"This whole country is stricken with grief," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote when the news reached America in June 1870 that Charles Dickens had died suddenly from a stroke in his home in London. Thomas Carlyle wrote:
"It is an event world-wide; a unique of talents suddenly extinct; and has 'eclipsed', we too may say, 'the harmless gaiety of nations'. No death since 1866 has fallen on me with such a stroke. No literary man's hitherto ever did. The good, the gentle, high-gifted, ever-friendly, noble Dickens - every inch of him an Honest Man." The Daily News added: "He was emphatically the novelist of his age. In his pictures of contemporary life posterity will read, more clearly than in contemporary records, the character of nineteenth-century life."
With the publication of this 12th volume of the extraordinary Pilgrim Edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens, Graham Storey and his team have now completed the meticulous collation, transcription, annotation and detective work required to bring the 14,300 letters that Dickens wrote in his lifetime to public view. This volume alone presents 1,151 letters, many until now unpublished or published only in part, written by Dickens from January 1868 to his death in 1870. It also includes an addendum of 235 letters belonging to earlier volumes, which have been discovered since the publication of volume seven, and a cumulative index of correspondents for the entire edition.
Reading the letters in this volume is a little like entering Mr Venus' shop in Our Mutual Friend, for something remarkable is to be glimpsed among the jumble of every shelf: observations on the character of the American people, letters to advise a friend on her divorce proceedings, instructions for chairs at Gad's Hill to be recovered - a profusion of curiosities.
This final 12th volume chronicles the last 18 breakneck, adrenaline-driven months of Dickens' life. Dickens was saying goodbye to his readers in America and in Britain in the best way he knew how - with drama, with spectacle and with all of himself. The volume begins with Dickens'
descriptions of the last four months of his second American farewell tour of 75 readings, a spectacular success despite the apocalyptic weather and his struggles with a mysterious "American" catarrh. By late spring he was back in London. Within weeks he had begun to write his last novel, Edwin Drood, and had planned out a series of farewell readings across Great Britain, which began in October 1868 and ended with his collapse in Preston in April 1869, but despite the advice of his doctors he started readings again in London between January and March 1870. He died in June.
In Lawrence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Tristram, visited by a hooded figure of Death, leaps out of the window to escape his fate and charters a boat to take him to Europe where he flees Death through city after city. The pace becomes ever-more frantic as Sterne wonderfully satirises the Grand Tour so popular in the 18th century, but also reflects on the awful brevity of life and human tenacity as he glimpses Death everywhere. By coincidence, as Dickens galloped his way across America in 1868, the Oxford don and art historian Walter Pater was writing the beautiful words that would become the conclusion to his The Renaissance: "We are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve... Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among 'the children of this world', in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time."
There is much of this desperate flight from death and hungry and exquisite love of life in Dickens' account of the last years of his life. One feels that Dickens, like Shandy and Pater, sensed death breathing down his neck, watching his every move. "I am going at the same tremendous rate everywhere," he wrote in January 1868. "I begin four nights at BrooklynI to-night: and thus oscillate between Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, and then cut into New England, and so work my way back to Boston... after which come Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit and Cleveland, and Buffalo, and then Philadelphia, Boston and New York farewells." He struggled against mortality in the form of his mysterious American sickness throughout the tour: "I am [sometimes] so dead beat when I come off that they lay me down on a sofa after I have been washed and dressed, and I lie there, extremely faint, for a quarter of an hour. In that time I rally and come right."
Throughout these letters he describes his ageing body and illnesses as foes to be defeated by his indomitable and unquenchable will. In October 1868, consoling his friend, the chemist Dr Sheridan Muspratt, on a bereavement, for instance, he wrote: "It is indeed a sad experience to find out how comrades fall, as the Life Fight progresses. There is nothing for it but to close up the ranks, march on, and fight it out." And fight he did, strategically, with both care and panache. In April 1868 he described the exotic diet he adopted in America, which seemed to keep the sickness at bay: "At seven in the morning, in bed, a tumbler of new cream and tablespoon of rum. At twelve, a sherry cobbler and a biscuit. At three... a pint of champagne. At five minutes to eight, an egg beaten up with a glass of sherry... I don't eat more than half a pound of solid food in the whole four-and-twenty hours."
There were many moments of sublime Pateresque passion for Dickens in America such as standing watching Niagara Falls in March 1868, when he seemed for a moment to be still, to forget the fight with mortality and to experience transcendence from his failing body: "The high banks, the riven rocks, the forests, the bridge, the buildings, the air, the sky, were all made of rainbow. Nothing in Turner's finest water-colour drawings... is so ethereal, so imaginative, so gorgeous in colour as what I then beheld. I seemed to be lifted from the earth and to be looking into Heaven... The 'muddy vesture of our clay' falls from us as we look."
One also feels Dickens' sense of his own theatrical and mesmeric power as he performed in America and Britain. His illnesses may have been laying him low, even paralysing him, but he knew he was at the height of his powers as a performer. For his final tour of Britain he chose to read Nancy's murder at the hands of Sykes from Oliver Twist. "I have no doubt that I could perfectly petrify an audience by carrying out the notion I have of the way of rendering it," he wrote with relish in October 1868. And his prediction was realised. In Clifton, Bristol, he wrote six months later, "we had a dozen to twenty ladies borne out, stiff and rigid, at various times, It became quite ridiculous".
London continued to fascinate him. When friends came to visit from America in May 1869, he insisted on taking them out to see the East End of London (despite one of them, Mr Fields, having an ulcerated leg) "to have a glimpse of the darker side of London life". "No dress coat," he instructed his companions, "as it would be a phenomenon in the regions we shall visit." Mr Fields was also taken to visit the lodging house of "Opium Sal", the source for Princess Puffer's Den in the opening to Edwin Drood. The "opium-smoking I have described", Dickens wrote in May 1870, "I saw (exactly as I have described it, penny ink-bottle and all)".
Back in England, his sons were leaving home and in the ritual of these flights from the nest Dickens looked back on his own life, his own youthful rites of passage. His beloved "Plorn" left London for Australia to join his brother Alfred in October 1868. Later, disappointed in Plorn's lack of success, Dickens wrote: "He seems to have been born without a groove. It cannot be helped." Another son, Henry, went up to Cambridge to study law in 1868. Dickens wrote to him in the manner in which he had written to all his sons when they left home - work hard, don't let me down: "You know how hard I work for what I get, and I think you know that I never had money help from any human creature after I was a child. You know that you are one of the many heavy charges on me, and that I trust to your exercising your abilities and improving the advantages of your past expensive education."
Death stalks the novelist; the novelist flees, writing and reading his way across America and Britain. This is the stuff of great drama. Dickens struggled against his adversary to the end and died, of course, on returning to his own home, Gad's Hill. Only a few weeks before his death, he wrote to Charles Kent: "For the last week I have been most perseveringly and ding-dong-doggedly at work, making headway but slowly. The spring always has a restless influence on me." There died a man with and in a groove, fighting to keep himself in it to the bitter end.
Rebecca Stott is head of English and drama, Anglia Polytechnic University.
The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 12: 1868-70
Editor - Graham Storey
ISBN - 0 19 924596 7
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £80.00
Pages - 813