Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: THE FAREWELL READING. ST. JAMES’S HALL, MARCH 15, 1870.

[With the “Christmas Carol” and “The Trial from Pickwick,” Mr. Charles Dickens brought to a brilliant close the memorable series of public readings which have for sixteen years proved to audiences unexampled in numbers, the source of the highest intellectual enjoyment. Every portion of available space in the building was, of course, last night occupied some time before the appointed hour; but could the St. James’s Hall have been specially enlarged for the occasion to the dimensions of Salisbury Plain, it is doubtful whether sufficient room would even then have been provided for all anxious to seize the last chance of hearing the distinguished novelist give his own interpretation of the characters called into existence by his own creative pen. As if determined to convince his auditors that, whatever reason had influenced his determination, physical exhaustion was not amongst them, Mr. Dickens never read with greater spirit and energy. His voice to the last retained its distinctive clearness, and the transitions of tone, as each personage in the story, conjured up by a word, rose vividly before the eye, seemed to be more marvellous than ever. The vast assemblage, hushed into breathless attention, suffered not a syllable to escape the ear, and the rich humour and deep pathos of one of the most delightful books ever written found once again the fullest appreciation. The usual burst of merriment responsive to the blithe description of Bob Cratchit’s Christmas day, and the wonted sympathy with the crippled child “Tiny Tim,” found prompt expression, and the general delight at hearing of Ebenezer Scrooge’s reformation was only checked by the saddening remembrance that with it the last strain of the “carol” was dying away. After the “Trial from Pickwick,” in which the speeches of the opposing counsel, and the owlish gravity of the judge, seemed to be delivered and depicted with greater dramatic power than ever, the applause of the audience rang for several minutes through the hall, and when it had subsided, Mr. Dickens, with evidently strong emotion, but in his usual distinct and expressive manner, spoke as follows:-]

Ladies and gentlemen — It would be worse than idle — for it would be hypocritical and unfeeling — if I were to disguise that I close this episode in my life with feelings of very considerable pain. For some fifteen years, in this hall and in many kindred places, I have had the honour of presenting my own cherished ideas before you for your recognition, and, in closely observing your reception of them, have enjoyed an amount of artistic delight and instruction which, perhaps, is given to few men to know. In this task, and in every other I have ever undertaken, as a faithful servant of the public, always imbued with a sense of duty to them, and always striving to do his best, I have been uniformly cheered by the readiest response, the most generous sympathy, and the most stimulating support. Nevertheless, I have thought it well, at the full flood- tide of your favour, to retire upon those older associations between us, which date from much further back than these, and henceforth to devote myself exclusively to the art that first brought us together. Ladies and gentlemen, in but two short weeks from this time I hope that you may enter, in your own homes, on a new series of readings, at which my assistance will be indispensable; 23 but from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.

23 Alluding to the forthcoming serial story of Edwin Drood.

[Amidst repeated acclamations of the most enthusiastic description, whilst hats and handkerchiefs were waving in every part of the hall, Mr. Charles Dickens retired, withdrawing with him one of the greatest intellectual treats the public ever enjoyed.]

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