Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: BIRMINGHAM, JANUARY 6, 1870.

[On the evening of the above date, Mr. Dickens, as President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, distributed the prizes and certificates awarded to the most successful students in the first year. The proceedings took place in the Town Hall: Mr. Dickens entered at eight o’clock, accompanied by the officers of the Institute, and was received with loud applause. After the lapse of a minute or two, he rose and said:-]

Ladies and gentlemen — When I last had the honour to preside over a meeting of the Institution which again brings us together, I took occasion to remark upon a certain superabundance of public speaking which seems to me to distinguish the present time. It will require very little self-denial on my part to practise now what I preached then; firstly, because I said my little say that night; and secondly, because we have definite and highly interesting action before us to-night. We have now to bestow the rewards which have been brilliantly won by the most successful competitors in the society’s lists. I say the most successful, because to-night we should particularly observe, I think, that there is success in all honest endeavour, and that there is some victory gained in every gallant struggle that is made. To strive at all involves a victory achieved over sloth, inertness, and indifference; and competition for these prizes involves, besides, in the vast majority of cases, competition with and mastery asserted over circumstances adverse to the effort made. Therefore, every losing competitor among my hearers may be certain that he has still won much — very much — and that he can well afford to swell the triumph of his rivals who have passed him in the race.

I have applied the word “rewards” to these prizes, and I do so, not because they represent any great intrinsic worth in silver or gold, but precisely because they do not. They represent what is above all price — what can be stated in no arithmetical figures, and what is one of the great needs of the human soul — encouraging sympathy. They are an assurance to every student present or to come in your institution, that he does not work either neglected or unfriended, and that he is watched, felt for, stimulated, and appreciated. Such an assurance, conveyed in the presence of this large assembly, and striking to the breasts of the recipients that thrill which is inseparable from any great united utterance of feeling, is a reward, to my thinking, as purely worthy of the labour as the labour itself is worthy of the reward; and by a sensitive spirit can never be forgotten.

[One of the prize-takers was a Miss Winkle, a name suggestive of “Pickwick,” which was received with laugher. Mr. Dickens made some remarks to the lady in an undertone; and then observed to the audience, “I have recommended Miss Winkle to change her name.” The prizes having been distributed, Mr. Dickens made a second brief speech. He said:-]

The prizes are now all distributed, and I have discharged myself of the delightful task you have entrusted to me; and if the recipients of these prizes and certificates who have come upon this platform have had the genuine pleasure in receiving their acknowledgments from my hands that I have had in placing them in theirs, they are in a true Christian temper to-night. I have the painful sense upon me, that it is reserved for some one else to enjoy this great satisfaction of mind next time. It would be useless for the few short moments longer to disguise the fact that I happen to have drawn King this Twelfth Night, but that another Sovereign will very soon sit upon my inconstant throne. To-night I abdicate, or, what is much the same thing in the modern annals of Royalty — I am politely dethroned. This melancholy reflection, ladies and gentlemen, brings me to a very small point, personal to myself, upon which I will beg your permission to say a closing word.

When I was here last autumn I made, in reference to some remarks of your respected member, Mr. Dixon, a short confession of my political faith — or perhaps I should better say want of faith. It imported that I have very little confidence in the people who govern us — please to observe “people” there will be with a small “p,”— but that I have great confidence in the People whom they govern; please to observe “people” there with a large “P.” This was shortly and elliptically stated, and was with no evil intention, I am absolutely sure, in some quarters inversely explained. Perhaps as the inventor of a certain extravagant fiction, but one which I do see rather frequently quoted as if there were grains of truth at the bottom of it — a fiction called the “Circumlocution Office,”— and perhaps also as the writer of an idle book or two, whose public opinions are not obscurely stated — perhaps in these respects I do not sufficiently bear in mind Hamlet’s caution to speak by the card lest equivocation should undo me.

Now I complain of nobody; but simply in order that there may be no mistake as to what I did mean, and as to what I do mean, I will re- state my meaning, and I will do so in the words of a great thinker, a great writer, and a great scholar, 19 whose death, unfortunately for mankind, cut short his “History of Civilization in England:”—“They may talk as they will about reforms which Government has introduced and improvements to be expected from legislation, but whoever will take a wider and more commanding view of human affairs, will soon discover that such hopes are chimerical. They will learn that lawgivers are nearly always the obstructors of society instead of its helpers, and that in the extremely few cases where their measures have turned out well their success has been owing to the fact that, contrary to their usual custom, they have implicitly obeyed the spirit of their time, and have been — as they always should be — the mere servants of the people, to whose wishes they are bound to give a public and legal sanction.”

19 Henry Thomas Buckle.

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