Part I: The Character of Clerks
[An abbreviated video version of this essay is available for viewing on Youtube]
As I am sure may be true for you, Dear Reader, watching adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is part of my yearly Yuletide routine. While scouring the internet in search of new or obscure versions of the classic, I stumbled onto the perennial debate of “Is Bob Cratchit Poor?” Let me at once freely admit that I am not a Dickens scholar. However, in a somewhat surprising sideline of my pursuit of information on the life and career of actress and author Anna Cora Mowatt, I have collected a surplus of data about the lives of clerks in Victorian England circa 1843 that I believe may provide useful context for this discussion.
In 1843, the year the novella was published, Walter Watts, a “humble clerk” working for the Globe Life Insurance Co., was embezzling thousands of pounds per year from his employers. He lived like a millionaire on the weekends. Because of the strict requirements for dress and deportment demanded by employers of clerks on weekdays, none of his supervisors or co-workers noticed that Watts had become extremely wealthy. He was leading a double life as the manager of the Marylebone Theater in London. Anna Cora Mowatt was his leading lady. We will leave that story aside for this week, though, and focus on his life as an employee of the Globe Life Insurance Company.
Walter Watts was not exactly the same type of clerk that Bob Cratchit seems to be in Dickens’ story. During the Victorian era, “clerk” was a job title applied generically to refer to white-collar workers who managed data and/or processed the receipt of funds in some manner. Tellers, bookkeepers, certain sorts of shop assistants, copyists, bonded messengers, personal assistants, keepers of church records, legal assistants, and private secretaries are all among the occupations that might be referred to as clerks. Such positions did not require a college degree, but did require that the candidate could read, write, and was proficient in arithmetic. Because clerks often handled funds – either directly or indirectly – such jobs were usually considered positions of trust. This type of job could be quite difficult to obtain and might require a lengthy apprenticeship. Companies typically required their clerks to maintain a trustworthy appearance. That is to say, they expected them to dress in clean, well-maintained clothing in subdued colors, in reasonably current (but not extremes of high fashion) styles, and conduct themselves in a reputation-conscious manner.
As a center of not only commerce, but government, the legal profession, and England’s military establishment, among other important professional institutions, London employed legions of clerks. Salary, job description, and expectations varied widely from employer to employer. Walter Watts worked as a bookkeeper in the auditor’s office for a large, very profitable insurance company. His job did not require him to have any contact with the public.
Since there were so many clerks in London, members of this profession showed up frequently in short stories, novels, and plays of the time. Bob Cratchit is only one of many clerks to be featured in a work by Charles Dickens. Cratchit is, however, a rare example of family man in this profession. As Walter Watts was in real life, most fictional clerks were depicted as bachelors. Many of the youngest of the profession, as those this character from John Oxenford’s 1835 farce, “My Fellow Clerk,” indicates, were stereotyped as irresponsible hell-raisers in their off hours;
Mrs. Dobson: There you are, sighing again! Lawk, my dear, sweethearts are not such rarities – especially lawyer’s clerks, for the whole town is swarming with them; besides I am not very fond of the breed – they are generally such a cigar-smoking, song-singing, bagatelle-playing, set of individuals. Then their hours – oh! 1
Uriah Heep, who is probably Dickens’ second most famous clerk, conforms to another popular stereotype for this profession current during Victoria’s reign. In a figurative counterpart to their literal task, fictional clerks were often quite calculating individuals. Evil representatives of the profession used the intelligence their job required and the access to privileged information it granted them as leverage over their hapless employers, wrecking the sort of havoc Heep attempts on the Wickfields in “David Copperfield.”
Dickens also portrays clerks who aide protagonists — such as Newman Noggs and Tim Linkinwater of “Nicholas Nickleby” and Jarvis Lorry of “A Tale of Two Cities” — as being clever and resourceful.
