An Irishman's Diary
Dickens’s great novel-writing contemporary, George Eliot, disliked the portrait because she found it too idealising – an odd complaint from a novelist who in her masterpiece, Middlemarch, depicts her young hero Will Ladislaw as a figure with the attributes, both in looks and temperament, of a Byron or a Shelley. In defence of the portrait, one can claim that the “beautification” of his subject is an index of Maclise’s reverence for Dickens – a fully excusable lack of objectivity, surely, in a close friend.
So how, then – to come to the question which provides the excuse, or “peg”, for this consideration of an Anglo-Irish friendship in Victorian times – did Maclise contribute to the naming of Bill Sikes? The anecdote that follows clearly reveals both the young Maclise’s sexual opportunism, and the closeness of the friendship between himself and Dickens.
All sources agree that Maclise was unusually attractive (as well as frequently attracted) to women. In the mid-1830s he received a commission to produce a Portrait of Sir Francis Sykes and His Family (exhibited in 1837). Doubtless in the interests of artistic research, Maclise embarked upon an affair with Sir Francis’s wife Henrietta; but was caught in bed with the lady by Sir Francis in the summer of 1837. When Dickens heard that Sir Francis was preparing to sue Maclise, he responded by introducing the villain of Oliver Twist as Bill “Sikes”. As those familiar with Joyce will know, it is best not to make enemies of major writers or, as in the present case, of their close friends.
Dickens and Maclise subsequently drifted apart, as Maclise became increasingly reclusive and hypochondriacal through the 1850s and thereafter. He died in late April 1870, less than two months before Dickens, who died on June 9th. It seems fitting that Dickens’s last public speech was the impressive one he gave as a tribute to Maclise at the Royal Academy dinner on April 30th. Within less than six weeks, Dickens, too, had departed.