When one reads the works of Charles Dickens, or performs them as I do, one thing quickly becomes apparent: the importance of the child in his books.
With the publication of his second novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens established a model that he would return to throughout his career by making the main protagonist a child. The welfare of children in Victorian society was something that greatly concerned Dickens, and he knew exactly what he was talking about.
As is well known when Charles was 12 his parents were incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors prison, and he was sent to work in the Strand warehouse of Mr Warren, who produced shoe blacking, what is less known is that after his day’s work was finished Charles would walk along the embankment, to London Bridge and into Southwark where he would be allowed to meet John and Elizabeth before the gates were locked up for the night – all of this can be imagined by reading the opening chapters of Little Dorrit as Amy makes the same pilgrimage. No doubt there were occasions that little Charles was too late and found the gates shut before he arrived, at such times he may have sought sanctuary in the Church of St George the Martyr as the titular character of the novel does.
The walk from Warren’s Blacking to The Marshalsea is a long one, and Charles would have seen all of London life laid bare. He would have seen the rich in their carriages, he would have seen the criminal underworld and he would have seen poverty and neglect. Even to a twelve year old the sight of neglected children seeking shelter or warmth, desperate only to be loved, must have been truly shocking and it left a lasting impression on him.
Almost 100 years before the young Dickens made his way through the thoroughfares another gentleman had also walked the streets in London and had been appalled at the plight of the children that he saw, so much so that he used his considerable influence (as well as his own fortune) to raise subscriptions for the formation of a Foundling Hospital.
After initially opening in a series of houses at Hatton Garden, a large tract of land was soon purchased in Bloomsbury and a purpose-built hospital was constructed.
Coram, and his board of governors, wished to take children who could not be adequately cared for and look after their physical and emotional needs. Because of the huge amount of foundling children on the streets of London there had to be some sort of limit as to who would be admitted, and a ballot system was introduced, with the successful applicants rarely being more than twelve months old. Most children were left with a small token (often a coin), so that they could be identified if their mothers returned, and to give some small connection and memory to their birth families.
The children would be educated and eventually sent to work (often needlework for the girls and apprenticeships for the boys).
Coram himself maintained a strong connection with the hospital and in 1740 the great artist William Hogarth presented an impressive portrait to the museum which hung proudly over the staircase.
However only two years later in 1742, his fellow governors voted him off the board, for reasons obscured by history, and he lost control of his creation.
Thomas Coram died in 1751 at the ripe old age of 83, and his legacy is strong, for the leading charity for looked-after children and adoption is named after him and even today has a great influence over the entire adoption process.
The first meeting of guardians for The Foundling Hospital was held in 1739 at Somerset House and approximately 100 years later a young author and his wife moved into an elegant property which had recently been built in Bloomsbury. As the crow flies it was but a few hundred yards from The Hospital.
Charles Dickens was in the glow of a meteoric start to his writing career. After spells as a lawyer’s clerk and journalist he had started to submit short stories, or Sketches as he called them, to The Monthly Magazine. These illustrations of London life had caught the imagination of the city and soon people were desperate to read whatever the anonymous author, known only as Boz, produced.
A full novel would surely follow and sure enough, in 1836, Boz published the first instalment of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Initially it was warmly, if not enthusiastically, received, but as soon as Dickens introduced the character of Sam Weller, so sales soared. The readers knew that they were in safe hands and that the author was not just another privileged man of means but someone who completely understood real life.
As The Pickwick Papers continued, so Boz started a new book, Oliver Twist or ‘The Parish Boy’s Progress’ (the sub title a reflection of William Hogarth’s famous series of paintings ‘A Rake’s Progress’), and now Dickens’s intimate knowledge of the underbelly of London life was fully on display. Crime, vice, deception, corruption, prostitution, filth and squalor all poured off the pages, and the readers devoured it as voraciously as they had the light comedy of Pickwick.
The young Dickens, safely ensconced at 48 Doughty Street, quickly realised how much influence he held, and his novels continually highlighted issues of public life that demanded close scrutiny and reform. But his social conscience was not restricted to his fiction for Dickens took actively supported many causes that he felt strongly about, one such being the Foundling Hospital of which he became a patron as well as renting a pew in the hospital’s chapel. In Little Dorrit it is of course no coincidence that a young apprentice girl has the name Tattycoram, and in No Thoroughfare, written in collaboration with Wilkie Collins, the plot begins with two boys from the Foundling Hospital being given the same name: Walter Wilding.
Dickens would return to the plot device of a foundling or an adopted child on many occasions, (David Copperfield, Great Expectations, The Old Curiosity Shop among many others), and one of his most popular readings, Doctor Marigold, features the adoption of a ragged deaf and dumb girl by the narrator of the piece.
Charles Dickens continued to write until the end of his life, on the morning of June the 8th 1870 he was working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, featuring the characters of Edwin, Rosa Budd, Neville and Helena Landless – all orphans. That evening he suffered a massive stroke and died the following afternoon.
The 8th June was also an important day in the life of German composer Robert Schumann, for in 1810 he was born on that day in Zwickau Saxony.
