Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Father as I Recall Him - Mamie Dickens

The bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens is coming up in 2012 & already there are many events planned & books to be published about this writer who is probably second only to Shakespeare in fame & affection. I've loved Dickens's novels for as long as I can remember & I plan to read Martin Chuzzlewit & Barnaby Rudge next year as they're the only two of the novels I haven't read yet. I've never found the titles very appealing for some reason. Why is David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby an inviting title for a novel & these two are not? I may be pleasantly surprised & become as fond of Barnaby & Martin as I am of so many other characters in the novels.

I've also read many biographies of Dickens. Michael Slater's magnificent biography will be hard to beat but I am looking forward to Claire Tomalin's book which is on its way to me right now. I love Tomalin's writing & one of my favourite biographies is her book on Ellen Ternan & Dickens, The Invisible Woman. In anticipation of all this Dickensmania to come over the next 12 months, I've just read this delightful book by Dickens's daughter, Mamie. My Father as I Recall Him (picture from here) is only 50pp long & is brimming over with love & affection for the man who was adored & admired by his daughter without reservation.

The book was written at the end of Mamie's life in the 1890s & is a collection of stories & anecdotes about Dickens as a father, a friend & a writer. The only biography of her father that Mamie recommends is John Forster's quasi-authorized book & Mamie never mentions the fact that her parents had separated or, of course, that her father had a mistress. This is Dickens as a great man who loved his home & family & was never happier than when he was among them. This was certainly one aspect of Dickens & Mamie's book is the source for many anecdotes that have appeared in every book about Dickens written since. One of the most famous stories, about Gad's Hill House, is almost like a fairy tale,

As a "very queer small boy" he used to walk up to the house - it stood at the summit of a high hill - on holidays, or when his heart ached for a "great treat". He would stand and look at it, for as a little fellow he had a wonderful liking and admiration for the house, and it was, to him, like no other house he had ever seen. He would walk up and down before it with his father, gazing at it with delight, and the latter would tell him that perhaps if he worked hard, was industrious, and grew up to be a good man, he might some day come to live in that very house.

Of course he did just that, living at Gad's Hill for the last years of his life. Another famous story shows how absorbed Dickens became when writing. Normally he was left quite alone when he was working but, after Mamie had been ill, Dickens asked if she would like to lie on the sofa in his study while she convalesced.

On one of these mornings, I was lying on the sofa endeavouring to keep perfectly quiet, while my father wrote busily and rapidly at his desk, when he suddenly jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror. The facial pantomime was resumed, and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing, me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice. Ceasing this soon, however, he returned once more to his desk, where he remained silently writing until luncheon time...for the time being he had not only lost sight of his surroundings, but had actually become in action, as in imagination, the creature of his pen.

The last years of Dickens's life were blighted by illness, both physical & emotional. His last reading tour of the United States was an act of will that almost killed him. The readings took so much emotional energy, especially the sensational scenes like the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist that Dickens himself wondered how he would ever get through the tour.

"It likewise happens, not seldom, that I am so dead beat when I come off the stage, 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 again."

Dickens was returning from France one day in 1865 with Ellen Ternan & her mother when their train was derailed at Staplehurst in Kent. The shock of this incident never left him for the final years of his life as, although not physically hurt, Dickens helped to tend the injured & saw people die from their injuries. The fear that his relationship with Ellen would be discovered must also have affected him, although this is not mentioned in Mamie's book. Dickens wrote of the sense of dread he felt whenever he had to travel by train & Mamie saw how badly he was affected,

...on one occasion, which I especially recall, while we were on our way home from London to our little country station, Higham, where the carriage was to meet us, my father suddenly clutched the arms of the railway carriage seat, while his face grew ashy pale, and great drops of perspiration stood upon his forehead, and though he tried hard to master the dread, it was so strong that he had to leave the train at the next station. The accident had left its impression upon the memory, and it was destined never to be effaced.

Mamie writes movingly of Dickens's death. She & her sister, Katey, were summoned to Gad's Hill by their Aunt Georgina after her father became ill.

All through the night we watched him - my sister on one side of the couch, my aunt on the other, and I keeping hot bricks to the feet which nothing could warm, hoping and praying that he might open his eyes and look at us, and know us once again. But he never moved, never opened his eyes, never showed a sign of consciousness through all the long night...Later, in the evening of this day, at ten minutes past six, we saw a shudder pass over our dear father, he heaved a deep sigh, a large tear rolled down his face and at that instant his spirit left us. As we saw the dark shadow pass from his face, leaving it so calm and beautiful in the peace and majesty of death, I think there was not one of us who would have wished, could we have had the power, to recall his spirit to earth.

Mamie's book is full of a daughter's memories of a much-loved father. There are many Dickensian moments at Christmas, on holidays, practical jokes played on family & friends. The cover of the book shows Dickens & the illustrator John Leech dancing with Mamie & Katey. The girls had tried to teach the two men to dance & the result was incongruous as Leech was over six feet tall & Dickens could never learn even the simplest dance although he was so clever at acting & performing in other ways. This was the private man that his daughter knew & although much is left unsaid, this is a book that any Dickens fan would enjoy reading. I downloaded my copy of My Father as I Recall Him free from ManyBooks.


  1. How interesting. I did not realize that Mamie wrote about her father. I too love Dickens' work, especially A Tale of Two Cities, and look forward to next year's events.

  2. This sounds a really interesting book. I love Dickens, though the only biography of him I have read is the Peter Ackroyd one.

  3. Heather & Joanne, this is a lovely book filled with Mamie's love for her father. Only 50pp but crammed with stories. I enjoyed the Ackroyd biography but I'm really looking forward to Claire Tomalin's.

  4. This would be fascinating. The Claire Tomalin biography is on its way to me right now too!

  5. Audrey, my copy of the Tomalin arrived yesterday & I looked through it last night. My only problem is going to be reading it with Lucky on my lap (as she was last night). It's quite heavy. I used to have the same problem with Abby. My solution would be to read the heavy book until my wrists & neck gave out & then switch to something lighter!