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Charles Knight

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Published : 20 Articles
Pen Names : None
Date of Birth : 15/3/1791
Death : 9/3/1873
Views : 3818

Author and publisher. Received few years' schooling, but gained knowledge of books through apprenticeship to his father, a bookseller and printer. As publisher on his own behalf and as superintendent of the publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, brought out numerous serials and compilations of information, instruction, and diversion, designed to make good reading cheaply available to the masses, e.g., Knight's Quarterly Magazine, the British Almanac, the Library of Entertaining Knowledge, the Penny Magazine, the Penny Cyclopaedia, Knight's Store of Knowledge for All Readers, the series titled Knight's Weekly Volume, and Half-Hours with the Best Authors. Wrote much in these publications. His separately published writings included verse, books on labour and industry, a history of England, a biography of Shakespeare. Brought out an edition of Shakespeare's works. Contributed occasionally to periodicals with which he was connected neither as editor nor as publisher, e.g., Once a Week.


Knight had known Dickens from the late 1830s; the two men became well acquainted about 1850. They shared in common their interest in extending education and in making good reading material available in cheap publication. It was to Dickens as "one of the most earnest labourers in that popular literature which elevates a people" that Knight, in 1854, dedicated his Old Printer and the Modem Press. Both Knight and Dickens were members of the Shakespeare Society. Knight accompanied one of Dickens's amateur theatrical tours and played a role in Dickens's production of Not So Bad As We Seem. Dickens praised Knight's biography of Shakespeare as "a charming piece of honest enthusiasm and perseverance" (to Knight, April 13 1846). Knight included a selection from Nickleby in various editions of his Half-Hours with the Best Authors; in the comment prefaced to the selection, he mentioned Dickens's ability to delineate manners, his command of the comic and the pathetic, and his creation of characters as "familiar in our mouths as household words"; some of Dickens's works published serially or in parts he found wanting in proportion.

Knight became a contributor to H.W. at Dickens's invitation. A week or two before the first number appeared, Dickens wrote to him: "If you will write in my paper you will give me the utmost gratification, and be more welcome than the flowers in May". Much less engrossed in his publishing activities at the time than he had been before, Knight willingly lent his aid, he stated, to a cheap publication that was to disseminate wholesome reading (Passages of a Working Life, III, 112).

Dickens liked Knight's contributions. His "Illustrations of Cheapness" he thought "most desirable"; the first of these, he wrote to Knight (March 26 1850), came out "gloriously" in the number in which it was to appear; "The Steel Pen" he thought "very good" (to Wills, August 21 1850). Another of Knight's ideas for a series of papers Dickens found "a most delightful one"; he would be more than pleased to have the papers, he wrote to Knight on March 7 1851, and was eager for them to begin. The date indicates that Knight's suggestion concerned the three "May Day" papers. Of Knight's "Shadows", the one on Margery Paston Dickens found "most excellent" and a later one "charming" (to Knight, July 27 1851; June 29 1852).

"The Tresses of the Day Star," assigned in the Office Book jointly to Knight and Dickens, was revised by Dickens; it was not an actual collaboration of the two writers. In general, Dickens apparently did not take editorial liberties with Knight's contributions. His contention that an alteration of tense was desirable in the Margery Paston "Shadow" Dickens explained to Knight in painstaking detail, ending with the suggestion that—"If I am right"—Knight make the changes himself (July 27 1851).

It was through Knight that the letters of the cattle rancher Harvey, published in H.W. as "Life in an Estancia", arrived at the editorial office (see Mr. Harvey).

As Dickens's friend and as a H.W. contributor, Knight was often invited, during the early years of the periodical's publication, to the dinners held for staff members, contributors, and guests. Occasional references to Knight's compilations appeared in H.W., as in "The Fire Brigade of London", "FatherThames", and "Dragons, Griffins, and Salamanders".

Five of Knight's H.W. contributions were reprinted in Harper's, three of them acknowledged to H.W. One of the "Illustrations of Cheapness"—that on tea—was included in the Putnam volume of selections from H.W.: Home and Social Philosophy, 2nd series.

Author: Anne Lohrli; © University of Toronto Press, 1971.



Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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