Charles Dickens: the Scottish story

From a headstone which gave him the inspiration for Scrooge to his introduction to the literary elite of the period via his Scots publisher, Charles Dickens, born two centuries ago next year, had plenty to thank Scotland and its people for

NEXT year is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. The celebrations have already started: a wonderful new life by the doyenne of British biographers, Claire Tomalin, and a version of A Christmas Carol from the National Theatre of Scotland. The BBC is awash with Dickens in December; with a new version of Great Expectations, Armando Ianucci’s documentary on the author and a Songs of Praise Dickensian special.

Dickens is, of course, a towering figure in the history of the novel, but celebrations of his life and work always run the risk of entailing a great deal of “Pumblechookery” – a stereotypical glorification of “Merrie England”, with loveable rapscallions on every street corner tucking into veal pies and saying, “Lawks-a-mercy, Mister!” Dickens the social reformer, the sinister Dickens and Dickens the literary radical all fade away before Dickens the Quintessential Englishman of the popular imagination.

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Now, nobody would argue that we can turn Dickens into an honorary Scotsman, but his relationship with Scotland was deeper and more significant than the standard caricatures of him might suggest. Scots were involved in his literary breakthrough, his family life and his charity work; it was Scotland that provided the genesis of his most enduring character and a Scot lies at the heart of one of the mysteries about Dickens.

Although Dickens had written a few stories, published in periodicals such as the Monthly Magazine, and had covered parliamentary elections for the Morning Chronicle his first real “break” came when the editor of the Evening Chronicle, George Hogarth, invited him to contribute more of his “street sketches” – the series of works which would eventually be collected as his first work, Sketches By Boz, in 1836. Hogarth had been born in Edinburgh and trained as a lawyer. His wife, Georgina, was the daughter of George Thomson, the publisher and friend of Burns who assembled the Select Collection Of Original Scottish Airs For The Voice, including work by Burns and Walter Scott and music by Beethoven and Haydn. George Hogarth’s sister married James Ballantyne, a friend of Walter Scott’s and his partner in their publishing and printing business. Hogarth moved to Halifax (where he founded the Halifax Guardian) and then to London in 1834, where he began to work for the Morning and Evening Chronicle: however, he kept strong ties to the Scottish publishing world. The links between Hogarth and Dickens were cemented with the marriage of Dickens to Hogarth’s daughter, Catherine, in 1836 – a match made possible by his father-in-law’s commissions. Although the marriage eventually became fraught and unhappy, it provided Dickens with an entrée to the highest literary circles.

It is not an exaggeration to say that British publishing was dominated by Scots. Sir Walter Scott and Byron were, in Dickens’s youth, the best-selling authors in the world, and publishing houses in London as well as in Edinburgh, were managed and owned by Scots. The leading magazines – Blackwood’s, The Edinburgh Review and The Quarterly Review were all owned and edited by Scots. Many London writers jibbed at this – Mrs Sarah Green, who wrote under the pen-name “A Cockney”, wrote disparagingly of the “Scotch Monopoly” and even wrote an entire novel called Scotch Novel Reading. Dickens put himself at the heart of that monopoly.

Dickens first visited Edinburgh in 1834, to cover a political dinner. He drew on memories of that first sojourn for the only piece of writing he did set in Scotland, the “Tale of the Bagman’s Uncle” in chapter 49 of The Pickwick Papers. It is a lively little ghost story that captures the spirit of Leith Walk at dark perfectly. The Uncle visits friends in Edinburgh once a year, and “a pretty tight week he used to make of it. I don’t know whether any of you, gentlemen, ever partook of a real substantial hospitable Scotch breakfast, and then went out to a slight lunch of a bushel of oysters, a dozen or so of bottled ale, and a noggin or two of whiskey to close up with. If ever you did, you will agree with me that it requires a pretty strong head to go out to dinner and supper afterwards”. The Uncle’s head is apparently strong enough – he boasts of knowing “a Glasgow man and a Dundee man drinking against each other for fifteen hours at a sitting” – but not strong enough to cope with an encounter with the ghost of a post-carriage.

