribbled them on slips of paper, and passed them on walking-sticks and umbrellas from one compartment to the other. This went on for some time, and we were getting more and more hungry, when the following conundrum was poked in at our window: “Why is the Manager’s stomach, at this moment, like a butler’s pantry?” and as no one could guess it, the answer came along, “Because there is a sinking there” (sink in there!).
On the Saturday night in Manchester, after the substantial supper at the hotel which always followed the performance, when “the Manager” and the ladies had gone to their rooms, we, the wilder members of the Company, “kept it up” in true Bohemian style. Our songs were “loud and lusty,” our fun “fast and furious,” and it must have been well into Sunday morning when suddenly the door was flung wide open, and there stood C. D. in dressing-gown and slippers, candlestick in hand (I do not remember whether he wore the Pickwickian night-cap), with one hand uplifted in mock reproof and such a look!—amusement and assumed horror combined—I never shall forget it!
The performances had the same success in Manchester as they had had in London, and the results must have been very gratifying to Dickens and to his indefatigable friend, Arthur Smith. Like all truly great men, Dickens remained quite unspoiled by his enormous success, and his successes were manifold. Novelist, actor, speaker, reader, editor, he might have been knighted over and over again, had it pleased him to accept that title—he might have written M.P. after his name had he chosen to “stand” for almost any constituency, but he preferred to remain simply Charles Dickens. As an instance of his modesty I quote the occasion when W. H. Wills (sub-editor of All the Year Round) brought round a paper petitioning for the opening of picture-galleries on Sundays. We all signed it with our name and profession. Dickens did not describe himself as “novelist,” nor was he ostentatious enough to sign his name only without stating occupation that might have looked pretentious. He signed, “Charles Dickens, writer of books.” (pp31-37)
From Reminiscences Impressions & Anecdotes by Francesco Berger, London .
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