Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Brother and sister act

In Chatham, England, during the early part of the 19th century, two lively, curly-haired children were entertaining their father and his friends at the Mitre Hotel. They sang alternate verses of a traditional ballad: the boy taking the part of the lovesick sailor, the girl the maiden who spurns his advances. The boy was 5 or 6, the girl scarcely more than a year older. Their proud father had lifted them up on a table, and the audience laughed at their childish mimicry of lovers. Years later, the boy, remembering this scene, winced to think how feeble and forced he must have sounded. The girl's voice, however, already showed promise. She would grow up to have a career on the concert stage; he would eventually have a much larger audience as a famous writer. But in a reversal of the usual pattern for girls and boys in 19th-century England, the girl, Fanny Dickens, would be educated for her career, while her brother, Charles, would be sent out to do menial labor.

Difficult times lay ahead for the Dickens family, but the Chatham years were good ones. John Dickens's salary as a naval pay officer was enough to provide his young family with a pleasant house in the bustling riverside town. Fanny and Charles, only 14 months apart in age, had servants and a widowed aunt to provide for them and teach them their letters when their mother's attention was taken up with the younger children. It was a golden time - the childhood Eden that Charles Dickens looked back to all his life and tried to re-create for his own large family when he became rich enough to return and buy the best house in the neighborhood.

About these ads

In his memories of these years (and Fanny once remarked that no one could remember as far back as her brother), Fanny figures as his constant and favorite companion. The dissatisfaction and unhappiness that clouded much of Charles Dickens's later life with women must have been due in part to the impossibility of reliving these carefree Chatham days when the brother and sister played and attended school together in the yards and lanes of the still-rural town. At home Charles had a toy theater for improvising theatricals, Fanny a pianoforte on which she was learning to accompany their performances.

All this came to an abrupt end in 1822 when John Dickens was transferred to London. Already in debt and with four more children by now, the family had begun its descent into poverty which would end in debtor's prison. Eleven-year-old Charles stayed behind to finish his term at school; soon after he rejoined the family, Fanny left. The period had started in which her star rose while her brother's looked very dim. At 13, Fanny had been admitted to the newly founded Royal Academy of Music. Instead of sharing the family's cramped little house in smoky Camden Town, Fanny boarded in an elegant mansion in Hanover Square. She studied piano with a pupil of Beethoven's and voice with noted opera singers, while her brother spent his days in household chores, ''looking after my younger brothers and sisters and going on such poor errands as arose out of our poor way of living.'' Soon these errands included trips to the pawnshop, where, among other household objects, he took the beloved books of his and Fanny's childhood.

It was a bitter occasion for him when the family attended the academy prize-giving ceremonies where a member of the royal household presented the awards, Fanny receiving two - for good conduct and piano playing. Charles told his biographer later that he felt no envy but he confessed to having wept afterward, feeling ''beyond the reach of all such honorable emulation and success.'' His despair was greater because by this time a job had been found for him through relatives of his mother's. For 6 shillings a week he wrapped bottles of shoe blacking in paper and pasted on the labels - the episode he described as fiction in ''David Copperfield'' but kept a secret even from his wife. More painful than the drudgery or his fear of the tough boys he worked with was the conviction that his family had given up any idea of continuing his education.

His meager earnings and his mother's failed attempt at starting a school could not halt the catastrophic effect of his father's spendthrift habits: John Dickens was arrested and the family accompanied him to Marshalsea Prison. A lonely time began for Charles, who boarded in cheap lodgings and bought his meals in bakeshops. On Sundays, his only day off, he walked to the academy, where he joined Fanny, and they went to spend the day with their family. The Dickenses had their own apartment and could even have a servant, but the debtors were not entirely segregated from the common criminals, so that the children were exposed to new aspects of human misery and decrepitude. This period was not very long - the family was able to leave prison after four months, but Charles stayed at the factory for another year.

When the resourceful John Dickens found a new career, parliamentary reporting , Charles was at last able to go back to school. He had no way of knowing then that his education in the London streets would prove invaluable. All he knew was that he had been relegated to the working class while Fanny studied music, Italian, and the other requirements for her career as a musician.

Why had the Dickens family sacrificed to pay Fanny's school fees while her brother worked in a factory? The answer was simple: She had marketable talents, he did not. As a singer, accompanist, and teacher, Fanny would be able to earn good money. And she was making important connections at the academy, where many of the pupils came from well-to-do families and members of the aristocracy were patrons. Her parents looked to her success as a means of survival both financially and socially in a class system that had little mercy for those who lost their footing. (John Dickens's mother, after all, had been a servant.)

John Dickens fell behind in his payments, and Fanny had to drop out of the academy. She was able to go back by teaching some pupils herself. At 17, Fanny made her debut at the Drury Lane Theater; the following year she gave a Soiree Musicale at the academy which was glowingly reviewed: ''This young lady, who has risen rapidly to eminence in her profession, gave a concert yesterday evening, at the rooms of the Royal Academy of Music in Tenterden-street, which was attended by an extremely crowded and fashionable audience.''

About these ads

The Dickens family had a period of relative prosperity, moving to quarters large enough for Fanny to bring her friends home from the academy. Once again Charles was devising theatrical entertainments that Fanny took part in. She introduced Charles to talented young people who would further his career and to a charming girl who would provide him with his first bitter disappointment in love (and the character of Dora in ''David Copperfield'').

By this time, Charles had followed his father into the occupation of court reporting, but, spurred by love, he determined to find a better way of making his fortune. Fanny, sworn to secrecy, agreed to accompany Charles on the piano when he auditioned for a leading London stage manager. A sudden illness prevented him from going. Fortunately for later generations, his ambitions turned to literature.

Fanny's success continued. Reviews regularly mentioned her good looks, charm, vivacity, and acting abilities as well as the taste and accuracy of her musicianship. The Morning Chronicle reported that, although 9 out of 10 singers add ''florid and incongruous ornaments'' or ''some preposterous flourish'' - ''from this fault Miss Dickens is singularly free. In singing Mozart's ballad she did not introduce even an appoggiatura not set down by the author, and the effect, accordingly, was just what the author intended.'' A new student had entered the academy, handsome Henry Burnett, who had a fine operatic tenor. Soon he and Fanny were performing together - and falling in love.

According to Charles Dickens's friend and biographer Forster, the brother showed the ''utmost pride'' in every success his sister had. He no longer had any reasons for envy. He was 24. His own meteoric career had begun with the appearance of the first ''Sketches by Boz,'' brief pieces based on his newspaper work. A year later the first installments of ''Pickwick Papers'' brought him immediate fame. He was able to marry Catherine Hogarth, his second choice after being rejected by his first love. Fanny married her Henry Burnett, and the two young couples were often together. Henry Burnett performed in an operetta Charles Dickens wrote with music by Fanny's fellow student, John Hullah. This companionship and collaboration would have continued if Henry Burnett had not decided to leave London and the stage because of his strict religious views and move his family to Manchester.

The Burnetts prospered there with teaching and church work, but Charles could never quite forgive his brother-in-law for taking his beloved sister away. Fanny's singing career succumbed to marriage, motherhood, her own religious conversion, and eventually to illness. There was no longer any question of her star rising above her brother's. Although Fanny was remembered in Manchester for her good works and agreeable personality, Fanny Dickens's immortality would derive from the many portraits of loving sisters in her brother's books.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.