Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: THE ROYAL LITERARY FUND. LONDON, MARCH 12, 1856.

[The Corporation of the Royal Literary Fund was established in 1790, its object being to administer assistance to authors of genius and learning, who may be reduced to distress by unavoidable calamities, or deprived, by enfeebled faculties or declining life, of the power of literary exertion. At the annual general meeting held at the house of the society on the above date, the following speech was made by Mr. Charles Dickens:]

Sir — I shall not attempt to follow my friend Mr. Bell, who, in the profession of literature, represents upon this committee a separate and distinct branch of the profession, that, like

“The last rose of summer Stands blooming alone, While all its companions Are faded and gone,”

into the very prickly bramble-bush with which he has ingeniously contrived to beset this question. In the remarks I have to make I shall confine myself to four points:— 1. That the committee find themselves in the painful condition of not spending enough money, and will presently apply themselves to the great reform of spending more. 2. That with regard to the house, it is a positive matter of history, that the house for which Mr. Williams was so anxious was to be applied to uses to which it never has been applied, and which the administrators of the fund decline to recognise. 3. That, in Mr. Bell’s endeavours to remove the Artists’ Fund from the ground of analogy it unquestionably occupies with reference to this fund, by reason of their continuing periodical relief to the same persons, I beg to tell Mr. Bell what every gentleman at that table knows — that it is the business of this fund to relieve over and over again the same people.

MR. BELL: But fresh inquiry is always made first.

MR. C. DICKENS: I can only oppose to that statement my own experience when I sat on that committee, and when I have known persons relieved on many consecutive occasions without further inquiry being made. As to the suggestion that we should select the items of expenditure that we complain of, I think it is according to all experience that we should first affirm the principle that the expenditure is too large. If that be done by the meeting, then I will proceed to the selection of the separate items. Now, in rising to support this resolution, I may state at once that I have scarcely any expectation of its being carried, and I am happy to think it will not. Indeed, I consider it the strongest point of the resolution’s case that it should not be carried, because it will show the determination of the fund’s managers. Nothing can possibly be stronger in favour of the resolution than that the statement should go forth to the world that twice within twelve months the attention of the committee has been called to this great expenditure, and twice the committee have considered that it was not unreasonable. I cannot conceive a stronger case for the resolution than this statement of fact as to the expenditure going forth to the public accompanied by the committee’s assertion that it is reasonable. Now, to separate this question from details, let us remember what the committee and their supporters asserted last year, and, I hope, will re-assert this year. It seems to be rather the model kind of thing than otherwise now that if you get 100 pounds you are to spend 40 pounds in management; and if you get 1000 pounds, of course you may spend 400 pounds in giving the rest away. Now, in case there should be any ill-conditioned people here who may ask what occasion there can be for all this expenditure, I will give you my experience. I went last year to a highly respectable place of resort, Willis’s Rooms, in St. James’s, to a meeting of this fund. My original intention was to hear all I could, and say as little as possible. Allowing for the absence of the younger and fairer portion of the creation, the general appearance of the place was something like Almack’s in the morning. A number of stately old dowagers sat in a row on one side, and old gentlemen on the other. The ball was opened with due solemnity by a real marquis, who walked a minuet with the secretary, at which the audience were much affected. Then another party advanced, who, I am sorry to say, was only a member of the House of Commons, and he took possession of the floor. To him, however, succeeded a lord, then a bishop, then the son of a distinguished lord, then one or two celebrities from the City and Stock Exchange, and at last a gentleman, who made a fortune by the success of “Candide,” sustained the part of Pangloss, and spoke much of what he evidently believed to be the very best management of this best of all possible funds. Now it is in this fondness for being stupendously genteel, and keeping up fine appearances — this vulgar and common social vice of hanging on to great connexions at any price, that the money goes. The last time you got a distinguished writer at a public meeting, and he was called on to address you somewhere amongst the small hours, he told you he felt like the man in plush who was permitted to sweep the stage down after all the other people had gone. If the founder of this society were here, I should think he would feel like a sort of Rip van Winkle reversed, who had gone to sleep backwards for a hundred years and woke up to find his fund still lying under the feet of people who did nothing for it instead of being emancipated and standing alone long ago. This Bloomsbury house is another part of the same desire for show, and the officer who inhabits it. (I mean, of course, in his official capacity, for, as an individual, I much respect him.) When one enters the house it appears to be haunted by a series of mysterious-looking ghosts, who glide about engaged in some extraordinary occupation, and, after the approved fashion of ghosts, but seldom condescend to disclose their business. What are all these meetings and inquiries wanted for? As for the authors, I say, as a writer by profession, that the long inquiry said to be necessary to ascertain whether an applicant deserves relief, is a preposterous pretence, and that working literary men would have a far better knowledge of the cases coming before the board than can ever be attained by that committee. Further, I say openly and plainly, that this fund is pompously and unnaturally administered at great expense, instead of being quietly administered at small expense; and that the secrecy to which it lays claim as its greatest attribute, is not kept; for through those “two respectable householders,” to whom reference must be made, the names of the most deserving applicants are to numbers of people perfectly well known. The members have now got before them a plain statement of fact as to these charges; and it is for them to say whether they are justifiable, becoming, or decent. I beg most earnestly and respectfully to put it to those gentlemen who belong to this institution, that must now decide, and cannot help deciding, what the Literary Fund is for, and what it is not for. The question raised by the resolution is whether this is a public corporation for the relief of men of genius and learning, or whether it is a snug, traditional, and conventional party, bent upon maintaining its own usages with a vast amount of pride; upon its own annual puffery at costly dinner-tables, and upon a course of expensive toadying to a number of distinguished individuals. This is the question which you cannot this day escape.

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