No one attends the theatre in “A Christmas Carol.” However, going to one of the many Christmas Pantomime productions on Boxing Day was not-to-be missed part of London’s holiday celebrations in 1843 for residents of all economic brackets. (Perhaps, after his conversion to good, Scrooge treats the Cratchit family to the more price-y box seats instead of the spot in the gallery to which their straightened means have no doubt consigned them.) Because of the amount of disposable income at their command and leisure hours they spent there, clerks were often associated in Victorian literature with the Theatre. The stereotypical clerk was assumed not only to be an avid attendee of playhouses, but, like Mr. Bazzard of Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” to be a frustrated amateur playwright as well;
“Mr. Bazzard ’s father being a Norfolk farmer, would have furiously laid about him with a flail, a pitchfork, and every agricultural implement available for assaulting purposes, on the slightest hint of his son’s having written a play. So the son, bringing to me the father’s rent (which I receive), imparted his secret, and pointed out that he was determined to pursue his genius, and that would put him in peril of starvation, and that he was not formed for it.”
“For pursuing his genius, sir?”
“No, my dear,” said Mr. Grewgious, “for starvation. It was impossible to deny the position, that Mr. Bazzard was not formed to be starved, and Mr. Bazzard then pointed out that it was desirable that I should stand between him and a fate so perfectly unsuited to his formation. In that way Mr. Bazzard became my clerk, and he feels it very much.”
“I am glad he is grateful,” said Rosa.
“I didn’t quite mean that, my dear. I mean, that he feels the degradation. There are some other geniuses that Mr. Bazzard has become acquainted with, who have also written tragedies, which likewise nobody will on any account whatever hear of bringing out, and these choice spirits dedicate their plays to one another in a highly panegyrical manner. Mr. Bazzard has been the subject of one of these dedications. Now, you know, I never had a play dedicated to me!”
Rosa looked at him as if she would have liked him to be the recipient of a thousand dedications.
“Which again, naturally, rubs against the grain of Mr. Bazzard,” said Mr. Grewgious. “He is very short with me sometimes, and then I feel that he is meditating, ‘This blockhead is my master! A fellow who couldn’t write a tragedy on pain of death, and who will never have one dedicated to him with the most complimentary congratulations on the high position he has taken in the eyes of posterity!’ Very trying, very trying. However, in giving him directions, I reflect beforehand: ‘Perhaps he may not like this,’ or ‘He might take it ill if I asked that,’ and so we get on very well. Indeed, better than I could have expected.”
“Is the tragedy named, sir?” asked Rosa.
“Strictly between ourselves,” answered Mr. Grewgious, “it has a dreadfully appropriate name. It is called The Thorn of Anxiety. But Mr. Bazzard hopes — and I hope — that it will come out at last.”2
Although Dickens takes a very satirical view of Mr. Bazzard’s aspirations, these theatrical hopes were not without their basis in reality. Edward Stirling, a former banker’s clerk who had become a highly successful and prolific playwright, composed one of the first stage adaptations of A Christmas Carol along with somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred and ninety other plays. Despite Dickens’ well-known antipathy to other writers tampering with his works, this script was an authorized adaptation. Dickens, who was always a bit stage-struck, might have been swayed by the fact that Stirling, though never a star, had been a fixture on the London stage. For years the actor played supporting roles and minor villains. Stirling had an excellent reputation as a stage manager. When Dickens’ close friend, Henry Spicer took over the lease of the Olympic Theater, Stirling would work for him. The actor was also the ex-husband of Fanny Stirling, a long-time darling of the London theatrical scene. Previous adaptations of Dickens’ works penned by Stirling had played at top-tier venues like the Adelphi, starring leading talents of the day such as the husband and wife comedy team, Robert and Mary Anne Keeley.
Of the experience of working with Dickens on Christmas Carol, Stirling wrote in his memoir;
Among the many dramas that I produced and wrote, ranked first Dickens’s “Christmas Carol” dramatised by his sanction. Dickens attended several rehearsals, furnishing valuable suggestions.
Thinking to make Tiny Tim (a pretty child) more effective, I ordered a set of irons and bandages for his supposed weak leg. When Dickens saw this tried on the child, he took me aside:
“No, Stirling, no; this won’t do! remember how painful it would be to many of the audience having crippled children.”3
As a clerk, Walter Watts was the type of enterprising young man about town the writers of Punch Magazine had in mind when they wrote the following entry in for their “Model Citizens of London” series. (Although there is a very good chance that this particular piece is a humorous description of the playwright, J. Maddison Morton’s early career as a government clerk contributed anonymously by his friend and former schoolmate, actor Charles Matthews.)
