Writing to Charles Dickens
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 26 FEBRUARY 2023
On 18 May1844, which was a Saturday, a well-dressed gentleman stood outside a mean dwelling in a street in Lambeth. The weather was showery and there was a slight chill in the air. Even as the light was beginning to fade, children were playing in the street. Their fathers were porters and cabinet makers, wheelwrights and labourers, and their mothers were needlewomen and dressmakers
The gentleman, who was in his mid-twenties, had about him an unmistakable air of purpose. His expression made it clear that he was ready for a confrontation. Anyone passing him as he stood outside the house, which was at 5 Mitre Street, would have realised that this was not exactly a social call.
He knocked on the door. When he was admitted, he found himself face to face with a woman, who stared at him in bewilderment. He stared back, similarly bewildered and even confused. ‘Is Mr John Walker at home?’ The woman shook her head. ‘Allow me to introduce myself,’ her visitor went on. ‘The name is Frederick Dickens. I am a brother of Mr Charles Dickens, the writer.’
Ready to help
By 1844 Charles Dickens had already written the first six of his fifteen novels. He was already a publishing phenomenon and recognised as a writer who drew inspiration for his characters from all levels of English society. He was seen as a champion of the poor, and as such he constantly received letters requesting help in the face of real or feigned hardship.
In a word, he was a victim of the begging letter, a branch of the persuasive arts in which John Walker of Mitre Street in Lambeth was a seasoned practitioner. When he wrote his first letter to Dickens at his Marylebone address at 1 Devonshire Terrace, Walker was living not in Lambeth but at 9 Upper Crown Street in Westminster. He was a married man with four children.
Dickens, familiar as he was with the writers of begging letters, was clearly wary of Walker from the outset. So, on receiving this first letter, he dropped his brother Fred a note at the Treasury, where he was employed as a clerk, asking him to look into the matter. But he was certainly ready to help, if help was needed, and, when Fred duly visited Upper Crown Street and later described to his brother what he had seen there, Dickens sent a servant down to Walker with a sovereign and a suit of clothes.
A crushing rock
Before long Walker wrote a second letter to Dickens, in which he asked quite specifically for help with rent. He had not been able to pay his landlord for the last thirteen weeks, or so he claimed, and at four shillings rent a week his arrears amounted to two pounds and twelve shillings. He was staring disaster in the face, he went on, and his landlord was threatening to turn him and his family out into the street if he did not pay the sum immediately.
Dickens dispatched a servant with money for the indigent Walkers, and the next day he received the following gracious acknowledgement, sent from Upper Crown Street and dated 30 March:
Sir, — How can I return thanks to your silent yet truly emphatic reply to my request? Words are but a poor conveyance of my feelings, and the extent of my gratitude. Allow me to acknowledge the receipt of the sum of 2l. 12s., by the hands of your servant yesterday evening, with which I immediately discharged my rent, and by doing so, through your kindness, removed a rock that must have crushed me to pieces. Can I possibly do anything in return, such as copying? I shall be most happy, if but to show you in a trifling way how truly thankful I am to you. Pray do not hesitate trying me.
The triumph of generosity
Walker signed off with an expression of his and his wife’s gratitude, which Dickens must have felt to be a touching gesture if sincere. One can well imagine his quandary. If he had indeed saved a struggling family from eviction, then his money had been put to good use. In the face of greed and cruelty he had shown the very generosity of spirit he had placed at the heart of A Christmas Carol, which he had published only a few months previously in December 1843. In a sense he had used the proceeds of his popular novella to carry out this important act of charity.
On the other hand he had long experience of the tactics used by the writers of begging-letters, and it cannot have escaped his notice that Walker had a way with words. His letter was well composed, a fact that certainly would not have been lost on the great writer. As for Walker’s offer of secretarial services, Dickens had encountered a similar manoeuvre in 1840 when he was contacted by a Roman Catholic clergyman looking for ‘literary employment’ as a way out of financial embarrassment.
He saw both sides. If A Christmas Carol had ended with the triumph of generosity over cynicism, the final chapter of Martin Chuzzlewit, which would appear shortly in July 1844, condemned the villainous Pecksniff as a ‘drunken, begging, squalid, letter-writing man’ who regales his alehouse companions with his hard-luck stories.