Dickens also tries, in “The Lazy Tour Of Two Idle Apprentices”, to imitate a Scottish accent. When one apprentice sings the ballad Annie Laurie, the other is outraged: “What an ass that fellow was.… Lay him doon and dee! Finely he’d show off before the girl by doing THAT. A sniveller! Why couldn’t he get up, and punch somebody’s head!” “Whose?” asked Thomas Idle. “Anybody’s. Everybody’s would be better than nobody’s! If I fell into that state of mind about a girl, do you think I’d lay me doon and dee? No, sir,’ proceeded Goodchild, with a disparaging assumption of the Scottish accent, ‘I’d get me oop and peetch into somebody. Wouldn’t you?”

When Dickens returned to Edinburgh at the age of 29 in 1841, he was the toast of the town. Through his father-in-law’s connections he met the Edinburgh literati at a public dinner for 250 guests. He was given the freedom of the city – his “Burgess Ticket” hung till his death in his study – and pronounced the visit “the most brilliant affair you can conceive; the completest success possible, from first to last”. When he went, supposedly incognito, to the Adelphi Theatre, the orchestra spontaneously played a rendition of Charlie is my Darling. Dickens and his wife then toured the Highlands, confronting “fifty highlanders all drunk” in an inn and thrilling at the “perfectly horrific Glencoe”. When later touring America, he confessed nothing approached the terrors of that place.

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It was while he was in Edinburgh that Dickens came across a gravestone which he would render immortal. In Canongate Kirkyard was a gravestone to one “Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie”. The epitaph listed his profession as a “meal man” – which Dickens misread as a “mean man”. In a nation noted for its frugality, Dickens thought it would have “shrivelled” Scroggie’s soul to bear “such a terrible thing to eternity”.

But the misreading of “meal man” – meaning a corn merchant – for “mean man” was even greater than Dickens suspected. Scroggie, who died in 1836, was a cousin of the economist Adam Smith and had a reputation as something of a roister-doister. Scroggie had the contract to supply all the alcohol for King George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822; and apparently stood in as acting provost in 1832-4 for Alexander Wedderburn. It seems Scroggie extended unlimited credit to Wedderburn, if the joke “Scroggie has pickled the provost” is to be believed. He was expelled from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for putting his hand up an aristocratic lady’s skirt, and had illicit liaisons with serving girls in the local churchyards. The “real” Scrooge could not have been more different from the cold-hearted miser of the book.

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Dickens was back in Edinburgh in 1847, when he was “sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure”. This is a very curious moment, since Dickens is bizarrely silent about his great predecessor. Scott is hardly ever mentioned by Dickens, even though his first planned novel, was a Scott imitation: “Gabriel Vardon, the Locksmith Of London”. (It was eventually turned into Barnaby Rudge). In A Child’s History Of England, Dickens says that “the great novelist founded one of his best romances” on Mary, Queen of Scots, and there is a reference to Scott’s work on demonology and witchcraft in Sketches By Boz. In David Copperfield, a book imbued with autobiography, Dickens wrote: “My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time… and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it”. No Scott works here.

Dickens had read Scott, and read him thoroughly. Parts of Bleak House seem in conversation with The Heart Of Midlothian: both have illegitimate children and interminable lawsuits; both explore how the highest and lowest in society are connected. The version of the Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge is also influenced by Scott’s version of the Porteous Riots. But Scott’s life, rather than his work, was a terror to Dickens. Scott was not only successful, he was rich – and he lost his fortune. Dickens, clambering out of poverty and the hell-hole of the blacking factory by the endeavours of his pen, was haunted by the precarious nature of such a profession. Dickens was obsessed that Scott had lost money through American pirated editions, and fought for tighter copyright controls. Scott was his eminence grise.

It was another, altogether tetchier Scottish figure, who proved crucial to the later Dickens. Thomas Carlyle, the Ecclefechan-born historian and thinker, moved to London in 1834 as well, and, as George Eliot, another great Victorian novelist wrote: “There is hardly an active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writing.” Dickens and Carlyle became friends – as far as anyone was ever friends with Carlyle – and Carlyle’s French Revolution was essential to Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities, just as his denunciations of mechanism and utilitarianism would underpin Hard Times. Dickens didn’t need Carlyle to awaken his social conscience, but he did need him to analyse why things were as wrong as they were.

It was to Scotland, finally, that Dickens’s mind leapt when he gave one of his most impassioned speeches, fund-raising for the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. Dickens recollected a dying child in an Edinburgh slum: “he lay there, seeming to wonder what it was a’ aboot… God knows, I thought, he had his reasons for wonder”. As well as the bluff, jovial, roast-turkey-with-all-the-trimmings Dickens, it would be good to remember the man staring in bewildered anguish at the effects of poverty.