Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: BIRMINGHAM, JANUARY 6, 1853.

[On Thursday, January 6, 1853, at the rooms of the Society of Artists, in Temple Row, Birmingham, a large company assembled to witness the presentation of a testimonial to Mr. Charles Dickens, consisting of a silver-gilt salver and a diamond ring. Mr. Dickens acknowledged the tribute, and the address which accompanied it, in the following words:-]

Gentlemen, I feel it very difficult, I assure you, to tender my acknowledgments to you, and through you, to those many friends of mine whom you represent, for this honour and distinction which you have conferred upon me. I can most honestly assure you, that it is in the power of no great representative of numbers of people to awaken such happiness in me as is inspired by this token of goodwill and remembrance, coming to me direct and fresh from the numbers themselves. I am truly sensible, gentlemen, that my friends who have united in this address are partial in their kindness, and regard what I have done with too great favour. But I may say, with reference to one class — some members of which, I presume, are included there — that I should in my own eyes be very unworthy both of the generous gift and the generous feeling which has been evinced, and this occasion, instead of pleasure, would give me nothing but pain, if I was unable to assure them, and those who are in front of this assembly, that what the working people have found me towards them in my books, I am throughout my life. Gentlemen, whenever I have tried to hold up to admiration their fortitude, patience, gentleness, the reasonableness of their nature, so accessible to persuasion, and their extraordinary goodness one towards another, I have done so because I have first genuinely felt that admiration myself, and have been thoroughly imbued with the sentiment which I sought to communicate to others.

Gentlemen, I accept this salver and this ring as far above all price to me, as very valuable in themselves, and as beautiful specimens of the workmanship of this town, with great emotion, I assure you, and with the liveliest gratitude. You remember something, I daresay, of the old romantic stories of those charmed rings which would lose their brilliance when their wearer was in danger, or would press his finger reproachfully when he was going to do wrong. In the very improbable event of my being in the least danger of deserting the principles which have won me these tokens, I am sure the diamond in that ring would assume a clouded aspect to my faithless eye, and would, I know, squeeze a throb of pain out of my treacherous heart. But I have not the least misgiving on that point; and, in this confident expectation, I shall remove my own old diamond ring from my left hand, and in future wear the Birmingham ring on my right, where its grasp will keep me in mind of the good friends I have here, and in vivid remembrance of this happy hour.

Gentlemen, in conclusion, allow me to thank you and the Society to whom these rooms belong, that the presentation has taken place in an atmosphere so congenial to me, and in an apartment decorated with so many beautiful works of art, among which I recognize before me the productions of friends of mine, whose labours and triumphs will never be subjects of indifference to me. I thank those gentlemen for giving me the opportunity of meeting them here on an occasion which has some connexion with their own proceedings; and, though last not least, I tender my acknowledgments to that charming presence, without which nothing beautiful can be complete, and which is endearingly associated with rings of a plainer description, and which, I must confess, awakens in my mind at the present moment a feeling of regret that I am not in a condition to make an offer of these testimonials. I beg you, gentlemen, to commend me very earnestly and gratefully to our absent friends, and to assure them of my affectionate and heartfelt respect.

The company then adjourned to Dee’s Hotel, where a banquet took place, at which about 220 persons were present, among whom were some of the most distinguished of the Royal Academicians. To the toast of “The Literature of England,” Mr. Dickens responded as follows:-