Schumann’s interest in music was sparked when as a boy he was taken to listen to Ignaz Mocheles give a piano recital (incidentally, Mocheles’s daughter was called Emily and she married Antonin Roche, whose daughter Marie would marry Henry Fielding Dickens, Charles’s son, who had been named in honour of writer Henry Fielding whose novel Tom Jones’s full title is ‘The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling’….I hope that you are keeping up with the numerous coincidences and connections!)
Schumann’s musical ambitions were crushed when he was 16 years old and his father died. August Schumann had encouraged and supported his son’s love of the piano, but his mother had no such passion for music and from 1826 she steered him towards a career in law.
But the fire burned deep and when Robert was studying he attended a concert in Frankfurt given by the violin virtuoso Paganini. He wrote to his mother ‘My whole life has been a struggle between Poetry and Prose or call it Music and Law.’ He chose Music.
In Leipzig he took piano lessons from Friedrich Wieck, who assured him that with hard study and perseverance he could become an accomplished concert pianist. But Schumann suffered from a condition that effected his right hand and he was unable to play to the standards that he demanded of himself. It was at this time that Schumann began to compose.
In 1838 (the year that Dickens was wowing his readers with Oliver Twist) Schumann started to write a suite of 30 short pieces, which he entitled ‘Leichte Stücke’ (‘Easy Pieces’). He eventually chose 13 of his favourites and called the final collection Kinderszenen, or ‘Scenes from Childhood’. He would later admit that the title was inspired by a comment from his wife Clara who told him that he sometimes seemed ‘like a child’, which was ironic in the extreme…..(she was the daughter of his teacher Friederich Wiek and had been only twelve years old when he fell for her, and sixteen at the time of their wedding.)
Each of Kinderszenen’s pieces reflect an adult’s reflection of a childhood emotion, starting with the scared and inquisitive (‘Of Strange Land’s and People’, ‘A Curious Story’ and ‘Pleading Child’), to the boisterous and adventurous (‘Knight of the Hobbyhorse’) Along the way there are moments of ‘Daydreaming’ in the suite’s most famous tune ‘Traumerei’. The music can certainly be seen as an allegorical journey from childhood to adulthood, and the last piece is Schumann’s own adult voice in ‘The Poet Speaks.
Robert Schumann was plagued with depression throughout his life and eventually was admitted to an asylum after attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself off a bridge into The Rhine. He died on the 29th July 1856.
So, what did these three men have in common (apart from Coram being friends with William Hogarth, which was the maiden name of Dickens’s wife Catherine, who bore him ten children, the eight being Henry Fielding who was named after the author of Tom Jones a novel about a child from the Foundling Hospital formed by Coram, HF Dickens then marrying Marie Roche whose Grandfather was Ignaz Mocheles who had played in Germany and inspired Robert Schumann……apart from that)?
The work and achievements of these three men are all celebrated in a show which Liz and I will be performing in London on May 18th. In an evening jointly staged by the Foundling Museum and the Charles Dickens Museum, we are performing 2 acts, the first of which sees Liz playing Schumann’s Kinderszenen which we have linked to various short readings featuring children in Dickens. With each piece we have tried to select a reading that fully captures the tone and feel of the music, and David Copperfield features strongly, although there also passages from Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. We present each of the thirteen pieces in different formats, so that in some of them I read as Liz plays, in others (such as the beautiful Traumerei) Liz performs the music in its entirety before I take over.
The most difficult challenge for us comes with the 11th piece, ‘Fürchtenmachen’ (‘Frightening’), which we have coupled with the scene from David Copperfield in which young Davy is running away from home and enters a shop to try and sell his jacket to make a little money. He is confronted with a terrifying man who has claw-like hands and keeps uttering an awful noise in the back of his throat, which sounds like ‘GAROOOOOO!’ Over the years of performing Kinderszenen Liz has worked out how to perform the piece so that whenever I am performing as the shopkeeper the music is scary and sinister, whereas when the innocent David is speaking the music has a lighter feel to it. To achieve this effect we have experimented a great deal with various arrangements and repeats, and Liz’s score is covered with various marks that only an expert in hieroglyphs could decipher. The other major problem with that particular performance is that my throat can only survive so many GARROOOOOOs before it gives up the ghost completely!
Schumann’s Kinderszenen finishes with ‘The Poet Speaks’ and so we have accompanied that with Charles Dickens’s preface to David Copperfield in which he admits that the hero of the story is his ‘favourite child’.
In the second half of the evening I will be performing Doctor Marigold, which as regular readers know, is one of my favourite pieces to perform, and features the bond forged between the market cheapjack of the title and a neglected and abandoned girl, whom he rescues and educates as his own daughter, despite her not being able to hear or speak.
Marigold is a perfect show to perform in the halls of the Foundling Museum.
Currently Liz and I are busy rehearsing, and making sure that all of the subtle timings of each piece from Kinderszenen work perfectly. As the performance is the day before the Royal Wedding we have constant reminders of how soon the show is, which is a great motivation to us both!
I will post more about the evening, hopefully with a few photos, after the event, but if you are in London do come and see us, tickets are available through The Foundling Museum’s website.