Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: LONDON, FEBRUARY 14, 1866.

[On this occasion Mr. Dickens officiated as Chairman at the annual dinner of the Dramatic, Equestrian, and Musical Fund, at Willis’s Rooms, where he made the following speech:]

Ladies, before I couple you with the gentlemen, which will be at least proper to the inscription over my head (St. Valentine’s day)- -before I do so, allow me, on behalf of my grateful sex here represented, to thank you for the great pleasure and interest with which your gracious presence at these festivals never fails to inspire us. There is no English custom which is so manifestly a relic of savage life as that custom which usually excludes you from participation in similar gatherings. And although the crime carries its own heavy punishment along with it, in respect that it divests a public dinner of its most beautiful ornament and of its most fascinating charm, still the offence is none the less to be severely reprehended on every possible occasion, as outraging equally nature and art. I believe that as little is known of the saint whose name is written here as can well be known of any saint or sinner. We, your loyal servants, are deeply thankful to him for having somehow gained possession of one day in the year — for having, as no doubt he has, arranged the almanac for 1866 — expressly to delight us with the enchanting fiction that we have some tender proprietorship in you which we should scarcely dare to claim on a less auspicious occasion. Ladies, the utmost devotion sanctioned by the saint we beg to lay at your feet, and any little innocent privileges to which we may be entitled by the same authority we beg respectfully but firmly to claim at your hands.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, you need no ghost to inform you that I am going to propose “Prosperity to the Dramatic, Musical, and Equestrian Sick Fund Association,” and, further, that I should be going to ask you actively to promote that prosperity by liberally contributing to its funds, if that task were not reserved for a much more persuasive speaker. But I rest the strong claim of the society for its useful existence and its truly charitable functions on a very few words, though, as well as I can recollect, upon something like six grounds. First, it relieves the sick; secondly, it buries the dead; thirdly, it enables the poor members of the profession to journey to accept new engagements whenever they find themselves stranded in some remote, inhospitable place, or when, from other circumstances, they find themselves perfectly crippled as to locomotion for want of money; fourthly, it often finds such engagements for them by acting as their honest, disinterested agent; fifthly, it is its principle to act humanely upon the instant, and never, as is too often the case within my experience, to beat about the bush till the bush is withered and dead; lastly, the society is not in the least degree exclusive, but takes under its comprehensive care the whole range of the theatre and the concert-room, from the manager in his room of state, or in his caravan, or at the drum-head — down to the theatrical housekeeper, who is usually to be found amongst the cobwebs and the flies, or down to the hall porter, who passes his life in a thorough draught- -and, to the best of my observation, in perpetually interrupted endeavours to eat something with a knife and fork out of a basin, by a dusty fire, in that extraordinary little gritty room, upon which the sun never shines, and on the portals of which are inscribed the magic words, “stage-door.”

Now, ladies and gentlemen, this society administers its benefits sometimes by way of loan; sometimes by way of gift; sometimes by way of assurance at very low premiums; sometimes to members, oftener to non-members; always expressly, remember, through the hands of a secretary or committee well acquainted with the wants of the applicants, and thoroughly versed, if not by hard experience at least by sympathy, in the calamities and uncertainties incidental to the general calling. One must know something of the general calling to know what those afflictions are. A lady who had been upon the stage from her earliest childhood till she was a blooming woman, and who came from a long line of provincial actors and actresses, once said to me when she was happily married; when she was rich, beloved, courted; when she was mistress of a fine house — once said to me at the head of her own table, surrounded by distinguished guests of every degree, “Oh, but I have never forgotten the hard time when I was on the stage, and when my baby brother died, and when my poor mother and I brought the little baby from Ireland to England, and acted three nights in England, as we had acted three nights in Ireland, with the pretty creature lying upon the only bed in our lodging before we got the money to pay for its funeral.”

Ladies and gentlemen, such things are, every day, to this hour; but, happily, at this day and in this hour this association has arisen to be the timely friend of such great distress.

