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Where We Stopped Growing

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Autobiography; Biography; Memoirs; Obituary; Anecdotes i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Children; Childhood; Pregnancy; Childbirth; Child Rearing; Adoption; Child Labor
Literature; Writing; Authorship; Reading; Books; Poetry; Storytelling; Letter Writing
London (England)—Description and Travel
Progress; Memory; Commemoration; Nostaliga; Time—Social Aspects; Time—Psychological Aspects; Time perception;
Other Details
Printed : 1/1/1853
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume VI
Magazine : No. 145
Office Book Notes
Views : 2397

In this essay for New Year's Day Dickens writes on a subject of profound and perennial importance to him, his belief in the absolute need for us to preserve into adulthood, for the sake of our psychic health, our childhood sense of wonder. He begins by recalling, in vivid detail, some of the literature that had most stimulated his childish imagination. He moves on to real things (objects, places, eccentric characters seen in the streets) that made an ineffaceable impression on him during his childhood years in London – stories he then heard, or read, about the Bastille come in here too – and that remain as marvellous to him now as then. Finally, he reverts to the very earliest years of his life, spent in Chatham. For an important and illuminating discussion of the whole essay, see Malcolm Andrews, Dickens and the Grown-Up Child (1994), Ch. 4. 

      Dickens alludes to the first scholarly edition of The Arabian Nights published in England, Edward Lane's version (1840) which seeks to supply a more accurate transliteration of Arabic names than the traditional ones derived from Antoine Galland's original French translation (1704–16): 'Haroun Alraschid' becomes 'Haroon Er-Rasheed' and 'Genie' becomes 'Jin'. (Compare Dickens's aside about Haroun Alraschid in his 1859 Christmas Story, 'The Haunted House' [AYR, Vol. II, Christms 1859]: 'let me have the corrupted name again for once, it is so scented with sweet memories!); Dickens also recalls the famous stage version of Perrault's fairy tale of Blue Beard, with music by Michael Kelly and words by George Colman, first produced at the Drury Lane Theatre on 16 January 1798. This held the stage for over twenty years, and Kelly's splendidly pompous Oriental march, written to accompany a perspective sight of Blue Beard riding a property elephant over mountains, became extremely popular. Dickens also refers to J. R. Planché's 1839 parody, an 'extravaganza' entitled Blue Beard, very Far from the Text of George Colman, which was full of topical slang. 
      The scene on the tea-tray [p. 362] is identified by Andrews (op. cit.) as a reproduction of W. R. Bigg's painting 'Black Monday; or the Departure for School' (1790). With regard to Covent Garden, Forster records (Book 1, Ch. 1) that Dickens was 'perfectly entranced with pleasure' as a child if he was taken for a walk 'anywhere about Covent Garden'. He also took delight in George Colman the Younger's popular book of comic tales in verse, Broad Grins: it 'seized his fancy very much; and he was so impressed by its descriptions of Covent-garden...that he stole down to the market by himself to compare it with the book...snuffing up the flavour of the faded cabbage-leaves as if it were the very breath of comic fiction'. The probable link between the White Woman of Berners Street and the conception of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations was first noted by Harry Stone (Dickens and the Invisible World [1979], p. 280ff.). For the 'affecting anecdote' about the old Bastille prisoner, see Andrew Sanders, A Companion to A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1988), pp. 49–50; Sanders quotes the story in the original French from Louis-Sebastien Mecier's Le Tableau de Paris (12 vols, 1782–8), which Dickens used extensively in writing A Tale of Two Cities, but Dickens is evidently here recalling a version of Mercier's anecdote, which has found its way into English in the early nineteenth century. 
      The 'common-place office' of HW was located in Wellington Street, just off the Strand, across the road from the Lyceum Theatre. 

LIterary allusions

  • 'those terrible immortals...of Swift's wise fancy': the horrific Struldbrugs, unable to die but living on for ever in miserable decrepitude', whom Gulliver encounters in the Kingdom of Luggnagg (Gulliver's Travels [1726], Part Three, Ch. 10); 
  • 'Mr Carlyle...would put him under a barrel for six years': see Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (1838), Book 2, Ch. 4: 'It were a real increase of human happiness could all young men from the age of nineteen be covered under barrels, or rendered otherwise invisible; and left there to follow their lawful studies and callings, till they emerged, sadder and wiser, at the age of twenty-five';
  • 'Robinson Crusoe...all the parrots we have ever known': Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719), which Dickens knew almost by heart as these multiple allusions testify; 
  • 'Haroun Alraschid': from The Arabian Nights
  • 'when Don Quixote might have been right...burning his books': see Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605), Part I, Ch. 6; 
  • 'When Gil Blas had a heart...': Gil Blas, the eponymous hero of Alain Le Sage's picaresque novel (1715–35), acquires worldly wisdom during the course of the story;
  • 'that interesting story...the hat blown off': Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, Vol. 2, 'The Fragment. Paris' (Yorick reads the unfinished tale on a scrap of waste paper, used by his servant to wrap up some butter); 
  • 'the real original roaring giants...': alludes to the traditional English fairy-tale of Jack the Giant-killer;
  • 'the gentleman...in King Street': Colman's Broad Grins (first pub. 1802, with many later editions, of which the eighth [1839] is recorded as being in Dickens's library) appears not to contain any explicit reference to King Street. 
Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851–59 (1998). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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