The author's bicentenary gives a chance to look at his relationship with the city.
15 Aug 2013
'I tell you what, Wal'r!' said the Captain, who seemed to have prepared himself for this contingency in his absence. 'We'll go to Brighton. I'll back you, my boy. I'll back you, Wal'r. We'll go to Brighton by the afternoon's coach.' Dombey and Son, Chapter 9
The Faculty of Arts' students and scholars have undertaken work this year to coincide with the 2012 bi-centenary of Charles Dickens’ birth. Born in nearby Portsmouth, Dickens is best known for his portrayal of London life, but also had connections with Brighton, to which he made many visits and where he wrote large portions of Dombey and Son. His illustrator Hablot Knight Browne, professionally known as 'Phiz', moved to Brighton shortly before his death in 1882 and is buried in the city.
Literature lecturer Dr Peter Blake, an expert in Victorian journalism, gave a talk at the Brighton Pavilion on Wednesday 28th March in the William IV room. Here he gives a shortened taste of his public lecture, which provided a timely insight into the writer’s connections with specific locations in Brighton and the inspiration he gained from the people he met whilst staying in the town:
Charles Dickens’ first visit to Brighton was in October 1837 while he was working on the novel Oliver Twist. His last visit was in November 1868 when he delivered a public reading at the Grand Concert Hall in West Street.
In between these 31 years Dickens visited Brighton on numerous occasions, staying mainly at the Bedford Hotel (now the Holiday Inn on King’s Road) but also at the Old Ship, Junction House, 148 King’s Rd. and No. 4 Regency Square. Dickens came to Brighton, like so many other nineteenth-century novelists and artists, for relaxation and fun, away from the gruelling grind of metropolitan life. While here he went to the Theatre Royal, took walks on the Downs and enjoyed trips on the Skylark pleasure boat with Captain Fred Collins.
But Brighton was also an inspiration for Dickens. He worked on Oliver Twist, Barnaby Rudge, and David Copperfield while staying here and the city provided the backdrop for some of the most important and well-loved scenes in Dombey and Son (1846-48), not least the image of the ill little Paul Dombey who stares out at the sea and wonders what it is the waves were actually saying.
Florence asked him what he thought he heard.
'I want to know what it says,' he answered, looking steadily in her face. 'The sea' Floy, what is it that it keeps on saying?'
She told him that it was only the noise of the rolling waves.
'Yes, yes,' he said. 'But I know that they are always saying something. Always the same thing. What place is over there?' He rose up, looking eagerly at the horizon.
She told him that there was another country opposite, but he said he didn't mean that: he meant further away—farther away!
Very often afterwards, in the midst of their talk, he would break off, to try to understand what it was that the waves were always saying; and would rise up in his couch to look towards that invisible region, far away.
Dombey and Son, Chapter 8
It was also the people that Dickens met while in Brighton who became the prototypes for some of his characters; Tiny Tim and Paul Dombey were drawn from Dickens’ own disabled nephew Harry Burnett, who was the son of Mr Henry Burnett who had been discovered as a musical protégé by the organist of the Chapel Royal in North Street. Henry had married Dickens’ sister, Fanny, while they were both studying at the Royal Academy of Music.
Dickens gave nine public readings in Brighton, in 1858, 1861 and 1868. His performance at the Royal Pavilion in a Saturday afternoon matinee performance in the Music Room deserves a special mention because it was attended by HRH the Duchess of Cambridge and Princess Mary. The local newspaper, the Brighton Gazette, records how Dickens was able to send a charge of emotion through the whole audience. Dickens recorded himself that he was able to foster “that peculiar personal relation between my audience and myself on which I counted most when I entered on this enterprise.” Reading from David Copperfield in the Music Room at the Royal Pavilion in 1861, perhaps he appreciated the irony of speaking in a building that symbolises aristocratic excess and decadence when he was such a champion of the poor and oppressed.
Dickens loved his ‘watering places’, including Broadstairs and the Isle of Wight, but it was in Brighton that he was able to marry his love of fun with his love of writing.