Hoping to get on
A few weeks later, on 3 May, Walker sent another letter to Dickens. He and his wife and their four children had now moved down to Lambeth, where they had taken up residence in the little house at 5 Mitre Street. He had Dickens to thank for their escape from Westminster, and, although he was obliged to pay two guineas a month for the rent of the new house, he had every hope of eventually being able to ‘get on’. To this end he had let off part of the house to a lodger.
However, he needed money urgently. Many essential items had to be purchased, starting with a water butt. Five pounds would see him through these latest difficulties. He would now ask his benefactor to help again, either by offering security to a loan society for the sum required, or, if he would be kind enough, by agreeing to advance the money against punctual repayments of a pound a month.
A sacred promise
Walker concluded the letter with an emotional appeal to the effect that without the help of a friend he would surely once more sink into destitution. By now, though, he was pushing his luck, and by way of reply Dickens said that he could not give him any further help. In spite of the rebuff Walker wrote another letter, in which he made a shocking revelation:
Sir, — Pray do not be angry with me for again writing to you, but have patience to listen to me for another moment. Last night I thought my wife would have died — overcome with fatigue and anxiety she miscarried, her pains were dreadful, and I thought every moment would have been her last. If you are a married man you can sympathize with me; if you are not, your imagination must picture to you a night of sorrow. Judge, then, in addition to this, with what acuteness I read your note and its effect on my poor wife, from whom I could not conceal it, it being delivered in her presence in the bed-room by one of my boys.
Walker went on to implore Dickens ‘once again to be my friend’ in the form of a loan of two sovereigns. He promised ‘most faithfully’ and indeed ‘sacredly’ to repay the sum and ended the letter with a further allusion to his desperate situation:
I shall be eternally grateful to you, and so will my poor wife. Could you see her, I am sure you would do it. Pray forgive me, and do oblige me this once.
The streams of adversity
As far as we know, Dickens ignored Walker’s letter. But either Walker was facing a genuine emergency or he was merely being deceitful and manipulative, for on 9 May he wrote again, raising the stakes alarmingly:
Sir, — Pray forgive me thus persecuting you this way; my wife is dangerously ill, and I have not money to buy medicine or anything for her; pray forgive this annoyance. I am single-handed, not a soul to help me, like but one man on board a ship dismasted, waterlogged, and every way so crippled, that sink or starve I must, unless a friendly vessel heaves in sight and saves me.
Walker re-used the image of the sinking ship in the next letter, which he sent three days later:
Sir, — Did I not deem I should be an accessory to my wife’s death if I did not use every means in my power to save her, I would not again write to you. I have no relation to apply to. Who then can I ask but the stranger who has been my friend? You class mine among the common cases that make appeal to you. Supposing so, and I am one of 500 poor wretches who are wrecked and are floating down the streams of adversity, would you not hold out your hand to save me? My brother James was wrecked in the Baltic, and his life with others was saved entirely through the humanity of strangers, who perilled even their own lives in so doing. It is true a wreck is a more exciting scene than a family suffering every privation at home, but is it a worse scene?
Just one bauble
Then, after anticipating the despair he would suffer following the inevitable death of his wife, Walker adopted a new and shocking image of the father resorting to extreme measures. The passage is so extraordinary, both in its tone and in its content, that it is worth quoting in full:
Sir, you have depicted the horrors of misery and want most strongly, come and witness an illustration. The father, who was not long since goaded by misfortune and failures in his appeal to the rich, and in his desperation hurried his children untimely into eternity, following their shades to make retribution in another world, was not in his circumstances so badly off as I am; — his wife was well, he had solicited alms of the rich of the city and they were deaf to his appeal, though a pound or so would have saved him, and perhaps his soul. When the deed was done they heaped gold in the lap of the poor, lone, bereft widow. Oh, what pangs must each piece have conveyed to her heart to think, to know, that one of earth’s baubles would have served her husband and her poor children.
For my children
Quite what Dickens would have made of this is hard to conceive. He would certainly have been aware of the growing intensity of Walker’s letters, his mastery of language and the harrowing quality of his emotional appeals. Possibly it crossed his mind that the storm had blown itself out, and that Walker, having used up all his persuasive ammunition, would now quietly go away.
However, the real drama was yet to begin. For on Friday 17 May, in yet another letter, Walker announced that his poor wife had died. He asked God that He grant her soul rest because she had been a good mother and a good wife. And then he asked Dickens to ‘spare a few crumbs’ from his table. These, he added, were for his children … TO BE CONTINUED