[At the thirteenth anniversary festival of the General Theatrical Fund, held at the Freemasons’ Tavern, at which Thackeray presided, Mr. Dickens made the following speech:]
In our theatrical experience as playgoers we are all equally accustomed to predict by certain little signs and portents on the stage what is going to happen there. When the young lady, an admiral’s daughter, is left alone to indulge in a short soliloquy, and certain smart spirit-rappings are heard to proceed immediately from beneath her feet, we foretell that a song is impending. When two gentlemen enter, for whom, by a happy coincidence, two chairs, and no more, are in waiting, we augur a conversation, and that it will assume a retrospective biographical character. When any of the performers who belong to the sea-faring or marauding professions are observed to arm themselves with very small swords to which are attached very large hilts, we predict that the affair will end in a combat. Carrying out the association of ideas, it may have occurred to some that when I asked my old friend in the chair to allow me to propose a toast I had him in my eye; and I have him now on my lips.
The duties of a trustee of the Theatrical Fund, an office which I hold, are not so frequent or so great as its privileges. He is in fact a mere walking gentleman, with the melancholy difference that he has no one to love. If this advantage could be added to his character it would be one of a more agreeable nature than it is, and his forlorn position would be greatly improved. His duty is to call every half year at the bankers’, when he signs his name in a large greasy inconvenient book, to certain documents of which he knows nothing, and then he delivers it to the property man and exits anywhere.
He, however, has many privileges. It is one of his privileges to watch the steady growth of an institution in which he takes great interest; it is one of his privileges to bear his testimony to the prudence, the goodness, the self-denial, and the excellence of a class of persons who have been too long depreciated, and whose virtues are too much denied, out of the depths of an ignorant and stupid superstition. And lastly, it is one of his privileges sometimes to be called on to propose the health of the chairman at the annual dinners of the institution, when that chairman is one for whose genius he entertains the warmest admiration, and whom he respects as a friend, and as one who does honour to literature, and in whom literature is honoured. I say when that is the case, he feels that this last privilege is a great and high one. From the earliest days of this institution I have ventured to impress on its managers, that they would consult its credit and success by choosing its chairmen as often as possible within the circle of literature and the arts; and I will venture to say that no similar institution has been presided over by so many remarkable and distinguished men. I am sure, however, that it never has had, and that it never will have, simply because it cannot have, a greater lustre cast upon it than by the presence of the noble English writer who fills the chair to-night.
It is not for me at this time, and in this place, to take on myself to flutter before you the well-thumbed pages of Mr. Thackeray’s books, and to tell you to observe how full they are of wit and wisdom, how out-speaking, and how devoid of fear or favour; but I will take leave to remark, in paying my due homage and respect to them, that it is fitting that such a writer and such an institution should be brought together. Every writer of fiction, although he may not adopt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage. He may never write plays; but the truth and passion which are in him must be more or less reflected in the great mirror which he holds up to nature. Actors, managers, and authors are all represented in this company, and it maybe supposed that they all have studied the deep wants of the human heart in many theatres; but none of them could have studied its mysterious workings in any theatre to greater advantage than in the bright and airy pages of Vanity Fair. To this skilful showman, who has so often delighted us, and who has charmed us again to-night, we have now to wish God speed, and that he may continue for many years 11 to exercise his potent art. To him fill a bumper toast, and fervently utter, God bless him!
11 Alas! the “many years” were to be barely six, when the speaker was himself destined to write some memorial pages commemorative of his illustrious friend (Cornhill Magazine, February, 1864.)— ED.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07