Mr. Mayor and Gentlemen, I am happy, on behalf of many labourers in that great field of literature to which you have pledged the toast, to thank you for the tribute you have paid to it. Such an honour, rendered by acclamation in such a place as this, seems to me, if I may follow on the same side as the venerable Archdeacon (Sandford) who lately addressed you, and who has inspired me with a gratification I can never forget — such an honour, gentlemen, rendered here, seems to me a two-sided illustration of the position that literature holds in these latter and, of course, “degenerate” days. To the great compact phalanx of the people, by whose industry, perseverance, and intelligence, and their result in money-wealth, such places as Birmingham, and many others like it, have arisen — to that great centre of support, that comprehensive experience, and that beating heart, literature has turned happily from individual patrons — sometimes munificent, often sordid, always few — and has there found at once its highest purpose, its natural range of action, and its best reward. Therefore it is right also, as it seems to me, not only that literature should receive honour here, but that it should render honour, too, remembering that if it has undoubtedly done good to Birmingham, Birmingham has undoubtedly done good to it. From the shame of the purchased dedication, from the scurrilous and dirty work of Grub Street, from the dependent seat on sufferance at my Lord Duke’s table to-day, and from the sponging-house or Marshalsea to-morrow — from that venality which, by a fine moral retribution, has degraded statesmen even to a greater extent than authors, because the statesman entertained a low belief in the universality of corruption, while the author yielded only to the dire necessity of his calling — from all such evils the people have set literature free. And my creed in the exercise of that profession is, that literature cannot be too faithful to the people in return — cannot too ardently advocate the cause of their advancement, happiness, and prosperity. I have heard it sometimes said — and what is worse, as expressing something more cold-blooded, I have sometimes seen it written — that literature has suffered by this change, that it has degenerated by being made cheaper. I have not found that to be the case: nor do I believe that you have made the discovery either. But let a good book in these “bad” times be made accessible — even upon an abstruse and difficult subject, so that it be one of legitimate interest to mankind — and my life on it, it shall be extensively bought, read, and well considered.

Why do I say this? Because I believe there are in Birmingham at this moment many working men infinitely better versed in Shakespeare and in Milton than the average of fine gentlemen in the days of bought-and-sold dedications and dear books. I ask anyone to consider for himself who, at this time, gives the greatest relative encouragement to the dissemination of such useful publications as “Macaulay’s History,” “Layard’s Researches,” “Tennyson’s Poems,” “The Duke of Wellington’s published Despatches,” or the minutest truths (if any truth can be called minute) discovered by the genius of a Herschel or a Faraday? It is with all these things as with the great music of Mendelssohn, or a lecture upon art — if we had the good fortune to listen to one to- morrow — by my distinguished friend the President of the Royal Academy. However small the audience, however contracted the circle in the water, in the first instance, the people are nearer the wider range outside, and the Sister Arts, while they instruct them, derive a wholesome advantage and improvement from their ready sympathy and cordial response. I may instance the case of my friend Mr. Ward’s magnificent picture; 9 and the reception of that picture here is an example that it is not now the province of art in painting to hold itself in monastic seclusion, that it cannot hope to rest on a single foundation for its great temple — on the mere classic pose of a figure, or the folds of a drapery — but that it must be imbued with human passions and action, informed with human right and wrong, and, being so informed, it may fearlessly put itself upon its trial, like the criminal of old, to be judged by God and its country.

9 Charlotte Corday going to Execution.

Gentlemen, to return and conclude, as I shall have occasion to trouble you again. For this time I have only once again to repeat what I have already said. As I begun with literature, I shall end with it. I would simply say that I believe no true man, with anything to tell, need have the least misgiving, either for himself or his message, before a large number of hearers — always supposing that he be not afflicted with the coxcombical idea of writing down to the popular intelligence, instead of writing the popular intelligence up to himself, if, perchance, he be above it; — and, provided always that he deliver himself plainly of what is in him, which seems to be no unreasonable stipulation, it being supposed that he has some dim design of making himself understood. On behalf of that literature to which you have done so much honour, I beg to thank you most cordially, and on my own behalf, for the most flattering reception you have given to one whose claim is, that he has the distinction of making it his profession.

