top of page

The Sun XIX The Athenaeum Club

Roman à Clef:

John Forster; Wilkie Collins.


John Podsnap; Thomas Idle.


The Life of Charles Dickens

         The Athenaeum Club was founded in 1824 for men of intellectual distinction. Dickens was elected to it at the unusually young age of 26. The membership of the club wonderfully demonstrates the smallness of the Victorian male intellectual's world – Carlyle, Thackeray, Disraeli, Ruskin, Trollope, Browning, Darwin, Faraday, Huxley, Macready, Maclise, and Forster.


 But the Athenaeum Club wasn't the only men's club Dickens belonged to. There was also the exclusive Cerberus Club, a pseudo-serious club comprised of Dickens, Forster, and William Harrison Ainsworth, who was for Dickens a literary model, mentor, friend, collaborator, successor, rival, and minor antagonist, in that order. There was the Shakespeare Club, an association of some 70 leading male writers, actors, painters, and musicians, which was founded “to combine intellectual with social enjoyment”. It met weekly and broke up at the annual dinner, with Dickens in the chair, when Forster provoked an altercation. Former club members founded the Shakespeare Society the following year, of which Dickens served as a council member. When P.T. Barnum proposed to buy Shakespeare's Stratford home and ship it brick by brick to America, the Shakespeare Birthday Committee was formed and with Dickens' help, bought the building; the committee later became the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. After the Athenaeum Club, the most prestigious boys club Dickens belonged to was the Garrick Club. Formed in 1831, it was named after the foremost 18th Century actor John Garrick. Membership was primarily for men active in the theatre, and Dickens' inclusion clearly indicates he was accepted into the literary and dramatic world, although his membership was fraught with minor squabbles.


 Nationally famous in his mid-twenties, and soon worldwide, there inevitably formed around Dickens a coterie of people, most of them men, and more or less prominent in the arts, journalism, and public life. He did not play the Great Man in society, nor was he egotistical in conversation, rather he was congenial, energetic, attentive, and by many accounts a durable “ideal of friendship”. Notable men of the Dickens Circle included John Forster, Augustus Egg, Count D'Orsay, Thomas Carlyle, Douglas Jerrold, William Macready, Daniel Maclise, Leigh Hunt, Walter Landor, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Percy Fitzgerald, Edmund Yates, Charles Babbage, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Lemon, Walter Thornbury, and Wilkie Collins.


 Forster was Dickens' oldest friend and his first significant biographer - the only one sanctioned by the author. Forster was the son of a butcher, a fact he remained touchy about all his life. He studied to become a lawyer but never practiced, devoting his life instead to literature and the arts. He became in effect a literary agent, as well as editor and drama critic, before writing biographical and historical tracts. When Dickens and Forster met in 1836, the two men took to each other at once. With a lawyer's eye for detail, Forster helped Dickens with his many contractual entanglements with publishers, and as well as proof-reading his work, Forster also became an intimate confidante to Dickens. It is through Forster that we learn of Dickens' experience at Warren's Blacking Warehouse. Although also close to Catherine, Forster sided with Dickens when he unceremoniously separated from his wife. Forster's honesty, trustworthiness, and literary respect helped stabilize Dickens' own mercurial temperament.


 Much of what we know about Dickens' personal thoughts come from the copious letters he wrote Forster over the years, just as most of what the world first knew of Dickens' life came from the biography Forster wrote on Dickens shortly after the author's death. The book, originally titled The Autobiography of John Forster with Recollections of Charles Dickens, clearly reveals Forster's biases and predilections. Two-thirds is devoted to Dickens' career up to and including David Copperfield – the book Forster considered Dickens' masterpiece – while scant discussion is made of Dickens' later work, which the biographer had some grievance with and therefore felt to be a decline. He is silent about Ellen Ternan, which befits his nature and appointed duty, but the lack of detail and understanding for the last quarter of Dickens' life belies how far apart the two men had grown. Always conservative, Forster became as he aged loud, pompous, rude, persnickety, snobbish, and overbearing. His political move to the right and his vocal disapproval of Dickens' public readings for money – not to mention his secret, 13-year affair – drove a wedge between the two friends. Dickens responded by portraying Forster satirically in his last novel, Our Mutual Friend, as the smug, nationalistic, haute bourgeois snob, John Podsnap.


 Wilkie Collins, on the other hand, with his casually libertine lifestyle, was almost the antithesis of Forster. This, of course, is what attracted Dickens to the younger writer, and their friendship coincided with Dickens' decline with Forster and his involvement with Ellen Ternan. They had met some years before, when Collins had performed with Dickens' acting company The Amateurs. This collaboration culminated in Collins' play The Frozen Deep, to which Dickens suggested ideas, made extensive revisions, produced for the stage, managed, and acted alongside Collins. Though forgotten today, the play also brought Dickens and Ellen Ternan together, and later influenced the narrative of A Tale of Two Cities.


 Twelve years his senior, Dickens' role with Collins was somewhat avuncular. As “literary mentor”, Dickens took Collins on as a member of the staff at Household Words. Regularly thereafter they worked together on the annual Christmas stories and travelled together extensively, the upshot of one such tour being their collaboration The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices. This journey to Cumberland and Northern England, in which Dickens and Collins adopted the pseudonyms Francis Goodchild and Thomas Idle respectively, was really a pretense for Dickens to pursue Ellen Ternan, who was touring England in an acting troupe with her mother and sister at the time.


