Literature: Back to School with Dickens Kate Douglas Wiggin

Kate Douglas Wiggin, the little girl pictured above, authored several books of her own as an adult. Below she recalls her childhood chance meeting with Charles Dickens, who was in the United States lecturing.

She loved him,

as many children did.  Wiggin idolized Charles Dickens and read and re-read his popular works. So, if you feel you only slogged through a Dicken's novel this summer, know that legions of literate 19th Century teenyboppers really, really thought his work was riveting. 

Welcome back to school!

From A Child's Journey with Dickens, by Kate Douglas Wiggin:

THERE IS AN INDIAN MYTH which relates that when the gaze of the Siva rested for the first time on Tellatonea, the most beautiful of women, his desire to see her was so great that his body became all eyes. Such a transformation, I fear, was perilously near to being my fate! Half an hour passed, perhaps, and one gentleman after another came from here or there to exchange a word of greeting with the famous novelist, so that he was never for a moment alone, thereby inciting in my breast my first, and about my last, experience of the passion of jealousy. Suddenly, however, Mr. Osgood arose, and with an apology went into the smoking-car. I never knew how it happened; I had no plan, no preparation, no intention, no provocation; but invisible ropes pulled me out of my seat and, speeding up the aisle, I planted myself timorously down, an unbidden guest, in the seat of honor. I had a moment to recover my equanimity, for Dickens was looking out of the window, but he turned in a moment, and said with justifiable surprise,

“God bless my soul, where did you come from?”

“I came from Hollis, Maine,” I stammered, “and I’m going to Charlestown to visit my uncle. My mother and her cousin went to your reading last night, but of course, three couldn’t go from the same family, so I stayed at home. Nora, that’s my little sister, stayed at home, too. She’s too small to go on a journey, but she wanted to go to the reading dreadfully. There was a lady there who had never heard of Betsey Trotwood, and had only read two of your books!”

“Well, upon my word!” he said, “You do not mean to say that you have read them!”

“Of course I have,” I replied, “every one of them but the two that we are going to buy in Boston, and some of them six times.”

“Bless my soul!” he exclaimed again. “Those long thick books, and you such a slip of a thing.”

“Of course,” I explained conscientiously, “I do skip some of the very dull parts once in a while —not the short dull parts, but the long ones.”

He laughed heartily. “Now, that is something that I hear very little about,” he said. “I distinctly want to learn more about those very dull parts.” 

And whether to amuse himself or to amuse me, I do not know, but he took out a notebook and pencil from his pocket and proceeded to give me an exhausting and exhaustive examination on this subject; the books in which the dull parts predominated and the characters and subjects which principally produced them. He chuckled so constantly during this operation that I could hardly help believing myself extraordinarily agreeable, so I continued dealing these infant blows under the delusion that I was flinging him bouquets.

It was not long before one of my hands was in his and his arm around my waist while we talked of many things. They say, I believe, that his hands were “undistinguished” in shape, and that he wore too many rings. Well, those criticisms must come from persons who never felt the warmth of his handclasp! For my part, I am glad that Pullman chair cars had not come into fashion, else I should never have experienced the delicious joy of snuggling up to Genius and of being distinctly encouraged in the attitude.

I wish I could recall still more of his conversation, but I was too happy, too exhilarated, and too inexperienced to take conscious notes of the interview. I remember feeling that I had never known anybody so well and so intimately, and that I talked with him as one talks under cover of darkness or before the flickering light of a fire. It seems to me, as I look back now and remember how the little soul of me came out and sat in the sunshine of his presence, that I must have had some premonition that the child, who would come to be one of the least of writers, was then talking with one of the greatest —talking, too, of the author’s profession and high calling. All the little details of the meeting stand out as clearly as though it had happened yesterday. I can see every article of his clothing and of my own: the other passengers in the car, the landscape through the window, and above all the face of Dickens, deeply lined, with sparkling eyes and an amused, waggish smile that curled the corners of his mouth under his grizzled mustache. A part of our conversation was given to a Boston newspaper next day by the author himself, or by Mr. Osgood, and a little more was added a few years after by an old lady who sat in the next seat to us. (The pronoun “us” seems ridiculously intimate, but I have no doubt I used it, quite unabashed, at that date.) 