It is not often the fault of the sufferers that they fall into these straits. Struggling artists must necessarily change from place to place, and thus it frequently happens that they become, as it were, strangers in every place, and very slight circumstances — a passing illness, the sickness of the husband, wife, or child, a serious town, an anathematising expounder of the gospel of gentleness and forbearance — any one of these causes may often in a few hours wreck them upon a rock in the barren ocean; and then, happily, this society, with the swift alacrity of the life-boat, dashes to the rescue, and takes them off. Looking just now over the last report issued by this society, and confining my scrutiny to the head of illness alone, I find that in one year, I think, 672 days of sickness had been assuaged by its means. In nine years, which then formed the term of its existence, as many as 5,500 and odd. Well, I thought when I saw 5,500 and odd days of sickness, this is a very serious sum, but add the nights! Add the nights — those long, dreary hours in the twenty-four when the shadow of death is darkest, when despondency is strongest, and when hope is weakest, before you gauge the good that is done by this institution, and before you gauge the good that really will be done by every shilling that you bestow here to-night. Add, more than all, that the improvidence, the recklessness of the general multitude of poor members of this profession, I should say is a cruel, conventional fable. Add that there is no class of society the members of which so well help themselves, or so well help each other. Not in the whole grand chapters of Westminster Abbey and York Minster, not in the whole quadrangle of the Royal Exchange, not in the whole list of members of the Stock Exchange, not in the Inns of Court, not in the College of Physicians, not in the College of Surgeons, can there possibly be found more remarkable instances of uncomplaining poverty, of cheerful, constant self-denial, of the generous remembrance of the claims of kindred and professional brotherhood, than will certainly be found in the dingiest and dirtiest concert room, in the least lucid theatre — even in the raggedest tent circus that was ever stained by weather.

I have been twitted in print before now with rather flattering actors when I address them as one of their trustees at their General Fund dinner. Believe me, I flatter nobody, unless it be sometimes myself; but, in such a company as the present, I always feel it my manful duty to bear my testimony to this fact — first, because it is opposed to a stupid, unfeeling libel; secondly, because my doing so may afford some slight encouragement to the persons who are unjustly depreciated; and lastly, and most of all, because I know it is the truth.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time we should what we professionally call “ring down” on these remarks. If you, such members of the general public as are here, will only think the great theatrical curtain has really fallen and been taken up again for the night on that dull, dark vault which many of us know so well; if you will only think of the theatre or other place of entertainment as empty; if you will only think of the “float,” or other gas-fittings, as extinguished; if you will only think of the people who have beguiled you of an evening’s care, whose little vanities and almost childish foibles are engendered in their competing face to face with you for your favour — surely it may be said their feelings are partly of your making, while their virtues are all their own. If you will only do this, and follow them out of that sham place into the real world, where it rains real rain, snows real snow, and blows real wind; where people sustain themselves by real money, which is much harder to get, much harder to make, and very much harder to give away than the pieces of tobacco-pipe in property bags — if you will only do this, and do it in a really kind, considerate spirit, this society, then certain of the result of the night’s proceedings, can ask no more. I beg to propose to you to drink “Prosperity to the Dramatic, Equestrian, and Musical Sick Fund Association.”

[Mr. Dickens, in proposing the next toast, said:-]

Gentlemen: as I addressed myself to the ladies last time, so I address you this time, and I give you the delightful assurance that it is positively my last appearance but one on the present occasion. A certain Mr. Pepys, who was Secretary for the Admiralty in the days of Charles II., who kept a diary well in shorthand, which he supposed no one could read, and which consequently remains to this day the most honest diary known to print — Mr. Pepys had two special and very strong likings, the ladies and the theatres. But Mr. Pepys, whenever he committed any slight act of remissness, or any little peccadillo which was utterly and wholly untheatrical, used to comfort his conscience by recording a vow that he would abstain from the theatres for a certain time. In the first part of Mr. Pepys’ character I have no doubt we fully agree with him; in the second I have no doubt we do not.

I learn this experience of Mr. Pepys from remembrance of a passage in his diary that I was reading the other night, from which it appears that he was not only curious in plays, but curious in sermons; and that one night when he happened to be walking past St. Dunstan’s Church, he turned, went in, and heard what he calls “a very edifying discourse;” during the delivery of which discourse, he notes in his diary —“I stood by a pretty young maid, whom I did attempt to take by the hand.” But he adds —“She would not; and I did perceive that she had pins in her pocket with which to prick me if I should touch her again — and was glad that I spied her design.” Afterwards, about the close of the same edifying discourse, Mr. Pepys found himself near another pretty, fair young maid, who would seem upon the whole to have had no pins, and to have been more impressible.

Now, the moral of this story which I wish to suggest to you is, that we have been this evening in St. James’s much more timid than Mr. Pepys was in St. Dunstan’s, and that we have conducted ourselves very much better. As a slight recompense to us for our highly meritorious conduct, and as a little relief to our over- charged hearts, I beg to propose that we devote this bumper to invoking a blessing on the ladies. It is the privilege of this society annually to hear a lady speak for her own sex. Who so competent to do this as Mrs. Stirling? Surely one who has so gracefully and captivatingly, with such an exquisite mixture of art, and fancy, and fidelity, represented her own sex in innumerable charities, under an infinite variety of phases, cannot fail to represent them well in her own character, especially when it is, amidst her many triumphs, the most agreeable of all. I beg to propose to you “The Ladies,” and I will couple with that toast the name of Mrs. Stirling.

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