[Later in the evening, Mr. Dickens gave as a toast, “The Educational Institutions of Birmingham,” in the following speech:]

I am requested to propose — or, according to the hypothesis of my friend, Mr. Owen, I am in the temporary character of a walking advertisement to advertise to you — the Educational Institutions of Birmingham; an advertisement to which I have the greatest pleasure in calling your attention, Gentlemen, it is right that I should, in so many words, mention the more prominent of these institutions, not because your local memories require any prompting, but because the enumeration implies what has been done here, what you are doing, and what you will yet do. I believe the first is the King Edward’s Grammar School, with its various branches, and prominent among them is that most admirable means of training the wives of working men to be good wives and working wives, the prime ornament of their homes, and the cause of happiness to others — I mean those excellent girls’ schools in various parts of the town, which, under the excellent superintendence of the principal, I should most sincerely desire to see in every town in England. Next, I believe, is the Spring Hill College, a learned institution belonging to the body of Independents, foremost among whose professors literature is proud to hail Mr. Henry Rogers as one of the soundest and ablest contributors to the Edinburgh Review. The next is the Queen’s College, which, I may say, is only a newly-born child; but, in the hands of such an admirable Doctor, we may hope to see it arrive at a vigorous maturity. The next is the School of Design, which, as has been well observed by my friend Sir Charles Eastlake, is invaluable in such a place as this; and, lastly, there is the Polytechnic Institution, with regard to which I had long ago occasion to express my profound conviction that it was of unspeakable importance to such a community as this, when I had the honour to be present, under the auspices of your excellent representative, Mr. Scholefield. This is the last of what has been done in an educational way. They are all admirable in their kind; but I am glad to find that more is yet doing. A few days ago I received a Birmingham newspaper, containing a most interesting account of a preliminary meeting for the formation of a Reformatory School for juvenile delinquents. You are not exempt here from the honour of saving these poor, neglected, and wretched outcasts. I read of one infant, six years old, who has been twice as many times in the hands of the police as years have passed over his devoted head. These are the eggs from which gaol-birds are hatched; if you wish to check that dreadful brood, you must take the young and innocent, and have them reared by Christian hands.

Lastly, I am rejoiced to find that there is on foot a scheme for a new Literary and Scientific Institution, which would be worthy even of this place, if there was nothing of the kind in it — an institution, as I understand it, where the words “exclusion” and “exclusiveness” shall be quite unknown — where all classes may assemble in common trust, respect, and confidence — where there shall be a great gallery of painting and statuary open to the inspection and admiration of all comers — where there shall be a museum of models in which industry may observe its various sources of manufacture, and the mechanic may work out new combinations, and arrive at new results — where the very mines under the earth and under the sea shall not be forgotten, but presented in little to the inquiring eye — an institution, in short, where many and many of the obstacles which now inevitably stand in the rugged way of the poor inventor shall be smoothed away, and where, if he have anything in him, he will find encouragement and hope.

I observe with unusual interest and gratification, that a body of gentlemen are going for a time to lay aside their individual prepossessions on other subjects, and, as good citizens, are to be engaged in a design as patriotic as well can be. They have the intention of meeting in a few days to advance this great object, and I call upon you, in drinking this toast, to drink success to their endeavour, and to make it the pledge by all good means to promote it.

If I strictly followed out the list of educational institutions in Birmingham, I should not have done here, but I intend to stop, merely observing that I have seen within a short walk of this place one of the most interesting and practical Institutions for the Deaf and Dumb that has ever come under my observation. I have seen in the factories and workshops of Birmingham such beautiful order and regularity, and such great consideration for the workpeople provided, that they might justly be entitled to be considered educational too. I have seen in your splendid Town Hall, when the cheap concerts are going on there, also an admirable educational institution. I have seen their results in the demeanour of your working people, excellently balanced by a nice instinct, as free from servility on the one hand, as from self-conceit on the other. It is a perfect delight to have need to ask a question, if only from the manner of the reply — a manner I never knew to pass unnoticed by an observant stranger. Gather up those threads, and a great marry more I have not touched upon, and weaving all into one good fabric, remember how much is included under the general head of the Educational Institutions of your town.

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