Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: LIVERPOOL, APRIL 10, 1869.

[The following speech was delivered by Mr. Dickens at a Banquet held in his honour at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool, after his health had been proposed by Lord Dufferin.]

Mr. Mayor, ladies and gentlemen, although I have been so well accustomed of late to the sound of my own voice in this neighbourhood as to hear it with perfect composure, the occasion is, believe me, very, very different in respect of those overwhelming voices of yours. As Professor Wilson once confided to me in Edinburgh that I had not the least idea, from hearing him in public, what a magnificent speaker he found himself to be when he was quite alone — so you can form no conception, from the specimen before you, of the eloquence with which I shall thank you again and again in some of the innermost moments of my future life. Often and often, then, God willing, my memory will recall this brilliant scene, and will re-illuminate this banquet-hall. I, faithful to this place in its present aspect, will observe it exactly as it stands — not one man’s seat empty, not one woman’s fair face absent, while life and memory abide by me.

Mr. Mayor, Lord Dufferin in his speech so affecting to me, so eloquently uttered, and so rapturously received, made a graceful and gracious allusion to the immediate occasion of my present visit to your noble city. It is no homage to Liverpool, based upon a moment’s untrustworthy enthusiasm, but it is the solid fact built upon the rock of experience that when I first made up my mind, after considerable deliberation, systematically to meet my readers in large numbers, face to face, and to try to express myself to them through the breath of life, Liverpool stood foremost among the great places out of London to which I looked with eager confidence and pleasure. And why was this? Not merely because of the reputation of its citizens for generous estimation of the arts; not merely because I had unworthily filled the chair of its great self- educational institution long ago; not merely because the place had been a home to me since the well-remembered day when its blessed roofs and steeples dipped into the Mersey behind me on the occasion of my first sailing away to see my generous friends across the Atlantic twenty-seven years ago. Not for one of those considerations, but because it had been my happiness to have a public opportunity of testing the spirit of its people. I had asked Liverpool for help towards the worthy preservation of Shakespeare’s house. On another occasion I had ventured to address Liverpool in the names of Leigh Hunt and Sheridan Knowles. On still another occasion I had addressed it in the cause of the brotherhood and sisterhood of letters and the kindred arts, and on each and all the response had been unsurpassably spontaneous, open- handed, and munificent.

Mr. Mayor, and ladies and gentlemen, if I may venture to take a small illustration of my present position from my own peculiar craft, I would say that there is this objection in writing fiction to giving a story an autobiographical form, that through whatever dangers the narrator may pass, it is clear unfortunately to the reader beforehand that he must have come through them somehow else he could not have lived to tell the tale. Now, in speaking fact, when the fact is associated with such honours as those with which you have enriched me, there is this singular difficulty in the way of returning thanks, that the speaker must infallibly come back to himself through whatever oratorical disasters he may languish on the road. Let me, then, take the plainer and simpler middle course of dividing my subject equally between myself and you. Let me assure you that whatever you have accepted with pleasure, either by word of pen or by word of mouth, from me, you have greatly improved in the acceptance. As the gold is said to be doubly and trebly refined which has seven times passed the furnace, so a fancy may be said to become more and more refined each time it passes through the human heart. You have, and you know you have, brought to the consideration of me that quality in yourselves without which I should but have beaten the air. Your earnestness has stimulated mine, your laughter has made me laugh, and your tears have overflowed my eyes. All that I can claim for myself in establishing the relations which exist between us is constant fidelity to hard work. My literary fellows about me, of whom I am so proud to see so many, know very well how true it is in all art that what seems the easiest done is oftentimes the most difficult to do, and that the smallest truth may come of the greatest pains — much, as it occurred to me at Manchester the other day, as the sensitive touch of Mr. Whitworth’s measuring machine, comes at last, of Heaven and Manchester and its mayor only know how much hammering — my companions-in-arms know thoroughly well, and I think it only right the public should know too, that in our careful toil and trouble, and in our steady striving for excellence — not in any little gifts, misused by fits and starts — lies our highest duty at once to our calling, to one another, to ourselves, and to you.

Ladies and gentlemen, before sitting down I find that I have to clear myself of two very unexpected accusations. The first is a most singular charge preferred against me by my old friend Lord Houghton, that I have been somewhat unconscious of the merits of the House of Lords. Now, ladies and gentlemen, seeing that I have had some few not altogether obscure or unknown personal friends in that assembly, seeing that I had some little association with, and knowledge of, a certain obscure peer lately known in England by the name of Lord Brougham; seeing that I regard with some admiration and affection another obscure peer wholly unknown in literary circles, called Lord Lytton; seeing also that I have had for some years some slight admiration of the extraordinary judicial properties and amazingly acute mind of a certain Lord Chief Justice popularly known by the name of Cockburn; and also seeing that there is no man in England whom I respect more in his public capacity, whom I love more in his private capacity, or from whom I have received more remarkable proofs of his honour and love of literature than another obscure nobleman called Lord Russell; taking these circumstances into consideration, I was rather amazed by my noble friend’s accusation. When I asked him, on his sitting down, what amazing devil possessed him to make this charge, he replied that he had never forgotten the days of Lord Verisopht. Then, ladies and gentlemen, I understood it all. Because it is a remarkable fact that in the days when that depreciative and profoundly unnatural character was invented there was no Lord Houghton in the House of Lords. And there was in the House of Commons a rather indifferent member called Richard Monckton Milnes.

Ladies and gentlemen, to conclude, for the present, I close with the other charge of my noble friend, and here I am more serious, and I may be allowed perhaps to express my seriousness in half a dozen plain words. When I first took literature as my profession in England, I calmly resolved within myself that, whether I succeeded or whether I failed, literature should be my sole profession. It appeared to me at that time that it was not so well understood in England as it was in other countries that literature was a dignified profession, by which any man might stand or fall. I made a compact with myself that in my person literature should stand, and by itself, of itself, and for itself; and there is no consideration on earth which would induce me to break that bargain.

Ladies and gentlemen, finally allow me to thank you for your great kindness, and for the touching earnestness with which you have drunk my health. I should have thanked you with all my heart if it had not so unfortunately happened that, for many sufficient reasons, I lost my heart at between half-past six and half-past seven to-night.

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