If he would only work hard enough…

Fildes The Empty Chair 1870

Dickens’ empty chair at Gads Hill, after his death from a stroke at age 58. He looked much older.

I began reading Pickwick Papers last week as preparation for resuming my journey through Dickens’ novels, and today, for good measure, I was reading the beginning of John Forster’s biography of Dickens. And immediately the date leaped out at me: February 7, 1812, Dickens’ birthday.

February 7, 2018, then, is a good time to begin at the beginning.

Forster says:

The house called Gadshill Place stands on the strip of highest ground in the main road between Rochester and Gravesend. Often had we traveled past it together, years and years before it became his home, and never without some allusion to what he told me when first I saw it in his company, that amid the recollections connected with his childhood it held always a prominent place, for, upon first seeing it as he came from Chatham with his father, and looking up at it with much admiration, he had been promised that he might himself live in it, or in some such house, when he came to be a man, if he would only work hard enough.

I wonder if these words of his father, when the boy was 4 or 5 years old, imparted a decisive quality to his life and direction as an adult, or whether the grown-up Dickens selected an incident from his childhood in retrospect to fit the lifestyle he had made for himself.

There’s no doubt that what a parent says to a child can have a powerful and lasting effect on their behavior and development. But an exhortation to work hard–perhaps not an exhortation but a dangling bait–can meet with little understanding in a child’s mind of what “working hard” means. Was the promised reward of living in Gadshill such an alluring prize, and real enough to the imagination and heart’s desire, to carry young Dickens through the growing years or was it only a charming fancy to be recited to friends in amiable conversation?

Dickens worked hard his entire adult life. It is said that he was prematurely aged by his labors. Other motivations than Gadshill suggest themselves: fear of poverty, a desire to effect social improvement. But surely, the fascination of storytelling; the bringing to life of characters endearing, abhorrent, and amusing; the expression of worthy themes … the romantic ideal of the artist that we all want to believe in … that has to be the real reason a man would write book after book, plus essays, stories, and narratives of travels. Right?

There are plenty of people with the itch to write who lack the purpose-driven stamina and the will to work hard, so I circle back to Dickens’ willingness to put in the hours and not go on to something else that beckons and says it will be more enjoyable, to toil away at the desk and make the words come, even when (I have to assume) his hand cramped, his back hurt, and hundred other reasons could be employed to let himself stop, rest, daydream.

He was driven, and that is often not a happy thing, no matter what the private reason to work hard and not quit.