Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dickens at 200

Charles Dickens needs little introduction, but on the 200th anniversary of his birth, deserves a more lengthy post.  Dickens was 20 years old when Walter Scott died, in 1832.   His first story, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” was published a year later.   What concerns us here, of course, is a connection between the two great authors.  One significant connection comes through Lady Magdelene DeLancey’s “A week at Waterloo”, which relates how she nursed her husband Colonel William Howe DeLancey after the Battle of Waterloo.  The connection to this work comes through Captain Basil Hall, with whom both authors corresponded, concerning De Lancey’s narrative.

The two men saw distinctly different aspects to this writing.  Scott’s interest in DeLancey’s writing stems, at least directly, from his writing of Napoleon’s life.  To Captain Hall, Scott wrote:

"My dear Captain Hall,

‘…"I am infinitely obliged to you for Captain Maitland's plain, manly, and interesting narrative. It is very interesting, and clears Bonaparte of much egotism imputed to him. I am making a copy which, however, I will make no use of except as- extracts, and am very much indebted to Captain Maitland for the privilege.

"Constable proposed a thing to me which was of so much delicacy that I scarce know how [sic] about it, and thought of leaving it till you and I met.

"It relates to that most interesting and affecting journal kept by my regretted and amiable friend, Mrs Hervey (Lady DeLancey, after she remarried), during poor De Lancey's illness. He thought with great truth that it would add very great interest as an addition to the letters which I wrote from Paris soon after Waterloo, and certainly I would consider it as one of the most valuable and important documents which could be published as illustrative of the woes of war. But whether this could be done without injury to the feelings of survivors is a question not for me to decide, and indeed I feel unaffected pain in even submitting it to your friendly ear who I know will put no harsh construction upon my motive which can be no other than such as would do honour to the amiable and lamented authoress. I never read anything which affected my own feelings more strongly or which I- am sure would have a deeper interest on those of the public. Still the work is of a domestic nature, and its publication, however honourable to all concerned, might perhaps give pain when God knows I should be sorry any proposal of mine should awaken the distresses which time may have in some degree abated. You are the only person who can judge of this with any certainty or at least who can easily gain the means of ascertaining it, and as Constable seemed to think there was a possibility that after the lapse of so much time it might be regarded as matter of history and as a record of the amiable character of your accomplished sister, and seemed to suppose there was some probability of such a favour being granted, you will consider me as putting the question on his suggestion. It could be printed as the Journal of a lady during the last illness of a General Officer of distinction during her attendance upon his last illness, or something to that purpose. Perhaps it may be my own high admiration of the contents of this heartrending diary which makes me suppose a possibility that after such a lapse of years, the publication may possibly (as that which cannot but do the highest honour to the memory of the amiable authoress) may not be judged altogether inadmissible. You- may and will, of course, act in this matter with your natural feeling of consideration, and ascertain whether that which cannot but do honour to the memory of those who are gone can be made public with the sacred regard due to the feelings of survivors…'

Dickens’s reading affected him deeply, as he related in his letter to Captain Hall in 1841.  Dickens sees Defoe in Lady Delancey’s memoir.

' ..."Devonshire Terrace,
"Tuesday evening, 16th March 1841.

"My dear Hall,
"For I see it must be 'juniores priores,' and that I must demolish the ice at a blow.
"I have not had courage until last night to read Lady De Lancey's narrative, and, but for your letter, I should not have mastered it even then. One glance at it, when through your kindness it first arrived, had impressed me with a foreboding of its terrible truth, and I really have shrunk from it in pure lack of heart.

"After working at Barnaby all day, and wandering about the most wretched and distressful streets for a couple of hours in the evening—searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon—I went at it, at about ten o'clock. To say that the reading that most astonishing and tremendous account has constituted an epoch in my life—that I shall never forget the lightest word of it—that I cannot throw the impression aside, and never saw anything so real, so touching, and so actually present before my eyes, is nothing. I am husband and wife, dead man and living woman, Emma and General Dundas, doctor and bedstead—everything and everybody (but the Prussian officer—damn him) all in one. What I have always looked upon as masterpieces of powerful and affecting description, seem as nothing in my eyes. If I live for fifty years, I shall dream of it every now and then, from this hour to the day of my death, with the most frightful reality. The slightest mention of a battle will bring the whole thing before me. I shall never think of the Duke any more, but as he stood in his shirt with the officer in full-dress uniform, or as he dismounted from his horse when the gallant man was struck down.

"It is a striking proof of the power of that most extraordinary man Defoe that I seem to recognise in every line of the narrative something of him. Has this occurred to you? The going to Waterloo with that unconsciousness of everything in the road, but the obstacles to getting on—the shutting herself up in her room and determining not to hear—the not going to the door when the knocking came—the finding out by her wild spirits when she heard he was safe, how much she had feared when in doubt and anxiety—the desperate desire to move towards him—the whole description of the cottage, and its condition; and their daily shifts and contrivances; and the lying down beside him in the bed and both falling asleep; and his resolving not to serve any more, but to live quietly thenceforth; and her sorrow when she saw him eating with an appetite so soon before his death; and his death itself—all these are matters of truth, which only that astonishing creature, as I think, could have told in fiction...'

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