Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: KNEBWORTH, JULY 29, 1865.

[On the above date the members of the “Guild of Literature and Art” proceeded to the neighbourhood of Stevenage, near the magnificent seat of the President, Lord Lytton, to inspect three houses built in the Gothic style, on the ground given by him for the purpose. After their survey, the party drove to Knebworth to partake of the hospitality of Lord Lytton. Mr. Dickens, who was one of the guests, proposed the health of the host in the following words:]

Ladies and gentlemen — It was said by a very sagacious person, whose authority I am sure my friend of many years will not impugn, seeing that he was named Augustus Tomlinson, the kind friend and philosopher of Paul Clifford — it was said by that remarkable man, “Life is short, and why should speeches be long?” An aphorism so sensible under all circumstances, and particularly in the circumstances in which we are placed, with this delicious weather and such charming gardens near us, I shall practically adopt on the present occasion; and the rather so because the speech of my friend was exhaustive of the subject, as his speeches always are, though not in the least exhaustive of his audience. In thanking him for the toast which he has done us the honour to propose, allow me to correct an error into which he has fallen. Allow me to state that these houses never could have been built but for his zealous and valuable co-operation, and also that the pleasant labour out of which they have arisen would have lost one of its greatest charms and strongest impulses, if it had lost his ever ready sympathy with that class in which he has risen to the foremost rank, and of which he is the brightest ornament.

Having said this much as simply due to my friend, I can only say, on behalf of my associates, that the ladies and gentlemen whom we shall invite to occupy the houses we have built will never be placed under any social disadvantage. They will be invited to occupy them as artists, receiving them as a mark of the high respect in which they are held by their fellow-workers. As artists I hope they will often exercise their calling within those walls for the general advantage; and they will always claim, on equal terms, the hospitality of their generous neighbour.

Now I am sure I shall be giving utterance to the feelings of my brothers and sisters in literature in proposing “Health, long life, and prosperity to our distinguished host.” Ladies and gentlemen, you know very well that when the health, life, and beauty now overflowing these halls shall have fled, crowds of people will come to see the place where he lived and wrote. Setting aside the orator and statesman — for happily we know no party here but this agreeable party — setting aside all, this you know very well, that this is the home of a very great man whose connexion with Hertfordshire every other county in England will envy for many long years to come. You know that when this hall is dullest and emptiest you can make it when you please brightest and fullest by peopling it with the creations of his brilliant fancy. Let us all wish together that they may be many more — for the more they are the better it will be, and, as he always excels himself, the better they will be. I ask you to listen to their praises and not to mine, and to let them, not me, propose his health.

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