It was Morris's occasional habit to offer belated birthday greetings like this one: "Dearest Mother I havn't forgotten your birthday & the date of it, & would have written earlier in the week, but I was not keeping count of the days of the month . . . " So with this excuse, today I say happy birthday to Dickens.
Dickens was one of Morris's favorite authors, up there with Sir Walter Scott, Daniel Defoe, and Victor Hugo. When he was asked to write a list of recommended books for readers of the Pall Mall Gazette in 1886, he drew up a list of the best books he knew. In the “modern fiction” category, Dickens is one among only seven, and Morris added the note: “ . . . to my mind of the novelists of our generation Dickens is immeasurably ahead.”
Morris was a truly devoted fan. He adopted sayings from the books – "Morning, morning!" from Our Mutual Friend became a favorite greeting of his, and “what larx!” from Great Expectations dotted his letters and conversation. When he was unhappy with someone, he'd drawl out: "Bring him forard, and I'll chuck him out o'winder", after Mr F.'s aunt in Little Dorrit. When he was stuck for a way to describe a situation, he often referred back to Dickens's books and characters for archetypes. He even wooed his wife by reading aloud to her from Barnaby Rudge.
But clearly, Morris was no mere fan-boy; he was also Dickens's colleague. He and Dickens were in some sense part of the same movement: they both railed against the ugly effects of industrialism on workers. That they did so in very different ways doesn't lessen their kinship. As Arthur Compton-Rickett puts it in his 1913 book, William Morris: a study in personality, "Both men were animated by a similar spirit; each man had the same object in view....what each held dear in his inmost heart is found condensed in the pregnant words of John Ball: 'Fellowship is Heaven; lack of Fellowship is Hell.' ”
He also points out, most profoundly I feel, that Morris and Dickens both looked a little like sea-captains.
Illustration of Mr. Boffin and Mr. Wegg scanned by Philip V. Allingham to The Victorian Web.