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Charles Dickens London - John Forster's House

( Originally Published 1915 )



JOHN FORSTER'S HOUSE AT NO. 58 LINCOLN'S INN FIELDS

HERE it was that Mr. Dickens for the first time read "The Chimes," — and in that very room behind the window-panes seen in my sketch ; — and behind the same panes, no doubt, if one can judge from the purple tones in the wavy glass which only great age can give. Here Mr. Tulkinghorn defied the Frenchwoman; here he plotted against Lady Dedlock, and here he was found one morning "lying face down on the floor, shot through the heart." And here, today, true to its traditions it is still a mansion "let off in sets of chambers," where, to quote the author of "Bleak House," "lawyers lie like maggots in nuts."

And many of the near-by dwellings famous in the old days still remain intact, their only signs of decrepitude being those that the years of mould and smoke produce. Newcastle House, the residence of the great Duke of Newcastle, built by Inigo Jones in 1686, still stands erect in its impressive aloofness; Lindsay House, the home of the Earl of Lindsay, that dates from 1668, shows almost the same façade given in an old print. Many others, too, on the west and south side of Lincoln's Inn Fields still retain all their oldtime dignity.

The Square itself, once a wide-open common where in 1683 Lord Russell was executed for a crime he did not commit, has boasted a fence since 1735, and today is one of largest and best-shaded squares in London, due, no doubt, to the fines and penalties heaped upon the heads of the of-fender who violated the rules governing its seclusion, as is proved by a proclamation dated 1805, a facsimile of which is herewith reproduced. The original was the property of an old fellow, the proprietor of a near-by public house, a friend of my cabby who, while I was at work, regaled both the cabby and the horse within its bar and stable.

I can understand now, with the document before me, why other sections of the Temple — like Fountain Court — still preserve their rest and solitude. What would have happened had I defied all the rules and attempted to work around the Fountain without a permit, it is impossible to imagine. But all doubts would have been solved had I tried it in Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1805.

And a great Square it was in its day — this famous West End of London, and a great people lived and played their parts within its confines. Nell Gwynne entranced her audiences at the Duke's Theatre, Portugal Row; Betterton acted in "Hamlet" (this in 1662), bringing fame and fortune to the company; Opie (1791) painted portraits in one of the great houses on the south side not far from the theatre, the carriages of his patrons, so great was his popularity, blocking up the street; Congreve's "Love for Love" (1695) was played for the first time with Mrs. Bracegirdle as Angelica, and thirty years later, "The Beggar's Opera," with Lavinia Fenton so bewitching as Polly Peacham that she carried by storm the heart of the Duke of Bolton and became his Duchess; an outcome, the scribe remarks, by no means unusual in our day. And in this same theatre Pepys was so vastly amused that he went as often as he could in order to make Mrs. Pepys "as mad as the devil," an occupation which, if we may believe his chronicle, filled the larger part of his waking hours.

But it is with the year 1844, when "The Chimes" first saw the light, and ten years later, when "Bleak House" was published, that I have now to do.

Forster tells of his receiving a letter from Mr. Dickens, who was then on the Continent, announcing his near arrival in London. Accordingly a group of his friends, awaited him at No. 58 Lincoln's Inn Fields, there to listen to Mr. Dickens's promised reading of his new Christmas story, Maclise making a delightful drawing of the gathering, as can be seen by any one who hunts up the original in the Forster Collection.

"Dickens's letter to Forster was written from Geneva, in November, 1844:

"... But the party for the night following? I know you have consented to the party. Let me see. Don't have any one, this particular night, for dinner, but let it be a summons for the special purpose at half-past six. Carlyle, indispensable, and I should like his wife of all things: her judgment would be invaluable. You will ask Mac, and why not his sister? Stanny and Jerrold I should particularly wish; Edwin Landseer; Blanchard;... and when I meet you, oh! Heaven, what a week we will have!"

