An Irishman's Diary


JOSEPH O’CONNOR’S impressive novel, Star of the Sea, set largely around the time of the Great Irish Famine, includes an entirely fictitious scene (which takes place in a time prior to the 1840s) featuring Charles Dickens.

Dickens – “Charlie or Chaz or Charles”, a writer of “stories in literary magazines” – hears a song sung by Pius Mulvey, the villain of the novel, one evening in Limehouse. Mulvey hails originally from Connemara but by this time has been thoroughly assimilated into the cockney culture of the East End of London, under the moniker of “Frederick Hall”. As Dickens quizzes him on the source and content of the song, Mulvey, availing of Charlie’s willingness to ply him with food and drink, spins a tale about “a Jew who ran a school for young thieves and runaways”. By the time Mulvey has finished piling Pelion on Ossa with his highly creative lying, he has supplied Dickens with what we recognise as the basic plot of one of his best-known works, Oliver Twist (his second novel, serialised 1837-39). When, finally, Dickens inquires as to the name of the Jew, Mulvey delivers his pièce de résistance. Recalling the name of the “most evil old Jew-hater he had ever met”, the “parish priest of Derryclare”, Mulvey’s prompt reply is: “Fagan”.

The culmination of Joseph O’Connor’s invented scene serves a real need in providing an answer to a question which has perplexed many a reader: why should a Jewish criminal in Victorian England possess what appears to be an Irish name? In the novel itself, of course, the name is “Fagin”; and one interpretation derives this not from any Irish nomenclature, but sees it as a variant on the Yiddish “Faegel” or the German “Vogel”.

But the most authoritative account of the source of the name derives from Dickens himself, who informed John Forster that he took the name from a Bob Fagin who befriended him in the boot-blacking factory to which Dickens was ignominiously consigned as a child aged 12.

Thus, appealing though O’Connor’s fabrication may be, the facts say otherwise; there is no need to posit an Irish origin for “Fagin”. Yet the facts also tell us that there was indeed a real Irish source for another famous surname in Oliver Twist: that of Dickens’s villainous Bill Sikes. And the Irish source in question was a painter born in Cork in 1806: Daniel Maclise.

Daniel Maclise is probably best known in Ireland for his painting, held by our own National Gallery, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (completed 1854), which seeks to depict a crucial event in Irish history: the wedding which took place in Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford, in 1170. Implicit in the marriage union is the subjugation of the Irish (in the form of the daughter of the deposed king of Leinster) by the invading Normans (Strongbow); a subjugation that the painting, through a deliberate attention to detail, clearly refuses to celebrate.

Maclise, encouraged by Sir Walter Scott, had moved to London in 1827, and by 1837 had entered the Royal Academy Schools. In December 1836 he was introduced to Dickens by a mutual acquaintance, who was closely attached to both men, John Forster – the same Forster who was to remain Dickens’s lifelong friend and most trusted confidant. Given the centrality of Forster in Dickens’s life, the closeness of Maclise to Dickens is readily gauged in a remark linking the two friends which the novelist made to Maclise himself: “Losing you and Forster”, he said, would be “like losing my arms and legs . . .” One early memorial of this friendship dates from the summer of 1839 when Maclise produced, at the behest of Dickens’s publishers Chapman Hall, a portrait of a beardless Dickens, apparently just turning his head away from his writing-desk, his eyes bright with artistic vision. That year, 1839, was to prove pivotal in the careers of both men; for Maclise was to be elected to the Royal Academy just one year later, while the portrait might be said to have set the seal on Dickens’s growing reputation, on the rise following the success of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist.

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.

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