Charles Dickens in Belfast

In the author's bicentenary year, John Gray looks back on his visits to Ireland

For Charles Dickens, Belfast was ‘a fine place with a rough people’. He thought our citizens ‘a better audience on the whole than Dublin; and the personal affection there was something overwhelming’. This was his reaction to his first visit in August 1858.

With the bicentenary of his birth falling on February 7 2012, and his popularity as the leading democratic English novelist of the mid-19th century undiminished, it is worth recalling his three visits to Belfast in 1858, 1867 and 1869.

Dickens had first contemplated visiting Ireland in 1842 with a view to engaging in some travel writing. It did not happen, and, in any case, his contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, beat him to it with The Irish Sketch Book (1843).

Nonetheless Dickens included Ireland in his first major tour as a reader of his works in 1858, and apart from Belfast also visited Dublin, Cork and Limerick.

This was a wholly new kind of performance. As his friend, Frank Finlay, editor of Belfast’s liberal Northern Whig – who sold the tickets on that first visit – commented, ‘Mr Dickens is one of the few great authors who are also great actors’. He was an enthusiast for the theatre and wrote now largely forgotten plays.

Dickens certainly found performance invigorating. There was, however, another reason for his exhausting tours which embraced the whole of the British Isles and America: money.

For all his prodigious success as a novelist it was insufficient to maintain his profligate domestic regime, which embraced a wife and ten children, and from 1858 onwards a separate ménage with his probable mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan. Whatever else can be said about his Belfast visits they were financially worth it. In 1858 his two nights produced a profit of £130.

His first Belfast performance took place at the Victoria Hall on August 27 in 1858. Such was the press of the crowd that the performance itself was threatened – ‘there was a very great uproar at the opening of the doors, which, the police in attendance being quite inefficient… it was impossible to check’. Eventually A Christmas Carol received a rapturous response and all went ‘most brilliantly’.

On the Saturday morning, Dickens walked to Carrickfergus and back, a distance of 16 miles, and in the afternoon gave a reading from Dombey and Son. This evoked an extraordinary response. ‘I have never seen men go in to cry so undisguisedly as they did,' wrote the author. In the evening he read from The Poor Traveller, The Boots at the Hollytree Inn, and the Mrs Gamp episode from Martin Chuzzlewit.

Apart from his enthusiasm for the ‘tremendous houses there’, Dickens offered only brief and opaque wider commentary. Belfast citizens were ‘curious people too. They seem all Scotch but in a state of transition’. He found time to buy an Irish joke for his daughters in the form of ‘a trim, sparkling, slap-up Irish jaunting-car... It is the oddest carriage in the world, and you are always falling off, but it is gay and bright in the highest degree. Wonderfully Neapolitan’.

In 1867 he performed on January 8 at the newly built Ulster Hall. He opened with Dr Marigold and closed with the famous trial of Bardwell versus Pickwick from the Pickwick Papers.

No doubt the move to the Ulster Hall had been made to accommodate a larger audience, but there were problems with the acoustics. This may have affected the initial attendance at the same venue in 1869 on a tour billed as ‘the last that will ever be given by Mr Dickens in this country’.

On the night of January 8 a relatively sparse audience heard him perform from A Christmas Carol and the Pickwick Papers. But steps had been taken to improve the acoustics. Dickens performed from a special stage set in front of and below the usual stage and backed by a ‘black sounding board’.

This resolved the problem, and, re-assured, the Belfast audience flocked to his final performance on January 15 with many unable to gain admission. This time he opened with selections from David Copperfield, and finished with Bob Sawyer from the Pickwick Papers, an episode that had the audience convulsed with laughter.

Almost 40 years later an anonymous occupant of the gallery recalled the occasion. It still struck him how the performance came ‘apparently without an effort from the master’ and without any reference to a script. It seemed as though Dickens was ‘speaking to me alone’.

He described how the audience responded to the extracts from David Copperfield. ‘People unloosed their breaths, and a sigh went over the house when he had finished… The time of silence was very marked before the burst of applause told how the audience had appreciated him.'

True Belfast audiences had a tendency to mesmerised and uncritical adulation of the travelling stars of the day, but Dickens was both a super star and a pioneer of the really effective performed public reading. In any case it seems that Dickens thought well of the town.

Listen to John Gray's Literary Lions podcast below, which details Dickens' visits to Belfast, and also those made by other literary heavyweights – such as Jonathan Swift, Anthony Trollope and Lionel Shriver –  through the years.