 This, in essence, is what most appealed to Dickens about his young protégé – his un-Victorian, rather bohemian, lifestyle. Where Forster had married a rich woman late in life to solve his financial woes, Collins maintained two separate ménages, only a few streets away from each other, without ever marrying. The friendship between these two men deepened and flourished after Dickens' estrangement from Catherine, and coincided with Dickens' disaffection with Forster. In this way, it is possible to see Dickens' two major friendships as expressions of two similarly major but opposing forces in Dickens' own psyche.


 Dickens' periodical All The Year Round published two of Collins' most important novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone. The two writers planned to turn their collaboration No Thoroughfare into a play, but when Dickens left on his second tour of America, Collins dramatized the Christmas story on his own. When Dickens returned to find The Moonstone and the stage adaptation of  No Thoroughfare successes, the mood between the men changed. Dickens' charge that The Moonstone showed “a vein of obstinate conceit” built from a construction “wearisome beyond endurance”, suggests jealousy had crept into the relationship. Kate Dickens had married Wilkie's invalid brother Charles against her father's wishes, and Wilkie found Dickens' obvious dislike of his disabled brother disgraceful.


 These nephew-uncle tensions strangely reflect the relations between Edwin and Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a book in many ways written in the style of Wilkie Collins' sensational mystery novels such as The Moonstone, where incident – usually violent and/or sexual – takes precedence over character. Dickens, of course, was his own man. His poetic and myth-making powers with character were of another order altogether from Collins' concern with situation and plot. In fact, Dickens often complained of Collins' preoccupation with plot secrets, considering them artificial and obtrusive. And what Dickens found most objectionable in his young apprentice was Collins' “disposition to give an audience credit for nothing.” These differences - along with those Dickens had with his other significant friend and fellow writer, Forster - provide key clues to many of the subtleties of Dickens' mature art, and to the very essence of Dickens' own character itself.



 As a footnote to the female Moon card and the male Sun card, there is a telling incident which occurred during Dickens' involvement with Urania Cottage. A young man named Frederick Maynard wrote to Charles Dickens asking for advice and help. His sister Carolyn Maynard had paid for Fred to be articulated to an architect when she was a gentleman's mistress. After nine years, the gentleman went bankrupt and abandoned Carolyn. With a small child and no income, she turned to prostitution. Fred lived with Carolyn, in the same house where she received her clients. Earning a pittance as a draughtsman, Fred was in despair over his sister's plight. Dickens, accustomed to "fallen women" through his work with Miss Coutts' Home for Homeless Women, was moved by Fred's letter, but couldn't place Carolyn at Urania Cottage as she had a child. What's more, Carolyn was a refined, gentle, intelligent woman, who would never fit in with the calibre of women at Urania, nor was she likely to fare well as an émigré. Unsure what to do for the woman, Dickens eventually placed her in a job as a lodging-house keeper, in another part of London, and passed her off as a widow.  As this didn't prove at all profitable, Carolyn sold her belongings and with what money she'd saved, bought tickets for Fred, her child, and herself to resettle in Canada.


 Dickens had found Carolyn's dilemma interesting, but he may have found it more interesting if he had known at the time that some years later hers would directly reflect the dilemma of his own mistress, Ellen Ternan. At the time, however, he was far more interested in Fred's dilemma, which garnered Dickens' unequivocal praise: "Fred's perception of his sister's disgrace, his undiminished admiration for her, and the confidence he has grown up in, of her being something good, and never to be mentioned without tenderness and deference - is a romance at once so astonishing and yet so intelligible as I have never had the boldness to think of."  This focus and preoccupation on the feelings and social considerations of the male perspective, compromised in and by a male-dominated society, from the male Dickens, speaks volumes about his and his era's inborn chauvinism, not to mention the conventions of his and his era's imagination. 



Notes for General Circulation : 


  • The 19th card of the Major Arcana indicates the outward moving, male-created world, epitomized in many ways by the British Empire of the 19th Century. 

  • The Sun in the vivifying aspect of life on earth. As such, it animates the inanimate. Together with the female aspect of Water, signified in the Moon card, life is possible on this planet. Like the circadian rhythms of day and night, the Sun and the Moon work in harmony to sustain the earth's cyclical, self-contained eco-system, exemplified by the Sun's warmth evaporating the world's oceans, which in turn falls as rain on the land to make it fertile. 

  • Forster and Collins have their backs to the Sun, suggesting it is too blinding to look directly at. They have their backs to one another, suggesting they represent two aspects of male bonding - the conditional love of the father-figure in Fortser, and the liberating youthfulness of an adopted son in Collins. 

  • Gentlemen's clubs were private members-only clubs set up by and for British upper-class men in the 18th Century, and popularized by upper-middle-class men in the 19th Century.

  • Athena, who gives the Athenaeum its name, was the goddess of war, art, and rational thought.

  • The male aspect of The Sun card makes it master over the Fire and Air suits. With dominion over Fire, the sun regulates the earth's temperature and sparks life. With dominion over Air, the sun regulates the earth's atmosphere and its supply of light, facilitating photosynthesis. The sun gives us the day - God's first creation and man's inspiration for all his own subsequent dichotomies.

  • The Sun represents the Ego and the rational mind, and all that strives and competes to succeed in man. Unchecked, it tends toward solipsism, hegemony, and its power can be overwhelmingly destructive. More often than not, its unchecked power is self-destructive. 


bottom of page