Portsmouth, Home of Great Writing: Dickens and Besant

This is the first in a series of features in which local author and publisher Matt Wingett explores Portsmouth’s relationship to a long line of writers dating back to the Victorian era. In this issue, Matt looks at Charles Dickens and Walter Besant.

Almost everyone knows that Charles Dickens struggled into the world in Portsmouth one night in February 1812, during a ball at the Old Beneficial Society in Portsea. Worthy of a scene from one of the writer’s own stories, Elizabeth Dickens was rushed in labour from Portsea to her home in Landport, where, on the Mile End Road, she gave birth to Charles John Huffham Dickens. She could not know that her child would come to define the Victorian era for generations to come.

Dickens was a literary giant who strode the world’s stage, a truly international storyteller.

True, he left the town after eighteen months, but that doesn’t take away the fact that he was born here.

After all, Bethlehem is globally renowned as the birthplace of Jesus – and he was only there for a few weeks.

To say that Portsmouth influenced Dickens would be stretching a point – although in later years he did find it important enough, only years before his death, to return to the city. Perhaps he was seeking a clue to the meaning of his life in these streets.

In the book Charles Dickens as I Knew Him by George Dolby, published in 1885, Dolby writes of accompanying Dickens to Portsmouth during his 1866 reading tour and recalls Dickens’s attempt to find his childhood home:

On the morning after our arrival we set out for a walk, and turning a corner of the street suddenly, found ourselves in Landport Terrace. The name of the street catching Mr. Dickens’s eye, he suddenly exclaimed: ‘By Jove! here is the place where I was born;’ and, acting on his suggestion, we walked up and down the terrace for some time, speculating as to which of the houses had the right to call itself his cradle. Beyond a recollection that there was a small front garden to the house he had no idea of the place—for he was only two years old when his father was removed to London from Portsmouth. As the houses were nearly all alike, and each had a small front garden, we were not much helped in our quest by Mr. Dickens’s recollections, and great was the laughter at his humorous conjectures. He must have lived in one house because ‘it looked so much like his father;’ another one must have been his home because it looked like the birthplace of a man who had deserted it; a third was very like the cradle of a puny, weak youngster such as he had been; and so on, through the row.

Other Victorian writers, however, had a far closer relationship with this city, sometimes good, sometimes bad. And some of them help to answer the question why Portsmouth has had such an influence on the writers who have lived here.

Walter Besant was a Pompey-born writer who rose to national standing as a historian and novelist in the mid-to-late 1800s. In his Portsmouth-based novel, By Celia’s Arbour, he describes the extraordinary richness of the city.

He has a knack for identifying scenes that are familiar to us, yet different from our current experiences of it. At the start of the book he talks about a meeting between three friends on the Queen’s Bastion on the now-demolished town walls.

We were standing, as I said, in the north-west corner of the Queen’s Bastion, the spot where the grass was longest and greenest, the wild convolvulus most abundant, and where the noblest of the great elms which stood upon the ramparts —” to catch the enemy’s shells,” said Leonard—threw out a gracious arm laden with leafy foliage to give a shade. We called the place Celia’s Arbour.

If you looked out over the parapet, you saw before you the whole of the most magnificent harbour in the world; and if you looked through the embrasure of the wall, you had a splendid framed picture—water for foreground, old ruined castle in middle distance, blue hill beyond, and above blue sky.

We were all three silent, because it was Leonard’s last evening with us. He was going away, our companion and brother, and we were there to bid him God speed. It was after eight; suddenly the sun, which a moment before was a great disc of burnished gold, sank below the thin line of land between sky and sea.

Then the evening gun from the Duke of York’s bastion proclaimed the death of another day with a loud report, which made the branches in the trees above us to shake and tremble. And from the barracks in the town; from the Harbour Admiral’s flagship; from the Port Admiral’s flagship ; from the flagship of the Admiral in command of the Mediterranean Fleet, then in harbour; from the tower of the old church, there came such a firing of muskets, such a beating of drums, playing of fifes, ringing of bells, and sounding of trumpets, that you would have thought the sun was setting once for all, and receiving his farewell salute from a world he was leaving for ever to roll about in darkness.

In chapter one, he also describes coming down from the city walls of the 1840s to walk the streets:

We walked away from the quiet walls where there was no one but ourselves, out from the shadow of the big elms, and the breath of dewy grass, and the peacefulness of the broad waters, down into the busy streets. Our way lay through the narrowest and the noisiest. Shops were open, especially places which sold things to eat and to drink. Hundreds of men—chiefly young men—were loafing about, pipes in their mouths, among the women, who were buying in a street market, consisting almost entirely of costers’ carts and barrows, and where the principal articles exposed for sale appeared to be hot cooked things of pungent and appetising odour, served and dressed with fried onions. Every night, all the year round, that market went on; every night that incense of fried onions arose to the much-enduring skies; every night the crowd jostled, pushed, and enjoyed their jokes around these barrows, lit by candles stuck in bottles, protected by oiled paper.

There is so much here for Besant to write about. Just so with the characters of sailors he sees sitting on the Common Hard in the 1830s.