Forster further describes the occasion itself as being : "Rather memorable, the germ of those readings to larger audiences by which, as much as by his books, the world knew him."

Years after, in describing the memorable meeting, Forster says: "There was certainly no want of animation when we met. I have but to write the words to bring back the eager face and figure, as they flashed upon me so suddenly this wintry Saturday night that almost before I could be conscious of his presence I felt the grasp of his hand. It is almost all I find it possible to remember of the brief, bright meeting. Hardly did he seem to have come when he was gone. But all that the visit proposed he accomplished. He saw his little book in its final form for publication; and, to a select few brought together on Monday the 2nd of December at my house, had the opportunity of reading it aloud. . . . and when I expressed to Dickens, after he left us, my grief that he had so tempestuous a journey for such brief enjoyment, he replied that the visit had been one of happiness and delight to him. ` I would not recall an inch of the way to or from you, if it had been twenty times as long and twenty thousand times as wintry. It was worth any travel — anything ! With the soil of the road in the very grain of my cheeks, I swear I wouldn't have missed that week, that first night of our meeting, that one evening of the reading at your rooms, aye, and the second reading too, for any easily stated or conceived consideration.' "

Still, ten years later, Mr. Dickens brought this home of Forster into "Bleak House," assuming that Mr. Tulkinghorn had his chambers on one of the upper floors.

"Here "—I quote from the novel—"in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now; and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. But its roomy staircases, passages, and antechambers still remain; and even its painted ceilings, where Allegory, in Roman helmet and celestial linen, sprawls among balustrades and pillars, flowers, clouds, and big-legged boys, and makes the head ache — as would seem to be Allegory's object always, more or less:.. .

"Like as he is to look at, so is his apartment in the dusk of the present afternoon. Rusty, out of date, withdrawing from attention, able to afford it. Heavy broad-backed old-fashioned mahogany and horsehair chairs, not easily lifted, obsolete tables with spindle-legs and dusty baize covers, presentation prints of the holders of great titles in the last generation, or the last but one, environ him. A thick and dingy Turkey-carpet muffles the floor where he sits, attended. by two candles in old-fashioned silver candle-sticks, that give a very insufficient light to his large room....

"A fine night, and a bright large moon, and multitudes of stars. Mr. Tulkinghorn, . . . looks up casually, thinking what a fine night, what a bright large moon, what multitudes of stars! .. .

"A little after the coming of the day, come people to clean the rooms. And either the Roman has some new meaning in him, not expressed before, or the foremost of them goes wild; for, looking up at his outstretched hand, and looking down at what is below it, that person shrieks and flies. The others, looking in as the first one looked, shriek and fly too, and there is an alarm in the street. . . .

"There is whispering and wondering all day, strict search of every corner, careful tracing of steps, and careful noting of the disposition of every article of furniture. All eyes look up at the Roman, and all voices murmur, `If he could only tell what he saw!'

"He is pointing at a table, with a bottle (nearly full of wine) and a glass upon it, and two candles that were blown out suddenly, soon after being lighted. He is pointing at an empty chair, and at a stain upon the ground be-fore it that might be almost covered with a hand... . For, Mr. Tulkinghorn's time is over for evermore; and the Roman pointed at the murderous hand uplifted against his life, and pointed helplessly at him, from night to morning, lying face downward on the floor, shot through the heart."

Years of soot and dust, due to the movings in and movings out of many "maggots" in their changing of "nuts," followed by a liberal use of friendly whitewash, have obliterated all traces of the "Roman" and "the outstretched hand" and "flowers" and "clouds," but the façade of the grim dignified old house is still as Charles Dickens knew it. All the more wonderful when I realise that the stealthy fingers of modern greed are within reach of its door-step. Indeed, when I last saw it in June, 1913, several ghouls, in the shape of portable boilers and erectable derricks, were squatted in a circle about it, waiting for the signal to pounce in and tear.

Today, as I write, they may be quarrelling over its rafter bones, or drawing lots for choice bits of mantel, sash, and door.

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