'The man as wrote all them books', 1867
A superstar's first night in America
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With the annual festivities now looming, the ghost of Christmas past who particularly haunts the occasion is one Charles Dickens. (For example, there’s a UK cinema tour of last year’s stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Mark Gatiss.) It’s fairly well known that Dickens (1812–1870) became famous in his own time not just for his books but also for his public readings from them – tour-de-force performances on tours which exhausted him and ultimately hastened his own death. His first reading tour – from April 1858 to February 1859 – saw him make 129 appearances across England, Scotland and Ireland, and many others followed. The success of these led him to consider doing the same in the United States, although his plans were delayed by the American Civil War. But in 1867, he made it – and as I write this today, it’s exactly 155 years since the first of his 76 readings there, so I thought it would be fun to track down some first-hand accounts.
Dickens had been to the States before, in 1842, purely for travel (and to meet many fellow literary giants of the age, including Longfellow, Washington Irving and Poe), and he wrote a travelogue, American Notes. This time, though, it was a commercially driven enterprise, and he sent his tour manager, George Dolby, to scout out venues.1
George Dolby (1830–1900) was born in London, his father Samuel a chop-house and coffee-house owner in Wardour Street. George joined Dickens’ team in 1866 and the two became firm friends. In 1885, Dolby published Charles Dickens As I Knew Him, specifically telling the whole story of the author’s reading tours in the UK and US between 1866 and Dickens’ death in 1870, and although written some while after that first reading in the States, it gives us a close-up account.
The venue for that opening night, and the next few dates, was the Tremont Temple, a Baptist church in Boston (the building there today replaced it in 1896). Dolby recalls how he looked at Boston’s music hall and its theatre, but considered that both were too large. He noted of the Tremont:
…everybody said it was old-fashioned — that nobody would go to it since the Music Hall had been built, and everybody doubted if Boston could be induced to go to it even to hear Charles Dickens. This hall had to be seen, however, and it was seen; and, in my estimation, possessed all the requisites necessary for the success of the business in hand… it held over two thousand people, and the seats were so arranged, on a gradually rising floor, that every one in the house had a good view of the platform, and would be able not only to hear distinctly, but also to enjoy all the facial effects of the reader, without which Mr. Dickens’s Readings would lose so much.
Clearly he made the right call: they did 20 readings there in the course of the tour, and took an average of $3,000 each time (that’s about $60,000 today). When tickets went on sale from the premises of Dickens’ US publishers Ticknor and Fields, Dolby reports that purchasers sent their servants to queue the night before, supplying them with “a straw mattress, blankets, food, and in many cases with tobacco and creature comforts of an alcoholic description”. By 8am on the day of the ticket sale, the queue was “nearly half a mile long”. Let’s remember here that Dickens was one of the world’s early superstars.
And so to the great day itself.
The day… was devoted to preparing for the evening’s Reading, some hours being spent in the superintendence of the erection of the screen, gas arrangements, and the fixing of the little reading-table. The Tremont Temple had to be tested acoustically, a process that was always gone through in every new room in which he read.
The process was very simple, and was conducted in the following manner. Mr. Dickens used to stand at his table, whilst I walked about from place to place in the hall or theatre, and a conversation in a low tone of voice was carried on between us during my perambulations. The hall having been pronounced perfect, a long walk was undertaken; and after a four o’clock dinner (as in England) and a sleep of an hour or so, we went to the Tremont Temple for the great event of the day.
The Readings selected were, the “Christmas Carol” and the “Trial from Pickwick.” The audience was of the most brilliant description, being composed of all the notabilities in Boston, literary and artistic, added to which New York had supplied its contingent from the same sources, and had further sent to Boston a staff of newspaper men to report, by telegraph, columns of description of the first Reading, so that on Tuesday, December 3rd, not only had all the Boston papers a full account, but so had also the New York papers—a compliment which was highly appreciated by Mr. Dickens.
The reception accorded to Mr. Dickens, in making his appearance at the little table, had never been surpassed by the greetings he was in the habit of receiving in Edinburgh and Manchester, and was calculated to unnerve a man of even greater moral courage than he was possessed of. Those who were not applauding and waving handkerchiefs were seriously “taking in” the appearance of the man to whom they owed so much, which up to this time they knew only by the bad photographs in the shop windows. These, by the way, were so wonderfully unlike him, that, later on, I prevailed on him to sit to Mr. Ben Gurney in New York, who succeeded in producing the only good photograph of him in existence. It was to this artist only, and then only once, that he gave a sitting in America.2
When everything was quiet, and the deafening cheers which had greeted his appearance had subsided, a terrible silence prevailed, and it seemed a relief to his hearers when he at last commenced the Reading. The effect of the first few words (without any prefatory remark): “A Christmas Carol in four staves. Stave one, Marley’s Ghost. Marley is dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it, and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change for anything he chose to put his hand to,” placed the reader and his audience on good terms with one another, the audience settling itself down in rapt attention for what was to follow; and by the time the first chapter was finished the success of the Readings, certainly so far as Boston was concerned, was an accomplished fact.
