A little tangential this – but with books and their histories in our hands there are safaris in time as well as space. That’s what we booksellers do.
Some of you will perhaps remember a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek, piece I wrote some years ago for the ABA Newsletter recounting my distant (and not entirely creditable) family connection with Charles Dickens. We all know that Dickens’ wicked relatives stuffed him into a blacking factory at a tender age – and I was compelled to admit that the Worms family were not entirely innocent in this.
In fact I had not realised how fully culpable we were. The Dickens scholar, Michael Allen, whose Charles Dickens’ Childhood appeared in 1988, has returned with a new book, Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory, just published by Oxford-Stockley Publications/Createspace (£24.95). Based on all sorts of new research and in particular a long and complex contemporary court case, we now know a great deal more. The Worms family were, for a time, full partners in the blacking business.
Let me simply quote the publishers – “Allen’s account opens up the world of Warren’s Blacking, taking us beyond the knowledge and understanding of a young child. But more than that, Allen uncovers a great deal of new information, peeling away layers about Lamerte, the man who first offered Charley the job at the blacking factory, Lamerte’s family background, its Jewish roots, his Jewish cousins in the Worms family, Henry Worms – a likely model for Fagin, sent to Australia for handling stolen goods. Here we have, for the first time, an accurate history of Warren’s Blacking, written down within two years of Dickens working there. Allen puts before us, from a contemporary source, what really went on in a blacking factory. Here is a feast of new material. For anybody who thought they knew the full story of Dickens’ childhood, think again”.
Responding formally on behalf of the wicked relatives, I still maintain that it was all for little Charley’s own good – a combination of nineteenth-century tough love and the opportunity to join a potentially vastly profitable family business. He might have been more grateful – and in any case he would never have become one of our greatest novelists without this formative experience. And I still have a few lingering doubts about the guilt of Henry Worms (at least in relation to the charge for which he was transported) – the petition for clemency signed by all his neighbours still lies unanswered in the National Archives. But now we have the full story – and you can judge for yourselves.
By coincidence, I’m flying to Henry Worms’ native Frankfurt early on Thursday for a meeting of the presidents of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) in Weimar. So there will be no more posts until after I return on Sunday. More on all that next week.