Tag Archives: Victorian

What did Edinburgh mean to Charles Dickens?

12 Jun

This year (2012) marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the celebrated English novelist of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and more than a dozen other major novels, numerous plays, nonfiction books, individual essays and articles.  Dickens was a kaleidoscopic storyteller; at once a moralist, a slapstick comedian, a mystery writer and a romantic. He evoked the diverse (often bleak) lives a host of Victorian Englanders with acute sensitivity and humour.  But fret not – you haven’t suddenly stumbled into planetlondon.wordpress.com by mistake. It just so happens that Charles Dickens had a special relationship with Edinburgh – despite not actually setting any of his stories here. It’s a tale of two cities, if you like.

Dickens was born in Portsmouth in February 1812, the son of an itinerant Navy Clerk. The early part of his upbringing was relatively stable by Victorian standards; by the time he was six or seven the young Dickens was already a voracious reader. But during 1821, when he was only nine, his family fell into financial difficulty and were obliged to move into shabby lodgings in London’s East End. The situation deteriorated further when his father was sent to debtor’s prison. Dickens was then forced to abandon formal education and take up work in a blacking factory, putting labels on bottles with hundreds of other child labourers. This was the darkest period of the author’s life – in later years he refused to talk about it – yet undoubtedly it provided him with a great deal of material for his fiction.

After this difficult period, Dickens’ fortunes improved somewhat. His father was eventually released from prison allowing Charles to go back to school and resume his studies. Still, life certainly wasn’t easy. On leaving school he took a dreary job copying out documents by hand in a solicitor’s office before beginning his writing career as a news reporter. But it would take a fortuitous Edinburgh connection to turn this little known cub reporter into a hot literary prospect: George Hogarth.

As a young reporter Dickens was sent up and down the country, his first visit to Edinburgh was in 1834 to cover a political dinner. But it was back in London that he would meet George Hogarth – a man very much involved in the intellectual and cultural life of Edinburgh. Hogarth had studied law at the University of Edinburgh and had gone on to practice for a number of years (Walter Scott being one of his clients) before upping sticks and moving down South, where he began a new career working in the newspaper industry. He rose to editor of the Evening Chronicle where he would publish some of Dickens’ first original work, which was later collected in the book ‘Sketches by Boz’ (Boz was Dickens’ penname at this time). The book was an immediate success. The two men became good friends and Dickens would go on to marry Hogarth’s daughter Catherine in 1836, further cementing their relationship. Charles and Catherine had ten children together but the marriage eventually turned sour twenty years later after Charles was accused of infidelity.

As Dickens reached his mid twenties Pickwick Papers appeared, making him a household name. Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby soon followed. When he visited Edinburgh for a second time in 1841 there was a real buzz – here was a bonafide literary celebrity. He attended a public dinner with 250 of the Edinburgh literati, many of them old connections of George Hogarth. During the visit he was presented with a ‘Burgess Ticket’ and given the freedom of the city. Dickens kept his Burgess scroll in his study for the rest of his life – it is now on display in the Museum of Edinburgh. During that visit he told his adoring public:

“I believe I shall never hear the name of the capital of Scotland without a thrill of gratitude and pleasure. I shall love while I have life her people, her hills, and her houses, even the very stones of her streets.”

In spite his fondness for Edinburgh he was greatly moved by the poverty of the Old Town, particularly the suffering of young children. He describes a trip to the Old Town in which he saw “more poverty and sickness in an hour than people would believe in, in a life”.  The deplorable living conditions in the tenement slums shocked him: “in an old egg box which the mother had begged from a shop lay a little, feeble, wan sick child. With his little wasted face, and his bright attentive eyes, I can see him now, as I have seen him for several years, looking steadily at us.” These specific recollections would bolster his campaign to raise funds for the opening of The Great Ormond Street hospital for sick children in London.

Now although Edinburgh didn’t appear in the novels of Charles Dickens (or barely at least, there are one or two scant episodes) a stroll through the city is said to have provided the author with inspiration for one of his most enduring characters: Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. The story goes that Dickens was walking through Canongate Churchyard on one of his visits to Edinburgh when he spotted a grave bearing the inscription ‘Ebenezzer Lennox Scroggie – Mean man.’ A dour Scottish sign-out if ever there was one. In fact the author had misread the inscription which actually said ‘Meal Man’. Scroggie was a corn a merchant and also the influential economist Adam Smith’s nephew. The irony is that by all accounts Scroggie was a bit of rogue – nothing like the icy Scrooge. One account tells us that he was expelled from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for putting his hand up a lady’s skirt. Let’s hope her name was Carol.

Edinburgh also furnished Dickens with many of his closest friends, all influential historical figures themselves; the judge and literary critic Lord Francis Jeffrey, the novelist and historian Thomas Carlyle and the great judge and civic campaigner Lord Henry Cockburn. So let’s see… a wife, a book deal, a few spectacular dinners, a host of influential friends. No wonder Dickens was fond of the city. Although he didn’t like the Scott monument very much – the homage to his great novelistic forbear – he called it a ‘failure.’ Make of that what you will.