Charles Dickens tells us that there was a man who lived with David Copperfield’s Aunt Betsey, whom she called Mr. Dick. “ ‘You are not to suppose that he hasn’t got a longer name, if he chose to use it,’ said my aunt with a loftier air. …’Mr. Dick is his name here, and everywhere else, now—if he ever went anywhere else, which he don’t.’” Mr. Dick, eccentric and wise, was at once Aunt Betsey’s ward and her partner; he may or may not have been just a little mad.
Mr. Dick’s life work was the writing of a Memorial, which may have been an autobiography or may have been a biography of Charles I, whose reign ended when he lost his head. Work on the Memorial continued without end.
“ ‘It’s very strange,’ said Mr. Dick, with a despondent look upon his papers, and with his hands among his hair again, ‘that I can never get it quite right. I can never make that perfectly clear. But no matter!’ he said cheerfully, and rousing himself, ‘there’s time enough!’ ”
When a work of art is finished can be a rather fluid thing. “Art is never finished,” Leonardo daVinci said, “only abandoned.” John Singer Sargent, a portraitist without peer in his time, said this: “A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth.” And this: “An artist painting a picture should have at his side a man with a club to hit him over the head when the picture is finished.”
Mr. Dick had a novel way to publish his perpetual work in progress:
“ ‘What do you think of that for a kite?’ he said.
I answered that it was a beautiful one. I should think it must have been as much as seven feet high.
‘I made it. We’ll go fly it, you and I,’ said Mr. Dick. ‘Do you see this?’
He showed me that it was covered with manuscript, very closely and laboriously written; but so plainly, that as I looked along the lines, I thought I saw some allusion to King Charles the First’s head again, in one or two places.
‘There’s plenty of string,’ said Mr. Dick, ‘and when it flies high, it takes the facts a long way. That’s my manner of diffusing ‘em. I don’t know where they may come down. It’s according to circumstances, and the wind, and so forth; but I take my chances of that.’ “
Mr. Dick had a lot in common with the author whose Memorial is David Copperfield, Could his longer name have been Mr. Dickens? Is it a coincidence that someone named Charles keeps insinuating himself into the Memorial manuscript, delaying its completion? Dickens wrote most of his novels piecemeal under deadline, often sending episodes off to the publisher before he felt truly done with them. He kited these fragments high and far in periodicals, only later assembling the pieces into novels.
I too can identify with Mr. Dick. I don’t post here often enough, but when I do I often come away feeling I’ve not quite gotten it right, that there is a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth. The job is never truly done. But no matter, there is time enough.