I remember Dickens asked, “What book of mine do you like best?” and I answered, “Oh, I like David Copperfield much the best. That is the one I have read six times.”

“Six times! — good, good! I am glad that you like Davy; so do I — I like it best, too!” he replied, clapping his hands. And that was the only remark he made which attracted the attention of the other passengers, who looked in our direction now and then, I have been told, smiling at the interview, but preserving its privacy with the utmost friendliness.

“Of course,” I added, “I almost said Great Expectations, because that comes next. We named our little yellow dog Mr. Pip. They told father he was part rat terrier, and we were all so pleased. Then one day father showed him a trap with a mouse in it. The mouse wiggled its tail just a little, and Pip was so frightened that he ran under the barn and stayed there the rest of the day. Then all the neighbors made fun of him, and you can think how Nora and I love him when he’s had such a hard time, just like Pip in Great Expectations!”

Here again my new friend’s mirth was delightful to behold, so much so that my embarrassed mother, who had been watching me for half an hour, almost made up her mind to drag me away before the very eyes of our fellow passengers. I had never been thought an amusing child in the family circle; what then, could I be saying to the most distinguished and popular author in the universe?

“We have another dog,” I went on, “and his name is Mr. Pocket. We were playing with Pip, who is a smooth dog, one day, when a shaggy dog came along that didn’t belong to anybody, and hadn’t any home. He liked Pip and Pip liked him, so we kept him, and named him Pocket after Pip’s friend. The real Mr. Pip and Mr. Pocket met first in Miss Havisham’s garden, and they had such a funny fight it always makes father laugh till he can’t read! Then they became great friends. Perhaps you remember Mr. Pip and Mr. Pocket?” 

And Dickens thought he did, which, perhaps, is not strange, considering that he was the author of their respective beings. Mr. Harry Furniss declares that Great Expectations was Dickens’s favorite novel, but I can only say that to me he avowed his special fondness for David Copperfield.

“Did you want to go to my reading very much?” Dickens asked me. 

Here was a subject that had never once been touched upon in all the past days — a topic that stirred the very depths of my disappointment and sorrow, fairly choking me, and making my lip tremble by its unexpectedness, as I faltered, “Yes, more than tongue can tell.”
I looked up a second later, when I was sure that the tears in my eyes were not going to fall, and to my astonishment saw that Dickens’s eyes were in precisely the same state of moisture. That was a never-to-be-forgotten moment, although I was too young to appreciate the full significance of it.

“Do you cry when you read out loud?” I asked curiously. “We all do in our family. And we never read about Tiny Tim, or about Steerforth when his body is washed up on the beach, on Saturday nights, or our eyes are too swollen to go to Sunday School.”

“Yes, I cry when I read about Steerforth,” he answered quietly, and I felt no astonishment.

“We cry the worst when it says, ‘All the men who carried him had known him and gone sailing with him, and seen him merry and bold,’” I said, growing very tearful in reminiscence.

We were now fast approaching our destination, the station in Boston, and the passengers began to collect their wraps and bundles. Mr. Osgood had two or three times made his appearance, but had been waved away with a smile by Dickens — a smile that seemed to say, “You will excuse me, I know, but this child has the right of way.”

“You are not traveling alone?” he asked as he arose to put on his overcoat.

“Oh, no,” I answered, coming down to earth for the first time since I had taken my seat beside him. “Oh, no, I had a mother, but I forgot all about her.” 

He replied, “You are a passed-mistress of the art of flattery!” But this remark was told me years afterward by the old lady who was sitting in the next seat and who overheard as much of the conversation as she possibly could, so she informed me.

Dickens took me back to the forgotten mother and introduced himself, and I, still clinging to his hand, left the car and walked with him down the platform until he disappeared in the carriage with Mr. Osgood, leaving me with the feeling that I must continue my existence somehow in a dull and dreary world.
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