The Government Clerk is the most refined specimen. He has grown so mild by practice, that he never loses his temper. He knows his station better than to argue, or dispute, or contradict, or differ in opinion with anyone. He has a sovereign remedy that protects him from all complaints, mild or virulent, and that is, deafness. Do what he will, he cannot hear. It is a great impediment that has never been cured, though very often tried. You must speak two or three times, and very loudly too, before you can make him hear a single word. He has then a very indistinct notion of what you want, and must read the account of last night’s farce deliberately through, and look at himself in the glass, before he can arrive to a perfect comprehension that you are in want of anything. It is in fact the art of putting a person off, that the Government Clerk is especially clever. He does this so politely, that, though offended, you are yet afraid to give explosion to your anger. “He will be with you in one instant;” and he retires with a new coat into the next room to give audience to one of his tailors. “He shall be happy to attend upon you directly;” and he finishes to his fellow clerks a most curious incident that occurred to him last night at the Polish Ball. “Will you be kind enough to take a chair?” whilst he perfects a Sweep for the next St. Leger. At three o’clock he clocks his desk, and commences his toilet. After that hour everyone is most blandly requested to take the trouble to call again the following day. At four o’clock, as soon as the quarter before it strikes, he is to be seen on the water, or in Hyde Park, or on the top of an omnibus, so neatly attired, you never would suspect he had been doing a hard day’s business. In fact, who can tell the papers he had diligently read, or the tender notes he has beautifully written; or the happy little bits of literature he has knocked off for Punch, or Blackwood’s Magazine; or the numbers of “Don’t love” and “Do love,” he has strung together for gorgeous illuminated songs if Balfe only likes to have them; or the quires of paper he has richly cartooned; or the endless quills he has cut into toothpicks, or the countless variety of things, all requiring time, and some degree of ability, that a Government Clerk is expected to do when he gives his presence to his ungrateful country, from the very early hour of ten in the morning to as late an hour as four in the afternoon. Sometimes, also, he is a Dramatic author, that is to say, he translates French pieces, and it cannot be pleasant to be interrupted in the middle of a most impassioned scene, between a Countess and a sentimental barber’s boy, merely to give a date, or to hand over the office copy of some dreary document. Hasn’t he to keep himself clean too, all the while? For, call when you will, you always find the poor fellow busily employed in washing his hands, or combing his hair, or dusting his boots, or mending his nails. Before we laugh, we should really pause to consider whether there is anyone who could do as many things so well in the same short space of time, as the Government Clerk.4
The illustration accompanying this satirical profile pleases me very much. The chance that a picture that can be positively identified as being of Watts will ever turn up is very low. Unlike Alfred Bunn and other London theatre impresarios, Watts had no interest in providing the press with publicity shots of himself. Since he was leading a double life, it was very much in his best interest that his employers not figure out that Walter Watts, theater manager, and Walter Watts, clerk, were the same person. This sketch, although it is not a portrait of Watts, is an image of well-dressed, play-writing, London clerk. The figure, shown discretely in profile, sports Watts’ signature curls and facial hair, and wears what might have been the flashy lavender paletot he often donned.
All this might seem to be getting a bit far afield from the question of whether Bob Cratchit is poor or not. Most conventional historians start their answers by discussing the agonies of “the Hungry 40s.” Instead, I’m spinning yarns about clerks smoking cigars, translating French plays, and embezzling millions. (This is part of the price you pay for coming to a Theatre Historian for an answer to this sort of question.) However, when assessing the place of the profession in Victorian society, I feel it’s important to be aware of how writers – including Dickens – presented clerks in works other than A Christmas Carol.
Return for Part II of this series of essays, when I will discuss the economics of the profession of Victorian clerk and how Walter Watts’ experiences shed light on Bob Cratchit’s professional woes.
- Oxenford, John. “My Fellow Clerk; A Farce in One Act.” (London: Thomas Hailes Lacy, 1835.) Page 3.
- Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. (London: Collins Clear-Type Press, 1956.) Pages 255-256.
- Stirling, Edward. Old Drury Lane: Fifty Years Recollection of the Author, Actor, Manager. (London: Chatto, 1881) Pages 186-187.
- “Model Clerks – The Government Clerk.” Punch, or the London Charivari. Page 77.