Friday, August 8, 2008

wits at his tongue's end

Charles Dickens to W. Wilkie Collins

Lord Warden Hotel, Dover,
Friday Evening, Twenty-fourth May, 1861.

My dear Wilkie,--I am delighted to receive so good an account of last night,* and have no doubt that it was a thorough success. Now it is over, I may honestly say that I am glad you were (by your friendship) forced into the Innings, for there is no doubt that it is of immense importance to a public man in our way to have his wits at his tongue's end. Sir (as Dr. Johnson would have said), if it be not irrational in man to count his feathered bipeds before they are hatched, we will conjointly astonish them next year. Boswell : Sir, I hardly understand you. Johnson: Sir, you never understand anything. Boswell (in a sprightly manner): Perhaps, sir, I am all the better for it. Johnson (savagely): Sir, I do not know but that you are. There is Lord Carlisle (smiling); he never understands anything, and yet the dog's well enough. Then, sir, there is Forster ; he understands many things, and yet the fellow is fretful. Again, sir, there is Dickens, with a facile way with him--like Davy, sir, like Davy--yet I am told that the man is lying at a hedge ale-house by the sea-shore in Kent, as long as they will trust him. Boswell: But there are no hedges by the sea in Kent, sir. Johnson: And why not, sir? Boswell (at a loss): I don't know, sir, unless--Johnson (thundering): Let us have no unlesses, sir. If your father had never said "unless," he would never have begotten you, sir. Boswell (yielding): Sir, that is very true.

Of course I am dull and penitent here, but it is very beautiful. I can work well, and I walked, by the cliffs, to Folkestone and back to-day, when it was so exquisitely beautiful that, though I was alone, I could not keep silence on the subject. In the fourteen miles I doubt if I met twelve people. They say this house is full, yet I meet nobody, save now and then a languishing youth in a loose, very blue coat, lounging at the door and sucking the round head of a cane, as if he were trying the fit before he had it cut oft from the stem as a pill, and swallowed it.

I hope--begin to hope--that somewhere about the 12th of June will see me out of the book [Great Expectations] I am anxious for some days at Gad's Hill, and settlement of Christmas No. with you. The idea I have will certainly do, I think, and save us a quantity of beating about.

At the end of this next week I will write again. I think we may book Wednesday Week, safely, for the office.

I can hardly see, it is getting so dark.

[Benjamin] Webster is a thorough good fellow. You know how often I have said so. There are better and finer qualities in him than in a host of men.

[*Wilkie Collins making a speech at a special function.]

-from the Letters of Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins edited by Laurence Hutton (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891) p. 98-100.

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