[The next year Dickens published The Readings of Mr Charles Dickens, as Condensed by Himself, in which you can find the selections he read that night.]
During the progress of the Reading I was moving about in various parts of the hall and its galleries by the many entrance doors, watching the effect of the Reading on the audience, and gauging the acoustic properties of the Tremont Temple, reporting myself by arrangement at the side of the screen at the end of the second chapter, where a brief conversation, carried on in an “aside” during the applause, was held between the reader and myself:
Mr. Dickens. Is it all right?
Myself. All right.
Mr. Dickens. Hall good?
Myself. Excellent; go a-head, sir.
Mr. Dickens. I will, when they’ll let me.
Myself. First-rate audience.
Mr. Dickens. I know it.
Brief and hurried as was this “aside,” it seemed to give him greater confidence in depicting the scenes in the third chapter, and in all my experiences with him, I never knew him to read the description of the Cratchit Christmas dinner with so much evident enjoyment to himself, and with so much relish to his audience. When at last the Reading of “The Carol” was finished, and the final words had been delivered, and “so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us every one,” a dead silence seemed to prevail—a sort of public sigh as it were—only to be broken by cheers and calls, the most enthusiastic and uproarious, causing Mr. Dickens to break through his rule, and again presenting himself before his audience, to bow his acknowledgments.
No one but myself (and his servant Scott) was ever allowed (except on rare occasions) to go into his dressing-room during the interval between his first and second Reading, but on this evening Fields [the Boston publisher] had been invited to do so. He, on entering the room, exclaimed, “You have given me a new lease of life, for I have been so looking forward to this occasion that I have had an idea all day that I should die at five minutes to eight to-night, and be deprived of a longing desire I have had to hear you read in my country for the last nineteen years.”
A hearty embrace and a glass of champagne convinced Fields that he was still in this life (would that he were so now! ); and after a lapse of a few minutes (ten minutes only being allowed for the interval), Mr. Dickens returned to the table to make his audience shriek with laughter, and revel in the portrayal of the humorous characters in the far-famed Reading of the “Trial from Pickwick,” which had been given by him so often in England, that he often strayed away from the actual text, and indulged in the habit of an occasional “gag.” As nearly every line of “Pickwick” was as well known to the audience as to himself (for in Boston nearly every man, woman, and child, was a “Pickwickian,” certainly so far as their knowledge of the book was concerned), these occasional liberties with the text were the more enjoyed, and, being invariably taken on the spur of the moment, were regarded more in the light of a new edition, direct from the author, than anything else.
In this particular Reading, he had full scope for the impersonation of each of the characters he represented, and with his dramatic instincts he took advantage of the situation and gave himself up to the delineation of those characters, a circumstance which in one instance did not give entire satisfaction.
During the progress of this Reading, I was engaged in conversation with one of my staff at the foot of the stairs leading to the hall, when my attention was drawn to a gentleman coming down the stairs in a most excited state. Imagining him to be ill and wanting assistance, I said, “What’s the matter with you?” From the accent of his reply, I concluded that he was a “reg’lar down Easter.” [i.e. from Maine]
“Say, who’s that man on the platform reading?”
“Mr. Charles Dickens,” I replied.
“But that ain’t the real Charles Dickens, the man as wrote all them books I’ve been reading all these years.”
After a moment’s pause, as if for thought, he replied, “Wall, all I’ve got to say about it then is, that he knows no more about Sam Weller ’n a cow does of pleatin’ a shirt, at all events that ain’t my idea of Sam Weller, anyhow.”
After the delivery of this speech he clapped his hat on his head, and left the building in a state of high dudgeon.
The Reading being concluded, and the most enthusiastic signs of approval having been accorded to the Reader in the form of recall after recall, Mr. Dickens indulged in his usual “rub down,” changing his dress-clothes for those he habitually wore when not en grande tenue, and a few of his most intimate friends were admitted into his dressing-room to offer their congratulations on the result of the evening’s experi- ences, and great was their surprise to find themselves in the presence of a highly refined “Pegotty,” rather than in that of the polished gentleman they had been listening to for the past two hours.
The New York Times reported the next day that “Tremont Temple… was filled in every available part by perhaps one of the most appreciative, fashionable and brilliant audiences ever assembled in New England” – so we don’t just have Dolby’s word for it.
We know that Charles Dickens became increasingly exhausted by these tours, and his health began to fail, giving him only two and a half more years to live. But what of Dolby himself? I’ll tell you his story next week, because it has been sadly neglected.