The Common Hard, which is still, after all the modern changes, a street with a distinct character of its own. The houses still look out upon the bright and busy harbour, though there is now a railway terminus and an ugly pier; though steam launches run across the water; and though there are telegraph posts, cabs, and omnibuses, all the outward signs of advanced civilisation. But thirty years ago it was a place which seemed to belong to the previous century. There were no great houses and handsome shops, but in their place, a picturesque row of irregular cottages, no two of which were exactly alike, but which resembled each other in certain particulars. They were two-storied houses; the upper story was very low, the ground-floor was below the level of the street. I do not know why, but the fact remains that in my town the ground-floors of all the old houses were below the level of the pavement. You had to stoop, if you were tall, to get into the doorway, and then, unless you were experienced, you generally fell headlong down a step of a foot or so. Unless the houses were shops, they had only one window below and one above, because the tax on windows obliged people to economise their light. The roofs were of red tiles, high-pitched, and generally broken-backed; stone-crop and house-leek grew upon them. The Hard existed then only for the sailors. There were one or two jewellers, who bought as well as sold; many public-houses; and a plentiful supply of rascally pay-agents. That side had little interest for boys. In old times the high tide had washed right up to the foot of these houses which then stood upon the beach itself. But they built a stone wall, which kept back the water, and allowed a road to be made, protected by an iron railing. An open space gave access to what was called the “beach,” being a narrow spit of land, along which were ranged on either side the wherries of the boatmen. A wooden bench was placed along the iron railing near the beach, on which sat every day, and all day long, old sailors, in a row. It was their club, their daily rendezvous, the place where they discussed old battles, smoked pipes, and lamented bygone days. They never seemed to walk about or to care much where they sat. They sat still, and sat steadily, in hot weather and in cold. The oddest thing about this line of veterans was that they all seemed to have wooden legs. There was, or there exists in my memory, which is the same thing, a row of wooden pegs which did duty for the lost legs, sticking out straight in front of the bench when they were on it. The effect of this was very remarkable. Some, of course, had lost other outlying bits of the human frame; a hand, the place supplied by a hook, like that of Cap’en Cuttle, whose acquaintance I formed later on; a whole arm, its absence marked by the empty sleeve sewn to the front of the jersey; and there were scars in plenty. Like my friend’s the Poles, these heroes had gained their scars and lost their limbs in action.

Besant, who co-wrote the book with another writer, James Rice, has an extraordinary knack for description. Their writing gives us a clue as to the amazing milieu of Pompey at the time.

The book argues that Portsmouth is a fitting place to set a tale of romance, of political intrigue, blackmail and familial deception: “All our petty provincial life. Only that? Why, there is in it all the comedy of humanity, its splendour, its pride, its hopes, its misery, its death.”

The writers are, however, at times prey to Victorian sentimentalism. Published in 1878, the Portsmouth it refers to is from 30 to 50 years earlier. The story’s narrator, Ladislas “Laddie” Pulaski, is writing in the 1880s and reflecting on his formative years. This gives Pulaski a platform to do something a lot of Pompeyites still do to this day: complain. He complains about the tearing down of the city walls, of the scrapping of the wooden ships in Rotten Row and much more besides.

The story is in part a tale of unrequited love on Pulaski’s side, involving a central love triangle between the crippled Polish boy, his best friend, Leonard Copleston and Celia Tyrrell.

Both boys are in love with Celia, and while Leonard goes away to seek his fortune and come back a successful gentleman so he can claim Celia’s hand, Laddie is left to keep an eye on her.

Having made the promise, Laddie is honourable enough to ensure that he keeps his word. Yet he watches in horror as a heartless old Prussian living in the High Street decides to marry her. At the same time he is also enrolled in a plot to start a revolution against the Russian oppressors of his fellow Poles.

By focussing on the more passive and delicate character of Pulaski, the book has something really interesting to say about the nature of living in a provincial town that is also central to a massive Empire. The small local lives of the people living in Portsmouth are swayed by huge currents of history beyond their control.

The book is filled with extraordinary forensic details about Portsmouth. His description of the rotting body of Jack The Painter at Jack The Painter Point is an absolute delight, filled with obscure historical knowledge:

He achieved greatness by setting fire to the rope-walk. They found out who had done it, after the fire was over and a vast amount of damage had been done, and they tried the unlucky Jack for the offence. He confessed, made an edifying end, and was hanged in chains on that very point which now bears his name. It was in 1776, and twenty years ago there were still people who remembered the horrid gibbet and the black body, tarred, shapeless, hanging in chains, and swinging stridently to and fro in the breeze. Other gentlemen who were gibbetted in the course of the same century had friends to come secretly and take them down. Mr. Bryan, for instance, was one. He for a brief space kept company with Painter Jack, hanging beside him, clad handsomely in black velvet, new shoes, and a laced shirt. He was secretly removed by his relations. Williams the Marine was another; he was popular in the force, and his comrades took him down. So that poor Jack was left quite alone in that dreary place, and partly out of habit, partly because it had no more pleasant places of resort, the ghost continued to roam about the spot where the body had hung so long.

In next month’s issue, I’ll be looking at another writer associated with Portsmouth: Rudyard Kipling, who lived in a very different Portsmouth from Besant’s nostalgia-drenched town.

Photography by Richard Williams.