Charles Dickens London - All Year Round
( Originally Published 1915 )
THE auctioneer, famous the world over for holding the last rites over the mortuary remains of many a defunct library, was positive that the offices of All the Year Round were on the corner some few streets above and that I "couldn't miss it." Another intelligent gentleman, also versed in books, was pretty positive that I could miss it, and with the greatest ease, as the building had been torn down these many years.
A third individual, who kept a chemist shop on the sup-posed site, had never once heard the magazine mentioned since he had lived here, and he would certainly have done so had there been any such publication. He knew Dickens; that is, he had heard of him . . . he was dead, of course ; he supposed I knew that (I nodded assent) — had been dead some years, long before his own shop was opened. His assistant might know - he'd call him; he had a great head for remembering things.
The chemist did not raise his voice in summoning his assistant - it wasn't necessary, for that individual was hid-den behind a sort of cashier's box with a half-round hole through which prescriptions were passed and against which I was at that moment leaning. When the round knob came into view I discovered that it was partly bald, the hair having been rubbed off as far down as his ears, owing, no doubt, to constant abrasions received in the cramped quarters in which he worked; that the brush edges of two bushy eye-brows fringed a pair of silver spectacles arched over a thin, bloodless nose, two pale, sunken cheeks, and a mouth that was all puckers. The eyes, though, flashed like diamond points.
"The mistake these people make around here" — and he glanced contemptuously at his employer — "is that they mix up the two publications with which Mr. Dickens was connected. Household Words made its home below here in the building afterward known as the Gaiety Theatre; the office of the manager being the one in which Mr. Dickens sat. This has been torn down. The offices of All the Year Round you will find on Wellington; Strand. I could show you the room, but I am too busy. Is there anything else?"
He looked at me keenly, awaiting my reply, the puckers about his mouth tightening, the high light on his bare skull all the more brilliant by reason of the intellectual strain now distending the skin covering.
For a moment I hesitated. The information had been as exact as a prescription and had been given as though the formulae were under his eyes.
"No, thank you." Again I hesitated. "But might I ask if you could give me the name of the party who at the present occupies Mr. Dickens's former editorial room so I can
"Yes, you can ask it and I can give it to you, but it won't do you any good. What you want to do is to go up two flights in a house on the opposite corner and call on Miss Dickens. Her sign is on the outside. She has a business office there and can look into the room where her grandfather used to edit the magazine, and she can do that without getting out of her seat. Tell her your story and see what'll happen. Next thing you want to do is to walk around to Henrietta Street, where you'll find Chapman & Hall, Mr. Dickens's publishers, and tell them the same thing you told Miss Dickens; then you'll find out what'll happen next. What they don't know of what's left of Mr. Dickens's day isn't worth mentioning. Is that all?"
That was all — every item, every detail. I told him so, tears of gratitude streaming down my cheeks. He screwed up both eyes, pursed his mouth until the sponge bag was tied tight, and dropped his head below the edge of the cashier's box. The proprietor took in the perspective, saw that I was alone, came out into the open, and remarked as he bowed me out : "I thought he could tell you. Knows a lot. I tell you he's got a great head. Come again. I'm glad to have helped you out." He glad to help me out! Thus it is that the deserving are robbed of their just deserts.
Into my cab once more and along one side of Covent Garden and Henrietta Street, and into an old-time publishing house — a real one — smelling of printer's ink, hot glue, and leather. The desks, tables, and chairs made in the year one, the mahogany kept bright by a line of editors, proof-readers, and critics going back to the Palaeozoic Age; a place where the insides of unbound books are carted around on low trucks; where clerks, some in their shirt-sleeves, pore over big ledgers, successors of other ledgers, dating from mediaeval times, and sit on high stools facing high desks. A place where plate glass, gold lettering, Persian rugs, page boys in buttons, silver-plated ice-pitchers, and stuffed morocco chairs are unknown; where the very atmosphere reeks with musty traditions, and where at night myriads of ghosts, whose names and deeds are world-famous, stalk through the dusty lofts or hobnob with the shades of the presses that gave them life.
"Wait until I get my hat," was the quick reply of a member of the Real Publishing House, "and I'll go with you." (This, remember, in the busiest part of the day.)
Into the cab again. Two of us now. Along Covent Garden in full view of the very spot where Tom Pinch and his sister Ruth did their marketing, dodging the empty waggons, and so on to Wellington Street, Strand.
"There, sir" — and he pointed to the windows as seen in my sketch — "there was the editor's office of All the Year Round, and in that very room I used to carry Mr. Dickens's proofs when I was a boy. Our firm, as you know, were his publishers, and that is how I happen to know."
And then he recalled for me the several books, some of the proofs having passed through his own hands during the days covering the period of Mr. Dickens's editorship from 1859 to the time of his death — a long and interesting list covering "A Tale of Two Cities," "Great Expectations," and some of his shorter stories, including "Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings," "Dr. Marigold's Prescriptions," "Mugby Junction," "No Thoroughfare," "The Uncommercial Traveller," and some others — giving me, too, out of the wealth of his reminiscences, some of the author's reasons for wishing to become his own editor.
The idea had taken possession of Dickens, he said, as early as 1845, his object being to start a periodical owned, edited, and entirely controlled by himself, through which he might not only publish his novels, but also the stories, short articles, and other writings of people whose philanthropic and humanitarian ideas were like his own. In pursuance of this plan Household Words saw the light on March 30, 1850, and was continued until May 16, 1859, when, owing to a regrettable piece of personal feeling on Mr. Dickens's part, the property was sold under an order in chancery and bought on behalf of Charles Dickens for £3,500, and merged into All the Year Round, which he had established a few months before.
He told me, too, of the many attempts made by Dickens and his friends to decide on a proper title for the new venture, among them The Hearth, The Forge, Charles Dickens's Own, and the final triumph as shown in an exultant letter written to Forster in which Mr. Dickens says:
" I'm dining early, before reading, and write literally with my mouth . full. But I have just hit upon a name that I think really an admirable one — especially with the quotation before it, in the place where our present 'H. W.' quotation stands.
"'The Story of our lives, from year to year.'— Shakespeare.
"A WEEKLY JOURNAL CONDUCTED BY CHARLES DICKENS."
And then he told me of another letter in which Dickens, writing from Tavistock House, said: " I have taken a new office; . . . have got workmen in; have ordered the paper; settled with the printer; and am getting an immense system of advertising ready. Blow to be struck on the 12th of March!"
Whether the room behind the window-panes seen in my sketch still boasts the wall-paper which the great author selected when he first moved in (it certainly must have been "wall-paper" not printing paper that was ordered in connection with the workmen) I do not know. Nor did I think it best, as the Great Head had suggested, to thrust myself and my curiosity upon Miss Dickens, the lives of distinguished descendants of distinguished people being too often made miserable by the Paul Prys of this earth. What mattered it, anyway, when the grime and soot and stain of the years are still to be seen both on the rounded nose of the old building in which her grandfather had corrected his proofs and on the measly row of houses on which Dickens looked and in one of which she herself — God bless her! — is today earning her living.