Dr Peter Blake, April 2012
A short extract, set in Brighton, from Dickens' Dombey and Son:
This celebrated Mrs Pipchin was a marvellous ill-favoured, ill-conditioned old lady, of a stooping figure, with a mottled face, like bad marble, a hook nose, and a hard grey eye, that looked as if it might have been hammered at on an anvil without sustaining any injury. Forty years at least had elapsed since the Peruvian mines had been the death of Mr Pipchin; but his relict still wore black bombazeen, of such a lustreless, deep, dead, sombre shade, that gas itself couldn't light her up after dark, and her presence was a quencher to any number of candles. She was generally spoken of as 'a great manager' of children; and the secret of her management was, to give them everything that they didn't like, and nothing that they did—which was found to sweeten their dispositions very much. She was such a bitter old lady, that one was tempted to believe there had been some mistake in the application of the Peruvian machinery, and that all her waters of gladness and milk of human kindness, had been pumped out dry, instead of the mines.
The Castle of this ogress and child-queller was in a steep by-street at Brighton; where the soil was more than usually chalky, flinty, and sterile, and the houses were more than usually brittle and thin; where the small front-gardens had the unaccountable property of producing nothing but marigolds, whatever was sown in them; and where snails were constantly discovered holding on to the street doors, and other public places they were not expected to ornament, with the tenacity of cupping-glasses. In the winter time the air couldn't be got out of the Castle, and in the summer time it couldn't be got in. There was such a continual reverberation of wind in it, that it sounded like a great shell, which the inhabitants were obliged to hold to their ears night and day, whether they liked it or no. It was not, naturally, a fresh-smelling house; and in the window of the front parlour, which was never opened, Mrs Pipchin kept a collection of plants in pots, which imparted an earthy flavour of their own to the establishment. However choice examples of their kind, too, these plants were of a kind peculiarly adapted to the embowerment of Mrs Pipchin.
Mr Dombey finished the interview by expressing his hope that Mrs Pipchin would still remain in office as general superintendent and overseer of his son, pending his studies at Brighton...
The Doctor's was a mighty fine house, fronting the sea. Not a joyful style of house within, but quite the contrary. Sad-coloured curtains, whose proportions were spare and lean, hid themselves despondently behind the windows. The tables and chairs were put away in rows, like figures in a sum; fires were so rarely lighted in the rooms of ceremony, that they felt like wells, and a visitor represented the bucket; the dining-room seemed the last place in the world where any eating or drinking was likely to occur; there was no sound through all the house but the ticking of a great clock in the hall, which made itself audible in the very garrets; and sometimes a dull cooing of young gentlemen at their lessons, like the murmurings of an assemblage of melancholy pigeons.
Miss Blimber, too, although a slim and graceful maid, did no soft violence to the gravity of the house. There was no light nonsense about Miss Blimber. She kept her hair short and crisp, and wore spectacles. She was dry and sandy with working in the graves of deceased languages. None of your live languages for Miss Blimber. They must be dead—stone dead—and then Miss Blimber dug them up like a Ghoul.
The above image is from Phiz's illustration of Paul and the 'child-queller at Brighton' Mrs Pipchin, an illustration Dickens was hopeful for but which seems to have disappointed him greatly.
According to Frederic G. Kitton in Dickens and his Illustrators (1899)
...failure on the part of the artist caused him to feel unusually anxious in regard to a special illustration on which he had set much store, intended for the number he then had in hand. Communicating with Forster anent this, he said : " The best subject for Browne will be at Mrs. Pipchin's ; and if he liked to do a quiet odd thing, Paul, Mrs. Pipchin, and the Cat, by the fire, would be very good for the story. I earnestly hope he will think it worth a little extra care." On first seeing the etching of this subject, he was sorely displeased, and could not refrain from thus expressing himself to Forster: " I am really distressed by the illustration of Mrs. Pipchin and Paul. It is so frightfully and wildly wide of the mark. Good Heaven! in the commonest and most literal construction of the text it is all wrong. She is described as an old lady, and Paul's 'miniature arm-chair' is mentioned more than once. He ought to be sitting in a little arm-chair down in the corner of the fireplace, staring up at her. I can't say what pain and vexation it is to be so utterly misrepresented. I would cheerfully have given a hundred pounds to have kept this illustration out of the book. He never could have got that idea of Mrs. Pipchin if he had attended to the text Indeed, I think he does better without the text ; for then the notion is made easy to him in short description, and he can't help taking it in." It is certainly strange that the sketch for this subject was not submitted to Dickens for approval before it was etched. We are told by Forster that the author felt the disappointment more keenly because "the conception of the grim old boarding-house keeper had taken back his thoughts to the miseries of his own child-life, and made her, as her prototype in verity was, a part of the terrible reality." In justice to the artist, it must be conceded that the etching of this subject seems to be an excellent rendering of the description of the scene as conveyed in the letterpress.
Kitton F.G., Dickens and his Illustrators (1899), pp.91-2.